Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Contemporary

A Pinch of Moonlight

A Pinch of Moonlight

 

copyright 2015 A V Awenna

Published by A V Awenna at Shakespir

 

Shakespir Edition

 

 

License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your enjoyment only, then please return to Shakespir.com or your chosen retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting my hard work.

 

Table of contents

 

Chapter 1. Three Girls Turning…

Chapter 2. About Your Great-Great-Grandmother…

Chapter 3. Everything You Didn’t Believe is True

Chapter 4 ‘Rabbit, Chicken, English, Fortune-telling…’

Chapter 5. Secrets Freely Given

Chapter 6. Techno-Fairy

Chapter 7. An Appropriate Oak

Chapter 8. A Spell From a Smell

Chapter 9. Missing and Wishing

Chapter 10. Demi-Lee Gets Charming

Chapter 11. Reunion

Chapter 12. Blackbird Swallows his Fire

Chapter 13. A Damaged Man

Chapter 14. Deception and Defiance

Chapter 15. Meanwhile, Back in the Real World…

Chapter 16. A Kindred Spirit

Chapter 17. Giraffalumps and Angels

Chapter 18. A New Dawn

Chapter 19. Walking the Walk

Chapter 20. Dahzen in action

Chapter 21. Everything’s Going to be Fine…

 

About A V Awenna

Connect with A V Awenna

Part 1: Terra

Chapter 1. Three Girls Turning…

A full moon, 21st June, near midnight

 

On the edge of Cardiff in the human world

 

Heart pounding, gasping for breath, Blackbird swung himself up into the safety of his refuge. No major injuries; just bruised and shaken. But when the attack had come, without warning, pinning him to the ground and knocking all the breath from him, it had felt like the end – just when he had found the one who could save him.

To think he used to like cats – now barely a day went by without one of the vicious beasts trying to kill him just for the fun of it. At least these little pets were lazy cowards at heart, who soon turned tail when he yelled and fought back.

Maybe wearing a dead blackbird’s skin wasn’t the wisest disguise – but it had been so cold back in March when he’d found it, and at least the feathers kept him warm and dry. He remembered that day, early in his exile, when he’d found two young rats squabbling over the bird’s fresh body. Outraged to see one of his namesakes so disrespected, he’d driven away the beasts with stones, then hauled the skin onto his back, intending to take it for a decent burial. But the birdskin gave him warmth, shelter, and a valuable disguise, and half-mad with cold and hunger as he was he decided to keep it – to become it. And as well as a disguise against any humans he might meet, the wings allowed him to glide short distances. It was nothing like the glory of real flight, but until he got his own wings back…

He heard the rustle of the greenery as the cat walked away. As a full sized man he’d have petted it on his lap, enjoying its soft fur and gentle purring. Now he despised all of them. On the rare occasions he succumbed to sleep, he made sure it was in full daylight and only somewhere cats couldn’t reach him. He’d become nocturnal by default, soon learning the times of day when dangers were minimal and he could raid gardens for whatever food he could find. His people had always had good night-vision, seeing easier by the soft light of the moon than the sun’s harsh glare. And they could shape-shift and survive in a number of sizes and guises. If he could shape-shift back to full-sized… but how, with no magic? He brooded, until moonlight shining into his refuge reminded him of that night’s task.

He hauled his aching body from a gap in the masonry into bright silvery light, and clambered up to the top of the broken wall. This was definitely the place – the ruined tower overlooking the modern city; the hillside sweeping down to the sea. The city had grown right up to the edge of the tower’s motte – he could easily glide into the nearest garden from here. Beyond, on the opposite side of the road, was the house where Demali slept. Was it late enough yet? Beyond the city, with its glass towers and ancient stone castle, two small islands waited in the wide channel. The moon was almost between them – near midnight then. Late enough to make the final life-or-death journey, and seek Demali’s assistance.

For three whole months he’d lived from moment to moment, mouthful to mouthful, until earlier that day when three girls had walked past, none of them noticing him, but one of them whistling a tune he hadn’t heard for years. Demali! Sweet little Demi, grown from child to woman in the years since he’d seen her, but her attitude and her whistle were unchanged. They’d been a strong pair in the past, and she was his only chance of survival. If she let him in her window like before, he could use the only weapons he had left – charm and persuasion. If that failed, he was doomed to live – and die – as vermin.

He moved gingerly along the top of the wall. The wings got in his way, but he’d need them to glide to Demi’s window. Eventually he reached the corner where the remaining walls met, above an arrow slit facing south towards the city and the sea.

He was in full moonlight now, but although his eyes were as sharp as ever, he was numb to the moon’s power. Sweet sunlight, a full moon at the summer solstice! Even in this pale, tired world, the air should be humming with power, but he was numb to it.

He could see Demi’s house, the lower floor bright inside; the top floor dark. She slept at the back of the house, in a guest room overlooking the city, facing the moon and the sea. He worked out his route, and as he did so, the downstairs light was extinguished, and the light behind the door to the outside world came on. He expected the light at the top of the stairs to be lit next, but instead the front door opened, and three figures stepped through. One short and square; one fair-haired and athletic; the last, unmistakably Demali, tall, strong, and scowling. They crossed the road and entered an alley that led into the tower field. He’d once told Demali he could remember the days when people lived in the tower, before the city was built, and she’d believed him. But she was a little girl then – surely she’d be less gullible now? He’d told her of the dreadful battle which had left the river running red with blood, and that anyone who came to the tower at midnight on the summer solstice would see the ghosts of the slain as they floated, wailing, around the field. Sweet sunlight, was that why she was coming? He’d told her that tale to deter, not encourage, her. But as she emerged from the dark alley into the moonlight, he could see that events were already beyond his control.

As the three crossed the field, Demali paused in the moonlight, rippling her fingers as if soft water was flowing over them, her eyes widening as a smile spread across her face. The moonlight began to sparkle around her, and Blackbird wondered if Demi realised what was happening.

The fair-haired girl called out to Demali, urging her on. Demali drifted across the field, whilst the leader leapt effortlessly across the dried-up moat which surrounded the tower, followed less elegantly by her short friend. Blackbird recognised the one in front – Vicky, Demi’s cousin, more confident in her stance than when he’d last seen her, but as sharp as ever. She wouldn’t remember him, though – he’d made sure of that. He didn’t recognise the short one, but soon learned her name was Heledd from the conversation she was having with Vicky as they scrambled through the trees and shrubs up to the top of the mound.

Soon they emerged at the top of the mound, stepping from beneath a large oak into the moonlit space inside the tower.

‘Awesome view,’ he heard Vicky say, as she peered through the arrow slit. ‘I always knew Cardiff was dramatic, but I’ve never seen it by moonlight before.’ She was so close Blackbird could almost reach out and touch her, but unless she looked right up she wouldn’t see him.

Heledd had to go up on tiptoes to see the view. ‘Imagine if we had a power cut right now’, she said. ‘We’d be seeing the world as it was only 150 years ago.’

‘What, with all the dirt and disease? No thanks!’ Vicky said. ‘It is amazing, though – I never realised you could see colours by moonlight.’

‘We should night walk more often,’ Heledd said.

‘This was supposed to be Demi’s idea – that mad story about the ghosts. Although – it is a bit creepy up here. Do you feel like someone’s watching us?’ Vicky asked.

Vicky looked up, but although Blackbird could see the moonlight glittering in her eyes, she didn’t notice him, motionless in the shadows.

Demali was still crashing through the undergrowth. She yelped and complained something had bitten her.

‘Probably just caught your hand on a bramble,’ Vicky sighed. ‘It won’t kill you.’

‘But I’m bleeding! Look! What if I get it on my clothes?’ Demi wiped her finger on the oak tree, smearing her blood on it. As she stepped out into moonlight Blackbird saw how the edge of her shadow rippled and sparkled. For the first time in months, he smiled.

‘Is moonlight warm?’ Demi asked.

‘Huh? Of course not! What are you on about?’ Vicky replied.

‘I can feel something. Can’t you? I’m tingling all over. And there’s a smell too, like the smell of fireworks,’ Demi said.

‘I thought you said this wasn’t your first beer.’ Vicky snapped. ‘Glad I made you have a shandy, now.’

‘Are you saying you can feel the moonlight, Demi?’ Heledd sounded intrigued.

‘She’s just drunk. And up after bedtime.’ Vicky retorted

‘I’m not drunk! Just because I can do something you can’t, for once.’ Demi tilted her face to the moon and opened her arms, embracing the night. ‘Magic,’ she murmured, ‘Pure magic.’

‘Demi-Lee Jenkins, I’ve told you before, you are not a witch and you cannot drink the moonlight. Jeez, is your imaginary friend back in town?’ Vicky scolded.

Demi huffed loudly and glared at Vicky, hands on hips. Blackbird held his breath. It was Heledd who spoke next, her calm voice cutting through the tension. ‘You had an imaginary friend? Cool! I did a whole project on the parallels between kids’ imaginary friends and the spirit guides of tribal people. Would you tell me about him sometime?’

Demi stayed mute and scowling, but Vicky supplied the explanation.

‘Back when she was a kid she started going on about this guy who used to come in through the window when she stayed at my house. He used to tell her she was special, apparently, that she was good at magic, and he’d teach her lots of tricks when she was old enough.’ Vicky said. ‘My mum was on the verge of calling the paedophile squad when Demi said, no, no, it was okay, he was only a fairy, so we weren’t to be frightened of him. That was when we realised it was all in her head.’

‘That’s a sweet story,’ said Heledd. ‘There’s nothing wrong with wanting someone to tell you you’re special. Interesting that it was a male fairy though – sounds more traditional than the glittery, girly creatures who’ve taken over the role recently.’

‘Yeah, that’s true,’ Vicky said, ‘My mum bought her a fairy book the next Christmas, and Demi hated it. Said her fairy was nothing like that and whoever wrote the book had obviously never met a real one.’ Vicky laughed.

Blackbird could see Demi was fuming. The angrier she got, the more the moonlight boiled off her shadow. Perfect.

‘Ah, come on,’ said Vicky. ‘Even you could be cute when you were a kid. Do you remember when you showed me a feather and tried to persuade me it was from this fairy’s wings? She kept waving it at me, and I was convinced she’d get salmonella from it. I pretended to be convinced in the end, and she was so happy, she skipped away.’

‘Oh, stop being such a cow!’ Demi snapped. ‘I don’t know why I bother, you always make out I’m such an idiot.’

‘Hey, calm down. You were a little girl then. She was only about six,’ Vicky explained. ‘It just stuck in my mind ‘cos it was so unlike her to let her imagination run riot. Maybe we should go back to the house – it’s getting cold, and I still feel like someone’s watching us.’

‘Maybe there’s something in that big oak – is it me, or is it rustling when all the others are still?’ Heledd said.

Heledd wasn’t the only one who’d noticed the tree’s unrest. Blackbird wondered if it was responding to the moonlight – oaks were the most magical of trees, after all. As he watched, Heledd made an odd suggestion.

‘Let’s dance,’ she said. ‘A moondance on the shortest night of the year. Then we can go back to normality. This place is getting weird.’

She grabbed the cousins by the hands, and pushed and pulled them into a spinning circle on the moonlit motte.

High on the wall, Blackbird watched them turn in the moonlight, and wondered. Had Heledd heard that command, from the other presence there, one much older even than he was. Who was it, hidden in the tree, and causing these three to dance widdershins in the moonlight? He would have fled, but couldn’t leave Demi in danger.

Sparks of magic streamed from Demi’s shadow, forming a glittering spiral as she turned. The moon was now shining through the arrow slit onto the oak tree, right where Demi had smeared her blood, and as the stream of magic touched the spot, something happened.

The blood began to glow with a cold silver light, then glittering white flames spread across the trunk. The three girls stopped turning and stared open-mouthed. Demi and Heledd seemed spellbound, but Vicky, still holding the others’ hands, dragged them down the motte.

Blackbird heard them crashing through the bushes, then saw Vicky leap the moat, and urge the others across. They stumbled across the field to the alleyway, Vicky stopping and turning repeatedly as her desire to flee conflicted with her need to protect her little cousin. The light from the tree dazzled Blackbird and he turned away, but he could see its flailing shadow and hear the leaves thrashing wildly.

Demali stopped and looked back, shielding her eyes. Could she see him? No, the light from the tree was too bright and chaotic. Then the light and the noise dwindled. Two voices called, ‘Demi, Demi,’ urgently, repeatedly, and she turned and disappeared into the lane.

Blackbird turned back towards the tree, waiting for his dazzled eyes to adjust.

Atop the motte, beside the oak, a tall figure stretched her arms to the sky and flexed her fingers. Uprooting her feet from the earth she blinked her leaf-like eyelids. She saw Blackbird, and offered her hand. For a moment they gazed at each other, until, in a language not heard there for a long time, each asked the other, ‘What in the world are you?’

 

***

 

As soon as they’d piled in through the door and slammed it shut, Vicky locked and bolted it and turned on every light she could reach. Demi tried to hide her disdain – just a little bit of magic, she thought, no need to freak out. Heledd guided Vicky to the kitchen, a reassuring hand on her shoulder, chatting calmly as she picked up the kettle. Before filling it she asked Demi if she wanted a hot drink, not knowing how much Demi loathed them. Coffee was rank; tea for old ladies; cocoa for kids. Thankfully Vicky’s mum always kept cola in the fridge for her niece. She poured herself a glass, noticing the way Heledd looked at her as if she was cooking up heroin on a spoon. Heledd was nice, Demi had decided, but she was such a health freak, she seemed to be made of oats. She even dressed like a Weetabix, in that knobbly brown cardigan – not a good idea when you’re so short and square. But she was taking care of Vicky, so Demi decided to leave them to it, and announced she was going to bed. Heledd actually called after her to brush her teeth as she climbed the stairs, going on about how cola would rot them. As if Demi had nothing better to do…

The spare bedroom had been Demi’s second home for years. Despite the 7 year age difference, Demi and Vicky had always been close cousins, neither having siblings. The duvet and curtains were new, but it was still full of all the bits and pieces she’d accumulated over the years.

She closed the door tight behind her – she did not want to be disturbed. Kneeling on the bed, she drew back the curtains, and opened the window, careful of the lotions and potions she’d arranged along the window ledge. As the moonlight streamed onto her skin, once more she felt the tingle and smell of magic. Fabulous!

Closing her eyes, she tilted her face to the moon, letting its power flow into her. As she gripped the windowsill, she felt the moonlight tickling her knuckles, and looking down she noticed the sparkling edge to her shadow. She rippled her fingers in the eerie light, watching their shadows dance and throw off sparks. She turned and tried to make a rabbit shape on the bedroom wall, but it looked deformed, so she linked her thumbs instead, and flapped her hands like wings. The cosmetic bottles cast a tiny Manhattan on the wall, and she flew her strange, giant bird above the shadow skyscrapers.

The giant bird paused. Among the shadows was something else bird-shaped. She moved her hands down until the shadows touched.

She realised where, and what, it was.

Slowly she turned her head, until she saw the figure on the windowsill beside her. Just a doll, she thought. Just a little doll with wings.

‘Hello, Blackbird,’ she said.

She held out her hand to him and he took her index finger, kissing it gently where she had earlier caught it on the brambles.

‘Hello, Demali,’ he replied.

‘What the hell happened tonight? What did you do?’ she asked.

He slipped from the windowsill onto her pillow, and told her a story.

 

Chapter 2. About Your Great-Great-Grandmother…

‘In this place, but in another time,’ Blackbird began, ‘your people lived in a village by the tower, and my people lived in the woods on the hill. This was before the smoke and the machines, before your people built this city, road by road, house by house. Back then fairies and humans shared more of the world, but even then we hid from most of you.

‘Aelwen was one we didn’t hide from. She was a clever healer, gentle and wise, and one day she healed a man who’d travelled a long way for a cure, as he’d been told she was the only one who could help. His name was Tegwyn, and he was clever like her, strong and hardworking too. They ended up married, with a little cottage in the fields nearby. Soon they had a daughter, a bonny girl with big green eyes.

‘At sunrise on the first new moon following the daughter’s birth, there was a knocking at the door. Aelwen expected to find someone who needed help, but when she opened the door, there was a small man, the size of a beardless youth, with wings folded behind his back. She had seen fairies before, but never on her doorstep.

‘This fairy called himself Rowan, and said that, years before, Tegwyn’s great-grandmother had loved that fairy’s uncle, and birthed his grandfather as a result. Rowan had gifts for his baby cousin, and had come to weave spells of protection around her.

‘So the fairy stayed with them that night, but Tegwyn didn’t sleep much – he was already plotting. He had seen Rowan use a book of magic to weave the spell of protection around his daughter, and he wanted that book for himself.

‘So in the morning, he asked Rowan, “Cousin, would you help me out? I need a favour.”

‘And Rowan said, “Yes, of course”, so Tegwyn knew the fairy would do whatever he asked.

‘Tegwyn said he needed a blanket for his new baby daughter, as the nights were getting cold, so would Rowan fly around and collect all the wool that was caught in thistles and brambles, and spin it and weave it into a blanket?

‘And he added, “I can look after that heavy book for you, to save you from having to carry it around.”

‘So while the fairy flew around, collecting tiny scraps of wool from here and there, Tegwyn neglected his duties, and read through the fairy’s book. But he could make nothing of it. Late that evening Rowan returned with a huge pile of wool. Aelwen, who had been working all day as well as caring for her newborn, fed them all, and thanked the fairy for the wool.

‘The next day the fairy spun and wove the wool, and in the evening he presented them with a blanket, soft and fine, a beautiful thing. Aelwen fed him and thanked him again – she was delighted with the blanket. But Tegwyn wasn’t delighted – again he had spent all day trying to make sense of the book of magic, and again he could make nothing of it. So all that night he schemed, and in the morning he asked the fairy for another favour.

‘This went on for many nights, until the moon grew round and full. Every day Tegwyn asked Rowan for another favour, and every day he neglected his work and tried to make sense of the fairy’s book, but he could get nothing from it. Then he would lie awake at night thinking up another task for the fairy. And every evening, Aelwen thanked Rowan for the work he’d done, and fed him a tasty meal. She was an excellent cook.’

‘Not like anyone in our family’, Demi interrupted. ‘Where is this going, anyhow? I thought you were explaining what happened tonight.’

‘Shut up with interrupting,’ Blackbird snapped. ‘Is a long story, and you did ask. Okay, so, when it was full moon, Tegwyn was in bed, scheming, and Aelwen was about to join him, when she looked out of the window, and something tugged at her heart. It was so beautiful out there, under the silver moonlight. She asked Rowan, could she borrow the book of magic.

“Of course,” said Rowan. “Take this charm, go out and read this book beside an oak tree, in the full moonlight, and if there is any magic in you, it will be woken tonight.”

‘So she did all that, wrapping herself and her daughter in the beautiful blanket, and in a little while it all made sense to her. She studied that book from cover to cover that night, and by morning she knew everything within it. So she returned Rowan’s book, and thanked him for it. And he was glad, because he couldn’t leave without payment, and a thank you from the one he’d helped was all the payment he needed.

‘Aelwen suggested he left before her husband woke up and asked him another stupid favour. She gave him some food to take with him, and he gave her another charm and told her if she ever needed help, just hold the charm up to the moonlight, and he would come to her aid.’

‘Wasn’t her husband annoyed when he found out?’ Demi asked.

‘Sure, he sulked a few days, but Aelwen’s magic had been awakened, so she could share her knowledge with him, and that shut him up a little. Anyway, this was in the old days, when women still had power, when they could still speak their minds without being burnt or beaten for it.

‘Everything was good for a few years. Aelwen used her new knowledge to become an even better healer, and her daughter grew strong and healthy. Aelwen didn’t have to spin or sew any more, or bake her own bread – others did that for her in return for her healing them.

‘But then the bad ones came. The witch-haters. They spread their poison and lies, and made people afraid to go to Aelwen, even though she was the only one could help them when they were sick. The witch-haters caught her one night, picking herbs in the silver moonlight, and took her to the tower.’

‘Was the tower still there then? How long ago was this?’

‘A long, long time ago. Before I remember. The tower was all broken then, all big holes in the roof, but the dark places beneath were still used to hold people. It was dark and damp, and despite all the other people, it was lonely. She knew in the morning they’d beat her, or worse, and burn her on a fire for being a witch.’

‘Poor Aelwen. What happened then?’ Demi asked.

‘She still had the charm Rowan had given her. She used it to call him to her. There were iron bars on the window, so he couldn’t cast a spell past them. Fairies hate iron. It kills our magic.’ He fell silent, but just as Demi was about to prompt him, he continued.

‘Rowan had an acorn with him. An egg would have been better, but it was the wrong time of year for them. Rowan told Aelwen to climb up to the window, and reach out her hand, so he could guide her life into the acorn.

‘Aelwen told me she doesn’t remember what happened next. Next time she knew what was happening, it was spring, and she was inside a tree. Her life stayed in that tree, growing year by year, until a girl came seeking one day, and she knew this was her daughter.

‘The girl would talk to Aelwen, and Aelwen would talk back to her. The daughter said, on that night when she’d been a tiny baby wrapped in a blanket with her mother, her own magic had been woken too. She was a witch, and understood things others didn’t. Aelwen’s life stayed in that tree year after year, as her daughter grew and became a mother herself. The tree became known as the Wishing Tree, because magical things sometimes happened there, and all Aelwen’s line became clever healers. But although Aelwen could hear the people talking to her, most people couldn’t hear her talking back, and that made her sad. Then the world changed around her, the fields became houses, and people started talking in a new language, one she didn’t understand. People forgot about the Wishing Tree, and she got lonely.

‘But tonight, you came along – and you are one of the daughters of her line – and you smeared your blood on the tree, and danced widdershins in the moonlight, and that made so much magic that she made a new body for herself, from the tree, moonlight, and your blood. That is what happened tonight. That is what I saw, and that is what she told me.’

‘So…what’s all that got to do with you? Why are you back?’ Demi asked.

‘Too many questions!’ He snapped. Then, more gently, ‘It’s late, you should sleep now. Aelwen wants to meet you tomorrow, test your magic.’

‘Will you stay here tonight?’ Demi asked.

‘Yes. Show me to your cousin in the morning. See if she believes in me then.’

‘Will you explain all this to her, Blackbird? I’m not sure I can!’

‘Tomorrow, I will explain. Sleep now, little girl. I will sleep over there.’

He kissed the end of her nose, then slipped away to the bedside chair, where he snuggled into a pile of discarded clothes.

Demi’s nose was wet where he had kissed her, and filled with his musky, masculine scent. She closed the curtains, ignoring the lightness in the east, and tried to sleep.

 

Chapter 3. Everything You Didn’t Believe is True

Vicky woke some hours later with a stiff neck from dozing in an armchair, the events of the previous night still with her. She knew it was useless to dismiss them as dreaming. It wasn’t just the sudden blaze on the mound which had unnerved her, but a strange sensation which had pulsed through her as she fled, igniting something which flared for a moment then faded. But its memory was still there, and it troubled her.

She was glad Heledd had stayed over – solid, dependable Heledd, as down-to- earth as a gardener’s boot. True, Heledd had a head full of myth and legend, but she was calm in a crisis, and her chattering had helped pass the time until the sun rose, and bleached away the fears of the night. Unlike Vicky, who’d snapped out of every dream that night, Heledd was sound asleep on the sofa, wrapped in a blue fleece blanket, snoring gently.

They’d been in the same year at school, and even worked on a GCSE science project together, but had never really been friends. They’d lost touch once they left school and enrolled at different Universities. But Vicky had gone into Tanybryn branch library to sign the petition to keep it open, and to savour the memories while it was still there, and there was Heledd, showing an old man how to use the Internet. The ancient computer had frozen, but Vicky the IT graduate soon solved the problem. The girls recognized each other, and soon got into conversation. Vicky had also been looking for a tide table, as she wanted to go to the beach, so Heledd explained to her how to work out the movement of the tides by the phase of the moon.

‘When it’s full moon or new moon, the tide is out at noon and midnight. At half moon, it’s high tide at noon, and the tidal range is less dramatic,’ Heledd had explained.

When Heledd asked Vicky what she planned doing at the beach, Vicky told her she’d been a member of the Freediving and Finswimming club at Manchester Uni – and played Octopush, a form of underwater hockey. ‘There is a freediving club in Cardiff’, she’d explained, ‘but they only meet in term time, and it’s no good freediving at the pool – people would panic and think I was drowning. I love sea swimming anyway, although mum always thinks I’ll be swept away.’

‘Well, if you wanted’, Heledd said, ‘I could sit on the beach and read a book while you dived. That way, if you did get swept away, I could raise the alarm. Although I doubt there’s much of a risk – if the tide’s coming in you should be fine!’

So a few days later, when the tide was right, they took the bus to Swansea and spent an afternoon at a tiny rocky cove. Heledd sat on the warm cliffs, reading, looking for dolphins, and daydreaming – a perfect afternoon for her – while Vicky put on her goggles and practised fetching shells and pebbles from the sea floor. Neither actually said much to the other all day, and that suited them both fine. And as they lived so close to each other, they’d started hanging out.

That had been a few weeks ago, and in that time Vicky had become more settled in Cardiff. She was still missing her boyfriend Dave, and found it hard to accept that it would be another eleven months ‘til she saw him again. Heledd wasn’t much of a substitute, but she was easy-going and enjoyable company in her own way.

 

***

 

They were in the kitchen now, Vicky pouring coffee into the huge round mug she always used when she was stressed, whilst Heledd buttered some toast. Heledd was explaining her Postgraduate plans – she was returning to Aberystwyth to research the treatment of women in The Mabinogion, and how this related to the growth of patriarchy and denigration of the Mother Goddess. Vicky could only imagine what her fellow IT students would make of that. If Vicky opted for a postgrad course it would have to be a lot more practical than Heledd’s. But still, Heledd’s voice was gentle and soothing, and despite her tiredness it was easy for Vicky to just nod and say, ‘mmm-hmm’ now and again.

Heledd was explaining Rhiannon as an example of a goddess who’d been stripped of all power by male writers when Demi-Lee’s whistle cut through the morning.

‘That’s an impressive whistle,’ Heledd said.

‘It’s her greatest talent,’ Vicky replied, deciding not to add that it was probably Demi’s only talent. How could the kid be so perky after that horrendous night?

A few minutes later, Demi entered the kitchen, still whistling, her long, brown hair covering her shoulders. She stopped to pull a face at the granary toast Heledd was eating and went to the fridge for her cola.

With the three of them together, Vicky made a decision. ‘I thought we’d go up to the tower today. In broad daylight. Sober. See if we can work out what really happened last night.’

‘I already know.’ Demi was still busy pouring cola into a glass, her back turned to the others.

Vicky didn’t respond, so Demi continued. ‘You never believed in my fairy did you? You all laughed at me. So I never told you that he came back, every summer when I stayed here. Right up until you went away to Uni. Maybe a 6-year-old would have imagined him, but not an 11-year-old. And he came back last night, and he told me what happened.’

Vicky felt her cheeks burning. ‘De-mi. Don’t start this again, please.’

Demi turned and approached them, sweeping back her hair as she did so. Vicky gasped as she noticed something weird and rather disgusting on her cousin’s shoulder. It looked like a dead bird with a doll stuffed inside it. The bird’s head, body and wings sat on a pair of little man-legs in combat pants. It had to be crawling with germs, whatever it was.

‘What the hell is that?’ Vicky asked. ‘It’s vile.’

Demi approached the table and plonked down her drink, cola splashing over the tabletop. ‘This is Blackbird,’ she said, as she lifted the object from her shoulder and lowered it gently towards the kitchen table.

‘Don’t you dare put that filthy thing on there!’ A plastic bag was what Vicky needed; something to pick that thing up and put it in the bin where it belonged. Revolting object! But as she made that decision, the toy seemed to move, and Vicky yelped, leaping from her chair to a safe distance. She tried to speak, but couldn’t.

‘Is it alive?’ Heledd asked. ‘What is it?’

‘It’s just Blackbird, and he’s my friend.’ Demi replied. ‘Put the frying pan down, Vicky, and chill.’

Vicky replaced the frying pan on the draining board, and cautiously approached the table. She felt worse than she’d ever felt in her life – a dreadful night’s sleep and too much coffee had left her a bag of jitters, and now there was a manky dead bird on the kitchen table with something moving about underneath it.

‘What the hell is going on, Demi?’ Vicky croaked. What is that thing?’

In one fluid movement, arms appeared from under the bird wings and tipped back the hood made by the bird’s head and beak. A tiny man’s face glared up at Vicky. She grabbed the back of her chair to steady herself, turning pale and swallowing hard.

Oh my god! she thought, words taking flight before they could be spoken. It’s alive. It’s real.

‘He’s enchanting!’ Heledd cooed. ‘Don’t be afraid Vicky – he’s probably more scared of you than you are of him.’ The creature looked annoyed at that, so Heledd added, ‘although I’m sure he’s very powerful.’

Vicky couldn’t believe how calm Heledd was. There was a rat-sized man on the table, scowling at her. Okay, she thought, be rational; analyse what’s in front of you. But all she really wanted to do was squash it, like a hideous spider.

A miniature man, wearing a blackbird’s skin – head, wings and tail all of a piece, a macabre cloak. And what on earth did he have on underneath? His ragged black combats suggested he was a soldier, but his T shirt was pink with a glittery heart on it. It was totally the wrong shape for him, but then Vicky realised it was made for an exaggeratedly female figure – huge breasts and narrow waist.

They were doll’s clothes!

He had adorned himself with pendants, of bone, seed and a tiny glass bead, purple and iridescent, all hanging from strands of horse hair. He had to be real – nothing imaginary could be so grubby. His bare feet had left smudges on the table top.

Heledd was taking it all in her stride. ‘Hi Blackbird. Nice to meet you. Are you a fairy, a pixie, a gnome or what?’

‘Fairy. Don’t know gnomes or pixies, just fairies, elves and humans.’ His voice was heavily accented, rolling the ‘r’s. Soft, musical, and surprisingly deep for such a tiny person.

His bearded face, was thin, pale and pointed. His wide green eyes darted here and there, intelligent and wary, like a hunted animal. He tilted his head coquettishly, but didn’t smile.

He was eyeing their plates, and Vicky wondered if he was hungry. What did fairies eat? – Heledd would know, if anyone did. Vicky couldn’t bring herself to address the fairy directly, so asked Heledd to suggest something.

‘Traditionally people left bread and milk for fairies to keep them sweet. We can manage that – unless you’d prefer something else?’ Heledd asked.

‘What is that?’ Blackbird asked, indicating Heledd’s plate.

‘Toast with butter and yeast extract. You can try a bit, but not everyone likes it.’ She broke off a piece and offered it to him. He dipped a finger in the yeast extract, licked it experimentally, then grimaced and shook his head.

‘Well, that’s something we agree on,’ said Vicky, although it took a great deal of effort to speak. ‘There’s honey in the cupboard.’

The fairy’s eyes widened and he almost smiled. ‘Honey is good.’

Vicky buttered some chunks of brown bread, found the honey and dolloped a spoonful of it onto a plate, and offered it to him. He didn’t bother to thank her, but asked if he could wash first.

So Vicky provided a teacup of warm water on the draining board, where he removed his bird cape, folding it carefully. She heard his pendants chink on the rim of the cup as he washed his face and bare arms. She realised that maybe he wasn’t so thin and dirty out of choice. Why did this one fairy live in the human world, on the edge of a city? She was dying to know, but his attitude suggested he wasn’t giving much away.

A few minutes later, with Blackbird back on the kitchen table, Demi was explaining to Vicky – in between mouthfuls of crisp sandwich – what she could remember about Aelwen.

‘And she’s our great-great-ten-million-times-great-granny, can you believe that. And I made the magic last night that woke her up – me and the moonlight. Blackbird’s gonna take me over to her later.’

At the sound of his name, Blackbird looked up and nodded. He had been tearing off handfuls of buttered bread and dipping them in the honey. Vicky had balanced the plate on top of the honey jar to make it easier to reach, although it meant he was eating standing up. He held the bread in both hands as he ate, like a squirrel, and was acting very quiet and passive. But he was obviously an adult male, tough and wiry despite his tiny frame. He had the look of a survivor, and it seemed that occasionally remembering to act like a ‘sweet little fairy’ was just another survival trick.

I’ll be watching you, Vicky thought, you and this Aelwen. They needed the human girls for something – but what, and who would it benefit?

 

***

 

This is proper weather, thought Demi, emerging from the lane, the ruined tower on its motte to their right. The moonlit glamour of the previous night had evaporated. Sunlight revealed the patchy grass and cowpats that carpeted the field, and the Saturday afternoon motorway traffic was grumbling through the cutting up ahead. But the sun was high and hot in a near-cloudless sky, and despite the cars the light was clear and golden, colouring everything to its best advantage.

Blackbird was sitting on Demi’s shoulder but he wasn’t saying much, just giving directions, and telling her not to look down so much or he’d fall off. But she had to look down – the ground was minging with piles of horse shit and bunny poo, molehills and thistles. Her trainers would be ruined if she wasn’t careful; there was nothing as normal as a path or a pavement anywhere. She really hated the country. It was okay to look at from a distance, but why all this mud? It was ridiculous, there was a motorway going all the way to London up ahead, but they couldn’t put a simple path through this field – all it would take was a bit of concrete.

Blackbird was taking them to the wooded hills beyond the motorway, where Aelwen was waiting for them. The tree-witch was going to test Demi’s magical abilities, and teach her some spells – if she was good enough. Demi was nervous as hell – what if she turned out to be as talentless as some of those losers you saw on TV, and Aelwen refused to take her on?

There was a stile up ahead. Stupid things! If there was a way of getting over a stile which had any style, she’d never seen it – and trying to get over one with a grumpy fairy on her shoulders was a nightmare. She struggled over as if she had 3½ legs, Blackbird gripping the roots of her hair and hissing like an angry cat. This had better be worth it.

At least dumpy Heledd had to make an effort to get over the stile, but her super-athlete cousin Vicky had no problems. It really wasn’t fair that Vicky was both clever and sporty. Demi wasn’t dumb, but she was fairly average at everything at school. What if she turned out to be average at magic, not a witch at all?

But then, she was the one who could sense the moonlight, could smell magic, and no-one else had a sparkling moon-shadow like hers. She risked looking down at her daytime shadow without moving her shoulders. It looked the same as any other shadow, and the sense of magic had gone.

As they crossed the footbridge over the motorway, Demi felt Blackbird tremble against her neck. Was he afraid of the traffic roaring beneath them? Weird to think there were things she understood better than him. Even had he been man-sized he wouldn’t have had a clue how to drive, whereas she was already pretty good behind the wheel – something she kept from Vicky, obviously.

There was a kissing gate at the other end of the bridge, thankfully, and once she’d got through that, Blackbird pointed out a group of trees on the far side of a huge patch of sticky mud.

‘Is there’, he said, ‘where Aelwen is waiting.’

‘How in hell do we cross that?’ she demanded, and was horrified when Blackbird suggested they go straight through, jumping between dry patches.

‘Is okay, I did it, even this small,’ he told her, but she insisted there was no way she was going near it.

Heledd pointed out a way around – the boggy patch was in a dip ahead of them, but if they turned right and stuck to the higher ground there was a stile which led onto the old road which ran over the hill to Caerphilly. There was a big old house on the road, and there seemed to be a path beyond it which came out on the far side of the dip.

‘Bloody stiles! Why didn’t we just go along the hill road in the first place?’ Demi grumped.

‘With a fairy on your shoulder? I don’t think so! You know what our neighbours are like.’ Vicky retorted.

‘That’s true,’ Heledd said. ‘Did you know, Vicky, that when you got your nose pierced, Mrs Watkins told my mum she was worried you’d become a drug addict.’

‘The evil cow!’ Vicky replied. ‘A couple of years back, when Demi had a bad breakout of zits, that old bat was dropping heavy hints she thought Demi was a glue-sniffer.’

‘As if!’ Demi snorted. ‘What does she think this is, the 1970’s?’

‘Can you imagine if she saw us now? We’re going to have to be really careful.’ Vicky shuddered.

‘Sorry Blackbird,’ said Heledd, ‘I don’t think this world is ready for you yet.’

It didn’t take long to reach the road. There was another stile to get over, but at least there was no-one else about. As they passed the house, set well back with a well-kept front garden and plenty of parking, they realised it was a retirement home.

‘Golden Grove,’ said Heledd. ‘Let’s hope it’s as nice as it sounds.’

It was a handsome building with a tacked-on reception and administration wing, a large sunny conservatory, and a sheltered garden with wide, flat pathways and raised beds. It was still lunchtime, so the garden was empty of people, but full of bees and butterflies dancing on the air as they walked past, following the lane to the fields.

‘What’s up with those trees?’ Demi asked Blackbird, as they came out into the meadows. ‘They seem to be fading in and out!’

‘Is a cloaking spell, an old one. Maybe you can help mend it – is your first test,’ he replied.

Demi hoped they were good teachers. The bright sunshine was nice, but she couldn’t feel any magic in it.

Soon they reached the group of trees, which Heledd named, claiming they were all important in Celtic philosophy – willow, holly, hazel and oak, with wildflowers scattering the ground between them. Blackbird directed them to a place where they could squeeze between two hazels, then, as Demi had to lean over to make her way through, he climbed into the branches and led the way as they ducked, crawled and wriggled through the green to a dappled clearing where a spring bubbled up from the rocks.

There, standing in a patch of sunlight, was Aelwen. She had a weird posture, leaning into the sunlight at an angle no-one with a skeleton could manage. Her skin was dry and brown as bark, and she seemed to be as much plant as human. Her face was kind of unfinished, as if she’d got confused in the act of re-creation and decided to ignore those human features which would have been superfluous. She had eyes – small, brown and acorn-like, behind leafy eyelids. She had a mouth too – or at least, there was a lipless gash in her visage where a mouth should have been. No nose, no ears, and a cap of leaves like a short bob. Her shape was basically human, but she was at least nine feet tall. Demi wondered if anyone had seen this creature crossing the fields in the moonlight the previous night.

Aelwen beckoned Demi towards her with a strange gesture, more growth than movement. She put her hard, dry hand on Demi’s cheek and tilted the girl’s head upwards, looking deep into her eyes. Faint images swept across Demi’s mind, but she failed to grasp them.

Demi turned to Blackbird, who was watching from a branch nearby.

‘Is she trying to talk to me?’ she asked him. ‘I got a picture of moonlight, but that’s it.’

‘She’s asking if you can feel any magic now,’ Blackbird replied.

‘You can read her mind?’ Demi asked.

‘Yes. But I’m Fairy, this is normal for us. Most humans not so good. And she don’t speak your language, so she got to talk with pictures.’ He paused a moment, as if listening to something. ‘She says she can’t pick anything up from you – your mind won’t hold still. Try to get a clear memory of what happened last night.’

Demi tried, but Blackbird told her the pictures she created just didn’t last long enough for anyone else to grasp them.

‘Too much sugar and E-numbers!’ Vicky opined. ‘You don’t need me for anything, do you? I’m going to sit down for a bit. Coming, Hel?’

But Blackbird asked if Heledd could pick up any of Aelwen’s thoughts, and to Demi’s annoyance, they found Heledd and Aelwen could communicate with brief touches of emotion.

Blackbird was impressed. ‘It was Heledd who said to dance last night, wasn’t it? Stay with us Heledd, you could be useful. Vicky can go away.’

Vicky shot the fairy a filthy look before going off to the far side of the grove, and climbing onto the low-hanging branch of an oak.

‘Can you feel any magic?’ Heledd asked Demi. ‘It’s such an atmospheric spot.’

‘I’m not sure,’ she replied. ‘It feels different in here from outside, weird but in a good way. But it’s totally different from how I felt last night. Last night I could feel the moonlight flowing through me. If there’s any magic in here, it’s outside me, and I don’t know how to use it. Standing in the moonlight last night made me feel – powerful, I guess. I’m not getting that now. This place just feels really old.’

‘I feel like we’re outside time. Like I could step out of here and be in the Age of Saints, before that tower was even thought of.’ Heledd turned to Blackbird. ‘Is it something to do with the cloaking spell? Is that why this place feels so numinous?’

The fairy just looked confused.

‘Even I don’t know what that means!’ Demi laughed.

‘It means how this place feels – magical, sacred, with a special atmosphere.’

Blackbird nodded. ‘That spring can take you to Annwn – my home world.’

‘You’re from Annwn!’ Heledd was awestruck. ‘I love the stories of Annwn. One of my friends is working on a paper which links all the mythical Underworlds with the current idea of Multiple Universes.’

‘Like in ParaWorld?’ Demi asked. Everyone looked confused now, so she explained it was a TV programme. ‘They use that quantum science stuff to travel between parallel realities,’ she added.

‘Celtic myth is full of stories of people using sacred pools to travel between our world and Annwn,’ Heledd said. ‘No wonder this grove feels so special if that spring is a portal.’ She approached the water, but Blackbird warned her away.

‘Be careful,’ he told them. ‘None of you is ready for Annwn – it’s a dangerous place for outsiders.’

Heledd asked Blackbird why he’d left Annwn.

‘Got things to do here. Can’t talk about them.’ Blackbird’s tone of voice made it clear this wasn’t something he was prepared to discuss. He changed the subject. ‘There are crystals in the trees which keep the cloaking spell working. Aelwen wants to know what you can do with them. I will bring one.’

He climbed into the branches, then returned moments later with a clear, colourless crystal slung across his back. Maybe five centimetres long, it was shaped like a short, fat pencil.

He offered it to Demi, and asked what she could sense from it.

‘It feels like it’s humming between my fingers. And when I look through it’ – she was holding it in front of her gaze, rotating it slowly – ‘it doesn’t just break up what I see, it puts fiery rainbows around everything – well, everything that’s alive.’

‘Good. See if you can use it to power a spell,’ Blackbird said.

‘How on earth do I do that? Can’t you show me?’ Demi asked.

‘Is too big for me. Might burn me up. Try to connect your mind with the magic in the crystal – was in the full moon last night, so should be fully charged.’

He made it seem so obvious, but all Demi could do was look at the images in the crystal, and try to direct the rainbow colours into her eyes. How on earth do you link your mind with a piece of sparkly rock? She managed to throw a ray of deepest blue into her eyes, which gave her a brief flash of what she’d experienced in the moonlight, but just couldn’t hold on to the feelings. She tried again, but just got dazzled.

‘Is this really do-able?’ she moaned. ‘Can’t you just teach me some magic words instead?’

‘Silly girl,’ Blackbird said, ‘Vicky’s right, your mind isn’t still enough. You need to learn to think quiet and deep.’

‘I think he means you need to learn to meditate,’ said Heledd. ‘Don’t pull faces, it doesn’t mean you have to go all New Age. A sensible breakfast and a good night’s sleep would have helped. Vicky, come and help us. You must know some good breathing exercises with all that freediving you do.’

The three girls sat cross-legged in the glade, and Heledd taught Demi to focus on the here and now – the scents of the damp earth, the light dappling through the leaves, the bubbling of the spring, birdsong and the rustling of the greenery.

‘Feel the ground supporting your limbs,’ Heledd intoned. ‘Feel the grass beneath your hands.’

It was excruciating – like being dragged into an old ladies’ yoga class. Demi didn’t know whether to laugh or gag. But at least no-one she cared about was watching – no-one except Blackbird, who seemed to be going along with things. So she let herself be led by Heledd’s voice, and soon she began to feel different. She stopped fretting that the ground was dirty, or how stupid she looked, and felt herself start to focus.

When Heledd told her to close her eyes she was sure they were about to play a trick on her, but Blackbird seemed to sense her reluctance and told her to obey. Vicky took over then, teaching her cousin the techniques she used to control her breathing and heartbeat while freediving.

Demi let go of worrying about the outside world. She realised she had been clenching her fists and teeth, and relaxed them with a loud sigh.

Blackbird spoke, in a low murmur. ‘Gather yourself into your heartbeat. Be your heartbeat. Now let yourself drift to the place where your magic lives.’

That was it! That place in her brain which had glowed and rung like a bell the previous night awoke once more. And deep in her guts something tingled. She could feel the magic in the air – nothing like the previous night’s moon magic, but a gentle golden hum. Slowly she opened her eyes, and holding the crystal in a shaft of sunlight, she connected. Colour filled up her world and flowed through her senses, lighting her up from inside so she blazed like a star. She was reaching out, ready to let go of herself and become one with the universe. She was a singing golden flame, consuming the banal and transforming it to magic. She was – the colour and light faded, and she came back to herself. What the hell was all that hippy stuff? Vicky’s hand was blocking the sunlight – Demi could see it through the crystal, bent and shaded by the facets.

‘You were well gone then,’ Vicky scolded. ‘You didn’t even hear Blackbird calling you.’

Demi lowered the crystal and turned to Blackbird, who was regarding her, concerned.

‘Crystals are too powerful for you,’ he stated. ‘You need to make your mind stronger. If you can’t make your own magic you must learn to use the crystal, but don’t let the crystal use you.’

‘I can make my own magic, I’m sure I can.’ Demi protested. ‘I can feel it inside me now.’

Blackbird looked dubious, but there was another image from Aelwen – fleeting, but clearer this time, of a ripe red berry.

‘Okay, try this,’ Blackbird commanded. ‘Make this berry red and sweet, good to eat. Is already happening slowly – give it some sun magic, and make it happen quicker.’

She touched the twig he indicated, and with the crystal in her other hand channelled sunlight into it, watching delighted as the berries swelled and reddened. But when Blackbird reached out to take one, it was overripe and burst, covering him with sticky goo.

Demi laughed without thinking, but stopped when she saw the look on Blackbird’s face. He said nothing, but turned his back and slipped into the greenery.

‘Blackbird, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh at you. Sorry, believe me. Come back!’

There was no response, but Aelwen placed a stiff dry hand as kindly as she could on her descendant’s shoulder.

‘Why don’t we take five?’ Heledd suggested. ‘Have some chocolate and something to drink.’ She called out an apology to Blackbird and invited him to share food, but there was not a sound from the bushes. ‘Come on,’ she whispered to Demi, ‘He can’t have gone far. Let’s hope he calms down in a bit. You’ll feel better after something to eat.’

But Demi wasn’t hungry. She felt sick and hollow, convinced she’d never see Blackbird again, and it was all her fault.

 

***

 

Vicky felt sorry for Demi-Lee. The poor kid looked wretched, but she wasn’t surprised Blackbird had stormed off. She’d already noticed his pride, mainly because it had seemed so ridiculous in someone who looked like a toy tramp. But then, wasn’t she frequently infuriated by people less intelligent and able than her, who treated her like a bimbo because she looked good in a swimsuit? She’d worked hard for a First in IT, and worked harder to keep fit and develop the attributes of a freediver. Her toned figure was a side effect of her love of water, not an invitation for slobby old men to make lewd comments as she went about her business. So she understood that she shouldn’t underestimate the fairy, just because he was tiny, dressed in stolen rags, and occasionally struggled with his English. She made a silent vow to show him some respect when he returned. Which he would do. They were a source of free food, if nothing else, and she’d seen how desperately hungry he’d been that morning. Here was a mystery, a puzzle for her to solve – and wasn’t she just the expert at problem solving? True, her rational view of the world had been turned upside down, but she wasn’t giving up on logic just yet.

The girls shared the food Vicky had brought – she never went anywhere without supplies – but although they called out to Blackbird offering chocolate and bananas, he didn’t return.

It was hot in the grove, and they soon finished their bottled water. Vicky wondered aloud whether the water from the spring would be safe to drink. Although drinking from a hole in the ground bothered her, as the water was icy cold, surely it would be okay? It would then be coming from the depths of the earth, rainwater that had filtered through limestone for aeons, with no chance to become contaminated. She approached the spot where water bubbled out of the rock.

It was easy to see how a simple mind would find it magical and mysterious, and believe it led to another realm. She wondered if there were caves beneath the hills – some amazing cave systems had been discovered just by chance. Her eyes searched for the source, deep in the dark, then saw something strange. Two round, glowing objects, deep in the water, which she suddenly realised were eyes, staring into her own. A luminous creature rose up from the depths, regarded her for a moment, then flipped over and retreated, showing a fishlike tail as it went.

‘Oh my god!’ She said. ‘There’s something really weird in this pool! Like a mermaid or something!’

‘A nixie!’ said Heledd, scrambling to her feet. ‘They transport people between realms.’

Demi-Lee stood up too, but a voice commanded her to stop. It was Blackbird.

‘Stay away from the nixies, Demali. They’ll take you to Annwn, but you’re not ready yet. Don’t let them see you.’

He was standing in the bushes, but gave no explanation of where he’d been. Demi-Lee ran over to make a fuss of him, but he turned aside. Vicky noticed he’d cleaned himself up as best he could, but his clothes were stained with berry juice – as if they hadn’t been filthy enough to begin with. She felt for him deeply, but couldn’t think what to say to put things right. She reverted to practicalities – it was where she felt safe.

‘This was your banana, Blackbird. We’ve eaten ours.’ She peeled the fruit and offered it to him, and he accepted it, piece by piece. Heledd dragged Demi-Lee to a discreet distance. There was silence in the grove, but it grew less awkward as Blackbird ate and began to relax.

Vicky offered him the last piece of banana, but he told her, ‘You eat it, too much for me,’ and she knew it was a peace offering.

‘Thanks,’ she said, deliberately casual. ‘So, what do you want us to do next?’

He gazed at the sky and said, ‘Moon will rise soon. I will check the other crystals, then we can restart the cloaking spell.’

He swung back into the treetops, and an hour or so later he’d finished arranging the crystals.

‘Moon is back,’ he stated. ‘We can sing the spell back into working.’

‘You want us to sing now?’ Demi-Lee sounded dubious.

‘Sure. Is a good way to get your mind focussed.’

Blackbird directed them all. With Aelwen in the centre, and the four others at the compass points, he started them singing a round which grew and grew until the crystals started to resonate. They all had their arms stretched out to the moon, and Vicky could feel the power flowing around the circle, until the spell caught, and she sensed a deepening of the silence in the grove. And her little cousin had done that! Vicky felt proud and jealous in equal measures. As soon as Blackbird broke the spell, the tingling power she felt faded to nothing, whereas Demi-Lee was still radiant.

Soon Blackbird was showing Demi-Lee how to cast sparkling orbs into the air, their previous falling-out apparently forgotten. Vicky, however, didn’t forget so easily.

 

Chapter 4 ‘Rabbit, Chicken, English, Fortune-telling…’

‘Omigod Vic, I can’t believe he’s back, it’s just awesome. Isn’t he just the coolest thing ever? Just wait ‘til you see all the stuff he can do, he’s amazing.’ Demi-Lee rabbited on, hardly pausing to draw breath, all the way back to Vicky’s house. According to Demi-Lee, Blackbird was cute and funny and wise, full of fun and magic. He could disappear and reappear instantly in another place, change his shape and do all sorts of conjuring tricks. And he’d once saved Demi’s skin by mending a glass vase she’d accidentally broken, ‘He just melted all the pieces back together. It was awesome. And he’s so cute, isn’t he?’

Vicky didn’t totally disagree with the last statement. Beneath the grime and bad attitude, the fairy was dainty and graceful, and the big green eyes were appealing. But so far Vicky had found him rude, impatient and unfriendly. She hadn’t seen him do anything magical; she hadn’t even seen him smile. He’d managed to charm Demi around after upsetting her earlier, but that was all.

Was this fairy who he claimed to be? But an impostor would have acted like the Blackbird Demi remembered, not someone else. What was going on here? And why did he use that bird cape to fly – surely fairies had their own wings. When Demi paused for breath, Vicky asked her, ‘Demi, when he came before, did he have wings? Could he fly properly?’

‘I thought he did. It was always night, full moon. I’ve never seen him in daylight before. But I remember him flying around the room, doing somersaults and bouncing off the walls, trying to make me laugh. So he must have had proper wings to do that, right?’

‘I get the feeling something odd has happened to your Blackbird,’ Vicky said. ‘Haven’t you noticed how moody he is? I don’t think he came back just to entertain you – he wants something from you, so be careful what you promise him. You know how people get into trouble when they speak without thinking in front of his kind!’

‘Oh, flippin’ typical’ Demi huffed. ‘First you won’t believe in him, and now you’ve got to admit he’s real you just criticise him. Just because something good’s happened to me for once.’

‘Demi, I’m not having a go for the sake of it,’ Vicky replied. ‘But fairies and tree-spirits don’t turn up for no reason. She may be our great-great-whatever granny, but we’re not Aelwen’s only descendants, think about it, there’s probably hundreds. There’s other girls just on our side of the family. What makes us so special? Why you, and not your mum?’

‘Pfft. Can’t imagine Mum cooking up a spell. She can’t even make a cake,’ Demi said.

‘Exactly. But it’s through her you’ve got whatever power you inherited from Aelwen,’ Vicky said. ‘Just be careful, that’s all. Don’t agree to anything without thinking it through first. Insist on a cooling-off period.’

‘Oh, whatever!’

Vicky let that hang in the air for a while – she was starting to learn that you couldn’t force Demi into anything. The kid seemed determined to do the opposite of whatever Vicky suggested. Eventually, Vicky continued. ‘Your mum’s coming home tomorrow. We need to find a reason to keep you here so you can learn from Blackbird and Aelwen. Can you think of a good excuse to miss the last half-term of school?’

‘I could always get excluded,’ Demi-Lee suggested merrily. ‘Turn up drunk, or tell them I’m pregnant.

‘Don’t even think about it!’ squeaked Vicky. ‘Tell them you’re pregnant and they’ll watch you like a hawk! Last thing we need. Whatever you do needs to be subtle. A good witch keeps her head down; doesn’t attract attention.’

‘Maybe I could pretend I’ve got some sort of disease – a sort of reverse hayfever which means I need to be out in the fields,’ Demi suggested.

‘I think we’ll have to come up with something better than that. And another thing, the grove is right by that old folks’ home,’ Vicky said. ‘I know you put a cloaking spell on it, but someone’s gonna notice us walking down the lane every day.’

‘Maybe I can cast some more spells and disguise us as old ladies,’ Demi said.

‘Hey, maybe that’s the key,’ Vicky said. ‘Find a reason to visit the old folks, and we’ve got the perfect excuse. Maybe Heledd could go and interview them about their lives, use it as research. Have you done your work experience yet, hun?’

‘No,’ Demi said, ‘I was supposed to go work in a shop, but then I got caught shoplifting.’

‘You really are your own worst enemy. We’ll have to find a way around that. Tell them you’ve found God or something. But they’re bound to want voluntary workers. I could run some art and craft workshops, and it would get mum and dad off my back about finding a job.’

‘Vicky, you’re a genius!’

By the end of the week they’d managed to get themselves accepted at Golden Grove, and for the next fortnight their lives fell into a pattern. With Vicky’s guarantee that she would keep an eye on her cousin, the manager of the home was prepared to overlook Demi’s criminal past. Heledd started gathering stories about old Tanybryn, all the folklore and superstitions the residents remembered. Vicky and Demi-Lee helped out with the craft groups, and Vicky made herself popular helping the admin staff sort out their IT problems.

Every day after work, they slipped over to Aelwen’s grove, where Demi-Lee worked harder than Vicky had ever imagined was possible, learning herb lore and magic. Watching her blossom was wonderful. Aelwen was getting used to her new form, and starting to speak – in Medieval Welsh, which only Blackbird and Heledd could understand – and show facial expressions. And the fairy – was he starting to relax a bit, snap and snarl a bit less – or was Vicky just getting used to him? But she took food for him every day. Most of the time he remembered to thank her, and once or twice he almost smiled.

 

***

 

Heledd was enjoying her research at Golden Grove even more than she had anticipated. Many of the residents were keen to talk to her, although most just chatted about everyday life in the past rather than the folk history Heledd wanted to hear about. But that was okay. It was good practise, and a lot of it was interesting, if irrelevant. And even if it wasn’t interesting, Heledd was good at hiding her boredom, and she could see the old people valued the attention.

But Tom Gently was a star. Witty, intelligent and well-read, with a gift for telling a good story, he had a lifetime’s interest in the things that fascinated Heledd. He knew all about local myths and superstitions, and had recommended several useful publications. But he also warned her that there were some who still believed any interest in pagan or folk beliefs was tantamount to Satanism. ‘I’ve crossed swords with the Farris family many times,’ he told her. ‘They’re a touch obsessive – they even campaigned to have the dragon removed from our flag because they think it’s a satanic beast. I’d suggest you steer clear of them, but it’s good for you to know of them – if you see any of their pamphlets, you’ll know to take them with a pinch of salt. They’re certainly interesting material for a psychological analysis, if you’ve a strong stomach.’

‘Thanks for the warning, Mr Gently,’ Heledd said. ‘I’ll probably avoid them for now, but, as you say, it’s good to be warned. It’s too easy to assume that just because something’s published, it has to be true.’

‘Gosh, you’ve a wise head on your shoulders,’ the old man said. ‘It’s good to know there are young people like you and your friends around. It would be very easy to believe everyone under the age of 30 spends their days in state-funded debauchery.’

Heledd couldn’t help laughing at that.

‘Where are your two friends?’ Mr Gently asked. ‘I haven’t seen them today.’

‘They aren’t here,’ Heledd replied. ‘Demi’s back at school – not happy about it, but she doesn’t have much choice. Vicky’s doing some job applications.’

‘So we might not see them again? Shame. They’re nice girls, even if Demi-Lee does sound like a cheese spread.’

‘Some call her Demali,’ Heledd said. ‘Sounds better, and she seems to like it.’

‘Demali. That’s a name I haven’t hard for a long time. Reminds me of my time in the East.’

‘Do tell. Should I press “record”?’ Heledd made herself comfortable in anticipation of a good story.

‘Demali – or something very like that – was the name of an obscure little port I visited frequently when I was doing National Service, in 1950. It was a refuelling stop, so we made plenty of visits. We’d stop for a few days’ R and R while we took on fuel, water and supplies. Demali was a bit of a legend among the sailors –it was in the tropics, but they said the weather was never as hot as the girls – excuse my French. Well, I was very shy and I wasn’t interested in the bars and the girls, but I still used to look forward to it.’

Heledd couldn’t help thinking that shyness wasn’t the only reason for his disinterest in women, but said nothing.

‘During one of my first visits,’ Tom continued, ‘I was just exploring the town, and I found the spice market. Now that was a fascinating place. Bags and baskets of all sorts of herbs, flowers, leaves and grains. Most of it was just for cooking – the food there was delicious, by the way – but a couple of the stalls had medical herbs, and one had a reputation for making love potions and other magics. I’d been told you could recognise the two magicians easily enough – they were identical twins, Chinese men with vivid green eyes. Supposed to be a sign of fairy blood, you know.’

Heledd raised an eyebrow at the mention of fairies, but Tom Gently didn’t seem to notice.

‘I found them in a corner of the spice market. Very discreet, but very obvious at the same time. One was standing beside a little barrow, with a chicken and a little white rabbit on it, and he kept repeating, “Rabbit, Chicken, English, Fortune-Telling”.’

‘The poor animals!’ Heledd said.

‘Oh, he looked after them well enough. Kept them in the shade, made sure they had plenty of food and water. The little white rabbit seemed contented, she was always washing her ears like a cat, and the chicken was better off that one of those miserable battery beasts. Anyway, the man with the barrow had bright green eyes, and so did his brother, behind a stall advertising herbal teas, medicines and magic. I thought I’d have a go with the fortune teller. It was only a few coins, so I thought I might as well. It was a simple trick, but entertaining the way they’d thought it out. He had some rolled-up slips of paper with ‘fortunes’ written on them; the idea was, you gave some seed to the chicken, whispered your problem into its ear, then it picked out a slip for you.’

‘What did it tell you?’

‘Oh, it was the usual sort of thing. Something along the lines of, “You will meet a new friend”. The kind of vague, generalised statements they use for horoscopes – something you can interpret however you want, written in slightly odd English.

‘Anyway, I got talking to the brother with the animals, and when he found out I was interested in herbalism, he told me they had some English books on herbal medicine, and asked if I could spare some time to help translate them. He offered hospitality and some herbal knowledge in return. Well I was nervous, I won’t tell a lie, had all sorts of ideas of what they might do to me once they’d got me to their home, but I spent some time getting to know them, decided they were genuine, and that was the start of a fascinating friendship.’

‘So the chicken told the truth!’ Heledd said.

‘Ha, they used to like to remind me of that. But they were honest, they never pretended the fortune-telling chicken was anything more than a bit of fun. It was a way of bringing people to them, breaking the ice if you like. And they told me a lot of the advice they ‘divined’ was gained from reading their customers; basic psychology if you like. But as herbal doctors they were wonderful. I helped them make sense of Culpeper’s Herbal – it’s a classic you know, a lot of people still use it for minor ailments, although I’d rather trust the NHS for anything major. And they taught me a lot about what they claimed were the magic herbs – although I suspect a lot of them were hallucinogens.

‘I asked them once, what did the rabbit do – I’d never seen her do any ‘fortune telling’, she just seemed to keep the chicken company. So they gave me some tea, which made my head spin, then told me to talk to the rabbit. Well, it must have been some sort of hallucination, because the little white rabbit stopped washing her ears, looked me in the eye – and her eyes were green, just like the brothers’ – and told me she was their sister who’d been placed under an enchantment. Then she told me never to turn down the chance to help anyone, because some day it would earn me the most wonderful reward. So,’ he laughed, embarrassed, ‘maybe the reason I’m telling you all this is because 60-odd years ago, I dreamt a little white rabbit told me to always be helpful. I hope that doesn’t make you think I’m crazy.’

‘No, not at all, although that is an amazing story. Did you ever get the reward?’ Heledd asked.

‘I enjoyed a lot of friendships and experiences that I wouldn’t have if I’d turned away from those in need. But she did tell me this reward would come towards the end of my life,’ Tom said.

‘Did the rabbit ever talk to you again?’ Heledd asked.

‘No, that was the only time. And, do you know, I kept trying to look at her eyes again, to see if they really were green, not red as you’d expect, but every time I saw her she was washing her ears with her eyes closed. I didn’t make a big deal of it, because I didn’t want the brothers to think I was potty. But I kept in touch with them until they died a few years ago. They died within a few days of each other, and do you know, they still had the chicken and the rabbit, although I doubt it was the same ones. I received a letter from their solicitor, attached to a parcel of books they’d left for me. So if you ever want to see their books, just let me know. I know you’re good with languages – can you read Mandarin?’

 

Chapter 5. Secrets Freely Given

Whilst Tom Gently was sharing his story with Heledd in Golden Grove’s conservatory, Vicky was running back from the bus stop in the rain.

For a summer storm, this was exceptionally nasty, the gusts of wind blowing the rain almost horizontally into her face. She was soaked and shivering by the time she reached the front door, so she ran upstairs and threw her wet clothes into the laundry basket before wrapping herself in a soft towelling dressing gown. A coffee in front of the gas fire was what she needed, but she had left her bedroom window open, and it was letting the rain in. As she reached over the bed to close it, she realised someone had been in her room. Not a very big someone, by the look of it, but he had left a trail of wet mud across the pillowcase and her dressing table, which ended at the basket her Aunty Gwen had given her one Easter. It had been presented with a crocheted hen brooding on a pile of chocolate eggs, with a wonky yellow chick adorning the handle. Vicky had kept the basket because, despite its naffness, it reminded her of her much-loved aunt, and it was ideal for storing cotton wool balls. And, it seemed, ideal for sleeping in if you were only a few inches tall. The bird cape was stretched across the mouth of the basket, dripping dirty water onto Vicky’s belongings, but she could see the fairy freeloader inside, curled up and oblivious.

She was furious. Not just at the mess and damage, but the invasion of privacy. She’d been standing in her underwear moments before, and, okay, he’d been asleep and hadn’t seen her, but she couldn’t tolerate him just wandering in and making himself at home whenever he felt like it. And what was he thinking anyway? Anyone could have found him there!

The bird cape dropped away as she lifted the basket in both hands. He didn’t stir.

‘Comfortable in there, mister?’ she growled. Again, no response. She shook the basket roughly. As his eyes slowly opened, and blinked unfocussed at the world around him, she realised there was something seriously wrong. He was even paler than usual, and much more confused. She noticed he was shivering.

‘Blackbird? Speak to me. What’s going on?’

But he just stared at her, and gasped, ‘Help me’, and she knew he would never have asked if his life hadn’t depended on it.

She scooped him gently out of the basket. His clothes were wet through, and his skin was cold and clammy. Hypothermia? she wondered, and tucked him inside her dressing gown, holding him against her warm skin whilst dabbing his back with the dry towelling. There was no-one to ask for guidance, and she was terrified she would do the wrong thing and kill him. She hated being responsible for other people, hated having to make important decisions so quickly. Trust her instincts? She was an IT specialist, not a wild vixen.

She racked her brains for the information she’d been given on treating hypothermia. Slow and gentle, get him dry and wrap him in warm blankets. Use your own body heat. Give him high energy food, a drink to warm him from the inside – nothing too hot, no alcohol or caffeine. She thought of putting him in a bowl of warm water – or was that the wrong thing? Could the shock kill him?

‘Blackbird? Can you get these clothes off? I need to get you dry before I warm you.’ He didn’t respond, although he was still shivering. It seemed as though he’d shake himself to pieces. She lifted him up and looked at him. His eyes were still unfocussed.

‘OK, I’m gonna cut these wet clothes off you and wrap you in something dry. I know you’ll hate me for it, but it’s the only way to save your life.’

She put him back in the basket while she rummaged for her nail scissors. She spotted a silk scarf, another present from her wonderful aunty, which would be ideal for wrapping him up in.

‘I’ll get you some new clothes,’ she promised, as she cut away the ragged T shirt and combats. ‘Clean ones. And, I’m sorry, I can’t look away right now, I’m worried I might cut something off.’

She lifted him out of the basket again and wrapped him in the silk scarf. As she did so, she caught sight of his naked back, and saw something that made her heart turn over. On his shoulders, where his wings should have been, were two ragged, badly healed scars.

Holding him against her, she walked downstairs to the kitchen, moving as steadily as she could.

‘Blackbird?’

‘Hngh?’

It wasn’t more than a grunt, but it was something. He was still shivering, but not continuously, and his skin felt a little warmer.

‘I’m going to make you some honey tea. It’ll warm you up and give you some energy. I think you’re gonna be okay.’

She left him in a nest of warm tea towels as she part-filled the kettle, measured coffee into the cafetiere then dolloped a couple of spoonfuls of honey into a Pyrex coffee cup.

She noticed he perked up when he saw the honey. She wiped the drips off the spoon onto her finger and offered it to him, saying, ‘Lick this.’ But the touch of his tongue against her finger was too intimate, so she offered him the spoon instead, which he licked greedily. He still shivered occasionally, but his eyes were focussed now, and he was responding to the world around him.

‘Good to see you coming back to life. You were as cold as a little frog back then,’ she said.

‘Thanks Vicky.’ He shivered. ‘A thousand thank-yous’

Wow, thought Vicky, some gratitude. Savour the moment. She looked at him, so proud and defiant, so tiny and helpless, and didn’t know whether to admire his guts or laugh.

The kettle was boiling, so she switched it off, counted to five, then poured the steaming water onto her coffee. She stirred hot water and honey together in the cup, then added cold from the tap until it seemed the right temperature. But what could the fairy drink from? There were no thimbles or dolls’ tea sets in this house. She settled on an eggcup, thinking she could fill it to the brim. ‘You’ll have to stand up and sip from the edge. Sorry. Can’t think of a better way to do it.’

She heard her mother’s car pull into the drive.

‘Sorry Blackbird. Gonna have to put you in my pocket now.’

She slipped him in as gently as she could, then picked up the eggcup and the mug of honey tea. She made it to her bedroom just as the front door opened. Quietly she fished the fairy out of her pocket and put him in a corner of her dressing table, beside the mug and the eggcup, which she filled up for him.

Then she went downstairs to push the plunger on the cafetiere and congratulate her mum on her impeccable timing, all the while wondering if her nerves could ever stand another half-hour like the previous one.

 

***

 

Tom Gently, gentleman that he was, had offered to obtain an umbrella for Heledd, to protect her on her way home in the storm.

‘I do hope your friend didn’t get caught out in this,’ he said. ‘She didn’t have a Macintosh with her, did she?’

‘I doubt it. But she might have made it home by now,’ Heledd replied.

‘It’s like the monsoon out there,’ Tom said. ‘Look at the raindrops bouncing off the patio!’

‘I quite like being indoors watching the rain when it’s like this,’ Heledd said. ‘It’s exhilarating – although I do feel sorry for anyone caught out in it. Shall we have another cup of tea and see if it eases off? Even with an umbrella I’d get drenched; it’s bouncing back almost knee height.’

‘Come to the dining room’, said Tom. ‘I’ll introduce you to a friend.’

So they went to the dining room, where Heledd was offered a moderately exciting biscuit to accompany her drink. They obviously hadn’t heard of triple chocolate cookies here – bourbons and custard creams were as far as it went, although one resident had managed to obtain a Jammy Dodger, which occasioned a certain amount of tutting and whispering.

They’ll remember that at his funeral, thought Heledd.

Tom Gently led Heledd to a table where a woman was already sitting. She was plump, and her smiling face was all wrinkles, but her expertly dyed hair gave her a youthful appearance. With colourful clothes and bright jewellery she looked to be in her early 60’s, but Heledd guessed she was probably much older.

Tom introduced Heledd to Mary, and invited Heledd to explain her project.

‘I’m collecting stories about local folklore and old superstitions.’ Heledd said. ‘Fairy tales, haunted places, cursing wells, that sort of thing. I want to record some folk history before it’s lost for good.’

‘You don’t think it’s just a load of silly superstition, then? You seem like a modern girl,’ Mary said.

‘I’m interested in stories, and how beliefs change,’ Heledd said. ‘You know, like when you throw a penny in a wishing well, you’re copying your ancestors making an offering to the water gods, the same way people have done for centuries, all over the world. I love that. It shows we haven’t changed that much, and it’s a reminder of how precious water is.’

‘You seem to have your head screwed on,’ Mary said. ‘I was worried you’d be one of those New Age girls, all big hair and bangles, the sort who’s always losing things, but you don’t seem the type to talk to the fairies.’

If only you knew, Heledd thought.

Mary said, ‘I’ve lived in this area all my life, and that’s a long time, I don’t mind telling you. I was born in the Garden Village when it was still new. The old Mill was still there, near the Butcher’s Arms, and there was a little cottage we called the Witches’ House. I don’t think there were any witches there, that was just what we called it.’

‘Is it still there? I’d like to see it?’ Heledd said.

‘No, they knocked it down about twenty years ago,’ Mary said, ‘and put two modern houses in its place. Shame – I mean, it had gone to wrack and ruin, but it was enchanting, a little old-fashioned cottage at the end of a path through the flowers. There were a few tales about it, but I think they were just kids’ gossip.’

‘Could I record this?’ Heledd asked. ‘It can all be confidential. We can use my phone.’

Mary was happy to be recorded, but as Heledd was getting her smartphone out of her bag, one of the staff approached, explaining she’d just finished her shift, and offering Heledd a lift home. ‘I know you usually walk, but I didn’t think you’d want to be out in this weather,’ she added.

‘Much appreciated,’ Heledd said. ‘Bye everyone. It was nice meeting you Mary – I’ll see you both tomorrow.’

The carer tried to engage Heledd in conversation, but her mind was too full of the treasures she’d unearthed. Books of Chinese herb magic, and a lead on a local witch – maybe another of Aelwen’s relations. Not bad for a day’s work.

 

***

 

Vicky finally got away from her mum, and back to Blackbird, taking a banana to share. His skin was still cold, so she invited him to sit on her shoulder for warmth, and he made himself comfortable, wrapped in the silk scarf, his back against her neck, the collar of her dressing gown pulled over his lap. She decided to be bold, and ask a question.

‘Tell me something. How do you survive the winter when a summer storm nearly kills you? Do you hibernate?’

‘I don’t know how I’ll survive the winter,’ he said. ‘I may not.’

‘But I thought you were centuries old,’ Vicky said.

‘I am. I’m as old as a big oak tree. But I wasn’t always this tiny, helpless thing. I used to be strong, but now I’m at the mercy of everything. Cats, owls, the weather. I could drown in a puddle.’

‘What do you mean, you weren’t always so tiny?’ Vicky asked.

‘I should be your size. I used to change shape – be a bird, or make myself tiny, for a little while, but my true shape is man-sized.’ He sighed, and leaned against her neck. She could feel his pulse beating against hers. After a pause he said, ‘This is my punishment, Vicky. They couldn’t kill me – it’s against our ways – so they made me so small and weak anything else could. And took away the skill to change back.’ He fell silent again. It wasn’t the kind of silence that invited her to speak.

She was starting to understand it now – why he was so different from the way Demi-Lee remembered him, why the fun-loving trickster had been replaced with this gloomy, brooding creature. She considered the reality of his existence – forced to depend on others for survival, living rough, scavenging for food, wearing the same filthy rags every day, and all the while having to pretend he didn’t need them or anyone. She blinked away a tear.

‘You can sleep here tonight, Blackbird,’ she said. ‘I’ll put fresh cotton wool in the basket. And tomorrow I’ll get you some more clothes. Lots of them. And I’ll bring you bananas and honey for breakfast. I’ll take care of you, I promise. I’ll make sure you’re never cold or hungry or in pain ever again if I can help it.’

‘That’s a big promise,’ Blackbird replied. ‘You don’t know how big. My life is yours now. And I promise you a thousand favours.’

Vicky remembered her warning to Demi-Lee about making promises. What kind of responsibility had she just taken on? Oh, well, too late to take it back now, she thought.

Although his skin was against hers, Vicky couldn’t see Blackbird, and maybe this was encouraging him to open up. ‘If you’re in the mood to be nice’, she said, ‘maybe you can tell me what happened. What did you do that needs forgiveness? And, tell me, what happened to your wings?’

‘Torn off. In a fight.’

Vicky’s eyes widened. ‘That must have been one hell of a fight.’

‘It was. He thought I’d done something I hadn’t. And he forgot how fragile fairy wings are. And I fought back and damaged him, and because of that I was exiled. I should have been more careful.’

Vicky was confused. Why was he accepting all the blame, whilst claiming innocence? Who was this person he’d crossed, to make him do that? She asked him, as tactfully as she could.

Blackbird sighed deeply. He said nothing for a while, but Vicky knew better than to press him for an answer. Eventually he spoke.

‘The one I fought was Tefyn, First Citizen of Annwn. He’s a good man, but you don’t want to cross him. He’d been in Terra – this world – looking for something, some special crystals which store sunlight. I should have gone with him – I was his fastest flyer, his best messenger. I never got tired or gave up, not if it was for Tefyn. But he wanted me to stay in Annwn to keep his wife company, and safe from her enemies. We got a lot of enemies in Annwn, Pefryn and me. She’s my cousin, we came to Annwn together when we were younger, and she ended up marrying Tefyn. But she’s a fairy, and that was a big deal for a lot of those elves in Annwn.’

‘So this Tefyn is an elf?’ Vicky asked.

‘Sure, he’s First Citizen, like I said, the leader. But he loves Pefryn. That’s a whole lot of other stories there, but don’t got time to tell them now. So I stayed in Annwn with Pefryn, while Tefyn was away in Terra.’

‘Why didn’t your cousin go with her husband? If she’s anything like you I can’t imagine her staying home doing embroidery. That’s this kind of thing.’ Vicky indicated the embroidered edging on her pillowcase.

Blackbird snorted. ‘She don’t spend time on that, no. She wanted to go with Tefyn, all three of us wanted to go together. Between us, we could do near everything. But Hafren wouldn’t allow it. Said it wasn’t right for the Lady of Annwn to be out getting in danger.’

‘Who’s Hafren?’ Vicky asked.

Blackbird seemed to growl before he answered, ‘A high-placed elf – the Chancellor of Annwn, second highest after Tefyn. He hates Pefryn and me. Hates all fairies, but hates us most, because we’re not from Annwn, we’re from the Eastlands, and because our places are too high for his liking. I don’t know why he wanted us to stay in Annwn – I would have thought he’d be happy not to look at us for a while, but I guess he just wanted to make Tefyn and Pefryn unhappy by keeping them apart.

‘Tefyn was away for three whole moons. It was full summer when he left – the worst time, it gets so hot. Me and Pefryn, we don’t like the summer in Annwn. Your summer is much nicer – lots of daylight, but warm, not like a fire. So we were stuck inside, hiding from the sun, getting bored and trying not to fight with each other. Pefryn at least had work to do, but I had nothing to do except follow her around and try to amuse her in the evening.

‘So, when one of the staff brought a message from Tefyn that he would return in the morning we were so, so happy.’ He fell silent again as he remembered…

They had been playing at cards when the messenger approached. They could have played chess, but it was too slow to hold Blackbird’s interest; besides, playing a simple game allowed them to gossip rather than concentrating.

‘My Lady’, said the messenger, ‘we have received news from your husband. All are well. They are nearby, and will return to Annwn in the morning.’

The fairies jumped up and hugged each other.

‘That’s wonderful news,’ Pefryn said. ‘Sweet sunlight; I’m so relieved. Thank you for the message. Would you go to the kitchens and ask them to be up early to bake all my husband’s favourite things for breakfast.’

‘Make sure there’s plenty of sweet fruit and honey,’ Blackbird added.

Blackbird teased Pefryn once they were alone again. ‘You’ve missed him, haven’t you? That big, strong husband of yours.’

‘You’ve been good company, cousin, and I know I haven’t been easy to entertain, but it will be good to have him back,’ Pefryn said.

‘Hah, I doubt if I’ll see you for a while once he’s here. Doubt if any of us will see either of you,’ Blackbird teased.

‘Stop it now’ Pefryn said. ‘You’re making me blush!’

Blackbird had an idea. ‘Should we fly tonight? Who knows when we’ll next have the chance. And it’ll remind you of what you’re missing when I’m not around.’

Pefryn smiled. ‘One last flight. I will miss you, and I won’t totally disappear into my chambers once Tefyn is back.’

Blackbird snorted meaningfully.

‘I’m glad he left you to guard me, not some pompous elf,’ Pefryn said. ‘Three moons of chess and poetry would have been unbearable. Let’s go for one last flight, then I’ll retire for the night. I want to be up early for him tomorrow.’

‘And I will sleep here, guarding your door, for the last time,’ Blackbird replied.

He opened the door to the royal bedchamber, the room he had been charged to guard with his life for the past three moons, bowing low as he did so.

Laughing, Pefryn bobbed a curtsey, then crossed to her balcony. ‘It’s a beautiful night,’ she said. ‘Look at the stars! Shall we fly over the river?’

‘Let’s,’ said Blackbird. ‘Let’s go up to the snow fields. It’s not too far.’ A thought struck him. ‘Should we shape-shift? To avoid being recognised?’

Pefryn gave her answer immediately. ‘No. We are doing nothing wrong. Besides, if anyone spots an eagle and a blackbird flying together, they will know it’s us.’

It was true that when Pefryn shapeshifted, she was even more noticeable than in fairy form. Whereas Blackbird’s nickname reflected his typical shifted shape, Pefryn shifted to a huge bird of prey with sharp yellow talons, a cruel curved beak, and glaring golden eyes. It surprised those who didn’t realise her strength and determination, and judged her by her nickname, which roughly translated as ‘Sparkle’.

Pefryn leapt gracefully onto the balustrade. Blackbird joined her, and they stood for a moment, beautifully balanced with their wings outstretched.

‘For the last time, then,’ Blackbird murmured.

‘For the last time. Or at least until my husband goes on another foolish quest.’

Spreading her wings, Pefryn leapt from the balcony, and Blackbird followed. Silently they soared over the city. Once they crossed the river they rolled and dived through the air, playing tag and turning somersaults until they were exhausted. They collapsed into the snow, laughing as they tried to catch their breath. Out here there was nothing alive but themselves. Two friends, in the vast white silence of a moonlit snowfield.

‘We should return,’ said Pefryn.

‘He won’t be there yet,’ teased Blackbird.

‘Well maybe not, but I need to bathe before I greet him tomorrow. And I’ll need a good night’s sleep,’ Pefryn said.

‘Because you won’t be getting one for a long time!’

Blackbird was still laughing as he leapt into the air, Pefryn chasing after him to swat him for his cheek.

‘You won’t catch me!’ he sang.

They sped back to the city, to the First Citizen’s lodge, Blackbird allowing himself to be caught at the last moment so they were all tangled up together as they tumbled, gasping for breath, into the room.

Tefyn was waiting for them.

Pefryn leapt into her husband’s arms, but he threw her across the room, raining foul names upon her head.

Blackbird was shocked, but as he noticed the changes to the room, he realised they’d been betrayed.

They had left behind a respectable room and bed. But the bed they returned to had been pulled about to suggest someone had been making love in it, and worse still, there were dark feathers on the sheets – his feathers, shed in innocence but placed where they would incriminate him. He didn’t have time to notice the other touches – like the fact that his bedroll, on which he’d slept outside the door every night, had been thrown in a corner as if he’d never used it.

All he could see was Tefyn advancing on him, fury in his eyes.

Blackbird had never been a quick thinker. He didn’t want to fight with Tefyn, but he knew there wasn’t time to talk him out of his anger. Maybe if he flew out of the room and tried to reason with Tefyn where he couldn’t be reached … he turned and leapt onto the balcony.

But as he spread his wings, Tefyn grabbed him, catching his left wingtip and dragging him back towards the room. For a moment he was framed in the window, precariously balanced, knowing something would have to give. It was his wing that gave way, snapping as Tefyn hauled him back into the room. Pefryn screamed and threw herself at Tefyn to restrain him. Blackbird was howling in pain and anger, trying to flex his injured wing. Tefyn pushed his wife away, and lifting Blackbird, hurled him against the wall, putting his full weight into the attack. The injured wing was twisted behind Blackbird; the fairy felt it crack and tear . And Tefyn had him pinned to the wall, choking the life out of him. As his life faded and darkness gathered, something began to blaze deep within him. He heard Tefyn’s cry of pain and slid down the wall as Tefyn released his grip. Blackbird lay at the elf’s feet, gasping for breath and burning, burning.

Tefyn’s voice croaked an order: ‘Those wings will never heal. Kinder to sever them. Use iron.’

Blackbird tried to protest but one of the guards put a foot on the fairy’s back, then took an iron knife from his belt and sliced Blackbird’s wings from his body. The only mercy was, as the iron pierced his skin, it sent Blackbird deep into oblivion.

 

***

 

‘Oh, Blackbird,’ she finally managed. ‘Cutting off your wings, that’s horrible. And you were only defending yourself.’

‘It’s not just my wings. They used iron on me. It destroyed my magic. And Tefyn’s hand was burnt when I blazed, and now it’s useless. A damaged man cannot rule Annwn; that’s the old elfish law, and now Hafren’s trying to unseat Tefyn.’

‘How do you know all this?’ Vicky asked.

‘I could smell the burning of Tefyn’s flesh. To inflict such damage on one so high-placed – it was a terrible crime. And I know Hafren is always seeking ways to take more power. All of Annwn is in danger if he succeeds – all except the small group he cares for.’

‘Do you know how to make things right?’ Vicky asked.

She felt him sit upright. ‘I forgot. This is why I came over – Aelwen told me something which can help. But, can I tell it tomorrow? Too much talking for one night.’

‘Poor thing, you must be exhausted. I’ll make you a bed. Are you okay with me telling Heledd and Demi about this?’ she asked.

He paused a moment. ‘Heledd, okay, she will understand. But not Demali, not yet. I need her to still believe in me.’

‘We can’t lie to her forever,’ Vicky warned.

‘I know. Just not yet. How you gonna tell her, anyway?’ he asked.

‘She’ll ring me later on her mobile.’ Vicky waved her phone at Blackbird to show what she meant. ‘You can speak to her if you want – I’m sure it’s not dangerous for fairies.’ She had been filling the basket with fresh cotton wool as she spoke. ‘Is this okay for you? I’ll find you some sort of blanket – those wings are rancid.’

‘Is okay. But I could sleep in a nettle patch tonight.’

Say ‘thanks’ occasionally or I might let you, Vicky thought. But she found some cotton hankies he could use as bedsheets, and left him in a discreet corner of her room while she went to fix herself some food.

 

Chapter 6. Techno-Fairy

A few hours later Demi-Lee phoned Vicky’s mobile. She was so full of news and gossip Vicky could barely get a word in – but that wasn’t unusual. Demi was thrilled to talk to Blackbird, and demanded Vicky take a photo of him and send it to her.

‘No way, Demi, that’s far too risky!’ Vicky said. She was horrified at the idea, but Blackbird’s ego and curiosity were aroused.

‘You can make pictures with that? It’s so small!’ He turned the phone around and spotted the camera lens. Peering into it he asked, ‘Can you see me, Demali?’

‘Not without Skype, and that’s far too risky’ Vicky laughed, ‘Also, you need to speak into the mic down the front.’

‘Hmph, this is no good for fairies!’ he said.

‘Sorry Blackbird, you’re just too small for it. And I really don’t think it’s a good idea to take a photo of you – we need to keep you a secret,’ Vicky said.

‘Come on’, Demi wheedled, ‘I really miss him, it would be great to have a photo. If anyone sees it I’ll just say I got it off the ’net and it’s Photoshopped. Please! Oh go on, Blackbird, I won’t see you for ages.’

‘He’s in no fit state to be photographed now,’ Vicky told her. ‘Maybe tomorrow, when Mum’s out of the house.’

‘What’s wrong with him? Are you okay, Blackbird?’ Demi asked.

‘He got caught in a rainstorm and nearly froze to death. He’s okay now, just looking a bit rough,’ Vicky replied. ‘And he needs some new clothes, but I’ll sort that tomorrow.’

‘If you practice your magic and deep thinking, then we’ll give you a picture,’ Blackbird purred, clinging to Vicky’s hand to speak into the phone.

‘Okay, okay, I get the hint, but it’s not easy when I’ve got normal people around me all the time. I’ve got school and everything, you know,’ Demi said.

‘If it’s important enough, you’ll find a way. If it isn’t, you’ll find an excuse,’ Blackbird said sternly.

‘God, Blackbird, you sound just like Cheeseface!’ Demi said.

‘What’s that?’ the fairy asked, confused.

‘My Welsh teacher, the evil cow,’ Demi explained. ‘She’s always saying things like that. And she’s always on my back, even though I’m making an effort to actually try and learn some Welsh so I can understand Aelwen. I nearly got detention ’cos my mates were winding her up, even though I wasn’t really involved.’

‘You may have to get some new friends, kiddo,’ Vicky said.

‘Don’t tell me that!’ Demi said. ‘I’m stuck at school for years. I can’t fall out with my girls, they might beat me up.’

‘Sorry, Hun,’ Vicky said. ‘Not sure what we can do about that. Just remember, I had eight whole years of people going on at me for being a swot. Good thing I’m good at sport – otherwise I’d have had to hang out with the Chess Club.’

‘Have you heard from Dave?’ Demi asked.

‘Mum was just asking the same thing’, Vicky said. ‘He posted some new photos, and I commented, and he ‘liked’ my comments, but that’s it. How’s that boy you fancy?’

‘Dean Evans? Oh my god, he’s had his hair cut and he looks lush. He’s got to be the cutest boy in the world right now,’ Demi swooned.

‘Have you spoken to him yet?’ Vicky asked.

‘No, Emma fancies him, and she says she’ll slap anyone who talks to him. And Jodie-Marie told him his hair makes him look like an emo, and everybody laughed, and I laughed too, so he probably hates me. But he doesn’t look like an emo, not really. He’s beau-tiii-fulllll.’

Blackbird was rolling his eyes at their gossip, so Vicky returned the phone to him to let him give Demi some more advice.

‘Stand in the moonlight and use its power when you can,’ he told her. ‘Will be new moon soon, so get out while there is still moonlight. Maybe you won’t be able to cast another spell ‘til the next full moon, but you can still practise your deep thinking; learn to put your mind in that place you need to be. And practice your charming – maybe you can use it on your teacher, and that boy you like.’

‘I’ve been practising charming the cat,’ Demi said. ‘She doesn’t stick her claws in when she sits on my lap anymore. And I’m gonna try with the neighbours’ dog – see if I can stop it yapping every time I walk past their gate. Don’t think I’ll ever charm Cheeseface though, she’s the most hard-hearted woman I’ve ever known. You know, there’s a rumour some bloke got her pregnant years ago, when she was still quite young, and he left her, so she gave away the baby and she’s hated everyone ever since.’

‘The poor woman!’ Vicky exclaimed. ‘No wonder she’s gone hard if that happened. You should be nicer to her.’

‘I’m trying, but she hasn’t noticed. She’s such a cow. I kind of think maybe I shouldn’t get too good at magic in case I lose it with her and turn her into a toad. I soooo wanted to put a spell on Jodie-Marie to shut her up, not that I could yet, but I just slapped her instead. She slapped me back, so we’re even, but at least it stopped her going on about Dean being an emo.’

Vicky was enjoying Demi’s second-hand dramas – they never developed into anything serious – but Blackbird was obviously not impressed with Demi’s lack of discipline, so Vicky pulled the conversation back on track, and reminded Demi what she’d promised to practise, before they said their goodbyes.

 

***

 

Vicky whizzed up a banana and almond smoothie for the next day’s breakfast. She added green tea to the blender to give a more puddingy texture, and cocoa powder, because she couldn’t think of a good reason not to. If in doubt, add chocolate, was one of her rules of cooking. Fortunately Blackbird seemed to like chocolate as much as she did. He was licking the mixture off the end of a ridiculous, tiny plastic spoon which had been forced on Vicky with a takeaway coffee, and which she couldn’t bring herself to throw away. In between licks, he explained why he’d come over to Vicky’s house in the rain the previous night. At least, he was telling a story in response to Vicky’s question, and she decided not to interrupt him.

‘Aelwen got bored being in the grove with me asleep, so she tried to talk with the other lives there. The birds, the trees, the tiny creeping creatures. They all come to her when she called – well, the ones that could move, not the trees, but she found she could talk with them best. Not talk exactly, don’t know the word, but you know what I mean?’

‘She can communicate with trees?’ Vicky asked. ‘Through feelings and images, the same as she does with you and Heledd?’

‘That’s it. I think that’s what she meant,’ Blackbird said, ‘not easy to understand, but something to do with memory of trees. She says trees got really good memories – you know you can tell how old is a tree, by counting his rings?’

‘Oh, yeah, I remember,’ Vicky said. ‘The dark rings are made in winter and the pale ones in summer, is that right?’

Blackbird nodded, chewing on a piece of almond. Vicky wondered if she should have ground them finer – it was difficult to know how to prepare food for someone whose mouth was so tiny. He swallowed and continued, ‘And if the summer was cold, that bit is narrow; long hot summer makes that bit wide. You remember that?’

‘Yes,’ she replied.

‘Okay, so that’s how a tree makes a memory of the summers and winters. But Aelwen says trees can remember other things too, and because she’s still part tree she can share those memories. Don’t ask me how – was difficult for her to explain, but she said the oak in the grove could feel the magic when Demali was standing in the moonlight that other night, and made a memory of it. And Aelwen could make sense of that memory – she thinks she could have learnt the spell from that tree if she wanted, only of course, she knows it already.’

‘So…?’ Vicky asked.

‘Well, Aelwen knows I lost my magic. And she was thinking about when she sat beside the oak trees in the moonlight with Rowan’s book of spells, and her magic got woken. And she thought, if she could find one of those trees, still alive, maybe the tree would have made a memory of it, and we could use that memory to help me. Does that make sense?’ Blackbird asked.

Vicky nodded, tapping her lips with her spoon. She caught Blackbird looking at her and smiling, and remembered the way Dave used to tease her for doing the same thing. Annoyed, she took another spoonful of breakfast. ‘So,’ she said, ‘if we can find a tree that was there that night, it might remember the spell? But how would the tree know something Aelwen doesn’t, if they learnt it from the same book?’

‘Aelwen says there are things in that book she forgot, because she didn’t use them,’ Blackbird replied. ‘She was a healer, so she only used healing spells. But she remembers the book taught how to curse and bless, and how to remove curses – and take back a blessing. She thinks I cursed Tefyn, and there should be a spell to remove that curse.’

‘So we need to find the right tree – one that’s been around for hundreds of years. But, you know they could all have been cut down, don’t you,’ Vicky said.

‘I know,’ Blackbird said. He turned his face, but his sagging shoulders betrayed his despair. ‘It’s my best hope. And for Tefyn and Pefryn too.’

‘Does Aelwen have any idea where this tree is?’ Vicky asked. ‘It was centuries ago; I doubt there’ll be any trace of her cottage.’

‘She knows it was to the west of the castle, downhill, and so close that she could run all the way if she really needed to. There was a well near the tree and the cottage with nixies in – Rowan used it to travel to Annwn.’

‘Could someone ask the nixie in Aelwen’s grove if it knows anything?’ Vicky asked.

‘Nixies know lots of things,’ Blackbird replied. ‘But they don’t talk to people, even powerful people like Aelwen. Nixies please themselves.’ He turned to Vicky and gave her a searching look. ‘That nixie that came up to look at you in the grove – did she hold out her hand?’

‘No’ Vicky said, ‘she just looked at me, as if she was judging me, then went back into the depths.’

‘Be careful, Vicky. Be careful of the promises you make.’

It’s too late for that, she thought, remembering the previous night – then another thought struck her. ‘So why did you come over last night, in that storm?’

‘I thought it would be good cover – your people don’t go out much in rain, and when they do they keep their heads down. Didn’t realise it would make me so cold – I’m not used to being this small. I waited outside as long as I could,’ he continued, ‘I knew you wouldn’t want me to just come in.’

‘Poor Blackbird! We need to do something for you. You’ll never survive the winter. But,’ Vicky paused, ‘what were you going to tell me? I didn’t know you’d lost your magic ’til last night, and you’d never have told me if I hadn’t saved your life. What were you planning to say?’

‘I’d have made something up. Fairies are good liars. But,’ he gave her a big-eyed look so appealing she could only laugh, ‘I don’t have to now, do I?’

‘Not this time, no, but thanks for the warning,’ she replied ‘Listen, it’s a few hours ’til the Art group, and I’ve thought of somewhere I can get you some new clothes. You shouldn’t have to wear that scarf for much longer.’

‘Thanks, Vicky. This is nice – very soft and pretty – but won’t last long in the brambles.’

 

***

 

Vicky struck gold at the charity shops, acquiring not only a soldier doll in combats and hoody, but also a bagful of dolls’ clothes that the lady at the till offered her for a pound.

True, the annoying Mrs Watkins had seen her buying the doll, and made barbed comments, but Vicky had thrown her off the scent by talking about an art project she was doing as a hobby, then claimed she didn’t like to discuss things until they were finished. Vagueness, she realised, was the key to successful lying. That and the fact she knew Mrs Watkins wasn’t that interested in anyone but herself anyway.

The house was quiet when she got home, but she still called out, ‘Anybody home?’ just in case. She made her way up the stairs to her room, watching where she trod – although she’d told Blackbird not to leave her dressing table, she didn’t trust him to pay attention, and scraping squashed fairy off the carpet was the last thing she needed. Gently she opened the bedroom door and slipped inside.

‘Blackbird? Where are you? Come and see what I’ve got.’

He emerged from a hiding place, still wrapped in silk. Vicky tipped the dolls clothes from the bag onto her dressing table, then undressed the soldier doll as Blackbird rummaged through the pile.

‘Oh, this is good. Beautiful!’ He was holding up a peacock blue T shirt with a pink, white and gold heart on it. Vicky handed him the soldier doll’s combats.

‘Try these. I can cut them down if you like.’ But he slipped back into his hiding place and emerged shortly with the hems rolled up, over and over. The T shirt was from a female doll, but one with a less exaggerated bust, so it fitted him a lot better. It was still a very feminine look, but when he checked his appearance in her mirror, that wasn’t what bothered him.

‘Need a tiny comb,’ he muttered pulling his fingers through his knotted and tangled hair.

‘Hang on, if I can find it – ah, yes, try this,’ Vicky located her eyebrow comb, and passed it over. It was still far too big for Blackbird, being nearly half his height, but it wasn’t totally useless, and he grimaced as he started to unpick the knots.

Vicky looked at the soldier doll, comparing its cropped hair, square jaw, and steely gaze with Blackbird’s tangled mane, pointy little face and wide green eyes. But although Blackbird was only as high as the doll’s chin, he was definitely the tougher of the two.

‘Do you want this?’ She offered Blackbird the khaki hoody. It was maybe a bit drab for his liking, but the bright blue of the T shirt would set it off nicely.

‘Mm-hmm.’ He was still engrossed in detangling his hair. ‘Keep me warm.’

‘I thought your bird cape did that?’ Vicky asked.

‘Yeah, but the wings is too big. Keep tripping over them.’ He smiled, and Vicky realised she’d never seen him smile before. So this was the Blackbird that Demi knew. In a good mood, he was utterly charming. He was also a lot cleaner. He’d splashed about in a sinkful of bubbles whilst Vicky had showered that morning, and his usual rather doglike aroma had been replaced with ‘Citrus Zing’.

‘When you’re ready we’ll go to Aelwen’s Grove,’ Vicky said. ‘I’ve got some food for you. I’ll come back there with Heledd when we’ve finished work.’

The comb had got stuck fast in Blackbird’s hair, and for a moment Vicky thought he’d lose his temper, but then he just started giggling.

‘Let me,’ she offered, and gently removed it. She was smiling, too, and felt relief at the tension which had dissipated. She got the feeling she’d passed a test the previous night, and earned Blackbird’s trust.

‘Okay, then,’ he said, pulling on the hoody, ‘Ready to go’.

 

***

 

Whilst Vicky had been cycling to the charity shops and back, Heledd and Mary had drunk tea, in proper flowery teacups, in Golden Grove’s conservatory. Mary had seemed anxious at first, so Heledd decided to keep things neutral, and complimented Mary on her outfit, a shirtwaister dress with a chunky necklace and bangles, all in shades of red and orange. It was a lot more striking than Heledd’s shades of beige, and Heledd decided to ask Mary what brighter shades she thought Heledd could carry off. They chatted inconsequentially for a while, until finally Mary took a deep breath and said, ‘Last night I remembered a story from my childhood. It’s not an ancient legend, but it does relate to witchcraft and wishing wells, so you may find it interesting.’

‘I’d love to hear it,’ Heledd replied.

‘Well, let me see, where to start?’ Mary began. ‘It was back when I was a little girl, during the Second World War. We lived in one of the 1930’s houses in Tanybryn – we were the first people to live in that house, and I was the first baby to be born on our street. I’m sure you know most people were born at home in those days. Those houses were on the edge of the city when they were built, and there was still a farm nearby where we used to go for milk and eggs. This was during the war, when fresh food was scarce.

‘All us kids would walk over together; it wasn’t very far but you left the paved streets and the tarmac behind and walked down a lane between hedges and came out into the farmyard. I always found it a bit spooky – there was an old well in the far corner of the farmyard that gave me the willies, there always seemed to be darkness hanging over it. My older brother and sister used to tease me about it, saying there was a wicked old witch who lived in that well and she’d gobble me up if I didn’t behave myself. They called it Ffynnon Ddu Farm, because of that well.’

‘Ffynnon Ddu – Dark Well,’ Heledd noted. ‘It does sound creepy’

‘That farm was ancient; it looked about ready to fall down. Thinking back now, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those buildings were put up in the Middle Ages. The farmer and his wife were quite old too, at least they seemed ancient to me. I think their sons were away fighting in the war. But they had a nephew who was still at school, and he used to come and visit them quite often, for a bit of fresh air I suppose. From Swansea he was, it was still quite a dirty, industrial city in those days. He was a little bit older than my sister, and I could tell she was keen on him, so I used to tease her about it, to get my own back for all those stories about the witch in the well.

‘One morning we went over the farm as usual, to get some milk, and there was a terrible tense atmosphere there. The boy didn’t come out to flirt with my sister like he used to; the farmer’s wife just gave us the milk and sent us on our way. My sister was annoyed, I suppose, but I thought no more of it until we got home. Then we heard that Swansea had been bombed during the night, and whole streets destroyed. The Luftwaffe was supposed to be targeting the docks to prevent the transport of coal, but as in so many industrial cities it was houses that were destroyed, innocent people killed. Our mam had heard about it on the radio, and told us when we got in. Swansea was bombed the next night and the night after that as well. If you’ve ever wondered why Swansea city centre is so cheap and ugly looking, that’s why.

‘Anyway, the reason there was such a tense atmosphere at the farm was because the boy wanted to go home to be with his mam, but they wanted him to stay on the farm where they thought it would be safer. No-one knew how many nights of bombing there would be, and although Cardiff docks were at risk, I suppose they thought a farm several miles inland should be safe enough. His mam was fine that first night, but the house took a direct hit the next night and she was killed. I think the boy’s dad had already been killed in the fighting. So he was on his own, with just his auntie and uncle to look after him, and nothing but what he’d brought in his suitcase.

‘I’m ashamed to say I found it all rather exciting, it made me feel we were a proper part of the war somehow. But the farmer and his wife had lost their relatives, and the poor boy was an orphan. He stayed with his uncle and auntie, but you could see how badly it affected him – he went from being cheeky and lively to quiet as a mouse. He took to going for long walks in the woods, leaving straight after breakfast and not coming home ‘til it was dark, walking by the light of the moon. Then one night he didn’t come home for his tea, and they started to worry, and realised although he’d been in the house the previous night, neither of them had seen him for breakfast. They looked all round the farm for him, and went out on the road and called for hours, but he never turned up.

‘We didn’t know about it at the time, of course, not until the next morning when they started searching the woods and the lanes. Then they started dredging the well. It seems a message had been left at the farm – anonymous, mind. Someone had been taking a short cut through the farmyard, and claimed they’d seen the boy, in the full moonlight, leaning over the edge of the well, then he just disappeared. They claimed they’d run over to help, but there was no sign of anyone in the water, so they assumed their eyes were playing tricks on them. But the police found no trace of him in the well, although they dredged it deep, bringing up all sorts of odd little things. I said it was an old place, didn’t I – well, some of the things they found in that well dated back centuries, little clay and metal offerings to the water gods, asking for their help in curing diseases or bringing children. Some of them are in the Museum now.

‘They never found that boy, alive or dead. They searched as long as they could, in the woods, and on the roads between Cardiff and Swansea, thinking maybe he was trying to walk back home, although the whole street had been flattened, but he’d just disappeared. So sad. Well,’ she said, ‘I suppose you’re wondering what all that’s got to do with magic and folklore.’

‘It was a very interesting story. And very moving,’ Heledd said.

‘And it does have a connection to folklore. Because once the story about the boy disappearing into the well came out, all the gossip and the rumours started. It seems I wasn’t the only one who found that well a bit creepy. It had been a wishing well and a cursing well in the past – hence the little offerings – and someone claimed someone else had once seen a figure climbing out of the well, and others said witches had lived on the farm for centuries, even that the Proberts who owned the farm were still witches. Others said they’d seen strange creatures in the depths of the water – one terrible drunkard had supposedly mended his ways after that happened to him. Some malicious gossips said the family were part fairy, and the boy had just returned to be with his own people. Others said it was a punishment from God because they were selling eggs on the black market; some said the land had always been cursed. The things people say, when you’ve an old couple grieving for their own. It stuck in my mind, because I always thought God was just and wise, and now people were saying he’d take a boy’s life just to punish people for selling eggs – well, didn’t sound like much of a God to me! But there you have it – a boy who disappeared, maybe mysteriously or maybe not, and a whole lot of superstitions that got dragged into the open. Was that what you were hoping to hear?’

‘It’s better than I was hoping – evidence for the persistence of folk beliefs into the 20th century,’ Heledd said. ‘Thank you, Mary, it’s a brilliant story. I feel sorry for your sister, though, and that old farming couple.’

‘She did grieve for him,’ Mary replied. ‘He was her first sweetheart, although I don’t know if they even kissed. She was young, though, and soon fell for someone else. I imagine it was awfully difficult for the Proberts – but then, there was a war on, and so many people had to deal with a similar situation.’

‘Where is the farm, can you remember?’ Heledd asked.

‘I doubt it’s still there,’ Mary said. ‘The city will have swallowed it up since the war. The Proberts retired and sold the farm and all its land for housing. It’s the Hillside estate now. Maybe if you look hard enough you’ll find the well – it could be a feature in somebody’s garden, all tamed now with one of those silly little roofs on it. Still, water sources outlive people, so maybe it will rise wild again.’

‘Hillside? Not too far away. I might go and have a look around over the weekend, see what I can find. Thank you Mary, for sharing that with me.’

‘You’re welcome my dear. You’ll have to tell me if any of the old sense of mystery remains.’

 

Chapter 7. An Appropriate Oak

A quiet but insistent tapping at her window woke Vicky from her reverie. She put down the iPad she’d been hugging and opened the window to let Blackbird in. She thanked him for making himself scarce whilst she’d been Skype-ing. He seemed to pick up on her low mood, and asked, ‘Did the science-magic work?’

That made her smile. ‘I just miss him, that’s all,’ she replied. ‘It was nice seeing his face and hearing his voice, but it’s not the same, is it?’

Blackbird grunted in assent. ‘I know that feeling well,’ he said, and for a moment she felt half-guilty, half-worried. Guilty because he was a world away from everyone dear to him, whereas keeping in touch with Dave wasn’t that difficult. And selfishly worried that he might open up about all the people he’d left behind, and admit just how wretched his life was. But he just went to the privacy of his corner and she heard him climb into the basket and snuggle into the cotton wool.

She checked the time. 6:30 am. Why was it easier to accept there was a fairy in her room than that she was awake at such a ridiculous hour? She sighed. It had been an awkward conversation.

Dave had been full of stories of parties and scuba diving, new friends and places. It was obvious he was settling in brilliantly to his new life in Sydney.

Vicky soon realised she had no idea what to tell him in return. ‘I’m hanging out with the most boring girl in school (who’s actually really nice)’. ‘I’m working at a retirement home’. ‘My cousin’s a witch and she’s being tutored by an ancient ancestor whose body is a tree’. ‘I saved a fairy from certain death’. That was her life, but she couldn’t tell him any of it. She told him about the day she went to the beach with Heledd, and smiled at all of his comments, but felt that they were drifting further and further apart. And there was a strange moment when she realised she could tell him any old story, and not only would he not know if it was true or not, he may not even care. It was a good thing he was so self-involved, as a couple of times Vicky had caught sight of herself, in the lower corner, looking grumpier than even the earliness of the hour could justify. So she’d pasted an interested look on her face, whilst realising that learning to be economical with the truth would be an important skill if she was going to run with the fairies.

She shut down the tablet and locked it in a drawer. She didn’t want Blackbird messing with it behind her back. Didn’t he realise he should be totally techno-phobic? Instead he was fascinated by IT, and desperate to learn how to use it. But Vicky was far too worried about the consequences if images of a tiny humanoid got onto the internet. Sure, the web was full of clever fakes, but she didn’t want to take the risk. She pulled the duvet over her head and was soon asleep again.

 

***

 

Later that morning Vicky took Blackbird to Aelwen’s grove to meet with Heledd. They’d exchanged news the previous night, and decided to search for Ffynnon Ddu Farm together. With its mysterious well it was a possible location for Aelwen’s old home, and maybe there was an ancient tree nearby that Blackbird could use.

The morning sun sparkled on the wet grass. A few meagre butterflies flitted about the fields, and Vicky remembered a Tom Gently comment that Heledd had passed on, about the clouds of butterflies that danced over the meadows before pesticides killed so many of them. As they walked Vicky told Blackbird all about Tom’s experiences with the mysterious rabbit and the green-eyed brothers.

Surprisingly, Blackbird seemed convinced by the story. He insisted that the brothers’ and the rabbit’s green eyes were signs of fairy blood. Vicky and Blackbird debated that for a while – Vicky couldn’t believe that everyone with green eyes had fairies in their ancestry, but Blackbird had reminded her that she was descended from Aelwen’s daughter, who had fairies on both sides of the family.

‘But I don’t have green eyes, do I, nor does Demi, although she does seem to have inherited Aelwen’s magic skills. I must be the most scientific, rational, sceptical and least magical person I know,’ Vicky protested.

‘Hmm, I think you got some magic in you. You just need to find your wakener. If you ever meet them, watch out world. You could be very, very powerful. But your magic is different from Demali’s.’ Blackbird thought for a moment. ‘If Heledd’s old man friend has magic, he’d sense it in Demali, for sure, and maybe you too. Maybe he told Heledd that story for a reason.’

‘You think he was testing the waters? Wanted to see how she reacted?’ Vicky asked.

‘Maybes. Don’t say nothing to him yet, but he may be helpful.’

 

***

 

Once Blackbird was settled into Aelwen’s grove, Vicky and Heledd set out for Hillside estate in search of the old farm, crossing the motorway via the footbridge. The ruined tower stood on its motte to their left. Heledd wondered aloud whether anyone had noticed the changes to the oak which used to stand beside it.

‘Maybe people will think it was damaged it a storm,’ Vicky said, although there was definitely something unnatural looking about the tree now. They made their way, downhill, towards a little stream which drained the boggy fields. They crossed the stream using an ugly concrete footbridge. The water was placid there, but rushing water could be heard upstream behind some shrubbery, so Vicky went to investigate.

‘There’s a little weir here. Wonder what it used to be,’ she said.

‘No idea,’ Heledd replied. ‘So much has happened here, even though it was open country 60 years ago. The Romans were here, you know, a thousand years before the castle was built.’

‘So Tanybryn wasn’t always so dull,’ Vicky said.

‘Guess not. This is interesting – well, to a folklore geek like me,’ Heledd said. ‘We’re crossing a stream on the way to the witch’s cottage, but witches aren’t supposed to be able to cross running water. Of course, there’s no proof of that. I doubt your average 21st century Wiccan would have a problem crossing a stream. Maybe there was something else associated with running water they didn’t like.’

‘Newt phobic? Allergic to frogs?’ Vicky wondered.

‘You really don’t do nature do you? Newt and frogs live in ponds, not streams,’ Heledd replied.

‘But they like water don’t they. They’re not like some animal that dissolves if it gets wet?’ Vicky asked.

‘I don’t think there’s any such animal. Not even in mythology,’ Heledd said.

They were walking along a short lane between tall brick walls as they talked. They exited onto the main road, between two handsome Victorian houses.

‘Over there,’ said Heledd, ‘that’s the lane into the estate.’

‘There’s a nice big tree up on the right’ Vicky said. ‘Any good?’

‘Looks like an oak, but probably not close enough to where we need. Old, though, so we’ll keep it in mind as a possible.’

They crossed the road and followed the lane into the estate. It was narrow, dark and unappealing, tarmac underfoot with garden walls either side. It was a forgotten place, although the piles of dogshit in the corners suggested it was frequently used.

They emerged into suburbia. Neat, low bungalows, behind small, tame front gardens, gravelled patches with flower beds and shrubs.

They continued into the housing estate, but there were no native trees in the front gardens, only ornamental shrubs. As they turned right at a T-junction, Vicky pointed out a large tree up ahead.

‘It’s a sycamore,’ said Heledd. ‘Non-native, so no good. There’s a big old oak at the back of that house – that might be useful if we can get to it.’

They slowed as they passed the house. The tree was a long way back, behind a garage. There was a poster in the window saying ‘No to Ffynnon Ddu Development’ and a cat on the drive, watching them.

‘Don’t like the look of that cat. Looks like the sort that would tell tales on you just to cause trouble,’ Vicky said.

‘Vicky, you’re mad,’ Heledd laughed. ‘But that looks like a no-go too. Ffynon Ddu – that’s the name of the old farm. No idea what that poster means, but maybe we could ask if all else fails.’

‘No! You can if you want, but I’m not knocking on a stranger’s door with a ridiculous request!’ Vicky replied.

They kept on walking until another lane appeared on the left, meandering between high hedges. They followed it to a car park – the car park of the Ffynon Ddu Inn. They looked around. The pub was an old stone building, long and low, with a collection of outbuildings in its car park. One, with a raised, bricked-in doorway, was clearly an old barn.

‘It’s the old farm, isn’t it? We’ve found it! And look, the big tree is over there in the corner,’ Vicky said.

They walked over to inspect the tree – yes, its trunk was in the car park, behind some scrub.

‘Looks like we’ve found our tree. An ancient oak near the Dark Well.’ Heledd gazed up into the branches. The tree was huge. ‘I’m sure it’s old enough’

‘Great. Pint?’

 

Chapter 8. A Spell From a Smell

Vicky paused for a moment before stepping onto the pavement, to close her eyes and try to massage the up-too-early-in-the-morning headache from her temples. Being up and outside at 6.30 on a Sunday morning was inhuman! But, at this time of day there was no-one else around. Her parents and the neighbours were safe in bed, in the brief hours when the party animals were finally asleep and the early birds just starting to stir.

Vicky had told her parents she was going to start running early in the mornings to maintain her fitness levels. Everyone knew Vicky wasn’t an early bird, and Vicky hoped that would be a good enough reason to give up after a few days. But here she was, in yoga pants, vest top and trainers, preparing to run along the lane, through the field, across the motorway bridge, and to Aelwen’s grove. Once she got going it was okay – quite exhilarating – but she didn’t expect it to become a habit. She had to look carefully to find the signs of the grove, but once she was next to it Aelwen sensed her and dropped the cloak. Vicky was grinning as she pushed her way through the greenery into the clearing, where Aelwen was waiting, soaking up the morning sunlight. Blackbird was there, too. Vicky had left him there the previous night, along with a few bananas and nuts to keep him going. He was safe from predators in the grove as the cloaking spell deterred them, too, and Aelwen had spent a few hours constructing a mini tree house for him, using her magic to encourage the branches to grow together into a cosy little shelter. Heledd was also there, apparently communicating telepathically with Aelwen.

‘Glad you made it. What did you tell your folks?’ Vicky asked Heledd once she’d got her breath back.

‘I just left a note on the fridge saying, “Gone for a dawn amble” – in Welsh, obviously.’ In Heledd’s family, that was perfectly normal.

As well as being able to photosynthesise, it seemed Aelwen could grow new limbs at will – a sprig of greenery had sprouted from the base of her neck. Blackbird explained that Aelwen wanted this to be grafted onto the oak at the pub, so that Aelwen and the other tree could share memories. Fortunately Heledd’s family were keen gardeners, so she cut the sprig away from Aelwen, and wrapped the end in damp leaves to keep it moist.

‘Won’t the other tree mind us cutting into it?’ Vicky asked.

‘As long as we ask first, no. I will ask it,’ Blackbird replied.

‘You can talk to trees, huh?’ Vicky asked.

‘Of course.’

 

***

 

No-one was out in the fields early enough to see the two young women, one carefully carrying a twig and the other holding a basket with an odd-looking ‘doll’ in it. Dog walkers avoided those fields because of the horses and rabbits – and there were more convenient open spaces nearby.

Walking through the estate to the pub was a bit riskier, but so early in the morning the streets were empty. They practised their power-walking just in case, and soon arrived at the car park.

During their earlier visit, Vicky had engaged the barman in innocent conversation regarding security problems at the pub, and discovered they were minimal – therefore so were the security systems. There was a CCTV camera covering the front driveway, and one over the back entrance, but nothing watching the route from the lane to the big tree. There was a dog, the kind which barked at everyone, but it had been hit by a car a few days before and was still at the vet’s. The landlord lived on-site, but as he worked ’til after midnight, he was unlikely to be active at dawn.

So they had the car park to themselves, and although the oak was in a shady corner, its topmost branches were already in sunlight.

Blackbird climbed into the shrubs surrounding the oak, and placed his hands against the giant trunk. After a few moments he declared the tree was willing to be grafted with Aelwen, so Heledd took her penknife and cut into the bark.

‘Should we make an offering to the tree?’ Vicky asked.

‘Is no need. Trees don’t need things from people, just to be left alone. Fairies used to tell humans to make gifts to the forest to make the forest seem important. Because human people think “cost” is the same as “value”.’ Blackbird must have noticed Vicky’s surprise at his sudden leap in English skills, as he coolly explained, ‘A teacher woman taught me that many years ago. She was a good friend.’ Then he suddenly became embarrassed and changed the subject, asking Heledd if she’d finished the grafting.

‘It seems to have taken,’ she replied. ‘What happens now?’

‘That piece of Aelwen is sharing memories with the big tree. When she’s found the spell she needs, she will grow a blossom. The spell is in the flower.’

Vicky raised an objection to the idea of oak trees growing ‘blossoms’ – surely oak flowers were tiny inconspicuous things – but Blackbird declared, ‘Aelwen loves beauty, and so do I. Besides, plants communicate with smells. It’s not just sounds and shapes which hold knowledge.’

Eventually the tip of the twig swelled, and changed colour, until a simple white flower blossomed at its end. Blackbird asked Vicky to pluck it for him, and she handed it to him carefully, watching as he sank his face into it and inhaled deeply.

Making sense of scents, a spell from a smell – she was tired, and couldn’t stop the silly puns running through her thoughts. Could precise information really be coded in an aroma? But then, smells had a chemical basis, didn’t they, and shocking as it may seem, she knew that most human cognition was basically just the result of chemical processes in the brain. She had studied IT for many years, and still couldn’t really believe that a series of 1s and 0s could create the virtual worlds which danced across computer screens all over the world. And she knew there were other ways of encoding and transmitting information that humans could barely comprehend. Whale song. Migratory behaviour. The mystery of the honey bees’ waggle dance, performed in the darkness of a hive to provide directions to a source of nectar. So maybe it wasn’t so odd to communicate by perfume.

Blackbird was in that strange state of mindfulness that Demi-Lee had had to adopt to cast the cloaking spell. Vicky knew better than to interrupt , or even distract him by talking to Heledd. She cast her eyes around the car park and the nearby houses, anxious about being spotted, then noticed a manhole cover a short distance away, in the middle of a parking bay. Was that the old well? Searching the rest of the car park with her eyes, she realised it must be, it was the only possible candidate. How sad! All those tales and memories, those magical encounters, lidded with cold iron. She wondered about the nixies who had lived within, and wondered if they were still there, trapped in the dark, or whether they had fled or died.

Blackbird was now looking thoughtfully into space, as if trying to interpret what he’d learnt. He held the blossom to his face once more, as if making sure he’d extracted everything he could, and seemed satisfied, if troubled, by what he’d learnt. Lifting the flower above his face, he bit through the stem and sucked out the nectar.

The he placed his palms against the oaktree once more as if thanking it, and Vicky guessed that whatever it was, was over.

 

***

 

When they returned to Aelwen’s grove, Vicky texted her mum to say she was popping over to Heledd’s for coffee and a croissant. Then she curled up on her hoody and dozed for a while.

When she awoke, Blackbird was sitting astride a branch nearby, using the lead from a retractable pencil to write in a tiny notebook from a Christmas cracker. Heledd and Aelwen were conferring with him in a mix of Old Welsh and gestures. They were probably using telepathy too, something Vicky knew she’d never manage. She got up and went over to join them, expecting to be ignored, and was gratified when they welcomed her in.

‘Dare I ask how you’re all getting on?’ she said.

Blackbird explained the oak had given him two linked ‘spells’ – one which would help him return to Annwn, and another which would help him heal Tefyn. He had tried to use Fairy symbols of the kind used for spell writing to interpret what the oak had told him, but was still struggling with it.

‘Before I was cast out of Annwn,’ he explained, ‘the Elfish Council agreed I could reclaim my place if I healed Tefyn and put right all the damage I’d caused. But until I heal him, I’m still Nobody, so any elf can abuse me how they want. If Hafren catches me before I can get to Tefyn, he’ll make me suffer. I was going to take some charged up crystals from this grove so I could fight back with magic, but the oak tells me I have to return with nothing. No magic, no weapons, no tricks and lies, not even any clothes.’

‘That sounds really tough. You won’t have to remain naked until you’ve healed Tefyn, though, will you?’ Vicky asked.

‘Another part of the spell says I cannot take or ask for anything, but I must accept all that is given me, whether blows or blessings. So I have to wait for someone to give me clothes. It’s okay, I won’t get too cold, Annwn is warm for me.’ Blackbird said.

‘And you can’t even defend yourself?’ Vicky asked.

‘No. But killing is forbidden in Annwn, so I shouldn’t be beaten too hard. No-one would risk accidental killing, not even for a Nobody. The shame would be far too much.’ Blackbird replied.

‘What is all this Nobody business, anyway?’ Vicky asked.

‘Is my place in Annwn. Everyone in Annwn has their place. I used to have a high place for a fairy because I was close to Tefyn. But they made me Nobody, to punish me, so now anybody can abuse me as they wish. The only place lower than Nobody is Nothing.’ Blackbird lowered his head and spoke quietly. ‘People won’t even look at you if you’re Nothing. If you ask for something, it’s like you haven’t spoken. You can’t work if you’re Nothing. You can’t have a home. Even if you’re terribly sick, you won’t get help. It’s a slow, lonely death.’

‘So they won’t kill you in Annwn but they’ll let you starve to death? That’s inhuman.’ Vicky said

‘Elves aren’t human.’ Blackbird replied. ‘Calling an elf “human” would be a terrible insult. But elves stick to the rules, and nothing and nobody breaks the rules.’

‘But if you can lift the curse on Tefyn and get him to forgive you, won’t you get your old place back?’ Heledd asked.

‘Only if Tefyn decides that.’ The fairy replied. ‘And only if he’s still leader. Hafren and his Light of Truth party have been trying to unseat Tefyn for so long.

‘This Hafren sounds very sinister,’ Heledd said.

‘He’s been trying to destroy Blackbird for a long time from what I hear,’ Vicky said. ‘Sounds like it’s not just your wellbeing that’s at stake Blackbird, but the whole of Annwn.’

‘This is why I need to heal Tefyn. This is the spell – I need to make sense of these two.’ He showed Vicky his notebook.

‘A circle and a – what is that? Looks like the ‘please recycle’ symbol is exploding!’ Vicky said.

‘The circle means many things. Sun, moon, the world. Something which never ends, which always starts over again, and – what was the other one, Heledd?’ Blackbird asked.

‘Potential. Like a fertilised egg. Something which is waiting to become something more,’ Heledd replied.

‘Also it means “nothing”, but also “everything”. The blossom seemed to tell me I need to bring Tefyn, “the nothing which is everything”. What that means, I don’t know,’ Blackbird said.

‘And the exploding recycling one seems to mean “reciprocity” – whatever Blackbird does to Tefyn will rebound on him, and vice versa,’ said Heledd.

‘It’s starting to make sense. But where’s the magic, Blackbird?’

‘I need to use magic to heal Tefyn. But I no longer have magic of my own. So someone has to give me magic. Magic from Tefyn would be best – but I can’t even plan that, because planning is expecting and that’s almost asking.’

‘And you can’t ask for anything,’ Vicky mused.

‘That’s what the oak tells me. But the oak said it had worked before,’ Blackbird said.

‘Nothing new under the sun, eh? What about this other spell?’ said Vicky.

‘This is how it seemed to me when I breathed the scent of that blossom. The circle again, and the four elements – earth, air, fire, water. I need a little of each. I need them to be part of me. Except, when I thought “water”, I thought, “Someone who is like water.” So maybe I need to be like the air, water and earth, but not the fire, because there was a warning over the fire,’ Blackbird explained.

‘Well, not being fiery makes sense if you’re supposed to be passive. Maybe it’s saying you need to be flexible, fluid, like air and water, just roll with the blows. Although I’m not sure how that would fit in with the “earth” part,’ Vicky said.

‘Be enduring?’ suggested Heledd.

Aelwen gestured them to pay attention, and Heledd and Blackbird attended, whilst Vicky got nothing. Had there only been one other person present, she’d have assumed they were having her on.

After a short pause, Heledd explained it to Vicky. ‘Aelwen thinks the four elements relates to the four of us – us girls and Blackbird. You’re water, I’m earth, he’s air, and Demi’s fire.’

‘Well Demi’s certainly fiery. And you are rock-solid and stable. Not sure I like being called wet though! And is she saying Blackbird’s an airhead?’ Vicky asked.

‘But you do spend a lot of time in water. And you are fluid, you and Blackbird, you flow around obstacles and wear people down. But he’s even more subtle than you are – and, of course, he used to fly, still does with his bird-cape.’

‘So the four of us all together, makes the circle. And maybe we’ll need the full moon – it certainly helped last time there was magic to be done. Does that help, Blackbird?’ Vicky asked.

‘It feels right, yes. Like things is falling into place. Still not there, though. Need to make sense of this other symbol,’ he replied.

‘The one with the arrows coming and going?’ Heledd said.

‘That one. It’s the key. The others will help me get back to Annwn, I need to understand this one before I can heal Tefyn and reclaim my place.’

‘Tell me something,’ said Vicky. ‘Why do you want to heal Tefyn? To help him, or yourself?’

Blackbird paused, pursing his lips and tilting his head. ‘I have to want to do it for him, don’t I? Not for me.’ He sighed. ‘But that helps make sense of it. Thank you, Vicky.’

‘You’re welcome.’ Vicky was about to make a joke about how good it would be to get him out of her hair, but realised for the first time that he was leaving – and she would miss him.

 

Chapter 9. Missing and Wishing

Demi-Lee phoned Vicky after Sunday lunch – supposedly to ask for help with a computer problem, but mainly to chat. Blackbird was at the grove, and her parents were out enjoying the sunshine, so for once Vicky could talk freely.

Demi’s magical skills were increasing with the waxing moon, and as well trying to eat more healthily and meditate, she’d gone out in the moonlight as often as possible.

‘Kathy Elms was bugging the hell out of me yesterday, but I got rid of her by charming a wasp to come over and scare her off. She hates wasps!’ Demi-Lee laughed. ‘I wish knew how I did it – I’d been out in the moonlight for ages, and I was just so annoyed, then I sensed this wasp going past…well maybe it was just a coincidence, but it felt good. And the neighbours’ dog doesn’t yap at me when I go past their house any more. I’ve been practising charming him, too.’

‘Well done kiddo,’ Vicky said. ‘Only way to find out if you can really do it is to keep practising. And with girls like her around you’ll have plenty of chances.’

‘She’s such a cow,’ Demi said,‘keeps calling me fat.’

‘You’re not fat! That’s ridiculous!’

‘You’re always telling me I should eat healthier.’

‘Yes, but healthy eating isn’t just about losing weight,’ Vicky said. ‘I just think if you cut out the junk from your diet it would help you focus better – and you need that for your magic.’

‘Jodie-Marie says I must be fat, ‘cos why else am I eating health food all the time?’ Demi said.

Vicky sighed at the idiocy of the comment. If only girls like Kathy and Jodie-Marie would put their energy into something more creative than thinking up insults! But then, she reminded herself, not everyone is as hyper-logical as you.

‘Anyway’, Demi continued, ‘I got them off my back by promising to shoplift some vodka.’

‘What! Please don’t for God’s sake!’ Vicky said. ‘How will you get vodka anyway? It’s always behind the counter.’

‘I know. Don’t worry, I was going to nick a bag of Jelly Bugs instead and tell them I couldn’t get the vodka. They’ll be okay with that. Prefer the sweets, really.’

‘Pay for the sweets, will you?’ Vicky said.

‘And lie to my mates?’ Demi said.

‘Why not? Half the stories they tell you are probably made up. I bet that Kathy Elms doesn’t know one end of a boy from the other, for all her bragging. Demi, those girls aren’t worth getting into trouble over. Try not to fall out with them while you still have to see them everyday, but it won’t be forever.’

The conversation continued, including discussion of Vicky’s disappointing Skype with Dave and Demi-Lee’s crush on Dean – no progress there, although he’d dumped Susie Ricketts – until Vicky heard another voice in the background, and Demi-Lee reported her mum was telling her to end the call and get on with the homework.

‘Oooh- kayy, Mum,’ Vicky heard Demi call back. ‘Vicky says Hi. Oh, Vic, I didn’t tell you, did I? I found out why Ms Roberts is called Cheeseface. Apparently she turned up at school one day with a really red face, like she’d been sunburnt, and because she’s got red hair and a little round head she looked like an Edam, so people started calling her Cheeseface. It was all a bit weird, ‘cos it was the middle of winter, and apparently when one of the other staff asked how she’d got sunburnt, she just said she didn’t want to talk about it.’

‘She’s quite the mystery your Welsh teacher, isn’t she?’ Vicky said. ‘Good luck with the homework, and I’ll call you soon.’

 

***

 

On Monday, Heledd sought out Mary and Tom, who were sitting together, as usual, chatting in the garden. She told Mary she’d found the old farmhouse, and it was now a pub and restaurant in the middle of a housing estate. ‘We couldn’t see the well, though,’ Heledd said. ‘The closest thing we found was a manhole cover. Maybe its reputation got the better of it, and they covered it over.’

‘That’s such a shame,’ Mary said. ‘But the water will still be there. If the pub owners had any sense, they’d bottle it. They could sell it to one of those New Age shops.’

Vicky came out then, and asked Tom and Mary if they fancied doing some art.

‘I used to model for art classes, you know,’ Mary said. ‘Didn’t feel the cold so much when I was younger.’

‘Well, it’s not life drawing today, but if you were willing to sit in the future that would be great – clothed, if you prefer. You wear such lovely clothes,’ Heledd said. Heledd could see the old lady was flattered – and why not, even if she was well over 70, she’d still make a good subject for a painting. Mary decided to join in with the art class, ‘to see what they’re like,’ knowing Heledd and Tom could talk for hours.

Tom suggested they stroll around the garden. ‘This sunlight is so good for warming my bones. I need to keep moving – arthritis, you know? Anyway, my dear, how’s our little friend, Miss Cheese Spread? Will she be coming to visit us soon?’

‘Term finishes on Friday, so she’ll be down for the weekend. I think she got a lot out of working here, so she’s returning as a volunteer,’ Heledd replied.

‘Well, it will be nice to see her again’, Tom said. ‘She’s got a lot going for her, despite the silly name. So full of life and energy, lives completely in the present, doesn’t she? A bit exhausting, but invigorating too. Makes a change from being surrounded by people who live in the past. And our Vicky. She’s all about the future, with her technology and her big ambitions.’

‘Whereas I spend my life in the early Middle Ages,’ Heledd sighed.

‘Oh, but the past is important too, as long as you don’t let it hold you back. Yesterday I saw two youngsters who were visiting their Nan. They were throwing pennies into the well over there. I told them they were doing something people had done for thousands of years, making a sacrifice to the water gods, just as you always say. One of them looked at me as if I was the most embarrassing person imaginable. But the other said it was “awesome”, you could tell he was fascinated by the idea of the water being a gateway to another world.’

They had been walking as they talked, and now they reached the well. They both leant over it, their shadows blocking the sunlight on the surface and revealing the depths of the water itself, the brickwork of the sides fading into a deep, dark mystery. Heledd gasped, and took a step backwards, then realised Tom had done the same. She gawped at him.

‘You saw it too?’ she asked.

A nixie had slipped out of the darkness towards them, offering her hand.

‘What did you see, Heledd? Tell me it’s not an old man’s madness.’

‘I saw a figure in the water. White and shining like a ghost, but with purpose. She came out of the depths and held out her hand, as if offering to take us somewhere.’

‘Then I didn’t imagine it,’ Tom sighed. ‘She wants me to go with her. And this time I’m ready to leave. But I can’t just disappear, it would get the staff into trouble, and they don’t deserve that. And besides,’ he sighed, ‘I could never get up on that ledge.’

Heledd could see that Tom was shaken by the encounter. She was shaken too, her mind running through the possibilities of what this meant.

‘Let’s have a cup of tea,’ she said. ‘Somewhere quiet where no-one will overhear.’

‘A cup of tea. The cure for all ills,’ he said.

‘And an excellent disguise,’ she replied. ‘You find somewhere and I’ll fetch the teas.’

 

***

 

As they sat with their drinks, Tom confirmed what Heledd already suspected – he knew the fairies of Tanybryn.

‘You’ll have heard of the winter of 1947?’ he said. ‘The longest and coldest of the century. Snow on the ground from January through to March, several feet thick, and all the rivers and streams iced over. So much wildlife and livestock died that year. And people didn’t have it much easier. It was just after the end of the war of course, rationing was still in force, and coal was scarce and expensive. Most people could only manage one fire for a few hours each day.

‘I was 16 then, just left school, still living with Mam. I’d got a job with the Post Office, delivering the letters. Well, I’d enjoyed it in the summer, out in the early morning with no-one else around. Felt like I had the whole world to myself. There’s nothing lovelier than early morning in midsummer, so pure and quiet. I used to sing ‘Morning has Broken’ to myself as I walked along – do you know that hymn?’

Heledd did. It was what she considered a ‘pagan hymn’, one where God and Jesus shouldered their way into a song of praise for nature. And wasn’t there a blackbird in the second line? She smiled to herself. ‘You make it sound heavenly, Tom.’

‘Oh, it was, when the sun was shining. It suited a loner like me. I had a lovely round – delivering to the new houses in Tanybryn – well they were new then. And the old farms on the edge of the city. Lots of fields and trees. But Autumn mornings weren’t as much fun, wind and rain lashing your face in the darkness. But then it snowed – and that was magical. Oh, the silence of snow – have you ever known that? Cold of course, but we wrapped up warm in those days. Hats, scarves and gloves, boots and coats – my Post Office coat was wonderfully warm. And one morning, after a fresh snowfall, the sky cleared and the full moon was shining, low in the west. Oh, I couldn’t begin to describe how beautiful that was. A whole world of silver-blue, all to myself. Just a few prints in the snow, cats out prowling, foxes, that sort of thing. My teeth were chattering, partly from the cold, partly from the wonder of it all.

‘I had a letter for Ffynon Ddu Farm – I couldn’t believe it when I heard Mary telling you stories about that place. Because that’s where I met Rusty – standing by the well in the farmyard, trying to break the ice with a rock, but so cold he had barely any strength in him. I couldn’t take it in at first – this boy, or so I thought, no coat or hat, wrapped in a cloak of feathers. Except, of course, I soon realised they were wings. He was wary of me at first, but desperate too, he was half-frozen. I could see he was never going to break that ice, so I wrapped him in my coat and took him home, so he could eat and warm up, and wait for the ice to melt. We waited a month and a half!’

‘You kept a fairy in your house for six whole weeks?’ Heledd asked. ‘Didn’t the neighbours notice?’ This was Wales after all, land of the pathologically nosey.

‘Well, it was so cold nobody went out unless they had to – so there was little risk of the neighbours spotting him,’ Tom said. ‘I had to introduce him to mother after a few days, but he soon charmed her around. We found a shawl to cover his wings. They fold down small, fairy wings. They’re not big things like the swans’ wings you see on angels – no bones in them, just something like cartilage which holds the feathers.’

‘But not like butterfly wings, either?’ Heledd said.

‘Oh, no, butterfly wings wouldn’t last five minutes. Fairies are born, remember, just like us, they don’t hatch from a chrysalis. Rusty told me fairies are born with stumpy little nubs on their shoulders, and they aren’t fully fledged ’til middle childhood.’

‘Rusty? He was a redhead then?’ Heledd said.

‘He was all the colours of autumn, in his wings and his hair. Even with his wings covered he was eye-catching. He stayed with us all winter long. He was such good company, full of songs and stories and tricks. And he was clever. Knew how to get the most out of everything – there was never any ash in the fireplace; he put a spell on the fire so it burned all the coal down to nothing, and he stopped all the heat going up the chimney. We used a quarter the coal we would have otherwise. And he ate so little – drank melted snow from the garden, and lived on bread and vegetables. Wouldn’t touch meat, but he knew everything that grew that was edible. Even in that harsh winter he managed to forage for us. So that winter passed a lot warmer and more enjoyably than if he hadn’t been there.’

Tom paused for a moment.

‘He left us when the ice thawed,’ he finally said, in a sad, quiet voice. ‘Used to come and visit occasionally, and taught me how to pick wild food – and how to recognise his kind. He never met my Chinese friends, but they knew of each other through me. But when they built Hillside estate in the late 50’s he left for good. Invited me to go to Annwn with him, but I couldn’t leave Mam on her own. I was her only family – she was a war widow, like so many others. And I could see which way the world was going, and I felt the natural world needed people like me to speak up for it. So we said our goodbyes, and Rusty promised me there was a welcome for me in Annwn as long as he was there.’

Heledd was silent, but touched her friend’s arm. She was thinking fast.

‘Would you go now? If there was a way?’ she asked.

‘Like a shot! If I could go without causing any problems, yes. I’ve a few years left in me, and I’d like one last adventure before it’s too late. And it would be so good to see him again. But even if I could get past all the safety features and into the well, how would you explain my disappearance? I really don’t want this place to be criticised for negligence.’

‘I know another way into Annwn. And I know some magical types who may know a way around this.’ She felt a rush of importance as she said, ‘Leave it with me.’

 

***

 

Heledd’s enthusiasm waned when she started to realise the difficulty of what she’d promised. As she and Vicky left Golden Grove and started out over the fields to Aelwen’s grove, Heledd told Vicky that Tom had once known a fairy.

Vicky was amazed. ‘So Blackbird was right! He was testing you when he told you that weird rabbit story. But why don’t you save the story ’til we get to Aelwen’s? She and Blackbird will want to hear this.’

‘Because – well, I was a bit hasty,’ Heledd confessed. ‘You see, Tom wants to go to Annwn to be with his fairy friend, and the nixies are willing to take him, but Tom didn’t just want to disappear, he doesn’t want the staff to get into trouble. So I thought maybe we could put Tom’s life into an acorn, like Aelwen did when she was imprisoned, and Blackbird could take the acorn when he goes to Annwn.’ Heledd explained.

‘And you told Tom we could do this? Without even asking?’ Vicky said

‘No, no, I just said I may be able to arrange something. But you should have seen the hope in his eyes. I can’t say no to him now. But I don’t even know if we can do this – and Blackbird won’t be happy that I promised this without asking.’ Heledd replied.

‘You’re right there. But maybe we can get around that. And if the nixies want to take him…’ Vicky mused.

‘Tom said it wasn’t the first time a nixie had offered her hand,’ Heledd said. ‘He thinks his friend is sending them. It would be so lovely if they could be reunited. But the more I think of it the stupider it seems. Even if we could put Tom’s life into an acorn – and Demi would have to do the magic, and who knows if she’s good enough yet – then Tom would be some sort of tree-thing, like Aelwen – I don’t even know if he could communicate.’

‘It’s a mess, isn’t it!’ Vicky said. ‘But wasn’t there something in Aelwen’s story about an egg? I got Blackbird to tell me the story himself; Demi’s version was so garbled. I’m sure he said they could have put her life into an egg but it was the wrong time of year – stuck in my mind, ’cos you don’t think of eggs being seasonal these days, but I guess this was before hens were bred to lay all year round.’

‘So he’d be a kind of bird instead of a tree-thing like Aelwen?’ asked Heledd.

‘Maybe. Or maybe he’d be more human, just the size of a chicken? Or we could do some kind of cloning thing, but put Tom’s consciousness into the clone? Oh, I don’t know, we need to ask Blackbird – but he’ll probably get shirty because you made a promise without asking first,’ Vicky said.

‘I know,’ Heledd sighed. ‘I’ll find a way to make it seem like his idea – that usually works. And give him lots of treats – he’s anyone’s for a banana. Damn, I hope he can help – I’d feel awful having to let Tom down.’

‘Why don’t you just tell them Tom’s story, let Blackbird and Aelwen know that Tom’s friend is sending nixies, and see if they suggest anything. And if that doesn’t work, after a while I’ll ask Blackbird to tell me more about the egg spell, and whether he thinks Demi-Lee is up to it,’ Vicky decided.

Between them, they managed it. It didn’t take too much prompting to get Blackbird to suggest putting Tom’s life into an egg – and once he’d thought of the idea, he realised it could be an essential part of the spell.

‘Maybe the egg with the old man’s life in it is the empty circle we need to cast the spell,’ he said. ‘Four people as the four elements, and the egg waiting to become something new – that could be the spell which will take me back to Annwn.’

‘So is Tom “the nothing who is everything”?’ asked Heledd.

‘For his fairy maybe, but not for Tefyn,’ Blackbird replied. ‘I need to solve that riddle for Tefyn before I can heal him. But I think putting Tom’s life into an egg would be a good thing to do – if Demali can work the spell. It doesn’t take much magic, but she needs to focus right, she’ll only get one chance, and if she messes up, the old man’s life is lost.’

‘So I’ll remind her to practise her meditation and mindfulness.’ Vicky said. ‘And try to keep her away from sugar and artificial colours. She’s gonna love that.’

‘When do you think Demi-Lee will be ready?’ Heledd asked. ‘It’s not long ’til the next full moon.’

‘It may have to be full moon after – August moon, before it starts to get cold here. I don’t think she’ll be strong enough just yet – unless she’s been working very hard. But I need to leave as soon as I can, you know that, don’t you?’ Blackbird said.

‘We know. But we’ll miss you. You are coming back, aren’t you?’ asked Vicky.

‘If life allows it. And I’ll be man-sized then, it will be much better,’ he promised.

‘What can we do to help you, Blackbird?’ Heledd asked.

‘Will you talk to your old man and find out what you can about his fairy – how he looked, what names he used. Anything to help me find him when I get there,’ Blackbird replied.

‘And what should I do?’ Vicky asked.

‘Keep feeding me, please. And buy an egg.’

 

Chapter 10. Demi-Lee Gets Charming

The next day, while Vicky gathered up the art group, Heledd sat with Mary and Tom, who were chatting in their usual spot in the garden. They watched the bees and the butterflies flitting from flower to flower, and the fledgling birds pecking at the birdfeeders.

Presently Vicky came along, with a request for Mary. The art group were keen to do some life drawing; would she sit for them – fully clothed, of course. ‘You’re wearing such gorgeous clothes – the colour and the drape would be lovely to draw. And your posture and bone structure are so good. It would only be short poses, so you should be comfortable,’ Vicky said.

It all sounded so innocent – who would have thought that Vicky and Heledd had plotted it that morning! Mary was as flattered as they had hoped, and left with Vicky, giving Heledd and Tom the privacy they needed. Although they were in full view of the building, there was no-one else in the garden, and Heledd decided that moving to a discreet corner would look too suspicious. So, keeping her voice and body language light and natural, she said, ’Remember I told you I knew some magical types who might help you get to see your fairy?’

‘I remember. But, my dear, if they told you they can’t or won’t do it, don’t feel guilty. I know it’s a lot to ask.’ The desperate hope in his eyes would have been heartbreaking if she hadn’t been able to reassure him.

‘It’s okay. There’s a way we can do it – if Demi-Lee’s magic is strong enough,’ Heledd said.

‘The girl’s a witch? Well, there’s a turn-up!’ said Tom. ‘Life is still full of surprises!’

‘Tell me about it. Still, they say everyone’s got a talent for something,’ Heledd said. ‘If she’s capable, she’ll charm your life into an egg, and there’s someone else we know who can take the egg to Annwn. Your body will be left behind, and it will look as though you died in your sleep. It won’t be easy; there’s all sorts of things that could go wrong, but if you’re happy we’ll try it. It will have to be at full moon – not the next one, August. We’ll need time to prepare.’

‘Oh dear, that’s still only a few weeks away, isn’t it. Not long to put my affairs in order,’ the old man said.

‘You don’t have to do it. I just thought…’

‘No, I don’t want to spend what’s left of my life regretting things I didn’t do,’ Tom said. ‘Rusty is calling me, and I’ve enough energy for one last adventure. I just hope your friends can find him.’

‘Will there be a lot of fairies called Rusty in Annwn?’ Heledd asked.

‘Well, this is the thing. Mam and I called him Rusty, but I don’t know if anyone else does. You see, fairies have a secret name which is given them by their mothers at birth, but they believe that name can be used to cast magic against them. Say my Rusty wanted to curse another fairy – Cobweb, let’s say – not that he would, he was a gentle soul. But he’d say something like, “I, Rusty, curse the fairy Cobweb…” only using their secret names. So to protect themselves fairies use nicknames, and only tell the secret name to someone they really trust. Funny the things you remember, isn’t it! Rusty offered to tell me his secret name before he left for good, then he changed his mind, said he didn’t want anyone forcing it out of me. I wonder if I’d still remember it if he had. ’ Tom said.

‘Can you think of anything else we can use to identify him?’ Heledd asked.

‘Well, he was small, slim and pale, with bright green eyes, but I think that’s true of most fairies. I remember his whole face creased up when he smiled, and he had good teeth too, very white and even, mother was so impressed by them, as hers were in a terrible state. But maybe they all do – he’s the only one I’ve ever met, so it’s hard to know what counts as distinguishing features. Oh, wait, there’s this. He gave me this just before he left.’ Tom was removing a copper wristband – the sort people used to help ease arthritis. ‘Not the bracelet, but the symbols inside. Take a look.’

He handed over the wristband, and Heledd saw, engraved inside, the strange symbol Blackbird had drawn earlier – the one he claimed was the key to putting things right with Tefyn.

‘Rusty said it was a gift, a charm and a promise,’ Tom explained. ‘He said it bound us together. Because I had saved his life, he could give me anything I was willing to receive. But at the same time, if one of us betrayed the other, the traitor would suffer more. Melodramatic, I know, but that’s fairies for you. Keep this, now, and ask your friend to take it to Annwn. He can use it to identify Rusty. I’m sure it won’t take long to find him – there can’t be many who were here during that winter. I’ll complain in a few days I’ve lost it, then it won’t look suspicious that it’s not with me when they find my body. Oh, poor Mary! If there was only a way we could tell her I wasn’t really dead. She’ll be so upset!’

‘Please don’t say anything to her,’ Heledd said. ‘I know it’s harsh, but the fewer people know about it the better. And once you go to Annwn, I’m afraid you can’t return. You’ll have a few years with Rusty, but that will be it – I’ve been told you won’t live any longer there than you would have here. I’m sorry, Tom. You don’t have to make a decision today.’

‘No, I’ve made up my mind,’ he said. ‘Rusty’s been calling me all this time; it’s time his patience was rewarded. But I’ll miss everyone here, including you and the other two. You don’t know what a difference it’s made having you here – you breathe life into this place.’

 

***

 

Blackbird and Vicky were sharing some fruit and nut mix in Vicky’s room when Demi-Lee rang Vicky’s mobile. It was late on a Thursday evening, the clouds reflecting the sun’s golden-pink light, although the sun had slipped behind the hills some time before.

As the cousins were in constant contact, Demi-Lee was aware of all that had happened since she’d left Tanybryn, as well as the story of Blackbird’s exile. Her reaction to that had been predictably feisty, and she’d wanted to go straight to Annwn to ‘kick the butt’ of everyone she believed had wronged Blackbird. But it hadn’t taken Vicky long to talk her down.

Demi had also been working on her magic and mindfulness skills, and as she reeled off the list of what she could now achieve, the results of her hard work were apparent.

‘And Aelwen told Heledd the incantation she used when she moved her own life into the acorn,’ Vicky said. ‘Heledd’s translating it into English for you – Aelwen reckons it won’t work if you don’t understand it.’

‘Cool! I can’t wait, I sooooo nearly let off some magic in school yesterday,’ Demi said. ‘Cheeseface has been looking at me funny ever since. I wonder if she’s a real witch, not just an ‘Old Witch’!’

Blackbird gave Demi-Lee a good scolding for her carelessness. Vicky could tell her cousin was upset, so she told Demi she was ‘doing great’.

‘Thanks, big cuz. I’ll text you when I’m on my way over, come and meet me at the bus station, yeah? Be about 3 o’clock.’ Demi said.

‘Sweet. See you Saturday. Take care, kiddo,’ Vicky replied.

After the call had ended – following lots of ‘bye’s between Demi-Lee and Blackbird – the fairy asked Vicky what she’d meant by ‘sweet’.

‘It’s just a way of saying, “okay”, or, “that’s fine”, I suppose. And it means “sugary” too.’

‘I knew it meant “sugary”, but never heard it said that other way. We got a word in Annwn means sugary, but also means the way fairies are supposed to be – always smiling and looking nice, not making a fuss and not getting involved in serious things. Just staying pretty and light-hearted. Pefryn used to get a lot of nasty talk for not being like that – me too,’ Blackbird said.

‘Ugh!’ Vicky shuddered. ‘That’s awful. It’s bad enough making children act like that, let alone adults. Are fairies supposed to be ‘sweet’ all the time?’

‘Yeah, some elves say fairies should be sweet ‘cos all we eat is fruit and flowers. They used to tell Tefyn to make me and Pefryn eat honey to sweeten us up. But we’re not pets or children, and the way fairies get treated we got plenty to be sour about,’ Blackbird said darkly.

‘I get the same thing. People telling me to lighten up, not to worry my pretty head about things – they say it as a joke, but you can tell they mean it really. Didn’t take me long to realise a lot of old men can’t handle it when a girl is so much smarter than they are,’ Vicky brooded. ‘I’d love to meet your cousin, she sounds awesome.’

‘I think she’d like you too,’ Blackbird said. ‘She’s very clever, like you. Speaks many languages too, not just yours, mine and Elf language.’

‘So you speak three languages then? That’s pretty impressive, even Heledd’s only fluent in two. Tell me,’ she said teasingly, ‘who’s smarter, me or Pefryn?’

‘Ow, I’m not gonna judge that! You just have to meet her, decide for yourself.’

 

***

 

When the cousins met at the bus station on Saturday afternoon, Demi-Lee was keen to go straight to Aelwen’s grove, but Vicky pointed out it would be polite to drop in on her mum first, and it would allow Demi-Lee to ditch her bags. ‘Besides’ Vicky said, ‘Heledd’s barbeque starts at 5, so you won’t have long to wait ’til we go over.’

Heledd and Vicky were becoming experts at making excuses to meet up. Heledd was allegedly holding a homegrown vegetable barbeque that evening, to which Vicky and Demi-Lee were invited.

‘Can we take beer?’ Demi asked.

‘No, missy! You’re supposed to be learning tonight. You know you haven’t got long until…’ it was harder to say than Vicky had expected.

‘Are we going to see them tonight?’ Demi asked.

‘Of course. They’ll be there when we…get there.’

The barbeque was good cover. It allowed them to meet earlier and wear warmer clothes, and sounded less risky for a wild 14 year old than ‘party’. Demi-Lee and Vicky called at Heledd’s, where Heledd told her parents she was ‘going for an evening walk’ – something totally believable in their world – then they headed to Aelwen’s grove. Demi-Lee was practically bouncing with excitement when they arrived, and Vicky wondered whether the kid would learn anything that night. But Blackbird soon put Demi to work, and made her demonstrate all she’d learnt over the previous weeks.

Vicky and Heledd sat to one side, watching the sky and the clouds change colour as evening drew on. Heledd was pointing out different features of the landscape to Vicky, who was starting to realise just how beautiful Tanybryn really was. But there are other views, and bigger skies, she thought, and I want to see them before I get bogged down in this business of earning a living. The most frightening thing about travelling abroad, she realised, would be having to make friends with new people every day. But hadn’t someone once said to her that if you don’t fit in anywhere, you can rub along everywhere – something which had immediately made sense to her.

Blackbird called to Heledd to help explain something to Demi-Lee, leaving Vicky to daydream of coral reefs and shoals of sealife. Could she do it? Save up some money, work on her diving skills, maybe get a job in a tourist resort? Hell, if her baby cousin could become a witch, couldn’t she become a diving instructor? She’d already got some forms for a Marine Conservation project, but was agonising over which future to commit to.

She was pulled from her daydreams by Demi-Lee calling out, ‘Watch this, cuz!’

As the sun set, painting the clouds a golden pink, Demi-Lee showed off what she’d learnt. She sought the signs of the tiny creatures that surrounded her in the dusk – their whispering breaths, their soft heartbeats, their flickering attention – then charmed them to her. She heard the rustling of a rabbit in the undergrowth, and coaxed it over. She smiled as it scampered around her feet, looking up at her with adoration in its eyes. A little bird singing its evening song was next; it came and perched, tense, on her finger, just for a moment, before its instincts took over. Finally she sought out the tiny, quiet wing beats of the moths, and stood in the twilight as dozens of them beat around her in a pale halo. She coaxed them into a swirling globe. Blackbird said nothing, but glowed with pleasure and pride. Then Demi-Lee laughed, breaking the spell, and the moths scattered.

‘That was brilliant,’ Vicky said. ‘Awesome. I’m proud of you, kid.’

Demi-Lee scooped up Blackbird and kissed his forehead. ‘Was that good, boss?’ she asked.

‘Super-good. You know that,’ he replied. ‘You gonna be top witch soon.’

‘Do I get a gold star?’ Demi teased.

‘I give you all the stars. But the moon is for Vicky,’ Blackbird replied.

‘What about Heledd, boss? Doesn’t she get anything?’ Demi asked.

‘She gets that one. Flashing red and green.’ He pointed to an aeroplane blinking its way across the sky.

‘A plane? Heledd, you get all the planes. All the useful stuff!’ Demi laughed.

‘The moon’s useful too, you know.’ Heledd replied. ‘Keeps the earth steady, controls the tides. And powers your magic. The stars are useful too. All your atoms are made from old stars, remember that. Before our sun was born, we all shone unseen.’

 

***

 

It was late evening by the time they got home, and they were all yawning. Demi-Lee had insisted on bringing Blackbird back to the house, as the wind was blowing about in that indecisive way it always did when it had rain in it. Vicky knew they’d chatter all night, but she was sure the fairy could be kept hidden from her mum. Lights were on in the living room and study, meaning Vicky’s mum was watching TV and her dad was checking his on-line sales.

Vicky joined her mum for some weekend trash TV and a mug of hot chocolate whilst Demi-Lee slipped upstairs, the fairy hidden in her long brown hair.

After a while, Vicky decided to test her mother’s reaction.

‘Mum,’ she said, ‘I was thinking of going away for a bit. Maybe work abroad, do a bit of travelling.’

‘Like Dave you mean? Only I thought he was coming back soon?’

‘He’s got some work in Australia. Just bar work, but it pays the bills, and he likes it out there. Enjoys the sunshine.’

‘So are you going out to join him?’ her mum asked.

‘I don’t know. He kind of suggested it, but Australia is so far away; it would take forever to save up the money. And I’ve heard of these Marine Conservation Projects in the Mediterranean – I’d be using my diving skills, protecting the seas, and getting some work experience at the same time.’ Vicky tried to make it sound sensible.

‘But what about Dave?’ her mum asked.

‘I don’t know, Mum. All I know is I want to see a bit more of the world and have a few adventures before I settle down. And when I say ‘The World’, I mean the natural world, not endless conference centres delivering IT papers.’

 

***

 

An hour later, as Vicky went upstairs, she heard a quiet but fierce argument from Demi-Lee’s room. She went in to tell them to keep it down. At least Demi-Lee had had the sense to use the bedside lamp not the ceiling light, and Blackbird had slipped into the shadows and clutter. Vicky closed the door firmly behind her before asking what the problem was.

‘He’s leaving us!’ Demi-Lee fumed. ‘At the next full moon, not the one in August.’

Vicky just stared at them in confusion. ‘Why, Blackbird?’

‘Because Demi’s magic is stronger than I hoped,’ he replied. ‘I know she can do the egg spell now; no need to wait. And I can’t stand another month so helpless. I may not even survive it.’

Demi-Lee was about to respond, but Vicky stopped her. ‘We’ll discuss this tomorrow when Mum and Dad are out. Meanwhile, I think you’d better sleep in my room tonight, Blackbird.’

 

***

 

Vicky’s mum and dad had left for their Sunday morning swim long before Demi-Lee came downstairs. Demi had hardly entered the kitchen before she restarted the previous night’s argument. She was still furious that Blackbird was ‘bailing out’ at the start of the summer holiday, and leaving her with just Aelwen as a tutor.

But the fairy was adamant – Demi’s charming was good enough to get Tom’s life into an egg, and now that Blackbird knew how to lift the curse on Tefyn, there was nothing to gain by remaining in Cardiff in such a vulnerable state. He tried to pacify Demi by reminding her he’d be man-sized when he returned. He gave her his most appealing look. ‘You’ll like me more when I return, I promise you,’ he said. ‘And I won’t be such a burden. I can teach you more when I return, and you can teach me how this world works.’

‘So you’ll be back then?’ Demi asked. ‘You’re not going to Annwn forever,’

‘I don’t belong anyplace now. Here or there. I may look for somewhere I can make my own life, or try to make a place for myself here,’ Blackbird replied.

‘There’s always a place for you here.’ Vicky was fighting to keep the wobble out of her voice. ‘We’ll shelter you. And without your wings you could pass as human – provided you’re more than a few inches tall.’

‘When I come back, I’ll be tall as you,’ he replied. ‘But I need my wings, I’m nothing without them. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life crawling on the ground. There has to be some magic somewhere that will let me fly again. And this isn’t just for me, it’s for Tefyn and Pefryn too – I need to make things right to protect all of Annwn from Hafren.’

 

***

 

It wasn’t easy for Heledd to break the news to Tom. ‘Next month’ had seemed far in the future; now she had to tell him he’d be leaving the world in a few days’ time. It was hard to keep her voice from breaking as she told him. It was hard for him too, but he was determined.

‘If I don’t go now, I’ll spend the rest of my life wondering, “What if”, and I promised myself I’d never be one of those people,’ he said. ‘At least I don’t have to pack. I’ve made a will, but I’d like to give you these now, so there’s no argument.’ He handed her a bag full of books.

‘Look after them, my dear. I’m afraid you’ll have to get someone else to translate the Mandarin for you.’

They sat quietly for a while, pretending to look at the books.

 

***

 

After what seemed like an age of waiting, but at the same time all too soon, a full moon rose over Tanybryn. Demi-Lee scrambled over Tom’s windowsill, the basket containing an egg and Blackbird in her hands. Vicky and Heledd were waiting at the end of Golden Grove’s drive.

They needed to be quick and quiet, so Demi-Lee simply kissed the old man on the cheek before placing the egg in his hands. She settled beside him on the bed, put a hand on his shoulder, and asked, ‘Ready?’

Tom nodded. Blackbird reminded them they would chant the incantation as a round, and Tom would have to gather all his thoughts in one place and focus on the soft warm yolk in the egg. Demi-Lee would work the spell to help his life move from its old home to the new one. They all relaxed and focussed, and began to chant,

 

‘Little life, time to move on

Little life, time to leave

Be protected on your journey

Gather up your memories

Slip into another body

Leave the home you’ve known so long

Little life, time to move on

Little life, be bold and strong’

 

‘He’s gone,’ said Blackbird, and Demi-Lee’s focus returned to normal. She still had her hand on the old man’s shoulder, and it was clear from the way he sagged that his life had left him.

‘Did it work?’ she asked.

‘I think so. Let us leave.’

Gently, Demi-Lee rolled the egg from Tom’s hands and placed it in the basket next to the fairy, who held it tight as Demi slipped over the windowsill and rejoined Vicky and Heledd.

They moved swiftly and quietly to Aelwen’s grove, protected by a cloaking spell Demi-Lee wove around them. She was buzzing with magic – although the spell she’d just worked had drained her, it took only moments for the moon to replenish her power. If only she was this powerful in daylight!

Heledd was carrying the basket with the egg, insisting they needed to watch their steps on the rough, tussocky ground, and Demi-Lee needed to focus on her magic. Dropping the egg now would be a disaster.

Blackbird was sitting on Vicky’s shoulder, not Demi’s, and although Demi knew she needed to focus on the cloaking spell, it still annoyed her. Had he forgotten how mean Vicky had been to him just a few weeks before? And now they were always ganging up together to override her. Blackbird was leaving, she had no idea when she’d see him again, and she wanted to capture every drop of their last moments together. Instead, she had to focus on the cloaking spell to stop it disintegrating.

Soon they reached Aelwen’s grove, and pushed and ducked through the greenery. In the clearing the little spring bubbled, glowing with a cold clear light. Moonlight filtered through the leaves, and the crystals in the treetops provided some illumination, but apart from where the spring glowed the ground was mostly shadow. A rustling among the leaves told them Aelwen was nearby. She had roused herself to say farewell.

This was it then. Gently, Vicky lifted Blackbird down from her shoulder. She held him against her, as she had done to warm him when he was near death. ‘Goodbye, my friend,’ she said. ‘Hope it all works out for you. Either way, there’s food and shelter here for you if you ever need it.’

‘Goodbye, Vicky,’ he said. ‘I will return, and bring you tales of wonders.’

Vicky held him out to Heledd, who said something in a strange language which made him smile.

‘Almost perfect,’ he said. ‘I guess Aelwen taught you that. Keep visiting her. You have much to learn from each other.’

Then Demi-Lee took him into her hands and kissed his forehead. ‘I’m gonna miss you so much. Wish I could go with you. If that Tefyn won’t forgive you, come and find me, and I’ll kick his arse ’til he does.’

She placed him at the water’s edge and Heledd placed the basket beside him. Before anyone could react, he had stripped off his clothes and dropped them on the ground.

‘This is how I must return,’ he said. ‘Naked and unarmed; nothing to protect me.’

He approached the edge of the water, dragging the basket. They waited for the nixie to appear, and there she was, a ripple of light solidifying to a wide-eyed, shimmering figure. But she wasn’t offering her hand. Blackbird moved closer and held out his hand, but she regarded him without moving. Demi-Lee stepped forwards to see what the problem was, and as her moon-shadow touched the water, the nixie held out its hand to her. Confused, she took a step backwards, but the nixie held out its hand to where she had been.

It was Aelwen who worked it out, and Blackbird who had to explain.

‘I have to leave my own fire behind,’ he said, ‘but I need fire to work the spell. Demali is the fire. Without her, the puzzle isn’t complete. Without her, they won’t take me.’

‘But she’s just a kid,’ Vicky protested.

‘I’m 14,’ Demi said. ‘Let me go. Otherwise Blackbird’s stuck here, and Tom will die in that egg.’

Vicky rushed forward and hugged her cousin fiercely. ‘Be careful then. And remember, this is Blackbird’s fight, and he has to take what’s given to him. Don’t step in.’

‘I won’t.’

Blackbird climbed delicately into the basket and Demi-Lee, lifting it, stepped into the water and offered her hand to the nixie.

Vicky peered through her hands as the nixie took her cousin’s hand and pulled her under the water.

A few minutes later, she sat down beside Heledd to wait. A few hours later, she began to worry.

Part 2 – In Annwn

Chapter 11. Reunion

A large blue dragonfly sped off as Blackbird hauled himself out of the pool at the other end of the portal. Where was this? The air was full of magic, and the trees looked like Annwn’s trees, but he didn’t recognise the grove. A tiny stream flowed out of the pool and over a narrow rocky bed, before plummeting over the side of a broad ledge, landfall unknown. Beyond the ledge was a view of snowy mountains and cloud-scattered blue sky. Behind Blackbird a patch of dense woodland huddled against the cliffs, and on the other side of the stream herbs and shrubs scattered the stony ground. Blackbird stood in the sunlight, brushing the water from his bare skin. Even though he had lost his own magic, he could sense a powerful spell originating from something in the trees, and as the dragonfly had entered the woodland, that was the direction he chose.

Hanging from a tree was a golden glass knot; a powerful charm. As he reached up to it, he realised he was full-sized again. The realisation left him momentarily light-headed, and he leant against the tree trunk. This was Pefryn’s charm – a gift from Tefyn, he remembered the huge smile on her face as she opened the box and saw it within. So he was in Annwn, and his cousin must be nearby. Questions filled his mind, but he was brought back to the here-and-now by competing sounds. A rustling of leaves suggested someone was approaching through the greenery, and the bubbling of the water in the portal announced Demali – or someone – was about to arrive. Exposed from both sides, Blackbird swung himself up into the tree, finding a leafy refuge as two figures came into view. Demali climbed out from the portal a moment before Pefryn emerged from the trees, and the two women eyed each other in confusion.

 

***

 

Demi had expected Blackbird to still be in the basket when she emerged in this new world. Maybe he had fallen out on the ground, or in the water – she had to make sure she didn’t tread on him. The rustling of branches made her look up, but the person who emerged wasn’t Blackbird, but a woman clad in shades of leaf and sky. She was a fairy – her wings gave that away – but although she wasn’t even five feet tall, she oozed power and strength. Her dress, leggings and boots were exquisite; well-made and richly-embroidered. Her thick glossy hair was held back from her face – her wise, solemn face – by a matching headpiece. She was holding a shawl, but in her hands it looked like a formidable weapon. And yet – a fleeting first impression remained, of a startled woman, her expression changing from hope to anxiety, wearing once-costly but now shabby clothing, the embroidery fraying and many beads missing. That headpiece had initially seemed to be just a strip torn from something to keep the woman’s grown-out fringe from her eyes. Demi felt she was literally being dazzled by the woman’s glamour. She stood firm, the empty basket in her hand, until she heard a man’s voice calling, ‘Pefryn, Demali, it’s okay.’

The fairy woman’s demeanour changed once again, as she faced the direction the voice and handed the shawl into the branches. Moments later Blackbird emerged, full-sized with the shawl wrapped around his hips. Demi recognised him straight away, but man-sized he was all sinewy chest and hairy legs – it was startling! Blackbird and Pefryn threw their arms around each other, near-naked as he was. ‘My heart!’ she exclaimed. ‘It’s so dangerous for you here! We’re outside the city, but even so! How did you return?’

Blackbird lifted his head from Pefryn’s shoulder. ‘I think I can lift the curse on Tefyn. If so, my exile is lifted. But there are many things I need to do first.’

He introduced Demi as his Little Friend, but the way he said it made it sound like a great honour.

‘You found her?’ Pefryn asked. ‘After so many years?’

‘She and her companions have protected me these last few weeks,’ he explained. ‘I owe them everything. And it seems she is to be part of the solution – the nixies wouldn’t bring me without her.’

Pefryn grasped Demi’s hands, and gave her a look of pure adoration.

‘Come,’ said Pefryn, ‘there is a place nearby where we can shelter and exchange news. Follow me.’

With a gesture from Pefryn, the branches parted. Demi followed the fairies into the trees, noting how the branches closed behind them. A short path led to the biggest of the trees, branches spiralling around its trunk. Demi followed Pefryn up and around the stairway of branches, until her head emerged in a huge green space. A living basket of woven branches and twigs, the gaps filled with leaves of all colours and transparency. Dense autumn leaves of brown and gold made the floor and walls, whilst the ceiling was pale translucent green, and panels of skeletal winter leaves here and there let in light. Pefryn was gesturing to Demi to sit, and Demi realised there was furniture within, grown in the same way. There wasn’t a straight line anywhere, and although it was obviously held together with magic, it was solid and stable.

Blackbird complimented Pefryn on her architectural skills, and Pefryn explained that the tree was happy to allow Pefryn to control its growth in return for the company and protection. She was ladling water into a strange crystal-fuelled contraption, which Demi realised, was a kettle, of sorts.

‘But how did you come to be here?’ Blackbird asked. ‘What foul trick of Hafren’s drove you from the city, and your poor husband?’

‘I’m surprised you speak so kindly of Tefyn after the damage he caused you.’ Pefryn replied.

‘If I don’t forgive him, things will never be healed,’ Blackbird said. ‘Have you forgiven him for doubting you?’

‘Not entirely. He is learning to relinquish jealousy. Being deprived of our company has made him realise how much he values us. But let me tell you how I came to be here…

‘Everyone accepted I was true to my husband during his absence, and the allegations against you and I were baseless. It seems Tefyn’s messenger was intercepted on his way to see me and persuaded by some friends to join them for beer and stories. He left a message with staff at the Lodge, but by the time it reached us it had been altered. The messengers were Fairy, so of course they were made to take the blame, and the way things were changed to incriminate us was overlooked. It was all dealt with so quickly anyway; there was no time to truly consider the issues. After the sentence of exile was passed on you, Hafren pushed for me to disown you. With Tefyn damaged and in great pain, Hafren seized his chance to extend his influence. And of course, rumours were still breeding, despite the lack of any grounds for them. A few days after you were exiled, I was confronted with a ridiculous choice – disown you for your disrespect of my husband’s Place, or lose all of my Place.’

Blackbird gasped. ‘You don’t mean…’

‘Yes,’ Pefryn said, head bowed. ‘He had already had you declared Nobody, and he threatened to declare me Nothing.’

‘How can he do this? Why is no-one stopping him?’ Blackbird demanded.

‘Tefyn was under the care of his healers,’ Pefryn said, ‘heavily sedated with dreamweed. Hafren was already Chancellor, but he assumed some of Tefyn’s roles and responsibilities. He claimed he was doing it to help Annwn in a time of great crisis, but of course he was increasing his own power. And he wanted to neutralise me. I was the only fairy left with any Place, so it wasn’t too difficult.’

‘So what happened?’ Blackbird asked.

‘I told him I wouldn’t disown an innocent man, nor would I accept the jurisdiction of an unelected leader. He threatened me, pointing out that as Nothing it wouldn’t matter what I did. It was chilling. He simply said, “You will be treated as if you do not exist, until the time comes when that is the case. Once you have ceased to live, your remains will be added to the city midden.” Then all present turned away from me. I took wing and left the city, soaring on the thermals until I spied this place. I couldn’t even take my leave of Tefyn.

‘That first night was terrible, although I was too numb to feel the cold or hunger. But this tree welcomed me into its shelter, and I fluffed up my feathers and waited.

‘In the dark of the night, I heard someone calling. It was a fairy, with food and a message from Tefyn. He had learned of my situation, and promised his support. I shared the food with the messenger before sending him back to Tefyn with a reply.’

‘And how long until you forgave him?’ Blackbird asked.

‘I still haven’t forgiven him – not completely, and I won’t until he rights the wrongs he did to you. But within a week he had healed enough to come to me, and I accepted him. He is the only elf brave enough to leave Annwn after dark,’ Pefryn replied.

‘But he can cast lights,’ Blackbird said. ‘He uses crystals; I’ve seen him.’

‘I know,’ Pefryn said. ‘He’s a clever magician. But he’s an elf; his night vision is so poor that even with his crystals and the trail of lights I laid for him, he can barely see his own feet. Once I coaxed the nixies back to the portal the journey was much easier. The First Citizen of Annwn can use the portals whenever he likes – it saves him a long walk.’

‘I fear I will have to make that walk soon,’ Blackbird sighed. ‘I need to meet with Tefyn and attempt to heal him. This is more urgent than I realised.’

‘But there’s no need!’ Pefryn exclaimed. ‘Tefyn visits me every night, so just wait here ’til he arrives. You and your Little Friend look as though you could use some sleep. I’ll send one of my dragonflies to alert him. Do you need him to bring anything from the city?’

‘I can’t ask for anything – it’s part of undoing the curse,’ Blackbird replied. ‘I have to accept all that is given to me, whether blows or blessings. But if you think it’s acceptable for me to wait here…it’s after midnight in the world we just left, and it would be so good to just rest for a while.’

‘Don’t forget Mr Gently,’ Demi said.

‘Oh, stars!’ Blackbird exclaimed. ‘We need to find someone – a fairy called Rusty who visited Terra maybe six decades ago. He’s been calling for his friend – we have the friend’s life in this egg here.’

‘My dragonflies can help here, too.’ Pefryn called another dragonfly – a bronze creature with pale gold, buzzing wings – and it settled on the egg, probing the shell with its proboscis. Then it sped away out of the tree.

‘There is a path to Annwn,’ Pefryn said, ‘and it’s not too far to fly, even for an old fairy. The dragonfly will find him and bring him to us.’

Pefryn was stirring leaves and flowers into the water she had just boiled. A smell of summer meadows filled the room, although to Demi it smelt of Summer Meadow scented toilet cleaner.

Pefryn stirred the mixture a few times with a wooden ladle, then scooped some out into cups. Demi noticed they were made from birch bark, like the ones Heledd’s mum had bought because people in Russia made them and needed the money.

She approached Demi, holding the cup in both hands, and bowed her head as she offered it.

‘Accept it,’ Blackbird murmured.

Demi-Lee took the cup with both hands, trying to nod her head they way the fairy had done. ‘This is to drink, right?’ she whispered, making Blackbird roll his eyes.

Pefryn returned with a mug for Blackbird, then came and joined them with her own drink. Pefryn was fascinated by Demi-Lee, and exhausted her with questions. She wanted to know how all the technology in Demi-Lee’s world worked, but of course, Demi couldn’t explain. That was Vicky’s territory. Demi distracted her with tales of TV, fashion, gadgets and music, weaving 21st Century Wales into a world of dazzling wonders.

Demi was starting to flag – and so thirsty from talking she was actually considering drinking some of the tea – when a dragonfly returned, and circled Pefryn before leaving again. ‘The old fairy is on his way,’ Pefryn said. ‘I’ll be back soon – I must open the pathway for him.’

‘Her magic’s amazing isn’t it?’ Demi said. ‘Does she talk to those dragonflies somehow?’

‘Anyone can talk to a dragonfly,’ Blackbird replied. ‘Getting it to listen is the difficult thing – and to talk back to you. But Pefryn’s a good listener.’

Moments later Pefryn returned with Rusty. The old fairy was fluttering with excitement, and clasping his hands in anticipation.

She knew it was Tom’s fairy – not just the eager anticipation, but the red-gold shades of his hair and feathers, now flecked with white, like snow on Autumn leaves. Demi was surprised by how old he looked. True, he was in good shape considering he was at least as old as Tom – he looked like a healthy man in his early 50’s – but Demi had assumed fairies were ageless. She wondered how old Blackbird was. Younger than this one, anyway.

‘Hay-lo,’ he said. He had a cute accent. ‘Are you the little witch from Terra?’

‘I am,’ Demi replied. ‘Was it you Tom Gently met in the snow all those years back? If so, this is yours.’ She handed him the copper wristband; he turned it over in his hand, looking puzzled.

‘There’s symbols inside. Do they mean anything to you?’ Demi asked.

Rusty’s face creased up, in the smile Tom had described so vividly, when he saw the ‘explode and recycle’ symbol.

‘This is the promise I gave my friend. This is what binds us,’ he replied.

‘Can you explain it? To these fairies, if not to me,’ Demi asked.

Rusty conferred with the other fairies in their own language, then Blackbird spoke. ‘It means something like, “What I give I receive; what I steal I lose” ’, he explained.

‘Does that help at all?’ Demi asked him.

‘A little. It confirms what I thought.’ Blackbird replied.

Rusty took the band in both hands, holding it delicately between both thumbs and forefingers, and held it out so it formed a loop within the circle of his arms. He focussed on it, and Demi saw a blue glitter travel along its edges. He smiled and handed it to her.

‘Now it has power,’ Rusty said. ‘Wear this, and it binds you to all others who wear it.’ She took the bangle and thanked him. She could feel the magic within it. Her own amulet, offering protection and reward! But there was someone who needed it more than she did. She kissed the bangle for luck, then handed it to Blackbird.

‘You need this more than me,’ she said. ‘Especially if you’ve got to meet that nasty Hafren.’

Blackbird smiled as he slipped it over his wrist. He was so dainty he had to squeeze it really tight to stop it slipping around.

‘Demali, thank you,’ Blackbird said. ‘This binds us now. You gave this to me, and you will receive. It binds you to Rusty too.’

‘May it bring us all good things,’ said the old fairy.

‘This is what I really brought for you,’ said Demi. ‘We put Tom’s life in this egg. He said you’d been sending nixies for him.’

A wistful expression crossed Rusty’s face. He took the egg in his hands, making a circle of his arms as before, and focussed. His forehead wrinkled with the concentration, but soon the egg cracked, and a tiny creature pushed its way free. A little man, of adult proportions, but just three inches tall, stood on Rusty’s palm.

Rusty lifted his old friend to eye level and smiled. Fear passed over Tom’s face as he saw the giant face looking back at him, then he realised where he was, and smiled back. Tom tried to speak, but could make only the tiniest squeak.

Rusty spoke gently, ‘My old friend, it’s so good to see you again. I will take you home with me now, feed you and grow you. You shall be man-sized again within a few months.’

‘Stay and share a drink with us first,’ said Pefryn. ‘You can tell us the mood in Annwn – it would be helpful to know where we stand.’

They drank some more of the strange herbal tea, and Pefryn made a sugary concoction for Tom to help him grow. Rusty fed it to him drop by drop from the end of a clean twig, whilst chatting to Blackbird and Pefryn in Fairy. Demi couldn’t understand a word, but it sounded like bad news. Blackbird noticed her confusion, and told her that Light of Truth, the political party led by Hafren, was becoming more powerful – and violent.

Presently Rusty left, with Tom riding in the basket and Pefryn opening the path once more. Demi and Blackbird made themselves comfortable in Pefryn’s tree-home, and Demi was just falling into a doze when a commotion disturbed her. From a little distance away, several raised voices could be heard.

‘City guards!’ Blackbird said. ‘They know I’m here. They’ve come to arrest me.’

‘Don’t go, Blackbird,’ Demi pleaded. ‘Can’t we hide here? Let Pefryn tell them we’ve gone?’

‘That would be cowardice – and unfair to Tom and Rusty,’ he said. ‘The guards are holding them hostage.’

Reluctantly, Pefryn reopened the path, and they walked back through the trees. Demi could see two enormous men in the clearing, one restraining Rusty, the other laughing as he dangled something between his thumb and forefinger. It was Tom!

 

Chapter 12. Blackbird Swallows his Fire

Blackbird had forgotten just how big elves could be. Tefyn was easily a foot taller than he was, but the two guards, wearing Light of Truth colours, would make Tefyn look petite. The older, with cropped grey hair, had Rusty in an armlock, holding the old fairy with his feet high above the ground. The younger guard had wavy blonde hair, fancily cut. His huge fingers held Tom high above the rocky ground. Both were ignoring Pefryn’s pleas to be gentle.

Blackbird spoke, as calmly as he could. ‘I am here. Release these two, and take me to Tefyn.’

‘Tefyn?’ sneered the older elf. ‘What’s Tefyn got to do with it? Hafren’s the real power now. We’re taking you to the whipping-post, Nobody, and Light of Truth will decide what happens to you when we arrive.’ He released Rusty, letting him drop to the ground. The old fairy picked himself up, grimacing with pain, and stumbled to the young elf, who dropped Tom carelessly into Rusty’s hands. The old fairy made desperate soothing noises, trying to calm the panicking mini-man. But Blackbird knew the reason the elf had emptied his hands had nothing to do with compassion. Both elves were unhooking the corded sashes they wore over their tunics – sashes which everyone knew made very effective whips.

‘You thought we were taking you to Tefyn?’ snarled the older elf, aiming a blow that Blackbird just managed to dodge. ‘Forget it, he’s finished. He was only elected because he would have inherited power anyway.’ He struck again, and this time Blackbird had to take the blow, or put Tom and Rusty at risk. The elves were driving him away from the safety of the trees.

‘Thought he was being clever, giving up the Kingship to be First Citizen,’ the younger elf sneered, lashing at Blackbird, forcing him across the stream. ‘Thought he was giving the people what they want, but no-one wants a damp-eyed fairy-lover giving high places to those who don’t deserve them.’ Blackbird could have tried for the safety of the portal – but, no, he needed to accept all he was given.

‘Or know how to hold them,’ snapped the older elf, landing a blow to Blackbird’s thigh. ‘But a damaged man cannot rule – and you’re the one who damaged Tefyn, so don’t expect his forgiveness. You’ll be exiled as soon as your wounds have healed enough for you to crawl out of Annwn.’

The elves began attacking Blackbird in earnest, whipping his legs to make him dance across the rocky ground. Were they trying to force him off the cliff, to fall and be broken on the rocks? But no, there was a way, just the narrowest thread of a ledge across the cliff face, with the valley bottom far, far below. He could see the path he needed to take, and even though it led into the unknown, Blackbird began running as fast as he could over the steep rocky ground.

A short-legged fairy was better built for running downhill than long-legged elves, but he was soon regretting how soft he’d become. It would have been torment enough even without the elves’ long whips stinging his bare skin. Fortunately the constant twists in the narrow path offered some protection – and as the elves had just climbed the path they were now descending, they were tired and slower than they could have been. Blackbird ran as fast as he dared along the treacherous route, eyes fixed on the path. His feet were sore, his legs aching, and his lungs gasping for air, but the vicious blows the elves were dishing out drove him on. As the path turned a corner of mountain, he saw Annwn town in the valley far, far below, and despaired at how far he would have to run to reach it – knowing that worse treatment awaited him when he did.

As they reached the far end of the cliff the way levelled out. A change of torment – it would be easier on his legs, but he’d lose his advantage over the elves. They soon caught up with him, and began lashing him in earnest. But they were undisciplined and kept getting in each other’s way. For a few moments they were so busy arguing with each other they seemed to forget about Blackbird, but that didn’t last long.

He could see woodland up ahead, beyond a pair of marker stones, and the path led straight through it. Here the ground was softer underfoot, and the closeness of the trees hampered the elves’ whips. It gave some respite, but soon they emerged onto a scrubby plain, where the path was barely visible through the herbs and weeds. The elves, in their heavy boots, just trampled the plants underfoot, but it was much tougher and slower going for Blackbird. Several times he stumbled, grazing his hands and knees where he fell. If he didn’t scramble to his feet quickly enough, he was hauled upright by his hair, and kicked along the path.

But the view was opening out, and he realised where they were. He could see a cairn up ahead, and beyond it was the wide, smooth road which led over the mountains from the now-abandoned places. It wasn’t far to Annwn now. A stinging blow to his back drove him on, and he wondered how much more he could take.

The sound of footsteps behind him slowed to a halt. Blackbird ran on, trying to put some distance between the elves and himself, but his legs soon gave out on him. He stumbled to a halt beyond the cairn, gasping for breath, and heard the younger elf’s exasperated voice, asking why the other had stopped.

After a moment, the older elf answered in measured tones, ‘I stopped to respect, and remember. The very first time I walked this route, I was just a child. When we reached this point I saw Annwn town for the first time, safe against the mountains. And my father told us that if we could get in, we would survive. I don’t often leave the city, but whenever I do, I stop here to remember how much I owe it, and why I guard and defend it. And I add a stone to this pile, to remember all those who didn’t make it, or weren’t allowed in. All those who are still out there.’

‘Don’t tell me you believe in ghosts,’ the younger elf sneered.

The older merely said, ‘If you were old enough to remember…’ then fell silent.

‘I’m young enough to keep running,’ the younger replied, setting off again. Blackbird took a deep gulp of air, and began running too, trying to maintain his headstart, but the long-legged elves soon caught up with him.

As they rounded a shoulder of the mountain, and Annwn came back into view, the younger elf caught Blackbird and grabbed him by the hair. ‘Enjoy the view from here’, the elf sneered, ‘you’ll never be allowed through the gates.’

He twisted Blackbird’s head so the fairy was facing the town below them, but it wasn’t just the pain which brought tears to Blackbird’s eyes. Lovely Annwn, his home for so many years. The snug walled town between the guardian mountains and the wild rushing river. He could see it all – the market place with its stalls, the grand elfish mansions on the sunny side of the town, and the shabby fairy quarters down near the river. There was the Healers’ Lodge, outside the Western Gate, and there, in the centre of the town, was the First Citizen’s Lodge, the former palace, where Blackbird, Tefyn and Pefryn had once lived. Only Tefyn lived there now, under siege from Hafren’s selfish treachery.

They were so close to the town that, when the breeze changed direction, it brought the sounds and smells of the town with it. The spicy smells of afternoon baking, and the susurrus of the city’s business, a woman’s laughter pealing out like a blessing. He felt then as though the city itself had already forgiven him, and knew that these elves’ power over him was limited. He would submit for now, but only as long as it served his purposes. He blinked away his tears, the better to enjoy the view.

‘Save your tears, Nobody’, the young elf spat. ‘Wait ’til your welcome party gets hold of you; they’ll give you plenty to weep over.’ He pointed the dozen or so elves milling about in the shabby square outside the town walls. They were all wearing Light of Truth’s colours, and most were riding in small chariots drawn by fairies. Blackbird tried to hide his reaction – this was slavery, something outlawed by Tefyn – but the elf didn’t need to see his disgust to know it was there. ‘Those are immigrant fairies from the Southlands. They’re delighted to do any work in return for a bed and a full belly – and they’ve all signed contracts, so they’re not slaves. Your precious Tefyn can make all the laws he wants, but we’re good at bending them – and if he fines us, we can afford to pay.’

With that, he flung Blackbird along the mountain path once more, and the fairy was whipped towards the town. The elves driving him began to shout Light of Truth’s slogans as they approached the square, and the shouts were taken up by those waiting below. Blackbird was driven into a storm of hate.

 

Chapter 13. A Damaged Man

Demi was woken a few hours later by Pefryn gently singing to her. She hadn’t intended to sleep, but Pefryn had given her what she called a ‘calming brew’, which, combined with the late hour – in Demi’s world, at least – had sent her into deep slumber. Demi’s head was full of fuzz when she woke, but Pefryn gave her another drink, which soon cleared her mind.

‘You’ve has a few hours sleep. I hope it was enough,’ Pefryn said. ‘The day will end in an hour or so; once night falls we can release Blackbird. He will be guarded by elves, but they cannot see by moonlight. Can you?’

‘Probably not as well as a fairy, but not too bad,’ Demi replied.

Pefryn had made some little seed cakes whilst Demi was sleeping. They were dry, and nothing like what Demi normally ate, but she was starving, and ate all the ones she was offered. Then she put her trainers and jacket back on, and Pefryn cast the spell to open the path.

The sun had dipped behind the mountain to their rear, but the peaks on the far side of the valley still basked in late afternoon sunshine. Demi assumed they were going to use the portal, but Pefryn sighed and said it was impossible; the elves guarding it at the other end would never let them through.

‘They would ignore me,’ she explained, ‘although they would also block my path. As an unknown human, your freedom would be at risk. Hafren distrust humans more than fairies, so it’s better if he doesn’t find out about you. But I’ll need your help to free Blackbird – your height will come in useful.’

Pefryn was already picking her way along the narrow ledge which clung to the cliff-face, so Demi just had to follow her. Fortunately Demi had a good head for heights – in fact, she found it rather exhilarating to walk with her left hand on the rocks and wide open space at her right hand. Soon the path turned and the ledge joined broader, more level terrain. It was the vastest landscape Demi had ever witnessed. Huge, rocky, and silent apart from the wind whispering through herbs and shrubs. Apart from the plants, she and Pefryn were the only living creatures. They continued walking until they reached a place where the setting sun gazed between the peaks, painting a swathe of pink-gold light across the ground. It could have been pretty, but there was a bleakness to the scene which disturbed Demi. It felt abandoned, rather than just empty. They walked into the elongated shadow of a small group of trees to their left. Demi sensed something. ‘What’s over there?’ she asked. ‘I can sense magic.’

Pefryn stared at the trees for a moment then, as if glad of a change of movement, leapt into the air and flew the short distance. After investigating for a few moments, she returned, and informed Demi there was a pool of water which seemed to have nixies in it. ‘I didn’t see any nixies, but it had a trace of their magic about it, and it looked suitable for them.’ She gave Demi an approving look. ‘That’s a useful talent. Not all groves and ponds have nixies within, but if you can sense the ones that do, it could save you a lot of walking in future.’

After maybe half an hour’s walk they passed between two upright pillars of rock. The shadow of one rock ran straight to the base of the other and Pefryn, obviously using them as a natural sundial, announced they were making good time.

Just beyond the rocks there was a small, dense wood. It was dark and gloomy beneath the trees, so that even the multicoloured orbs Pefryn cast into the air didn’t enchant Demi.

Pefryn seemed to sense Demi’s disquiet, and reassured her it wasn’t much farther. ‘In a few minutes you’ll see Annwn for the first time,’ Pefryn said, and Demi tried to look interested. But Annwn was a lot nastier than she’d expected, and she had to admit to herself all she really wanted was to rescue Blackbird and get home as soon as possible.

 

***

 

Every part of Blackbird hurt. His shoulders throbbed, as his arms were bound above his head. His lips and tongue were dry as bark. His bare skin was cold, but burning where he had been whipped. His feet were agony.

But, despite this, he was safe. Full-sized, there was little in Annwn that could kill him. The sun had dipped behind the western peaks; soon it would be dark, and Pefryn would come and release him. Soon, soon, not much longer, he repeated silently.

A chill wind brought rain. It came from behind him, so he couldn’t even catch any to drink. But it reminded him of Vicky, of how she’d saved his life the last time he’d been soaked. Ah, if she was here now, she’d untie him in a heartbeat. She was so clever it was almost frightening. But gentle and caring, despite her righteous anger. She and her cousin were a powerful pair – Demi-Lee the fire who burned all in her way; Vicky the water, who could be gentle as rain or powerful as a flood.

And Heledd. Rock-solid Heledd. What a funny little person she was. So serious, so precise. But not pompous or grumpy-serious like a lot of elves. Heledd approached life like a game of chess, always thinking several moves ahead. Her anger, he was sure, would be terrifying as an earthquake.

He wondered how Vicky and Heledd would look now he was back to his full height. It was annoying to discover Demali was still taller than him, by several inches. Heledd, he was sure, would be shorter than him. His main impression of Heledd was a lot of brown – hair, eyes, practical clothes – setting off her creamy skin. Vicky was all colours, some of them ridiculously bright. She wore a lot of earrings, which was dangerous if he sat on her shoulder – although he wouldn’t need to do that again. Maybe she’d sit on his shoulders someday, he thought, that would be fun!

Vicky’s eyes were all colours too. A greeny-blue-grey, with a ring of gold around the pupil. When he’d been bird-sized her eyes had seemed big enough to swim in, but he got the feeling they were only average for a human. He really hoped she wasn’t taller than him.

The rain had changed direction, and he closed his eyes and stuck out his tongue as the sweet water kissed his face. He licked his cheeks to gather as much moisture as possible. Leaning his forehead against the whipping-post he returned to his thoughts.

Moments later he realised the wind and rain were no longer chilling him, although he could see and hear the raindrops splashing on the cobbles. Someone had cast a cloaking spell, not just hiding him from view, but keeping the rain off him. Someone powerful then; it wasn’t easy to create such a solid cloak. Rain was sliding down an invisible dome all around him. Someone else was within the dome, he could sense them, regarding him. He knew who it was, and knew he wasn’t ready to meet him.

‘That doesn’t look very comfortable,’ a voice said. It was matter-of-fact, and Blackbird recognised it instantly. He tried not to flinch.

‘It isn’t,’ he croaked. He thought, If I wasn’t tied to this post, I’d be running now. If only I could see your eyes. Are they full of anger? Hatred? Or pity?

‘You shouldn’t have returned. You were exiled for a reason,’ the voice continued, still devoid of emotion.

‘We were innocent. You should know that now,’ Blackbird said.

‘I see you still have your balls. If I thought you’d gone anywhere near my wife I’d have gelded you myself.’

‘You took my wings instead. Maybe I miss those more,’ Blackbird replied.

Tefyn snorted. ‘Have you any idea what you’ve done? Hafren has invoked the law that says a damaged man cannot rule. He wants to call an election – and bar me from standing. You may as well have handed him Annwn on a plate.’

Blackbird closed his eyes in shame. ‘I’m sorry,’ he murmured. ‘I did not intend to attack you. But you were killing me, and I blazed in self-defence.’

‘I know. I should have controlled myself. I should trusted Pefryn – and you.’

Blackbird opened his eyes. Tefyn was standing in front of him, his right arm still in a sling. The elf was hiding his feelings, but Blackbird gathered his courage. ‘I think I can heal you. That’s why I returned,’ he gasped, dry-mouthed

‘How? You were cut with iron. Your power neutralised. How could such a pitiful wretch lift such a powerful curse? You couldn’t lift the lid of a pisspot.’

Blackbird held Tefyn’s gaze, and studied his face. It was more lined than Blackbird remembered – Tefyn didn’t look as though he’d been sleeping well. Annwn’s fairies would never have been bold enough to look an elf full in the face, but Blackbird and Pefryn had been raised in the Eastlands, and come to Annwn as young adults. They had never shrunk from looking an elf in the face, or voicing an opinion. It was Tefyn who looked away first.

Blackbird tried to speak, but the words got stuck in his parched throat.

‘Here,’ said Tefyn, producing a gourd from his cloak with his left hand and pulling out the cork with his teeth. ‘Drink this.’ He held the bottle to Blackbird’s lips, tipping a little at a time into the fairy’s thirsty mouth. It was a good draught, sweet and spicy. As well as nectar to give him energy, there were herbs to calm and strengthen him.

It didn’t take long for Blackbird to empty the bottle. Tefyn returned the gourd to his cloak.

‘I can’t untie you,’ he murmured. ‘Not with only one good hand.’

‘My own anger has defeated me,’ Blackbird said.

‘I wish there were a way,’ Tefyn said.

‘Push the peg out.’

Tefyn looked blank.

‘The peg that goes through the whipping post,’ Blackbird explained. ‘If you can push that through, the rope should come undone.’

‘How did you work that out?’ Tefyn asked.

‘I’ve had a few hours.’ Blackbird replied.

Tefyn picked up a loose cobble and used it to strike the end of the crosspiece. There was a slight movement. After a few minutes’ work, during which Blackbird received a few accidental thumps, the crosspiece was short enough to ease the first loop of the rope over it, and the rest of the rope soon followed. The longer the piece of free rope, the easier it was to untangle the rest, and soon Blackbird was almost free – his wrists bound together by the length of rope which looped around the other side of the post. All he needed to do was lift the rope over the top of the post. But he was exhausted. His arms could barely move after being tied above his head for so long, and his back still throbbed from the whipping. It was Tefyn who reached up with his good hand and lifted the rope over. Blackbird was free.

Tefyn took Blackbird by the elbow, and helped him down. The fairy tried not to show pain, but he was cut and bruised all over. Every movement, every footstep was agony.

‘Go to the Healers’ Lodge,’ Tefyn said. ‘We need to talk, but you need treatment.’

‘They can see what a neat job they made of sewing me up the last time,’ Blackbird muttered.

‘You’ve no idea what it cost me even to get you to them,’ Tefyn replied. ‘Hafren wanted you exiled immediately, before you’d even regained consciousness. But I persuaded the council that would have been murder. I managed to keep you with the healers ’til you were over the worst. That wasn’t easy, not when I was being force-fed dreamweed myself.’

Blackbird didn’t respond. Maybe Tefyn felt he deserved gratitude for that, but it was hard to give. Still… Blackbird remembered the copper bangle. Awkwardly, he slipped it off his wrist, and offered it to Tefyn. ‘That will stop me from attacking you again. Accept this, and anything I give to you will be returned,’ he said.

Tefyn accepted it, and closed it around his damaged wrist. It looked small and cheap against the elf’s fine robes, but Tefyn didn’t seem to notice.

‘We need to get you some clothes too. Can’t have you running around almost naked, even outside the city walls. Probably should give you a good scrub and shave – I’ve never seen such a dishevelled creature. Don’t worry, I’ll cover the costs, for now. But you will repay me.’

 

Chapter 14. Deception and Defiance

Pefryn took Demi’s hand as they approached the town, and cast a cloaking spell over both of them. The sky was deep blue now, almost black in the east, but the moon cast its silvery light over the scene.

Demi could see that they were entering a cobbled area surrounded by low rocky cliffs and imposing stone walls. There was a huge, arched gateway in the city walls, guarded by elves, and some other elves were guarding a smaller gate off to the side, which led into a small cave.

They moved quietly despite Pefryn’s cloaking spell. Demi could see now that they were approaching a post on a platform up near the walls.

‘Where is he?’ Pefryn said, gripping Demi’s hand so tight it hurt. ‘There is blood, and the smell of fear, but where is he?’ Pefryn let go of Demi and searched around the whipping post, letting the cloak fade in her panic. Demi was left alone in the middle of the twilit square, and that was how the elves spotted her, and moved in.

Demi wasn’t the kind of girl who appreciated someone grabbing her arm and twisting it behind her back. She fought back, kicking hard and yelling the foulest words she knew. Pefryn had been recognised, and was therefore ignored. Being Nothing in Annwn, she was treated as if she didn’t exist – not an easy task for the guard she was pummelling. He got his own back by twisting Demi-Lee’s arm further, making her howl with pain.

‘What coarse tongue is this?’ sneered a male voice. ‘And what manner of creature? Too hefty for a fairy; too lumpen and graceless for an elf. Is it some kind of monkey, perhaps? And what is it doing in my domain?’ The voice belonged to a well-dressed elf seated on a throne supported front and back by fairies between wooden shafts. He looked ridiculous, but he was followed by a crowd of simpering girls and sneering boys, some of them holding poles with lanterns.

The guard loosened his hold on Demi-Lee, but only enough to stop her screaming. She was retching from the assault, and glared at the newcomer. His domain. Was this Tefyn then? But Pefryn didn’t seem pleased to see him, nor was there anything wrong with his hands.

‘Speak, creature,’ the elf said. He gestured to a lantern-bearer, who lowered their flame so Demi’s face was better lit. It was uncomfortably close, invading her space and searing her skin. ‘You made enough noise a moment ago,’ the elf continued. ‘What are you, and what are you doing here?’

There was a coldness to this man which she just couldn’t imagine the lively Pefryn loving. His beige robes were spotless, starched and ironed. But the thin plaited sash crossing his tunic was filthy and stained. This wasn’t Tefyn. She realised it must be Hafren, the one who’d tormented Blackbird. Nasty then, and powerful. All she could do was answer his questions and hope not to enrage him.

‘I’m human, and I was invited here,’ Demi said, as bravely as she could.

‘Not by me you weren’t,’ Hafren barked. ‘I wouldn’t allow such a base creature into this domain. Who invited you?’

‘The nixie. She held out her hand and I took it, and this is where I ended up. I haven’t done anything wrong. Please ask this man to let me go.’ Demi pleaded.

‘Is he hurting you?’ Hafren sneered.

‘Yes.’

‘Too bad. You shouldn’t start games you can’t finish.’ Hafren laughed. ‘Keep hold of her,’ he told the guard, then added, ‘Be grateful we don’t kill people here. I need to decide what to do with you. We can’t run the risk of you bringing other humans to Annwn. It would destroy us. It’s bad enough with fairies running riot, getting ideas above their Place.’ He paused, then addressed the guard. ‘Take her to the lock-up. Leave her there until I’ve decided how to deal with her. A memory wipe might be kindest. A total memory wipe, just to be on the safe side.’

There was a horrified gasp from some of the elves.

‘You can’t do that!’ Demi-Lee protested. ‘I was invited here.’

‘And why would anyone want human vermin in Annwn?’ Hafren asked.

‘I can do magic,’ Demi said. ‘I came here to learn more.’

‘Magic? Oh, please!’ Hafren said. ‘I’ve seen human magic. You light a candle and blend some herbs, chant a bit of gibberish and look for a coincidence to take credit for. Your species is pathetic.’

‘I can do cloaking spells and cast charms and glamours,’ Demi said. ‘I’m not that good yet, but I’ve only been learning a month. And I can sense other’s magic, and I don’t sense much magic around you.’

‘Insolent rat. I should have you whipped.’ His hand reached for the sash.

‘That’s all you can do, isn’t it! Pick fights with people who can’t fight back,’ Demi said.

For a moment it seemed Hafren was going to lose it, but then he turned icy cool and sneered, ‘You talk a good talk, monkey girl. But can you walk the walk?’

‘I’ll walk any walk you choose,’ Demi replied.

‘Excellent!’ The hoots and sneers from the elves and the look of horror on Pefryn’s face set Demi-Lee’s heart racing, although her blood ran cold. Pefryn was arguing fiercely with Hafren, her wings fluttering, but he acted as though she wasn’t even there, and Demi-Lee knew it was no use. She had just committed herself to walking through somewhere which was probably full of tigers – no, worse, goblins and monsters. There was, literally, no going back.

Pefryn looked up, and a smile lit up her face. Demi-Lee followed Pefryn’s gaze, and saw a tall, broad shouldered man striding towards them.

His clothes were made from fine cloth, in the same blues and greens as Pefryn’s, but they looked as though he’d been sleeping in them. His hair was longer than Hafren’s and he had a rumpled, distracted look to him. But he had an air of authority, his head held high and his brows furrowed. His right arm was bound in a sling, and the look in Pefryn’s eyes confirmed that this was Tefyn. And he was wearing Tom’s bracelet, which he must have got from Blackbird. Surely this was a good sign? Demi thought.

‘Release that young woman. Can’t you see you’re hurting her?’ Tefyn commanded.

The guard looked from Tefyn to Hafren and back again before obeying.

‘Is this wise, First Citizen?’ Hafren sneered. ‘She has arrived without a mentor, and seems to have been mixing with undesirables.’

Demi was amazed that Tefyn let the implied insults pass. Instead, he just reminded Hafren of the traditional hospitality Demi deserved. ‘And I heard our young visitor accept your challenge to Walk the Walk. A brave thing to do, but the rewards of success will be worth the ordeal, I’m sure. As her challenger, of course, you are responsible for providing those rewards – and her Ultimate Repast.’

That just sounds like a fancy way of saying ‘Last Meal’, Demi thought.

Tefyn was stern as he turned to Demi-Lee, but not hostile. ‘Think carefully. What do you desire for your last meal before the challenge. You can request whatever you desire, within reason. Not a plate of clouds or a dish of rubies. It has to be food, you understand, but you can choose whatever you want.’

She was starving. She didn’t want any more dry seed cakes. She knew what she really wanted, but they’d never in a million years have it here…she smiled.

‘I request a MegaMeal,’ she said. ‘With cheeseburger, Krispi-Twist chips, cherry cola and ChokkaPie. And make sure it’s the Giraffalump toy, cos I’ve got all the rest. That one’s really rare.’

Hafren’s jaw actually dropped. Tefyn merely smiled, and said, ‘You shall have what you request. See to it, Hafren.’

The stand-off was broken by a guard on the city walls singing the traditional evening call.

Hafren and his followers turned to leave, but Tefyn remained where he was.

‘Are you not coming with us, First Citizen? Did you not here the evening call? We wouldn’t want you to be shut out.’ Hafren’s mock concern was grating.

‘I am still the elected leader of this realm. I doubt my guards would refuse me entry. You may leave.’ Tefyn replied.

There was nothing Hafren could do without causing a scene, so he and his followers returned to the city.

As the gates closed behind Hafren, Tefyn reached out to Pefryn, and took her into his arms. Demi-Lee saw how he changed. Less stern and intimidating, he bowed his head as he caressed his wife’s feathers.

‘I released Blackbird,’ Tefyn told them. ‘He is with the healers.’ He turned to Demi. ‘You showed spirit – I was impressed. But you should rest now, if you are to Walk the Walk tomorrow. Go to the Healer’s Lodge there – they will provide for you. As your challenger, Hafren is duty bound to provide food and lodging.’

Tefyn began to walk away then, his arm still around Pefryn’s waist. The fairy broke away, and kissed Demi-Lee goodnight, sending a burst of magic through her as she did so. Then Pefryn returned to her husband, and the two of them started the long walk to the treehouse, leaving Demi-Lee all on her own. Clutching Vicky’s basket, she ran to the Lodge.

 

***

 

Blackbird had been taken to a clean, bright washroom, where he was cleansed with warm, rose-scented suds. His wounds were tended and dressed, and he was fed sweet dainties whilst his hair was cut and his beard shaved. Tefyn’s tailor came to measure him for some clothes. Then he was taken to a bed – a healing bed, at waist height, not the sky-bed near the ceiling he was used to. One healer gently arranged bedding around him and placed a tent-like apparatus over him, to keep him warm but not to touch his wounded back, while another gave him a draft of dreamweed, numbing and narcotic…

Hours later, he shifted in his sleep and woke up cursing as his wounds split open. His back, legs and shoulders throbbed, his feet ached, and head felt terrible. He tried opening his eyes, but the light made him dizzy. Snuggling his face into the bedding just made his shoulders throb again. And all the time that muffled pounding in his head, as if it was stuffed with kapok. So that was why they didn’t like you playing with dreamweed!

He heard someone enter the room. Peering through slitted eyelids he saw a fairy carrying a goblet, which she placed on the table beside his bed. She removed the protective tent then commenced a brisk medical examination, which left his head spinning and his back throbbing even worse.

‘Healing well,’ she noted, ‘no raised temperature or other signs of infection. Cuts are scabbing over, although they’ll probably leave faint scars. That was a vicious whipping, one of the harshest I’ve treated. Drink this and I’ll flow some magic into you, to speed up the healing.’

‘Will Tefyn pay for that?’ Blackbird asked. It would be difficult and draining for the healer, he knew.

‘My gift to you. You’ve done so much for our people, you and Pefryn both, despite your recent disgrace. And you’ll need to be fit to support your Little Friend tomorrow. Oh!’

‘What? What is it? Is Demali in trouble?’ Blackbird asked.

‘I forgot. You were in the treatment room when she joined us. There’s some distressing news, I’m afraid. Your Little Friend has agreed to Walk the Walk,’ the healer said.

‘Oh, excrement!’ Blackbird tried to leap off the bed, but the pain flattened him. He sat up gingerly, and accepted the goblet the healer offered. He swallowed the bitter draught in gulps, pulling a face between each one, while the healer described what had happened between Hafren and Demi-Lee.

‘She’s so raw!’ Blackbird exclaimed. ‘She’s got potential but she’s had no real training. Surely there’s a way she can back out?’

‘We’ve looked into it,’ the healer replied. ‘She’s entitled to Walk the Walk, and become a Citizen if she succeeds. There would be many benefits.’

‘If she succeeds,’ Blackbird brooded. ‘Isn’t there a loophole?’

‘Sadly, no,’ the healer said. ‘She could ask the nixies to return her to Terra, but they’ll take all her magic, and it will be her last journey between realms – any realms. She’ll be trapped in Terra forever, and you’ll be trapped here.’

‘What!’ Blackbird exclaimed. ‘Why?’

‘We don’t know why, we only know the precedents,’ the healer said. ‘Our records date back centuries. Of the 14 humans who’ve agreed to Walk the Walk during recorded times, 3 didn’t return, 8 succeeded, and 3 returned to Terra leaving their fairies trapped here. Odds are that she’ll succeed, but then all those previous Terrans were fully trained. If you’re that concerned, you could make the sacrifice and commit to life in Annwn. ’

Never return to Terra? Without even saying goodbye to Vicky? And as he thought of Vicky, he realised she would be worrying, having no idea when Demali would return. He sat bolt upright, cracking his wounds open once more, and hissing through his teeth with the pain.

‘Lie down,’ commanded the healer. ‘I’ll heal you now, before you do even more damage. Where shall I start? The wounds on your shoulders are deepest.’

‘My feet, please. I will have to walk far soon,’ he said, thinking of the long walk back to Pefryn’s portal.

It was draining for both of them, but after a long session most of the healing work was done.

‘I can do no more now,’ the healer said, wiping her brow. ‘But you heal quickly – you should be able to walk with little pain, and the wounds on your back won’t open again. I had no power left for your face, I’m afraid. You could beg a glamour from someone.’

But Blackbird knew he couldn’t ask for anything that wasn’t freely offered. The door opened and another fairy entered, a parcel tucked under one arm and a goblet in her free hand. She placed the goblet on the table, and opened the parcel.

‘First Citizen Tefyn sent these for you,’ the new healer said, holding up a pair of trousers, in a beautiful shade of green, then a turquoise tunic. They were gorgeous, good quality and well made, but he wasn’t sure about that tunic. Fairies didn’t wear shirts, anyway, they didn’t work with wings. Women wore halter neck dresses with leggings underneath; men wore multiple pendants and necklets to ornament and cover themselves; wings kept you warm.

But Blackbird no longer had wings, and Tefyn had provided him with the clothes of an elf-child. He revised his opinion of the trousers once the healer had helped him into them and buttoned them up. They were soft and figure-hugging; snug over the hips and wide on the legs. Not children’s clothing at all. He declined the tunic and looked for some neckpieces in the bag, but there was nothing there. Maybe he could improvise.

‘You should rest,’ the new healer urged. ‘It’s night; all is quiet.’

‘I need to return to Terra,’ Blackbird replied. ‘Demali has friends who will be worrying about her – and maybe they can give me good advice. I’ll have to walk up to a portal in the hills.’

‘Your Little Friend requested a meal from her world,’ the healer said, ‘so one of Hafren’s elves will be leaving soon through the city portal to quest for it. Knowing Hafren he’ll open the portal at midnight, just for effect. So you’ve about 30 minutes,’

She offered him the goblet, but he gestured to the first healer, who was still drained from the intensive treatment she’d given. The first healer drank deep and soon began to revive.

‘We can loan you a crystal to pay the nixies,’ she said.

Blackbird raised an eyebrow at that.

‘We’re outside the city walls,’ the healer reminded him, ‘so we’re free of Hafren’s petty rules. Besides, unless you’re really careless, they’ll never know.’

It didn’t take Blackbird long to reach the town portal, although he was still stiff and tender. The portal itself was locked, as was the new sentry box beside it, but there was a little shelter with a seat beside the gates, and he waited in its darkness, shivering despite his new clothes.

Soon the postern in the city gates opened, and three figures emerged. Fairy night-vision meant he could see them clearly in the moonlight. A male fairy carrying a lantern was followed by a teenage elf-girl, her fancy hairdo announcing her high place. The male elf bringing up the rear yawned as he jangled the keys in his hand – an off-duty portal guard trying to maintain a semblance of authority. But the elf-girl was too busy chivvying and chiding the lantern-bearer to pay attention to anyone else.

‘…and don’t think of leaving until I’m back,’ he heard her say, ‘unless it’s full daylight, which isn’t likely, but if you’re not waiting here for me, you won’t get the rest of the payment, understand? Don’t think of bringing in labour rights – you’re being paid well enough for this.’ Blackbird smiled in the darkness. He had been worried the lantern bearer would spot and report him, but no fairy would feel loyal to an elf like that.

In fact, when the other fairy did spot Blackbird, he moved subtly so that his lantern would dazzle the elves if they looked in Blackbird’s direction. As the group approached the portal, the lantern-bearer stood so that the elves had to step back as they opened the gate, then the fairy stepped back too, allowing Blackbird to slip behind him through the dazzle and into the darkness of the cave, unnoticed by the elves who were too busy scolding the lantern-bearer for getting in the way.

It meant Blackbird himself was dazzled, but he felt his way down the steps to the nixie pool. They were slippery, and he lost his balance as he hurried stiffly through the dark, knocking his shin on the rock. He muffled his cry of pain, but lost his grasp on the crystal as he stumbled.

Before he could despair, he heard a splash, and realised it had landed in the pool. The water brightened, and a nixie appeared, circling the crystal in the water. She glowed brighter, as if absorbing energy from the crystal, then fixed her gaze on Blackbird and held out her hand.

Just in time – the elves had stopped chiding the fairy, and lantern light filled the cave as Blackbird was taken into the portal.

 

Chapter 15. Meanwhile, Back in the Real World…

Heledd was telling Vicky she looked rough. ‘You should have let me keep watch for a couple of hours; I wouldn’t have minded,’ she added.

‘As if I could sleep!’ Vicky replied. ‘Why isn’t she back yet? Anything could have happened to her.’

‘Maybe she’s just having too much fun with the fairies.’ Heledd was always so calm. It was infuriating.

‘At least Mum and Dad are away all weekend. If she’s not back by Monday…’ Vicky brooded.

‘Have some more tea,’ Heledd urged. ‘It’s a very soothing blend.’

‘I wish you’d brought coffee. This won’t keep me awake,’ Vicky said.

‘You’re a bag of nerves already,’ Heledd said. ‘She’s done this before, though, hasn’t she? Left you to cover for her, I mean.’

‘Yes, but then I knew where she was,’ Vicky sighed. ‘It’s one thing covering for her staying up late – she could actually be in real danger now. If nothing bad’s happened to her, I’ll kill her. Don’t laugh, you’re supposed to be on my side.’

‘I’m not laughing, I promise’ Heledd said, although Vicky wasn’t convinced. ‘I am concerned, but what can we do from here? You’re wearing yourself out with worry, and it could be for nothing. I’ll have a serious word with her if she’s put you through all this for no reason – but isn’t it better that she’s being thoughtless rather than actually in trouble?’

‘Hmm, maybe a small injury would be okay, just to teach her,’ Vicky replied.

As Heledd reached for her flask, the portal beside them began to glow with a cold, green light, then the water began to froth, and within seconds it was dazzlingly bright and bubbling furiously.

There was a figure in the middle of the light, water pouring off it, and Vicky was about to snap, ‘About flippin’ time,’ when she realised it wasn’t her cousin. It was far too short for Demi, and the wrong shape. A teenage boy? But as he stepped out of the portal and the glare diminished, Vicky noted his stance, his determined look, and his skin-tight trousers, and realised that, although he was short, he was a fully-grown man. He looked fierce, and had obviously been fighting, but Vicky didn’t feel threatened. This was her world, and there were two of them against him, and he seemed defensive rather than aggressive. She got to her feet, trying to look confident.

‘Vicky, Heledd…’ he said, and Vicky was just wondering how he knew their names, when Heledd squeaked, ‘Blackbird, is that you?’ and Vicky knew him. Without the beard, the tangled hair and the grime; with a black eye and swollen lip, she knew him – his voice, his stance, his wide green eyes, and that elusive smile as he saw her recognition. Relief flooded through her as the portal began to brighten again. But as the light grew, she saw the full extent of Blackbird’s injuries. ‘What the hell have you done to him?’ she demanded of the figure emerging behind him from the portal. To her despair, the voice that answered wasn’t Demi-Lee’s.

The girl stepping out of the portal was even taller than Demi-Lee, and a few years older. Green eyes glared from olive skin. As Vicky watched, her beige cape and dress paled as they dried, and her long red-brown hair sprang up into ringlets – held in a complicated style with clips and combs. A thick strand of hair clung to her forehead, and as she released it from her skin, it curled up into a perfect spiral. She took a moment to consider Vicky’s question, then matter-of-factly replied, ‘We beat him. He deserved it.’

Vicky flew at the newcomer, fists flailing, but Heledd restrained her, and Blackbird talked her down.

‘It’s done, Vicky,’ he said, his voice hoarse, ‘You can’t make it not happen. And don’t fight this one, you need to help her, for Demali’s sake.’

‘Where is Demi?’ Vicky asked. ‘What on earth is going on?’

The elf was confused by Vicky’s idiomatic language, and Blackbird had rehearsed what to say over and over, so he explained about Demi Walking the Walk as gently as he could.

‘She was tricked into it,’ he said, ‘but this elf needs to fetch some food for her as part of the quest. We may as well help her – it’ll be helping Demali.’

Vicky was trembling, and tempted to add to Blackbird’s collection of bruises. Blackbird noticed her turmoil, and apologised with such a look Vicky believed him.

The elf had no such tact. ‘I need someone to guide me to Burg-A-World,’ she interrupted. ‘You’ll have to do. The quicker you help me, the quicker she’ll be back – assuming she succeeds.’

‘Fine,’ said Heledd, before Vicky could react. ‘I’ll direct you to Burg-A-World and give you some advice, but I’ll give you a warning too. This is our world, and we don’t take kindly to people who just waltz in and expect us to play by their rules. We’ve been fighting back for over 700 years, and you’re just one more tourist with a bad attitude. Be polite and show a little respect, or you won’t get very far. You’re a long way from home now, bach.’

Heledd led the elf out of the grove before there was any more conflict. Vicky stood and watched as their voices diminished, and soon the quiet of the grove surrounded her once more. High summer sunlight filtered through the leaves, and she realised it must be noon.

Vicky sat down onto the jacket she’d slept on, and curled over with her head on her knees. She felt Blackbird sit beside her. Part of her wanted to tear him to pieces for letting Demi-Lee get into such danger, but a bigger part needed someone, anyone, just to help her through.

‘You were supposed to be looking after her,’ Vicky said.

‘I’m sorry, Vicky,’ Blackbird said. ‘Hafren tricked her into it. His followers did this to me.’

‘So you got a black eye,’ Vicky replied. ‘But that won’t kill you, will it? What about this Walk – will it kill Demi?’

‘It’s risky,’ Blackbird said. ‘But, she doesn’t have to do it. She could back out and leave Annwn.’

‘But?’ said Vicky. ‘There’s always a ‘but’ isn’t there? No-one comes back from Fairyland unchanged.’

Blackbird was quiet for a moment, then spoke in a low, even voice. ‘She would forfeit her magic. All of it. And the nixies will never carry her again, so she’ll be stuck in Terra.’

‘So she’ll be a normal person. Big deal! Tell her to come home right now!’

‘I would also be trapped in my home world. I’d be stuck in Annwn, and I’d never see you or Demali again.’

There was silence then, filled by the rustling of the leaves, as Vicky took in what Blackbird had just told her. Finally she spoke, her voice barely a whisper.

‘Magic’s the only thing she’s good at,’ she said. ‘Apart from whistling, and getting into trouble. If she didn’t have her magic – and you – she’d have nothing.’

‘She’d have her life. And soon enough she’ll discover boys and parties and she may not want to be a witch. If you think it’s too dangerous, I’ll tell her to come back. There are people in Annwn who can persuade the nixies,’ Blackbird said.

‘But we’ll never see you again.’

Vicky turned to Blackbird then, and looked at him, really looked at him, drinking in every detail of his face and his wounded body. He was gazing at her too, although neither would meet the others’ eyes. Outside the grove Vicky sensed the world dissolving and recreating itself, but her eyes were filled with the green of the grass and Blackbird’s ridiculous trousers.

She lifted her head, and their eyes finally met.

‘It has to be her decision,’ Vicky said.

‘Whatever she decides,’ Blackbird replied, ‘I’ll abide by it. I won’t try to influence her.’

Vicky wanted to pull him close, and hold him tight, maybe the only chance she’d ever get, but he was bruised all over. She heard herself telling him he looked tired; maybe he should rest.

‘We should both rest. You look tired too,’ he said.

Aelwen encouraged the bracken to grow into a soft bed beneath them, and scented herbs to grow into a shelter around them. They were alone together in fragrant green silence. It feels right, Vicky thought, as sleep overwhelmed her.

 

Chapter 16. A Kindred Spirit

Demi drifted awake as the full moon shone on her face. She longed for some cola, but something told her it would be difficult to find here. Where was she again? Moonlight flowed all over her, making her whole body tingle with magic. Bliss. But her thirst made her cough, which woke her some more. Half-opening one eye, she saw a sparkling glass of water, but as she reached for it her fingertips grasped at nothing. Just dreaming, then. She felt liquid trickling onto her borrowed nightie, and as she sat up, banging her head on the ceiling, and opened her eyes, the moonlight showed a weird distortion in the window, which faded away as she watched. But water was still dripping off a puddle on the windowsill.

The bed was up near the ceiling, with storage underneath it – a sky-bed. Great if you were a fairy with a natural love of high places, not so good if you were a tall girl who thumped her head on the wooden ceiling every time she sat up.

She was fully awake now, and buzzing from the power of the moonlight on her skin. Through the window beside her, a collection of tiny square panes, she could see fairies picking herbs in the moonlit garden beyond. She wondered if they’d let her help – she could learn so much. And, if people were up and working, maybe she could find something to drink. She decided to get something to quench her thirst, find Blackbird, then go and see what they could do together in the moonlight. It was chilly in the room, so she changed back into her Tanybryn clothes, and draped the nightie over a stool to dry.

The Healers’ Lodge was a strange combination of travellers’ hostel, clinic and health spa. There was nothing like it in Demi’s world, but she kind of liked it. As a wingless human she’d been given a room on the ground floor. Fairies had no need for stairs, so the main corridor was three stories high, lit by moonlight filtering through small glass panes in its walls and vaulted roof. Once she’d worked out why there were no stairs, just landing ledges outside the upper floor doors, she’d realised the whole building had been built without scaffolding – everything was made from small pieces of wood, stone and glass which could be carried by a flying fairy.

She padded barefoot along the moonlit corridor, silent apart from her quiet footsteps and the soft sounds of sleeping. And some distant giggles, which she followed until she found the night staff practising their juggling tricks. There were two of them, a woman balancing on her hands on the reception desk trying to juggle with her feet the balls the man was throwing to her.

They told her they’d only just started their night shift, so they didn’t know if Blackbird was fit to be disturbed, but the woman went to check on him, while the man went to fetch Demi a drink.

Demi-Lee paced about the lobby in a dreamy frame of mind, moving between different-coloured patches of moonlight, noticing the different way each colour made her feel. A knock on the door brought her back to the here and now. Who would be knocking the door in the middle of the night? Was it one of Hafren’s guards, come to arrest her? Or a traveller, anxious to get inside out of the cold? Whoever it was, they knocked again, louder. Demi really didn’t know what to do, but thankfully the female fairy was approaching. She hurried past Demi, telling Demi as she passed that Blackbird had received plenty of healing, but was unavailable right then. Demi assumed he was sleeping.

The fairy peered through a spy hole in the door, and a big grin spread across her face. Opening the door wide, the fairy welcomed the traveller on the doorstep with a huge hug as they exchanged warm words. Holding the traveller’s arm affectionately, the fairy introduced her to Demi. ‘This is Owina Fairmount, a very wise woman from your realm. Have you met?’

The newcomer was obviously human, but looked nothing like anyone Demi had met before. Her straight black hair was streaked with grey, long and thick, with a centre parting at her low hairline. Fairy green eyes stared from under level eyebrows, and her round, strong face was tanned and lined.

Owina was looking at her with a level gaze, so Demi offered her hand and introduced herself.

‘I’m Demi-Lee Jenkins, from Newport, Wales. UK. Earth.’

A tiny smile crossed Owina’s face, and in an American accent she said, ‘Same universe, different continent. I’m from New Mexico. Mescalero reservation.’

‘You’re an Indian?’

‘I prefer First Nation. But yes, Chiricahua Apache and a touch of fairy.’

‘And you’re a witch, aren’t you? I can sense it.’

‘Witch isn’t the word I’d use, but yes, I’m a magician. A proper one, not a Vegas one.’

The male fairy returned then, with a gourd of water for Demi. He greeted Owina warmly, and told them both there was food available should they want it.

Owina led Demi to the dining room. It was warm and cosy, with small wooden tables, some with chairs beside them, others near the kitchen with food and drink on them – if you could accept that cakes made out of leaves and petals counted as food. Still, cakes for breakfast was Demi’s kind of diet.

To drink, there was a choice of liquids in jugs – one pale blue, with petals floating on the surface; one rose pink and cloudy, with a stick – an actual stick from a tree, not a plastic stick – for stirring, and one amber coloured and steaming.

Owina took charge, pointing out what was good to eat and drink. The pink stuff turned out to be sweet berry juice, which suited Demi’s sweet tooth. Owina was a meat lover like Demi-Lee, and had shown her the cakes with a chewy texture and salty taste which were the closest they would get in Annwn.

They sat and ate quietly for a while, but Demi was buzzing with things she wanted to ask. She wanted to know whose side Owina was on, and in the end she just asked.

‘Whose side? What do you mean?’ Owina said.

‘Tefyn or Hafren,’ Demi replied. ‘It’s like they’re at war or something!’

‘Oh, I stay out of that,’ Owina said. ‘It’s just politics and male egos, and I wouldn’t want to encourage either. Tefyn won the last election because he was born the Prince of Annwn, and, people here are really stuck in their ways. He’s trying to introduce democracy, but ironically most people here don’t want it. And now Tefyn’s injured, and nobody can heal him, and the old laws say a damaged man cannot rule.’

‘That’s well harsh. Don’t they have the Paralympics here?’

‘I’m afraid not. In some ways this society is really backwards. If Tefyn doesn’t heal soon, he’ll have to stand down and call an election – and Hafren’s bound to be elected. He’s the Chancellor anyway, but he would love to be leader.’

‘But the fairies will never vote for Hafren – he hates them!’ Demi exclaimed.

‘Didn’t you know?’ Owina said. ‘Fairies can’t vote.’

‘But that’s so out of order!’ Demi said. ‘When did they bring that in?’

‘It’s never been allowed,’ Owina explained. ‘Most elves think fairies are barely people – they certainly wouldn’t give fairies any power.’

‘But Tefyn married a fairy – and he’s the leader!’ Demi said.

‘Tefyn may seem like a wimp,’ Owina said, ‘and he’s nowhere near as charismatic as Hafren, but he’s tough, fair and caring. How many leaders in our world would put justice and freedom over their own interests?’

Demi just snorted at that – she knew the answer was probably, ‘none’.

‘Marrying Pefryn was probably the bravest thing any elf has ever done,’ Owina continued. ‘That Pefryn. For a Nothing, she sure is something, huh? Of course, it wasn’t a full elfish wedding; they just exchanged a promise the way fairies do, but it was a brave move all the same. There’s plenty of elves take a fairy as a lover, but marrying one just isn’t Dahzen.’

‘What was that you just said?’ Demi asked. ‘That weird word.’

‘Dahzen?’ Owina said. ‘Elfish culture progresses in these big leaps they call Dahzen. When enough elves do something for it to become the norm, it’s Dahzen, and those who do things the old way become “Etwender” – “ones who stand alone”.’

‘I don’t get it – sorry!’ Demi said.

‘I don’t really get it either, but that’s the best way I can describe it,’ Owina said. ‘I’ve heard it said that if two elves tell another he’s dead, he’ll just go and lie in a coffin. It’s a weird joke, but it shows how elves go with the herd.’

‘I thought they were creepy when I met some of them last night,’ Demi said. ‘They were all checking each other like they all wanted to act exactly the same. They beat up my friend because he’s a fairy.’

‘Poor guy,’ Owina said. ‘Unfortunately, if one started abusing him, not joining in would make you Etwender – and beating up fairies has been Dahzen a long time. At least killing isn’t Dahzen – that’s one way they’re more civilised than us.’

‘I don’t think they’re civilised,’ Demi replied. ‘They’re just a bunch of bullies.’

‘It’ll change eventually,’ Owina said. ‘Look at the way things have changed in our world – but there’ll be a lot of broken hearts and bones and windows along the way.’

There was silence for a while, then Owina asked Demi to tell her a little bit about herself. ‘You’re a witch, aren’t you?’ she said. ‘I can sense your magic, although it’s very new and raw. How did you end up in Annwn?’

Demi-Lee gave Owina a brief summary of her story, and her new magical skills. ‘I still can’t do much unless I’m standing in full moonlight, though,’ she added.

‘Maybe you should keep that quiet for now – people will assume that as you’ve got to Annwn you must be pretty powerful already,’ Owina said. ‘But you say the moonlight woke the magic within you – that could be why the nixies brought you here. I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure they take magic from travellers as a form of payment. They’re the most magical of people. Fairies can generate magic, but nixies are almost pure magic, just the smallest amount of substance. I think they feed off magic, and use it to hold themselves together.’

‘They eat magic? How come?’ Demi asked.

‘Not sure exactly,’ Owina said, ‘but magic is a form of energy, and they use it to exist, just as we use the chemical energy in food to exist.’

So the nixies had brought her to Annwn, not because she was the Chosen One, but just because she had something they could use. That sucked! Demi went to refill their glasses with the berry juice, and when she returned Owina explained why Annwn’s times and seasons mirrored Tanybryn’s. It was nothing magical – Owina was sure that both places were located on planets in parallel universes, but on different parts of their globes. Annwn was in the southern hemisphere, which explained why the sun and moon rode the ‘wrong way’ across the sky, and winter mirrored summer. It was much closer to the equator than Cardiff, and on the opposite side of the world.

‘I suppose you’re wondering how I know all this,’ Owina interjected, but Demi-Lee hadn’t been – she’d just accepted it as fact, the way she did when she was told something in a particular tone of voice, and decided there was nothing she could do about it anyway. ‘I’ve done a lot of research,’ Owina said, ‘and made comparative notes – but I guess you’re not interested in that. Let me tell you how I came to be a magician instead – you want to hear that story?’

‘Definitely,’ Demi said. ‘If you’ve got the time.’

‘Little else to do in the middle of the night, so get comfy and listen.’ Owina began. ‘My Ma and Granma were good with herbs and healing, and when I was a little girl I showed a lot of promise. As well as learning about herbs I was good at interpreting of dreams and analysing nature’s signs – the movements of birds and animals, the ways of the weather, of winds and clouds.

‘I’m good at noticing details and remembering patterns, and spotting the things others may want to keep hidden. I didn’t do any real magic for a long time. Fortunately people remembered all the times I was right, and forgave all the times I was wrong. Still, it was a lot of pressure – I was young, barely started on womanhood. I used to ride my horse into the mountains to get some peace, it felt better when there weren’t other people around.’

‘Didn’t your parents mind? Wasn’t it dangerous?’ Demi asked.

‘No more dangerous than living in a big city if you know what to look for and what to avoid. Anyways, learning to survive the wilds is just part of growing up where I live, like learning to drive or shoot straight.’ Demi-Lee blinked at the mention of shooting, but Owina didn’t notice.

‘I just told them I was going to meditate in the wilderness, and they were fine with it. Anyways, this one day I went in a direction I’d never tried before. It was a cloudy winter’s day, and the sun had hardly shown his face, but it was good weather for just being in. I rode for hours, until I realised my horse must be thirsty, so I took him over to a pool to drink. It was spring-fed, and looked pure, but he just refused, shied away from it. There was a little gully nearby, so I led him into that, thinking there may be some other water in there. It was steep-sided, and gloomy inside, but I could see light gleaming along the bottom. There was a seam of crystals, glowing as if they were about to burst into fire. The whole valley was fair humming with magic. Had I been older and wiser I’d have been afraid, but I was young and green, and greedy too. I actually burned my fingers on the first crystal I touched.’ She showed Demi-Lee her fingertips – instead of the usual swirling fingerprint, they were flat and scarred.

‘Still, I got such a kick out of that magic, when I’d picked myself out of the dirt I went back for another look. I couldn’t get near those crystals without burning myself again, but, like I said, I was good at noticing and remembering, so I went back the next day, and the day after that, until the magic in those crystals had quieted enough for me to touch them. About a week after full moon, I managed to get near those crystals and place my hand on them without being thrown across the ground, and I could feel the power flowing through me, making my skin tingle and my hair frizz.

‘Anyways, the next full moon I wanted to stay out overnight in that gully and see what happened when the moonlight charged up those crystals and made them sing with magic. I asked my Pop for permission to camp out for a night; he said he’d think it over. I didn’t mention any magic crystals, of course. They were my secret. But my brothers knew something was up, and they beat it out of me – they could be a mean pair when it suited them. They could have been magicians too, if they weren’t so lazy. But my brothers thought maybe if they could get some of those magic crystals – well, ‘Instant Wizard’, you get the picture. So my eldest brother took his horse and his gun and rode out to that gully on the first night of the full moon. He came back the next day with no crystals and no gun, skulked into the house, didn’t want to talk to nobody. But I’d made him promise to tell me all that happened, and he daren’t break his promise to a witch like me.

‘He said he’d been dozing in the moonlight when the water in that pool – the one my horse wouldn’t go near – started bubbling up, and two figures climbed out of it. He was scared out of his wits, and pulled his gun on them, but they just vanished into the air then reappeared behind him and tied him up in no time. They left him there, all trussed up, his gun lying useless beside him, and walked back into that pond. He was scared he’d starve to death, all tied up and alone in the middle of nowhere, but as soon as the sun rose those ropes that tied him just evaporated. But his gun melted into nothing too, leaving just the faintest shadow on the ground.

‘It sounded like a crazy story, but he showed us the rope burns on his wrists, and his gun was missing – he’d never go anywhere without his gun. My middle brother was furious, he wanted revenge, and he pressed my oldest brother for a description of those guys, but my older brother couldn’t give one. Said it hurt his brain when he tried to picture them. All he could remember was, as they were about to step back into that pool, one of them turned and gave him a filthy look. He remembered that guy’s eyes were the brightest green he’d ever seen. Freaky green eyes, just like mine, that was what he said. Well, we’d always been told there were fairies in our bloodline and that’s where my green eyes had come from, so we thought maybe they were fairies. Tricksy types, anyway, and dangerous.

‘So the next night – when the moon was properly full – my middle brother took his horse and his knives and went out to the gully. He hid himself and waited for those two guys to come bubbling up out of that pool. He waited all night, until the sky was just starting to get light in the east, and his eyes were just starting to close when he heard the water start to agitate, and two guys stepped out of the pool. He saw them walk over to the crystal beds, and as they bent over them he threw his knives.’

Demi-Lee shuddered. She knew what iron could do to a fairy. But Owina continued. ‘He said those guys just disappeared into nothing, then popped up right behind him and tied him tight, just as they had with my older brother. Then they hefted him into a tree and left him hanging there over his knives, with the blades pointing straight up. Well, it wasn’t long until the sun came up, and those ropes just went into nothing, and my middle brother went falling onto his knives – but they vanished into nothing just before he hit them.

‘Well, I was furious with my brothers – those fairies could have been kin; they could have been willing to teach me something useful, but with their guns and their knives my lazy, thoughtless brothers may have scared them away for good. It was the last night of the full moon, and I was determined to go see for myself what happened in that gully.

Of course, my brothers wouldn’t have it, reckoned it wasn’t safe for a girl to be out by herself.

‘“You’ll get bitten by a rattlesnake,” the eldest said. “Did you see any rattlesnakes?” I asked him. “No! So why should I?”

‘The middle one said, “What if you get raped, out there all on your own?” I said, “Did you see any rapists? No! So why should I?”

‘But they wouldn’t let up. “You’ll get lost on the way” the oldest insisted. “Did you get lost? No! So why should I?”

‘They kept on and on at me, but I didn’t see how I’d fare any worse than they did, so I just saddled my horse and went – making sure I had plenty of water for us both. I took extra food too, just in case. It was still daylight when I got there, and I scouted around for a good place to hide. I found a nice little spot in an overhang – sheltered from the rain and the cold night sky; somewhere it would be dark when the moon was shining outside. I tethered my horse out of the way, ate a cold supper – no way I was lighting a fire in that place – and settled down to wait. That place was crackling with magic when I got there – those crystals had been in the moonlight for two long, clear nights – but when the moon rose and those crystals started to soak it up, boy was it pretty. At first they just reflected the moonlight, sent it sparkling in all directions, throwing pale rainbows on the rocks, but then they started to glow, and hum with this eerie sound. It sounds a bit freaky, but it didn’t bother me, I just went out and sat cross-legged in it, and soaked it up, until I was probably glowing myself. You should try it if you get the chance, it sure was something. After a while I was feeling light-headed, and got up to go back to my night-shelter. I tell you, my footprints were glowing as I walked across the sand. I was buzzing too much to sleep by this stage, so I just lay there for the rest of the night, enjoying the sound and light show from those crystals.

‘Then, just as the moon was about to dip behind the hills, I heard the water in the pool start bubbling, and two people stepped out. They were wary – couldn’t blame them after the previous two nights. But they looked all around them, seemed to decide they were in no danger, and started prising crystals out of the beds with little stone daggers. I tell you, they looked so pale and delicate, but they moved over that rocky, jaggedy ground as if it was soft carpet. I could see they were strong, see the muscles working under their skin. I could see their wings too –they were fairies all right! They worked hard for an hour or so, ‘til the colour started coming back into the world. I was getting nervous then – wondering if they’d soon be able to see me, although I was wrapped in desert camouflage, and sitting quiet as a spider.

‘So they finished collecting those crystals, straightened up, then one of them looked me in the eye and walked straight over. My heart was pounding, but that was when I realised he’d known I was there all along. Maybe you know by now, fairies have excellent night vision, and they’d seen me as soon as they’d walked into the gully. But they couldn’t smell any iron on me, so they knew I was no threat.

‘I could see them both clearly, too – whatever spell they’d used to hide themselves from my brothers, they weren’t using it with me. They came over and asked if I had anything to trade. I said no, but I had food and water they were welcome to share.

‘So I sat in the dawn light with these two tiny men, with the most splendid wings, and wished I’d brought better food for them. They were thin and hungry-looking, and grimy from working so hard, but, boy, were they something! They were real polite, and grateful for what I shared with them, and when I apologised for my brothers’ behaviour they just laughed.

‘When we’d finished eating they gave me a piece of crystal. They said they’d be back at the next full moon, and asked me to bring human things to trade – matches, band-aids, things like that. They explained my horse wouldn’t drink from that pond because it had nixies in it – first I’d ever heard of those people, but I got to know the nixies soon enough. As they took their leave each of them gave me a blessing – a little touch of magic tingle. Well, that was over 40 years ago, and I’ve kept in touch with those guys ever since, and been through the portals many a time, but I’ve still never been inside Annwn proper. The fairies are happy to trade with me, the nixies are happy to transport me, but there’s no way the elves would let me through the gates of their precious city.’

‘How come?’ Demi asked.

‘Because I’d have to Walk the Walk to do that,’ Owina replied, ‘and it’s never been important enough to risk my neck.’

‘Is it really that bad?’ Demi asked. The look on Owina’s face began to mirror the horror on Demi’s.

‘Sweet child, you weren’t planning to Walk the Walk were you?’ Owina said. ‘You’re nowhere near ready. You’ve barely enough magic to tie a knot, and you need enough to weave a blanket before you can consider Walking the Walk. Come back in a few years and maybe you’ll be ready.’

‘It’s too late,’ Demi said. ‘Hafren tricked me into agreeing to it. But no-one’s explained what it is.’

‘It’s only been done a few times since I’ve been coming to Annwn,’ Owina said. ‘As far as I know, it’s a test – of everything – strength, endurance, cunning, wit, and magic of course. Like an obstacle course, with enemies to defeat and puzzles to solve along the way.’

‘Like a game!’ Demi-Lee was thinking of the video games she loved.

‘It’s no game!’ Owina said. ‘This is deadly serious! You’ll be lucky to escape with no broken bones, although you’d have to be very careless to die. About 20 years ago, a young boy was killed – it seems he was allergic to something he encountered. There was terrible mourning, although some said it was a good thing he hadn’t lived long enough to breed and pass on his defect.’

‘That’s well harsh!’ Demi said.

‘People here are tough. They’ve had to be. A lot of things have happened here you know nothing about. Ever wondered why they don’t eat meat?’ Owina asked.

‘I thought they were all vegetarians, or it was a religious thing.’ Demi replied.

‘They got no religion.’ Owina said. ‘And I think most of the folks here wouldn’t eat meat even if it was available. But, truth is, they don’t eat meat because there’s no meat you’d want to eat. No farm animals, nothing worth hunting. I tried asking why, but they won’t talk about it. This isn’t some paradise; it’s beautiful but it’s tough. Walking the Walk used to be a rite of passage, to weed out all the elves who weren’t strong enough, but elves are precious few now – those who weren’t tough enough didn’t survive whatever happened.’

Demi-Lee was starting to feel she was being lectured, so she turned the subject back to the walk, and asked Owina if she’d help her prepare.

‘How long have you got, kiddo?’ Owina asked.

‘I dunno. I asked for a burger for my last meal – how long d’you think that will take?’ Demi said.

‘Well, flippin’ a burger don’t take more than a couple of minutes,’ Owina said. ‘But they got no beef here, so they’ll have to go to Earth to get one. An elf will have to go fetch it, and they can’t see at all well in darkness. Amazing colour vision, but blind as moles at night. When did you accept the challenge?’

‘Last night, just before dark.’

‘Okay, so Hafren will have taken his time choosing someone. Knowing him, they’ll have gone through the portal at midnight – just for the effect. That explains why the gate was open when I got here. First they’ll have to find enough money to buy the meal, then they’ll have to find a burger joint and buy one. It should be with you by morning.’

‘Burger for breakfast? Awesome! This stuff doesn’t do it for me at all,’ Demi said.

‘I know what you mean. What did you ask for?’ Owina said.

‘A MegaMeal from Burg-A-World,’ Demi replied. ‘It’s this tiny little chain of burger places in my home country.’

‘Have to say, I’ve never heard of it,’ Owina said. ‘Is there one near a portal?’

‘There’s one not far from where I left Earth, at the motorway junction,’ Demi said. ‘I always used to make my mum stop there if we were going on holiday to West Wales – and on the way back. Their Krispi-Twist Chips are disgustilicious. They’re to die for.’

 

Chapter 17. Giraffalumps and Angels

It wasn’t the first time Madryn Dencasa had visited Terra. But that had been some years ago. Back then she had sneaked into Terra with older, low-placed elves she was trying to impress, including her first crush. But her family was one of the highest-placed in Annwn, and the offer of full Citizenship, with all its privileges, had been enough to encourage her to ditch her wild behaviour. Besides, the boy she’d fancied had soon lost his appeal.

Now, she was on a quest to assist no less a Citizen than Hafren himself. There were conditions, but these were practical – no use of magic, no outright lying, don’t do anything with lasting consequences. It was a simple task, but it was a good opportunity to raise her profile among the younger members of Light of Truth.

On previous visits she had accepted dares, the main one involving the bridge over the fearful chasm of speeding, roaring lights. She still remembered the terror and incomprehension she’d felt as she’d been dared to walk across, and warned that if she looked down, she could be hypnotised and drawn to her death. It was on her third crossing that she’d dared to glance at the source of the chaos, and seen what looked like giant boulders hurtling down a slope. But there had been no slope, and the boulders had rushed in both directions. As she gazed, she saw, to her amazement, people trapped inside the boulders, peering out of crystal panes in the front. She’d realised then that this was some means of rapid transportation, and been fascinated.

Madryn stifled a yawn as she followed the sturdy little human’s directions, then realised there was no-one watching her anyway. It was a long time since she’d left Annwn’s sheltering cliffs and walls. It was a relief that she’d managed to get directions from one of the few humans with a modicum of intelligence. The other human in the grove had been a reprehensible creature, obviously unable to control its base passions. It was a little worrying that she’d have to deal with more of such creatures in this realm, especially as none of them would recognise her superior Place. Still, they were only humans. Feeble, stupid creatures with negligible magic. It was a wonder they were included in the ‘no killing’ rules at all. Maybe they just weren’t worth eating.

It felt strange that the sun was high in the sky when her bodyclock was telling her it was past midnight. Still, not too late yet, and the adrenaline was keeping her awake. She thrilled as she saw an ugly grey bridge ahead, and realised it would lead her across the fearsome road of speeding vehicles to her destination.

Junction 32! Madryn surveyed it from the safety of the footbridge.

It was bustling, yet lifeless at the same time. A huge, flat area, almost as big as Annwn town, was filled with the little transport boxes, all arranged with no thought for the overall effect. Big next to small, shiny next to shabby, all different colours mixed up and clashing. Who on earth was responsible for the arrangement, she wondered. But then she realised it changed constantly, as people climbed into the boxes and moved away, and other boxes which had been circling like vultures pounced on the free spaces.

At the edge of all this, strange constructions which made no effort to be attractive or blend with the surroundings. It was the oddest place she had ever seen, and she struggled to understand it. So artificial and hostile to life, despite the narrow rows of shrubs and the tubs of isolated, sickly blooms. There was a long, exposed walk from the bridge to Burg-A-World, which appeared to be a kind of tree with a giant bloom reading ‘Burg-A-World’ at its canopy.

There were many bright colours, suggesting a summer meadow or fruit garden, but she could sense they had no scent or texture, and the only sound was the roaring of the vehicles, drowning all other noise.

Madryn watched a group of people emerge from one of the travelling boxes. They crossed the open area, then entered a porch. No-one tried to stop them, which was good to know. Some other people exited the same porch, carrying packages marked with the Burg-A-World icon. So maybe the tree was a marker for Burg-A-World, rather than Burg-A-World itself. She decided to enter the porch and try to do as the humans did.

She cast a low-level cloak, which would make people overlook her until she addressed them directly. Excitedly, she crossed the flat area, touching the transport boxes as she passed. They were disappointingly devoid of magic. Entering the porch she saw a trading counter adorned with the Burg-A-World icon. Madryn approached the counter, a golden coin in her hand.

‘Provide me with a MegaMeal,’ she commanded the servant, ‘with Krispi-Twist Chips and ChokkaPie. And a toy giraffalump.’

‘You’ll need more than that for a MegaMeal,’ the boy behind the counter laughed. ‘And you’ll get what you’re given when it comes to the toys. We’ve only two giraffalumps left, and I’ve been told to give them to cute little kids, not people with no manners.’

Madryn was astounded. No-one in Annwn would dare speak to her like that – certainly not someone with such a low place. She fixed him with a commanding stare. ‘This is all I have. I was reliably informed it would be sufficient.’

‘20 years ago, maybe. Try the cashpoint over there.’ He was pointing at a screen above some buttons in the wall. Was that a cashpoint? If she pointed at it, would it provide more coins? She lifted her arm experimentally.

‘Dear me, love, you’re totally out of it, aren’t you?’ the boy said. ‘Are you with those weirdoes at the hippie fayre?’

Before Madryn could answer, a plump middle-aged woman with short, flame-coloured hair came bustling up. The woman’s clothes were almost Elfish – a long floaty tunic in shades of green over loose, bright orange trousers.

‘Do you do real coffee? Not instant? The biggest and strongest you’ve got, please,’ the woman asked.

‘That’ll be two fifty,’ the boy said, ‘You have got enough money, haven’t you?’

‘Oh, yes, lovey, I’ve got my purse. You know, there’s only herb tea at the fayre, and I need my caffeine fix every few hours. I didn’t dare ask over there in case I got a lecture about it unsettling my chakras. Is that what you’re after?’ she asked Madryn, but Madryn was saved from answering this bizarre question by a strange jangling sound from the woman’s shoulder bag. The woman apologised, rummaged in her bag, then extracted a small, flat oblong which she held to the side of her face. Madryn was intrigued to hear a human voice emanating from the object. She couldn’t make out the words, but the tone was troubled, and the woman’s expression confirmed it was bad news. Moments later the conversation ended, and the woman replaced the object in her bag. ‘Oh, stars!’ she exclaimed. ‘Are you going to the Esoteric Fayre?’ she asked Madryn. ‘Will you do me a favour?’

‘Yes,’ said Madryn, deciding that, as she was only answering the final question, she wasn’t lying. It wasn’t that she felt any need to help this odd little human, but maybe picking up a favour would gain her some human currency, which she desperately needed. She tried to focus on what the woman was saying – unfortunately, it made little sense to her.

‘…only I’ve already set up my stall, and done all my morning bookings, but now my sister’s rung to say mum’s taken to her bed again, and I’ve got to sort out the dogs because I’m closer, and my sister’s got to wait in for a delivery. I’ll be back to clear up – will you tell them that. Here’s my card.’ The woman produced a small rectangle with a tall winged figure in the centre, surrounded by the words ‘Doreen Skye, Auras and Angels’.

‘My real name’s Moonbeam Smith – I was born on an ashram – but no-one ever believes that,’ the woman continued. ‘I’ve always felt more like a Doreen anyway – Moonbeam sounds sort of tall, thin and pale, don’t you think? So if you’ll tell them I’ll be back in a bit – they’ll have to cancel my afternoon bookings. Is that okay?’

‘I’ll do what I can,’ said Madryn, walking away in the direction the woman had come from.

‘Oh, don’t go that way, lovey, it’s only the Ladies that way. The fayre’s across the car park, that way.’ Madryn changed direction, ignoring the way the boy behind the counter was rolling his eyes at her.

The Esoteric Fayre was experiencing an afternoon lull when Madryn slipped in through the open doors, and identified Doreen/Moonbeam’s table by the distinctive winged figure on a card beside it. Most of the people in the room were ordinary humans – uninteresting, totally lacking magic – but Madryn sensed the strong magical field around a woman busying herself with an arrangement of food and drink, and decided this must be the human in charge. She was the only one deserving of any kind of a Place. Madryn approached her, and told the woman she had a message for the organiser.

‘That’s him over there,’ said the woman. ‘I’m just one of the caterers. Hmmm,’ the woman straightened up and gave Madryn her full attention. ‘You’re genuine aren’t you? Takes one to know one. First time I’ve ever met another witch at one of these affairs.’

‘Witch! I’m not a witch! How dare you!’ Madryn said.

‘Oh, but you are,’ the woman said. ‘Magical, anyway, I can sense it, just like you must have sensed me. I’m sure most of this lot truly believe they can talk to angels or cleanse your aura or predict the future, but they’re about as magical as my mop. There’s something different about your magic – if you’re not a witch, what are you?’

Well, Madryn couldn’t lie. And she hated having to rely on such a low-placed creature. But maybe she could profit from the disclosure. ‘I will tell you – but what will you give in return?’

‘Pfft! I’m not that bothered. Keep it to yourself if you’re going to be stuck up about it.’ The woman turned away from Madryn.

‘No, please!’ It wasn’t a word Madryn used often. The witch raised an eyebrow at her. ‘I’ll tell you if you want to know – you’ll be glad you asked, I promise you. But would you help me out? I’m a little confused by this world.’

‘Are you telling me you’re not from Earth? Is that kooky woman who thinks she’s getting messages from Sirius telling the truth after all?’

Madryn told the woman – Katalin – her story. The human witch was impressed. ‘An elf? We don’t see many of your people these days! Well, I’ll help you if you give me a lock of your hair as a charm. It won’t be as magical as fairy hair, but I’m sure I can use it for something.’

This was so humiliating – and insulting. Madryn comforted herself by thinking of the hero’s reward that awaited her back in Annwn. She allowed Katalin to snip off one of her curls.

‘Okay,’ said Katalin, ‘so you need enough money for a MegaMeal. Well, your hair isn’t worth that much, but I’ll give you some advice. If Doreen the Aura is away for a few hours, take over her stall. Don’t bother with aura therapy – takes too long, and involves lots of hand-waving. Tell them you can contact the angels for advice. It’s easy – just look a bit spaced out, talk in a breathy voice, and tell them what they want to hear.’

‘I can’t lie, or use magic. If I do I’ll forfeit my quest,’ Madryn said.

‘You don’t have to lie,’ Katalin said. ‘Just get them to do all the talking, and look wise. Start each consultation with, “I can see you’re troubled – sit down and tell me more.” Use your empathy.’

‘My what?’ Madryn asked.

‘Oh, dear, is that the right word?’ Katalin said. ‘Still, I guess English isn’t your first language, either. Can you speak Romanian? No? Well, just try to put yourself in their position. Imagine how you’d feel if you were in their shoes, and what you’d want to be told, and tell them that.’

‘You expect me to think like these creatures?’ Madryn said. ‘I’m a high-placed elf, not some feeble human who can’t see what’s at the end of their nose. It’s not as if I actually care about their problems!’

‘You really aren’t very nice, are you?’ Katalin said. ‘You won’t get far with that attitude.’

‘Why don’t I just use telepathy?’ Madryn asked. ‘It’ll be exhausting, but I can pick up unspoken thoughts if they’re strong enough.’

‘Fine,’ said Katalin. ‘Do that. But a word of advice. Acting like Miss Haughty Princess is probably a good act for someone who claims to contact the angels. But act like you care about your customers too; if they think you’re not taking them seriously they’ll put in a complaint. Here, pull a face like this,’ Madryn copied the face Katalin was using – a mix of superiority and concern.

Katalin laughed, ‘You look a bit odd, but it’ll do. Use that face on your customers. And charge fifteen pounds a go – that’s Cardiff prices. If this was Manchester I’d say charge double; London fifty quid. Any more than that people won’t pay, but any less and they’ll think you’re no good. Oh, and talk about positive energy and affirmations; tell them if something’s meant to happen it will. And say, “what do you think” if you get stuck. Now, I’d better get on. All the good food’s been eaten and they’ll be back soon.’

Madryn returned to Doreen’s stall, passing another table with an eye-catching display of crystals of all colours. It was impressive, and beautiful to behold, although most of them were just pretty rocks, no use for storing moon- or sun-light. But there, almost hidden in the arrangement, was a fingernail-sized piece of rare sun-crystal. Even though it had been out of sunlight for a long while, Madryn could sense its vibrations. But its inconspicuous placement suggested the owner of the stall, a bearded young man with an open face and beady brown eyes, had no idea of its value. She picked up a lovely smooth pebble in a delicate shade of pink, and rubbed it between her thumb and forefinger. It was colourful, and sensual but devoid of any magic.

‘I can see you’re drawn to that one,’ the stall holder said. ‘It’s pretty, like you. And rose quartz will bring you luck. Have you ever used crystals?’

She didn’t tell him she used crystals to light and heat her home. That she used them to power charms, spells and illusions, and had once got into terrible trouble for raising a storm with the aid of an overcharged moonstone. She just answered ‘yes,’ whilst trying to remember what ‘luck’ was – one of the list of human concepts with no elfish equivalent, she remembered that from lessons, but what was it, and how could a piece of rock attract it? The stall holder then asked Madryn if she was a healer. How insulting, did he take her for a fairy? In that case, she wouldn’t feel guilty if she could get the crystal for a fraction of its true value.

‘Tell me,’ she said, ‘which is the most precious and powerful of these stones?’

‘Ahh,’ he said, an odd little smile playing across his face, ‘that would be the Angelite.’ He indicated a rock at he centre of his display. ‘It condensed from the song of the angels in heaven, then spent millions of years underground, compressing and absorbing the spirit of Gaia. It’s the wisest and the most cosmic of crystals. It can help you if you want to lose a bit of weight too.’ He gave her a conspiratorial look.

Lose weight! How dare he! Unlike ‘luck’, weight was a concept Madryn understood, but she was considered insubstantial as it was. What next – would he suggest she might like to be a bit shorter? Lose the curls from her hair? She wondered if there was a magic pebble that might help her feel a bit more confident around her mother – then realised that little of what he had said had made sense so far, so it was pointless to consider it. Strangely, though, although she could sense nothing magical about the Angelite, the young man didn’t seem to be lying. She didn’t bother trying to read his thoughts – too much effort – but all his body language suggested he completely believed what he was saying.

‘I don’t have much money,’ she said, truthfully, ‘But I’d like to add to my collection. Could you recommend some less expensive pieces?’

‘Most of the small tumbled stones are a few pence each. You can get one in each of the main colours for a few pounds. Maybe after your first customer you’d like to come back and treat yourself?’ the man replied.

Treat herself? For what ailment? Terrans were totally illogical. The man was smiling at her as if he was trying to hypnotise her, but she noticed that people – well, Terrans – were drifting into the room. She needed to start contacting angels in order to make enough money to buy a MegaMeal – and some crystals. She returned to Doreen’s table, and watched the Esoteric Fayre’s customers. Most of them were anxious looking women, but a few were men. Such hairy faces! Elves seldom grew facial hair. But these Terrans positively cultivated it. If you turned their faces upside down it wouldn’t have made much difference to their appearance.

She settled herself behind Doreen’s table, and waited for a customer. It took a while, but eventually a young woman approached. Madryn wondered if she should pull the special face now, or try to look encouraging, the way her tutors had when she was a little girl. She went for encouraging, and it seemed to work. The young woman came closer, and Madryn invited her to sit. She had already worked out a few things about her customer as she approached – her appearance was a ‘mask’, of make-up, artificially coloured hair, strong scent and bright, tightly fitting clothes. But the way she moved, constantly nibbling at her nails – and what incredible nails, long talons decorated with multicoloured stripes – suggested she was less than confident.

‘Can you see the future?’ the girl asked Madryn.

‘I can’t,’ Madryn replied, ‘but the Angels are very wise. Tell me your problem and maybe we can find a solution. If I can’t help, I won’t charge you.’

‘I came to you because you seemed most normal. Least scary, anyways. Thing is…’ the girl looked around herself nervously. She chewed on a fingernail, which seemed about to come loose.

‘Take your time,’ Madryn said, giving her the Special Face. Inspired, she added, ‘The Angels don’t judge. Tell me, what’s your name?’

‘I’m Jenna. Jenna Breeze. Okay, well, the thing is, I’ve got two possible futures, and I want to know which turns out best in the end. I’ve been modelling since I was a kid…’ That made no sense to Madryn, but it was easy to pick up an image from the girl’s mind. Nothing to do with clay and young goats, then. ‘I’ve made good money from it, and I could do it as a career, but I’ve got a place at Uni in September, studying Modern Languages. I really want to go to Uni, live in a new place, meet new people, learn new things. I may not look it, but I love reading, and I’m fascinated by the way languages reveal things about a culture. But my agent keeps saying it’s a waste of time, I’ll never make much money from it, and I might as well develop my modelling career while I’m still young enough. I told him my idea of heaven was a library, and he said he could get me a lad’s mag contract shelving books up a ladder in a skimpy angel costume. Hope that doesn’t insult your angels.’

Madryn made a reassuring sound. She was still trying to interpret the startling image she’d just picked up. Was this really how Terrans made a living? What a bizarre species! She encouraged Jenna to continue.

‘Thing is,’ Jenna said, ‘modelling’s quite boring. I mean, I’ve gone to some nice parties in Cardiff Bay, and got free entry into nightclubs and stuff, but the actual work – it’s just lots of waiting around for people to tell you what to do. So I was wondering…can your Angels see the future? Can they tell me which will make me happiest in the long run? Not the most money; the most interesting.’

Sweet sunlight! thought Madryn. That’s not much to ask! But she had a feeling the girl had already made her decision, and just wanted reassurance. Pretending to communicate with angels would allow Madryn to play for time.

‘I see…’ Madryn said. ‘You want me to ask the angels to foresee the future for each of these two decisions, and tell you which is the best in the long-term.’

‘That’s it,’ Jenna said. ‘Can they do that?’

‘You need to be more precise. Write down each choice, fold up the paper, and…’ Madryn’s eyes searched the table, ‘place them in this container.’

‘That’s a sandwich box!’

‘It doesn’t matter. It’s to stop your thoughts interfering with the angels’ decision.’

The girl did as instructed, then Madryn placed her hands on top of the box and, closing her eyes and adopting a faraway expression, tried to gauge the girl’s almost-spoken thoughts. The part of the girls brain which formulated her thoughts had already done its job – it was only that part of her brain which operated her tongue and lips holding them back. Madryn saw the future the girl truly desired. After what seemed an appropriate interval she opened her eyes and lifted her hands from the box. She took a deep breath. ‘The Angels have considered the matter. They have looked into your heart, and seen that you favour one course of action. They believe it is the right one for you.’

An enormous smile of relief flooded the girl’s face. ‘My agent always says I’m too naïve to make decisions,’ she said, ‘but he can’t argue with the angels, can he?’

Madryn nodded assent, careful to hide her glee.

Jenna took some paper from a small bag and laid it on the table in front of Madryn. ‘Keep the change,’ she said. ‘Although from now on, I’ll have to be more careful with the pennies. Thank you – and your angels.’

As she left, smiling, with her head held high, Jenna paused to admire a small, pink creature dressed in a furry white costume that a slightly older woman was holding. ‘Aww’, said Jenna in an odd voice, ‘She’s lovely. Looks just like you.’

Madryn noted the positive response this earned. Personally, she found the small creature rather sticky and unappealing, but she guessed it was a baby Terran. Children were rare in Annwn, but Madryn had seen images of herself as an infant. She couldn’t help thinking she had been much more dignified. This thing looked as though it was about to start wailing any moment, and its face needed a good wipe. Again Madryn experienced the thrill of encountering such alien creatures, of interpreting their ways, and trying to remain undiscovered.

Madryn massaged her forehead. Although she was elated that she’d managed to pass herself off as an angel therapist, and make some money, the effort of reading Jenna’s thoughts had given her a headache. Humans were such a complex – if decadent – species. Who would have thought it was possible to make a living by getting dressed up and allowing others to make images of you!

But she needed to complete her task and return to Annwn. Was this piece of paper enough to buy a MegaMeal? The crystal man would know – and she could get that sun crystal too. Clutching the paper she moved through the fayre, noting the various stallholders and their anxious, eager customers.

Every stall had a customer or two. People were having their hands looked at, or turning over cards, or listening to someone explaining a chart. The crystal man was giving coins in change to someone who’d just purchased a large piece of striped brown rock. A woman with a table covered with bottles of coloured water was striking an enigmatic pose, eyes closed, one hand held over the heads of an anxious looking customer, while the other hand moved over the display, passing repeatedly over one particular bottle, until her hand clasped around it, and she presented it triumphantly to her customer.

The secret, Madryn realised, was to present a mystery which almost made sense, whilst maintaining that only the truly special and talented could understand it. And the customers – all they really wanted was someone in authority to tell them all would be well – and giving money to that authority was a way of making it happen.

Madryn passed several other stalls as she approached the crystal seller. The people she passed weren’t close enough for her to pick up their unspoken thoughts, but, despite her headache, she kept her attention on them. She was feeling vulnerable, and knew she could easily be exposed as a fraud – not for pretending to talk to Angels, but for pretending to be Doreen Skye. She needed to obtain the sun crystal, and the MegaMeal, and leave Terra as soon as possible.

The sun crystal was still there, overlooked among the more striking rocks. Madryn had already decided she needed to buy more than just the sun crystal, so selected a few other pieces with her eyes as she approached. One each in blue, green and pink –they’d make a nice arrangement in her bedroom.

‘Hi,’ the crystal seller said, beaming at her. It didn’t take any effort to pick up his romantic inclinations. Desired by a Terran. How humiliating! ‘I saw you had a customer,’ he continued. ‘Come to treat yourself, have you?’

Why did he insist she needed treatment? These Terrans were so odd, but then they all seemed convinced they had some ailment or other. Swiftly she gathered her choices, feeling the sun crystal tingle in her palm before she handed it over to the vendor, who arranged the crystals on some padding in a small box. She offered him the paper money, unsure if it would be enough.

‘A twenty? Have you got anything smaller? That’ll just about clear out my float.’ Although the individual words meant little to Madryn, she understood she was offering too much money. She wanted to tell him to hurry up, but knew that would be poor manners. Although he was obviously low-placed, disrespecting him in this world would reflect badly on her, she knew that. She observed the name on his cards – Charlie Wimbush.

Charlie was showing her some larger pieces of crystal, suggesting that, as she’d made so much money so quickly, she could afford to spend more of it.

‘Please, just give me what I want,’ she commanded. She was close enough to pick up his unspoken thoughts, and they weren’t complimentary. The young man rummaged in a box of coins, and Madryn remembered her golden coin from earlier. She found it in her waist pouch, and offered it to the seller. ‘Is this enough?’

‘Not quite, no, but I think I’ve got enough in change.’ He slipped her note under a tray of coins as he spoke, and began to count out coins. Madryn felt a prickle at the back of her neck, and knew she was being watched. Without turning she tried to focus her attention on whoever was watching her, but they were too far away. Why was this young man taking so long? He was counting out coins as if there was all the time in the world. Maybe she should just give him the golden coin in return for the sun crystal, and leave. The sense that someone was watching her grew stronger, and she looked for an escape route. She had her back to the main entrance, but there was a door not far away, with a breeze blowing through it. Madryn turned slowly, and saw a young man – a recognisable type, some sort of guard in a uniform – approaching her, almost upon her. He was staring straight at her, and she knew she was in trouble. He opened his mouth, but before the guard could say anything, Madryn grabbed the box of crystals, and left Charlie counting change as she dashed through the doorway. It led into a bright, breezy L-shaped corridor surrounding an open area which was filled with people milling about. As Madryn slipped through an open door to join them, she picked up the subtle clues which suggested that many of the people there didn’t know each other that well, so they wouldn’t notice she wasn’t one of them. As she slipped around the back of the group, hiding behind some people in large hats, and a spectacular floral arrangement, she spotted the couple at the centre of the event. She didn’t need telepathy to sense the love flowing between them. A marriage ceremony, then. Almost perfect – she knew the guard wouldn’t interrupt such an occasion, not for such a minor misdemeanour. She could mingle with these people, then drift away in a few minutes. She’d lost her money, but she had the sun crystal – and making money in Terra was easier than she had imagined. There were even some young children at the event – surely, in their flouncy dresses, these little girls would count as ‘cute’? She was feeling so pleased with herself she was taken by surprise when a voice asked. ‘And whose side are you from? Darren’s or Kelly-Marie’s?’ Madryn turned to see a small plump woman in an enormous hat. The woman was holding a small creature covered in soft, curly white hair. Madryn understood then that the fake fur of the previous baby’s outfit had been an attempt to compensate for its hairlessness. This little human was even hairier than the hairy-faced men she’d seen at the psychic fair. Madryn decided to distract the woman by complimenting her child. ‘Ahh, she’s lovely, looks just like you,’ she said, copying Jenna’s tone of voice.

‘What? Are you insane? It’s a poodle! What on earth is the matter with you?’

It felt as though everyone was staring at Madryn. She didn’t even have time to think, she just gathered her skirts and fled.

 

***

 

Blackbird drifted out of his dreams, not exactly sure where he was, but aware he felt better than he had for a long time. He was safe here, he knew that much. He could smell the warm earth in the sunshine, and the sweet, clean smell of rosemary. The only sounds were the gentle splashing of water and rustling of leaves. Cautiously, he opened his eyes. Close by his face, leaves and stalks overlapped, and he focussed his eyes in close upon them, noting the details in the gloom, then gazed through the gaps between them, to where Vicky’s clothes were bright amongst the greenery. Hadn’t she been beside him when he fell asleep, or was that part of a dream? He was lying face down, and, remembering his wounded back, made a gentle effort to move. He was stiff and tender, but definitely healing. As if responding to his alertness, the plants rustled, the stalks straightened and the leaves shook free of each other, uncovering him.

‘Hey, you’re awake. How are you feeling?’ Vicky walked over, a small clay bowl in her hands. ‘I mixed this up for you. Aelwen pointed out the herbs.’

‘Smells lovely,’ Blackbird said.

‘I think Aelwen wants me to rub it on your back. Is that okay with you?’ Vicky asked.

‘It’s very okay,’ he replied.

Blackbird lay face down again, supporting his head with his arms.

‘One of your feathers is coming loose,’ Vicky said. ‘Shall I pluck it out?’

‘Be gentle, please,’ he replied.

There was a triangular patch of small, curled feathers between Blackbird’s shoulder blades. One of them was twisted at an odd angle, the way eyelashes sometimes go when they’re ready to pop out but need a bit of help. Vicky sank her hand into the soft, springy mound of feathers, grasped the loose one and eased it free. It felt weird to be so intimate, but not creepy. She remembered the time she’d saved him from hypothermia, and how natural it had felt to warm his skin against hers. But he’d been a tiny little creature then; now he was a full grown man. He lay with his eyes closed, his long-lashed eyes almost hidden beneath his arm, as he lay with his head tucked under like a bird.

Vicky twirled the feather in her hand and marvelled at it. So much subtler and finer than a bird’s feather. Without thinking she stroked it against her cheek. So soft, and with a subtle hint of his smell.

‘What should I do with this?’ she asked.

‘Keep it, if you like. Would make a good charm if I had any magic left in me,’ he replied.

‘I could make an earring from it. Thanks Blackbird.’

And if anyone asks where I got it, I’ll make up a story that I found it in a tropical bird sanctuary. Naturally moulted, not farmed and slaughtered.

Blackbird relaxed while Vicky smoothed the cool salve onto his wounds. He felt his skin tingle, then go numb. It was a good blend, and smelled delicious.

‘Shall I rub some where your wings used to be?’ Vicky asked.

‘Hmmm, please,’ he replied.

He wondered whether that ‘hmmm’ had betrayed how much he was enjoying this, but Vicky just stroked gently where his beautiful wings had once joined his body. As her fingers brushed the scar, it felt as though she was ruffling the tips of his feathers. Although in some sense he’d felt that his wings persisted, and may even be persuaded to regrow, this was the first time he’d sensed them physically. He said nothing, and tried not to react, but as Vicky’s fingers moved over the scars, the memory of his wings returned to him. It was delightful, but brought despair in its wake, as he realised not only had he lost the function of is wings, but also their sensuality. And their beauty. Without them he felt ungainly and disfigured. It didn’t matter that humans and elves were wingless – without those great sweeping curves of jet feathers, he felt half the man he should be.

‘I don’t think I can put any more on here – it’s nearly all gone anyway. Does it feel better?’ Vicky asked.

‘Feels lovely. Special.’ Special was a new word, one she’d taught him earlier. He knew he wasn’t using it quite right yet from the way she chuckled, but he liked hearing her laugh. And she had respect for him now. Earlier she’d sounded close to tears as he’d recounted his beating in Annwn…

‘You knew something like that would happen, didn’t you?’ she had said, ‘and you still went back,’.

‘I had no choice. I told you, I couldn’t survive as such a small thing.’

‘We’d have looked after you. Fed you, kept you warm and safe from owls and cats and things.’

‘But look at me now. Hurt and tired, yes, but a man again.’

‘You’re a brave man, Blackbird. And strong and tough. I can’t believe someone so tiny can bear so much pain.’

‘You just keep breathing, is all,’ he had said. ‘The rest just happens.’

But being called brave and strong in that particular voice didn’t hurt either, Blackbird thought, revelling in the memory…

The delicious smell of the herbs was making him hungry. Gingerly he got to his feet and stretched. The wounds were definitely healing, and the salve had softened his skin as well as numbing it. The scars wouldn’t be so bad now. He still had his back to Vicky. There had been a few moments earlier when he’d been glad he was lying face down, but that had passed.

‘You hungry? I can find things to eat here,’ he said, slipping the tunic back over his head.

‘I’m starving. I finished Heledd’s flapjacks ages ago,’ Vicky replied.

He washed his hands in the spring water, taking care not to spill any of the soiled water into the nixies’ domain. They could get very annoyed about that. Then he searched the grove for edible plants.

Vicky made herself comfortable and watched Blackbird as he moved about the grove, collecting roots, leaves and berries and occasionally conferring with Aelwen. Although stiff from his whipping, there was such grace, such confidence in the way he moved. Not like Dave, who raced through life trampling the insignificant underfoot. She lay on her coat and watched the insects that flitted and crept about the grove. So many of them, so varied. Another thing she hadn’t noticed before, not properly. Two tiny beasts were approaching each other along a grass stalk. Neither seemed to notice the other until they met. Would one eat the other? But after a moment of exploring each other with their antennae, they moved around each other and went on their way. She imagined the one descending the stalk telling the other, ‘there’s not much to see up there; don’t bother,’ but the one going up deciding to carry on regardless. She was surrounded by tiny beings going about their business, paying her no more attention than if she were a rock.

Blackbird approached and knelt in front of her, offering the bowl in both hands. It was filled with exquisite dainties. They were a little like the stuffed vine leaves of Greek and Turkish cuisine, but he’d actually tied them with the stalks of red wildflowers which contrasted beautifully with the deep green of the wild spinach.

‘Am I really allowed to eat these?’ she asked. ‘They look far too pretty!’

‘Sure, is for eating,’ he replied. ‘Enjoy.’

They were divine. It was years since Vicky had eaten meat, so her palate had adjusted to appreciate the delicate flavours of these morsels. Demi-Lee, her palate used to the salt, fat and blood tastes of her meat heavy diet, would have derived as much pleasure from them as a smoker would from sniffing wildflowers, but the subtle tastes delighted Vicky.

Once they had finished the food, Blackbird announced it was time to leave.

‘Really?’ Vicky sighed. ‘But it’s such a nice afternoon.’

‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I have much to do back in Annwn. And that elf will return soon with Demali’s food. I need to be with the young one when that happens.’

‘How will you get the nixies to take you?’ Vicky was confused by all the changes.

Blackbird showed her the crystal. ‘I have this now.’ As the nixie swam up towards him and held out her hand, he gave Vicky a smile he hoped would stay with her a long time. ‘Guard the moon for me, Vicky,’ he said, then the portal swallowed him.

 

***

 

‘You know,’ Demi said, ‘I should start going to school at night. I’m so much smarter in moonlight.’

She was buzzing with energy, and had no problems showing off her skills to Owina, as they stood in the moonlit inner courtyard. The crystal pendant Owina had lent her made all the difference, allowing Demi to focus and channel moon energy.

‘It’s a shame you can’t Walk the Walk by moonlight,’ Owina mused. ‘But I’ll teach you all I can to help you through tomorrow – or later today, I guess. Tell me about that disappearing water again.’

So Demi told her about the glass of water that had vanished when she’d reached for it, leaving just a puddle on the windowsill.

‘There’s plenty of water vapour in the air,’ Owina said, ‘so maybe you managed to get some of it to condense into liquid. And glass is actually a liquid – a very slow-flowing one, but maybe you managed to coax it into the shape of a glass.’

‘But it was gone when I reached for it,’ Demi said. ‘If it wasn’t for the water on the windowsill I would have thought it was a dream.’

‘Maybe you can only work that magic when you’re half-awake,’ Owina said. ‘It’s a very specific type of consciousness – different brain waves from normal. I’ve learnt of similar magic in my research. A lot of what people call magic is just tricks and coincidences – if it was for real it would defy the laws of physics, so it can’t happen in our universe. But some people can alter probability – they’re the ones who have really lucky escapes; some notice things others miss, and some rare talents can get inside the structure of matter, and alter the physical processes. You could be one of those. It would explain why the nixies brought you.’

‘I can still only do magic when I’m in moonlight, and I have to be either meditating or half awake. How’s that gonna help me when I’m fighting monsters in the middle of nowhere?’

‘There’s another way of getting into the right mental state,’ Owina said. ‘I’ll teach you a dance and a rhythm and a chant which you can use to help you to focus.’

Owina showed Demi how to adopt a stance with her feet slightly apart, knees relaxed, hands loosely clasped over her navel.

‘Now close your mouth and open your mind,’ Owina commanded.

Owina showed Demi how to breathe slowly into her abdomen, relax her shoulders, and focus on internal sensations. When Demi was relaxed enough, Owina taught her a complicated dance involving stamping and clapping two complementary rhythms. It took a few goes to get right, but instead of getting frustrated and giving up like the old Demi would have done, she persevered, building on the bits she got right and working on the joining sections. After nearly an hour she had it, managing to get the rhythm right from start to finish, and when she adopted the final pose she felt the power flowing through her, from the centre of her brain through the crystal around her neck to her belly.

‘Now think of a picture which sums up how you feel right now,’ Owina told her. ‘And when you need to get back into this state, just think of the picture again.’

Demi tried it, and it worked. When the magic subsided she leaned against a table and let out a long whistle, which set all the windows rattling.

‘That’s a powerful whistle!’ Owina noted. ‘Learn to find the right note, the one which will resonate, and you could use that whistle to blow something to pieces.’

‘Couldn’t I do that anyway by getting between the atoms?’ Demi asked.

‘Lord, child, don’t even consider it. You could cause a nuclear explosion – rumour has it you wouldn’t be the first. Use the skills you’ve just learnt to hold things together – it could come in handy if you have to walk on thin ice, or cross muddy ground.’

‘I did that!’ Demi leapt back up and hopped around as she remembered. ‘Back when I was a little girl and my mum made me join the Brownies – that didn’t last long! But we went out on a nature ramble, and Brown Owl took a wrong turn and led us through a big patch of sticky mud. It was one of those weird days when the moon’s high in the sky even though it’s daytime, and I remember I made the mud firmer so I didn’t get it all over me, and I wondered why no-one else bothered. That was when I met Blackbird! Everybody else was fussing about, trying to get the mud off their shoes, and I just wandered over to a patch of trees ’cos I sensed there was something interesting in it. And Blackbird was there, and he told me how clever I was. It was the first time anybody told me that.’

Owina raised an eyebrow. ‘That’s an impressive story. And you are clever; you just need the right sort of teacher. I wish we had more time – I could train you properly, and I know I’d learn plenty from you, too.’ She rummaged in her bag, and produced a small box. ‘I’d like you to help me test this,’ she said, opening the box, and beginning to unpack the contents from a whole lot of bubble wrap. ‘It’s a prototype, so don’t go betting your life on it, but it could provide an extra power boost when you need it.’ She finished unpacking the object, and held it out to Demi-Lee.

It was a hexagonal gadget, about two inches in diameter, made of metal, crystals and plastic. Owina pointed out the features – three crystal panels on the side turned natural light into power. In between the crystal sides, three clickers functioned like mouse buttons, and the front panel was an LCD display. It weighed virtually nothing, and was attached to a long, discreet chain.

‘It’s awesome,’ Demi gasped. ‘Where did you get it?’

‘We made it, me and my team. It’s a prototype – the magic is nothing new, but the technology – the human stuff – is cutting edge. I came here to test it in a more magical universe, but maybe you can do that for me. It’s worth a fortune, but your life is more valuable. I can’t believe anyone would be heartless enough to trick someone so young to Walk the Walk. That Hafren wants shooting.’

‘If it works are you going to sell them back home? You’d make billions. You’d make Bill Gates look poor!’

‘That’s not going to happen,’ Owina said. ‘What you’ve got there is incredibly powerful; it’s as destructive as a nuclear bomb in the wrong hands, and much easier to hide. There’s a clever password spell on it, which I don’t have time to teach you, so I’ll have to start it up for you before you leave. The power should last all day – it’ll give you a start up for your own spells, as you seem to need a running jump at the moment. It’s got a translation spell on it too – it’s not quite perfect, but it’s pretty good, far better than any software you’ve ever used.’

Demi held the gadget in the palm of her hand, and Owina explained how to use it. Despite her tiredness Demi soon learnt how to activate the translation spell. She could feel the power stored in the crystals, and with a bit more guidance from Owina she used it to kick-start a cloaking spell. That drained the power, and unfortunately casting the magic to strengthen atomic bonds would have drained even more magic. ‘Only use that in an emergency,’ Owina warned. ‘It’s always better to use your human senses than to try and use magic you’re not quite competent in. How are you with True Seeing?’

‘What’s that?’ Demi asked. ‘X-ray vision or something?’

‘No,’ Owina said, ‘It’s what rock climbers use to find a way to their destination. Nothing magical about it really.’

Demi boasted that she was great at climbing onto rooftops and over walls, so Owina gave her a few more tips to find a path that was almost invisible, and reminded her to let her skeleton take her weight, not her muscles.

Owina wrapped up the gadget and put it back in her bag, explaining she needed to recharge it before the moon set. She promised to return it to Demi before she set off on the Walk. ‘Keep it out of sight,’ Owina warned. ‘If Hafren or any other elf sees it they’ll take it from you.’

‘Am I cheating if I use it?’ Demi asked.

‘You’ll probably be dead if you don’t,’ Owina replied. ‘At least if you’re caught and disqualified you can still return to Annwn at a later date – and whoever befriended you won’t be trapped here forever.’

‘How do you mean?’ Demi asked.

‘It’s the terms and conditions for Walking the Walk – I overheard the fairies inside talking about it. You could back out now, if you wanted, but you’d lose all your magical power and privileges, and the nixies would never transport you again. The one who befriended you – your Blackbird – would be trapped in Annwn forever. Would be tough on both of you, but better alive with no legs than dead with two, as my Grandpa used to say.’

Demi sat against the table, deflated. It was totally unfair, but she now knew ‘unfair’ was the way of things in this world. It was infuriating. She sat and brooded on how much she despised Hafren, the biggest bullying coward she’d ever met.

‘You’re making the gadget glow,’ Owina said.

Demi looked at the object in Owina’s hands. It was definitely powering up. As Owina moved the gadget back into Demi’s sphere, Demi could feel the magic beginning to flow.

‘Maybe I’m stronger and more powerful than Hafren realises,’ Demi said. ‘I’m not going to back down and abandon Blackbird. I’ve never backed down from a bully before, and I’m not going to start now. I’ll Walk that damn Walk if it kills me – let’s see how Hafren copes with having an innocent kid’s blood on his hands.’

‘You’re a fighter, I can see that. But don’t forget to use all your other skills before you resort to your fists. Please take the gadget and field test it. I’ll put a location tracker on it, so I can find you – or what’s left of you – if I need to.’

It wasn’t very encouraging. But it was definitely far too late for Demi to back out.

‘You should get some rest,’ Owina said. ‘There’s still a few hours before you need to be up. I’ll ask the healers for something to help you sleep. Don’t worry; I’ll be there to see you off – and I’ll make sure you don’t go without the gadget.’

 

***

 

Madryn was sitting on a low wall, hunched over with her face in her hands. She hated this stupid realm with its ridiculous inhabitants and their incomprehensible ways. And it was stupid of her to think she could pass as one of them – why had she wanted to, anyway? They were no higher than fairies.

She tried not to think of the mess she was in, but it was difficult. True, she had the sun crystal, a marvellous extra prize should she complete her task. But she still hadn’t obtained the MegaMeal, and she’d left all her money with the crystal seller. Could she return to the fayre somehow and retrieve her change? Maybe Jenna would help her – or Katalin! Yes, that was it, surely she could bargain with the human witch for help. Sitting upright, Madryn dusted herself down just as a young girl turned the corner and stood in front of Madryn, hands on hips. She was short and plump, with fox-coloured hair in wildly curly bunches on top of her head. There was a determined look to her which contrasted with her dress – the frilliest, most be-ribboned garment Madryn had ever seen, the colour of cheap berry juice. It was clear the little girl hated the dress, and would merrily have thrown it on a fire given the chance. She was just starting to leave childhood behind, Madryn could tell – 10 or 11 years old, maybe.

‘There you are,’ said the little girl. ‘You’re weird. And funny. What are you doing now?’

‘Hiding,’ Madryn sighed. Sometimes, having to tell the truth was a relief.

‘What for?’ the girl asked.

‘Because I made a fool of myself. And I need time to think.’

‘Are you an alien spy?’ the girl asked.

‘What?’ Madryn said.

‘An alien spy. Have you been making crop circles?’

‘No,’ Madryn replied. ‘Well, not for a few years. No, if you really want to know, I’m on a quest from the land of the Elves. But I’m in trouble. Maybe you can help me.’

‘Do I get three wishes?’ the girl asked.

‘Sorry, that’s not possible.’ Silly human, thought Madryn. ‘But…if you want, I’ll come back and visit you, and see if I can teach you magic.’

‘Can you teach me to fly? I’ve always wanted to do that,’ the girl said.

‘No, but I can find out what you’re good at, and help you get better. If you do three things for me, I’ll give you this crystal,’ Madryn indicated her pendant, ‘and you can call on me whenever you want.’ Although I won’t always answer your call, she thought.

The little girl’s eyes were shining as Madryn explained her first task. ‘First of all I need you to carry a message. Go to the Esoteric Fayre and find the man who sells crystals. Tell him – tell him you’ve come to get the change for the girl who had to leave in a hurry. Bring the money to me – I’ll be waiting outside Burg-A-World. But if anybody tries to follow you – a guard or anybody like that – return to the wedding party. Don’t be too long.’

There was an outdoor seating area outside Burg-A-World where people could consume their purchases, so Madryn found a quiet, discreet table. She was starting to feel desperately tired. It was early morning back in Annwn, and she’d missed a night’s sleep. Hungry too, but she tried to ignore that – the food here was just too strange to contemplate.

She watched the humans as they came and went between their little transport machines and the buildings, disappointed that none of them was communicating about where they had been or what they had experienced when they’d arrived. There were so many people coming and going, there must be some real wonders at the end of the journey. She was aching to find out what they were.

Despite that, she was paying full attention to everything around her. So she spotted the little fox-haired girl as soon as she left the venue of the fayre – and noticed that Charlie the crystal seller was with her. Webs and snares, what was he doing? But at the same time, she had to admit she was quite pleased to see him. She’d had enough of running away. She couldn’t sense any guards nearby, so she may as well trust them both. Although Madryn was waiting in shadows, the little girl spotted her easily, and dragged the crystal seller over by the hand. Perceptive, then – and persuasive.

‘I got your money,’ the little girl smiled. ’Only he wanted to come along too. Can he join in?’

‘I was concerned about you,’ the young man said. ‘The way you ran off, I thought you were about to throw up. But I’ve brought your change.’ He handed her the money, and she thanked him.

‘Tell me,’ Madryn asked Charlie, ‘is this enough for a MegaMeal from Burg-a-World?’

‘A MegaMeal ? Jeez, what do you want that for? Heart attack in a bun!’

‘It’s not for me.’ She took a deep breath and explained the situation.

‘Wow,’ said Charlie, ‘That’s one hell of a story. J-Maz here told me you were an elf, but I thought she was just having me on, as usual. I’m her uncle. Her dad’s brother. And that’s her mum’s best friend getting married. I’m considered a bad influence, which is probably why J-Maz likes me so much. That and the fact I’d never dare to call her Jessie-May.’ He fended off the little girl’s blows, pretending to cry with pain. ‘But,’ he continued, ‘if you need a MegaMeal, that’s plenty of money there. Enough to buy yourself something too – although I’d recommend the salad bar.’

‘Demali demanded a giraffalump with her meal – a toy, not a real one – and the low-place behind the counter said he’d only give it to a cute little girl. Why are you laughing?’

Between bursts of laughter, Charlie explained that giraffalumps weren’t real, but characters from a book and film for children called, ‘The Giraffalump and the Rose.’

‘Rose? What is that?’

‘You’ve never seen a rose? Well, maybe one day I’ll present you with one. They’re flowers, famous for their beautiful smell. But if you need a cute little girl, J-Maz can act the part, for a few minutes at least. You wait here and we’ll bring your meal.’

It was as simple as that. A few minutes later Charlie and his niece returned with the meal – and Jessie-May returned to being J-Maz. Madryn handed over the crystal pendant she’d promised the little girl, and took her leave. She noticed the way Charlie smiled when she promised once again to return and visit.

Madryn was elated that she’d achieved her quest – and so relieved she didn’t notice the ragged grey clouds that were gathering.

 

Chapter 18. A New Dawn

As the first signs of dawn filtered into the treehouse, Tefyn kissed Pefryn, then took his leave. Instead of heading for the portal, he followed the path downhill towards Annwn, past the twin stones and through the pine wood. When he reached the wide paved road he walked away from the town until he noted the familiar landmarks which told him he’d reached the path to his secret place. It was barely noticeable, just a narrow way between the rocks and scrub. He followed it, climbing uphill, until it led him through trees into a little meadow, crossed by a tiny stream. He’d found this place as a boy. No-one else seemed to know about it – but then elves seldom left Annwn and didn’t like getting dirty, and fairies explored on the wing, so were unlikely to notice what he’d found. He’d kept it to himself until now, not even sharing it with Pefryn.

He followed the water upstream, across the meadow and up a rocky slope until he reached its source; a narrow cleft in the cliff face. The stream gushed out of the tiny cave, over a ledge and into a shallow pool just big enough to bathe in. There were no nixies in this pool – the stream came from a hot source deep within the mountain, which would have scorched them. Here, though, it was a perfect temperature. And filled with scented herbs. A nice touch, thought Tefyn. You got here before me, so where are you?

There was no sign of anyone else, so Tefyn sat on the ledge, his shoes beside him and his feet in the warm water. It was quiet on the mountainside, apart from distant birdsong, followed by the rustling of leaves as Blackbird emerged from the trees beyond the stream and sat on the other side of the ledge. His feet dangled a few inches above the water. The sun was about to rise over the mountains across the valley, and neither quite knew what to say.

 

***

 

There was no-one left at the grove when Madryn returned, for which she was truly glad. The rain had ruined her hair; her arms and legs were scratched by brambles; and her clothes were muddy and torn. And just as she’d approached the bridge over the chasm, she’d had to face some huge, terrible beasts. Their heads were higher than hers – long narrow heads, with cunning eyes, small pointed ears, and flared nostrils. She had crossed the field as quickly as she could without running, but they had started to follow her, picking up speed until she could no longer bear it. She’d bolted for the stile, clearing it the way only someone in fear of their life could, and hoping they wouldn’t follow. They could easily have jumped over the stile and chased her, but some magic restrained them.

She was thoroughly fed up with this world. It had seemed exotic and enticing when she’d visited it by moonlight; in daylight it was shabby and stressful. And the lack of respect was shocking. Those who served in Annwn did so with grace and discretion – here they made no effort to hide their boredom. Were the servants in Annwn bored, she wondered? She’d assumed you needed intelligence and culture to experience boredom.

She’d been so deep in thought she’d walked into a nettle, and in jumping back from its sting she’d trodden in something that looked like a large burger on the ground. It was definitely time to return to Annwn, and the hero’s welcome she deserved.

 

***

 

Blackbird perched on the ledge, the warm water of the stream bubbling between him and Tefyn, gazing out over Annwn. His heart had ached for it every second of his exile, yet he’d almost forgotten just how beautiful it was. Ahead of him the milky blue of early morning silhouetted the mountains. The sun was still behind them, but the orange-pink glow of the few small clouds showed it was on its way. The town couldn’t be seen from there, but the river that ran beside it glinted in the dark valley.

This ever-changing light was the source of Annwn’s beauty. High in the mountains, the clear, pure air and the mirrors of the snowy peaks meant the view changed from hour to hour, as the sun swooped across the sky and her shadows flew across the ground. In the light of a summer noon, elves revelled in myriad colours, whilst the fairies were dazzled and hid. By night, the clear air meant fairies could get around by starlight or just a sliver of moon. Elves chased away the dark with fires and crystal lights, whilst the fairies soaked up its subtler glories. Like Demi-Lee, Blackbird could sense the gentle touch of moonlight on his skin, the way that humans felt the heat of the sun.

It was a wonderful spot that Tefyn had discovered, and Blackbird was touched that Tefyn had decided to share it with him, summoning him from the portal with a night moth. But they weren’t there just to look at the view, he knew that. Tefyn seemed about to speak, so Blackbird waited.

 

***

 

Tefyn was thinking of the first time he had met Blackbird, and Pefryn too.

The fairies had travelled to Annwn seeking justice for Pefryn’s parents. She and her cousin – technically third cousin, but family was family where they came from – had always looked after each other. Her charm and intelligence complemented his courage and directness, and they were known as a formidable team in their home valley. Blackbird had gone to sort out their lodgings whilst Pefryn had gone to the palace to lodge their suit. She had joined a long line of people, not realising she was entering herself as a contestant to win Tefyn’s hand in marriage rather than as a petitioner for justice.

She hadn’t been the only fairy in that queue, but all the others had been sent by elfish owners who couldn’t be bothered to wait in line themselves. Tefyn had insisted that anyone should be able to apply, provided they weren’t already married, and had insisted there was at least one fairy in the final selection. The conservative elves had allowed that through, knowing none of Annwn’s fairies would be bold enough to apply. But Pefryn wasn’t from Annwn, and the unfamiliar name had been entered before anyone could put pressure on her not to bother. In fact, as so many of the elves had brought fairy servants with them, it was only when the tiny winged woman stood up as her name was called and approached the elves judging the applicants that people realised what was happening.

Her answers to the initial round of questions were confused and confusing. It didn’t take long for Pefryn and Tefyn to realise they were talking at cross-purposes, but it was long enough for them to take a liking to each other.

Despite their differences, their wit and wisdom recognised its match in each other. He was tall and strong, but gentle and thoughtful; she was tiny, but feisty and diplomatic in equal measures. It wasn’t long before Tefyn realised this was the woman he wanted by his side. And any worries about settling down to married life evaporated when he met the wide-eyed cousin, open minded, true hearted, loyal to those who deserved it, and deadly to any who crossed him. Tefyn didn’t question that Blackbird was part of his new family. He loved the two fairies more than anyone else in his world, and it was the fear of losing both of them that had overwhelmed his reason and blinded him to Hafren’s deceit. He was trying to explain this to Blackbird now.

‘Do you understand?’ Tefyn asked. ‘It wasn’t just that I thought I was losing Pefryn, but that I was losing both of you.’

‘But we’re cousins!’ Blackbird exclaimed.

‘Third cousins,’ Tefyn stated. ‘Even first cousin pairings are permitted, if not encouraged. And Hafren is so clever – he manipulated the situation so it looked that you’d been sharing my bed, and when you took flight, it seemed an admission of guilt.’

‘I just wanted to get out of your way,’ Blackbird said. ‘Talk to you from somewhere you couldn’t reach me.’

‘I know that now,’ Tefyn replied. ‘And I’m sorry, so sorry for what happened. I almost killed you – I wanted to kill you; I was so far beyond reason. You were careless. You knew you had enemies, and there were others who doubted my wisdom in leaving you to chaperone Pefryn. The two of you had the highest Place of any fairies in Annwn.’

‘Still lower than any elf,’ Blackbird said.

‘Granted,’ Tefyn replied, ‘but it was still too much for some. Even nice people can have prejudices. There are many who still think fairies can’t handle responsibility. I gave you and Pefryn responsibility but as soon as I was out of sight you ran about playing games like children.’

‘That’s so untrue. We carried out our duties, as well as any elves. But we got them done quicker, because we just got on with things instead of wasting time on ceremony. That’s why we had so much free time,’ Blackbird said. ‘We weren’t hurting anybody, and Annwn ran as well as it ever did – better in fact, for the fairies – they knew they could approach us and we’d hear them fairly.’

‘It was too much for some,’ Tefyn said. ‘You ignored and broke so many rules – subtle rules, incomprehensible to you maybe, but important to the higher placed elves.’

‘What rules?’ Blackbird said. ‘No-one minded – no-one important to us, anyway. The only ones who complained were the ones who can’t abide fairies whatever we do.’

‘But that’s the point,’ Tefyn said. ‘They were looking for reasons to show you couldn’t hold your place, and they didn’t have to look too hard. You ignored too many elfish customs.’

‘And what about fairy custom?’ Blackbird said. ‘Of sharing, and trusting, and accepting others for what they do, not who they are. Of making judgements according to fairness, not the height of the Place or the size of the bribe. Allowing people to explore their true nature, not expecting everyone to be ‘sweet’ or ‘grand’ the whole time.’

‘Change takes time,’ Tefyn said. ‘When I was a young man, most elves barely recognised that fairies were people. I couldn’t have taken Pefryn as a partner in those days. Yet now many would consider allowing fairies to vote or sit in council. I was on the verge of proposing it, but I couldn’t now. Your recklessness undid years of hard work.’

‘Ach, stupid elfish nonsense,’ Blackbird snapped. ‘I did nothing wrong, and look how I’ve suffered. Look at what I’ve lost. My wings; my magic; my Place. I worked so hard for Annwn; now I don’t even have the right to enter the gates.’

‘That will change soon, I promise, for you and Pefryn. There’s something up here I want to show you,’ Tefyn said. ‘It may help us heal one another – or at least, help us decide whether it‘s possible for you to respond to magic.’

‘And what about my wings? What happened to them?’ Blackbird asked.

‘Why do you ask? They were damaged beyond repair.’ Tefyn replied.

‘Because Terra has healers who can do wonderful things,’ Blackbird said. ‘They can reattach severed limbs so they are good as new. They use all sorts of materials to replace parts that were broken. Maybe they can heal me.’

Tefyn spoke gently. ‘I’m sorry, my friend. After you were exiled Hafren wanted to throw your wings on the city midden, with all the other refuse. But I took them and locked them into a cold store to keep them fresh. I didn’t know what to do with them, but they were yours, no-one else’s, and it seemed it was up to you to decide their fate. But when I went to check up on them, I opened the door, and the room was full of feathers. Someone had plucked each one, and left them loose about the place.’ He sighed. ‘I gathered them up; now they are in a sack beneath my bed. Maybe you can do something with them.’

Blackbird was quiet, head bowed. Tefyn didn’t know what to say, so let him be for a while. Eventually the fairy raised his head and sighed.

‘Come with me.’ Tefyn said. It was an invitation more than an order. ‘The sun will soon rise, and I have something wonderful to show you.’

Tefyn had been watching the horizon, where the gold of the sun was cresting the ridge ahead of them. Already the colours of the world were changing. The valley before them slumbered in blue-grey shadows, but crimson sunlight was glowing on the snow-topped mountain behind them. He stood up and headed for the rock cleft where the stream had its source. Blackbird took a long look over the landscape before following.

Using the stepping stones he’d placed there years before, Tefyn led them inside. Even tiny Blackbird had to duck to make his way to the back of the cave, where the spring gushed hot and steaming out of the rock. The quiet sounds of the mountain were silenced in here, and the steamy air was filled with the gurgling of the water. There was little light inside, so Tefyn felt his way to the back of the cave, memory his guide. Blackbird’s fairy vision saw the interior in sharp greyscale. He could see clearly the rock seat that Tefyn was groping towards, the hole where the hot spring bubbled forth, and something else too. He wondered if Tefyn knew about it.

But as the rising sun cleared the mountains it shone directly into the cave, and Tefyn, his night-blindness gone, gestured at the same spot. ‘See,’ he said, ‘sun crystals. I discovered these when I was a young man – but they’re stuck fast in the rock face. See how charged with power they are! Put your hand here.’

He gestured towards the largest crystal in the vein – a flawless piece longer than an elf’s hand. After a little experimentation, Tefyn managed to find the flowlines in the crystal, and guide the stored magic into Blackbird. The fairy grimaced.

‘Go slowly,’ Blackbird gasped. ‘It’s like I’ve rusted over. Oh, but it’s good; pain and joy together.’ His voice was hoarse, and sweat ran down his face.

‘Should I stop?’ Tefyn asked. ‘I can feel it flowing into you but there’s so much resistance.’

‘No, it’s wonderful, like rain after a long drought. Oh, this is living!’ Blackbird said.

‘I’ve stopped guiding it, but it’s still flowing. It’s just you and the crystal now. Are you healing?’ Tefyn asked.

Blackbird didn’t reply, but reached forwards with his free hand and wrapped his fingers around Tefyn’s burnt and damaged ones, massaging them gently. ‘That stings!’ Tefyn complained, but he held on. Soon not only were his fingers flexing with Blackbird’s, but the dull, grey flesh began to blush pink. It was draining for both of them, and as the sun moved beyond the cave opening, the stored magic began to fade. Tefyn tried, but failed, to move his fingers without aid. Frustrated, he snatched his hands from Blackbird’s grasp.

Exhausted, Blackbird sagged against the cave wall beside Tefyn. He wiped tears of exhaustion from his eyes, then took Tefyn’s damaged hand in both of his and kissed it. Another tear fell onto the back of Tefyn’s hand. Tefyn murmured in surprise, then withdrew his hand and held it up in the gloom.

‘I know not what strange magic you worked then, my friend,’ Tefyn said. ‘But that gesture made all the difference. It will need lots of treatment, but this will heal.’

They sat for a few moments recovering from their exertion, watching the last of the direct sunlight slide along the cave wall. Blackbird’s feet were in the warm water, and his trouser hems were getting soaked, but he was too happy to care. He had begun to heal Tefyn, and surely if Tefyn was no longer ‘damaged’ that removed one of Hafren’s threats. But then he remembered Demali, and realised the elf would soon be returning from Terra. He should be with Demi when the elf returned. Tefyn seemed to be thinking the same thing.

‘We should leave now,’ Tefyn said. ‘The gates to the city will be opening soon, and it won’t be long until your Little Friend Walks the Walk.’

While Tefyn fumbled his way back into daylight, Blackbird’s fairy vision spotted something in the stream – a piece of the sun crystal. Taking it into his palm, he followed Tefyn outside.

Blackbird sneaked a look at his new crystal once he emerged into the sunlight. It was a small piece, but as pure and flawless as the one he and Tefyn had just used. He wondered how long it had lain in the water, and whether that had weakened or strengthened its powers. As he turned it to inspect it, it flashed rainbows across his skin. If nothing else, it was pretty.

He tucked it into the waistband of his trousers and followed Tefyn, across the ledge and the rocky slope, through the meadow, then along the subtle path that led towards Annwn.

 

***

 

Madryn emerged from the portal just in time to witness the opening of Annwn’s gates. She had been gone all night – how heroic! She wondered if Hafren would be awake yet. People like him didn’t need much sleep, did they? Should she wash and change before delivering the meal? No, she decided she would look much more heroic appearing muddy and bedraggled. She wanted Hafren to realise what she’d endured to please him, to know how brave and resourceful she’d been. She’d heard he gave images of himself to his most favoured followers, and hoped this would be enough to earn one of those.

She strode to the home Hafren shared with his extended family, his wife and his young children. There were lights in the windows – a good sign. She let the door knocker fall, and hugged herself as she waited for a response.

It was a fairy that opened the door. It stared at Madryn as though it had never seen an elf before.

‘I am here for Lord Hafren. I have brought a request from the human world,’ Madryn said.

The fairy stared a moment longer, before scuttling off, leaving Madryn alone on the doorstep. It hadn’t even asked her inside! How ignorant!

A swish of satin announced the arrival of Lady Esmet, Hafren’s wife and business partner. She looked at Madryn as if she was a rotten vegetable.

‘What do you want?’ Esmet said. ‘By the sun’s light, what are you doing begging on my doorstep in such a filthy state at this hour?’

Madryn was stunned. This wasn’t what she expected. She managed to stammer that she needed to see Hafren, that she had the meal the human girl had requested. She had been clutching the bag to her, but offered it timidly to Lady Esmet, who took it as though fearing it was infectious.

‘Did you let it get cold?’ Esmet said.

‘Yes,’ Madryn said, meekly, although anger was starting to burn within her.

‘Good. At least you got something right. Don’t just stand there. Go and clean yourself up. Your appearance is a disgrace.’ She slammed the door in Madryn’s face.

 

Chapter 19. Walking the Walk

‘Hello! Did you manage to get some sleep?’ Owina entered the storeroom where Demi-Lee was rummaging through a pile of clothes which had been left at the Lodge by previous visitors.

‘A bit,’ Demi said. ‘My body’s given up trying to remember what time it is – here or back home.’

Owina made a sympathetic noise. ‘Why don’t you try this one?’ she said, holding up a deep red jacket, with a hood and peplum.

‘That one? It’s a bit… – I dunno,’ Demi said, ‘I wouldn’t wear it around Newport, put it that way.’

‘It’s thick and warm, which you’ll need later on,’ Owina said. ‘It’s still winter out there, and you’ll probably have to cross a few mountains. No-one’s going to be judging your style today.’

Owina helped Demi on with the jacket, which fitted well. The hood was trimmed with some off-white fluffy stuff which was neither fur nor nylon, but seemed to be made from plant fibres. The cuffs were trimmed with the same stuff, and inside them she found pieces she could use as fingerless mittens. It fastened with weird magnetic buttons up the front. Owina did up all the buttons to check they worked, and Demi felt she would get cooked inside, it was so warm.

‘It’s got good pockets, too,’ Owina said, unbuttoning the front. ‘Are you going to take this one?’

‘I guess so,’ Demi said. ‘Although I feel like Mrs Santa in it.’

‘Okay, put this in the inside pocket,’ Owina handed over the Gadget she’d shown Demi earlier. ‘I’ve programmed it to help you as much as possible today. Keep it in the pocket ’til you’re out of sight of Annwn. Now, let’s find you some boots – those trainers are wrecked.’

A few minutes later, as Owina was showing Demi how to adjust the fastenings on a pair of warm, waterproof boots with grippy soles, Blackbird entered the shadowy room. Demi was about to ask him where he’d got to, and why on Earth he thought it was okay to leave her on her own in this weird world, when she saw the bruises on his face and his swollen lips and eyes. Her anger switched from Blackbird to whoever had hurt him. ‘Oh my God!’ she gasped, ‘Your face! What happened?’

‘Elves beat me. Don’t worry, it’s healing,’ he said.

‘I’ll kill them,’ Demi fumed.

‘Don’t. We don’t do that here. It’s done and cannot be undone.’

‘Are you just going to let them get away with it?’ Demi said.

‘The best way to beat them is for you to Walk the Walk and succeed,’ Blackbird said. ‘I see you have another supporter.’

‘This is Owina. She’s from my world, I think. She’s been helping me out.’

Blackbird made a strange gesture, partway between a bow and a curtsey, crossing one foot behind the other and dipping his head. Owina returned the gesture. Blackbird introduced himself, although Demi could tell Owina had already guessed who he was. Being a wingless fairy was a dead giveaway.

‘It’s an honour to meet you,’ Owina said, and her face showed she meant it. ‘I hadn’t realised you had returned from exile. And is Demi here your Little Friend?’

Before Blackbird could answer, Demi said, ‘I wish people would stop calling me that. It makes me feel about six years old.’

‘It’s actually a great honour,’ Owina replied, ‘It just translates a little oddly.’

‘She was six years old when I met her,’ Blackbird said, smiling. ‘It seems I made a good choice. Thank you for helping her. I have heard of you, too, Owina. Maybe we could work together and pool our knowledge.’

‘That would be wonderful,’ Owina replied. ‘I’ve learnt a lot from the healers here, but it’s always good to get a new perspective.’

Another fairy entered the room, and informed Demi that her MegaMeal had arrived.’

‘Awesome,’ Demi said, a huge grin on her face. ‘Burger for breakfast. About time.’

The fairy led them out of the Healers’ Lodge to the square outside. There were some benches up against the city walls, and a Burg-A-World bag had been left on one of them. Whoever had delivered it had left. The food was cold, but that was okay – soggy chips and lukewarm burger were nothing new to Demi. Owina had seen plenty of burgers before, but Blackbird was intrigued, and sounded slightly horrified as he asked, ‘What is that?’

‘A hamburger,’ she replied, before taking a bite.

He looked puzzled.

‘Made from beef,’ Demi explained, her mouth full.

Still puzzled.

‘It comes from a cow,’ Demi said.

‘Which end?’ he asked.

‘This is the closest I’ve seen to real food since I got here,’ Demi-Lee snapped, before taking another bite. Blackbird peered into the bag and pointed at the chips. ‘What were those when they were alive?’

‘They’re just chopped up potatoes. Vegetables that grow in the ground. Look, we wash them first, and cook them in really hot oil. Not everyone lives on twigs and flowers, you know!’ She was starting to wish she had gone somewhere else to eat, but it was too late now. After eating half the burger she took the giraffalump from its box and showed it to Blackbird. ‘These are dead rare, you know,’ she said, but he just took the colourful box and tore it into strips, and rolled up the strips to make beads. By the time Demi had finished her meal he had made two long necklaces, one for each of them.

The snow-capped mountains were dazzling in the early sunlight, although Annwn town in its valley was still in shadow. The mountains looked even bigger now Demi knew she’d have to walk over them. How long was this Walk supposed to take? Pefryn flew down to join them, the copper bangle that had originally belonged to Tom around her tiny wrist.

Soon the city gates opened, and a few elves came through in little chariots pulled by fairies. Although it seemed they’d come for the spectacle, they didn’t bother coming over to talk to Demi.

A few minutes later Tefyn walked through, followed Rusty, who was carrying Tom Gently. Tom looked like an old-fashioned teenager, rather than the old man Demi had known. It seemed that he’d hatched looking how Rusty remembered him from their first meeting in the 1940’s. Rusty explained that Tom would grow to human height over the next few weeks, and Tom chipped in – in a tiny squeaky voice – that he hoped to mature a bit in his appearance too. Tefyn stood nearby, looking awkward. Demi realised he was trying to ignore Pefryn, due to her place as Nothing. She wondered why, and saw that Hafren was approaching on his ridiculous throne. Hafren was in no hurry to come over, taking his time, stopping to greet other elves along the way.

Rusty gave Demi-Lee a gourd with a shoulder-strap. ‘This is my own special draught,’ he told her, ‘It will help keep you going. Drink it sparingly.’ She slipped it over her shoulder, and waited for Hafren to arrive.

Eventually he reached the place where Demi stood, and ordered the fairies carrying him to halt.

Demi knew Hafren was trying to intimidate her by the way he looked her up and down, but she tried not to let him get to her, scratching her head and tucking her hair behind her ears as if she wasn’t bothered. Finally he indicated to one of his followers that they should pass something to Demi. It was a small cylinder, but hexagonal rather than circular in cross-section. It looked as though it was made from wood and brass, but when Demi took it in her hands she realised it was made from something hard and smooth, like ceramic, but light and warm like plastic.

‘This is your Guide,’ Hafren said. ‘As you Walk the Walk you will pass through realms of air, water, earth and fire. The Guide will direct and instruct you in each. To approach the first realm, you must cross that mountain pass up there.’ He pointed, and Demi had to fight to stop her jaw dropping. It was miles away, and so high up – far, far above the treeline in deep snow. ‘Should you complete the challenges’ and the way he pronounced ‘should’ suggested he thought it was a very long shot, ‘Should you complete the challenges you will earn the Prize. Return with it before nightfall, and you will have earned the Citizenship of Annwn. Ordinarily,’ Hafren continued, ‘the citizen-elect Walking the Walk would choose a fairy from their household staff to act as support. However, as your family are not citizens and you have no staff, the point is moot where you are concerned.’

There were murmurs from the crowd. Demi-Lee’s youth and inexperience already counted against her, and now she was to be denied assistance?

‘Could one of my fairies accompany her?’ a middle aged female elf offered. ‘I wouldn’t mind.’

‘No,’ Hafren declared. ‘Only a full citizen can employ staff. And this person certainly does not qualify as a citizen.’

‘Are you saying that nobody can help this child?’ Tefyn asked.

‘Nothing and nobody. Those are the rules. I studied them this morning’

‘Then so be it. Nothing and Nobody may assist her.’ Demi was starting to get irritated by Tefyn’s lack of guts. What did Pefryn see in this wimp?

Pefryn gave Blackbird Tom’s copper bangle, and Blackbird approached Demi with it. She suspected a trick was being played on Hafren, so played along when Blackbird approached her with it, and made as if to fasten it about her wrist.

‘I’ll take that’, Hafren leaned forward and snatched it from Blackbird’s hand. His sneer grew even deeper as he inspected it. ‘An interesting spell – but against the rules, I’m afraid.’ Distractedly, Hafren fastened the bangle about his own wrist. Demi suppressed a smile. Got you she thought.

Blackbird offered Demi an apple instead. She realised it was all she’d get to eat for the rest of the day. Putting the apple in her pocket, she began to walk.

 

***

 

Blackbird watched as Demali set out along the path to the mountains. He had done all he could, which wasn’t much in his present state, but she was so raw, so unprepared. And so unfit. Even Vicky, older, wiser, sharper, and so much more athletic, would struggle to Walk the Walk. Demali would have to use all her strength, determination and magic, and rely on her strange ability to twist probability to create a good outcome. Was that what they meant by ‘luck’? Who could tell. He stood, and watched, as she slowly diminished, a tiny red dot climbing ever upwards, until the path crested a ridge, and she dropped out of sight. Blackbird and Pefryn were the only ones left outside. Silently they walked together to the Healers’ Lodge.

 

***

 

Demi had no idea how long it was since she’d left Annwn, but she was now high in the mountains, surrounded by deep soft snow. It was awesome stuff, dry and fluffy, and would have made great snowballs, if she’d only had someone to throw them at. What a waste!

Even with her hood pulled up she was cold. Although the boots were keeping her feet dry, she couldn’t feel her toes, but she was aware of a blister that was rubbing up on her heel. Her nose tingled and her teeth ached with the cold. The sun was high in the bluest sky she’d ever seen, and she had to shield her eyes from the dazzling light. But, still. The air was full of magic, as if every snowflake was a crystal emitting the moon’s power. Every footstep released a burst of magic which tingled through her and lifted her spirits. Even when the wind blew, chilling her to the bone, it was full of strange and wonderful sensations. She couldn’t stay up here forever, though. Her legs were already aching, and there was no end to the journey in sight. Peering through the dazzle – who knew sunlight could hurt so much! – she could see the smooth snow road leading through dark, jagged rocks to the base of a high cliff, dark against the glare. Trying to see further just made her eyes swim.

So much emptiness! She felt as though all the gods that had ever been were watching her as she moved, tiny as an ant, over this vast surface. She trudged on, until eventually she reached the shadow of the cliff. The way led beneath a rock overhang festooned with wrist-thick icicles. It was damp and gloomy underneath and slippery underfoot. But at least it was out of that terrible glaring, staring sun, and Demi’s eyes stopped smarting as they adjusted to the dim light. As she progressed, the icicles hanging from the ledge grew thicker, until they formed a solid curtain of ice, and Demi found herself enclosed in a chilly tunnel, the uneven floor leading steeply uphill. With one hand on the rock wall to steady herself, she walked through silence broken only by the occasional splash of water. Eventually she heard the weird moaning of wind, and the light brightened.

Soon she emerged onto a high ledge surrounded by cliffs and painful whiteness. As her eyes adjusted, and shape and substance returned to the world, she clung to the rock behind her to overcome the horrible feeling she was about to get swept into the void by the bone-chilling wind that whipped about her. Snow spun down into infinity, and her head spun with it. Dozens of snowy peaks rose out of mist and marched on into the distance, but at her feet there was just a sheer cliff leading down into empty air. Whatever lay at the foot of the cliff was hidden in swirling, pearly fog.

Panic rose in her throat. This was insane. For a moment she was tempted to just jump off the ledge into nothing and put an end to all this craziness. If only she could fly! Was that why she was supposed to bring a fairy with her, to fly her across the parts she couldn’t walk? Maybe she could cast a spell to grow some wings. Ever since she’d learnt what had happened to Blackbird she’d held a secret wish to find a spell that would help his wings return. Well, if she was going to do that she’d have to complete this stupid walk, wouldn’t she? All on her own, with no adult to take over when things got too much.

She thought of her Mum then, and her Nan and Gramps and all her Uncles, Aunties and Cousins. Would she ever see them again? And how would they react if she came home as a fully functioning witch? She would be the only witch she knew anywhere. Except Owina. Owina was there, and Owina would help her. Owina could help her now. She clutched the Gadget around her neck, and was reminded of Owina’s calm confidence in her.

Spreading her arms wide she took a deep breath. It was so cold she could feel it going all the way down, chilling her lungs. Opening her arms she let out her breath, the cold air making it steam like a dragon. Swinging her arms to loosen up she began the chanting dance Owina had taught her. Out there, with no-one to watch, judge or criticise, the stamping, chanting and clapping soon clicked into place, and her buzzing thoughts and worries combined into something calm, strong and powerful. The sunlight flowed through her, charging the crystal at her neck and fuelling her magic. Even without wings she felt she could leap off the edge of the gorge and sail the wind to wherever she needed to go.

She let out a howl of joy and triumph, and for a fearful moment thought she was being answered by wolves on all sides, until she realised it was her own voice, echoing, echoing, back and forth and back again from the cliffs on all sides.

The sudden fear quenched her spirits, returning her to reality. Yes, this was awesome, but she had a long, long way to go, and so much to do. A swishing as snow slipped off the cliffside and narrowly missed her reminded her of the risk of causing an avalanche.

She shaded her eyes from the sun. There was an opening in the cliff face nearby, and she picked her way along the mountainside to investigate it. The opening led into a cave, low and wide, with a steady dripping echoing through it. As her eyes adjusted once more to the gloom, she spotted a faint glow at the back. She went to investigate, and discovered the glow was coming from a portal. Seconds later a nixie swam up and offered her hand. Relief flooded through her and Demi leaned over and reached out. She could be home within moments, warm, safe, relaxed, not having to climb up and down mountains. She could go back to Vicky’s and have a crisp sandwich in front of the TV. Back to fantastic normality! But at the last moment she remembered what would happen if she gave up now – she’d never see Blackbird again. She snatched back her hand just before the nixie’s fingers touched hers. The nixie remained a while, its hand reaching up, then it turned and swam back into the portal. Had it given an approving look just before leaving? Demi couldn’t be sure. But she was committed now to staying the course. She’d just have to get down this mountain somehow. She fished Blackbird’s apple out of her pocket, and ate it whilst sitting on a rock. She’d never eaten such a cold apple before, and it hurt her mouth. Leaving the core in the cave seemed like a bad idea, so she went back out onto the ledge and threw it off the edge, watching as it fell down and down and down until the mist swallowed it. Was that a gentle thump she heard several seconds later, suggesting the apple core had finally landed, or had she imagined it?

There was no obvious path anywhere, but she used her True Seeing techniques, and soon noticed something which stood out. It was a sturdy vine which grew out of the ground by her feet, anchored firmly by roots stuck into the rock. The vine crept along the clifftop for a few feet before it sent down another clump of roots, then another vine which looped over the cliff face. She inched closer to the edge of the cliff and peered over. The vine ran along the cliff face in a steady diagonal line, like a guide rope. And she could see now that there was a path – or at least, a series of bumps, steps and hollows that she could use as foot holds to make her way down the cliff. The mist cleared slightly and she could see the rope led to a wooden walkway about 60 feet below her, just two planks wide jutting out from the cliff face. It had once been painted bright red, but was now faded and peeling. She hoped it would hold her weight – if it did, it would be a lot easier than the path she’d have to take to reach it. If it wouldn’t, she’d have to use the Binding spell.

Demi bent down and gave the vine an experimental pull. It seemed sound. She couldn’t see any other way forwards, so she sat on the edge of the cliff, took the rope in her right hand, and stretched her right leg out until it met the first step. She crossed herself for luck with her left hand, then, putting all her weight on her right foot, swung out over the void. She had picked out her route before she set off, so it was only a moment before her left foot found purchase, but time slowed right down during that moment, and the blood pounding in her ears drowned out the howling of the winds.

So there she was, one hand on a vine growing out of a mountain, the other flapping about over the void as she got her balance. She realised she was holding herself stiff and rigid, and trembling slightly, and knew this wasn’t the way to go. It took a lot of mental effort to calm herself, but she centred herself and relaxed into her stance, letting her skeleton take the weight and her sense of balance find its own posture.

The next step was a tricky one, as she had to slide her right leg between the cliff and her left leg, and slide her hand down the rope to reach the next foothold. Fortunately the steep angle of the vine down the mountainside allowed her to compensate for the fact she wasn’t as tall as the elves it had been planted for. But each step stretched her legs to their fullest. It took a long while, but eventually she was standing on the final step above the faded wooden walkway, the vine continuing along the cliff face and disappearing around a corner. Demi tested the planks with her heel before trusting them with her full weight. They felt sound, so she made her way along them, glad that she was no longer having to stretch her legs so much, but mindful every moment that the planks could give way and tumble her onto the ground far below. She was still clinging to the vine just in case, shifting her gaze from her hand to her feet, so that she was taken aback when the walkway suddenly ended at the corner, with the planks balanced on a tiny jutting ledge. She tightened her grip on the vine. Where was she supposed to go now? There was nothing in front of her but acres of swirling mist. But the mist parted for a moment, revealing another walkway, far, far below her, leading away from the cliff. As her gaze returned to the cliff she saw that the vine continued across it for a few feet, then climbed straight down. And that’s what she’d have to do. Practising her True Seeing again, she spotted the two parallel columns of hand and footholds leading down the damp cliff into the mist.

Centering herself again, Demi took the rope in both hands and stretched out her left foot until it found the first foothold. Shifting her balance, she moved her hands along the rope, then moved her right foot to the appropriate bump to take her weight. No going back now. The vine crept down the cliff beside her, but for now the hand- and foot-holds were enough to help her down the mountain. Sometimes there was only the subtlest of grips for her foot, so she had to grasp the rope to avoid falling. Demi tried to reassure herself that this path had been created specifically for the purpose of travelling down the cliff, whilst ignoring the fact that it had been designed for people several inches taller than she was. And besides, she was really good at climbing up walls onto roofs. She’d been doing it for years and never fallen, so why should she fall now?

Hand over hand, step by step, she made her way down the cliff, singing nonsense tunes in her head to centre herself. She was on the third verse of ‘He Was Only a Lance-Corporal’s Uncle’ when she found herself among the topmost branches of some trees, then her questing foot found a wooden platform. But it was half-rotten, she could tell immediately. She would have to use Owina’s technique for getting inside the structure and holding everything together. For a few moments she dangled, one toe on the most solid part of the platform, one hand grasping Owina’s gadget, trying to get into the right frame of mind, until it all clicked into place, and she sensed the whole structure becoming more solid and stable. She would have to be quick, though, she knew she couldn’t hold the Binding spell for long, and she could already feel power draining from the Gadget. Striding quickly along the walkway, she heard a noise from the Guide, and was overwhelmed with relief to see that a panel had flipped over, revealing the first task. It was making odd sounds too. Unfortunately the instructions meant little to her. A group of pictograms surrounded concentric red and gold circles in the centre of the panel. Peering at the circles – not easy, her eyes were still stinging from the earlier snow-dazzle – she noticed a tiny slot in the centre of them.

There was other life in this part of Annwn, she realised – not just the giant trees, but large beetles like mobile jewels, delicate flies, and small spiders weaving their webs. The fresh scent of tree sap was in the air, as were hundreds of tiny bits of fluff, which got in her eyes and up her nose.

She understood she needed to catch one of the tiny floating seeds and slot it into the box. But how? They were so flimsy – she could never grasp one delicately enough to not destroy it. There was no chance that one of them would just fall into the slot – even breathing out was enough to send them spinning dizzily through the air. She followed them with her eyes, and saw one get caught in a cobweb. The web’s maker scuttled out to inspect its catch, then, realising it was no use as a spider’s meal, began to cut it free. Demi smiled to herself. She wasn’t a huge fan of spiders, but this one wasn’t too creepy – it was a middling size, about as big as her thumbnail. It wasn’t a gangly, hairy thing, but quite neat, with an obvious front and rear, and short legs. It was the ones which seemed to be all legs and nothing else that freaked her out. But, she’d always been good with spiders, learning to charm them before she knew what she was doing. Dogs crave approval; cats desire comfort. It was hard to describe what motivated spiders, but she knew how to offer it, and once they were hooked, they were such simple beasts they would go wherever she directed them. She caught its attention, just as it had finished snipping the seed from its web. Instead of allowing the seed to fall, the spider gripped it in its mouthparts, and stepped delicately along the branches until it was directly above Demi and the guide. It abseiled onto the box, then, dipping down, it fed the seed into the slot. There was a soft click from the guide, and the lid flipped over, taking the spider with it. Poor spider! It hadn’t got mangled as it was spun into the box, but it was now trapped inside. Still, spiders didn’t need much air, did they, and there were a few gaps in the casing. She’d just have to take it with her – she could feel the magic in Owina’s crystal was starting to fade, so she couldn’t hang about.

She continued along the walkway, leaving the shelter of the trees. The fresh scent had gone, and a nasty rotting smell soon replaced it. The ground far below her was wet and boggy, with stagnant, slimy pools in amongst patches of grass and shrubbery. The rotten trunks of long-dead trees lay here and there, and occasional sharp rocks loomed out of the soft green. It reminded her of the first time she’d gone to Aelwen’s grove, but this was much worse than the muddy field beyond the motorway. The worst that would have happened to her there was losing a shoe; here she could easily lose her life. With fewer trees to support it the walkway was even more precarious, and she had to work even harder to hold it together. As she hurried on, a shadow passed overhead.

Looking up, she saw an enormous brown bird, almost as big as herself, wheeling through the sky. It was huge, with a sharp curved beak, beady orange eyes, and long cruel talons on its yellow feet. She wondered what on earth it could eat. There was no food out here, except flies and spiders – and her! It let out a horrible screech as it swooped down towards her. She ran without thinking, feeling the draught from its wings as it passed overhead, just missing her. She ran faster than she’d ever run before, driven by fear. The walkway rocked and swayed as she ran, grasping the Gadget to keep everything from crumbling beneath her. Another screech, and the sound of wings beating the air, and despite the fire in her lungs she ran faster yet. But the walkway was coming to an end – it just stopped, where some of the planks had fallen away, with a great gap between the last plank and solid ground. There was no time to think – she just leapt, hoping she’d make it. But it was too far, and she was plummeting towards the vile bog far below her. Then, for a few agonising seconds, she stopped falling, as the huge bird caught her. She could feel its wings beating furiously as its talons gripped her, piercing her skin even through her clothes. For a moment they hung together in the air, neither rising nor falling, but still flying forwards, then Demi slipped from the bird’s talons and fell once more, screaming and flailing.

It was a soft landing, but it still knocked all the breath out of her – maybe that was a good thing, as the bog released huge fart of foul-smelling gas as she landed. It took only moments to realise she was being sucked into the stinking, squelchy ground. There was hardly anything to hold onto, but by grabbing the scanty bits of weeds surrounding her, she managed to pull herself forward onto more solid ground – only to realise it was surrounded by more boggy ground, with just a few places which would support her weight. She’d lost the Guide, too – it had flown from her hand as she’d hit the ground, and although it couldn’t have gone far, it was impossible to see in the jumble of green water, mud, moss, plants and algae.

She tried using her magic to hold the ground together, but it was such a complicated mix of gas, water, mud and rotting vegetation that she didn’t know where to start. She managed to get all the gas together into one giant bubble so it could escape from the water, but the resulting stench made her stomach heave and her head spin. But as the gas erupted it showed her the most solid parts of the ground, and she stumbled across them until she reached rocky ground at the base of a cliff; the broken end of the walkway dangling some twenty feet above her head. Where was she supposed to go now? There was no way to climb the cliff, even if she still had the strength, and skirting its base would mean picking her way painstakingly through the bog. Leaning despondently against the rocks, she wished there was somewhere she could wash herself; wished she knew what to do next; wished she’d never started this. She uncorked Rusty’s gourd, took a long drink, and sighed.

She’d been looking at the thing for a while before she realised it was alive. It was covered with so much mud and debris that it had looked like another pile of swamp junk, moving slightly in the fetid breeze, until it gave a huge shudder, and emitted a pitiful wail from one end and a pungent dropping from the other.

Demi took a step back in disgust, then lifted her foot as if to stamp on the revolting creature. But it cried out in a strange language and she knew she couldn’t kill something which could speak. She activated the translator spell and squatted down so that her eyes were closer to the creature. Unfortunately this meant her nose was nearer too.

It was the size of a pigeon, although a lot of its bulk seemed to consist of mud and half-rotten stalks. It was difficult to tell what shape it was, but its round golden eyes were about the size of peas. The pupils were round and huge, on the side of its pointy face.

‘What are you?’ she asked it. ‘You stink!’

The creature didn’t answer; it just closed its eyes and sighed, and Demi thought maybe it had died. But then it opened its eyes again and struggled to move. She’d have to rescue it – but how? She couldn’t even work out what was creature and what was muck. She decided to offer it some of Rusty’s brew, and after licking a few drops from the end of her finger, it revived a little.

‘What do I do with you now?’ Demi wondered out loud.

‘Help me,’ the creature begged. ‘Lift me up.’

‘I’m not touching you – you’re mingin,’ Demi said.

‘Please. There is a place nearby with pure clean water. We can wash there.’

Well, thought Demi, getting cleaned up would be nice. She asked the creature its name, and it made a long strange sound, like rustling leaves. Part of it sounded like ‘Faloush’, so she asked if she could call it that. It didn’t bother asking her name.

Demi lifted the creature, trying to keep it at arm’s length, and it directed her to a place where warm water flowed from a gap in the cliff face, trickling down the rocks before filling a shallow pool. Demi washed her hands then her face, and tried to wash some bits of gunk from her hair, before helping Faloush to get clean.

She assumed Faloush was some sort of lizard, with its sharp little teeth, scaly head, and four clawed feet, but as the mud and muck drifted away, Demi was amazed at what was underneath. There were short soft feathers all down its back, and long flight feathers on its arms – or rather, wings. Its tail was long and flexible, but also feathered. A talking bird – well, that wasn’t unusual, but this was no parrot or mynah bird.

It looked like nothing on Earth – but then, Earth was obviously not its homeworld. The closest thing Demi had seen was the archaeopteryx on her friend’s brother’s T shirt. Faloush was more refined than that, as if its ancestors, instead of evolving into the birds of Demi’s homeworld, had become creatures with speech and reasoning.

Faloush shook itself dry and preened, using its claws rather than its mouth to rearrange its feathers. As the feathers dried, they began to iridesce, flashing green and kingfisher blue among the background of bronze.

Faloush arched its wings as though testing them, and made a few tentative flapping hops. It hopped and fluttered up the rocks to the place where the water flowed out of the cliff. Demi could see a pool within a small cave, roughly at eye level.

With a fluid motion, Faloush leant down to drink from the pool, baring its sharp little teeth. As it did so, a nixie swam up, and offered its hand. Faloush shrank back, muttering to itself. And although she was more tired, aching, and filthy than she’d ever imagined she could be, Demi also refused the nixie’s offer.

One the nixie had retreated, Faloush addressed Demi. ‘I owe you my life,’ it said. ‘But it seems I must rely on you a while longer. Is there any aid I can provide in return?’

‘Not unless you can fly back into that swamp and retrieve my Guide. Can you fly?’

‘Of course. Nothing flies as well as my people.’ Faloush spread its primitive wings proudly, and Demi wondered hope it would cope if faced with a real bird.

‘But…you need your arms to fly,’ Demi said. ‘You can’t carry something and fly at the same time, can you?’

‘I can run and carry,’ Faloush replied. ‘That is rather degrading, but there is no-one else to watch, and I do owe you a favour.’

‘Trouble is,’ Demi said, ‘I don’t even know where the Guide went. I can’t see anything but green out there.’

‘Describe this lost treasure to me!’ Faloush said.

So Demi did, and Faloush claimed it could see the Guide in a patch of reeds, well within flying distance. It pointed out the place to Demi, who couldn’t make it out, although Faloush claimed to see it clearly. ‘But the ground between is too soft,’ it moaned.

‘It’s not too far. I can make the ground firm enough to take your weight,’ Demi grinned.

And, within a few minutes, Faloush had left Demi’s uplifted hand and glided to the patch of reeds, then scurried back to the cliff base while Demi kept the ground firm enough to bear its tiny weight.

Faloush was chirruping excitedly as it returned. ‘This is the most beautiful made thing I’ve ever seen. You must be very important. I didn’t realise – I thought you were dumb food like the giants in my world.’ It handed her the guide and stood proud with one hand on its heart. ‘I promise I won’t devour you in your sleep.’

‘Um, thanks,’ Demi said, ‘I think this may be broken though.’ She wiped as much mud as she could off the Guide, whilst trying not to get herself filthy again. After tilting it gently to one side – she couldn’t shake it because of the spider that was inside – she was surprised to hear a man’s voice telling her she needed to ‘regain the path’. But, of course, she had a translation spell now, and the Guide’s strange noises made perfect sense. Why hadn’t she thought of that before?

With Faloush riding on her shoulder and the Guide giving directions, Demi made her way from tussock to rock to log until they found a place where they could scramble up the cliff face, finally free of the vile stinking bog.

They rested for a moment on the sunny clifftop. The temperature was still barely above freezing, but Faloush welcomed the opportunity to bask. Demi wondered how long Faloush would survive in a cold damp place. She took another drink from Rusty’s gourd – it was starting to feel light – and gave Faloush a few drops too.

As they rested, she asked Faloush if it was male or female. The creature looked confused. ‘What are they?’

‘I mean,’ Demi struggled to explain, ‘like, when you decide to have babies, are you one of the people who carries the baby – or lays the egg might be more accurate – or do you just fertilise the egg before it’s laid?’

‘Oooooayyy’, it said, which seemed to be its word for ‘oh’. ‘That depends who I’d be making a new life with. If they wanted to make the egg, I would let them, but I can also do that myself. Maybe I will do it both ways. What about you?’

‘If I was going to have a baby, I’d have to be the one to carry it. I’ve got all the eggs inside me.’

‘You made that decision so young? Or did you hatch this way?’

‘We don’t hatch, we spend nine months growing inside our mothers.’

‘A live-birth?’ Faloush grimaced. ‘Are you sure you’re not food?’

They continued the Walk, travelling through a narrow pass between two high cliffs, where an ancient rockfall had dammed a river, creating the bog. Although they were travelling steadily downhill, it was still damp and chilly inside the gorge. Demi could tell the cold was affecting Faloush, so she asked them to tell her more about their homeworld.

‘Where I live used to be a forest surrounded by hills, safe and fertile. This was before my years, but my olders tell me that there was plenty of everything, and fine strong trees that we flew between. But the trees died, leaving only dead trunks, and most of the food disappeared too. For many generations we’ve eaten what we could find, and a drink was a rare luxury – we got our liquid from leaves and roots. But we stayed there because it was our place. There were better places, but they belonged to others who wouldn’t let us live there.

‘Sometimes giants like you came through the hills to our place gathering shiny pebbles. They would always become excited when they found some, although they must have travelled a great distance in their search, as many were thin and weak when they reached us, and some of them died. We ate those ones. Sometimes we were so hungry we didn’t wait until they were fully dead. If you start at the eyeballs and eat through to the brain they die quickly enough.

‘Not so long ago another giant came from the hills gathering shiny rocks. This one was exceptionally plump and juicy-looking. When it had gathered all the pebbles it could find and moved on, some of us decided to follow it. We knew it was risky to leave our home, but a meal like that doesn’t come along very often.’

‘So we followed it for several days, until it came to a place with fine, healthy trees and a pool of pure sweet water which bubbled out of some rocks.

‘There was plenty of food there – fruit in the trees and juicy beetles on the ground. But the giant didn’t seem to want to eat any of those things and instead it grabbed one of my companions and…’ Faloush’s voice faltered.

‘It ate your friend?’ Demi asked, horrified.

Faloush made a small sad sound.

‘That’s awful’, Demi said. ‘Didn’t the giant know you could talk?’ But then she realised that it was only the translation spell which was allowing her and Faloush to communicate.

‘The rest of us flew up into the trees. We waited ’til dark came and the giant fell asleep, then two of us flew down to eat its eyes through to the brain and kill it. Usually they die quickly when we do that. But this giant was still plump and strong, and it fought back. It grabbed hold of me and tried to kill me by dashing me against the ground.’ Faloush seemed deeply aggrieved that anyone would object to it eating their eyeballs. Demi was starting to regret saving its life.

‘What happened then?’ she asked.

‘I managed to escape its grasp, but I ended up in the pool, and couldn’t get out. My feathers got waterlogged. I thought I would perish there, but a shining life took hold of me and brought me to the place where you found me. Once I got out of those rocks I tried to fly, but I was too low down and got stuck in all that foul stuff.’

By this time they were emerging from the damp canyon into sunlight. The Guide directed them to turn right as they exited the canyon and follow a rocky path which hairpinned down the mountainside. There were still patches of ice and snow in the shade of boulders, but the air had lost the deadly chill of the mountaintops.

Demi hoped she wouldn’t have to walk all the way down, but after a few turns the path ended at a huge tumble of boulders. Nowhere to go but up and over, so with numb hands and aching legs Demi hauled herself up to the top of the pile. Ahead of them the way was lost under a huge rockslide, but to the right a cleft opened in the mountainside, and the Guide told Demi that was the way they should go.

Steam was pouring off the top of the rocks where the sun was warming them, and rolling down into the gulley beyond which was already full of dense fog. She couldn’t even see the base of the rockpile, but decided it was best to descend with her face to the rocks. She was good at clambering but the rocks were slippery, and her hands so cold she could barely move her fingers. Several times she lost her footing, bruising and scraping her knees and shins on the way down. Eventually her boot touched something flat and level, which creaked. Thin ice! She had to turn around awkwardly on the slippery rocks to check out the problem, but lost her hold altogether, and plunged though the ice into freezing water. Thankfully it was only ankle deep, but now she had a bruise on her hip, and a tear in her leggings. Faloush had moved just in time to avoid being squashed. Demi could feel them trembling where they perched on top of her head.

At least this was just a big puddle, and Demi was out of it in a moment. She was now in fog so dense she could barely see the ground. She was standing in a narrow dry streambed, a couple of feet wide, and the grassy banks soon mixed with the white mist. Slender trees were just visible at arm’s length, but Demi and Faloush were cocooned in white silence.

The Guide instructed them to follow the dry stream bed, so Demi set off, limping slightly. Soon there was a soft whispering, then a drop of rain landed on Demi’s skin, then another, and another. Within moments it was like standing under an icy shower, as all the fog turned into rain. There was nowhere to shelter, and all she could do was pull up the hood of the jacket and lean forward to protect herself and Faloush as huge, freezing raindrops fell all around them. Water poured off the front of Demi’s hood and the tail of the jacket, soaking in and chilling her where the bird’s talons had ripped the fabric. It was horrible, but after a few minutes the rain stopped, and colour and shadows returned to the world as sunlight broke through the gloom. Demi straightened up and looked around. The sun was shining directly along the valley, catching the raindrops which hung from every twig. The floor of the valley sloped uphill towards a curtain of glittering icicles. Beyond the ice curtain, a gully filled with snow shone in the sunlight. The air was full of glittering rainbow colours.

She followed the stream bed uphill – it was the only clear path through all the shrubs and wildflowers, but water was starting to flow along it, swirling around her feet. Despite the sunshine, Demi was damp and cold, and wondered if she’d ever feel warm again. But if Demi felt wretched, she could only imagine how difficult it would be for a tiny creature like Faloush. They were tough and brave and smart, and had feathers for warmth, but Demi could tell they were intimidated by the surroundings. She needed to get Faloush back to Vicky and Heledd asap. As she walked through the stream, which was getting deeper by the minute, Demi sought out the traces of magic which would signify a nixie pool. Just as she approached the end of the valley she sensed the magic, and there, at the foot of a cliff, was a pool with a nixie waiting. It took some persuasion to get Faloush to leave with the nixie. Not only were they worried about what waited at the other end, but they still felt indebted to Demi, and were reluctant to leave her alone in this terrifying environment.

Demi persuaded Faloush that they could repay the debt by taking a reassuring message to Vicky. ‘My friends will care for you’, Demi said. ‘And when I return, we can go together to the most beautiful desert, with giant trees, and be hot and dry forever.’ And won’t Owina be impressed with you, Demi thought.

That was enough to persuade Faloush. But as Demi spoke her message for Vicky, she realised there would be no translator in Tanybryn. ‘Ok’, she said ‘I’ll have to switch this thing off, and you’ll have to copy the sounds I make. Don’t worry that they won’t speak your language. Heledd is really good at communicating.’

She switched off the translator, and after a few attempts Faloush managed to say her message clearly enough. Then they approached the nixie pool, and after a brief moment the nixie appeared and took Faloush’s clawed little hand. After they’d gone, a horrible wave of loneliness swept over Demi. And she’d still barely started on this quest. As she turned away from the pool, another panel on the Guide slid up, revealing some more pictograms, and an oddly shaped recess, like a small gingerbread man. Demi restarted the translator spell, and understood she needed to make for the frozen waterfall and release a key trapped in the ice. Now how was she going to do that?

She scrambled over the rocks until she was as close as she could get to the fall. It wasn’t huge – nothing on the scale of Niagara Falls, let alone Angel Falls – but it towered above the slender trees which surrounded them. A huge boulder filled up half the plunge pool, inch thick ice binding it to the cliff it had escaped from years before. There were enough hand-holds on the boulder for Demi to scramble up on top of it, after a few goes which left her even more cold and bruised. She stood on top of the boulder, just keeping her balance, and wondered what to do next. She tried to peer through the ice to see what lay beyond, but it was so full of bubbles and fault lines where one icicle had fused with the next, that she could only look into it, not through it. And there, stuck in the ice, was an oddly shaped metal key, the same size and shape as the hole in the Guide. It was a rusty old thing – but then, had it been new and shiny, she’d probably never have noticed it.

Although the sun was shining full on the ice, causing a few drops of meltwater to plink metallically into the pool, it was obvious it would be months before the ice melted completely. Magic had been used to seal the key into the ice, but she didn’t have the spell to release it. Maybe if she used the Gadget to focus the sun’s warmth she could melt a hole.

She tried, but she was still terrible for wasting magic, and she was soon exhausted and headachy, and she could sense the Gadget’s power was running low. Despite all her effort, any warmth that had got into the key had soon been sucked out by the ice. The only other magic she knew was getting between the atoms and forcing them apart – but how would she know when to stop? She remembered Owina’s warning that she could destroy the whole mountain if she wasn’t careful. Maybe she could use her power whistle? She remembered a video she’d seen in Physics about the science behind shattering a wineglass – if you got the note just right, you could make any object vibrate violently. Could she use that to release the key? There was no harm in trying.

She filled her lungs and began to whistle, using Owina’s technique to focus it into a powerful sound beam. It took a while to find the right frequency, but soon she could sense the key buzzing in the ice. She put all the power she could into the whistle, willing the key to break free. It was working! The curtain of ice was ringing along with her whistle, the wild sound filling the narrow valley. But how could she get the key out of all that ice?

All of a sudden, with a deafening roar, the ice curtain broke apart into thousands of fragments. With chunks of ice falling all around her, Demi covered her head with her arms, and leapt into the darkness behind the waterfall to escape. Blocks of ice – some as big as her head – rained all around and over her as they bounced off the boulder and into the cave.

As the chaos subsided, she raised herself up on whatever parts of her body would still bear weight. Cut, bruised and hurting all over, the effort made stars dance before her eyes. Was that blood dripping down the side of her face? Rolling onto her side, she groaned as she put weight on another injury. She had received several blows to her head from the ice, and, touching the various spots, wasn’t surprised when her hand came away red and sticky. Slowly fury built up in her, and if Hafren had been anywhere nearby she’d have torn him to pieces. But he was safe in Annwn, surrounded by people to protect him and wait on him, while she was out here, all alone. The adrenaline coursing through her veins helped her get to her feet – and made the Gadget begin to glow, just when it seemed on the point of shutting down. She was stunned and bleeding, but not dead yet. She couldn’t possibly be in this much pain if she was dead. She could still do this thing – if she could only find the key. The Guide wasn’t being much help –it just kept repeating the same instructions over and over, telling her to insert the key into the slot. She wished Faloush was still with her – but he was so tiny he’d probably have been killed in that catastrophe. Thinking of Faloush made her think of small animals in general. There was something about them that would be useful, if she could only remember it. What was it about little creatures? Oh, yes, she could charm them easily. She still had the spider in the guide, but would that be any use for finding a key in the dark? Probably not. But there were bats in the cave, she realised, fluttering about in panic. What did a bat want? she wondered. It took her a few minutes to lock her mind with the tiny creatures, but soon she found one which was younger and more malleable than the others. She managed to soothe it, making vague promises that everything would be alright. As their minds meshed, she realised she could ‘see’ with the bat’s senses, and instead of dim light she was sensing the world by sharp echolocation. It was brilliant – she just had to stand still and pick up what the bat sensed as it flew about the cave. It didn’t take long to find the key, although it was wedged in an incredibly awkward spot. Demi encouraged the bat to fly back and forth over the spot as she dragged her weary, bruised body across the rocky, uneven cave floor to the key. Fortunately the magnetic buttons on the jacket were strong enough to fish the iron key out of its nook, allowing her to finally place the key into the slot in the Guide, and shut the dratted machine up.

She kept her mind meshed with the young bat’s as it continued to fly around the cave. It was incredible that there were so many bats, yet they didn’t collide with each other. More and more of the bats were settling back into their roost, and as the space inside the cave cleared, Demi sensed a passage at the back of the cave, leading deep into the mountain. A quick check with the Guide confirmed this was the way she should go. But it was dark as the devil’s armpit in the passage, and the glow from Owina’s Gadget wasn’t enough to light the way. She’d have to hold on to this bat for a while, and use it to guide her.

Echolocation is a strange sense. Initially Demi used the inputs from the bat’s prime sense to feed her own prime sense – vision – but there were some nasty creeping, scuttling things in the cave she’d rather not have known about, so she just used it to guide her footsteps. That worked fine, until she stumbled over something which hadn’t concerned the bat, and fell, jarring all her injuries at once.

‘Stupid bat!’ she thought, and sensing her fury it fled, taking its echolocation with it. Demi was left alone with just stars of pain in her eyes.

 

***

 

Madryn, too, was having a bad day. Was anyone going to appreciate the heroic efforts she’d made in her journey to Terra? Instead of being praised when she reached her home, she’d been scolded for her dishevelled appearance and sent upstairs to wash and change, her mother’s horrified shrieks still ringing in her ears.

All of a sudden everything was too much effort, and she’d barely managed to drop her torn, muddy clothes on the floor before collapsing onto the bed. She lay there, staring at a spot on the wall, digging her nails into her palms, before drifting into uneasy sleep.

 

***

 

The darkness and silence were so profound, Demi wondered for a moment if she was still alive. But she could feel her heart thudding in her chest, and her rapid breath, escalating towards panic. She was all alone – except for the vile creepy crawlies which even now could be plotting to creep up on her and crawl down the back of her neck. Indecision paralysed her. Fortunately the Guide piped up with ‘continue straight ahead to the next challenge’. As if this wasn’t a challenge enough! Her heart was racing, as fear and anger fought for control, and as she shifted her position she realised the Gadget was glowing faintly once more. Of course! Anger was an energy, and she had every right to feel furious. Now that her eyes were used to the darkness, the glow from the Gadget was enough to stop her walking into the walls.

Hauling herself to her feet, she dragged herself along the passageway, until eventually she sensed a faint breeze on her face – a warm dry breeze, something she thought she’d never feel again. The journey seemed to take forever, and she felt as if she was lost in space, but eventually she realised there was a faint patch of grey light ahead, which brightened, until she stepped out of the passage into a beautiful crystal-lit cavern. A dry, warm cavern.

Compared to the passage, this cave was paradise. The ceiling was a few feet above Demi’s head, not lost in darkness. That, and the soft golden glow produced by the crystals placed here and there on niches and in ledges, gave it a comforting, homely feel. There were no cobwebs or creepy crawlies in here – maybe the magic from the crystals had driven them away.

Roughly in the centre of the cave, a flat rock of a dark and glinting sort of stone supported a wooden box. It was tall and narrow, obviously ancient, carved and inlaid with brass and gemstones. It would have taken months for a master craftsman to create, but to Demi it looked hideous and old-fashioned.

The Guide instructed her to open the box, and select the one true object, ignoring all illusions.

As she circled the plinth, looking for the keyhole, she saw something that made her stop dead – a trail of tiny footprints in the dust. Someone else had been here! But then she realized, of course they had. Someone would have had to put the key in the ice, and bring the box of illusions from Annwn. The knowledge that real physical effort had been involved, as much as magic, was hugely comforting.

It took her a while to work out how to fit the oddly shaped key into the keyhole, but once she managed it, the result was more wonderful than a plain spell. The box unfolded gracefully, its panels slipping and tumbling, whilst a shower of sparkles – which turned out to be glitter – hid the mechanical details. But when the box was unfolded and she peered inside, it took her breath away.

The box held an infinity of space, where six orbs slowly span and circled. They looked small enough to fit in her palm, yet simultaneously as huge as planets. One glowed as if red-hot. The next was surfaced in swirling blue and white; a miniature earth. Another, a disturbing shade of raw flesh, pulsed as if alive. One, as dull and dreary as a ball of lead, sucked the hope right out of her. She looked away from that one, and found the next enchanting. The more she looked, the more details were revealed, layer upon layer of lacy designs, one behind another, each seeming to grow and fill her vision, until she felt it was pulling her inside itself. She pulled herself back, and focussed her gaze on the floor of the cave until she regained her control. The sixth orb was pretty, with twinkling lights chasing over its golden surface.

Demi knew none of these could be the genuine orb. It had to be in there, but she couldn’t see it. She scooped up some of the glitter and scattered it over the illusions. A few sparkles stuck to something inside the box, so she scattered a little more. It was invisible in the darkness, but they outlined something spherical. Gently she reached in and lifted something cool and almost weightless. One by one, the remaining orbs burst, evaporated, fizzed out or unwound, leaving nothing but that familiar magic smell. She lifted the orb out of the box and brought it up to her eyes.

It was so delicate, and so beautiful. Knowing it had been made by real hands made it even more special than Hafren’s clever illusions. A bubble of glass, so fine it hardly affected the light passing through it. Except for something she took to be a flaw, where the glass was much thicker. But as she twirled it she realised the flaw was a lens which shrank the image of the cave and turned it upside down. She toyed with it for a while, watching the image change as she manipulated it, not realising how it was starting to mesmerise her. She’d completed three tasks; she’d hardly rested all day; and she was exhausted. She leaned against the wall of the cave, on a comfortable ledge, and rolled the orb into the hole that had opened up in the top of the Guide. Leaning her head on her forearms, she didn’t even realise she was falling asleep, until her nodding head touched one of her bruises, and the pain woke her up again. Dammit, she had to keep going, and she was still cold and damp – even colder now she’d stopped moving. At least she was finally making progress with the tasks. It was hard to believe she’d ever get back to the real world – she was starting to feel like she’d been in this cave forever. Checking there was nothing she’d missed, she got back to her feet and followed the small footprints out of the cave.

At least this passage was lit by crystals – and the Guide confirmed this was the right route. After just a few moments the passage widened into another small cave. A male fairy stood within, preening his wings, next to a little wagon on rails. The fairy looked up as she entered.

‘Oh, there you are,’ he said, shaking out his wings and climbing into the back seat of the little wagon. He indicated the front seat to Demi, inviting her to sit there. She took her seat, and realised the wagon was at the top of a steep slope which led down into the depths of the mountain. ‘Thought I might as well wait,’ the fairy said, ‘or I’d have had to send it back up to you, and it took forever to come up here with that box.’ He huffed irritably. ‘You left it back there, didn’t you? Typical! Wait there, there’s something I need to tell you.’ He was clambering over the side of the wagon, and caught his foot on a lever as he got out. He gave another irritable grunt, but didn’t turn round to see what had hurt him. His irritability intimidated Demi, and she didn’t say anything until she suddenly realized the wagon had started rolling. It took a moment to get the grumpy fairy to take notice of her, and when he turned and realized what had happened, his face was a picture.

‘Oh, stars!’ he exclaimed. ‘Push that whatsit forwards until it clicks – that’s right, it’ll activate the thingummies. When you get to the bottom pull it to the middle to stop, and right back to send it back up to me. Oh, and when you meet…’ but his words were lost in the clicking of the wheels over the rails. Whatever the thingummies were, they seemed well and truly activated. Although it was no longer accelerating, the wagon was zooming down the rails, and Demi had to tuck her head down to make sure she didn’t get knocked out by any low-hanging pieces of rock. The carriage was open-sided, and the breeze made her shiver, but it soon dried her out. As she rolled downhill the air got warmer and warmer. About time! Still exhausted, she was quite content to sit in the little wagon, rocking gently with its motion. There was nothing to see except the rock wall hurtling past her, illuminated by the little wagon’s crystal headlight, but that was okay. Down and down she went, the air getting so warm that she removed her jacket, then rolled it up and used it as a pillow. She was nodding off to sleep when she noticed it was getting lighter, and moments later she rolled out of the mountainside into hot, bright sunlight. The tracks were level here, and the wagon was approaching a little platform. Reluctantly she slipped the lever to the ‘hold’ position, and scrambled out of the wagon. She slipped the lever further back, and sat on the platform, watching as the little carriage returned to the depths of the huge mountain which blocked out half the sky above her.

Demi-Lee lay on her back on the platform for a while, resting and warming. Only one more challenge to meet, and finally she was out of the cold and the damp. But the sun was already halfway down the sky, and she had to return to Annwn before sunset. She sat up, and took a swig of Rusty’s brew. It was bathwater warm. In fact, it was so hot at the foot of the mountain that she was starting to sweat. She’d almost forgotten that was possible. Reluctantly she got to her feet, and surveyed the area around her. There was no path of any kind. The grumpy fairy must have come this way, but then again, he would have flown.

The rails stopped at a set of buffers just beyond the platform. It was surrounded by dry, whispering grass, with just a few outcrops of rock and small thorny trees poking up here and there. There wasn’t even an obvious exit from the platform – she’d have to jump down. So, which direction? She referred to the Guide, which told her to ‘locate that which is concealed in the wide open.’ What on earth did that mean?

A glint of something ahead and to the left caught her attention, but when she looked directly at it, it vanished. But it left behind an absence which reminded her of Aelwen’s Grove. A cloak? She decided to circle round the area, and see if she could sense any magic.

The dry heat was better than the damp cold she’d endured so far, but it was still exhausting having to pick her way through, over and around the rocks and clumps of grass. Even taking off as much clothing as she could and carrying it, she was soon covered in sweat, chaff and dust. She really hoped she was heading in the right direction – she couldn’t bear the thought that she was wasting time and energy here.

The Guide was no help, but she could sense magic emanating from a place not too far away. She kept going, walking in a wide spiral as it was impossible to approach it directly. As well as the magic, she got the distinct feeling she was being observed. After completing two circuits, she was close enough to know there was definitely a cloaking spell over something nearby. A very anonymous sort of something, of course – that was the way cloaking spells worked. In fact, the very fact that the spot she was circling looked so boring and identical to everywhere else confirmed her suspicions.

Not only was the sense of someone else’s magic growing stronger as she circled, but her own magic was starting to respond. She was getting into the rhythm of walking, reciting Owina’s chant in her head. With one hand on her belly and the other on Owina’s Gadget, she had quite a nice little tingle going on.

‘Sweet sunlight,’ a male voice interrupted, ‘does your sort never learn? Another few paces and you’ll complete three turns widdershins. With the magic you’re generating, who knows what could happen?’ There was a brief shimmer as a cloak dissolved, revealing a young male elf dressed in Light of Truth’s drab colours. He was standing on a rocky outcrop glaring down at Demi, who was now knee-deep in whispering straw.

‘Don’t just stand there gawping,’ he snapped, ‘Hand me your Guide.’ She passed it over, and he held it at arm’s length, as though worried it was something contagious. Then again, it was still a bit grubby from where it had fallen in the swamp. Demi suppressed a smirk at the thought that he would get his pristine robes dirty.

Beside him on the rocks a complicated apparatus stood in the sunlight. It was made of the same odd plastic as the Guide, a tripod with lots of knobs on it. He slotted the Guide into the apparatus, and tilted it towards the sun.

‘Why isn’t it working?’ he said, although it wasn’t clear if he was talking to himself or Demi.

Demi started to explain about the spider trapped in the box, but the elf was paying no attention to her. He lifted up the Guide and peered in at the orb, and shrieked when he saw the magnified spider inside. Demi couldn’t help laughing at him. The elf didn’t even bother asking for an explanation; he just pressed on one of the side panels in a way which caused it to pop open. The spider was flung out and scuttled to a safe crevice in the rocks.

‘Any more surprises in here?’ the elf sneered, peering through the open panel into the guide. ‘I see you managed to trap an oil-seed. It should be enough.’

He snapped the panel back into place and replaced the guide in the stand, tilting it back towards the sun. ‘That’s better,’ he muttered.

Demi had no idea what she was supposed to do next, and asked the elf if she was meant to collect another object for the Guide.

‘Oh, you haven’t been trained, have you,’ the elf asked distractedly. ‘Just cloak against the fire, and if you survive that, you can try for the final reward.’

‘Fire?’ said Demi-Lee, but the elf didn’t respond. A tiny wisp of smoke coming from the base of the guide was followed by a small jet of blue flame, as the oil and the down of the seed ignited, setting fire to the grass just in front of Demi.

Cloak? She tried to get into the frame of mind to cast the spell, but there was already a flame burning down the stalk, and as that grew it ignited the grass all around it. She couldn’t get calm; nor was there enough magic left in the Gadget to kick-start a spell. Her instincts took over and she ran, struggling through the knee high grass to the next outcrop. It wasn’t far, but the grass tripped and tangled her, and she stumbled on hidden rocks. She could hear the crackling of the flames as the fire began to grow. She reached the rocks and scrambled up like a baboon. As she turned, she realised the fire had hardly spread yet. But the flames were already three feet tall. By the time they reached her they’d be way above her head, and her tiny refuge was surrounded by dry grass.

Steadying her breathing she tried to put her mind in the right state, and made a second attempt to cast a cloak, but just as she thought it was working her nerves failed her. The Gadget was so low on power it had gone into sleep mode, and even her fear couldn’t wake it. She needed to get above the flames – but how?

There, in a crack in the rock, was a tiny seedling – a couple of inches of stalk and leaves, but she could see it was a miniature version of the thorn trees which dotted the landscape. Could she make it grow big enough to raise her above the flames? She remembered the magic she’d done the first day in Aelwen’s grove, when she’d made the berry grow red and ripe. All she needed was sunlight and a crystal – and she had those. Within seconds she was pouring energy into the seedling, and watching as the stalk began to respond, slowly at first, then faster and faster, leaves becoming twigs, then branches, as she poured all the sunlight she could into it and willed it to grow.

The tree was growing in front of her eyes, but it wasn’t fast enough – it was still only a foot and a half tall, and nowhere near strong enough to bear her weight. She could smell smoke now, and the crackling of the flames was getting louder, but she daren’t remove any of her attention from the tree and the spell she was casting. She poured all the magic she could into the tree, focussing on the trunk and encouraging that to grow as tall and broad as possible. She realised if she made the wood less dense it would grow quicker, and adjusted the spell accordingly, but it still wasn’t fast enough. The effort needed was draining her own energy reserves and giving her a splitting headache. Although sweat was pouring off her, the sensation of the sunlight and magic flowing through her was incredible; she was tingling all over despite her exhaustion, and felt like she was blazing herself.

But the flames were racing through the grass, surrounding her on her pitiful refuge, and now she could feel their heat on her skin. Was that awful smell her hair starting to singe? The air was full of smoke, blocking out the sunlight, and Demi was dizzy and exhausted. Ten foot tall flames were approaching her, and she was tempted to curl up and let the fire sweep by, hoping she would survive it somehow. But she wouldn’t give up; not yet. Maybe…there was no more sunlight left to power the spell, but the power of the fire was all around her; heat and smoke and light. Fire was her element, wasn’t it? She realised she was hunched over, tears and sweat streaming down her face. Straightening up, she dropped the clothes she was carrying on the rocks, wiped her face on the hem of her T-shirt, then stretched her arms up to the sky and let the fire in.

 

***

 

Watching from a distance, the young elf had had no idea what the ridiculous human had been attempting. She was spilling magic all over the place – he could sense the backwash – whilst trying to cast an irrelevant spell, but now the scene was changing. The smoke and flame began to spin and spiral around the girl, so that for a few moments it obscured her. Then it gathered into a braid of dull black and flaming orange which twisted around itself, then entered her. But instead of recoiling, she swallowed it all and began to blaze. Sweet sunlight, had she no idea what she was doing? If it started a chain reaction, she would explode! And there was nowhere for him to hide – he would have to trust his cloak would protect him. Maybe he should crouch down behind the rocks for safety. But just as he was starting to get worried, the girl swallowed up the last of the fire. She stood for a moment, radiating power, then a look of stunned confusion crossed her face and she folded into a heap. The sapling beside her wavered for a moment, then imploded with a sharp crack. There was no trace of flame now, just blackened grass between the two outcrops. He let his cloak dissolve, and waited.

 

***

 

Pain is nature’s way of telling you you’re still alive, Demi thought. She was burnt in places she didn’t even want to think about, but the danger had gone, and she had survived her final ordeal. Her throat was raw and her nose full of soot, but as her head cleared she realised she was still buzzing with magic, and that wasn’t getting any less. She lay still for a few minutes, letting the magic wash over and through her. Already the pain was diminishing, but the buzzing was still strong. All her cuts and bruises were itching furiously, as if they were healing super-fast. The raw throbbing of the blister on her heel was starting to fade. There was a strange feeling somewhere deep inside her like nothing she’d ever imagined, warm and pulsing. As she tried to sit up, she felt something pulling on the skin at her throat. It was Owina’s Gadget, melted out of shape and fused to her skin. She tried to peel it free, but it was stuck fast. Reaching behind her head, she undid the catch and let the loose ends of the chain fall either side. It was totally wrecked, and she grimaced as she wondered how she’d explain the damage to Owina. Gingerly Demi lifted the top half of her body, so she was kneeling on the rocky outcrop. It had smoothed beneath her, as though the rock had melted. Where the sapling had been she saw an impressive crystal, sparks of fire at its heart. Was that what had become of the tree? she wondered. She slipped it into the jacket pocket and got to her feet. She had expected to be stiff and stumbling, but hopped down from the rocks and crossed the smouldering ground to the elf as if she was walking on air. That blister was definitely healing. The elf just watched as she approached, trying to appear disinterested, but did he recoil slightly? The sound of beating wings alerted her to the fact the grumpy fairy was returning, clutching the box of illusions to his chest. He landed nimbly and placed the box on the rocks, then gave Demi a long appraising look as she approached.

By the time Demi reached the rocky outcrop, the fairy had disappeared among the rocks, leaving the box of illusions beside the elf. The elf was still sneering.

‘What was all that drama? Why didn’t you just cloak? Walking the Walk is a test for low-placed elves to become Citizens, not a way of turning silly humans into fairies.’

Demi fought to control her new powers, but this elf was so annoying she really had to work hard to swallow her fire. ‘Can I just go home now?’ she asked, ‘I mean to Annwn? Somewhere I can get some food and a bath. I’m stinkin’ and starving.’

‘You’re wasting a lot of magic, that’s for sure,’ the elf said. ‘No wonder you’re hungry.’

Demi noticed the ground about her feet was sprinkled with green shoots, which grew taller even as she watched. And she was tingling all over. She reached out to the rock, and sent a bolt of magic through it, leaving a vein of obsidian in the sandstone.

‘Can I go now?’ she repeated.

‘You haven’t answered the riddle. If you answer correctly, I will give you the Prize which earns you the rights of a Citizen, and direct you to the nearest portal. Should you give a wrong answer, you’ll have to make your own way back, on foot, empty-handed.’

‘Just ask the question,’ Demi sighed.

‘Impatient, aren’t you? Very well. When you found me I was hidden behind a cloaking spell. But what is the one thing even the most skilful magician can’t hide?’

Demi thought for a while, then got bored with thinking, and said, ‘Magic. You can’t hide magic under a cloak because the cloak is magic. And that’s how I found you.’

The elf scoffed. ‘That’s a ridiculous answer. The answer is “Love”. “Even the most skilful magician can’t hide his love”. Surely you know the story of Glaya and Vermod?’

‘What? Plenty of people hide their love for each other!’ Demi said. ‘What about my friends Tom and Rusty? No-one knew Tom had a fairy boyfriend. And I’ve never heard of those two you said.’

‘Then you’re uneducated and uncivilised,’ the elf snapped. ‘Every elf knows that story.’

‘But what if you’re not an elf?’ Demi protested. ‘What if you’re a human, or a fairy?’

‘Walking the Walk is not for fairies!’ The elf sounded horrified .

Demi was just about to ask the elf why not, and inform him that, as far as she was concerned, fairies were just as good as elves, if not better, when the grumpy fairy reappeared from behind the rocks, and the sight of him froze the words in her throat. He was harnessed to a little two-wheeled chariot, like an animal.

The elf didn’t even notice her reaction. He just muttered, ‘Fairies Walk the Walk? Ridiculous!’ whilst packing up the stand.

Demi recovered enough to protest. The elf turned back to her, a confused look on his face.

‘You can’t treat people like that!’ Demi shouted. ‘He’s a fairy, not a horse.’

‘I’ve employed him as my horse,’ the elf replied matter-of-factly. ‘I’ve paid the appropriate rate, plus a little extra for hardship.’

The way the elf pronounced ‘hardship’ suggested he really didn’t think dragging a chariot over difficult ground in sweltering heat was actually anything to complain about. The fairy himself didn’t even meet Demi’s eyes.

Before she realised what she was doing, Demi unleashed a bolt of angry magic, knocking the elf into a crumpled heap. Oh, hell, had she killed him? Demi and the fairy stared at each other over the elf’s body, then the fairy unfastened himself from the harness, leapt up onto the rocks and tested the elf’s pulse.

‘Don’t worry, he’s alive,’ the fairy said. ‘I’ll tell him he fainted in the heat, and hope he forgets the rest. Here.’ He produced something from the elf’s pocket, and handed it to Demi. It was round, dark and glittering, and a good size to fit into her hand. It wasn’t a ball, though – it had several flat surfaces, made up of many-sided polygons, and it obviously wasn’t intended for throwing. It reminded her of the wooden knot puzzles her dad had collected back when he was young, but it was made from the same weird plasticky stuff as the Guide.

‘You earned this,’ the fairy said, ‘That last question was designed to make sure you failed – only an elf would have known the answer. Oh, hold on!’ he had just put the object into her hand, but took it back again. ‘You’re spilling magic all over the place,’ he told her, ‘and that’s affecting the spell that holds this together.’

‘Sorry,’ Demi said, ‘it’s like I’m creating all this magic, and I don’t know what to do with it.’

‘You are generating your own magic,’ the fairy said, ‘Just like a fairy. It’s very impressive, but it’s overriding the spell that holds this Puzzle together. Hafren cast the spell, but it’s a Fairy spell and he can’t be bothered to pronounce the words properly. So it’s barely holding together.’

‘What should I do?’ Demi asked.

‘If you let me, I can turn down your magic to a gentle background level.’ Demi agreed, so the fairy placed his index finger between her eyebrows and muttered a few words. Demi felt the buzzing and tingling diminish to a less wild feeling. It was less draining, but she kind of missed it already. The fairy returned the Prize, holding it together as he placed it in Demi’s hand. ‘That’s better,’ he said as he let go. ‘Definitely holding together. Don’t cast any spells until you’ve handed this over to Hafren, and you’ll be fine. If it falls to pieces you’ll never get it back together – only a fairy would know how.’

‘That’s awesome,’ Demi smiled. ‘You’re a star. Can you tell me how to get back to Annwn?’

‘You see that patch of green at the base of the mountain?’ the fairy said. ‘There’s a nixie pool there. I’m sure they’ll take you.’

Demi could see the place he was indicating – it was only twenty minutes walk away – and slightly downhill. She thanked him, then, before she left, asked if there was anything she could do for him.

‘I wouldn’t mind something to drink,’ he stated. ‘I’ve been out here a long time.’

She handed him Rusty’s gourd and told him to drink as much as he wanted, then set off for the portal. Soon she was climbing out of a pool into a small grove surrounded by rocks. She pushed her way through the trees and emerged onto bare mountainside. As she turned around searching for a path, she realised it was the portal she’d spotted between Pefryn’s grove and Annwn. She could see the path now, with the two stones and the woodland beyond, and grinned as she realised it wasn’t far to the city.

As she joined the path and began to pick her way down the mountainside she remembered her first impressions of it. Already Annwn seemed a lot smaller and less alien than at first. She passed between the two stones, noting the position of the shadows. She had plenty of time to return before sunset.

As she entered the dense pinewood, Demi couldn’t believe it wasn’t even 24 hours since she’d first walked this way. It was so dark under the trees she could barely see a thing, but she could sense traces of the spell Pefryn had cast the previous day. Smugly, she reactivated the spell, and saw the orbs in the trees begin to glow again. But then she heard a grinding sound, and realized the Prize was starting to come apart. She’d totally forgotten the fairy’s advice. The box disintegrated into dozens of tiny pieces, which scattered all over the dark woodland floor. She followed them, sliding to the ground with a wail of despair.

 

***

 

Madryn woke to late afternoon sunshine and a quiet house. She ached all over, and still had bits in her hair, but she was also starving. At least with her family out of the house she could order some food without comment. She slipped a short, wrap-around housegown over her underwear and found a pair of house shoes, avoided the mirror and went down to the dining room. She knew the house would be quiet at that time of day, but she’d expected some servants to be around, busying themselves with whatever they did. It was unbelievable that she actually had to go into the kitchen to find a servant, and all she found there was a tiny fairy woman, filling her apron pocket with biscuits. Madryn was furious.

‘Where is everyone?’ she demanded.

The fairy looked to left and right, as if seeking a way to escape, but couldn’t quite bring itself to run.

‘Where are they?’ Madryn repeated. ‘Do I have to beat it out of you?’

‘I can’t tell. Please. Don’t make me.’

‘Do you think they’ll be harder on you than I will? You’re mistaken, fairy.’

The girl shrank back, chewing on her lip, then made a decision. She darted through the door, and into the yard, with Madryn chasing after her. They ran through the back yard, and through a door, which clicked shut, locking Madryn outside. She had never used the back door of her home before and found herself in a narrow twisting alleyway, and saw the fairy disappear around a corner towards the city walls. Madryn heard voices approaching from the opposite direction, and realised all she could do was follow the fairy.

She hurried along the alley, hoping desperately not to meet anyone else. She had no idea where she was going, but the owners of the voices were following her, and even though they sounded like fairies, it would be too humiliating to be caught out of doors in her present state of semi-undress.

Soon the alley widened into a square where several lanes met, with a water pump in the centre. It was a rundown area of Annwn, close to the river and the city walls. She could see the towers of the Western Gate looming above the shabby buildings, and realised with a thrill that she was in the fairy quarters. The buildings here were old, not in a quaint historical way, but disintegrating and broken, with ill-fitting windows and gaps in the masonry. This wasn’t faded grandeur, it was dirty and shabby and always had been, and Madryn wondered how anyone could bear to live like this.

Another fairy emerged from a gateway with a bucket, obviously heading for the water pump. Madryn ducked into the nearest alleyway, trying to avoid the piles of filth in the darkness. She could still see the pump and knew she was in danger of being spotted, so moved further in. Curse those fairies with their night-vision, she couldn’t see a thing in here. Moments later she cursed them out loud when she tumbled down a broken flight of steps, her muttering accompanied by the sound of tearing fabric as she plunged into darkness.

 

***

 

Demi was also sitting in the dark, torn between just giving up forever, and finding the will to deal with this latest crappy situation. Even in the faint light from Pefryn’s orbs, the dark shards of the box were impossible to see among the carpet of pine needles.

After a few minutes of indecision she heard something moving clumsily along the path behind her. She half-hoped it was a wild animal coming to eat her – at least if she was eaten she wouldn’t have to make any more decisions. She was amazed when she turned round and saw it was Blackbird, limping slightly.

‘I heard your pain,’ he said, simply, sitting down beside her.

Demi threw herself into his arms, but after a brief hug he untangled himself.

‘You need to get back to Annwn quick,’ Blackbird said. ‘Will be dark soon. Are you hurt?’

‘No. I mean, yes, I’m bruised all over, but not injured. I just broke the Prize, and I can’t see where all the bits went. How did you find me anyway?’

‘Pefryn asked the nixies to bring you to that portal – she put lots of magic in there for them. We were waiting there for you, hiding, in case you needed a little help or a little hurrying at the end.’

As he spoke he collected the pieces of the prize from the ground, grunting slightly with pain as he bent over. Soon he had a handful of pieces.

‘Is this all?’ he asked.

‘I think so. You can see better in here than I can.’ Demi replied.

Blackbird reassembled all the pieces quicker than Demi would have thought possible, then, fuelled by her magic, he traced his finger over the joins until they sealed, muttering,

‘Twist and tangle, stay unbroken

Til these three words next are spoken

Revert, release, reveal’ as he did so.

Demi was reluctant to let go of his hand when he’d finished. And wasn’t the spell spoken in Fairy? It seemed that although the Gadget was destroyed, the translation spell still worked.

‘Come,’ said Blackbird, ‘I’ll lead you through the dark, then you must hurry back to Annwn. The sun will set soon; you don’t have long.’

He took her hand again and led her through the trees. She was still tingling all over.

As they emerged into daylight – and Demi noticed the sun was dangerously low – Blackbird dropped Demi’s hand, and they turned to face each other.

‘Go swift and sure-footed,’ Blackbird said in blessing.

‘Aren’t you coming with me?’ Demi asked.

‘Pefryn will fly us both back under a cloak,’ Blackbird said. ‘You’ll have to walk or it will look like cheating.’

‘Didn’t we just cheat then, anyway? Hafren said nobody was allowed to help me.’

‘And aren’t I Nobody?’ Blackbird flashed Demi a cheeky smile as he turned back to the woodland. She’d never seen him look so beautiful. She’d never seen anyone look so beautiful – he was even fitter than Dean Evans.

But she had to turn away herself, and ask her tired, aching body to carry her down the mountainside to Annwn. At least it was all downhill from here.

 

***

 

Madryn wasn’t trapped in the dark at the foot of those steps. Not trapped exactly, although she couldn’t return the way she’d come. She’d tried climbing back up the steps, but in the darkness she’d had to feel her way, and putting her hand on something furry which squeaked and ran off soon put a stop to that.

She would have to go forwards then, and follow the alleyway. There was the suggestion of light ahead, although not enough for an elf to see clearly. She brushed down her housegown, although as one sleeve was hanging off, it was a pointless gesture. Gingerly, she stepped forwards. It took her a long time, as every step she took had to be carefully judged. A careless move could lead to her falling, twisting her ankle, or just stepping in something revolting.

Eventually the alleyway opened into another square, and Madryn realised she was right beside the Western Gate, just behind the town walls. And there was the kitchen maid, standing with a group of fairies. She was handing out the stolen biscuits to some of the lowest-looking specimens, who gobbled them down. All except one fairy, who placed the biscuit carefully in her pocket, as if saving it for later. Madryn was too concerned about her own predicament to be annoyed by these thieving fairies. But then one of the fairies produced a crystal from his waist pouch, and placed it on a fragment of wall in full sunlight. Madryn was horrified. Fairies using crystals! As the fairies gathered in a ring and began chanting a round, Madryn could sense the magic they were making.

 

***

 

Blackbird was people-watching whilst waiting for Demi to return. It was a good thing Hafren and Light of Truth were so self-absorbed they hadn’t noticed he and Pefryn had disappeared for a while. Demali was taking her time – the winter sun was low, now, and people were starting to gather again to see if the little witch would succeed. Pefryn was standing close by, chatting with Owina who cared nothing for elfish notions of place. Tefyn stood some distance away, gazing along the path which would soon bring Demi back. Hafren was moving constantly here and there on his throne, more to gain everyone’s attention than for any other reason, it seemed to Blackbird.

Blackbird felt a tingling in his crotch – an odd reaction to the sight of Hafren. It was the crystal in his waistband reacting to something – it couldn’t be sun- or moonlight, but it was vibrating strongly. No-one was watching him, so he slipped around a corner of the walls to investigate. As he did so, the vibrations increased, and he heard fairy voices singing on the other side of the wall. There was a breach in the wall nearby – several stones had been removed, creating a passageway easily big enough for a fairy to slip through. He ducked into darkness and took out his crystal. An alluring gleam in its depths pulsed hypnotically. He had just enough time to realise it was responding to another crystal before the magic took him over, and drew him to its source.

 

***

 

As Madryn watched, another figure squeezed through a gap in the city walls and approached the group. It was that wretched exile again, that was evident from his lack of wings. His eyes were wide open, but his expression was blank. Was he hypnotised by that crystal in his hand? As he approached the chanting group, the magic in the air increased in pitch and strength, and Madryn knew the crystals were setting up a feedback loop. Once the exile’s crystal was in sunlight, a chain reaction would be unstoppable, leading to an explosion. She’d seen it done before, as a joke, but never with so much magic involved. These fairies had no idea what they were doing.

Some of her friends might have thought it funny to watch a fairy explode, but Madryn hated that sort of thing. The exile was still approaching, eyes glazed, the crystal held high but still in shadow. Madryn forced herself out into the square and towards the exile, blocking his path. He stopped a moment, and before he could move round her, Madryn clasped her hands around his, covering the crystal. There was a painful jolt as the magic began to flow through Madryn, but she held on, trying to ignore the fact she had the filthy wretched exile’s hands in hers.

She didn’t need her magic to know she was in terrible danger. She had stopped the exile exploding, for now, but the pain as the magic discharged through her was far greater than she’d anticipated. She couldn’t hold out for much longer. The other fairies were still chanting their round, but occasionally a voice would falter. If that meant the spell was failing that only replaced one danger with another. When the fairies returned from their trance and realised their plan had been thwarted, they would turn on her. Place counted for nothing here; that was obvious.

Although the taboo against killing would protect her life, she was at real risk of serious injury, possibly permanent. That would be an eternal humiliation far worse than being seen out of doors in sleepwear. Raw magic was still burning through her, and this idiot exile was still in a trance of his own.

Another figure slipped through the narrow gap in the masonry. Madryn barely had time to hope before she recognised the disgraced Nothing, the lowest of all. Self-preservation took over. Dahzen wouldn’t protect her; Pefryn’s skill and wisdom would. She called out for help, shamed by the way pain and fear turned her voice into a whining wail.

Pefryn leapt over to Madryn, using her wings for speed. Placing her own hands over Madryn’s and Blackbird’s Pefryn used the power of three to seal the sunlight within the crystal. The spell worked – Madryn could no longer feel the magic burning her, but her magic was now linked to these two wretches.

‘Take and guard this,’ Pefryn commanded, pushing the crystal into Madryn’s grasp.

Madryn watched as Pefryn placed her hands on the exile’s forehead and brought him back to reality. ‘Come,’ Pefryn said, leading them to the centre of the group of chanting fairies. She moved to the nearest and placed her hands on his shoulders to quieten him. Moving around the circle she calmed each one until the chanting had stopped, then turned her attention to the crystal in their midst. It was humming with magic, and still on the brink of exploding.

Again Pefryn used the power of three to seal and steady the crystal. Unfortunately, Madryn was now with Blackbird and Pefryn in the midst of a group of hostile, disorientated fairies.

‘Traitress!’ spat one of them at Pefryn. ‘Do you sell your heart so cheaply? And you! What love have you for those who took so much from you?’

‘I have no hatred for the elves’, Blackbird replied calmly. ‘I returned seeking to heal, not to harm.’

‘You can’t prove we were doing anything wrong,’ another of the group said.

‘You had crystals, something we are not permitted to use,’ Blackbird replied.

There were sneers at that, but Pefryn commanded the nearest fairy to speak the truth. Madryn could see she was impossible to resist. ‘What were your plans with that crystal?’ Pefryn asked. ‘You could have all been killed by the explosion.’

‘Our friends are being held within.’ The fairy indicated a shabby but solid building. ‘Without charge. Without trial. Without proper food or care. We were told the crystal could focus magic, and break through the walls, so our friends could be free.’

‘But that’s not the town gaol,’ Pefryn said. ‘The gaol’s on the other side of Annwn.’

‘This is where they keep those who haven’t been sent to the gaol,’ the fairy said. ‘Those that Hafren’s guards have rounded up and imprisoned.’

‘How can this be?’ Pefryn said. ‘My husband would never allow this.’

‘Your husband lost control of Annwn a long time ago,’ the fairy replied. ‘This all started when he went on that stupid quest last winter. Then when he returned, someone arranged events to damage him – and the both of you. His wife in disgrace, hiding in the hills. His favourite exiled. Tefyn himself damaged and alleged unfit to rule. Whilst you have been dealing with these problems, Hafren has been locking up any fairy who dares to challenge him.’

Madryn couldn’t believe what she was hearing, and Pefryn seemed too shocked to speak. But Blackbird simply asked if the prisoners were in need of food and healing.

‘They are,’ another fairy said. ‘They are kept in desperate conditions. They can’t even stretch their wings’

‘Then go and fetch food, and we will make sure it gets to them,’ Blackbird said. ‘And we will send them healers.’

‘It’s not the hunger that kills us!’ It was the kitchen fairy speaking. ‘It’s not even the sickness. It’s the injustice. Until we’re treated fairly, we can never live.’

Pefryn took control. ‘For those who are willing to work with me, to bring me your grievances and solutions, I will be at the First Citizen’s Lodge tomorrow. I will have reclaimed my Place by then. Those who are not willing to work with me, keep your complaints to yourselves, or be prepared to hide, for I will not tolerate aggressive use of magic.’

‘What happened to the magic we generated?’ the kitchen fairy asked.

‘I have contained it. I will use it to generate power, not to harm,’ Pefryn replied.

A door opened in the building, and a pair of scowling men emerged, armed with nets and iron. ‘Flee!’ Pefryn commanded. ‘Remember my invitation, and my warning.’ She rushed straight at the guards to confuse them, and Madryn did likewise. The spectacle of a non-person running past them on one side, and a shockingly underdressed young elf in a torn gown on the other confused the guards long enough for all to make their escape. Pefryn and Blackbird darted through the gap in the walls, and Madryn wriggled through after them, shocked that the city’s defences had been allowed to decay so badly. She barely made it through the tiny gap, and her left shoe got stuck as she squeezed through. She had to leave it there and run for safety. She had no idea what was on the other side of the wall, but surely it couldn’t be any worse than what she’d left behind?

 

***

 

When Demi-Lee recognized the final bend in the path before Annwn, it was like all her birthdays come at once. Only five minutes to the end, and there was still plenty of light in the sky. Was it finally all over? She took a few moments to compose herself. She brushed herself down, straightened her torn, muddy clothes, pulled some leaves from her hair, and put a smile on her face. Then she realized that she’d won, and was grinning from ear to ear as she rounded the bend and strode across the square, pushing the Prize into Hafren’s hands before he could object.

There was loud applause, but only from one pair of hands – Owina’s. Tefyn was smiling at her, but looking rather awkward – his arm was still in a sling so he could only hit his bad hand with his good one, making a feeble sound. No-one else was applauding – and where were Blackbird and Pefryn? They should have got back before her. Then Demi saw them, running around a corner of the city walls, followed by an elf-girl in a short, torn dressing-gown and one shoe, who was even more dishevelled than she was.

Demi wasn’t the only one to have noticed them – there was a chorus of scandalised noises, many along the lines of, ‘She’s half-naked!’ The elf-girl stopped dead and clutched her gown around herself, bending forward and pulling her gown down as far as possible to cover her legs.

Tefyn strode over to the elf-girl, shrugging off the sling as he did so. Using both his hands, he unbuttoned his over-tunic, then wrapped it around her.

‘You poor child!’ he said, in a gentle but authoritative voice. ‘What on earth has happened to you? Were you sleepwalking?’

Madryn didn’t respond to that, instead saying, ‘You used both your hands.’

‘Indeed I did,’ he replied, smiling as he rippled the fingers of his right hand. He drew himself to his full height and stood with his hands on his hips as he surveyed the crowd. In his long pants and undervest, his broad shoulders and strong arms on display, Demi-Lee could see he was setting hearts a-flutter.

‘So,’ Tefyn said, ‘You’ve all noticed that I’m a whole man again. The curse which was laid on me has been removed. And, whilst I appreciate all the hard work my Chancellor has done over these past few months,’ he gave Hafren a grim smile, ‘I’m pleased to tell you, you can relinquish those extra duties.’ There was nothing Hafren could do, and everyone knew it. ‘Furthermore,’ Tefyn continued, ‘as the curse is removed, the fairy Blackbird has met the terms to be released from exile. I return to him his former Place, and invite him to re-enter the City of Annwn.’ There was an expectant hush as all the elves and fairies present guessed what would happen next. But first, Tefyn turned to Madryn.

‘I know this young citizen undertook a difficult and dangerous task yesterday, for the benefit of Annwn, and I imagine this is what led to her unfortunate sleepwalking incident. You may keep the tunic for now,’ he told her, ‘perhaps you would be kind enough to return it at the Celebration tonight. For we have much to celebrate. Our young visitor has Walked the Walk, and earned her right to enter the City gates. The curse that was placed on me has been lifted, and my injury healed. I am a whole man again, except for one thing.’

He turned his full attention to Pefryn, tiny and proud in her ragged splendour, and offered her both his hands.

‘My beloved. Your courage and fidelity have shamed us all. Will you return to your former Place, and reclaim me as your husband?’

Pefryn said nothing, but took his hands, and went up on tiptoes to kiss him. Demi-Lee realized she’d gone, ‘aah’, but most present remained stonily silent. Ignoring them, Tefyn kept hold of Pefryn’s left hand, and gestured to Blackbird and Demi-Lee to follow them. As she slipped her arm through Blackbird’s, mindful of his wounds, Demi-Lee noticed something about the fairy had changed. Like her, Blackbird was generating his own magic.

 

Chapter 20. Dahzen in action

Demi-Lee was enjoying a long, deep bath, in the First Citizen’s Lodge, even better than the ones at the Healers’ Lodge. She was up to her chin in bubbles; a goblet of something sweet and healing and a tray of bite-sized cakes on a stool beside her. She popped one into her mouth and chewed it – it had a flavour like chocolate and lemons – as she recalled the events of the day.

One of Tefyn’s personal Healers had managed to remove the remains of the Gadget that had fused with her skin. It had left a scar, but they promised to heal it as best they could. It had been horrible having to tell Owina the Gadget was destroyed, but fortunately Owina was just glad that Demi had survived – and intrigued that Demi had absorbed the translation spell. Owina had tried out every language she knew, and Demi had understood it instinctively.

Her filthy, torn clothes were being washed and mended, but she had been promised something new for the evening’s celebration. An outfit like Pefryn’s, it had been hinted, in colours of her choice. And here was a fairy bearing a selection of fabrics to choose from…

 

***

 

Blackbird had refused healing, stating that he needed solitude first. He lay face down on the soft clean bedding, in the room that had been his before his exile. He had barely spoken on the journey back to the First Citizen’s Lodge, but he knew Demali had sensed what had happened to him. There was magic within him now, just a little, but although it was far less than the magic which had nearly overwhelmed him, it hadn’t faded to nothing.

The wounds on his back were still tender, but bearable. For the first time in months, he had nothing to fear. He had a safe bed, food when he needed it, and there were no cats big enough to eat him. He was back in Annwn, his Place restored, and his magic was returning. He was safe at last, and he wept.

Once he’d cried out all his feelings, exhaustion took over, and Blackbird began drifting into sleep, until he woke himself by remembering the promise he’d made. It had been an impulsive promise, but he was determined to keep it – if it was in his power to deliver someone else from the fear, pain and hunger that he knew so well, he would do it.

He was tired, so tired, but the fairies would be waiting for him to get the food through to their kin. How would he do that? Tefyn had returned him to his high Place, but the guards at the secret prison wouldn’t know that. As far as they were concerned, he was lower than a worm. They would show no respect – they would throw him in the dampest, coldest cell – him, and all those who went with him.

He could ask Tefyn to intervene. A shiver ran down his spine as he wondered if Tefyn knew about the secret prison – surely not! But right now he didn’t want to interfere in Tefyn and Pefryn’s reunion. Besides, Tefyn arriving at the prison to argue with the guards would make him look weak.

Blackbird moved stiffly into a sitting position, untangling himself from the nest of bedding he’d created. Sweet sunlight, his body ached!

He slipped off his sky-bed onto the chair he’d placed beside it, although he was reluctant to leave it. His body had been owed a good night’s sleep for some time. You’ll have to wait, he told it, as he stepped down onto the floor. He stretched a few times to try and loosen up, but it didn’t help much.

His eyes in his mirror were red from crying and lack of sleep – not much he could do about that, but he worked a glamour to lengthen his eyelashes, enhance his lips, smooth the blotches from his skin, and put some glossy autumn shades into his hair. He preened and pouted at his reflection. Not bad. That dishevelled elf girl could learn a lot about the power of a good glamour.

She could take food to the prison. The guards wouldn’t recognise her cleaned up, and in her Light of Truth colours. She had the arrogance – and courage too. In fact she was ideal – if only he could persuade her. Where should he look for her? And what was her name again? It wasn’t as if they’d ever been formally introduced. Still, Annwn was a small place, and everyone would know who he meant if he referred to that recent public embarrassment. He would ask some of the Lodge’s fairy staff.

The First Citizen’s Lodge was the largest building in Annwn, with public and ceremonial rooms, as well as the residential floor. Blackbird’s room was tucked away at the far end of the corridor – maybe that said something about his status but it always afforded him plenty of privacy, so he didn’t mind. He knew all the back routes and dusty corridors that only the servants used, and that had often come in useful.

He knew the council rooms wouldn’t be in use while Tefyn was absent, but as he cut through the library he was surprised to hear voices coming from behind the bookshelves – both female, but one much older than the other, and apparently not used to being interrupted. Blackbird crept closer until he could make out the words.

‘You see, darling, it’s all very well talking about giving better rights to the fairies – only a fool would think of giving them equal rights – and I know some of them are quite bright, but people are happy the way things are. No-one starves. They all have a roof over their heads, and they have medical treatment from their healers. Those that want to work can easily find employment, and some of them have got quite good jobs, so no-one can say they’re discriminated against. But they’re not elves, and I don’t think they’d want to be elves. They’re like children. Charming, some of them, but they are limited. They have their own…call it culture if you must, but it’s a rather low form of culture.’

‘Lady Pefryn’s a good musician,’ the younger woman said. ‘She has all the elfish arts.’

It was her! The elf he needed. He moved closer to listen.

‘Ah, but you see, they are elfish arts, aren’t they?’ the older elf said. ‘She’s had good teachers, but without them she’d have been lost. She’s far and away the most exceptional of the fairies, but still a poor substitute for an elf. She may have the elfish arts, but she lacks certain elfish qualities.’

‘She is immature, isn’t she? Always laughing and running about like a child. But…she did earn her Place. And she can do real magic, not just charms and glamours.’

‘But that still doesn’t make her an elf,’ the older voice protested. ‘I suppose it’s good to have one or two in a visible place – no real power, but there for the look of it. But you know, she’s got no history, no breeding. Her family were traders – imagine! Haggling is not the same as diplomacy, my dear.’

‘But she was a good Lady, up until her disgrace,’ the younger said. ‘And we both saw Tefyn asking her to return to him. And he seems to have accepted that wretched exile back into our realm.’

Was the young one being provocative for fun? The mention of Blackbird caused some impressively outraged spluttering, and he had to stifle his own laughter.

‘Did you see it?’ the older eventually said. ‘Barely lowered his head in the presence of the First Citizen! I wouldn’t like to guess what hold he has over Lord Tefyn – I only hope it’s a different bag of tricks from the ones she obviously uses.’

‘It does make you wonder, doesn’t it!’ The thrill of illicit gossip was in the younger woman’s voice. ‘Tefyn almost killed him when he caught them together. Yet now all’s forgiven. Makes you wonder which one of them caused the jealousy!’

That ended Blackbird’s mirth. Pefryn hadn’t been unfaithful to Tefyn – Tefyn had accepted that, so why couldn’t these elves? As for what they suggested about him and Tefyn – he was not Tefyn’s lover, and never had been. He would never do anything to hurt Pefryn.

The elves continued their gossiping. Did they not realised they could be overheard – or did they just not care?

‘Things are fine in Annwn as they are,’ the older voice continued. ‘A few little problems with certain individuals who need to be reminded of the proper way to behave; a few troublemakers stirring up trouble for their own ends. But we have peace and prosperity; justice and stability. Things are the way they are for reason. They always are. Our customs and traditions serve us well; everyone has a place, and those who are wise stick to it.’

‘We’ve improved our place,’ the younger said, the provocative edge still in her voice. It gave Blackbird hope.

‘Well, yes,’ the older said, ‘but we have history and breeding, and your family is resourceful and hardworking. We contribute a lot to Annwn. We earned our place through hard work and intelligence, not by whining and causing trouble. If someone wants a better place in Annwn, they just have to work and study hard, and eventually they’ll get the place they deserve. As for those ‘Equal Rights for Fairies’ types – well, I think if they stayed off the dreamweed and got a job they’d soon come to their senses. Anyway, most of them are just youngsters, going through a phase. It’s not unusual – even I wore flowers in my hair when I was younger. Can’t for the life of me remember why we used to do that, but it was the fashion for a while.’

‘Do you think Tefyn wants the fairies to have equal rights?’ the young voice asked.

‘Mercy, no. Not if he’s still got his wits. It would cause chaos. Partnering one was bad enough. But fairies have no experience in politics or matters of state. Most of them can’t even make their wages last ’til the end of the week, so there’s no chance they could be put in charge of Annwn’s finances. And they’re ruled by their emotions – hopeless. Quite charming, some of them, very creative, and I know their music appeals to youngsters who haven’t grown into proper culture, but they can’t control themselves, so it’s out of the question they could have power over anyone else. It would cause anarchy; the chaos and destruction would be intolerable. And I think most people – including the fairies – understand that.’

‘But what about these secret prisons, mum? Have you heard the whispers; fairies disappearing off the streets?’

‘I wouldn’t worry about that, darling. It’s not going to affect us, is it? Annwn is a just society. If you’ve got nothing to hide you’ve got nothing to fear, that’s what my father always said.’

The elves fell silent while they browsed the books on the shelves. Blackbird knew they were looking through the fiction shelves – choosing bedtime stories whilst shredding his reputation and dismissing the fears and suffering of his people. He brooded. He’d never heard elves discussing the problems of Annwn before. The older woman had such a reasonable tone when she spoke, although she seemed to contradict herself without noticing. At least the younger was questioning things.

The older woman spoke again. ‘Now Madryn, dear, there’s plenty to keep you occupied here while you wait for Lord Tefyn. Just make sure you make a good impression on him.’

‘I don’t know what to say to him,’ Madryn said.

‘Oh, darling, you don’t have to say anything. Let him do the talking. Just smile and look interested. Let him see you looking respectable and hope he forgets the state you were in earlier.’

‘I don’t want to. What if I make a fool of myself?’ Madryn whined.

‘Oh, darling, you’ve already done that. What on earth were you thinking, running around half dressed? No, don’t say anything, just let him see you looking decent; let him know you’re a sensible girl.’

‘Can’t I do that tonight?’ Madryn insisted. ‘He said to return his gown tonight. I don’t feel right hanging around waiting for him.’

You know what he’s doing, thought Blackbird, you and your mother both, but she’s pretending you’re too young to realise.

‘We’ve been through this,’ the older voice said. ‘Meeting Lord Tefyn is one thing – he still has some influence – but most of his hangers-on don’t have a clue about life. They have some dangerous ideas, and I don’t want them bothering you. You know what you’re like – you can be very easily led.’

‘I’m not! I don’t know why you always say that!’

‘Oh, darling, remember that time when you and Nelved…’

‘Mum! I was six! I’m seventeen now!’

‘Even so. This won’t be an occasion for young girls. You’ll probably be bored and want to come home after a short while, and I’ll have to come and fetch you.’

‘That human girl will be there. It’s in her honour, and she’s years younger than me,’ Madryn said, her rebellious tone bringing another smirk to Blackbird’s face. She had so much potential!

‘Well, I’m not having you associating with the likes of her!’ Madryn’s mother spluttered. ‘Sweet sunshine! There’s no telling what she’d try to get you involved in.’

‘She’s just a child! Anyway, wouldn’t it be educational for me to talk to someone from another realm? I may go into their world again sometime; it would be good to have some background knowledge.’

‘You are not going back into that place!’ More outraged spluttering from Madryn’s mother. ‘Not if you’re going to return filthy and bedraggled. There’s absolutely no need for you to go to the celebration. Just think of the people who’ll be there. Those fairies for a start. Ugh! She’ll be there, of course, and I don’t want you having to show respect to her. And that vile wretch who wriggled his way back from exile.’

‘I hear Lord Tefyn is planning to make him a Citizen. He’ll have the same status as an elf.’

The noises of outrage that followed were even more impressive than before, and Blackbird had to bite his lip to stop himself laughing.

‘If that’s the case, I think we can have Tefyn declared legally insane. That really is the final straw,’ Madryn’s mother declared

‘I think you may need more evidence than that,’ Madryn said calmly. ‘Oh, please, Mother, let me attend the celebration. What else am I going to do tonight, anyway?’

‘Well, there’s plenty to do at home if you’re bored. You’re not going, and that’s final. You need an early night after staying out all last night. I don’t want you getting overtired. Now wait here while I find someone to take that cloak for you.’

Blackbird flattened himself against the bookshelves as Madryn’s mother went by in a rustle of fabric. Now, how should he approach Madryn? But before he had time to think, there she was, whirling around the end of the stack and glaring at him.

‘Just because your cousin forged a mind link earlier, don’t think you can spy on me,’ Madryn snapped.

‘I wasn’t spying,’ Blackbird protested. ‘And if you knew I was there, why did you say all those lies about me and Tefyn? That wasn’t very nice.’

‘It was just gossip,’ she replied. ‘Who cares? I’ve got to do something to keep myself entertained in this dead-end town.’

Blackbird’s hopes were dissolving fast. Had he really hoped this vile girl could be an ally? Gathering his wits, he tried a different approach. ‘Is that Tefyn’s tunic?’ he asked. ‘You can leave it with me if you like. I’ll make sure he gets it; save you hanging around. That will give you more time to get ready for tonight.’

‘It’s okay,’ Madryn replied coldly. ‘I’ll return it personally. I want to correct the impression I left earlier.’

‘But you can do that tonight,’ Blackbird said. ‘At the Celebration. And don’t worry that you left a bad impression – he doesn’t judge people in that way. I think he thinks you’re really brave for going to the human world. It’s a dangerous place, I know.’

She gave him a look that seemed to say, don’t even think of comparing yourself with me. I wasn’t thrown out of Annwn. In a flat voice, she said, ‘ You know I won’t be there tonight. You heard Mother.’

‘But you must come. I think Tefyn wants to honour you for your courage.’ Now why had he said that? But it wouldn’t be too difficult to get Tefyn to give her some small honour.

‘Why would he do that?’ Madryn asked. ‘Is he trying to bribe me to join his side? Can’t you see I’m wearing Light of Truth’s colours?’

‘No, he’s not trying to influence you,’ Blackbird said. ‘But… I think he felt your shame earlier; he’s very sensitive like that. I think he feels if he honours you people will overlook it.’

‘Look, fairy, I’m not stupid,’ Madryn said. ‘I know you want something from me, so just spit it out.’

‘Okay. I do need your help,’ Blackbird said. ‘You were there when I promised to take food to the people in that secret prison. But if I go, they’ll just lock me up. You could take the food – in your Light of Truth colours they wouldn’t stop you. You can achieve this, and you’d be doing justice in Annwn.’

‘What if those fairies deserve to be in prison?’ Madryn asked.

‘They may deserve to be in prison,’ Blackbird replied carefully, ‘but they don’t deserve to be starved. All I’m asking is for you to take the food and medicine and persuade the guards to give it to the prisoners.’ Blackbird filled his mind with images: of the fairies suffering; of Madryn being brave and just; of the guards respecting her authority. He hoped some of them would filter through to her mind. Was it working? Her body language was losing its hostility.

‘Why can’t you do it?’ Madryn asked.

‘You know why. They’d put me in the coldest, darkest cell and leave me there. They might listen to you though. I can give you a glamour that would help.’

‘A glamour?’ she sneered. ‘You think if I look sweet and pretty they’ll let me in?’

‘Glamours aren’t just about looking pretty. This one will give you some authority. Make people take you seriously, make them see past the little girl you were so recently.’

‘Even Mother?’

‘Not a chance. Don’t expect people to take you seriously if they knew you before you fledged.’

She scoffed at that. ‘I’m not a fairy, if you hadn’t noticed.’

‘I know,’ he said, giving his most appealing look.

‘How long will this glamour last?’ Madryn asked.

‘Not long. It’ll wear off by tomorrow. But I can teach you how to renew it. And once you can convince people you deserve respect, you won’t need the glamour.’

‘It still seems a bit cheap,’ Madryn said.

‘A cheap fairy trick? That’s the clever part. They won’t suspect you’re wearing a glamour, so they won’t see through it. Let me give it to you. If you don’t like it I’ll take it away, I promise.’

It took Madryn a while to agree. But eventually she relented, and let Blackbird take her hands in his, and weave the glamour about her. As the glamour took hold she stood straighter, more confident, and her face lost its childish sulkiness.

‘If this glamour is so good, why don’t you fairies use it?’ Madryn asked.

‘Most fairies still think they need to be sweet to get what they want,’ Blackbird replied. ‘They’re worried they’ll get beaten down if they stand too tall.’

‘You make it sound as if elves go around beating fairies for the fun of it,’ Madryn said. ‘You know that’s not true. Physical discipline is a good way of letting Annwn run smoothly.’

‘And what can a fairy do if he thinks an elf needs discipline?’ Blackbird asked.

‘Let elves deal with that. You just get on with – well, whatever it is fairies do.’ She walked over to an ornate mirror and inspected herself. ‘I don’t look any different,’ she said.

‘Not to yourself, maybe,’ Blackbird said. ‘But you’re holding yourself differently. Believe me, you look different. Anyway, only one way to prove it. Will you come with me now? The fairies will be waiting with the food.’

‘What about Tefyn’s tunic?’ she asked.

‘Let me take it.’

Blackbird took the tunic to his room. It took a while and when he returned he found Madryn lounging in an armchair reading a strange book – handwritten, not printed.

‘That’s my favourite book’, Madryn explained, before replacing it on a high shelf. ‘Not many people have read it, I’m always worried I’ll come in one day and the librarians will have got rid of it. That’s why I hide it up here.’

Blackbird noted where she hid the book. He’d have to use a ladder, but he was determined to look through it himself.

They slipped out of the City Lodge, walking far enough apart that no-one would have suspected they’d even noticed each other, let alone that they were working together. It was fully dark now, and although the moonlight gave Blackbird plenty of vision, he knew Madryn would be almost blind in the low light. At least it would hide her from suspicious eyes. The main square was nearly empty when they reached it, but it didn’t take long for a fairy to materialise from the shadows and approach Blackbird.

‘We have the food and remedies,’ she said, simply. ‘How are you going to get them to our loved ones?’

‘This elf girl is going with you. Lead her to the prison and let her negotiate with the guards – she’s pretty good, courageous and stubborn too. If there’s any danger let someone run back to me – I’ll be in the library.’

‘Somebody with a lantern would help,’ Madryn said, pointedly.

A lantern was found and handed to Madryn, who dealt with the shock of actually having to carry something herself quite well, Blackbird thought. Madryn and the fairy cloaked themselves, and they set off for the prison.

Blackbird returned to the library and fetched down the book Madryn had showed him. It was handwritten in Elfish, and full of sketches of exotic landscapes and plants. It seemed to be a travel journal, but Blackbird couldn’t work out if it was true or fiction. The writer was describing a whole host of different worlds, not just Annwn and Terra and the other Near Realms, but places he had never imagined. He noted how the book fell open at a description of a world which, if he understood it right, had nothing animal in it, only plants and fungi. He guessed this was Madryn’s favourite part of the book; it looked well-thumbed.

He browsed through the rest of the book, waiting for Madryn to return. She came back within the hour, quiet and pale. Madryn looked Blackbird directly in the eye for the first time. ‘Did you know about the secret prisons?’ she asked.

‘I’d heard rumours before my exile,’ he replied, ‘But I had no proof until earlier today. No-one ever said anything directly to me or Pefryn. I just overheard things between Tefyn’s staff.’

‘Well, you were both known as Tefyn’s little pets,’ Madryn replied. ‘I don’t think anyone – elf or fairy – really took you seriously.’

Blackbird suppressed a scowl. She was right, after all. Tefyn was the only elf who’d considered him or Pefryn to be real people. The political fairies had considered them sell-outs and traitors. So, when he’d heard rumours of outspoken fairies disappearing, he hadn’t searched too closely for the truth. Other explanations – that they’d left for other realms, or been injured as a result of their activities – were easier to accept than the idea of hidden prisons. But the look on Madryn’s face, which she was trying to smother with arrogance, worried him.

‘It couldn’t be Hafren’s doing,’ she burst out. ‘It’s against all law and precedent, and Hafren just isn’t like that. He’s tough and firm, but he upholds the law. That place was just horrible.’ She slumped in a seat and sat with her face in her perfectly manicured hands, her shoulders shaking.

Had she been fairy, or human, Blackbird would have placed a comforting hand on her shoulder and spoken soothingly. But he daren’t touch Madryn. Hesitantly, he offered to fetch her something to drink. She made a sniffing, sobbing sound. ‘Something with chamomile? Or fennel?’ he offered, realising how stupid he sounded.

‘It was disgusting in there,’ Madryn burst out. ‘I can still smell it. How can people bear to live like that?’

She stood up and smoothed herself down, patting her hair back into place. She took a deep breath and, looking into space above Blackbird’s head, said, ‘I went with that kitchen girl, and made sure all the parcels went to the right fairies. No-one said thank you – they just grabbed the food and started stuffing themselves. But they were all so skinny, even for fairies.’ Madryn shuddered. ‘Some of them had lice. I could see them crawling.’ She wiped a hand down her arm, as if brushing off imaginary lice.

Blackbird grimaced at that. Lice in your wings – once they were in there, it was almost impossible to get rid of them. He could just imagine them crawling about between feather and skin, biting and sucking blood. Their bites itched furiously. ‘Did you have enough powder for everyone with lice?’ he asked.

‘That kitchen maid wanted to go into the cells to dust everyone’s wings, but the guards wouldn’t let her. They said there wasn’t enough room, which was true, it was crowded in there, and also he didn’t want her to catch lice and spread them around Annwn, which seemed fair enough. But she had a couple of powder shakers that she handed over – they can dust each other.’

‘Did you find out who’s running the prison? Why it’s there?’ Blackbird asked.

‘That’s nothing to do with me,’ Madryn replied. ‘I just took the food and remedies, like you asked.’

Blackbird decided to go and fetch a calming brew for himself. It gave him a few minutes away from the infuriating idiot Madryn, and allowed him to remind himself he’d achieved all he could for that day. Tefyn and Pefryn could release any innocent captives and transfer any genuinely guilty to proper facilities. He had made sure people were comfortable for that night – hopefully the last of their captivity. If there was anything more he could do, he couldn’t think of it at that moment.

When he returned to the library, Madryn was reading the book again.

‘Tell me about the book,’ he asked. ‘Is it real, or just stories?’

‘I’ve never worked it out. I’d like to think it’s all true, even though they put it in the fiction section. But some of the details… look at this bit.’ She indicated a section full of numbers and symbols. ‘This is just lots of technical details – rainfall, oxygen levels – why would anyone put that in a story? But she seems to really love this world. Imagine somewhere with only plants and no animals!’

‘Do you know the history of the book?’ Blackbird asked.

‘I asked the librarians,’ Madryn replied. ‘Ledrana Sken was born about 100 years ago, so she should still be alive. She was from a good family, married young, had a child, all fairly average. But when she reached her 30s she became fascinated with the nixies. She wanted to know what they were, how they took people between worlds, what they did when they weren’t in the portals. She tried to talk to the nixies, but they never talked back. But there was one thing she did – it was at a time when a lot of the portals were going out of use. It was happening quite fast – apparently Annwn lost more than half its connections to other world in a few years.’

‘I remember that,’ Blackbird said. ‘But there were so many other problems at that time…’

‘Ledrana realised a lot of the portals were becoming polluted, so no wonder the nixies didn’t want to hang around in dirty water. She went around with her daughter and they cleaned out the portals and tried to make people keep them clean. People thought she was daft of course – if you chuck rubbish in a portal it disappears, so why not? But she thought maybe the rubbish was getting into the nixies’ world, so that’s why they closed off the portals. Anyway, one time she was travelling back from Terra when the nixies took her to a world she’d never even heard of. She didn’t see any people there; she didn’t stay long anyhow, just a few minutes, but she knew it wasn’t Annwn or Terra. It was quiet, but not like the mountains in winter are quiet, more like it was abandoned.’

Madryn was quite different when she was talking about something important to her, Blackbird realised. It was the first time she’d shown any sign of real intelligence or insight. He stayed silent, encouraging her to continue.

‘Then the nixies brought her back to Annwn,’ Madryn said, ‘but she said that as they did, they gave her the idea that the world she’d just visited had been poisoned by stuff we’d thrown into it, and the creatures who used to live there had died. She tried to tell people in Annwn about this, but hardly anyone listened. Who cares about some other world no-one ever goes to anyway! But she and her daughter just worked harder, and a few other people helped out, so they managed to keep some of the portals open. Her work led eventually to the Protection Laws we’ve got now, and respecting the portals is Dahzen. But it took a long time, and during that time the nixies took her to lots of other worlds. And that’s what the book’s about – all the other worlds she visited.

‘But then her daughter died,’ Madryn said. ‘No-one I’ve asked can remember what happened; it seems to have been an illness. And Ledrana just disappeared. This was about twenty years ago, before I was born.’

‘And no-one knows where she is?’ Blackbird asked.

‘No. Most people think she went away to die somewhere, or was killed on her travels, but I like to think she’s still alive in another realm.’

‘And you’d like to find her?’

Madryn was silent for a moment before she asked, ‘Are you mocking me?’

‘No, I’m not. Why should I?’ Blackbird replied. ‘Exploring is in your blood. If you can get the nixies to trust you the way they trusted her, I don’t see why you couldn’t find her. The nixies would know the last world she visited, wouldn’t they?’

‘That’s what I thought. I keep reading this book, looking for clues for how to get the nixies to help me,’ Madryn said.

‘Maybe just do what she did,’ Blackbird said. ‘Go to the portals, help to keep them clean.’

‘It’s not so easy now, though is it? With all this trouble with the fairies all the portals are permanently guarded.’

‘That will pass,’ Blackbird said. ‘Now that Tefyn is whole he can take charge of the situation. Hafren has been stirring things up; with Tefyn back in charge the situation will be calmer.’

‘You can’t blame Hafren for all the trouble in Annwn!’ Madryn said.

‘I’m not. I just think Tefyn’s a better diplomat. He can calm the situation. He’ll bring everyone together,’ Blackbird said.

‘Is that why he’s trying to get me on his side?’ Madryn sneered.

‘It will benefit you as much as him, or anyone else. Come to the celebration tonight. You want to, don’t you?’

‘I’m not allowed,’ Madryn said.

‘Tch, what kind of attitude is that for an adventurer?’ Blackbird said. ‘How will you face up to hostile otherworlders if you can’t even face up to your own mother?’

‘Have you met my mother?’ Madryn said.

‘I heard her earlier,’ Blackbird said. ‘Scary lady. She’s intimidating, but not invincible. I won’t tell you how to deal with her, but I really think you should be there tonight. And after what you did for us this afternoon, I’ll make sure Tefyn honours you. I’d give you an honour myself if I had the power – and if I thought you’d accept it.’

Madryn didn’t respond to that. But the seed had been planted, and Blackbird knew her mind was fertile ground.

 

***

 

Madryn was in a dark mood when she arrived home. Her mother interpreted this as tiredness and suggested she ‘go and have a lie down.’ Ordinarily this would have irked Madryn, but the chance to spend time alone and make sense of recent experiences was what she needed right now. So many worries chased around her mind. She had almost forgotten her anger at the way Lady Esmet had treated her, and her shame at being seen out of doors half-clothed, let alone the discomfort she’d endured in the human world. She was more shamed now by the way she’d treated Blackbird.

His blood was on her sash. She’d been proud of that the previous day; proud of her part in upholding the natural justice of Annwn. Her bloodied sash was the only thing she wore which wasn’t immaculate – marking her out as an active member of Light of Truth. And she’d spat in his face when he was bound to the whipping post. Did he remember that? If had, she was sure he wouldn’t have been so civilised towards her. Civilised – she brooded on the odd choice of word. What would happen if he found out she had abused him?

Madryn had no intention of befriending any fairies – even Lady Pefryn was an incomprehensible creature. Nor was she taken with the uncouth human. But, she really, really wanted to see as many realms as possible, and she realized this would mean dealing with all sorts of what she would have to consider ‘people’. Her brief stay in Terra had brought home that humans found her as ridiculous as she found them, and that they were no respecters of elfish place. To survive in Terra, she would have to pass as human. She hoped they weren’t all as uncivilized as Demali.

And First Citizen Tefyn… she had considered him weak, and far too liberal with the fairies. She had believed the best way to deal with troublesome fairies was ruthless punishment. Strong discipline would eventually force the most wilful fairy to knuckle down and accept authority. But that day’s experiences had challenged that belief. Fairies were starting to fight back, and many – like Blackbird – would never be subdued. Tefyn was walking a difficult path to keep peace in Annwn, trying to provide for the fairies as well as the elves of his realm. Fairies, she realized, did not consider themselves inferior to elves – and were as firm in their beliefs as people like her mother were in theirs.

The more she thought about it, the more she wanted to go to the celebration. Her mother had denied her permission, but First Citizen Tefyn had promised to honour her, or rather, that fairy had promised on Tefyn’s behalf. She couldn’t tell her mother about that of course – there was no way she could tell her mother she’d been speaking to a fairy, let alone that fairy.

But, an honour would go a long way to compensate for her recent humiliations, and besides, she had a feeling history would be made that night. How could she tell her grandchildren she’d missed it because her mother hadn’t let her go? Not if she wanted to be an adventurer.

Slowly, she formed a plan. She rejected any silly ideas of disguising herself, or sneaking out of the window. That fairy had been right. If she was going to be an adventurer, she needed to be more assertive. She would ask again for permission, and if it was denied, she would find a way to go, and face the consequences on her return.

 

***

 

Over her family’s evening meal, Madryn stated her case, being careful not to whine. She had considered every objection her parents might raise, and prepared a considered counter-argument. But, in the end, it was no good. It was obvious her family found the human girl and the fairies truly repellent, and feared them as if their rebellion was contagious.

So, she resorted to her lie. ‘If I can’t go to the celebration, can I at least go to Luta’s? They’ve got her brother’s sketches from his journeys, and I don’t want to be the last to see them.’

‘Oh, go on then, if it keeps you quiet,’ her mother said. ‘But don’t go fawning over her brother. I know you young people find travelling romantic, but you’ve no idea what diseases or uncivilized habits he’s picked up.’

Madryn knew her mother would trust her at Luta’s. Luta’s mother would be sure to report back on Madryn’s conduct, and Luta herself had a reputation for being responsible and level headed. Luta had never been caught doing anything she shouldn’t. Luta was good at that.

 

***

 

Demi-Lee had been luxuriating in flower scented bubbles for hours. Her skin was all wrinkly, and her hair crinkly, but she felt so, so good. Eventually one of the palace staff knocked discreetly on her door, and asked if she was ready to try on her new clothes.

Wrapping herself in the softest, fluffiest bath robe imaginable, Demi-Lee entered the bedroom, and opened the parcel waiting for her on the bed. Inside was the most gorgeous dress she’d ever seen. It was a halter-neck, like Pefryn’s, but in darker shades of green, with toning beadwork and embroidery. There was a pair of leggings too, in a toning shade, with embroidery up the side of the legs. It was so pretty, and she knew the colour would suit her.

After she’d dried herself, the fairy helped her into the dress, then plaited her hair into a chaplet. Demi couldn’t believe it when she was guided to a mirror. She couldn’t help smiling at her reflection. Demi-Lee Jenkins had been awkward and nervous, but not Demali. Demali rocked! It all came home to her then – she had Walked the Walk, awakened her magic powers, and there was about to be a big celebration in her honour. And everything was okay for Blackbird and Pefryn, and Tefyn had finally stood up to Hafren. Everything was going to be fine.

 

***

 

Madryn had arrived at Luta’s wearing an ill-fitting assortment of clothes, a scruffy pair of boots, and with her squeaky clean hair frizzing around her face. Madryn’s mother had decided to send all Madryn’s clothes to the laundry at once – a less-than-subtle way of ensuring Madryn didn’t go to the celebration. In too-short trousers and a tunic more suited to gardening than a formal occasion, she looked like the lowest placed thing you could imagine, and could barely bring herself to leave the house. Just to be sure her wayward daughter was not seen in good company that night, Madryn’s mother had kept her busy with various trivial tasks until the hour of gathering had struck. Elfish gatherings started punctually, and even in her most formal attire with hair appropriately pinned and styled, no elf would consider arriving late. But Madryn knew something her mother didn’t. The evening would start with an informal hour before the celebration proper began. There was just enough time…

As soon as she was out of her mother’s sight, Madryn had dismissed her lantern-bearer, grabbed the lantern herself, and raced to Luta’s house, to beg her friend for help. Quickly Luta found three formal gowns in her wardrobe. The first was the gown Luta had worn to her own citizenship ceremony, a few years before. The style was perfect – very formal, in Madryn’s typical drab colours, but Luta was much taller and wider than Madryn, and the full length skirt and sleeves would have been impossible to manage.

The second dress was a better fit, and also properly muted in its colours, but with its high frilled collar and lacy cuffs it was far too frivolous for that night’s event.

‘Or there’s this one,’ Luta said, offering a third dress, a simple style with a high collar which fastened diagonally across the chest. ‘I wore it when I was 14, but it’s quite formal. It looks like it would fit, and the colour would suit your hair.’

‘It’s so bright!’ Madryn despaired. ‘Is there nothing else?’

‘Nothing clean, no,’ Luta replied. ‘And this one will be quick to put on. I can put your hair into a chaplet while you’re doing up the frogging.’

Was this really such a good idea, Madryn wondered. The deep blue-green of the dress flattered her colouring, that was true. But she was used to Light of Truth’s drab colours – more to the point, people were used to seeing her in beige. Being seen at a formal gathering in a different style, and accepting an honour from her political enemies was all too much. Her courage failed her. This was a ridiculous idea. She didn’t want to be honoured by Tefyn – not enough to make a show of herself, and get a beating from her mother. She was deciding how to explain to Luta, when her friend held Madryn’s sash against the dress, and commented that the colours clashed.

‘It’s such a shame,’ Luta said, ‘now you’ve broken it in. It shows off the blood really well. But you can’t wear these together.’ It was true – the sash was palest cream, the dress a vibrant blue-green. Elfish fashion only accepted subtle differences in colour.

It would have raised Madryn’s status to wear a broken-in sash at a formal occasion. Madryn, though, knew whose blood was on her sash. The wretched exile who had showed her the shabby truth behind Hafren’s dazzle. She realised how much courage it would take the fairy to walk among elves who despised him, with so few allies there. And decided she would go, even if she did look like a low-placed clerk. If Blackbird had the courage, so did she.

But she wouldn’t wear the sash with his blood on it. She couldn’t go ‘unsashed’. Tefyn had stopped wearing his sash when he married Pefryn, but few others had followed suit, and ‘unsashed’ still meant a weak, ineffective character. Luta was looking for the sash which had been made for the dress, and located it at the back of the wardrobe. She fastened it across Madryn’s shoulders. The baker’s clock, which was always a few minutes fast, began to strike the hour.

‘There,’ said Luta. ‘You look fine. Low-placed, I’ll grant you, and no-one will have seen you in teal before, but that’s hardly going to create Dahzen, is it?’

‘What about shoes?’ Madryn whined. ‘I can’t go to a formal do in these old boots.’

‘Mine are all far too big. It’s a long gown,’ Luta comforted. ‘Just don’t move about too much and hope no-one notices.’

They walked together to the City Lodge, just around the corner from Luta’s house. Madryn was edgy as a wren, and her courage would have failed her without Luta there. But the doors of the Lodge were still open, and the guards saluted as they approached.

Madryn barely heard Luta wish her well over the pounding of her heart, and she crossed the threshold into a room filled with polite conversation. The only people who met her eye as she entered were Blackbird and Demali, who were being ignored by most of the other guests. Madryn’s heart sank as she realised the human girl was wearing the same hairstyle and colours as she was. A steward led her to Tefyn who was standing beside his wife at the centre of the room. She joined a small knot of green in a sea of beige. But, she reminded herself grimly, she was already due the beating of her life. It was unlikely she could make things even worse. Maybe she should have stayed home – but it was too late to leave now. Good practice, she told herself, trying to breathe naturally. Good practice for dealing with hostile tribes.

Tefyn at least was friendly, thanking her for returning his tunic, and assuring her he did have a small honour for her. Pefryn, too, was gracious, and thanked her for taking the food to the fairies in prison. ‘Rest assured I will be investigating that prison,’ Tefyn told her. ‘I would be grateful if you would meet with me tomorrow to give me a report on the conditions.’

Madryn replied that she would be honoured, although she knew full well she was likely to be confined to her room on bread and water for several days.

A bell rang, and people began to drift out of the reception room towards the Hall of Honour. Madryn was about to follow them, but Pefryn put her hand on Madryn’s arm to stop her. ‘You’ll be sitting at the High Table tonight, as you’re due to be honoured, so we may as well go in last. You’ll be sitting beside me – I hope that’s alright.’

Sweet sunlight, what would her mother say when she discovered her disobedient daughter had sat next to the contagiously rebellious Lady of Annwn? So much for passing unnoticed – this news was bound to reach home before she did.

‘Don’t worry,’ Blackbird whispered, as the room emptied. ‘He won’t say too much about why you’re being honoured. Just accept it and say thanks.’

‘Oh, okay, thank you,’ Madryn said.

‘Not to me, to Tefyn.’

‘I know that! But thank you anyway, for persuading him to honour me.’

‘You deserve it. Good that you’re here, by the way. Interesting outfit.’

Madryn gave him a filthy look, and he giggled.

The reception room was now almost empty, and Tefyn gathered them all together and arranged them. Tefyn and Pefryn led the way, arm in arm, followed by Demali and Blackbird. Madryn was left to bring up the rear, feeling more horribly exposed than ever, as they walked through an archway and into the Hall of Honour.

The Hall of Honour was beautiful, yet homely, in the old Annwn style. Carved and painted wooden panels made up the walls, whilst simple, octagonal columns supported the vaulted roof. Hanging crystal chandeliers gave warmth and light, while twinkling multicoloured crystals on the tables gave an intimate feel. The tables were arranged so they faced a central stage where fairy performers were juggling and tumbling.

Madryn kept her head high and tried to look brave and dignified as she crossed the floor to the High Table, hoping everyone was too distracted by her plain hairstyle to notice the scuffed, shabby boots. As she took her seat, Madryn noticed Hafren with Lady Esmet. They turned their faces away – well, fine by her. Although she still believed in Light of Truth’s guiding principles, things she’d learned and seen that day had given her grave doubts regarding Hafren’s integrity. And Esmet was just a bitch!

Several of Hafren’s followers were there, although she could see that Esmet was trying to keep them away from her husband. One of them whispered in her friend’s ear, her hand hiding her mouth, whilst they both looked directly at Madryn. It made no difference what they were saying, it was meant to hurt, and let her know she was no longer one of them. She turned away, focusing on the entertainment, and selecting dainties from the trays that were offered to her, although she was all of a fumble, and could barely get the food to her mouth, let alone chew and swallow.

At a signal from Tefyn, the entertainers finished their act and moved to the side of the hall. Chairs had been provided for them to stay and watch the ceremony. All of a sudden, Pefryn and Blackbird weren’t the only fairies in the room – the entertainers, and the waiters, who had put down their trays, were also included in the celebrations. A ripple of surprised murmurs ran from elf to elf. Madryn barely had time to take this in before Tefyn asked her to stand to be honoured.

Tefyn spoke briefly of Madryn’s courage and audacity in venturing to the human world – how long ago that seemed, she thought – and made suitably vague references to her dedication to justice and fairness in Annwn. He gave her a new wristlet with a spell engraved upon it, and promised to teach her how to use it.

She thanked him, with her head bowed, then sat back down, glad she didn’t have to do anything else for the rest of the evening.

She let Tefyn’s voice flow over her for a while. Tefyn would never match Hafren for oratory, let alone charisma. But he had got into the rhythm of his speech, and adopted a clear, steady voice which gave him some authority. He was telling the room of Blackbird’s courage, loyalty and dedication in lifting the spell which had disabled Tefyn. ‘It was a complex spell, requiring subtle interpretation. But, as you can all see, it has been lifted – and therefore the terms of the fairy Blackbird’s exile and loss of place have been revoked. You are all expecting me to return the fairy to his former place. However, as well as a debt of thanks, I owe this man a huge apology for doubting him. I can think of no better reward than bestowing full Citizenship upon him.’ Tefyn produced a crystal pendant from his robes – the symbol of Citizenship of Annwn.

Insanity! Madryn could hear her mother’s horrified voice. A fairy becoming a citizen? With a crystal? And she knew the affront would be taken out on her. But, oh, this was worth any beating. Madryn remembered her own citizenship ceremony – for such a high-born elf, citizenship had never been in doubt. But she’d still felt so proud as Tefyn had placed the crystal pendant around her neck, and as she’d gazed down upon it, the hall had filled with the sounds of chairs being pushed back, as everyone rose to salute her.

‘In accordance with the Citizenship ceremony,’ Tefyn said, ‘I ask all Citizens present to stand and salute our newest member.’

But there was only silence. Tefyn and Blackbird were the only ones standing, Tefyn with his fist against his shoulder in solitary salute. The moment stretched. The human girl was staring at Madryn, her face full of questions. It was unbearable. Everything went very far away, as if Madryn was outside herself. She heard the scrape of her chair, eyes locked with Demali, who also stood. Madryn brought her right fist to her left shoulder in an elfish salute, and Demali copied her. All Madryn could hear in the howling silence was her heart pounding in her chest. She daren’t even breathe. How long ’til Tefyn gave up and sat down?

Then another chair moved back, then another and another, punctuated by the soft thumps of salutes. Soon nearly everyone was on their feet – everyone except Hafren’s party, who were now Etwender. Madryn felt dizzy. She and Tefyn had achieved Dahzen – and a lifetime of being confined to her room couldn’t take that away from her.

Tefyn addressed Hafren. ‘I wouldn’t expect you to stand,’ he said. ‘I know your feelings. But I extend my thanks to all of you for your support.’ Gently placing his hand on Blackbird’s shoulder, he reseated him, and all followed suit until only Tefyn and Pefryn were standing. A hush fell over the hall as Tefyn took both Pefryn’s hands in his, and gazed into her eyes.

‘And now I make, not a gift, but a request. Pefryn, my beloved, my brave, beautiful and clever wife, will you forgive me for not trusting and believing in you, and the terrible violence I did. Will you accept me once more as your partner, and return to your place at the palace, as my wife, and Lady of Annwn?’

‘Of course,’ she managed, before going up on tiptoes to kiss him. Madryn had to bite her lip, and knew she wasn’t the only one who was moved. Even some of Hafren’s party looked misty eyed, although Hafren and Esmet were staring at their cutlery.

It took Tefyn a moment to compose himself, but, still holding Pefryn’s hand, he gestured towards Demi-Lee on the other side of him.

‘And now, the highlight of tonight’s celebrations. We welcome among us a guest from another world, from Terra, which some of you may have visited in the old days. The nixies brought her here, and she has settled in well. Earlier today I granted her freedom to visit us whenever she wishes – providing the nixies will bring her. But she is deserving of far greater honours, having successfully walked a very difficult walk today. So now I call on Lord Hafren, who challenged her to Walk the Walk, to give her the reward she has earned.’

Hafren approached Demi with all the dignity he could muster, although his scowl was worse than ever. I won, you lost, get over it, Demi thought. He placed the Prize on the High Table in front of her. Demi tried to look calm, but inside her heart was racing. What if the Prize didn’t unlock when Hafren spoke the spell?

‘So,’ Hafren sneered. ‘Earlier today our young guest went out to Walk the Walk, and returned with the Prize. An incredible achievement for one so inexperienced and new to magic, I‘m sure we agree.’ The emphasis on Demi’s youth and inexperience didn’t go unnoticed.

‘She has impressed so many people,’ Hafren continued. ‘It has been such a long time since anyone Walked the Walk, but I’m sure many of the older ones among us remember the procedure. All that now remains is for me to speak the spell which untangles the Prize, and present this young person with the crystal pendant, the mark of Citizenship, that lies within.’

Alarm bells were ringing inside Demi’s mind, and she daren’t look at Blackbird. Hafren spoke the words to unlock the Prize, which was now collapsing into a pile of shards. A crystal? Had it fallen out in that dark woodland, where even Blackbird, with his sharp fairy vision, had missed it? Demi knew there was no crystal within the prize – something Hafren was now making clear to everyone as he rummaged dramatically through the pieces on the table.

‘How strange,’ said Hafren, his voice light and whimsical. ‘There’s no crystal here. Yet I put one within the Prize this morning – I have witnesses. Can you explain this mystery?’ he asked Demi, his voice all concern. ‘How could a crystal vanish from within a locked Prize?’ He was leaning over her now, invading her space. ‘Could it be,’ he purred, ‘that you didn’t Walk the Walk at all? You merely hid out of sight for a few hours, whilst one of your associates procured a second hand Prize for you? These aren’t uncommon – many of our older citizens own one, and wouldn’t notice if it were borrowed for a few hours. Is that the explanation?’

The pressure was immense. Hafren was leaning over her, his breath on her face, staring at her. She remembered something Owina had said, ‘You know, you can walk out of there any time you choose.’ And she remembered some other advice, about taking a mental step back, and seeing things as they really were, not as others wanted you to see them. And when she did, she saw an arrogant bully trying to intimidate a tired young woman who was a long way from home. But who was he to lay down the law? She took a deep breath, stood up and met Hafren’s eyes. Although he was nearly seven feet tall, the High Table was on a raised dais, so he had to stand up too. That got him out of her personal space.

‘I did Walk the Walk,’ she said calmly. ‘Over the mountains, down the cliff face, along a rotten walkway and through the swamp to the frozen waterfall. I went through the cave in the dark, and down that little railway in the mountain until I reached that desert place where I was almost burned alive. Of course, you’ve never been to any of those places, have you? I solved all the puzzles, survived all the ordeals, and collected all the items. After all that I was asked a question only an elf could answer. But I was given the Prize anyway, because somebody with that power thought I deserved it. However, the locking spell had been poorly cast, so when I walked through a dark woodland and tried to conjure some light, the Prize fell to pieces. I managed to put it back together, but in the dark I must have overlooked the crystal.’ Assuming it was there in the first place, she thought. She didn’t trust his witnesses as far as she could throw them. Her speech had gained a lot of sympathy, she could tell. Even if she had bent a few rules, the game was so twisted to begin with, who could blame her?

‘So,’ Hafren said. ‘Alone in the dark, you managed to reassemble the Prize and recast the locking spell. Even though you have never encountered such an object before, and as we all know, your magic skills are very basic. Would you care to show us how?’

Demi was prepared for this. There was only one thing to do – but who could tell how it would go down with an elfish audience. Smoothly she gathered up the pieces of the Prize, and dropped them into Blackbird’s outstretched hand. ‘Would you?’ she asked him. Within moments he had reassembled the Prize and recast the locking spell. Defiantly, she turned to meet Hafren’s gaze.

Two days ago she’d have been intimidated by the giant man with cold fury in his eyes. Two days ago she’d have run and hid. But she held his gaze, knowing that he had done all he could to destroy her – and failed. The stand-off was broken by Tefyn’s amused voice remarking, ‘Well, you did say nothing and nobody could help her. Obviously forgetting you’d designated my wife one of those and her cousin the other.’

There was laughter as the tension released, although Hafren looked ready to kill someone. ‘Then Nothing shall be your reward, and Nobody shall be your friend,’ he spat. Turning on his heel, he stormed out of the room, followed by his wife and retinue.

They weren’t quite out of earshot when the silence was broken by Demi-Lee’s voice, saying, ‘Well, that was a bit childish!’

She turned to Pefryn. ‘You’re not nothing anymore, and you were always everything to Tefyn. Bringing you back to him undid that curse. And I don’t know what I’d have done with you as a reward! But, Blackbird,’ she turned to her other side, ‘I always want you to be my friend, whatever happens.’

He hugged her briefly and said, ‘I’m sorry you didn’t get your crystal.’

‘It’s okay. I’ve got my own magic; I don’t need crystals. And the way we showed up Hafren was just brilliant!’

 

Chapter 21. Everything’s Going to be Fine…

When Blackbird woke the next morning, he knew he’d had too much honey beer, but it was too late to undo the past. He’d slipped away from the formal celebrations late in the evening and been taken to the fairy performers’ party, where he’d been hailed as hero of the hour. Spirits had been high after the events of the day, especially Hafren’s humbling, and the honey beer had flowed. Most of the fairies had slept where they’d fallen, nesting on cushions or huddled under their wings. Blackbird had made it back to his bed – with company. He’d offered to walk her back through Annwn. She was a kitchen maid in one of the big elfish houses and needed to be at work early in the morning. She had taken his arm as they walked through the sleeping town, but he hadn’t wanted to take anything for granted.

She had paused as they reached the City Lodge, and asked, ‘Can I kiss you, Citizen Blackbird? Or am I too low for you.’

‘Would you ask for a kiss if I was still Nothing?’ he said.

‘I would,’ she replied. ‘I’m not interested in your Place. I always thought you were Tefyn’s spoilt little pet before your exile. I had no idea!’

‘You’ve a strange way with a compliment,’ Blackbird pouted.

The woman gave the tiniest of smiles. ‘You’re tough, and kind, you care about us little people, and you keep your promises. Besides, I don’t get much fun working all hours in the kitchens, and your lips look so soft.’

‘Yours too,’ he’d smiled.

They’d kissed then, outside the palace, then they’d slipped through the corridors to his rooms. But now she was slipping off the end of his bed, searching for her clothes in the silver moonlight, trying not to wake him. Watching her through half-open eyes, her pale skin shaded by her soft brown wings, he wanted more of her, but knew she had to go to her work. He’d have overlooked her in the past, but her spirit had intrigued him. And she had wanted him, and the memory of her body against his was so good it almost made him groan.

‘Are you going?’ he asked softly.

She looked up, and he caught the glint of moonlight in her eyes. ‘I was trying not to wake you. I have to be at the kitchens soon, or I’ll be in trouble.’

‘Don’t ever go without saying goodbye. But don’t get into trouble on my account.’ He slid off the bed. ‘I’ll help you with your dress. Thank you for last night.’

‘I don’t suppose you’ve been with a woman for a while?’ she said.

‘No, I haven’t. I was the size of a bird, remember, it wouldn’t have been possible.’

‘Well, you were pretty good considering. And you smell delicious.’

‘That’s rosewater. A gift from Terra some years ago.’ He fastened her halter neck as she held her hair out of the way. He considered kissing her neck, she was so close, he could smell the scent of her. But she needed to go. He fetched the rosewater and splashed some on her palms, encouraging her to dab it on her neck and chest.

‘Does all of Terra smell this delicious?’ she asked.

‘No,’ said Blackbird, ‘sadly not.’ He realised she’d never been to Terra, probably never even left the city. When would she have the time, a hard-working woman like her?

She was breathing in the scent of the flowers on her palms.

‘This will remind you of last night,’ he said. ‘You work at Madryn’s house, don’t you?’

‘Yes, but I doubt she knows that,’ she replied.

‘Be kind to her today. She’ll be in big trouble for disobeying her mother.’

‘That old dragon! Madryn wouldn’t have the guts.’

‘She did. You saw her at the celebration – she was there against all orders. And you were with that other group, weren’t you, with friends in the prison.’

‘I couldn’t believe it when she helped me take food to my brother. What’s happened to that girl? Something about her’s definitely changed.’

‘Let me walk you back,’ Blackbird said, ‘I’ll tell you on the way.’

He was still naked, and it was obvious how much he wanted her, but he managed to struggle back into his clothes. She couldn’t help giggling at him. ‘You’re the one who wants to leave,’ he huffed.

‘I’m sorry, I would stay longer, but I can’t,’ she sighed.

They walked through the back lanes to Madryn’s house, and he explained what he knew of Madryn’s recent experiences, and her growing disillusionment with Light of Truth.

As they approached the back gate, he felt he owed her an explanation. ‘I need to return to Terra once I’m fully recovered, and once I’m there I don’t know when I’ll be back. So if you want to see me again, you know where to find me, but I’m afraid I can’t promise too much. I really won’t be here more than a short while.’

‘Don’t forget me when you’re gone,’ she said.

‘I won’t…’, he hesitated, and knew he’d betrayed himself.

‘Robin,’ she said simply.

‘I didn’t even ask, did I?’ he said.

‘No. But no matter.’

‘“Reckless as a robin”. It suits you.’

‘I must go now.’ She kissed him, and gave him a blessing. ‘Go well, stay safe, until we meet again.’

He returned the blessing, then watched her walk to the back door of the house.

He knew he wouldn’t sleep, and he didn’t want to return to his bed, which smelt of this reckless woman. What a surprise to discover he was still desired! True, Robin was a kitchen maid and his place was so much higher than hers, but he knew that hadn’t been the reason. She would make a high place for herself somewhere, he knew that. But if Robin wanted him, maybe Vicky would want him too. He felt bad for cheating on Vicky, before remembering that so far their relationship was all in his head.

As he stepped into the moonlight he felt its power warm his skin, and was delighted to see his shadow was now sparkling with magic. It was the last day of the full moon, which was only a few hours from setting. He made a decision and set off towards the town walls, looking for the gap he and Pefryn had used earlier. For someone with fairy night vision and hearing, it wasn’t difficult. Once through the wall he followed the main route into the mountains, until he found the small path Tefyn had shown him, the one leading to the little cave with the crystals.

The moon was too low to illuminate the cave, but the crystals inside must have been in full sunlight earlier, as they were glowing with power. There were more broken pieces in the water, and he fished out the best of them. He sat for while on the ledge, trying to remember how to shape-shift. It used to be so easy, he’d flip from man to bird and back again, or change down to doll-size, they way he had when he’d first met Demali, and never worried that he couldn’t change back. There was a trick to keeping your natural shape in memory, so you could slip back into it without fuss. It had come easy as a reckless youth, but now the fear that he couldn’t change back chilled him.

Things had changed. He had lost his wings, his beautiful, swift wings, and it seemed he would never get them back. But he had gained a new Place, one that couldn’t be taken from him easily. And his new Place would benefit all the fairies of Annwn. And he was learning new tricks – diplomacy, tact, patience, responsibility. Sweet sunlight, was he growing up at last?

And… without wings, could he pass for human in Terra? That was the kind of idea you didn’t look full in the face, in case it ran away or bit you. It would be difficult, so difficult. He knew he looked different from most humans, but there were so many of them, they were so varied, another one would surely pass unnoticed. There would be much to learn, but he had willing teachers. Could he? Live in Terra? Not be judged a rebel or a hero, just another body, with magic he could use when no-one was watching.

It would be daylight soon. He undressed, and slipped into the warm pool, still scented with the herbs he’d tossed into it hours before.

The silhouette of the Eastern mountains could just be seen in the pre-dawn sky. The moon was approaching the rim of the Western mountains, and Annwn’s valley was now in deep shadow. He held the crystals up to the moonlight, and felt them absorb its power. The golden light of the setting moon was tinged with the resignation and wisdom of old age, and he knew who this magic was for. When the moon slipped behind the mountains he climbed out of the pool and back into his clothes. Tucking the crystals into his waistband, he took a long last look over the valley, then returned to the town.

A few nocturnal animals – bats, moths, little rustling rodents – were making the most of the last hour of night, whilst high on the mountain, the first blush of daylight touched the snowy peaks. As he returned to the town, late night became early morning, and the gates were opened. He made his way to Rusty’s home and found that, as expected, the old fairy was an early riser. Rusty was brewing an early morning tea, and preparing food for Tom Gently, who was already much taller.

Blackbird greeted them, adding, ‘You’re growing fast, Mr Gently.’

‘The world already looks smaller! It’s exhausting though! All I do is eat and sleep.’ Tom squeaked in his tiny voice.

‘He needs constant feeding, just like a baby bird,’ added Rusty

‘I’ve brought you something to help,’ Blackbird said. ‘Rusty, you should know how to use this – it’s a crystal full of moon energy. Should help you grow even faster, Tom, without tiring you out.’

‘Oh, that is kind of you, Blackbird. I hope it wasn’t too much trouble,’ Tom piped.

‘I know what it’s like to be small and helpless,’ Blackbird replied. ‘Always worried someone’s going to tread on you. This moon energy should help you grow back to man-sized in half the time – and it will waken any magic within you.’

‘Well, that would be exciting!’ Tom squeaked. ‘I had friends who tried to get me to use magic, but without success. Oh, thank you so much, Blackbird. Is there anything I can offer in return’

‘Stay and have breakfast with us.’ Rusty suggested. ‘We hear you’ve been in the thick of it since we last saw you. Tell us what really happened.’

‘Thank you,’ Blackbird said. ‘I never refuse food, you know that. Your brew smells delicious.’

Blackbird relaxed over breakfast with the two friends, filling them in on the previous day’s events. Despite their long separation, Tom and Rusty were wonderfully close, sharing private jokes and finishing each other’s sentences. There was such tenderness in the way Rusty broke the food into tiny pieces to feed Tom. Blackbird felt a touch guilty that he’d only agreed to bring Tom with him to get on Vicky’s good side. He made a silent vow to look after these two, and ask Pefryn to keep an eye on them when he went away – whenever that would be. Until then, it was agreed that Tom Gently would help Blackbird improve his English.

‘It will help you get along better if you return to Cardiff,’ Tom mused.

And maybe gain Vicky’s respect Blackbird thought.

 

***

 

A few hours later Demi-Lee walked into the breakfast room at the City Lodge – so much grander than the Healer’s Lodge – and encountered a fully glamoured Blackbird. His hair glinted with copper and bronze, his eyelashes were long and dark, and his lips full and crimson. He was wearing another pair of skin-tight trousers, crimson like his lips, and a dusky pink tunic, with a few new neckpieces he’d made. Not the kind of look which would go unnoticed even in a place like Annwn.

She, on the other hand, was wearing her Newport clothes, washed and darned, with her hair scraped back in a ponytail. He gave her a puzzled look. ‘You can still wear your fairy dress, you know. And have your hair done up like last night. You don’t have to go back to looking ordinary.’

‘I do, though, don’t I? I can’t go around Newport all green and gold – people would throw stones at me. I’ll have to dress like this – like everyone else,’ Demi said gloomily.

‘That’s so sad. You looked fantastic last night – so powerful. You were really shining,’ Blackbird told her.

‘I felt like a superhero. But when I put it on this morning, I realised…’ her voice trailed off. ‘Guess it’s time to put my costume away, and hide my powers. And that sucks.’

‘Do they still burn witches in Terra?’ Blackbird asked.

‘No, they don’t believe in us any more. There’s a saying that no real witch would ever have allowed herself to get caught by witch finders. So I’ll have to hide my magic, because if I let people know what I am, it’ll freak them out completely.’

‘You can practise in secret,’ Blackbird said. ‘Or with Aelwen.’

‘But magic’s the only thing I’m any good at – that and herbs.’ Her voice was starting to crack, and she stopped talking before she started crying. Blackbird put his hand on her shoulder, and she felt the comforting spell he wove around her. ‘Aelwen will help you. And Vicky and Heledd know you’re a witch, so you can share your thoughts with them.’

‘And Owina. We swapped emails – that’s human magic, a way to communicate around the world. She knows some witches’ networks I can join, and she wants me to go visit her. I told her I don’t have a passport, but she said the nixies would take me.’

‘See? It’s not so bad,’ he soothed.

‘Oh, but it is. I want to go home, but I want to show people what I can do. I don’t want to just be some stupid kid in a nowhere town with this big secret I have to keep hidden.’ She gave Blackbird a beseeching look. ‘Won’t you at least come back with me? Just for a few days?’

‘I can’t come with you,’ he said. ‘You know I can’t. Tefyn won’t let me leave Annwn until I can shape-shift again. It’s not possible.’

‘Blackbird, what is it with you?’ Demi said. ‘Don’t you realise you can just walk out – he can’t stop you. We could leave now, skip the official committee.’

‘Absolutely not!’ Blackbird said. ‘Tefyn is my friend, and the leader here, and I won’t undermine him any further. I know I can just walk out, he made me a Citizen so I have the right. But it’s not fear of Tefyn that stops me – it’s respect. Ignoring his wishes would be the gravest insult – and why would I do that after all he’s been through? Showing respect to Tefyn is the best way of using my higher place – and if that makes no sense to you, please just accept it.’

‘Can’t you just shapeshift then?’ she pleaded. ‘You used to be brilliant at it!’

‘No.’ Blackbird had been glaring at Demi-Lee, but as soon as she made her suggestion he turned away.

‘But you’ve got your magic back. Surely it’ll be easy?’

Blackbird took a deep breath and shuddered. ‘No. I can’t even think about it.’

Demi-Lee was about to argue, but realised it was no use. If she pushed him any more he’d just freak out, that was obvious. He was still being really pathetic, though – it was just a spell, and he’d done it loads of times. It was like that teacher who was knocked off his bike by a joyrider and went into a cold sweat whenever he heard someone revving an engine. But what if Blackbird never came back to her world? That would be unbearable. She tried to think what Heledd would do if she were there – Heledd was so good at calming people. ‘Sorry Blackbird,’ she said, ‘don’t get stressed, I’ll just miss you, that’s all.’

‘I’ll miss you too. You’ll do great things, Demali, but have patience. Enjoy being a girl a while longer.’

She untied her ponytail.

‘Will you do my hair for me, like it was last night?’

‘Of course.’ His smile returned.

‘Then I’m going to put my new dress on. I’ll change into these things when I get back to the Grove.’

‘Let’s go back to your room. I’ll need to comb your hair through.’

The brief walk back to Demi-Lee’s guestroom helped them both calm down. As he combed her hair with a wooden comb, Blackbird began to speak in a low voice.

‘You got to be careful when you shape-shift. If you don’t hold the memory of your true shape, you’ll never change back. And afterwards you feel like you’ve been stretched and squashed all over. When Hafren shrank me he was as rough as he could be. Just thinking of it makes me feel…’ he fell silent and shook his head.

‘I’m sorry Blackbird. Does that mean you’ll never leave Annwn?’

‘Give me time. The healers will help me face the fear, I’m sure. But I’m so, so tired, Demali. I can’t run on youth and hope the way you do. And you know you can return here whenever you want.’

‘If I can find some nixies to bring me,’ she replied. ‘The only portal I know is the one near Vicky, and that’s miles from where I live.’

‘We will meet again, Demali,’ he said. ‘But you need to go home. And make sure you apologise to Vicky. She’ll have plucked herself bald with worrying.’

‘She doesn’t have feathers you know!’ Demi laughed. ‘But she’s gonna be so angry with me. So I’ll definitely wear the fairy dress – that should make her realise I’ve changed, grown up a bit.’

‘You’ve grown up a lot. I hope you realise how special you are here. But don’t grow up too quickly – youth is a precious thing.’

‘Old people always say that,’ she said.

‘And young people never listen,’ he replied. ‘But let’s not argue. Maybe if you take something from me to Vicky – a gift and a message – it will distract her from shouting at you. I know how fierce she can be.’

‘A cunning plan. I like. And my hair looks great. Now will you go outside while I change.’

‘Of course. I’ll go and fetch my gift for Vicky.’

 

***

 

When they reached the portal some time later – the main city portal this time, not the little one in the mountains that Pefryn had used – Demi-Lee felt torn between wanting to get the goodbyes over with, and stretching out the moment as long as possible. She was still holding Vicky’s little basket; among other things it contained a small gift and a message from Blackbird to Vicky. She was dying to know what it was. Part of her hoped it would be something wonderful from Annwn, but a bigger part of her hoped it was rubbish and Vicky would hate it. And she knew that was bad, but Blackbird was her fairy.

She was so preoccupied, waiting for Tefyn to start his goodbye speech, that she didn’t even notice Hafren approaching them until she was pushed aside by one of his throne-bearers. Hafren moved his throne right up to Tefyn, a little too close for courtesy, his back to Pefryn as usual. Hafren was holding two books – one old and tattered, the other pristine. Blackbird explained what they were – the ancient constitution of Annwn, and Hafren’s own modern translation and assessment.

Even Blackbird would admit that Hafren was an intelligent and gifted man. He knew many ancient languages, and had devoted many years to studying and translating elfish law, lore and customs. Sceptical minds might be moved to question the impartiality of his versions – particularly with relevance to the rights of citizens versus inhabitants. Citizenship – such as Tefyn had granted Blackbird – included privileges denied mere inhabitants. But there was debate over whether a citizen by definition had to be an elf, or whether fairies also could become citizens.

This was the point Hafren was arguing now with Tefyn, in front of everyone who’d assembled to bless and give farewell to Demi-Lee. She’d become popular among the ordinary people of Annwn, who appreciated her courage and her halting attempts to learn their languages. But the human visitor was pushed behind the throne-bearers whilst Hafren dismounted and squared up to Tefyn, challenging his right to confer honours on those who weren’t, and could never be, citizens of Annwn, because only a full elf could be a citizen. Hafren was talking in a low voice with his back to Demi and Blackbird, so that, even with the translation spell, Demi couldn’t make out what he was saying. It seemed to go on forever, Hafren barely pausing for breath, let alone giving anyone else the chance to speak, but then Hafren used a word, obviously aimed at Blackbird, which caused outraged reactions from many of the people there.

People were looking from Hafren to Blackbird and back again, shock and distaste on their faces.

‘What did he just call you?’ Demi-Lee demanded. ‘It was something pretty bad, wasn’t it?’

‘A kind of bad animal,’ Blackbird struggled to explain, ‘like something that gets into your house and nibbles your food.’

‘A mouse? He called you a mouse?’ Demi said. ‘Is that such a bad insult?’

‘All those animals,’ Blackbird explained. ‘Ones that steal food, destroy, spread disease, have too many babies. All those bad animals.’

‘Vermin? That’s pretty low.’

‘He says it doesn’t matter how you dress them up and teach them tricks, vermin are never elves. He means me and Pefryn.’

‘The bastard!’ Demi said.

‘What is that?’ Blackbird asked.

But Demi-Lee had no time to explain as Hafren shot her an angry look. It was meant to silence her, but she took it as an opportunity to speak.

‘He’s not vermin. He’s Blackbird, and he’s my friend.’

‘We have a saying, which translates as, “Vermin swarm together”. Declaring him your friend does neither of you any favours,’ Hafren sneered.

Demi-Lee tried to think of a smart come-back, but Hafren was advancing on them, standing over Blackbird, trying to intimidate him. Blackbird stood his ground and held Hafren’s gaze, although he was pale and trembling faintly.

‘Show respect,’ Hafren snapped, but Blackbird continued to look the elf in the eye.

‘This is your last warning. Show respect, or it will go ill for you.’ But Blackbird stayed where he was, head tipped back, looking up into Hafren’s furious face. The little fairy was no longer shaking but calm. He gave Hafren a challenging smile as he unclenched his fists. This was too much.

‘Then if he is Blackbird,’ Hafren declared, giving a sign to one of his hangers-on, ‘a blackbird let him be.’

Hafren’s henchman directed a curse at Blackbird, who grasped at air as his shape was forcibly shifted, agony clear on his face in that second it was still fairy.

Demi-Lee ran at Hafren, her fists drawn back. ‘You damn lazy coward; you can’t even cast your own spells,’ she yelled at him.

Hafren glared at her and touched his own crystal, ‘Be silent and still, outworlder,’ he commanded, but it was he who crumpled, unable to move, choking on the words that wouldn’t come. Demi-Lee stood over him in shock, until she worked out what had happened.

‘You stole Rusty’s charm!’ she shouted. ‘And that bound us. So whatever you do to me comes back on you. You’ve cursed yourself – hope you know someone who can lift it.’ As an afterthought she delivered a hard kick to Hafren’s crotch. It rebounded on her, of course, but girls don’t have balls, so it was no big deal.

Tefyn, cool-headed as ever, had lifted up the panicking bird, and was gently soothing him. Blackbird stopped fluttering, and settled in his friend’s gentle grasp.

‘Try it,’ Tefyn suggested as he held the bird high, and Blackbird took off, flying unsteadily to the nearest tree, where he chirped a small song of triumph. ‘Now change back.’ But the bird just stayed on his branch, looking quizzically at them, so Tefyn lifted him down.

‘This is what you do,’ he told Demi-Lee. ‘Just picture him in your mind, and let him absorb some of your energy.’ He lifted the bird to his face, where it pressed its beak to his mouth, and turned back into Blackbird, who swayed a moment before collapsing to his knees and retching noisily.

He wiped his mouth with the back of his hands as he sat back on his heels and looked expectantly up at Tefyn.

‘Well? Can I go now, with Demali? You did promise,’ the fairy said.

Tefyn sighed. ‘Go, with my blessing. Return at new moon. And I want a full report from you of all you’ve learnt in Terra.’

Blackbird scrambled to his feet, dipped his head in thanks to Tefyn, then hugged Pefryn. There were tears in both pairs of eyes as she told him to stay safe. ‘I’ll be back before you know it,’ he murmured.

Then it was Demi-Lee’s turn to be hugged, kissed and blessed by everyone there.

Tom was the last person to say goodbye. He was now the size of a small cat, sitting awkwardly in Rusty’s arms. ‘Come back soon, tell me all about life back home. Give my regards to our friends, and remember to comfort Mary.’

‘I will. Have you got a special message for her?’ Demi asked.

‘So much I’d like to say to her. But no, she needs to believe I simply died. Just give her some time, be willing to listen. I know it’s dull for a young person like you; you’ve no idea how much she’ll appreciate it.’ He saw the look on Demi-Lee’s face. ‘Just do your best.’

‘I will,’ she said. Then she took Blackbird’s hand. Together they walked to the pool, and held out their free hands to the nixie who was already waiting…

 

THE END

 

###

Author note

Thank you for reading my book. If you enjoyed it, please leave a review at your favourite retailer or review site.

More work by this author

A Pinch of Moonlight is the first book in the Full Moon Dancers series.

I am working on the second volume in the series, along with some unrelated story ideas.

I am also writing a screenplay and stage play as part of an MA in Creative Writing.

Give me motivation to write by contacting me as below, or leaving a review on-line.

It’s much more rewarding when you know you have an audience, rather than scribbling away alone!

Connect with me

Friend me on Facebook: http://facebook.com/av.awenna

Subscribe to my blog: https://guardthemoon.wordpress.com/

Favorite me at Shakespir:


A Pinch of Moonlight

  • ISBN: 9781311620231
  • Author: A V Awenna
  • Published: 2015-11-23 14:40:14
  • Words: 96050
A Pinch of Moonlight A Pinch of Moonlight