A Pinch of Moonlight
Part 1: Terra (Earth)
A 21st century summer solstice
- Three girls turning …
Blackbird cursed as a wing snagged on a branch, almost dislodging him. He dipped down a little, shifted to the left, and squeezed himself between the oak tree and the masonry. These weren’t his own wings; he had to remember that. These were less manoeuvrable and didn’t fold up properly, but they were all he had for now. He hauled himself on top of the wall and gazed over the view. This was the place. Beyond the field edge the city swept downhill to the sea, a half-day’s walk away. The castle in the centre of the city; the glass towers on the water’s edge; and the two islands in the channel, were all just as he remembered. Myriad lights marked the roadways, and across the sea orange smudges showed where other towns lay. The full moon laid a silver path on the water, and the cloudless sky was midnight dark. And there, right in front of him was the house where Demali slept, on the very last street before the city became fields. A solid, pleasant house, attached to its mirror twin, on a street of similar buildings with gardens front and back, and trees along the pavement. The moonlight warmed him, and provided all the light his fairy eyes needed. But the magic in it was beyond his reach. A full moon on the summer solstice, and he was senseless to it as if he was stone. Or the average human. He hoped that Demali, who was a far from average human, would respond to the magic in the air. All he had to do was glide across the garden, scramble over the roof to her window facing the sea, and charm her into letting him in. He rehearsed the words he would say. How much easier it had been when he had his wings and his magic, and Demali had been a trusting child. She was a cynical adolescent now, and he would have to use all his charm to distract her from his wretched appearance. Even her ripped jeans and faded T shirt were grand compared to his rags, and the difference in his wings would take some explaining. When he found the dried out remains of the blackbird, just the wings, tail and scalp remaining, he had planned to carry his namesake away for a decent burial. But as he hauled it onto his back it provided warmth and shelter, and a valuable disguise. Half mad with cold and hunger as he was, he decided to keep it – to become it. A fairy without wings is no fairy at all, and at least with the wingsuit he could glide. Could he persuade her that he’d always been like this, and the glossy black plumes that had allowed him to turn and tumble through the air were a false memory? As he watched, the room on the ground floor was illuminated as three young women entered it. The blinds were open, and he could see it was a kitchen. A clock on the wall indicated it was close to midnight. Demali had grown so much since he’d last seen her, but she was still recognisably Demali. Same long brown hair, same clumsiness, same scowl. Easily the tallest of the three, although clearly the youngest too. He recognised one of the older girls. Demi’s cousin Vicky. More athletic in her movements, and despite the strong family resemblance her hair was short and fair. This was Vicky’s family home, he remembered, where Demali stayed on occasion. The third girl was someone new, but she seemed the same age as Vicky. Much shorter and squarer, though, with a cap of brown curls. Blackbird watched as they talked animatedly. They put the mugs they were carrying on the table, and Blackbird assumed they would head to their beds. Instead, the door to the garden opened, and they walked trough. Demali was talking, and as she emerged her words became clear. ‘I want to see the tree dance,’ she said. ‘It won’t take a minute’
‘Why did you tell her that daft story, Heledd?’ Vicky asked.
‘It’s an ancient legend particular to this location,’ the third girl replied. ‘It may be a mistranslation. The tree dance could mean people dancing around the tree, not the tree itself dancing. ‘
‘We’ll soon find out what it’s about. I won’t hold my breath though. Probably some medieval ‘shroomer telling tales.’
‘It’s the wrong time of year for magic mushrooms, and the legend did specify it was the full moon on a summer solstice. A once in a generation occurrence, supposedly the best time to gather herbs for magic spells.’
‘I’ve lived in that house over twenty-one years and I’ve never heard any of this before. I’m not likely to get kicked in the face when the tree lifts its roots, am I?’
‘You’re such a grumpy old cynic,’ Demali said.
‘I thought I was a tree-hugger,’ Vicky replied. ‘Make your mind up.’
‘You are a tree hugger,’ Demali said. ‘You’re always telling me to switch things off and put them in the recycling.’
‘Not the same things, surely,’ Vicky laughed. ‘And I’m only trying to keep this world habitable for when I’m older. It’s science, not superstition.’
‘It’s folklore, not superstition,’ Heledd said. ‘We’re here, so we may as well see what happens. It could be a trick of the light or something, or maybe it’s a reference to a fertility ritual. I’m being scientific, too. There’s a difference between studying ancient legends and actually believing in elves and dancing trees.’
Vicky gave a short laugh. ‘Do you know, when this one was a kid she started telling us about this guy who came in through her bedroom window at night and told her how special and wonderful she was. But just as mum was about to call the police, Miss Thing tells us not to worry, he’s a fairy and he’s going to teach her magic. Jeez, we didn’t know whether to laugh or scream. She’ll never live that down.’
‘You’re such a cow!’ Demali yelled, lunging at her cousin.
Vicky laughed and darted out of Demali’s reach. She went out of Blackbird’s view too, behind the garden fence. He heard the gate being unlocked from inside. Demali stayed where she was, in full moonlight with her hands on her hips and a scowl on her face. Blackbird paid no attention to the others as they left the safety of the garden and approached the motte. Demali’s anger was a catalyst, and the way her moonshadow boiled and shimmered showed how much magic she was generating. There was a faint crackle in the air, and a smell like gunpowder. Wonderful. If he could only get her on his side. But how? He could hear Vicky and Heledd scrambling through the brambles to the top of the motte. Within moments they emerged at the base of the tower and walked through a breach in the ancient stones to stand among the ruins. Blackbird had already slipped into the shadows on the eastern wall, the giant oak filling the space behind him where the northern wall had been, it’s stones long ago crushed and separated by the tree. Demi was still lost to the new sensations of magic, turning slowly in the moonlight and rippling her fingers as if soft water was flowing over them.
‘Look at that idiot,’ Vicky said. ‘Up past bedtime, and drunk on her first beer. I knew I should have made her drink shandy.’
‘At least she didn’t throw up on the Deputy head’s car bonnet.’
Vicky laughed again. ‘That wasn’t even me. I don’t know who it was. I just let people think it was me because I was tired of being so boring.’
‘It did seem rather out of character.’
‘It wasn’t you, was it?’ Vicky teased.
‘No, I saved that experience until I’d been at Uni a while. I threw up my chips into the sea off Aberystwyth pier and a seagull came and ate them.’
‘That’s very Heledd. Come on Demi.’ Vicky raised her voice. ‘Demi-Lee Jenkins, are you coming up here or what? It’s nearly midnight.’
Demali came back to her self and moved dreamily across the lawn and through the gate. There was a yelp as Demi made her way through the brambles, and she emerged a moment later holding out her index finger so the others could see the dark bead which welled from her insides.
‘Something bit me,’ she grumbled.
‘Just a thorn on the brambles,’ Vicky replied. ‘I’m sure it won’t kill you.
Demi wiped the drop of blood onto the tree trunk then began to walk slowly around it, inspecting it.
‘What did you do that for?’
‘Just didn’t want to get it on my clothes.’
‘Is it me, or…’ Heledd asked.
Blackbird could sense it too. The tree was a-quiver, and the agitated sound of leaves rustling intensified.
‘There’s no wind,’ Vicky said. Was that a touch of fear in her voice?
‘Maybe we’re just sheltered from it here,’ Heledd replied.
‘The tree,’ Demi said, placing her palms against the bark. ‘It’s getting ready to dance.’
‘Don’t touch it,’ Vicky said, reaching out to pull her away. ‘There could be lightning in the air.’ Vicky had reached out with her right hand and grabbed Demi by her left, pulling her back around the tree. Demi stumbled over a root and the two of them fell onto the ground. Heledd reached out and offered Vicky her right hand, then, as Vicky got to her feet, began to pull her around the tree so she could reach Demali, who was sitting on the ground giggling. She hauled Demi upright, and they staggered a few paces in the other direction.
Sweet sunlight, be careful, Blackbird thought, but before he could stop them, they had completed a turn widdershins around the tree. The three skipped and stumbled around the tree in the full moon light, oblivious to the effects. Blackbird leapt to the nearest place of safety, with not a moment to spare. Demi returned to the moonlight for the third time, her shadow throwing off sparkles, and as it touched the smear of blood on the oak, a cold silver flame ignited. In moments the whole trunk was blazing, and the branches thrashed as if something was trying to break free. It was Vicky who broke her hold, and began to run back towards her house, with the others close on her heels. The blazing tree threw wild shadows on the wall and Blackbird hunched over to protect his eyes from the glare. There was a tearing sound, then the light and noise dwindled.
Blackbird turned back towards the tree.
Atop the motte, 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 an ancient language, each asked the other, ‘What in the world are you?’
Demi didn’t bother to hide her disdain as Vicky locked and bolted the door, pulled down the blind and turned on every light she could reach. Just a little bit of magic, she thought, no need to freak out. Heledd was talking in that quiet low voice people always used when they thought someone was about to flip out, guiding Vicky to a chair at the kitchen table. Vicky kept casting nervous glances at the window, but the night was now dark and quiet, and Demi knew that whoever was outside wasn’t going to come bursting through the glass. Heledd was alright, in a sensible, wholegrain cereal kind of way. She even looked like a Weetabix, short and square in a knobbly brown cardigan. But she was keeping Vicky calm, so Demi decided to leave them to it. She took some cola from the fridge, and announced she was going to bed. Heledd actually called after her as she climbed the stairs, telling her to brush her teeth or the cola would rot them. As if Demi had nothing better to do…
Demi closed the bedroom door and slid the bolt. Kneeling on the bed, she drew back the curtains and opened the window, careful of the bottles and make-up she’d arranged along the window ledge. As the moonlight streamed through, 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 shadow bird above its fake skyscrapers. The giant bird paused. Among the shadows was another bird shape. 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. A huge smile spread across her face.
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.
- 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, and when Aelwen opened it, she saw a small man, the size of a boy, with wings folded behind his back. She had seen fairies before, but never on her doorstep.
‘This fairy told Aelwen his name was Rowan, and that he and Tegwyn were related. 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 the baby, and he wanted that book for himself.
‘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 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 Rowan’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 Rowan spun and wove the wool, and in the evening he presented them with a blanket, soft and fine, a beautiful thing. Aelwen 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. “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 a 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. Everything was good for a few years. Aelwen became an even better healer, and people came from far and wide to see her. She 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. Her daughter grew strong and healthy, and her husband worked hard beside her.
‘But then they came. The ones who want to enslave the weak and kill all difference. They spread their lies, and tried to make people mistrust the healers and wise women. They caught Aelwen when she was picking herbs in the silver moonlight, and locked her up in the tower.’
‘The tower? How long ago was this?’
‘Before I remember. The tower was old, but the walls were still strong. 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 from Rowan, and when she held it to the moonlight he came 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, to teach you magic.’
‘Will you stay here tonight?’ Demi asked. ‘Oh, please.’
Blackbird hesitated. It was hard to see his expression, with his back to the moonlight and that weird hood over his face.
‘It’s been years since I’ve seen you,’ Demi pleaded. ‘Vicky went away to study, and I always went to visit her in Manchester. I’ve really missed you.’
‘Maybe it’s time I met your cousin.’
‘Wicked! She never believed in you. I can’t wait to see her face. She’ll freak.’
‘Goodnight then. Do you have somewhere I can sleep?’
‘Umm, how about I put this scarf in a shoebox? Will that do for tonight?’ Demi placed the box on a desk, where it should be safe.
‘It will suffice. Sweet dreams.’
He kissed the end of her nose, then climbed into the box. 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 closed her eyes. There was a soft sound as Blackbird slipped out of the wings, followed by his quiet snoring.
- 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 cold blaze on the mound, terrifying as that had been. As she fled, a strange sensation had overtaken her, igniting something which flared for a moment then faded. But its memory was still there, and it troubled her.
Thankfully, 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 gone to different Universities. But a few weeks before, their passed crossed at their local library. Vicky had gone into 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. After that they went for a coffee, neither admitting how lost and lonely they felt back in Tanybryn, the garden suburb where they’d both been odd-ones-out, but never similar enough to connect before. It didn’t help Vicky that her boyfriend, Dave, was in Australia for a year. The long-distance relationship was already fraying at the edges.
They discussed their achievements and social activities at their respective universities, and for a while the gulf between them seemed too vast to bridge, but then Vicky mentioned the Freediving club she’d joined at Manchester Uni.
‘We could go to the beach,’ Heledd suggested. ‘To Gower, maybe. I’m not much of a swimmer, but I could relax whilst you swim.’
So a few days later, when the tide was right, they took the bus to Swansea and spent the day 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.
They were in the kitchen now, Vicky pouring coffee into the huge round mug she always used when she was stressed, whilst Heledd explained her Postgraduate plans as she buttered some toast. Heledd would return to Aberystwyth in October. She had secured funding 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. 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, her footsteps clumping down the stairs.
‘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?
Moments later, Demi whistled into the kitchen, her long brown hair covering her shoulders. She pulled a face at the granary toast Heledd was eating and went to the fridge.
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 rooting through the fridge, 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, lifting up 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 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.’
‘This is Blackbird,’ Demi said, as she lifted the object gently from her shoulder and lowered it towards the kitchen table.
‘Don’t you dare put that filthy thing on there!’ A plastic bag was what Vicky needed; something to pick the revolting object up and drop it in the bin where it belonged. But as she reached out, the object moved, and Vicky yelped, leaping back from the table to a safe distance.
‘What is it?’ Heledd asked, leaning forward. ‘Is it alive?’
‘It’s just Blackbird, and he’s my friend.’ Demi replied. ‘Put the frying pan down, Vicky, and chill.’
Slowly 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 sleepless night and too much coffee had left her nerves jangling, and now there was a manky dead bird on the kitchen table with something moving about underneath it. Her mind raced through possible rational explanations, but before she could find one, two arms appeared from under the bird wings and tipped back the hood made by the bird’s head. A tiny face glared up at Vicky. She grabbed the back of her chair to steady herself, swallowing hard as her heart raced and cold sweat trickled down her skin.
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 scowled 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 destroy it, like vermin.
A miniature man, wearing a blackbird’s skin. A macabre cloak of head, wings and tail all. And what on earth did he have on underneath? Ragged black combat pants and a pink T shirt 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 said.
‘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, as they crossed the field beyond the motte and tower. The moonlit glamour had evaporated and beyond the cutting at the edge of the field, Saturday afternoon motorway traffic grumbled. But the sky was blue, the light golden, and the air warm and soft with just a hint of a cooling breeze. Blackbird was sitting on Demi’s shoulder. 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, all mud, molehills and thistles. Her trainers would be ruined if she wasn’t careful, and there was nothing normal like 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 directing them to the place where Aelwen was waiting. An ancient spirit in a part-tree body, who had been a powerful witch in her time, and she was going to teach Demi some magic. Demi’s mind was full of the wild things she could learn. Who cared if she was average at everything at school if she could do magic. Was there a way of magically altering the marks on her exam papers? The again, who needed GCSEs if you could shapeshift, or cast magic spells, or fly? Could Aelwen teach her to fly? That would be awesome.
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. 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. But Vicky couldn’t do magic, could she? Demi had a sudden panic that Vicky would turn out to be better at that, too, but, no, Blackbird had never bothered with Vicky. Demi was definitely the magic talent in the family. 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 handy 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 mud and puddles.
‘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.
‘No flipping way. Can’t you magic it dry, or something.’
Before he could answer, 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.
‘Remember Mrs Watkins?’ Heledd said. ‘When Vicky got her first tattoo she was telling everyone how sorry she felt for your mam, as you were obviously on the way to being a drug addict.’
‘She’s vile.’ Vicky replied. ‘Once when Demi had bad zits, she reckoned it was down to sniffing glue.’
‘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 said. ‘Cover…him…with your hair if we see anyone.’
It didn’t take long to reach the road. Vicky went over the stile first, to check if the coast was clear, but there was no-one else about. The road was just a paved lane, just wide enough for two cars to pass, but there was no sign of traffic. They had left the city now, and the birdsong was already as loud as the motorway. They headed up the hill, between high hedges. Soon they reached the old house. A sign at the front announced it was a retirement home.
‘Golden Grove,’ said Heledd. ‘Let’s hope it’s as nice as it sounds.’
It was a handsome Victorian building, with a tacked-on modern reception and administration wing. A conservatory was visible at the back, and it was surrounded by planting with wide pathways and raised beds. It was lunchtime, so the garden was empty of people, but full of bees and butterflies dancing on the air. Soon they approached the gap in the hedge which led into 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, but a very old one. Maybe you can help renew it. Your first test,’ he replied.
A test? Demi stumbled, causing Blackbird to scold her. She bit her lip. Learning magic was one thing, but being tested on it? Demi had imagined Aelwen would be like Blackbird, completely on her side. But now Blackbird was giving her a telling off for nearly tipping him onto the ground. What if Aelwen hated Demi as much as every other teacher ever seemed to? Demi suddenly hated the sunlight. Where was the moonlight she needed to fuel her magic?
Heledd’s voice cut through her doubts.
‘All the sacred trees. Lots of willow and hazel, and this oak looks ancient. Shame about all the brambles though. How do we get through?’
‘How did Aelwen get through?’ Vicky asked.
‘Plants will let her through. She knows their language now.’
And maybe Aelwen heard their voices and spoke to the plants, as the brambles shrank back to let them through, and the willows lifted their branches to create a passage. Demi went first, her heart pounding and her skin tingling all over. The sounds of the motorway faded to nothing as she entered the heart of the grove. She waited for Aelwen to appear, then realised she was already there, about nine feet tall and leaning into the sunlight in a way no-one with a skeleton could manage. Her shape was basically human, with two arms and a head between them, and a trunk which looked as though it could separate into legs if needed. Her skin was hard and brown as bark. Her face was kind of unfinished, as if she’d decided not to recreate any human features which would have been superfluous. Her eyes were small and brown like acorns, behind leafy eyelids. Her mouth 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.
Aelwen beckoned Demi with a strange gesture, more growth than movement. Demi resisted the urge to flee from this terrifying being, and approached. Aelwen reached out and cupped Demi’s cheek. Her touch was delicate, so dry and hard, a temperature no animal would ever be. Demi closed her eyes and faint images swept across her mind, but she couldn’t grasp them. Blackbird’s voice cut across the silence.
‘She’s asking if you can feel any magic right now,’ he said.
‘You can read her mind?’ Demi asked.
‘Yes. But I’m Fairy, so it’s easy. Your people can’t, mostly. And she don’t speak your language, so she got to talk with pictures.’ He paused a moment, as if focussing. ‘She says your mind won’t hold still and she can’t pick anything up.’
Last night, in the moonlight, the air had roared with power, but now it was just a faint fizz. The grove was definitely a magical sort of place, separate from the world outside, but there was nothing Demi could hold on to. She gazed at Aelwen, as if staring at her would allow Demi to see into the tree-woman’s mind, but there was no connection. Besides, she wasn’t sure she wanted someone reading her mind. Demi stood awkwardly, biting her lip, wondering what to do. Was she wasting everybody’s time? But Heledd was enjoying herself, wandering around with a big smile on her face.
‘It’s a fantastic spot,’ Heledd said. ‘Just timeless. Feels like I could step out of here and be in the Age of Saints, before that tower was even thought of.’
‘I’m impressed by the way these trees muffle the road noises,’ Vicky said. ‘That pond looks like a natural spring. Is it safe to drink?’
But as Vicky approached the pool, Aelwen reacted, and Blackbird spoke out.
‘Stay clear of the pool,’ Blackbird said, ‘ is a portal to the Underworld.’
Vicky snorted at that, but Heledd’s eyes were wide.
‘You’re from the Underworld? My uni professor was working on a paper comparing mythological underworlds with parallel universes. She’d be amazed if she learned fairies were still using sacred pools as portals. Oh my God, the research I could get from you – if you don’t mind, that is.’
‘And if you can convince people you haven’t imagined all this,’ Vicky said. ‘The only reason I know I’m not dreaming is that I can barely stay awake. So, now we’re here, what do you want from us?’
‘We got crystals in the trees which power the cloaking spell. Aelwen wants to know what Demali can do with them. I will bring one.’
Aelwen lifted Blackbird into the canopy. He disappeared among the greenery for a few moments, then returned with a piece of crystal strapped to his back. About five centimetres long, transparent and colourless, it was shaped like a short, fat pencil. Aelwen brought Blackbird down to Demi’s level.
‘Take this crystal. Tell us what it gives you.’
‘It’s kind of humming between my fingers.’ She held it in front of her gaze, rotating it slowly. ‘And when I look through it, it puts 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. You got to connect your thoughts with the magic in the crystal. It 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 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, ‘Aelwen’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. I know some yoga, and I’m sure Vicky knows some good breathing exercises from all her freediving.’
They found a place to sit cross-legged in the glade, and Heledd taught Demi to focus on what she could sense. ‘Listen to the birdsong and the rustling of the leaves,’ Heledd intoned. ‘Feel the warm ground supporting your limbs, and the soil beneath your hands. Experience the warmth of the sun on your skin.’ 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, anyway, who seemed to be going along with things. So Demi 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. Slowly she opened her eyes, and holding the crystal in front of her, she connected. Colour filled up her world and flowed through her senses, lighting her up so she blazed like a star. She was reaching out, ready to release herself and become one with the universe. She was a singing golden flame, consuming the everyday and transforming it to magic. She was – the colour and light faded, and she came back to herself. Vicky’s hand, warped and rainbowed by the facets, was blocking the sunlight.
‘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 an image entered Demi’s mind. Was it from Aelwen? A momentary vision of a ripe red berry.
Blackbird indicated a twig with some unripe green berries on it. ‘Make this berry red and sweet, good to eat. Is already happening slowly. Give it some sun magic, and make it happen quicker.’
Demi got to her feet and held the twig between thumb and forefinger. With the crystal in her other hand she 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.
‘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. I’m sure he’ll calm 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.
‘Cheer up, kid. He’ll be back.’ Vicky gave Demi-Lee a comforting hug. The poor kid looked wretched, but Vicky wasn’t surprised Blackbird had stormed off. She’d already noticed how proud he was, the soaring bad attitude obviously intended to distract attention from the fact he looked like a toy tramp. But she could empathise. Wasn’t she constantly having to deal with people less intelligent and able than her, who dismissed her intelligence because she looked good in a swimsuit. She’d worked hard for a First in IT, and worked harder to keep fit and develop her skills as 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, just because Blackbird was tiny, dressed in stolen rags, and occasionally struggled with his English, that didn’t mean she should dismiss him. 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.
Vicky never went anywhere without snacks, and shared out her supplies, but although they called out to Blackbird offering chocolate and bananas, he didn’t return. Aelwen stood and rustled in the light breeze, apparently photosynthesising, so there was nothing to do but wait. All three humans were tired after their sleepless night, and soon they were dozing in the midsummer heat. Vicky woke up thirsty, with barely a mouthful of water in her bottle. She wondered again whether the water from the spring would be safe to drink. Although drinking from a hole in the ground bothered her, if the water was icy cold, it would surely be safe? It would be coming from the depths of the earth, rainwater that had filtered through limestone for aeons, with no chance to become contaminated. She got to her feet and approached the spot where water bubbled up out of the rocky basin.
It was easy to see how a simple mind would find it magical and mysterious. The pool was small, but it was impossible to judge how deep it was. The reflections of the trees warped and wobbled as the water flowed up, and if she tried to focus behind the reflection, all she could see was darkness. Her eyes searched for the source, deep in the dark, then saw something strange. Two glowing spots, deep in the water, which grew larger and brighter. They blinked out for a moment, and as they returned she realised it was a pair of eyes. Surely not! It had to be an illusion. But as she stared, 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!’
‘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, where she always 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.’
Aelwen lifted him back into the treetops, and soon they’d finished rearranging the crystals.
‘Moon is back,’ he stated. ‘We can sing the spell back into working.’
‘You want us to sing now?’ Vicky was 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.