Part 1 – Earth
1. Three girls turning…
Cardiff, 21st June, 2013
High in an oak tree, hidden in shadow, Blackbird surveyed the moonlit city. The rising moon – almost full – bathed the scene in silver. This was the place – he recognised the hill sweeping south to the sea, the two small islands in the wide channel, and the dark distant hills beyond. Here and there tall towers – far taller than the ruined one beside him – rose above their surroundings, and the castle at the heart of the city was spotlit with fierce white lights, even brighter than moonlight. The old tower and the castle had gazed at each other for centuries, he knew, the first succumbing to weeds and weather, while the second, decayed and rebuilt many times, was now just a plaything for visitors. The conquerors who’d built these proud structures had long ago become locals, and complained in their turn about outlandish newcomers with no regard for custom and tradition.
The moon was almost between the twin islands. Soon it would be safe to leave the tree, and seek Demali’s assistance. He adjusted his wings as he prepared to swing down onto the broken tower wall. Tripping over them and falling into the thorny undergrowth would be a disaster. They weren’t his own wings, but the remains of a blackbird he’d found on the first day of exile, a pair of young rats squabbling over it. 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 somewhere for 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. As he washed the rotting soft parts away in a stream, he realised how far from acceptable paths he’d strayed. He was in a social wilderness, with little hope of ever returning to civilisation.
For three whole moons 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 aura and her whistle were unchanged. They’d been a strong pair in the past, and her aid 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 die like a rat.
Slipping quietly from the tree, he dropped onto the ancient wall and moved gingerly along it. The wings were an encumbrance, but he’d need them to glide to Demi’s window. He had to haul himself up and over the broken stonework, but eventually he reached the corner where the two remaining walls met, 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 near-full moon at the summer solstice! Even in this pale, tired world, the air should be humming with magic, but he was a blind man in a dark cave.
He could see Demi’s house, the lights still on downstairs, the top floor dark. Between the tower and her window was: a garden; a neighbour’s house; a quiet roadway; a front lawn; and Demi’s house itself. 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 light behind Demi’s front door came on, and the living room light went out. He expected to see the light at the top of the stairs come on, but instead the front door opened, and three figures stepped through. One short and serious; one fair-haired and athletic, and the last, unmistakably Demali, tall, strong, and scowling. The three followed the roadway until they reached an alley which 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 realised events were already beyond his control.
As the girls crossed the field, Demali stopped in the moonlight, rippling her fingers as if soft water was flowing over them, her eyes widening as a smile spread across her face. Was she sensing the moon’s power? Oh, how he missed that feeling, but how wonderful to know that Demi hadn’t lost her talent.
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 greenery to the top of the mound.
Presently they emerged at the top of the mound, stepping out from the oak tree into the moonlit space inside the tower.
‘Awesome view,’ Vicky said, peering over the lowest part of the walls. ‘I always knew Cardiff was dramatic, but I’ve never seen it by moonlight before.’ She was so close Blackbird could see lights glinting in her eyes, 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.
Blackbird saw the tall girl shudder, and look up, but didn’t see him crouched 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. It won’t kill you,’ Vicky sighed.
‘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.
‘Is moonlight warm?’ Demi asked.
‘Huh? Of course not! What are you on about?’ Vicky replied.
‘I can feel something. Can’t you feel it? It’s amazing, 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 some tribal people use. 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 witchcraft 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, 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 fairy.’ Vicky laughed at that, although Heledd just smiled. Blackbird could see Demi was fuming. And, the angrier she got, the more she affected the moonlight. 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 tree – 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 intrigued, but Vicky, still holding the others’ hands, dragged them down the mound
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’, urgently, repeatedly, and she turned and disappeared into the lane.
Blackbird turned back towards the tree, waiting for his 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 all piled in through the door and slammed it shut behind them, 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.
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 heard 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 gentle 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, save you 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?’
‘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?’
‘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!’ 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.
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 said.
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. 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 giving 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 real. It’s alive.
‘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! This was too confusing.
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 child or a hamster, 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 scene had lost all its moonlit glamour – the 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 her 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, 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. 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, watching from a nearby branch.
‘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 if she wants.’
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 tree.
‘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 help keep the cloaking spell working. Aelwen wants to know what you can do with them.’
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. 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.
‘Ok, 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 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 returned, 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.