Fairy Tale

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Fairy Tale

Samuel Marshall
Part 1

Once upon a time there was a boy named Bran. He was small and thin, even at fifteen years of age, with short black hair and brown eyes. Though he spent most of the time outdoors, his skin remained so pale that unkind people called him ‘changeling’. But he was really a perfectly normal boy, who had nothing whatsoever to do with fairies.

He lived in a small village halfway up a hill. It was a beautiful place, where the sun often shined on the neat, wooden-built houses with their thatched roofs. Even when rain fell it was pretty, because the water glistened on the trees which circled the village and the leafy crops that grew in well-tended fields, and the air smelled clear and fresh.

Bran worked hard in those fields, where he helped tend the corn and oats, and in the hills, where he looked after a small flock of sheep that ranged far and wide. A long day’s labour tired him out but he did not complain (or at least, not often) since it kept his family fed and happy. Because he worked in the fields, his mother had time to cook and clean and, on special occasions, bake little sweet cakes that were delicious when they came fresh from the oven. And because he watched the sheep, his father could mend clothes and do odd jobs, which brought in a little money.

He had two sisters and the elder, who was his own age, was about to wed. (In those days, people married when they were still quite young.) She had found a sweetheart in the next village, about half a day distant, and consequently was not very often at home. Now they were betrothed and that was why the family needed money: to pay for a pretty wedding dress.

But that was also why Bran became unhappy.

One day he was out in the hills and lonely; which was not unusual, because the sheep were not particularly good company and he could not understand what they occasionally said to each other. In his loneliness he thought of his sister’s marriage, and how it would be nice if he could meet some pretty girl his own age and fall in love. The daydream cheered him up a little, until he realised that all the eligible girls in the village were spoken for, except one who was very plain and squinted and hardly ever spoke.

There were a few other villages nearby, but each was as small as his own and if he thought carefully he could name everyone there. He pictured them in his mind and thought back to the gossip which always spread in the evenings.

‘And you know Megan?’ his sister would say, having returned from yet another trip. ‘She’s fallen for Owen! Owen the baker’s son, from Aldley.’

‘Ah, yes,’ his father would nod, since he’d spent the day in Aldley mending someone’s roof. ‘Yes, I heard about that. And as for his sister, now there’s a scandal. She’ll be married to young Cedric before the spring’s out.’

And so it went on, through each evening and now repeated in his mind, until he realised with a sinking feeling that there was nobody left for him.

Bran supposed there was the town only a day or two distant, but town was a dreary, smelly place where everyone seemed sulky and unfriendly. They spoke a little differently and, on the few occasions he’d visited, had looked down on him as though anyone who worked on the land was a lesser creature. He didn’t want a girl from there, no matter how pretty; and he didn’t much expect they would be queuing up to meet him, either.

So that was that. He was doomed to a lonely existence, watching sheep and tending crops until he grew old and grey. The pretty girl of his dreams could never become a reality. His heart sank and he stared out over the opposite hillside, watching the sunlit slopes darkened by a sullen cloud that passed overhead.

All of a sudden there was a bleating and he remembered his little flock, which had wandered off a short distance. He ran to see what disturbed them, and found one ewe half-stuck in a collapsed rabbit-hole. Stupid rabbits, he thought, can’t even dig a solid burrow; and he knelt down to heave the sheep gently free, greatly relieved when she turned out to be unharmed by the fall. She went to join her companions, baaing in gratitude.

He had set his shepherd’s crook on the ground beside and was about to lift himself up, when a flash of light caught his eye. In the grass at his knees, something still glistened with dew, even though midday had long passed. He leant forward to see; and there it was. A four-leafed clover.

It was lucky to pick one, but surely luckier still to leave it in the ground, since the fairies who planted them were better to have as friends than enemies. So he left it alone, instead standing straight as he had first intended, careful not to step on the leaf.

He turned his head left for some reason – the flock had moved right – and noticed against the horizon the mountain folks called Black Peak. It loomed above the surrounding hills, its upper slopes bare of vegetation and black as slate, which was why it had that name.

His parents had warned of it as a dangerous place, and forbidden him to go there. It had loose shale, they said, and stone that became slippery in the damp of perpetual fog; even as he thought that, a haze of dark cloud swirled back around the mountain, cloaking it as it must have been cloaked before.

People said other things, too, he remembered. Of a ring of mushrooms on the summit, where fairies danced gracefully on the night of the full moon, and stole away unwary children who came to peep. They were said to be beautiful, men and women alike, small with short dark hair and pale skin – like him, but more so. Which was why Kian the priest’s son – who disliked Bran a great deal – jeered and called him ‘changeling’.

And might be why the village girls seemed somewhat cool to him, even though most of them were perfectly polite. They didn’t taunt him but they surely knew the rumours; perhaps they were even a little afraid.

It was very unfair, he thought, kicking a stone which bounced and rolled downhill, ending with a tiny splash in a stream some way below. Dark hair and pale skin were not uncommon; his hair was a bit darker and his skin a bit paler than most, but what of that? Both his parents had the same look, so it should come as no surprise. And though his father stood almost six feet tall, his mother was short and very slight; he had simply inherited her small stature.

He brooded for the rest of the afternoon, keeping one eye on the sheep, until it was time to bring them back safely to their pen. Occasionally he glanced up at Black Peak, but cloud swathed it in darkness.

For some reason the mountain stayed in his mind, even through the festivities of his sister’s marriage some days later. There was a service in church, of course; then singing, dancing, and merry-making of all kinds.

After that he retired to his bed in the loft of their small house that now seemed just a bit emptier, with one sister gone. He had drunk mead, plenty of it, and felt entirely ready to sleep; but something gnawed at his mind, and gradually the happiness of the party ebbed away. Wistful laments twisted through his head, reminding him that he might remain lonely forever. The image of Black Peak appeared in his thoughts as it often did, forbidding and clouded in darkness.

He thought of the fairies, dancing in their circle; the moon would come full in a couple of nights. ‘Very beautiful,’ people said, with a shiver. So he imagined a fairy girl, his age, with her long dark hair pulled back behind a sparkling headband. Her face would be almost white, unmarred and symmetrical; she would wear a dress of dark-green silk that shimmered in the moonlight.

And here, ‘Changeling,’ people said – mostly when they thought he couldn’t hear – with that same shiver.

Maybe he had been looking in the wrong place for a bride.

He remembered the four-leafed clover, and how – after he left it to grow in peace – he had suddenly felt drawn to look at Black Peak, which in that one moment had emerged from its clouds. Confused wonderings that had been floating through his head for the past few days suddenly came together and made sense. Perhaps the fairies had given him an invitation. Perhaps, if he travelled to the summit of Black Peak, they would let him into the Fairy Kingdom.

Or perhaps it was mere imagination, which left him exactly where he had been; looking at a long, lonely future with no hope of a companion or lifemate.

With that alternative, it was definitely worth a try, he thought sleepily; and then the mead really did take over, because he drifted quickly into darkness.

In the morning, with a clearer mind, his chances seemed less hopeful. He decided to press on despite the uncertainty. He worked in the fields, digging weeds around the newly-planted crop, which gave him plenty of time to plan. When he returned home, he told his parents that he’d met a friend from the next village passing by, and had agreed to stay there the following night. They had no particular objection.

Bran spent the next morning working the fields and then returned his tools, setting off again in the direction of Elmsford. As soon as he was safely away, he left the muddy track and struck off across the hills. He scrambled up a steep little valley, climbing a dry streambed. Before long he had gained quite a height, looking down on the path below. Nobody was in sight. He crested the ridge and went a few yards further, so that no chance passer-by could spot him.

Then he scanned the horizon to find the ominous clouds that marked Black Peak. They seemed a little thinner on this warm spring day, with no rain in prospect, and he took that as a good omen. He set off directly for it, or as directly as possible in the wilderness; detouring to avoid the nettles and bramble clumps that crowded around streams in each slight dip.

It took all afternoon to reach the base of the mountain, and the sun dipped low before he finally stepped onto the lower slopes. He paused then; long enough to eat a brief meal of bread and cheese that he’d carried, and refill his bottle from a rocky spring. The icy cold water tasted sharp and clear, refreshing him after the exertion.

He examined the land ahead, grass and bracken glowing gold in the sunset, to pick the best route. Mist clouding the summit had definitely thinned, letting him see a few possible approaches. Deciding which looked best, he set off once more uphill.

The sun had fallen from sight, leaving only a pink glow on the western horizon, but now its night-time twin became visible. Bran had relied on the full moon’s light; it hung bright in the clear sky among countless stars, coating everything in shades of palest blue. Gradually he climbed higher and higher, walking where he could and scrambling on hands and knees where he could not, avoiding the dangerous shale slopes where pebbles clicked and bounced and scattered downhill at the slightest touch.

A few times he reached a dead-end and had to turn back, but at each juncture he found another route, one which avoided the crevasse or the narrow, uncertain ledge. Nearing the summit, there came a point where it seemed he could go no further, with sheer cliff-edges in each direction; but in a shimmer of moonlight, he suddenly spotted a gentler slope and was able to clamber up that to reach the heights. He had been climbing for hours, he realised, and midnight must surely be approaching.

Finally, when he hauled himself over one last edge, the terrain seemed to grow gentler. Standing on the rocky, pebble-scattered plateau, he realised there was nowhere higher to go. This was it: the summit of Black Peak.

Now that he was here he felt a little nervous. He looked back, out over the wide lands that stretched far below, hill and dale and forest. Though he looked for it, his village was nowhere to be seen, perhaps hidden behind some lesser peak. There was only the natural wilderness, stretching forever in pale shades of ethereal blue.

He steeled himself and glanced over the stony ground. Surely nothing could grow here, not even the mushrooms that signified a fairy ring; but as he looked more carefully, he saw clumps of grass, and small patches of dirt. The moonlight seemed to flicker slightly over one such patch and he went that way, trying to slow his racing heartbeat.

There was the fairy ring, a wide circle of tiny white mushrooms that gleamed brightly amid the dark earth. When he looked directly, nobody danced within it; but when he turned aside there were twitches of movement in the corner of his eye that made him start.

Bran took a deep breath, and stepped inside.

In an instant everything flashed white. His eyes took some time to adjust; sweet, rippling music played, and the aroma of lilacs teased at his senses. Then he could see, though only vaguely as if through a white haze.

Before him stood a Fairy woman, taller than him and clad in a thin gown of palest blue that fluttered and billowed in a light breeze. Her face was so pale it almost merged with the mists, but her eyes were a startling, bright turquoise.

She looked down on him with a neutral, unreadable expression, and said simply, ‘What do you seek?’

‘I –’ He stuttered, suddenly realising that he had never expected this to really work. Gulping a deep breath of the scented air, he steadied himself. ‘I want to enter the Fairy Kingdom.’

‘Oh?’ She stared at him for a moment, holding the pause long enough that he remembered some of the worse rumours about her kind, and shivered. ‘Why?’

‘I’m lonely,’ Bran said, compelled to honesty. In the background, he could vaguely make out moving shapes, fairies continuing their dance behind the mist that veiled his sight. A harper played, visible only by the faint curve of her instrument. ‘I thought to find a companion. And, maybe, a bride.’

She laughed, so that he bowed his head in shame, but it wasn’t the cruel laughter he had feared. When he dared raise his eyes, he saw her staring at him still, in contemplation.

‘It would be a big step,’ she said finally, ‘to come here. You might never return. Are you certain?’

He hadn’t truly considered it. His parents, his sisters, his friends… never to see them again… But then, if he could find the perfect companion… On that thought he nodded. ‘I am.’

She frowned, disapproving. ‘Then return here at the next full moon. Bring a second: someone who can support your decision and explain it, afterward, to the people you leave behind.’

‘But–’ Bran said in a very small voice, regretting it the instant the word had left his mouth. She didn’t seem like a woman to be argued with.

‘But nothing. I will not cause another thousand years of stolen-child rumours.’

With that, she reached down with delicate hands and shoved him backwards, though not so hard he lost his balance. He only staggered a few paces, his vision blurred –

– And he was back atop Black Peak, standing just outside the fairy ring, in the first pale light of dawn.