Fairy Tale

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Fairy Tale

Samuel Marshall
Part 2

Bran came down from the mountain in a daze, scarcely able to think.

The Fairy Queen! (Or someone.) Had spoken to him! (Briefly.) And would grant his desire! (If he could find a person to act as his second.)

That last caveat brought him back to earth, just as he picked his way across the lower foothills. Who could he ask? Not his parents, that was certain. And who among his friends… it would have to be someone he could really trust.

There were few options, he realised gloomily. And those were doubtful prospects.

The sun’s rays flickered brightly from a little stream he crossed, and played warmly over his back and left side, but they could not lighten his mood. Eventually, he came to a decision, of sorts: he would find those trusted friends, swear them to secrecy, and ask first if they would climb Black Peak at the full moon. Unless they agreed to that, he wouldn’t need to mention the fairies, or his own reasons for leaving this world.

He arrived at the village a little before midday, feeling tired but not as tired as he should, having slept not at all. In the afternoon he took over his mother’s field-work, for which she was grateful; she hadn’t expected him back this early. So he weeded, cleared twigs and last autumn’s leaves out of a ditch that had become blocked, and brooded over it all.

During the next few weeks he carried out his plan, asking one friend after another if they would dare a night on Black Peak. But they almost all had new homes and new wives, and were not ready to risk any of that for the sake of an old friendship. They knew the rumours of the Peak. Even those who did not believe in fairies were adamant as to the physical dangers, however much he assured them that his climb had been relatively easy.

He went to Aldley, where Glyn the wheelwright’s son had moved when he married fair young Cerys, under the same this-time-truthful excuse of visiting a friend. Glyn was happy to see him and they talked of summers spent playing games together, of old enemies among the village boys. But when Cerys served a good, solid meal the conversation turned to making a livelihood: how Glyn now served as blacksmith’s assistant and his wife did piecework for a fancy seamstress in the town. Bran felt out of place, a child in a world of adults his own age.

He still drew courage to ask his best and closest childhood friend whether he might be willing to spend a night on Black Peak.

‘If’t were important, I would,’ Glyn said slowly, staring strangely at him, while Cerys scrubbed noisily at plates and dishes in the tiny kitchen. ‘Is it?’

Which was the best response he’d had yet. So he took a deep breath and told the whole tale of the Fairy Queen’s offer, in a very low voice which made Glyn lean close to hear.

After it all the big, muscled lad didn’t laugh, as Bran had half feared he would. Instead he stared into the fire’s low flames – winter had halfway returned, in a cold snap that might spell disaster for the crops if it lingered any longer – and finally said, ‘Sure you didn’t dream ’t?’

Bran nodded. ‘Sure.’

‘Well, then.’ Glyn steepled his fingers, touching them to his chin in a habit he had when he thought. ‘I won’t be going up that mountain, Bran.’ He paused. ‘And nor should you.’

Bran shrugged, looking aside. ‘Just don’t tell anyone.’

‘I won’t.’ His friend sighed heavily. ‘Seriously. You’ll find somebody. Just give it time.’

‘Right,’ Bran muttered. That was exactly the answer he’d have expected – from his parents. Nobody seemed to understand.

He had no better luck elsewhere. Increasingly desperate, he even went into town, offering to carry out some necessary errands. Somebody he knew worked as a stablehand there, and another as a barmaid; neither were of any help. The trip only reminded him how much he despised the place, with its confined places and concentrated stench.

It was almost full moon again, yet he had found nobody. He fretted at his work, even when it should have been pleasant: sitting in the sun watching their small flock left nothing to do but brood on the problem. He had asked everyone he knew and trusted, including some who were a little borderline in the latter category.

Worse, one of those had spilled the rumour. There were whispers all over the village. ‘Wants to climb Black Peak,’ people muttered to each other when they didn’t notice his presence. ‘Returning to his kindred, probably.’ And they crossed themselves.

At least his parents hadn’t noticed. He rather thought, as he made an excuse yet again in order to get away for the full moon, that they suspected he was seeing some girl. Ironic, but he didn’t find it amusing.

Night drew in after a day of scattered rain, of blustery winds. The full moon peeked around clouds that blew quickly in front of it and then away. Chill seeped into his bones and he tripped over more than once before he even reached the mountain’s base, a victim of the uncertain light.

He was trying again, without the second that the Fairy Queen had demanded. Perhaps she would relent. Surely the very fact that nobody would help him demonstrated how little he would be missed here, how little he belonged.

The lower slopes, grassy and carpeted with bracken, were easy enough to negotiate. Wading through the heavy leaves, he startled a sleeping bird of some sort; it flew into the air, squawking alarmed cries that faded swiftly into the wind.

After that, nothing went right. He reached the rocky, barren ground higher up, exactly as the rain began. Droplets blew into his face and stung his eyes, coated his hands with an icy chill that left them stiff and unmoving. He struggled doggedly uphill, hauling himself up where necessary with a precarious grasp on slippery boulders.

He stepped on a shale slope, undetectable in renewed darkness. Its surface gave way beneath him so that he fell, collapsing and rolling downhill with the treacherous stones bouncing tumbling alongside. Somehow, he was not seriously hurt. He picked himself up at the bottom and began to climb again.

Wind twined around him, coating every inch of exposed flesh with the all-pervading damp and tearing away what warmth remained. His clothes were drenched. But he continued further and further, eventually making his way up a near-vertical rockface that he did not remember from the previous visit. At one point he had to cling to little ledges in the rock –

– and a violent gust of wind hit hard from an unexpected direction, shoving him sideways. His boots lost their grip on slippery stone and he was left hanging by his fingertips: cold, frozen fingertips that barely had any strength left.

He scrabbled desperately about with his feet, searching for the tiny jutting rock that had supported his weight, until pain arced through his strained hands and he knew he would soon let go… but then he found the foothold, set his boots firmly on it, and sighed a brief sigh of panicked relief.

The moon chose that moment to reappear, behind a thin veil of swirling rain, and in that limited illumination he made the mistake of looking down. He was a few yards up the sheer cliff, with several more to go. But the path he had followed to its base was no more than a narrow ledge, certainly not adequate to stop him if he slipped. And below that, the mountain fell down, down, down, a calamitous drop that spelled certain death.

It was a long moment, clinging with frozen extremities to the slippery rock, staring down at the prospect of his own demise. And in that moment, some kind of sanity reasserted itself.

He had not met the Fairy Queen’s conditions; no wonder that her own mountain seemed so unwelcoming. Or… the thought had been plaguing the deeper corners of his mind… perhaps he had, as Glyn suggested, dreamed it all. Maybe he’d climbed up here last month, hit his head, and slept until dawn, awaking with some very strange ideas. Maybe that was all.

Inch by inch, he climbed down to the relative safety of the ledge, sighing in sudden relief when his boots touched upon that firm, solid surface. He retraced his steps with care, returning slowly to the gentler slopes with no further accident.

Rain stopped, and the clouds thinned. The full moon’s light was constant now, and he travelled more easily across the rolling hillsides. After a while he came upon a disused hut, some shack that still had a solid roof. A wave of tiredness hit with almost physical force, and he staggered inside the loose-swinging door. He stumbled into a corner and collapsed, there to fall into deep, sudden sleep.

He woke uncomfortable and cold, though it seemed a mild morning. Struggling to his feet, he stretched away the cramp, wincing in pain. Bruises covered every inch of his body; little scratches lined his arms and face. His clothes were torn in several places.

Despondently he headed home, making up a story about falling down some hillside into a gorse patch. The lie told, he sat in the gloom of his attic room with needle and thread, patching his tunic. After that there was work to be done in the fields, so he went to do it.

His abused muscles ached every time he bent down to pull out an intruding weed, but he soldiered on, knowing he’d already taken a few more days off than was really fair to his hard-working mother. It didn’t get any better. He crouched beside a ditch to examine an area where the bank seemed to be weakened, and suddenly felt an overwhelming stab of pain; so strong that, as he fell forward, everything went black.

Coughing and spluttering, he regained consciousness. He lay sideways on the cold dirt. Blinking water from his eyes, he could see the drainage ditch a yard or so away. This wasn’t where he’d fallen…

With that thought he heard the sounds of somebody breathing hard, as if just recovering from sudden exertion, and turned his head upward to see a boy standing over him.

No, not a boy; he recognised the girl Mair, though she looked boyish enough. Tall and strong of arm, not overly endowed around the chest; dressed in muddy breeches and a tunic the twin of his own. She looked down on him with one eye, the other tracking some vaguely related direction, but said nothing. He realised he’d never heard her speak.

‘What–’ he began, then had to cough some more, liquid being caught in his lungs. ‘What happened?’

‘You fell in the ditch,’ Mair said. Her voice was unremarkable – a little deeper than average, perhaps. In younger days he’d imitated it as cracked and rasping through lack of use, unkind in the way of children. He felt a tinge of guilt, pushed it aside.

‘And you pulled me out?’

She nodded.

If she hadn’t… when he’d blacked out and fallen face down… well, you couldn’t drown in a ditch… could you?

‘God!… Um… I mean… thank you.’

She smiled, so briefly he’d have missed it if he blinked, and nodded acknowledgement.

He turned onto his front and, with some effort, lifted himself onto hands and knees. His hands hurt. So did his knees. Ignoring the pain, he rolled backwards into a crouch, which hurt more, and tried to stand.

The jab of agony was so intense, he almost blacked out again. He settled back and was about to try once more–

‘Idiot!’ Mair knelt down, staring at him squint-eyed. ‘Stop it. You can’t walk.’

‘I can’t stay here forever, can I?’ But she was right. Damn it. Maybe he’d have to crawl.

‘I’ll carry you. Piggy-back.’


But she turned around and came close, so that he gave in and threw his arms around her firm shoulders. Which hurt. She leant forward and stood up, reaching her arms beneath his knees to support him. Which hurt, too. Slowly, with careful effort, she began to plod forward, one foot at a time.

What would this look like, to those others working in the fields who would no doubt notice? Bran wondered. But he couldn’t walk. And with half the village convinced he was a danger to their souls, he couldn’t really pick and choose his helpers either.

A plank bridge crossed another ditch on their route; it creaked alarmingly as Mair stepped on it with their combined weight, but didn’t give. Then they were on the muddy lane, turning left toward his house – uphill, Bran realised, with a pang of guilt for his bearer’s effort.

Finally they blundered across the little vegetable garden and Mair leant forward by the door so that Bran could reach its latch with one hand. She staggered in – and Bran’s surprised mother was there, helping set him down on a chair while Mair collapsed onto the ground, panting for breath. Bran was light, he knew, and smaller than her; but not that light and not that much smaller. Carrying him all this way must have been quite some effort.

‘Bran! And Mair, is it? What on earth happened?’ his mother wanted to know, staring anxiously.

He shrugged nervously, sending another twinge of pain. ‘I collapsed, and now I can’t walk. Maybe I strained something yesterday.’

‘He fell down a hill,’ his mother explained to Mair, who had recovered somewhat and sat on the floor watching. ‘On the way back from Elmsford.’

‘Mmm,’ Mair said, not sounding terribly convinced; evidently she’d heard the rumours too. She stood and moved to the door, paused with her hand on the latch. ‘You should call the healer.’

With that and no other word, she let herself out. His mother’s call of thanks went unheeded.

The healer came; ummed, and aahed, and prodded about Bran’s limbs with a none-too-gentle touch that made him whimper in pain. Eventually the man pronounced that a number of muscles had been severely strained. Bran would recover, but he must lie abed for at least a week, two to be safe.

And his mother stood there, nodding and paying firm attention (along with a few scarce coins).

‘Try to be more careful next time,’ she scolded Bran afterward. She said it gently, not really blaming him, and he felt guilty for lying about the accidental fall. In truth, this was entirely his own fault.

So he lay in bed, moving only when he had to use the chamber-pot, left alone with nothing at all to do save mope over his own shortcomings. His parents were out working all day, because they had to cover the tasks he would normally have taken. His young sister was away too, because she was clever and went to Father Huw’s school at the church, there to learn reading and writing and all sorts of things. For her, they had high hopes; not for him, who was useful enough but had no great talent.

After a few days, his hands felt a little better. He asked for mending to do, and sat up with a needle and thread patching up a small pile of worn clothes. To begin with his arms tired quickly and he could only work a little at a time, but he soon grew used to the effort.

A week had passed in bed, and still his legs hurt severely if he put any weight on them, so that his mother insisted he stay. He ran out of holes to mend, and went about embroidering initials onto garments very slowly and carefully, just for something to do; something that didn’t leave him worrying whether the healer had been wrong, and whether the damage to his legs might not be more permanent.

It was eight days since he had fallen, in the middle of the morning, when there came a knock on the door downstairs.

‘Come in!’ Bran shouted down. He heard the latch click open, the door squeak wide and back closed again; but nobody called an answer. Suddenly he became aware that he lay helpless, and began to feel a little afraid. Footsteps clomped up the tiny staircase, not a tread he recognised…

…and a head poked above the stair-hole, glancing around until its gaze lighted on him. At least, half on him, and half on the roof vaguely near.

‘Oh… Mair,’ he said in relief. ‘Hello.’ He put aside his sewing and twisted to face her, as she settled carefully onto the single wooden chair.

‘Came to see how you were.’ She looked down at him, and he tried to ignore the disconcerting squint. ‘If that’s alright.’

‘Of course it is. I’m glad of the company.’

Mair nodded silently.

‘I still can’t walk,’ he tried. ‘If the healer’s right, it might be another few days before I can.’

‘You’ll mend.’ She glanced at his pile of sewing, a faint smile on her face. ‘Don’t worry.’

‘Um.’ Had that been a pun?

She said nothing, only sat there watching. So he scrabbled for conversation, asked some bland questions about her family, mentioned the weather. He got little more than one-word answers, or a silent nod. The long pauses felt incredibly awkward, but Mair’s freckled face remained untroubled.

After perhaps half an hour, she stood slowly. Then, unless he imagined it, there was a little uncertainty in her expression. She took a breath, as if to say something; paused, and didn’t. Shook her head, perhaps deciding against it, and finally said, ‘Shall I come again tomorrow?’

‘Oh – don’t go to any trouble on my account.’

‘It’s no trouble.’ Mair paused, though only slightly by her standards; perhaps giving him time to object. ‘Tomorrow, then.’

And she climbed carefully down the narrow staircase. The door clicked and squeaked and squeaked and clicked as she let herself out, leaving him to wonder: had he meant to say yes, or no?

Despite that uncertainty, he found himself looking forward to Mair’s arrival the next morning. Embroidery was all very well, and his stitches had become neater and neater with practice; but it was terminally dull and not a great deal of use.

So his spirits rose when he heard the latch – she didn’t even bother to knock, this time – and her firm tread on the stair.

‘Hello,’ he greeted her, as she settled onto the single chair. Then, because he’d forgotten to say it yesterday, ‘Thank you again for helping me when I fell.’

She nodded and looked away for a moment, seeming somehow awkward. Then she returned her lopsided gaze to him, and said, ‘I’m curious. How did you injure yourself?’

He told the same story he’d told his mother, about the fall and the gorse bush.

‘Mmm.’ She paused a moment. ‘I’d rather the truth.’

He flushed in renewed guilt. Mair had quite possibly saved his life, or at the very least saved him from further damaging his legs; he shouldn’t repay that with lies. But then, he shouldn’t lie to his mother, either.

She still watched him, one-eyed. He said, hedging, ‘It’s a secret. Can I trust you not to tell anyone…?’

At that she raised her brows. ‘You think me a blabbermouth?’

For the first time in an age, he laughed; and because of that he told her. At least, he admitted what half the village had already guessed, that he had tried to climb Black Peak.

But when he finished that revelation she prompted him, with a handful of words, to explain more. It was that, or admit he didn’t trust her, which would have been rude and unfair to somebody who he didn’t know but who seemed perfectly honest. The more he said, the easier it became, until he had told her the whole story and she gave a brief nod, with no more questions.

And a crazy idea had been growing in his mind all the while. She pushed back her chair to leave, so he gathered his courage and said hurriedly, ‘I don’t suppose you’d come with me, next full moon?’

A brief pause.

‘Yes,’ she said simply, and stepped unhurriedly down the stairs, leaving him staring open-mouthed in her wake.

Mair returned the next morning, and each thereafter. Bran found himself telling her more and more, even the things he was not proud of: jealousy of his sisters, resentment at the world in general. It was because she listened in silence, he reasoned. For minutes on end she would say nothing, only prompting him if she genuinely had a question. Talking to her was like thinking to himself, at which he was most experienced. It was easy.

He learnt a little of her, in return. When he asked a direct question, she would often answer in a single word or not at all; but if he mentioned something related, she might volunteer an entire sentence. He pieced it together word by word, like playing some game. She lived with only her mother; when she had been smaller, her father had beaten the both of them, but eventually they had gained the courage to kick him out. Disgraced (for breaking a marriage was a severe crime), they scraped a basic existence from the land.

After a few days, he did grow better, and was able at least to hobble around his room without pain. Finally, at the end of the second week, he was deemed fit to leave the cursed bed.

He worked in the fields, staying close by his mother just in case he fell again. There were no mishaps and after a few days, in which he grew used again to progressively hard toil, he took over completely so that she could clear the backlog of housework.

Occasionally he saw Mair across the fields too, and sometimes he would wave to her. She nodded in response, never anything more, and that barely visible in the distance between their respective plots.

His mother declared herself back on schedule and he began to alternate between the jobs again, minding the sheep for his father. It involved longer walking but his legs quickly adjusted, returning to something like their previous fitness. Out among the hills he saw Mair not at all, but frequently noticed Black Peak, wreathed in cloud even as summer approached and the days grew warmer.

The moon waxed inexorably fuller each night until, late back after penning the sheep, he glanced at the dark-blue sky and saw an almost perfect circle. Tomorrow would be full moon. A thrill of anticipation ran through him, mingled with a certain dread, and a plainer fear: he hadn’t spoken to Mair about the journey since she agreed to take it, not wanting to jinx her agreement. Perhaps she’d changed her mind. Or never even meant it, only been laughing at him all along…

He passed beside a small barn, on the right of the road; suddenly a dark figure detached itself from the building’s shadow, moving hurriedly in his direction. He froze and almost ran, fearing bandits. Just in time he recognised Mair, beckoning him to her hiding-place.

They crouched close by the barn’s wall, surely indistinguishable to any passers-by. Bran breathed deeply, doubly relieved after his sudden panic.

‘The standing stone on Neirys Hillock, early afternoon tomorrow,’ Mair said in her calm, steady voice.

‘I’ll be there,’ Bran promised. He knew the place, it was nearby on the right general route to Black Peak.

That decided, she slunk away along the building edge, peering out both ways along the lane.

‘Thanks again,’ he said hurriedly. ‘I appreciate it. Really.’

She turned back to hear him, seeming half-surprised. For answer she only smiled slightly, and shrugged, and then disappeared onto the track.

Bran made his excuses again, about another visit to friends, and promised his mother he’d be more careful this time. He had to turn away when he said goodbye, surprised to realise there were tears in his eyes. She didn’t notice and he hurried out, silently cursing himself; thanks to the Fairy Queen, and with Mair’s help, he had a magnificent chance of a better life. He should be excited.

And it should be summer now, with insects buzzing and birds chirping nine to the dozen around every tree and bush; there was some of that, but the day seemed subdued. A thin layer of grey cloud weakened the sun’s rays, and wind gusted with surprising ferocity as he climbed away from the Elmsford road, crossed a small dip, and followed a lightly-worn trail up to the landmark stone atop Neirys Hillock.

Nobody was in sight and he thought himself first, with a mild fear that Mair might not turn up after all; but as he neared the giant rock, the tall red-haired girl unfolded herself from among screening bushes.

‘Hello,’ he said, guilty again for doubting her.

And she didn’t answer but nodded, as he’d expected, and led the way back down this hill and towards another. Threatening cloud-banks massed around Black Peak in the background.

They reached the mountain’s lower slopes in late afternoon, and paused for rest. Clouds had thickened overhead, threatening rain, though not a drop had yet fallen.

‘Did you bring any food?’ Bran asked.

Mair shrugged. ‘I’ll go without.’

He broke his bread and cheese without further comment, sharing it equally. She didn’t say anything, but he had a feeling she appreciated the gesture – or the nourishment, at least.

They set off upslope. Recent thunderstorms had left the ground a sodden mire, dangerous in parts. Twice he stepped into deep, unexpected holes; the second time he needed Mair’s help to haul him out, dragging him by mud-flecked arms while he struggled for footing. After that they were more careful, testing each step and managing a drastically reduced pace. Hours passed before they reached a steeper, drier slope coated with bracken; by then night had fallen, and the full moon’s light shone eerily over a sea of ferns that swayed gently in the wind.

‘Let’s go,’ Bran said, because they’d stopped for a brief rest after the gruelling marsh.

Squawking followed his words; a bird burst from the bracken nearby, its sleep interrupted. Uneasily, he remembered some similar omen on the last journey. Should he mention it? In honesty, yes, he should.

‘That happened last time. The bird, flying up. It might be an omen…’

Mair shrugged. ‘Or it lives here.’ She shoved the ferns aside, scattering water from the huge leaves, and began uphill.

They reached the desolate uplands before long, scrambling over thin, loose soil. Boulders and smaller rocks jutted from the ground, providing more solid purchase for their boots and hands. A light mist descended, hazing the moonlight and coating everything with a damp blue gleam.

A brief hiss of surprise, the scraping of dirt and stone; Mair had lost her grasp on the slick rock, sliding back a few yards before she came to an untidy halt.

He peered down at her face, a pale circle of blurry whiteness. ‘Are you okay?’

She nodded and reached cautiously out with both hands, gaining a little more stability before she resumed the upward climb.

‘Sorry,’ Bran said quietly, guilty again for bringing her up here to scrape her hands and knees on the inhospitable peak. The wind swooped around him as he said it, pulling mist into faintly-visible twists like smoke. He wasn’t sure Mair heard; she didn’t respond, but that was hardly conclusive.

Eventually they reached the uppermost slopes where everything was rock that gleamed black, ethereal in the mists. The terrain seemed unfamiliar, not matching anything he remembered from previous visits; a cliff wall towered overhead, but a flat ledge circled around it. There didn’t seem any other way to go.

He led the way, careful of his footing on the narrow, damp path. Gusts blew at him from alternate directions, threatening to drag him over the precipice, but he kept safe against the wall, placing one foot at a time. An incongruous tuft of wiry grass nestled against the rockface at one point, its blades shimmering grey to break the slate-black monotony.

Just past that he felt the ground give slightly beneath his feet, or perhaps it was his imagination in the shifting wind. He took a few paces further on and turned to warn his companion.

‘That might be unstable –’

– but she was closer than he had thought, and she stood firmly on the loose piece of stone. Which jerked and cracked and rumbled loose from its cousins, all at once, leaving Mair way off balance so that she threw out her arms, scrabbling wildly at the cliff to gain some purchase –

– and, finding nothing, fell. Her terrified face stared at his own for the barest fraction of a second; then she vanished into the darkness beneath, clawing helplessly at the rockface, following a great clatter of rock that bounced and scraped down the mountainside.

She didn’t even scream, he thought stupidly, standing frozen in the dark and the wind and the sodden mist, her afterimage burnt into his mind.

Then came a sudden gasp, not far below, as the last echoes of fallen boulders faded away. Struck into action by frantic hope, he leaned dangerously over the edge.

And there she was, clinging with both hands around a tiny outcropping a yard or so beneath. Her body shifted slightly against the rock; she sought footholds, but none appeared forthcoming. He looked down on her upturned face. Her left eye met his, and he could sense the fear her silence belied.

If she dies, he thought, mesmerised by a strange reckless despair, I can’t go back. I’ll have to jump, too.

With an effort he thrust away that dark image, and in the same moment caught sight of a lower ledge, not far from Mair’s side. She had no way to move except down, couldn’t possibly reach it. But if he stood there…

He stared down at the rock face, picked out the crevices and protrusions that glittered damply in the moonlight and might ease his passage. Beyond those the cliff fell precipitously, so far that it faded from view in the blue-tinged mist.

The unfriendly stone chilled his hand at the slightest touch, but he gripped it firmly as he knelt by the edge. Gradually, he lowered himself over, feeling with his feet for the first of those planned supports. Now he was hanging by his fingers, too…

But he found it, a slab of stone protruding no more than an inch, and eased along it tiptoe until – yes, there, a crumbled gap where his hand might take lower hold. Then he had to abandon safe footing again, with a less secure grip this time, and found a jutting fang of rock that might, he prayed, support his weight. It held firm. Leaning to the left as much as he could manage, he reached out to grab the slab that had served his feet before. Next, as he’d planned it, he would have to let go and simply drop a foot or two to that ledge beneath –

Suddenly, his burst of strength vanished. He became keenly aware of the wind that howled around, fit to tear him from this treacherous cliff and fling him to his death; of the mist that grew thick as rain and settled, slippery, over his taut fingers; of the biting cold that sucked life from his flesh. He tried to look down for the ledge, but saw only a blue-grey blur through eyes damp with the pervading fog. A stupid, animal fear flooded his senses, and he could do nothing save cling, hopeless, to the rock.

The wind faded momentarily, and the sound of Mair’s ragged breathing brought him back to himself. How much longer could she hold on? With renewed determination he worked his feet loose, dangling from the cliffside. Scrunched his eyes tight closed. And let go.

He hit the ledge with a jarring force, swaying out into empty air. Frantically he arced his body inward, curving closer to the mountain’s bulky safety. For a terrifying moment he hung there, on a pivot between certain and less certain death; then he caught his balance and settled firmly onto the eight-inch ledge.

‘Umm…’ Mair gasped, to his right. A cry for help? He wiped the water from his eyes, staring at her. She clung to a tiny outcropping. The tips of her boots braced against the cliff, supporting a little of her weight, but she clearly couldn’t manage much longer.

‘Swing to the left!’ Bran urged hurriedly. ‘Reach up for my hand. And pull yourself onto the ledge.’

He leant out toward her, bracing his other hand against a seam of rock … and somehow she managed to reach it, swinging her body as far as she could manage toward him, strong fingers gripping tightly around his wrist. Now she hung precariously between the jutting rock and his hand, frantically struggling to get a foot onto the narrow band of rock, her weight tearing at his arm until –

Quickly!’ Bran screamed. ‘I can’t hold any–’

And with a final burst of energy she threw herself toward the ledge, straining with her legs to reach its height, as he pulled the hardest he possibly could –

– but she could not quite reach, her boots only scrabbling against the edge, so that she would surely fall –

– and Bran yanked himself backward, using his own weight as a counter and collapsing painfully onto the stone. With the fall he lost hold of her arm, and looked up in panic. Mair hung half over the edge, folded about her waist with legs dangling into the abyss. Through haze and darkness he watched the pale full-moon of her face as she wriggled the rest of the way to safety.

‘Umm,’ she said, panting for breath. And then, as if deciding belatedly that the situation called for a full word: ‘–Thanks.’

‘Do we head back?’ Bran asked after a moment, when the energy had faded and he stood shivering on the rocky shelf.

Mair shook her head, jamming sore hands into the pocket of her sodden jacket; an answer he hadn’t expected. Doubtful, he half wanted to ask again, but knew it would make no difference. She was nothing if not decisive.

He climbed back to their original path, a task that was much easier ascending and with no reason to hurry. Mair followed after. Waiting for her, he glanced back at the collapsed section. Probably no more than half an hour had passed since it fell, though it seemed like an age.

They pressed on around the mountain until the sheer cliff-edge on their right came to an abrupt end. Debris and rough shards of stone lay scattered on the steep slope that remained, where tons and tons of rock must have split away in some unimaginable rockfall.

But it was climbable, and climb they did, testing each inch of ground before trusting it with their weight. During their slow progress, the weather shifted in their favour: the mist had been thinning and now it finally vanished, leaving behind only a coating of damp.

Bran paused for breath and glanced up at the moon, high in the sky now and beautifully clear. Its glow lent a sharp clarity to the scene, outlining everything in shimmering blue. And up ahead… up ahead… there it was! A jagged lump of stone he recognised: a pair of sharp teeth, almost, guarding one edge of the summit.

A burst of strength flooded through him at that sight and he hurried onward, scrambling a little recklessly over the uneven terrain. The slope became shallower, safer, and he increased his pace. He looked up at the distinctive rock, which was now only ten or twenty yards away. Yes, there was no mistaking i–

– And his foot caught in some bizarre twist of stone, sending him toppling forward to the ground –

– Except that the ground in front wasn’t there, all of a sudden, because he’d tripped over the rim of some narrow crevasse. Everything seemed to be moving very slowly. He must have screamed, but he barely heard it. Stupid, he berated himself, not looking where he was going. Coming here in the first place, for that matter.

Rocks clattered faintly behind – another collapse? Wonderful – and the bottomless hole loomed larger in his sight, sucking him down into its hungry maw.

Until a sudden weight crashed against his side, jolting him out of the vision. Strong arms wrapped around his legs, halting his fall so that he swung haphazardly, reaching out just in time to stop his head crashing into hard stone.

Mair dragged him back, grunting with the exertion, and he helped as best he could until he lay safe, sprawled untidily on the rough ground. She crouched beside him, breathing heavily. The jacket she wore had a wide tear along her left side; beneath that, ragged edges of cloth fluttered slightly in a sharp gust of wind to reveal pale skin. It shone pearly-white under the moon, save for a bloody gash that seemed darkest black.

‘You’re hurt.’ Renewed guilt washed over him. ‘I’m sorry, really sorry!’

She looked down at him. ‘Idiot.’

‘I know,’ he said wretchedly. ‘We’ll go back, right away. Whatever route is safest.’

Mair shook her head. ‘I’ll be fine.’


Ignoring him, she got awkwardly to her feet. He could only follow suit, wincing as cuts and bruises he hadn’t yet noticed made themselves plain.

They circled around the crevasse and slowly ascended a final easy slope. Bran watched his every footstep, sticking close beside his companion in case one or other of them should slip. Neither did; and they scrambled over a last rocky edge beside the two-toothed rock, emerging onto the barren plateau that topped Black Peak.

In contrast to the journey, it seemed exactly as it had in his last visit. The sky had cleared completely, and he glanced out to see the same enormous spread of landscape that had stilled his nerves two months back, shimmering in the same blue moonlight. The view settled his thoughts and he gave a brief sigh of relief – they had made it up here, both safe – before turning his attention to the spot he remembered.

Exactly where he’d thought, a patch of earth lay among the desolate stony ground. White mushrooms ringed it, fairly shining in reflected splendour.

He stood beside the ring, feeling a sudden empty doubt. In all the struggle he’d forgotten his goal. Thinking back, he pictured the fairy girl of his imaginings, in her shining headband and green silk dress; but the image seemed hollow, even silly.

‘Well?’ Mair said, solid and real next to him. ‘Go on.’

And after dragging her all this way, it would hardly be fair to have a change of heart.

So he stood straight, as tall as he could manage, and stepped within the circle.

White light burst into his mind, leaving little but a blurred sense of music, warmth, lilacs. His eyes had no time to adjust.

‘Ungrateful wretch,’ somebody called, laughing; and he felt arms grab him by the shoulders, spinning him around. Then a firm kick to his bottom sent him flying forward, out of the fairy ring, and back –

– back to his own world, where he crashed straight into a surprised Mair, knocking both of them into a confused, tangled heap.

‘Are… you… okay?’ he managed, when air found its way back into his lungs.

‘Yes.’ A pause. ‘You?’

He felt a hand brush his face, opened his eyes to see her own close beside, her freckles faintly visible in the pale blue moonlight. She watched him with her left eye; her right wandered elsewhere, but the squint no longer bothered him.

‘I’m fine,’ he said automatically.

And suddenly realised it was true.