I was struck yesterday with the need to write a story, and in the event it turned out a fairy tale. I’ve decided to share it here, rather than submit it to any journals since it’s more a whim, an old-fashioned whisper by some imagined hearth. It’s tied a little to Kilea, but only by the loosest threads. I hope you enjoy it.
Those Who Gather in the Wood
There was once a girl of the village of H_ on the island of R_ who met with the sìth and survived the encounter. The girl was called Myrtle, for her glossy hair and her steadiness, just as the bog myrtle is steady against the wind, even with its roots in a bad soil.
It was All Hallow’s Eve, or Samhain, and Myrtle was brushing her hair before bed. She was being good this evening. Her parents were going out to a ceilidh in their village and she was too young to come with them. She had told them she was too old to be left with a nurse. Her parents, for their part, thought that she would be safe on her own, at twelve being too old to be of interest to the sìth, who in those parts liked to find open windows through which they could steal away infants and guileless children. In their place they would leave a pale body that moved or breathed not at all. But everyone knew the children would be under the hill of the birches, red cheeked and with laughing eye, dancing with the sìth and forgetting altogether that they were the children of mortal folk.
So Myrtle’s parents blithely left her with a glass of milk and a wee scone if she grew hungry, for they were nice parents, and after all did not know they were in a fairy tale.
Just after the door had swung shut, Myrtle climbed into bed. A little red fire was going in the grate, and the clicks and stirrings of the fire soothed her as she pulled the covers up to her nose. But all of a sudden, a silence descended. The fire still burned, but now made no noise at all. The curtain above Myrtle’s bed stopped swaying in the breeze. Myrtle did not notice. Myrtle had fallen asleep.
The girl awoke to a tapping at her window.
She keeked out. There, outside in the garden, was a group of about seven men and women, apparently playing a game of cards. They made no sign of having seen Myrtle. They were richly dressed in silks and strange coats: if Myrtle had known more of the fashion of her time, she would have recognised the white tuxedos and flapper dresses of wealthy party goers far to the South of her island. But she had never seen anything of their kind in her life.
The cards they were playing with seemed awfully strange to her. Not kings or queens or aces or diamond on them. But figures of all kinds in strange dress themselves, with names written under, though Myrtle could not read them at a distance and in the dimness. She was struck by a burning wish to know the names, to make out every figure, and to speak with these strangers on the lawn.
As if in answer to this thought, the catch of the window fell open.
And Myrtle went out.
Or rather, tumbled out, though she couldn’t say how, since a moment before she had been tucked in her blankets.
At once, the figures turned their heads to her. Though they looked normal enough, and had gentle looks of bemusement, but the heads had turned that bit further round than a human head should. And still there was no breeze, nor any sound.
“Hello Myrtle” said one woman in a dark green gown, “we were just playing a game of cards. It seems you’ve interrupted us.” She had a calm voice and low, as if she was speaking under her breath, though at a normal volume.
“What are you doing in my garden?” Asked Myrtle. Being definitive was best with strangers, she had found.
“I just told you.” Replied the woman.
“You could be playing cards down in the village hall. Why are you here in my garden.” Myrtle said, trying to keep a plaintive edge out of her voice.
“Oh, well, the village doesn’t care for our games,” said the woman, “we thought that you might not mind.”
Myrtle shook her head. Best to humour them. She knew very well what sort of people they must be, to have wandered into her back garden to play cards in the dark. That is, not people at all.
But she spoke politely, and they returned the courtesy. It turned out they were very keen on parties, just like the villagers. They invited her to theirs, and since she had not been free to go to the main party, Myrtle decided she would go to theirs.
She begged to be allowed to fetch a shawl to keep her warm on the way over. The woman nodded her head, and waited outside the window as Myrtle snatched up a wrapping from her room. When the woman wasn’t looking, she also took her scone, and an iron nail that had been stuck under her mattress. It had been placed there to ward off the sìth. Little good it had done, and it weighed down the pocket of her night dress, but she felt the better for having it there.
The sìth took her to their part spot, a clearing in the old birch forest above the village. It was decorated with tiny lights, and filled with delicate, lovely music from fiddle and clarsach. The fairy lights were bees, painted with a golden glow, and they made honey comb which hung from the birch branches. The party-goers snatched at pieces of the comb and ate, licking their fingers after. Myrtle did not taste the honey, being quite aware of the old tales.
The people began to dance, and Myrtle with them, spinning and heuching, and stamping her bare feet. She had a grand time, but all the while was keeping an eye on signs that the night was turning towards day. It was important to mind herself. To not lose the sense of who she was, a little islander girl dancing with the spirits in the other world. After what seemed like hours and hours, there was still no sign of the moon moving in the sky, nor of the party-goers growing tired.
She though, began to weary, and to become hungry. There was a table spread with all sorts of plates, but all of it fairy food, which melts on the tongue and satisfies too much. Still, she could do with something. She remembered the scone in her pocket, and scoffed that. One of the folk saw her, a tall man in a moleskin suit. He had lovely fair hair, and even Myrtle, young as she was, felt a little breathless when she looked on him.
“What are you eating, Myrtle?”
“Not much at all, just something plain to settle my stomach.”
“I’m sorry to hear you’re a wee bit unwell,” said the man, “would you like to sit a while over in the corner, and we’ll have a chat?”
So they went over and sat on a bench and watched the dancers and listened to the music, which was a waltz.
“Can you play an instrument, Myrtle?” the man asked.
“No,” said Myrtle, “I can’t even tap two sticks together.”
“What a shame. You know, if you wanted to stay with us, we could teach you to play so sweetly you’d make a sheep farmer weep into his fleeces.”
“Of course, he’d never be able to see me playing, would he? I have another life waiting for me,” replied Myrtle.
“Is that so?” said the man, “and how long have you been away from that life, would you say?”
At his words, so softly, lowly spoken, Myrtles blood ran like beads of rain through her.
“Have you seen yourself in a mirror lately?” the man went on. Myrtle shook her head. Her throat felt like it would close over.
The man pulled a small oval mirror out of his pocket. It was shelled in jet black stone. He held it up to her face. In the reflection, Myrtle saw a face much older, a young woman with long black hair, just like hers, with a kink by the left ear. The young woman’s eyes were brown like hers, but sad, so sad.
“That’s not me,” she said.
“Yes, and no, and it will be, when dawn comes,” said the man.
Myrtle thought. Young Myrtle was baby-cheeked and round. Her features had no distinction to them, and her grin was cheeky when it was not meekly sullen. But this face was pretty and grave.
“I imagine there will be some way you’ll get me to become this woman,” said Myrtle, carefully, “what is it exactly you gentle folk do, day to today. I mean, if I’m to stay, I want to know what to expect.”
“Well, just as you see. We play fiddle and clarsach, we dance, and we take children from their homes.”
“And why do you do that?”
“So we can dance with them. “ Answered the man with a silver glint in his eye, “so we can make them into the kind of grown men and women we’d like to dance with.”
Myrtle smiled. It wasn’t a very convincing smile, but it was the best she could manage.
“And then what do you do? With the children who have grown?”
“We dance and we dance,” said the man, his eyes flashing like the morning sea, “we dance and we dance and we dance and we dance and we dance and we dance and we dance.” His lips were red and his face was fine. His blond hair fell into his silver eyes. He got up and pulled Myrtle to her feet, Myrtle who was now taller and leaner than she had been before, with a body she didn’t recognise. They began to dance a reel, with the other dancers spinning even more wildly around them.
The clarsachs and the fiddles made noises Myrtle had never heard before and would never again. She slipped one hand out from the grip of the man, pretending to fix her hair. She deftly pulled out the iron nail from her pocket and stuck it up her sleeve. She wasn’t ready to go just yet.
They were dancing, and the dance was fun.
The bodies of the dancers changed – their limbs grew long and short, just as shadows do. Some grew branches, others leaves, which they shed and regrew as their fancies took them. Their eyes went red and gold. Top hats fell to the floor. Flapper dresses slid off the narrow shoulders. A puddle of clothing lay all around, and still the dancers danced, shrilling and giggling.
It was getting all a little out of hand. And yet, Myrtle wasn’t too fussed about them nor afraid. She realised it was the last dance before the dawn came and she would either go with them, go with the silver-eyed man, under the hill, or she would be cast out, into the world which would have changed.
“Give me the mirror,” she said to the man, as they danced.
He handed it to her. She pulled it up to their faces, so they could both look upon themselves.
Two very good looking creatures were there, one with dark black hair and the other with light. One a girl the other a boy. She twirled and he twirled, and the sweat gleamed on them. She leaned forward and kissed him. Not any kind of kiss a little girl should know how to give.
Then, at that moment, she pierced his silver eye with the iron nail. At once the music stopped. There was a pause, as everyone turned to face them. And then –
And then, the two were alone in the forest. All the tables and bees and dancers and music-makers were gone.
“We’re free,” said the man in a calm voice, clutching his wounded eye, “how long I’ve been away, I don’t know. “
“Your eye!” said Myrtle.
He pulled his hand away. She saw no damage there.
“Oh, you only marked it,” he said. An ominous sentence, “it was what needed to be done. The other folk cannot abide iron. I’ll pay the consequences later. For now, we’re both free.”
She had seen the iron nail go deep into the eye, but there it was, whole. And no longer silver, but a very pale blue. Blue as the dawn on a morning clearer than this one. A later day would come, when he would lose it, but not in this tale.
“Well, come home with me,” Myrtle said, “and my parents will see you fed and rested”
The man smiled. “No, I don’t think so. I’m afraid we won’t be able to go into any one’s home,”
There were low sunbeams coming through the birches as they walked through them.
“What light is that?” said the man.
“That is the dawn,” replied Myrtle. She wondered if she was her own age again or not. She looked in the mirror and saw no reflection at all.
“Oh, don’t worry about that thing, it’s a fairy mirror. It only shows what it wants to show.” Said the man.
Myrtle shook the mirror gently, and saw in it again the reflection of herself and the young man kissing.
“Where will we go then?” She asked.
“Up into the mountains, and down into the glens, and off over the water, and into the sea caves, and wherever we wish,”
“wherever we wish…”
She put the mirror into her pocket.
“No, I don’t think so,” she said, “I think I’m going home to finish my milk.”
And so she left him there, and returned to her home. As it could be imagined, her parents were perturbed, and they put bars over the window in her room. They did notice how she had aged, and was now by appearance seventeen, but they decided not to mention it. No one else in the village thought to either. Myrtle was just quietly moved up through the school years. She was a clever girl and it caused her little trouble. She was used to having no friends, so she was not too lonely.
And after all, the former sìth would often wait for her out in the garden at dusk or dawn, and they would play cards through the window. She didn’t trust him one bit. But she often won the game, and they would speak of wonders together.
The man had not after all gone up up into the mountains, and down into the glens, and off over the water, and into the sea caves. He had decided to become a fisherman, though never having seen the sea since he was a boy – a feat that only a boy brought up by the sìth could achieve, on such a small island. When Myrtle won, the price from him was often a story. Once, it was a kiss. This she captured in her fairy mirror, for looking at later when she was alone.