Janet and Liam meet again for a Halloween weekend they’ll never forget…
The woman would see him if she looked up. Lewy pressed harder against the tree. The bark dug into his shuddering back, and he bit his lip to stifle a whimper. His knees hurt too, bruised in his scramble to reach the lofty branches. A quicken tree, he realized when a breeze bitter with turf smoke rustled the salmon-pink leaves and set the crimson berries swaying.
Throughout Crooked Wood, flutters of russet and saffron leaves twirled lazily to the ground. Didn’t they know the woman was there? Lewy feared his trembling would unleash a torrent of autumn upon her. She would look up then and spot his shaggy white hair against the dark wood of the tree. He held his breath and squeezed his eyes shut. He’d be all right if she didn’t look up.
“Must have been rabbits,” she called across the glade, silent but for the distant cascade of the waterfall. The birds’ frightful cries and the subsequent hush of their whistles and warbles had warned Lewy of her trespass into the woods.
“Or a fox,” said a deeper voice from squares away. “I’ll call Alan when we get back to the house and have him bring his dog. My cell’s out of range here.”
A dog! And a cell? Would they lock him up if they caught him?
The crunch of the woman’s footsteps faded. Lewy peeked at her retreating form and guessed she was at least twice his height. She crossed the clearing, leaving a leaf-littered patch of creeping speedwell trampled in her wake. Luckily, he had already stashed a bunch of the soft blue flowers in the bag.
Where were Mell and Blinn? They too had fled when the growling lorries drove in from nowhere and stopped at the water’s edge. Lewy launched a few stealthy glances around the woods. Had his friends run home to the pond?
Not before nightfall, and certainly not without the sealskin satchel looped around Lewy’s waist. Mell and Blinn were hiding too.
The woman shaded her eyes against the morning sun and turned again toward the clearing. “Still and all,” she said, cutting toward the lorries, “it’s a lovely place to work. Let’s get back to the guest house, Vince. Those storm clouds are headed our way, though we can’t complain. Old Ireland could use a drop of rain after the summer she’s had.”
Collapsing in relief, Lewy slid down against the tree until he sat on the thick branch supporting him. He clutched his knees to his chest and sucked in air through his chattering teeth.
“Lewy! Lewy, where are you?”
Blinn! The familiar trill in her voice calmed him in a flash, though he wished she’d stop shouting. Did she want the woman to come back? With the man? And the dog?
But Blinn wouldn’t place him and Mell in danger. She must have conjured a veil of glimmer to hide them all from the woman. Sure enough, the branch and its pale orange leaves showed right through Lewy’s lanky arms and legs. Good old Blinn.
She called his name again, sounding as if she were right below him. He bent his head and there she was, her pearly skin and turquoise suit translucent with glimmer. The ends of her milk-white hair brushed the woodland carpet of leaves and moss as she turned her head to search for him.
Mell emerged from the boarberry bush and limped into the clearing. Blinn’s glimmer had rendered his grumpy face, his spindly frame, even his silver foot, nearly transparent. “The mort dame is gone, Lew,” he said. “You can come out now.” He swatted the shrub’s amber leaves. “Ah, he’s hiding somewhere. He forgets to use his glimmer when he’s afraid. It’s tragical.”
“Poor Lewy is always afraid,” Blinn said sadly.
“I am not!” Indignant, Lewy parted the rustling foliage so his friends could see him. “Didn’t I save you from the Crogall Cú?”
Over time, the reptilian monster’s voracious appetite had spawned several savage attacks against the Daoine Linn (Deena Linn), the People of the Pond. During one deadly ambush, the creature had devoured a dozen swimming workers. Lewy had scrambled to save them, but he’d only managed to rescue Blinn and Mell.
It had happened so long ago, when the ancestors of the modern Irish invaded the island and forced the Tuatha Dé Danann (TOO-ah Day DAN-an), the magical tribe of the Goddess Danu to which the Daoine Linn belonged, to live beneath the land in caves and lakes. Lewy had been courageous then, but the Crogall Cú had frightened him so badly, he now flinched at the slightest noise or shadow—and Crooked Wood crawled with both.
At the sound of his voice, Mell and Blinn looked up. Blue eyes round, mouths agape, they gawked at Lewy, so upset that he lost his balance. He seized the branch to steady himself, but his webbed fingers failed to grip the wood. He tumbled shrieking from the tree and landed on the boarberry bush, sprawled on his back, arms spread wide, clutching at the purple fruit.
Blinn squeaked in alarm and rushed to the bouncing shrub. “Lewy! Are you okay?”
Mell hobbled over, shaking his head and muttering something about the tragicality of terrorizing the birds. He brushed a shock of white curls from his forehead and inspected Lewy without sympathy. “More important, is the flower sack okay?”
He was right. Lewy slid off the bush and reached for the sealskin bag, an ancient thing whose magic kept its contents fresh and waterproof. The pouch was still secure around his waist and fat with the flowers and herbs he’d gathered. Mell and Blinn had better add the plants they’d selected soon. The spell wouldn’t work if their greenery wilted.
A loud rumble close to the pond ruptured the quiet air. Lewy squealed and jumped.
Jeering and chuckling, Mell gazed toward the water. “You’re tragical, Lewy. It’s not the old CC. It’s only them lorries. Engines, I think they call what runs ’em. The morts don’t use horses no more.”
Blinn groaned and swooned, then stood erect. Her delicate form solidified. Lewy and Mell solidified too. “Whatever they use,” she said, “I’m glad they’re gone. Maintaining the glimmer was wearing me out.”
Lewy patted her arm. “You should rest, Blinn.”
“She’s okay,” said Mell. “Next time, Lewy, use your own glimmer. You don’t know how lucky you are to have it. Come on, let’s put them plants away.”
Mell had lost his glimmer when a hostile mortal chopped off his foot. As he shuffled along, a pair of birds exchanged comforting chirps, a sign that the danger had passed.
Still, Lewy wished he were back at the palace. “Did you find everything?”
“I fetched all my flowers,” Blinn said. “Forget-me-nots, dog violets, betony, heather bells, and butterwort.”
Mell listed the mosses and herbs he’d collected. “I got extra enchanter’s-nightshade. Can’t have too much of that.” His brisk limp brought him to the rear of the clearing.
Lewy followed, kicking his webbed toes through clumps of coppery leaves. The stream still burbled behind the rhododendron hedge, yet something he couldn’t place had changed since he’d last seen Crooked Wood. After a moment, he knew: the beech tree beside the stream had vanished. Only a stump remained, its jagged remnants providing a home for flamelike spikes of bright yellow fungus. Blue-green moss painted the rotting wood and the gnarly roots digging into the earth.
Blinn circled the tree’s remains west to east and knelt behind it. Lewy and Mell repeated the homage, joining her between a pile of plants and a stretch of withering golden ferns. Eyes darting, ears alert for mortal footsteps, Lewy opened the sealskin pouch. He set it down just as a choir of birds burst into a lusty symphony.
The sound cured his aches and scratches; the stiffness in his shoulders eased. “Thank Danu. Who do you suppose those people were?”
“No idea.” Blinn’s long webbed fingers nimbly folded flower stems. “I heard them say something about staying at the guest house.”
Mell packed moss into the bag. “Must be one of them cottages behind the mansion.”
Over the centuries, Lewy had viewed the big house often. He wondered if the mortals still followed the custom of putting out food at night for the Tuatha Dé Danann, whom the modern Irish called the sídhe (shee). Queen Sabia’s seven-year glass had turned many times since he’d tasted fresh oatcakes and sweet creamy buttermilk. The flower nectar he and his friends had planned to sip for lunch no longer sounded appealing.
Blinn glanced his way. Her eyelids fluttered, as if she’d read his thoughts. “Do you suppose the big house is still there?”
“Ah, who knows with morts and their houses,” said Mell. “Maybe it’s gone, like that crannog they built in the lake. It sat there for years ’til it finally burned up. Tragical, it was.”
Lewy remembered the round house and its thatched pointy roof. Long before the Tuatha Dé Danann arrived in Ireland, the mortals had formed an island by driving a circle of logs into the lake bed. They’d filled the center with rocks and debris and the bones of creatures they’d eaten. He shivered at the grisly thought.
Over the centuries, the mortals had used the island for everything from storage to imprisoning their enemies, but they hadn’t disturbed the Daoine Linn until the Celts took over and set the round house on the rocks. The crannog became a place from which they conducted bizarre rituals, throwing the heads of forest creatures into the lake to appease their strange gods.
Queen Sabia had tolerated their odd behavior until they began tossing human heads from the crannog. When they ignored her angry protests, she commanded the Daoine Linn to discourage the barbaric practice.
Lewy and his friends had relished inflicting mischief on the Celts, tipping their dugout canoes and filching their mead. They’d set off a new round of conflict with the mortals, who captured and killed a few of the Daoine Linn. Yet as time went on, the mortals died of old age. New clans replaced them, civilized men and women who befriended the sídhe in the pond.
Many a feast had they shared on the shore, celebrations Lewy recalled with a smile. Then fire broke into his reverie. He remembered the terrible day the crannog went up in flames. Now nothing remained but the ruins beneath the lake.
A shake of his head refocused his thoughts to the newer dwelling beyond the woods. “I think the king’s house is still there. I’m sure I smelled a turf fire.”
Mell’s glower bounced from Lewy to Blinn. “We’re not going. The morts haven’t invited us to their house for epochrifications. They don’t believe in us no more. Anyway, the house is too far from the water.”
“That’s a poor excuse,” said Blinn. “It’s not that far at all. The Irish royals always come to Glensheelin to celebrate Samhain (Sow-win). At least they used to. They call it Halloween, I think. It’s not for two more days, but they might be there now.” She closed her eyes and sighed. “I’d love to see a princess!”
Lewy would rather see a honey-drenched oatcake or a chunk of cheese. He craned his neck to check the sky. Not even noon. True, a storm was coming, and the autumn twilight would soon dull the afternoon, but night wouldn’t fall for hours.
On the other hand, the idea of tramping through shadowy woods fraught with danger made him agree with Mell—until his stomach grumbled like the eddy beneath the waterfall.
Blinn giggled. “I think we should go to the house.” She sounded confident, as if she had a plan. She usually did.
Lewy decided to back her up. He might get a cup of buttermilk out of the deal. “We have plenty of time,” he said. “Since we have to wait for night to go home anyway, I don’t see why we couldn’t have a teensy peek. How far is it?”
Mell scowled, first at Lewy and then at Blinn. “Forget it, tadpoles. We stay right here until dark, then we deliver the bag to the queen. Losing one foot was tragical enough. I’m not looking to lose the other one.”
Blinn rolled her eyes. “Don’t be so dramatic, Mell. Samhain is two days away. We’ll be home long before the Crogall Cú wakes up.” She smiled smugly. “I can get us there and back quicker than a frog can catch a fly.”
Lewy grinned. Blinn made everything fun. “What do you have in mind, Blinn?”
“A Sí-Gaoith (Shee-Gwee-ha). A Fairy Wind. I haven’t done one in ages. We’ll ride above the trees, stop wherever we like, and come straight back.”
Mell’s already pale skin turned fish-belly white. Lewy wasn’t crazy about the idea himself, but this way they wouldn’t have to sneak through the woods, on guard for the mischievous woodland fairies. And he couldn’t resist the chance to slag Mell.
“What’s the matter, Mell? Don’t have the sap for it? Don’t worry, Blinn won’t let you fall. Unless you’d rather wait here in the woods. Al-l-l-l alone.”
That should do it, he thought. The Daoine Linn swam like fish and preferred the relative safety of their home in the water. None of them liked being out on the land, especially alone. They were vulnerable enough in the woods together.
Mell bared his teeth and playfully swatted the air near Lewy’s head. “All right, I’ll go, but Blinn should rest first. She used up a slew of energy hiding us from that lady mort.”
Blinn crossed her arms over her chest. “You said yourself I’m fine. If you don’t think I can handle it, Lewy can summon the Fairy Wind.”
Mell’s eyes bugged. “Lewy? No way! You do it, Blinn. One quick look at the house and straight back here, okay? Them’s thunderclouds up there.”
“Don’t worry, Mell. If it rains, the Sí-Gaoith will keep us dry.” Stars twinkled in Blinn’s eyes. She clapped her hands once. “Is everything in the bag? We should take it with us.”
“It’s all set.” Lewy had already closed the sealskin sack, so loaded with plants, he had trouble fitting it over his shoulder.
Blinn yanked it from him. “Give it here, Lewy. I’m thinner than you.”
Before he could argue that they were nearly the same size, she secured the strap around her slender torso and tucked her frosty hair into her belt. She clapped her hands again, twice this time, and summoned the Fairy Wind: “Sí-Gaoith!”
A breeze arose in Crooked Wood, a whistling gust that rapidly grew loud and powerful.
Blinn shouted over the racket, “Line up, boys. We’re going for a ride!”
Lewy scooted behind her; Mell took up the rear. Around them, fallen foliage whirled like tiny tornadoes, gaining in speed and number until they formed a wall of buzzing, spinning leaves.
“Whoa ho!” Mell cried as they rose in the air.
He grabbed Lewy’s waist, and Lewy grabbed Blinn’s. A sudden upward tilt forced them to sit on the firm bed of leaves. The wind took off, soaring like a magic carpet, whisking them up and over the treetops. Lewy whooped. Blinn shrieked with delight. Even Mell laughed.
Secure in Blinn’s glimmer, Lewy held tight to her willowy waist and gazed down at the water. The small oval lake glittered beneath the slanted rays of the rapidly tiring autumn sun. Shadows from the approaching storm clouds speckled the falls at the pond’s northern end.
Their bird’s-eye view revealed the remains of the crannog, submerged near the reedy eastern shore. Or was it submerged? From so high up, the ruins appeared to break through the pond’s glassy surface. An illusion, no doubt.
On the western shore, a small bog sloped from a knoll to the edge of the crystalline water. Boulders littered the southern shore, the passage by which the Daoine Linn accessed Crooked Wood every seven years. The woods glowed in the autumn light as if an invisible hand had slathered the treetops with honey and marmalade. Lewy’s mouth watered to think of such treats, but he had no time to admire the show: Blinn veered sharply east.
Thousands of years before, the mortals had cleared the land of the rubble the big ice had left behind. They built walls of stone, creating neat squares for pastures and farmland. The familiar squares still checkered the emerald landscape, and the road to the house unspooled through the patchwork. In the distance, the mist-wrapped Wicklow hills endured, standing like phantom sentinels, a bulwark between the sinister sea and the midland lakes the Daoine Linn called home.
The carpet of leaves abruptly dropped. A trapdoor opened in Lewy’s gut. He managed to keep from screaming, but Mell roared in horror.
“Hey! You could warn a guy!”
Sorry,” yelled Blinn. “It went down by itself, and I can’t get it to go back up.”
“I knew it,” Mell said. “You’re tired. Lewy, call up your glimmer and help her!”
Lewy scrunched his eyes and tried. Feathers of glimmer tickled him from his toes to his ears. He had to coax it, expand it fast, make it fill his chest and shoot to his fingertips, but he couldn’t remember how. Many wheels of time had spun since he’d last summoned glimmer.
The Fairy Wind bucked and plunged through the air.
“I can’t control it!” Blinn cried.
Mell gripped Lewy tighter. “Come on, Lew! We’re going down!”
The spark was there, right inside him. Fighting panic, he strove to ignite it. “I’m trying! Be quiet and let me concentrate!”
Blinn patted Lewy’s hands, still glued to her waist. “Tap into my glimmer, Lewy. If we work together, we’ll straighten out, but we’d better not go to the house. We should get back to Crooked Wood before twilight falls and the storm comes.”
But Lewy wanted to go to the house. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t get to taste mortal food for another seven years, if ever. He kicked at the mat of leaves in a burst of anger that somehow boosted his glimmer. It flowed from his fingers to Blinn, who quickly channeled it into hers and straightened the caroming Fairy Wind.
“Good job, Lewy!” Blinn steered them a few feet above the narrow trail that led to the mortal king’s house. “If we can’t get back up, we can at least go forward.”
Lewy’s laughter rippled the air like a tune plucked on a merry harp. “C’mon, let’s go see the house!”
“No!” Mell shouted.
Blinn agreed. “We’d better not risk it. We’ll turn around at that bend in the road.”
Huffing with disappointment, Lewy pushed out his lower lip. Hadn’t they said his glimmer was helping? Yet even as he sulked, he felt it slip. He didn’t use it enough, and it wasn’t as strong as Blinn’s. His friends were right. They had to go back.
Lewy vowed to get his glimmer back in shape. If he did, the queen might let him and his friends leave the lake before another seven years passed. He’d beg her to let them visit the land, grovel if he must, so obsessed was he by the prospect of tasting oatcakes and buttermilk again.
So obsessed, he didn’t see the lorry come tearing around the curve in the road until Blinn screamed. Mell screamed too, and a horrid impact sent them all flying.
Lewy slammed into something hard. He rolled to the ground and lay in the leaves, too stunned to move. The growl of the nearby lorry crept into his head like the snarl of a hungry dragon. Between his labored breaths, he heard the voice of a man. “Blessed Michael!” he said with that curious accent the mortals had.
Something banged. The sound of heavy wheels crushing gravel battered Lewy’s ears, and then the growl of the lorry faded away. The strange wagon had turned and gone...where? Back to the big house?
Where were Mell and Blinn? Lewy couldn’t find the strength to call them. He tried to move; arrows of pain shot through him. Were his friends injured too?
Thoughts of them lying hurt on the cold ground roused him. He needed glimmer, and fast. Anger had made it work before. Anger at the lorry coursed through him now, wave after furious wave that tingled and turned to thrumming power. The pain vanished as glimmer worked its magic. Calling to Mell and Blinn, he rolled to his knees in a musty pile of decaying leaves.
“Mell? Where are you?”
“Here. Stone wall.”
Alarmed by Mell’s unsteady croak, Lewy scampered across the road to a broad tree whose ghoulish arms swayed in the shadows. The branches drooped over a crumbling wall of boulders coated with thick green moss.
Mell lay among the stones, limbs twisted, chest heaving. Steeling himself, Lewy knelt and swallowed hard. No amount of glimmer could help his friend, but he had to try.
A raindrop splashed his nose. Seconds later, the clouds burst open. He leaned protectively over Mell and squeezed his hand, desperately willing the glimmer to work. “Hold still, Mell. The glimmer—”
“No time, Lew. He took Blinn. Find her. Find the bag.”
Lewy’s heart lurched. “Who took her?” he asked, blinking both raindrops and tears away.
“Man. In the lorry. You must…get the bag…to the queen.” Mell’s eyes rolled back.
But Mell was already fading. The rain seemed to wash him away. His silver foot lingered a moment longer than the rest of him. Then it followed him into oblivion.
Lewy was all alone.