Mazy Rings, Troublesome Things
Faerie is a perilous land, and in it are pitfalls for the unwary, and dungeons for the overbold. J.R.R. Tolkien
This was written for Heliopause for the Narnia Fic Exchange.
There is also a new madness round. All the wonderful prompts from the exchange are open for anyone to fill (even if you didn't participate in the original exchange) and there is no minimum word count.
Fairy roses, fairy rings, turn out sometimes troublesome things
William Makepeace Thackeray,
Where round the bed, whence Achelous springs, That wat'ry Fairies dance in mazy rings.
Fiction is Truth's elder sister. Obviously. No one in the world knew what truth was till some one had told a story.
For it is related in our records how once upon a time your State stayed the course of a mighty host, which, starting from a distant point in the Atlantic ocean, was insolently advancing to attack the whole of Europe, and Asia to boot. … [At the] pillars of Heracles, there lay an island which was larger than Libya and Asia together; … Now in this island of Atlantis there existed a confederation of kings, of great and marvelous power, which held sway over all the island, and over many other islands also and parts of the continent.
But at a later time there occurred portentous earthquakes and floods, and one grievous day and night befell them, when the whole body of your warriors was swallowed up by the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner was swallowed up by the sea and vanished; wherefore also the ocean at that spot has now become impassable and unsearchable, being blocked up by the shoal mud which the island created as it settled down
Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. You might have read about their remarkable adventure in a book called The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. The children opened the door of a magical wardrobe and found themselves in quite different world, a place called Narnia, where they reigned as Kings and Queens for a very long time. Then, one day, they came back through the door and found themselves in England again as if no time had passed at all.
This story is not about Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.
The children only told of their adventure in Narnia to one very wise grown-up, the Professor. The Professor was not at all surprised that that particular wardrobe was magical and took Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy to Narnia and back again because, when he was a boy, he had had adventures, too. Those adventures are told in a book called The Magician's Nephew. The Professor's name was Digory Kirke, and he was the Magician's nephew. Digory went to Narnia with his friend, Polly Plummer.
This story is not about Digory and Polly.
If you have read The Magician's Nephew, then you know that in that story there was another family, with two sisters and a brother. Their names were Mabel, Letitia, and Andrew Ketterley. Andrew was the Magician in the book and I am sure we can all agree not a very good one. Andrew got (stole, really) some magic dust from his fairy godmother, Mrs. Lefay, turned the dust into magic rings, and that was how this whole Narnia adventure began.
This is the story about Mabel, Letitia (though only her father called her Letitia; everyone else called her "Letty") and Mrs. Lefay. A very clever writer once said that no one knew what truth was until someone told a story. But as everyone knows, the best stories are the true ones.
In the days when Mabel and Letty were girls, Queen Victoria was Queen of England and the Empress of India. The British Empire was so large, it was said the sun never set upon it, which meant that even when you were sleeping in your bed it was daytime somewhere else that Queen Victoria ruled, like Australia. Clothes were very uncomfortable, especially if you were a girl, and some of the food was what we think now as peculiar, such as eel pie, but breads and cakes were delicious and if I described the Christmas dinner, well, you would never hear about Mabel and Letty.
In those days, girls like Letty and Mabel who were "well-off" didn't go to school. It might have been nice to not have to go to school to learn Algebra and Latin, but if you were a girl, it was very difficult to receive any proper schooling at all. This proves something I've always said, which is that something might seem unpleasant until someone stops you from finding out for yourself if it truly is unpleasant.
So you might have thought it very unfair (and you would be right) that Letty and Mabel had to stay home whilst Andrew was off at boarding school learning Algebra, Latin, and, regrettably, hearing about but not understanding science at all. However, Mrs. Lefay, who was Andrew's godmother, was also Letty and Mabel's governess. So, whilst Colonel and Mrs. Ketterley were away in India working for the Queen and Lord Lytton, the Viceroy of India, Letty and Mabel stayed with Mrs. Lefay at her home in Somerset to receive their education.
Other well-to-do girls like Letty and Mabel would have been schooled in how to plan lovely dinner parties, dance elegantly, laugh at men's humours, sew neatly, give instructions to servants, and play an instrument. That was decidedly not how Mrs. Lefay did things so Letty and Mabel were fortunate indeed.
Father, Colonel Ketterley, thought Mrs. Lefay unhygienic, unenlightened and impertinent. Pretty Mrs. Ketterley just patted her husband's hand, winked at her daughters, and said, "Yes, darling, but she gives us a very good rate."
Colonel Ketterley was correct that Mrs. Lefay was odd. Mrs. Lefay was very short and very fat and very fond of snuff. Her face from the front was almost square and when you saw her from the side, her nose was so long and her chin jutted out so far, they almost met. She did not have any warts on her face and she had the most remarkable eyes, at once gray or green or blue, depending upon the moon and whether she was happy or melancholy.
She had a fine ten-room house that always seemed orderly even though there were only two girls from the village who came in to cook. When Letty asked about this Mrs. Lefay said that Brownies took care of things while everyone slept but to please not speak of them or look for them as it was very impolite. Mabel said the Brownies must be why they left out bowls of porridge and a saucer of honey at night.
A large, sad gray cat named Lance had the run of the house and even slept in Mrs. Lefay's bed. Mrs. Lefay took her biscuit-coloured rabbit, Coiny, out for exercise once a day.
For all the peculiarity, Letty and Mabel could not imagine a finer governess than Mrs. Lefay. She never criticised their uneven stitches during the very short period of the week when guilt overcame her and she decided they really must practice their needlework. Mrs. Lefay never rapped their knuckles for touching the china dogs in the curio cabinet of the drawing room. Mabel was allowed to play the fancy grand piano in the parlor as often as she wished and even if there were chores or lessons.
"Play away, Mabel," Mrs. Lefay explained. "It keeps the restless spirits away."
Letty didn't sing, play, or dance as Mabel did. Letty's hands were large and her feet weren't dainty and she could never get the one-two-three, step, glide, right and left, correct. Another governess would have made her feel wretched. Mrs. Lefay was never cross when Letty did not glide across the room as elegantly as a swan.
"Load of tosh," Mrs. Lefay would say. "Let's go in the kitchen and blow something up."
In Mrs. Lefay's kitchen, Mabel and Letty did not learn how to make soufflés and bread or how to instruct servants in polishing the plate. They grew crystals on the end of string and learned about geometry. They mixed bicarbonate of soda with vinegar, recorded how it exploded, and learned about volcanoes and Pompeii. (Mrs. Lefay was very fond of explosions). They made green fire and fire on ice and fire in gel. They took Mrs. Lefay's telescope up to the top of the Tor and charted planets and stars and mapped the constellations.
"Shouldn't we knit doilies today, Mrs. Lefay?" Mabel would ask.
"Oh yes, we simply must!" Letty would say and the girls would giggle and the doilies would be forgotten as they hiked across the Somerset levels with their governess and Mrs. Lefay would point out the ruins of an ancient abbey or wall and tell stories. Some of Mrs. Lefay's stories had ordinary things from the history books in them—kings and battles, invasions and conquests, Picts and Scots and Gauls, Britons and Bretons and Samartians.
As they climbed the Tor, Mrs. Lefay's eyes would flash and she would tell the stories that weren't in the history books. She told them about King Bladud who was good at magic but bad at flying, of King Leir and his three daughters (a story nothing at all like the one Andrew learned in his Shakespeare lessons), of buried heads that protected the island of Britain from invaders, and birds whose songs would make you forget everything you loved, so that when you woke a lifetime had passed. Sometimes Mrs. Lefay talked of things Mother would call heathenish, about the druids who met in sacred oak groves and tamed the spirits of the rivers and the Romans whose gods were not jealous of other gods (though they did have many terrific squabbles amongst themselves). It was, Mrs. Lefay said, only the Christians who insisted on one God and cleverly twisted the old ways to their own purposes.
It was not proper. It was very interesting.
They did not learn much French or Greek philosophy. They learned a lot of Latin, chemistry, English history, and botany.
That was another of the queer things about Mrs. Lefay. They would tromp about the Somerset levels and she would ask them to identify plants stones, bark, and animal spoor. Mrs. Lefay would cut things with a bright silver sickle knife or dig them from the ground with a silver spoon and stuff them into her brown leather bag.
In Mrs. Lefay's laboratory they would cut, grind, and mix things, and dilute them in tinctures or dry them into powders. People from all over would come to Mrs. Lefay's kitchen door between 7 o'clock and 10 o'clock in the evenings on the second Saturday of the month. Mrs. Lefay never let Letty or Mabel in the kitchen during these times. So, Mabel put her ear to the kitchen door and Letty climbed down a drainpipe to peer through the lacy curtain of the window.
That was how they would hear Mrs. Lefay instruct ladies on how to ease birthing pain, make young men fall in love with them, and keep ewes from losing their lambs. She would tell men how to cure bunions, treat thrush in the horses' hooves, and make pretty girls fall in love with them. Letty could see Mrs. Lefay give the little bottles of powders, poseys, and comfits to people and receive coins in exchange. There was a ledger on the kitchen table and the quill carefully wrote down every entry – all by itself and without anyone holding the quill.
"It's magic," Letty said one night as she and Mabel lay side by side in the comfortable feather bed. There was rustling down the hall and she supposed it was the Brownies sweeping the floors.
"Yes, I think so," Mabel said. "Maybe she could give me a powder to make William like me."
William was a boy they knew from Bath, where their aunt and uncle kept a fine house they would visit on holidays.
"I don't think you need magic for that," Letty said. She was happy that Mabel liked a boy who liked her back and surely their parents, when they returned from India, would approve once Mabel turned seventeen. That was still five years away but a girl had to plan for her future.
"What would you use magic for?" Mabel asked.
"I don't know," Letty said. An owl hooted outside their window. Letty knew she should wish for a young man – a respectable young woman needed a respectable young man to support and protect her. She was two years older than Mabel and had no prospects at all.
Mabel rolled over and put her head on Letty's pillow. "You still have not met any young man you would wish to go walking with?"
"Or riding. Or even talking with," Letty replied. "I want to travel, I think. If magic could take me somewhere else, I wish I could there."
"So you choose Life over Love?" Mabel asked, giggling.
Letty gave her sister a playful nudge. "And for you isn't it always Love over Life?"
They both laughed and rolled onto their backs to stare up at the thick oak beams of the ceiling.
"I would want some of both," Mabel said with a sigh. "I should like to travel first to learn to sing beautifully. William would wait for me to return and then we might be married. That would be very romantic."
The Life or Love game was supposed to be an either/or, not a little of both. If you could only have one, which would you pick?
Letty yawned instead of correcting her sister. They fell asleep just as a star burned his life out and fell to the ground beneath a full moon.
The sisters did not realise their error. The danger of falling asleep in a fairy's home, with a wish in your heart under a full moon, when an owl calls, is that the wishes tend to come true. In ways you least expect and that are sometimes not at all nice.
The next morning, Mrs. Lefay gave them a basket. "Why don't you go out to the meadow and pick some mushrooms for dinner? We can bake them with cream and marjoram."
Mabel and Letty put on their sturdiest boots and hitched up their skirts for the grass was very damp.
"Mother wouldn't approve," Mabel said as she tucked her long skirt in her belt.
"Mother is not here," Letty replied. They both giggled. They would rather risk a scolding for brazenly showing too much ankle than have to scrub their hems after dragging them through wet grass. Mrs. Lefay felt the same way.
"Also, I think grass and mudstains on our skirts make the Brownies cross!" Letty whispered.
"We do not want that!" Mabel agreed.
"Look in the back of the meadow behind the house," Mrs. Lefay said. Mrs. Lefay was in the midst of brewing a very smelly poultice that made her eyes go very big and made her speak thickly.
Mabel and Letty would discuss for many, many years after if Mrs. Lefay sent them off on this perilous errand intentionally or if she was distracted and a little ill because of the cooking poultice ingredients. It was, after all, the day after a full moon and Mrs. Lefay well knew that things that two girls had best keep a distance from were much closer the day after a full moon. Mrs. Lefay was a kind person but, as magical persons often are, she was a trifle focused upon her own ends and to accomplish those ends magical persons will sometimes do things that are not nice at all. It's difficult to say, even now, whether she did this on purpose, and you will have to decide for yourself.
The back of Mrs. Lefay's property, beyond the garden, led to a lovely, lush meadow. At the edge of the meadow, there was a stand of hawthorn trees and this is where Mabel and Letty set off toward in their search for mushrooms. This was the next queer thing about the task Mrs. Lefay gave them. As Mrs. Lefay surely knew, there might not be any tree more magical in all of England than the hawthorn. There are definitely things that lie in wait under hawthorn trees and especially after full moons.
Today, at the base of the hawthorn trees, there were mushrooms. Oh these particular mushrooms are delicious! They are creamy brown and something so small should not taste so wonderfully. They are excellent in soups and ragoût or alone with a little butter and lemon. They are so sweet, you can even bake them in biscuits.
These mushrooms often are found in grass near hawthorn trees and when they grow they may form rings, sometimes very large rings that are very, very old. And now surely you are suspicious of these mushrooms, too, even if they are delicious, if they grow all on their own in circles under the most magical trees in all of England. For these mushrooms are fairy ring mushrooms and the rings they form are fairy rings. (If you ever wish to find fairies in England, which I do not recommend, you have but to find hawthorn trees and the ring of fairy ring mushrooms which will be near them. I once went riding on the Somerset levels and fortunately my pony was wiser than I and she knew to stay well away from them.)
Unfortunately, Mabel and Letty were not so wise, yet. They had lived with Mrs. Lefay and thought her sort of magic very benign, which shows how clever Mrs. Lefay was and how little Letty and Mabel truly understood about magic. They had heard Mrs. Lefay say that magic always exacts a price, but when you are young, well-off, happy, and learning exciting things from an eccentric governess, you don't tend to think much about what sort of nasty price that might be.
Mabel and Letty waded through the damp grass of the meadow, the basket banging against Mabel's legs and they heard the wild, lonely cries of the birds. A stoat scampered away and stood up a rock to watch them warily. Letty wondered what the stoat would say if he could speak.
Mabel was lighter and quicker than Letty was and more likely to run than walk. So she was ahead.
"Look!" Mabel exclaimed. She pointed at the hawthorn trees and beneath them there were gleaming brown mushrooms in a large circle in the grass. The fairy ring mushrooms were slick with dew and shining so beautifully your mouth watered just looking at them.
"How marvelous!" Mabel said. She ran toward the fairy ring.
"Mabel! Be careful!" Letty warned, for she sensed something had been building as they hiked across the meadow. The ground was humming faintly through her boots as if a distant train was coming towards her. "Do you feel that?"
Mabel did not seem to notice and dropped onto her knees and set her basket down. "They are perfect, don't you think so, Letty?" She began plucking the mushrooms and gently setting them in the basket. "Mrs. Lefay will be so pleased. We will have a fine supper!"
The thrumming grew louder as Letty came closer. "Mabel!"
Her sister looked up.
"Don't you feel it?" Letty asked again. "The ground is humming. It's very peculiar."
"So it is," Mabel frowned. The thrumming turned rhythmic, like a major's drum. "Oh!"
For suddenly, faster than a blink of an eye, nine fairies appeared inside the mushroom circle.
Now, of course when you think on it, this was perfectly logical. These were fairy ring mushrooms, growing in a fairy ring, near magical trees, the day after a full moon, near a magical person's home in which Brownies came out at night. Picking the mushrooms in a fairy ring is opening a door and whilst the fairies do not mind you eating their mushrooms, they will invite you in to join their dance in the middle of the ring the mushrooms make. All magic, even magical fairy ring mushrooms, have a price.
The fairies were beautiful, gossamer and shimmering. They fluttered and glided on lovely wings in pastel greens and yellows. Their faces were very pale and their hair was long and in shades of black, silver, and red. They looked like beautiful women but when they turned to the side or away, Letty thought they were perhaps men. It was impossible to tell. Their voices were high and fluting. One of them, the tallest, held out her hand to Mabel. The fairy's arms were long, thin, and greenish.
They were enchanting and could make even a sensible person feel just a little sleepy and more than a little careless.
Letty did not see her mouth move but she heard the fairy say, "Come, sweet girl. Dance with us."
"Oh yes, I should like that!" Mabel said. She jumped to her feet.
"No! Mabel! Don't!" Letty cried, suddenly remembering every dangerous thing she had ever learned about fairies. She looked through their loveliness and thought their eyes cold; one fairy's lips drew back in a cruel smile to show teeth like sewing needles.
It was too late. Mabel's hand was already in the circle and the fairy pulled her into the ring.
And then they were gone.
Letty had never run so fast in her life. She raced through the meadow and slid in the wet grass and mud; her skirts and hair tumbled down and she was a very improper mess when she heaved across the threshold of Mrs. Lefay's house and burst into the kitchen.
The door and windows were open to clear out the fetid air and Mrs. Lefay was stoppering up a bottle.
"Mrs. Lefay!" Letty gasped. She had to bend over because of the stitch in her side.
"Letty! Where is Mabel! What happened!?"
I am sure you cannot blame Letty for bursting into tears at that very trying moment. Her beloved sister had been stolen away, perhaps forever, to the land of the fairies.
Letty had hoped this might have all been some terrible joke of Mrs. Lefay's. But as Mrs. Lefay swayed and clutched the kitchen table for support, she could see that her governess was obviously afraid – which was most terrifying of all.
"What do we do?" Letty sobbed.
Mrs. Lefay gripped the table and her brown knuckles whitened. She seemed to master herself and took a deep breath. "Letty, you must go after them, find Mabel, and bring her back."
Now it was Letty's turn to quaver. "Me? I can't, Mrs. Lefay! I can't!"
"Then Mabel is lost," Mrs. Lefay said brutally. "Pull yourself together, girl. There's not a moment to lose!"
Letty choked back a sob as Mrs. Lefay turned away. She took a key from a set dangling and jangling on her belt and unlocked a cupboard. The doors swung open to show shelves stuffed with feathers, crystals, gems, wood boxes, large bottles with odd things floating in them, tiny bottles with labels Letty could not read, and musty herbs. There were old books, too.
With the open cupboard, though, wasn't the better solution obvious? "You're the magical one, not me!" Letty cried. How could Mrs. Lefay be so awful and unfeeling? "You have to go!"
Mrs. Lefay pulled on a pair of thick leather gloves and began sorting through the things in the cupboard. "I cannot cross over. I'm banished, have been banished here for…" Mrs. Lefay sighed and sounded terribly sad, "…for a very long time."
From the cupboard, she drew out a metal spike and set it on the kitchen table.
"Put that spike in your pocket," Mrs. Lefay said. "It's iron and if Mabel is ensorcelled by fairy magic, that will break the spell."
Letty stared at the spike lying between them and tried to keep the fearful pleading out of her voice. "Can't you go, Mrs. Lefay? Isn't there any other way?"
"No." Mrs. Lefay held up her gloved hands. "I can't even touch the iron." She leaned forward on the counter and her eyes were burning with strange, gold light. Letty had a sense of some otherness - another place, another person, another time. "It falls to you."
Letty felt a shiver of desperate purpose run down her spine. She grabbed the iron rod; it landed in her pocket, heavy and hard. Only she could save Mabel, and so save her, she would.
"I shall go."
Mrs. Lefay took a small wooden box out of the cupboard and tucked it under her arm. "Quickly now, not a moment to lose. We need to get you into the circle."
They hurried out the kitchen back door. For all that she was so short and fat, Mrs. Lefay could be very spry; she moved across the meadow back to the fairy ring faster than even Mabel had.
Things Letty had very much taken for granted about Mrs. Lefay now seemed queerer than ever. "What did you mean about being banished?"
"A long story that, as you have paid attention to your history and mythology lessons, you already know some of," Mrs. Lefay answered with a grunt.
"There was a king who wasn't nearly as clever as the stories make out, and a sword, which I had rather a lot to do with, and then everyone died or went into a church and never came out again, and I stayed on. Had to stay on. Punished for my sins, I suppose, if you believe that sort of thing."
Mrs. Lefay sped up so that Letty had to jog after her. Letty did not know what to make of this information. Was her governess really saying what Letty thought she was - that she was Morgan le Fay?
They reached the fairy ring. Mabel's basket was still there, on its side, with the picked mushrooms spilt all over the grass. Letty did not think she would eat a mushroom ever again. Mrs. Lefay gestured out with her arm. "Go! Run around the circle, nine times. No more, no less. It will protect you from fairy magic!"
"Nine times? There were nine fairies dancing in the ring!"
"Were there? Oh, well that's surely interesting. That sounds like Terpsichore and her idea of humour, always trying to find a tenth. She's got a lot of nerve coming here. She knows I wouldn't let her keep a girl."
Mrs. Lefay knelt in the grass outside the ring. "What are you waiting for?" she barked. "Run!"
If Letty was tired before, she was exhausted now. It was a long way around the fairy ring, nine times. By the end she was a panting, disheveled mess and her ankles ached and the iron bar in her pocket had turned so heavy.
As Letty ran her laps around the ring, Mrs. Lefay scooped dirt into the little wooden box.
"The box is made of rowan wood," she said when Letty came up next to her, breathing hard and dripping sweat. "Fairies hate it. It won't be affected by their magic. It's the only way you'll find your way back here." Mrs. Lefay picked up the box with her gloved hands and pushed into Letty's own hands. The box thrummed in her palm, just as the ground had earlier.
"Why is it humming?" Letty asked.
"It's the magic of this place," Mrs. Lefay said. "You're more sensitive to it, you know, more than Mabel, and the strongest student I've seen in a long time."
Letty stared at her. Surely Mrs. Lefay was speaking nonsense! "You must be mistaken," she replied primly.
"Don't tell me my business, girl!" Mrs. Lefay retorted crossly. "Once this is over, I can train you up properly if you want." She heaved up to her feet. "When you have found Mabel, stand together, and draw a circle around you, using the dirt. When you complete the circle, the earth from the box will want to return to the earth here and it will bring you both back."
"It will? That's all?" Letty asked. It seemed too simple. She was terribly frightened. Mrs. Lefay had said nothing to reassure her. Her governess seemed worried and excited and Letty didn't like to see either emotion in Mrs. Lefay's hard, square face.
"Well, that's so you can get back. The fairies may demand a price before you can leave."
Letty didn't think she meant money but before she could ask, Mrs. Lefay waved her arms.
"Go! Find Mabel! Bring her back! Don't eat any food! Be careful of any bargain you make! Fairies never break a bargain, ever, and if you bargain unwisely, you'll end up like me!"
Letty carefully put the rowan wood box in her other pocket, and felt very burdened. To save Mabel she would do this. To save Mabel, she had to do this.
She straightened her shoulders, took a deep breath, and stepped into the fairy circle.
She was rushing through water. It was like being under a waterfall or diving into a pool, except Letty knew she could breathe. She looked up, saw reddish light, and she was racing upwards toward it.
With a whoosh, Letty was out of the water, standing at the edge of a pool, and not wet at all, except her boots, which were damp and muddy from the puddle she was standing in.
She looked around warily, trying to orient herself. Surely someone would challenge her? Haul her away to a police station?
Nothing happened and now she could see why.
Letty had arrived smack into the middle of a great hubbub. It was as if she had been dropped into a very muddy, very busy London railway station or the Liverpool docks.
Someone jostled her out of her close study of this strange place. "You know the rules," a man barked. "No dawdling! Leave the pool as soon as you clear it."
Letty of course did not know the rules, but she squelched away because the man who pushed her aside was hefty, authoritative, and carrying a sword.
Letty's composure was remarkable given the most peculiar circumstances. Not twenty minutes ago, she'd seen her dear sister whisked away by fairies and now she was in some new place altogether that was definitely not the England she had left where Victoria was Queen and Britain was the greatest nation in the whole world. If Letty had had all that education that her brother Andrew had been permitted – and there was no question but that she would have put it to better use – Letty might have been recognized that she was in some place that looked very much like ancient Greece. She was in the middle of an immense park surrounded by marble columns and hawthorn trees.
Everyone around her, and there were a great many people, were all very concerned with their own business and not with her at all. The people, all different ages, male and female, were dressed in in such array that Letty had never seen, even in London - robes, leathers, togas, and bathing sheets. Many people were in queer leather armor that looked like – and in fact were – military uniforms. The soldiers were marching about purposefully with swords, lances and bows and arrows. It was all quite shameless, with everyone showing bare arms and legs and they wore sandals instead of proper shoes.
Even more remarkable was that the park she was standing in was shaped like a bowl; the sides sloped upward and stone staircases were cut into the hillside. The bowl was deep enough that she could just the tops of what looked to be big buildings over the rise on the other side. The buildings, columns, and water reminded her a little of the Roman baths in Bath.
The other remarkable thing was that the water she had come out of was not the only pond in the park. The big, grassy bowl was dotted with many small ponds. There weren't any ducks on them and no one was bathing in them. Instead, people were, just as Letty herself had done, going in and out of the pools. They would step inside and disappear – whole groups of soldiers and were doing just that.
The pools are fairy rings! Letty realized. It's how they get about, just like the modern underground railway in London. They go down in one place and pop out at the other end of the line. Why, they could be going anywhere!
It was, Letty thought, also vaguely sinister. There were a lot of weapons, everyone looked very grim, and she supposed a whole army might be able to move about this way and come upon another land completely unawares. It would be terrifying to think of these efficient warriors popping up out of mushroom fairy rings in Somerset. Were these people at war in the same way that Great Britain was at war with Afghanistan and with the Zulu Kingdom? Who were they fighting? Where? Why?
The sky was all wrong, too. The water in the pools wasn't clear blue or green. It was murky red and looked like blood. The poor sun was to blame. It hung very low in the sky and was huge, heavy, and dark red. It did not look healthy at all and the air was thick, worse even than the London pea soup fogs. Seabirds flew overhead, just a bit of welcome white in a dull, orange sky. They must be near the ocean for there was a salty tang in the air but it did not quite mask an odor of lingering putrefaction. Letty shivered.
Letty did not know what you do, which is that a blood red sun is a very bad sign indeed and that fairy magic had brought her to a dying world. All Letty knew was that she did not like this place at all and wanted to find Mabel and get home straight away.
She heard music, drums and fluting, and it sounded very like what the fairies had played. Letty put her hand in her pocket and felt again the strong, cold iron spike. She darted in and around the pools and the people – she did not want to fall in the water by mistake and end up who knew where. She climbed the shallow steps up the bowl and hurried toward the music.
Though she was in a dreadful hurry to find Mabel, Letty very wisely stopped at the top of the bowl to take in the view and get her bearings. A city spread out all around her. There were tall marble temples and stone buildings along a wide boulevard. She saw a long canal with a series of complex locks that ended at a seawall and gates with a large harbour beyond. Many sailing boats were moored in the harbour in the shadow of an enormous statue of a man who rose up from the water. He was crowned and held a trident high over his head. At one time it might have been beautiful but Letty was having none of it and the ghoulish sun turned everything, from the marble on the buildings to the cleverly placed paving stones, an ugly pinkish orange. The smell was worse.
Again, if Letty had had the benefit of Andrew's excellent (and mostly squandered) education, she would have known that the city was very much like what Athens had been a very, very long time ago. She would have recognized the massive statue was the Greek god Poseidon. She might have even known that a famous writer named Plato described the island she was on and how the island state had been a great military power just as Great Britain was, that the people who lived here had conquered many lands, and that modern people had developed very queer ideas about how this was really an ideal place. That Letty had, by fairy ring, arrived in the famous land of Atlantis was really of no consequence to her for she did not like it one bit and was eager to find her sister and leave at once. Letty's firm resolve to not tarry in Atlantis was wise indeed, as we shall see.
This also goes to show that even famous people like Mister Plato, Mister More, and Mister Bacon can be very, very wrong about so-called Utopias when you actually get there, and see how belligerent people are, how smelly and muddy it all is, and how unkind they are to kidnap girls from fairy rings in the Somerset levels.
From her vantage, Letty could now marvel at the whole of the park, the pools, and all the people coming and going from them. The park was very, very large, as large as St. James Park, perhaps. There were pools of water everywhere, ringed by hawthorn trees, and the thought that the pools all went to different places was worrisome indeed. Seeing the dour-faced soldiers with their sharp swords disappearing into the pools, Letty thought they were probably up to no good and she felt sorry for whoever might be near the fairy ring on the other side.
Hearing again the strains of music from the fairy ring, she set off toward the sound. Following the music led her to another bowl dug into a hillside. Now, unless he had fallen asleep in his civilisation class (very likely), Andrew could have told her that she was entering an open air Greek theater where the stage was at the bottom and the seats went up, like a hippodrome or stadium.
Fortunately, Letty did not have to climb up any more steps. She was able to enter the theater from the side and come very close to the stage. Looking around and up she could see that the theater was large, but not madly so, and that there were many people in the audience all bedecked, bejeweled, and dressed in their bathsheets watching the performance.
There were actors on the stage dancing and playing music. The nine fairies were performing and Mabel with them!
The dancing fairies were as unnaturally tall, thin, and ethereal as they had been in the fairy ring, though here they didn't have wings. They were all in long, flowing dresses that twirled as they danced. Some of them were singing and playing small harps and wooden flutes; some had cups and carried grapes, apples, and bread that appeared to be props for their theatrical performance.
Mabel was in their midst, in a long, lovely green gown that Mother would have definitely not approved of since you could see most of Mabel's body, legs, and arms. She was floating about and looked at first blush very happy, dancing lightly and singing beautifully. Mabel was a very pretty girl with a soft touch on the piano and a lovely singing voice. She was well matched with these fairies, though they were all much taller than she.
But the dancing under the glowing red sun gave off a feel of decay. Mabel's movements seemed wooden and unnatural. Letty didn't like the glassy look in her sister's eyes and the unhealthy grayish-green tint to her skin. She really didn't like it when she saw Mabel take an apple from the hands of one of the other fairies and bite into it.
She felt very self-conscious to be interrupting a theatrical performance but enough was enough. Letty had had quite enough and a very trying day besides.
No one paid her any attention. Her own sister did not recognize her.
How dare they take Mabel and do this to her! Her sister would never dress like this in front of strangers and dance like that on a stage. It was scandalously improper. Really, who were these people to just kidnap her sister and dress her like a grown-up actress in a masquerade and whisk her away and surely bewitch her besides?
Letty stalked on to the stage. "Mabel!" she called more loudly.
She knew she was now drawing the attention of the audience, but Letty was not to be put off. A harpist stopped playing and people began muttering.
One of the fairies moved in front of her and tried to block her way. "What are you doing here? How dare you interrupt our performance!"
Letty pulled out her iron spike and brandished it like a knife. "Oh, I'll do more than dare, you kidnapper!" She felt a little silly, waving a rod like a sword, but the fairy didn't like it. The fairy took a step back and barred her teeth – they were sharp, needle-like and not at all human.
Another fairy stepped forward. Letty thought she was the one who had dragged Mabel into the ring. She had black hair, was unnaturally tall, and her face was whitish-green. As the fairy stared down at her, Letty had the feeling of ice and evil. "What are you doing? You don't belong here."
Letty stared right back. "I'm here because you took my sister and I'm not leaving without her!"
She waved her spike and the fairy flinched away from it. The music ground to a stop and the other fairies halted their dance, looking confused.
Letty threw herself into the milling fairies. She felt like a little herding dog among much larger cattle and darted toward Mabel.
The fairies parted before her, whirling away as pale flowers in a strong wind. Mabel stood in the center, staring at her.
Letty didn't wait. She drew back her arm and struck Mabel on the side, softly, with the iron spike.
There was a crack and a shock that Letty felt travel up her arm. Mabel cried out and green smoke spit out from the spike like a cough of a bellows.
"Letty!" Mabel cried. Her sister looked around wildly, at the glowering fairies towering over them, and behind them to the tiers of seats going up the walls of the theater. Mabel glanced down at her gown and blushed an embarrassed but very healthy scarlet. "What am I doing here? Where am I?"
"We're in fairy land but it looks like the Roman ruins in Bath," Letty said. "These horrid fairies stole you away and I've come to take you home."
She felt very brave when she said this, though Letty had to admit she was frightened. The fairies were menacing and there were lots of people in the theater, muttering and complaining (though others seemed to think her interruption was all part of the performance).
"I don't remember anything," Mabel said. She slipped her arm through Letty's own. "But I don't want to be here another moment. This is horrid."
"Not so quickly my sweetlings," the tall, black-haired fairy said. Letty wondered if this was Terpsichore. "You have this place within you now. You have breathed our fetid air. You, girl," and she pointed at Mabel, "have eaten our food."
"I was enchanted!" Mabel cried, stomping her foot. She still had the apple in her hand and threw it to the ground. "If I had been myself I never would have eaten anything. Everyone knows that!"
"Still, you carry our world in your bodies now and you must give us something in return if you expect to leave."
Her smile mocked them.
"What would we have that you would want?" Letty demanded, now understanding what Mrs. Lefay had meant. To Mabel she said, "Don't promise anything."
Mabel nodded. "They'll twist our words into something we did not mean that is surely very nasty."
"What do two young girls have that old things like my sisters and I might want?" the fairy asked.
The nine fairies all laughed cruelly. "What say you, my sisters? They are too young to take happy memories. They haven't lived long enough to create any!"
Letty wanted to argue that of course she and Mabel had plenty of happy memories but Mabel shook her head. "They're just taunting us."
"The typical bargain for puny humans as young as you," the black-haired fairy said to them, "is that we take some of your life or some of your love."
The sisters stared at each other. This was disturbingly uncanny. How had the fairies known of the game they had played for so many years? They joked about it and had played at it just the night before under the full moon. Each knew her own answer and the answer of the other.
"How much will you take?" Letty demanded. "Because there is not much point in trying to leave if you take our whole life once we are gone."
The fairy frowned. "We take only enough. The Deep Magic forbids us from taking more."
Letty wasn't sure why she believed the fairy, but bargains were a very serious thing and she thought that a fairy who broke one or lied would end up like Mrs. Lefay. And the fairy was not asking them to give up more than what they had each already discussed giving up before.
"So which will you give us?" the fairy asked.
"I choose life and give you love," Letty said, without a doubt in her heart.
"And I choose to have love and give you life," Mabel said, as firmly as Letty had.
And then a great many very alarming things suddenly happened at once. There was a giant boom. What had been a peaceful mountain in the distance on the other side of the harbour exploded into fire – a volcano. It was just like the explosions they had experimented with in Mrs. Lefay's kitchen but this was not vinegar and bicarbonate of soda. The volcano violently threw huge boulders into the air, fire and lava were pouring out the top and sides, and a cloud of dark smoke was rolling down the shattered mountainside.
The ground shook so powerfully it knocked Letty to the ground and Mabel with her.
Letty threw her arms over her head; Mabel huddled next to her and there were terrible sounds all around them. The earth rocked, as if they were on a boat. Letty pried her eyes open in time to see a pillar at the entrance to the theater sway side to side and then crumble to the ground. The noise was terrific and everyone around them began running this way and that, screaming, and dodging the rock that was falling everywhere.
More columns splintered and fell and the destruction threw up tremendous, choking dust. Letty wiped grit from her face and looked around.
The fairies had scattered; only the black-haired one remained. She was striding up the stone steps of the theater four at a time on her long legs, and turned back to stare at them. She didn't look frightened at all, just malicious and triumphant.
She thinks she's leaving us here to die.
Letty was not going to let that happen.
"We have to go," Mabel cried. Her sister, who was always lighter on her feet, jumped up, and managed to keep her balance. She helped Letty stand.
"What do we do?" Mabel asked. "Where are we going to go?"
"Home," Letty said. She handed Mabel the metal spike but did not think they would have any more problems with the fairies. They had all run away. There was a terrible ruinous noise, explosions, and the gas cloud was surging down from the volcano toward the city. The whooshing sound of water might be the sea overcoming the floodgates she had seen holding back the harbour. Letty pulled the rowan wood box from her pocket. "We're going home, Mabel."
She scooped the dirt out of the box and carefully used it to draw a circle around them. The thrumming began again, just as before, and it wasn't just the earth pitching beneath their feet. This was their home, calling them home. Mabel linked arms with her again just as Letty poured out the last of the dirt of Somerset and closed the circle.
There was a terrific roar, the wind was blowing, and there was the rush rush rush of water that was not wet. Letty could feel Mabel next to her, clutching her arm. And then they were swimming up again toward blue sky and green hawthorn trees.
With a gasp they both heaved up, out, and landed with a welcome thud, on their knees, in the meadow of the Somerset levels.
Mrs. Lefay stood over them.
"Well, my dears, you've had an adventure!"
They helped Mabel back to Mrs. Lefay's house. She and Mabel both needed a bath to scrub the dust and debris of that terrible fairy land from their skin and hair. They had good English food to wipe the taste from their mouths, proper bread and butter, milk, honey, and tomatoes. No one made any mention of mushrooms.
It took several hours to get clean and calm and tell Mrs. Lefay what happened. She asked a lot of questions about the fairies, the city, and the queer park with the pools. When she heard that part of the story, Mrs. Lefay stomped out to the meadow, kicked all the mushrooms to pieces, and broke up the fairy ring.
"It'll grow back," she said when she returned. "But it'll keep those troublemakers away for a while."
Mabel had a cough that wouldn't quiet even with a bath and food. It made Mrs. Lefay frown and tut. She gave Mabel a hearty spoonful of honey and vinegar and put her to bed. Letty tucked Mabel in and sat next to her on the bed.
"I'm sorry, Letty," Mabel murmured.
"We didn't know. And the one who did know, didn't warn us properly." Letty leaned down and kissed her sister's forehead.
"Will you stay, until I fall asleep?"
"I'll always be here, Mabel."
Her sister coughed again and rolled over.
It's just a cough, Letty told herself. It was dusty and dirty. Surely it is nothing.
But she didn't know. Not for certain. Letty had been protected from the fairy magic by running around the circle. Or so Mrs. Lefay believed. But Mabel hadn't been protected; she had been ensorcelled by fairy magic and had eaten fairy food. Surely there would be consequences? If magic always had a price, what was the price here? Would Mabel be called to account in a fairy bargain? Would she?
It had all been so rushed and chaotic at the end, had there even been enough time for the fairy magic to take some of her love and some of Mabel's life? How would they know? She didn't feel any differently. She loved Mabel as much as ever.
Her feelings about Mrs. Lefay, however, were uncertain and building towards disapproval.
Once Mabel was sound asleep, Letty went back downstairs. She pushed open the kitchen door. Mrs. Lefay startled and nearly dropped what she was holding.
"What are you doing with my shoes?" Letty asked, though her niggling doubts were becoming strong suspicions.
"Cleaning them, obviously," Mrs. Lefay said. She was wearing her gloves and scraping the mud and muck onto a piece of clean brown paper. The rowan wood box was on the counter next to her.
The other clothes they had worn, Letty's stockings, blouse and skirt, and Mabel's horrid green costume were there, too, lying on the paper.
"Wouldn't the Brownies do that cleaning?" Letty asked.
"They won't touch this," Mrs. Lefay said. She ran her sickle silver knife along the sole of Letty's boot and then dug the tip in. Bits of dirt and dust floated down onto the paper. Mrs. Lefay set down the boot, carefully lifted one of Letty's own stockings and began shaking the dirt out, directly into the rowan wood box.
This wasn't cleaning. Mrs. Lefay was harvesting the dust of fairy land, just as she did when she went out on the levels to collect herbs and stones.
"Did you do this on purpose?" Letty demanded. "Did you send us there hoping you would get dust for something magical?"
"You handled this business neatly, Letty. I knew you could do it."
That was, of course, no answer at all.
Mrs. Lefay carefully began shaking the dust from the paper into the box. "Would you like to help me?" She asked. "We could begin your training in magic."
"No thank you, Mrs. Lefay," Letty managed to say.
That night, Letty wrote to Mother and Father and asked that she and Mabel be placed elsewhere. Three months later, they left Mrs. Lefay's and went to live in Bath with their very conventional aunt and uncle. They did not learn anything more of botany or chemistry and there were no explosions at all. Their needlework improved immeasurably and there were no more adventures with fairy magic or indeed any magic at all.
Or so they thought.
When sisters know the truth, there is no need to speak of it. Mabel fell in love with William and he with her and they had a charming son named Digory. Letty worked, sewed, and kept house for their troublesome brother, Andrew.
Mabel's health, never strong, never improved, either. Once, Letty admitted, in a moment of fearful weakness to a London doctor, who she knew in her heart could do no good, that as surely as it seemed the source of Mabel's illness was not to be found in this world, neither was its cure to be found here.
It was very fortunate indeed that Mabel's son, Digory, overheard that chance remark, if chance it may be called.
Mabel and Letty never forgave Mrs. Lefay for the price they paid for her experimentation with the powers of the fairy rings. They never again saw the rowan wood box with the dust of Atlantis within it, nor did they ever realize that the park of pools in that ruined city became another place, where hawthorn trees grew, fairy rings filled with water that could take you elsewhere, and the magic in that wood would send the unwary into an enchanted sleep.
Others did learn of the power of that Atlantean fairy dust that remembered from where it had come and tried to return there. But as a very wise Lion would say, that is someone else's story.
Thanks go to both starbrow and pencildragon11 for the beta and to snacky for running the exchange!
Part of this story is taken from Lewis' first draft of The Magician's Nephew, known as the Lefay Fragment, which I saw at a "magical books" exhibit in Oxford this year. My thanks to Adaese and Wellinghall for taking me to see this wonderful collection. The description of Mrs. Lefay is Lewis' own, and introduces Digory, Polly, and the very peculiar Mrs. Lefay and her rabbit, Coiny.
These pictures of fairy rings are from the wiki entry.