MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
• 1 •
THE FAIRY FLAG
1893: A Girl Tells a Magical Story to Her Younger Sister
The fire crackled quietly inside the stone room. Olive, who was thirteen, had her knees pulled up under her chin. Her long red hair curled all the way down to the floor. She was shaking. Not because of the cold, but because she was certain that a fairy princess from another world, in all her bright and terrible glory, was going to appear before her. The walls flickered in the firelight.
Olive drew up a tartan wool blanket. Her older sister, Flora, was seated across from her in a rocking chair. Flora’s young face, squared by brown shoulder-length hair, became nearly wicked in the smallness of the room, filled with trembling shadows. Flora began to tell her sister, in quiet tones, a story that happened a long time ago.
This was the story of the MacLeod family of Scotland, said Flora, more or less. One summer’s day, the clan chieftain, a wise and handsome warrior, walked onto his green lands on the lonely Isle of Skye. After getting just slightly lost, he came upon a small stone bridge with an arch cut through the middle. Though he did not completely know how, the good and lost chief felt that the bridge had a strange feeling about it, like the air before a storm. Overcome by curiosity, he put his hand on his sword and walked across the little bridge. Olive listened as her sister, who was fifteen, took her time to enunciate the next part very carefully. By crossing the bridge, the chief disappeared from the world and entered another. He had found the way to the magical realm of the Sith Sidhe: the Still Folk, the Other Ones.
The Faerie world.
The chief was brave, so he did not fear this glittering, beautiful place. At least that’s what he told himself. In truth, the chief could never fully recall the time he spent there. Except for one detail. During his time in the magical kingdom, the handsome young chieftain did the unthinkable: He fell in love. She was a fairy princess, a Bean Sith. She was beautiful, with long red hair and a shimmering green dress that shone like an emerald. Flowers that never wilted were neatly set into her hair. But her father, the grim and powerful Fairy King, forbade them to be married. When she begged him to reconsider, the king proposed a “hand-fasting,” a trial marriage, on the promise that it would last only for one year and a day. When their time was up, his daughter would have to return to the fairy kingdom—alone, and never to leave it again. The couple agreed, and their almost-wedding was held on the chief’s birthday. Their hands entwined, they passed back over the bridge to the proper world. There, on the Isle of Skye, they enjoyed a full year of married life in the family castle of Dunvegan. The couple were happy beyond all other measures of worth.
Near the end of the year, the princess gave birth to a healthy—and exceedingly loud—male heir to the MacLeod line. But their time had expired, and the princess had to leave her bonny boy behind to return to her magical homeland. She and her husband made secret plans to escape, but in the end they knew that the magic of the Fairy King was too powerful. He would find them wherever they went. So, on that last day, that painful one day after a year of perfect happiness, the princess walked tearfully across the bridge. But just before she passed into the bright world, she begged that her baby son never be left alone, for the sound of his crying would be too much to bear. The princess, who was now a mother, knew that no matter which world she lay in, she would always be able to hear her son. Her husband agreed and watched her go.
That night, the chief’s beard was wet with tears. To lift his mood, the clan threw a birthday feast in his honor with rich food, dancing, and music. The baby was kept in his room in the castle tower as a nursemaid watched over him. But the night was long, and the boy’s nurse could listen to the sounds of revelry for only so long before she sneaked away to join the festivities, leaving the baby alone in the cold tower room.
When the baby started to cry, no one heard him over the skirling bagpipes below. As the party went on, the chief sat at his head table, his head heavy with drink. But when he looked out over the room and saw his son’s nurse dancing up a storm, his wits returned to him. He sprang from his chair and ran upstairs to the tower.
With each step of the stone stairs, his yellow-and-black kilt whirling behind him, the chief began to hear the words of a strange, haunting song:
SLEEP, MY LITTLE CHILD, HERO GENTLE BRED,
DREAM, MY LITTLE CHILD, HERO BATTLE BRED.
When the chief reached the room, he slowly creaked open the door. The song was louder now, sung by a voice like spun silver:
SKIN LIKE FALLING SNOW, GREEN THY MAILCOAT,
LIVE THY STEEDS, DAUNTLESS THY FOLLOWING.
He knew that voice.
The chief, his heart beating like a great drum, stepped in. He saw his baby son in his cradle, lit by the dancing fire. Sitting in a rocking chair was the chief’s fairy wife, more beautiful than ever. She was singing her son to sleep. The chief saw her for a moment—an instant—before she vanished into thin air. His mouth was parted; he had just started to say her name.
Dumbfounded, the chief stepped closer to find his child fast asleep. The boy was wrapped in a bright silken blanket left behind by his mother. The chief knew then that she would never return.
Years later, when the child had grown into a man and the chief’s beard was streaked through with silver, the son told his father that he had a dream about the white shawl he had been given as a child. He said it was more than a scrap of cloth; it was a mighty fairy gift. It wasn’t a blanket, the son said, but a flag. The son said that if the clansmen ever found themselves in peril, they need only wave the flag three times and the fairies would come to their rescue. But, said the boy—for that is how his father always thought of him—the flag could only be used three times until it would disappear from the world forever, taking the bearer with it. The chief’s eyes narrowed thinking of this possibility. All these years this little blanket could have been the means to reunite with his beloved, whom he still greatly missed. He could wave it three times right now and be with her again.
But the chief, in his age and wisdom, had become a man who did things rather than only pretended them. He thought of his once-skinny self making his way across that bridge. He made his way up the old stone stairs of the tower, perhaps a bit slower, but as thundering as ever. His son followed him. In the old nursery he cast aside boxes until he located the fairy blanket. He looked at it very closely. He shut his eyes for a moment. He felt the embroidered stars between his thumbs. He could, he thought, hear the whispers of that old song again. How did it go?
He opened his eyes. He pushed the back of his hand over his face before anyone could see. He then ordered the flag to be locked away in an iron box until such time as the clan might need it. They called it the Bratach Sith, or the Fairy Flag. He lived the rest of his days alone.
Hundreds of years later, the ruthless MacDonalds, the mortal enemies of the MacLeods, raided Dunvegan Castle and set the church on fire. The surprised MacLeods were all but routed. The last of their forces, bloodied by sword and cudgel, met on the beach with the last of the clan’s treasure and remembered the old story that had been handed down from fathers to sons. They found and unfurled the flag and waved it over the cold sand. When they were done, their forces seemed to have increased magically, perhaps by tenfold. They marched on the MacDonalds, who were filled with fear and fled. The flag was put away again.
Many years passed, and a plague swept over the Isle of Skye, felling the Highland cattle and the sheep that provided soft wool. Famine came swiftly and without mercy. The starving MacLeods waved the flag in the wind once again. The fairy host appeared, glinting and without number, and rode out onto the meadows, touching each dying animal with their magic swords. The cattle stirred and the sheep bleated as the animals stood up again: The clan was saved.
There was only one more wave left of the Fairy Flag, said Flora eerily, from the rocking chair in front of the fire.
Where was it now? asked Olive quietly, though she already knew.
It was lost for a long time, Flora continued. Then, two hundred years ago, a witch named the Brahan Seer spoke a terrible prophecy. This witch was just a boy on the Isle of Lewis when he found a strange blue-and-black stone with a hole in it. When he picked it up and peered through, he was blinded in one eye, but was given the power of second sight. His prophecy was very specific—as witch’s prophecies sometimes are—and said that a day would come when three things would happen to the MacLeods: the clan heir would die; the MacLeod Maidens, that set of landmark rocks on the coast, would become the property of a rival family; and a single red fox would have her litter in the castle tower. On that day the MacLeods would fall from Dunvegan. The flag would not save them.
Worried at the strange nature of the prophecy, some of the men of the clan—the loud and substantial ones—roughly searched the old tower and found a steel chest. They were certain it contained the flag, which had not been seen for centuries. The men forced it open, but it was empty. Then, one of the men’s small sons spied a lump in the chest’s red lining. Hidden inside was a little key. It opened a second chamber in the bottom of the chest. When it clicked open, there was a strong scent of wood. The boy carefully lifted out a white square of fine silk, with crosses made of pure golden thread. There were tiny elf-spots—the marks of magic—stitched in red with great care. They had found the Fairy Flag.
At that same moment the MacLeod heir, a fine young man, died in an accident at sea. The rival Campbells assumed ownership of the Maiden Rocks, and a fox was seen pacing nervously in the west turret.
Olive drew her knees closer.
But luckily, though the flag itself had triggered the curse, it was not actually waved that day. Its presence alone was strong enough for the MacLeods to hold Dunvegan Castle. They hold it still today.
Flora nodded, satisfied with her telling of the tale. It always changed, as it had to.
As she went to sleep that night, Olive told herself not to be scared. It was a ridiculous tale.
Olive looked around her. In addition to the fireplace, with its orange fire, there was her blanket, colored poppy gold with thin lines of red and black. There was a high table, a piano, and the door. A crest was also visible, picturing a bull’s head over sable. On the other side of the fireplace a cold stone staircase wound its way up.
It was a truly ridiculous story, thought Olive, and no doubt Pooh-oh (her nickname for her sister) had added parts to make it even scarier.
But for all that Olive tried to convince herself of the fictitious nature of the story on that cold, drafty night, it would have been much easier if she and her sister weren’t in the Fairy Room itself in Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye. It would have been easier if their last name were not MacLeod. Olive looked at the wooden door, imagining the long hall behind it.
Olive would sleep much better if the Fairy Flag itself weren’t downstairs in the drawing room, in a glass case next to an old cup and horn. The white flag was there, as Flora had described it, and just as Olive had stared at it every day since they had arrived.
Sleep might come easier if the story weren’t real.
• 2 •
THE PARTY GIRL AND THE NATURALIST
April 1908: Olive MacLeod Visits the Regent’s Park Zoo, Attends a Boisterous Dinner Party, and Later Meets a Man of Science
The snow fell gently upon the hippopotamus. The animal did not seem to mind, not in particular, but it was hard to know for sure. It was a cold, gray April day at the London Zoological Gardens, and though some of the animals shunned the snow (the lions) or even tasted it (the monkeys), for the most part it was viewed by visitors as an unavoidable natural phenomenon. Everything was outlined in a thin, cold layer of white.
A young woman walked briskly down the path from the Gazelle House. She was wrapped in a coat and wool scarves and wore fashionable black boots. As she turned her head, she pushed a long strand of red hair back until it disappeared somewhere on the other side of her ear, and behind her large hat. She looked anxious, as if someone were chasing her. She began to walk faster.
From behind her came a dull kind of stamping, followed by a roar.
Emerging in a loud swell of noise was a pack of boys, mostly school-aged and in far fewer layers of winter clothing. The lads bolted toward the caged hippopotamus, nearly knocking the redheaded woman down in the process. As her lock of hair escaped back to a less-than-agreeable position directly in front of her right eye, she lost sight of the children for a moment. She sighed. Of course these were her boys, the ones she was in charge of. As such, she imagined the worst sort of circumstances: fisticuffs, chomping, and the inevitable destruction of property. With a huff, she pushed the strand of hair back and, her vision restored, tried to focus on her charges. She counted quickly: ten … eleven … twelve … all were accounted for. The hair bounced back in front of her face, but she didn’t seem to mind. As the boys pointed and laughed at the hippos, Olive MacLeod felt satisfied that her little animals, the boys of the Children’s Happy Evening’s Association, were safe at least for the moment.
As they walked through the zoo, Olive followed the boys. They kept their distance from the bears, tried to get the parrots to say rude words, and argued whether what looked to be a clump of rope was really the tufted end of a lion’s tail, hiding away from the snow. The boys, in their thin flannel and caps, seemed utterly oblivious to the cold. But Olive could feel it. As always, the popular boys clumped together in laughing clusters of activity. The lonelier boys stood off alone and watched. She could see their faces. They saw apes, a pair of moose, and a finicky ostrich. They watched the sea lions sit on pedestals and bark. As they pushed their way across the paths, Olive even saw a stork, standing quietly in the background. The children did not have the time to see every animal, but they certainly tried. Olive liked the zoo well enough, but it was not her favorite thing. At least the snow had taken the edge off the zoo’s distinctive odor. Olive had a dinner party that night and didn’t want to have to make too many changes to her wardrobe.
At the end of their walk they met up with the other groups from the association at the zoo entrance. Olive’s group, well known for its misbehavior, arrived last. Olive noticed that all the other children were very excited. She saw that they were waving around small picture postcards of the animals. Olive’s heart sank. The other chaperones had bought these cards from the penny machines as souvenirs for their children. Olive quickly turned to her group. They watched as the other boys traded photos of yawning lions for lumbering elephants. Olive panicked. Why had the others not told her of this? She quickly eyed the machines and thrust her hands into her pockets. She had only folds of notes—not a penny among them. Olive looked around and grabbed the hand of one of her charges.
“Go,” she said, stuffing some pound notes into his hand, “Get some coppers for the penny in the slot!” But the boy just stood there, staring down at the significant amount of money that she had just put into his hand.
“Go!” she said. The boy sped off to the ticket gate.
Olive turned back to her group. They had seen the money. They were all staring up at her.
“Please, Miss MacLeod, we don’t want the cards,” said one boy with shiny black hair. “They are only bits of paper.” Olive smiled at his genuine sentiment, but she wanted them to have those postcards. The other boys who had them were beginning to brag.
There was another in her group who had worn the same wool cap all winter long. He came up to her and begged her to reconsider. This lad was younger and smaller, but the other boys liked him very much. He was also the son of a gentleman who had come down in the world to the level of the poor. As the boy urged his fellows to agree, Olive saw a hole in his darned trousers that revealed bare white skin. It was still snowing.
* * *
THE CRUMBS HAD HARDLY BEEN brushed off the white tablecloth when Olive watched her father, Sir Reginald MacLeod, leave the table with great, wobbling purpose, and make his way to the sitting room. He had a broad smile on his red face. He was the registrar general for Scotland and held a knighthood, but he certainly wasn’t acting like it. Olive laughed, knowing full well what was coming next. Her father’s tradition after their many dinner parties together at their country home in Vinters Park was well known. Everyone watched as he seemed to sway over the hearth rug as if it were some teetering boat, put his hand to his chest, took a deep breath, possibly burped, and made his familiar proclamation, in a very loud manner:
“And now,” he said, “let us be merry!” rolling both rs to their fullest, most slippery potential.
Across the table, Violet Asquith, the daughter of the prime minister, with her curly dark hair and wearing a black dress, rolled her eyes almost imperceptibly. “Old Waxworks” was their nickname for Sir Reginald because of his pinkish complexion and cotton-white side-whiskers. Once again he had been too eager. The dinner table was still filled with scraps of food, not to mention seated people of sophistication and intellect, talking to one another about politics and religion. They weren’t ready for games yet. Violet turned back to her conversation with a handsome man who was not her Archie. Not that it mattered.
From the head of the table, Olive stared at Violet’s choice of confidant. Violet tried to change position to avoid Olive’s glance, but it was impossible. She had a basilisk eye, that one, thought Violet. Some of the guests stood up, ready to give in and retire to the games. Olive rose herself, satisfied that Violet had noticed her attention. As she stood, people turned to look at Olive, as they always did. Olive was pale and lithe with sharp blue eyes, and though she was not very tall, her pulled-up red hair—wild and fiery—made it seem otherwise.
In the sitting room Olive became hostess, leading the party in games of epigrams, abstract conceits, and so forth. Theirs was always a bookish crowd, making the games a bit more competitive than the usual London party. Casual visitors who enjoyed dinner and conversation often vowed never to return after the singular experience of the games at Vinters. But for those who enjoyed the thrill of the clash, this portion of the party always went long into the night.
The party had moved to a game of aphorisms, where each player was supposed to describe another member of the group in the wittiest way imaginable. Someone described Sir Reginald as “a sunny peach on a garden wall,” at which he bowed so deeply that they feared he might have died. One of their friends called Violet “a blooming cornfield,” at which she laughed so infectiously she had to hold her hand to her mouth. Sir Reginald, having recovered from his bow, then pointed out a particularly colorless cousin who was sitting in the back of the room. He called her, in very polite tones, “a glass of water fit for a lady,” and the party roared. Olive laughed, her hands on her knees.
Suddenly one of the young men of the party crawled before Olive, his hand over his heart.
“Marry me,” he said.
Olive laughed again, which doubled as her response.
Copyright © 2020 by Brad Ricca