The Girl Inside

Copyright © 2018 Maeryn Lamonte – All Rights Reserved.

She cried when they took her away, I remember. I remember because I did nothing. I stood by and watched, aware of her tears, her cries of anguish, and yet I did nothing.

“Why?” she wanted to know. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”

Nor had she. She had always been kind to me, always made me feel better. I didn’t understand any more than she did, but allowed myself to be persuaded by their words, allowed them to do what they claimed was the right thing.

“She doesn’t belong here,” they told me, answering her question, but directing their answer to me rather than her. She, they ignored, as though by doing so they might negate her existence.

I was sad for a long time after she went. In large part I felt her absence, but I also regretted doing nothing. I replayed her departure over and over in my mind, each time saying or doing something different, each time rescuing her from her fate.

I missed her.

“You’ll get over it,” they said.

I guess people do. I guess that’s how they deal with death. After a while of being sad, they discover the world goes on regardless. A little emptier, a little lonelier, but there’s still laughter to be found. People are kind, the Sun shines, chocolate still tastes like a promise of heaven.

But she wasn’t dead, and I couldn’t pretend she was. I could feel her presence deep inside me somehow, and on still evenings, there were times I’m convinced I could hear her weeping.

Break a branch off a tree and the sap wells up into the wound. It grows over, leaving a scarred stump. But what if the branch isn’t entirely broken? What if the wind continues to move it, disturbing the sap before it has a chance to set? What if the wound never heals?

Over time my memory of her faded, became a thing that only truly existed in my dreams. It still bore down on me; a dull ache, like a leaden weight pressing on my heart. Over time I became sullen and withdrawn, a recluse. I retreated deep into a dream world by day and night, where I prowled deserted ramparts under leaden skies, searching for… something I could not quite remember, something that no longer seemed entirely real. I was aware of an absence within myself, and I felt a continuous gnawing need to fill it. It was her place, but all that remained of her was a ghost, as insubstantial as a shadow. It fit the space inside me, but it didn’t fill it, so I searched and found only more emptiness.

“Lord Oberon, you called and see, I am come.”

“Ah, faithful Puck. Would that my queen showed half so much loyalty as thee.”

“Loyalty be damned, my king. There is ne’er so great an opportunity for mischief as in your service, and so I am here. But what ails you my lord?”

“It is ever the same, sweet Puck. In our moments together, Titania and I know such sweet love, and through its influence we create such wonders…”

“A new changeling! What of it Lord? Tell me what you have wrought.”

“See here.” A giant hand waved carelessly and in image coalesced out of the darkness. A face, almost too beautiful to look on. “A child born contrawise. As ever, we called to her in her dreams, and she came to us. But once here, my queen and I found no agreement as to her future. Titania wishes to remake her for her own, as do I, and never once have we agreed on how this should be. And so she has fled from me, dear Puck, and taken with her the fruits of our love.”

“Ah! And perhaps my lord seeks revenge up on his queen for her infidelity, as in times past?”

“Such sweet memories!” Oberon shook his heavily antlered head. “That she should become enamoured of an ass, was such a fine jest. But no. My heart is laid waste by her absence. I would be reconciled to her if ‘twere possible, but I cannot bear to seek her out, not while she remakes the fruits of our love in her way.”

“Lord Oberon how is it that she so offends you?”

“My queen has always sought to surround herself with beauty and elegance, which she finds most evident in the female form. This mortal creature we have in our embrace possesses the spirit of a warrior and is likely ruined by Titania’s influence.”

“A quandary indeed, Lord King. Perhaps a solution might be found though. Should there be another mortal creature in the world of men who would be better suited to your queen’s embrace, perhaps she might be so distracted as to release the other.”

“And how might we come by such a creature if it is only in the depths of our passion that mortals are drawn to us?”

“This changeling child abides with your queen whenever she visits us in our realm of dreams, but in waking she returns to the realm of mortals, does she not?”

“I cannot permit you to enter the mortal realm again, sweet Puck. The world of men is much changed from that midsummer night so many years past. These creatures are grown to powerful while we have watched. They cannot be permitted to suspect the truth of our existence.”

“If no faerie, Lord, then will you not at least permit the juice squeezed from the petals of one flower?”

“The same you once gave my queen?”

“No, Lord. That adventure made me curious of the flora of our realm and the effects they might bring about. I have made a study of it since, and have encountered another bloom whose juices, when imbibed, cause all under its influence to enter the same dream.”

“And how does this aid me if our changeling spends her dreams in the arms of my wife?”

“Why Lord, if her dream is the stronger, then she will bring others with her. With so many in the court of your queen, how will she be able to give all her attention to the one?”

“And should her dream prove not so strong?”

“Then she will spend a night away from your queen, and you may visit her bower with no concern for whate’er else you might see.”

“Bring me this flower, fair rogue. We shall see its gift delivered, and I shall be once more with fair Titania.”

Puck sped off into the night, his laughter dancing among the trees. It had been too long since last he had been given such an opportunity for devilry.

“You okay?” a voice asked. A kind voice. A gentle voice. A voice that reminded me of…

I shook my head to clear it of unwelcome memories of a dream. She misinterpreted my meaning.

“Is there anything I can do?”

“I doubt it,” I said, smiling weakly. “I’m not even sure I know what’s wrong myself.”

“Well, you don’t seem to be having a particularly good time.” Her smile was sympathetic; coaxing an involuntary response from my own lips.

“I wish I hadn’t had to come,” I said. “I hate parties. The noise gets to me, and I can’t stand being in crowds.”

I stared at my drink, swirled it. It was only my first of the night, and I’d barely touched it. I didn’t much care for feeling drunk; it only made things worse.

“They make you feel alone, I imagine.” She sat down on the stair next to me without waiting for an invitation. Mind you, it wasn’t my house or my party, so what right did I have to tell her not to?

I edged a little away from her, as far as the banister would allow. “What makes you say that?”

“I used to feel the same way myself,” she responded. “Alone doesn’t mean being on your own, it means being the only one who can relate to you.”

I looked her over. Buzz cut, no makeup, jeans and a loose fitting sweatshirt. If it hadn’t been for the pixie-like delicacy of her facial features, and the gentle high pitch of her voice, she might have been a guy.

“What changed?”

“I realised why I was lonely.”

“And why was that?”

She smiled a gentle smile, filled with secrets. “I was hiding my true nature. The same as you I think?”

A chill flooded through me and I felt myself withdrawing. I turned away from her and let my long hair hang in front of my face; my own personal, portable hiding place.

A gentle hand rested on my shoulder. “Hey, your secret’s safe with me, but you’d be better off telling someone about it.”

“Yeah, right! It’s easier for you. People don’t mind a tomboy, but they get pretty freaked out about a… a…”

“You’d be surprised. I get a ton of crap thrown my way, but at least I’m out there. At least they see me. At least I can be me.

“Look, I’m not trying to push you into anything, alright? I’d just like you to know you’re not alone. I’m here, and if you need a shoulder to cry on, someone to scream at, whatever, then I’m here.”

There wasn’t much to say to that. Fortunately, drinks were made for times like this. I dangled my lips in mine as an excuse for not using them to talk.

The sound of the party receded and…

The knight stood before me, blocking my path. Beyond the parapet, a blood red sun emerged between oily, turbulent clouds and the distant horizon, spilling its colour across a barren landscape.

“Well this is different,” he said in her voice. He lifted his visor and her exquisite face looked down at me from inside the helmet.

“Yes,” I said. “Normally I’m alone. How are you here?”

“I don’t know. Where is here?”

“My dream. I’ve lost something, and I can’t find it. Usually I wander about these walls feeling as lost as whatever it is I’m trying to find.”

The knight twisted from the hip, looking around, the squeaks from his armour sounding small and lost in the vastness of our surroundings. The wall we stood on extended a hundred yards in either direction from where we stood, then branched. A couple of hundred yards on from each one, it branched again, and again spreading out in all directions as far as the eye could see.

“It’s hardly surprising you haven’t found it then, whatever it is.”

I shrugged.

“So where have you looked?”

I gazed around me for a few seconds. Everywhere looked the same. I shrugged again.

“So, you don’t know what you’re looking for, you have no idea where it is, and you don’t know where you’ve looked?”

I conjured up a sheepish grin, but without a great deal of enthusiasm.

“You wouldn’t be searching if it wasn’t important. Think on it a while. What has been taken from you that you miss most?”

I furrowed my brow, applying myself as the knight demanded. “They took her away,” I said slowly, uncertainly.

“Then let me help you find her again. We can search together, if you’ll allow it.”

Uncertainty receded. Hope and fear pooled in my veins, sending ghostly trickles this way and that.

I remembered her. A wild surge of hope mingled with terror coursed through my veins. It would mean putting faith in something I had long since abandoned, long since ceased to trust. It would mean going where I knew I had been forbidden to go, but through this knight I found that my desire to be with her again was stronger than any of my misgivings.

“I am willing,” I said.

The knight’s unnaturally pretty face broke into a smile.

Back on the stairs the tattered wisps of a dream fled before I could reach for them. It didn’t matter; It was always the same dream. Only this time I had a sense it wasn’t, not quite.

I pulled the hair away from my face and tucked it behind my ears. It’s not a gesture you can do with any degree of manliness, which meant my father didn’t approve, so I didn’t do it often, an usually only when I was alone. She was different though. With her I felt safe enough to chance it. The curtains parted to reveal her smiling face.

“I thought I’d lost you there for a minute,” she said.

“I thought you had too.” I managed more of a smile than I’d achieved in many months. “What did you mean, ‘hiding your true nature?'”

“Don’t you know?” Her smile was impish.

“I… can probably guess, but I’d like to hear you say it.”

She gazed off to one side for a moment, then took a deep breath.

“Mother’s love having daughters, or at least mine did. From my earliest memory, my mum used to dress me up in pretty clothes and put bows in my hair and stuff. I hated it. My brothers got to climb trees and play football, but I wasn’t allowed to, in case I ruined my clothes or skinned my knees, our something equally stupid.

“I used to throw tantrums about how unfair everything was, but it made no difference, except that it upset my mum. In the end I learned to play the game; that way at least one of us would be happy.

“The thing is, the older I got, the more I realised that the person I was trying to be to please my mum wasn’t the person I was inside, and the more I pretended, the harder it became.

“I had the kind of life most girls my age would have killed for. I had loads of friends, and half a school full of boys lining up to ask me out. I had a mum who would buy my pretty much anything I cared to ask for, as long as it was something girly, which meant I didn’t have anything I wanted.

“When I turned fifteen I remember being so distraught, I came up with a plan to end it all. I started collecting sleeping pills. Mum used to keep things like that locked away, but whenever my, you know, my time of month came round, I’d tell her I was having trouble sleeping and wangle another one or two out of her. I didn’t take them, but instead I put them in a plastic bag and stuck them to the underside of my bedroom cabinet drawer. I figured once I had a couple of dozen or so, I’d have enough.

“A friend of mine found them though. I don’t know what she was doing looking under there, but that’s kind of beside the point. She gave me a good talking to, but with some pretty sound advice. She said, ‘If you’re not happy with your life, don’t end it, change it.’ I realized she was right. I mean which would have been worse for my mum to come to terms with? Me being dead, or me being different?

“So, on my sixteenth birthday, which was last week by the way, I shaved my head. My mum wasn’t at all pleased, but it got us talking, I mean really talking. She’s still not happy, but she accepts this is better than the alternative.”

I stared at her open mouthed. No one had ever shared anything so intimate with me before, and here was this total stranger…

Absentmindedly, I took another sip of my drink and my vision blurred.

“So, do you have any idea where we should be looking?” the knight asked.

I looked around me. It all looked the same, just mile upon mile of wall twisting and turning, dividing and re-joining. Wherever I searched up here, there was nothing to distinguish one part of the wall from another. I felt like I had been wandering in circles for so long, and here was the perfect metaphor for that feeling. I shook my head.

“Not up here,” I said.

The knight smiled. “Step back a moment,” he said, then leapt up. The weight of his armour meant his feet barely cleared the ground, but he crouched as he came down, and brought his gauntleted fist to bear on the stone floor in front of him.

The crash of his blow resounded in my ears and echoed off the distant walls, receding by slow degrees for the longest time before fading to nothing. The stone in front of him was cracked. He stomped on it and it fell away leaving a gaping dark hole, into which he jumped without a thought.

“Jump in,” he called up. “It’s not so deep, and I’ll catch you.”

A leap into the dark; a leap of faith. Did I trust this man so much? I found I did, and with my heart in my mouth, I threw myself into the blackness.

“You weight barely nothing at all,” he said, looking down at me cradled in his arms.

He set me on my feet, and I felt the slightest pang of regret course through me. While he held me, I had felt an exquisite mix of vulnerability and security. His strength and size meant he could have done anything to me, and I would have been powerless to offer the least resistance, but in my heart, I knew he wouldn’t abuse his strength, and that in his arms I was safer than I had ever been. The sensation left me breathless and excited. His putting me down was confirmation of the respect he showed, but it was also the ending of secret hope that he might take some advantage of my weakness.

I gathered together my scattered wits and looked about me. Only one way presented itself: a dank corridor leading down; dark, but not so dark that we couldn’t see. After a hundred yards, the tunnel branched, and I paused uncertain as to which to choose.

The knight cocked his head and smiled. “Really?” he asked. “Come on, I think I know where we’re going.” He took my hand and led me with considerable confidence down one of the two seemingly identical paths.

Again, that feeling of a dream escaping, but I had no chance to chase after it. She was on her feet beside me, holding out a hand. “Come on, I think I know what you need.”

I reached for the offered palm, and she hauled me to my feet. There wasn’t a lot of her, but then there wasn’t that much of me either, so she did actually help me up. Still holding my hand, she led me into the house and up the stairs.

“Should we be here?” I asked.

“Well, I’m not sure about you, but this is my house, so we’re at least fifty percent okay. Come on, in here before anyone has a chance to object.”

She pulled me into a very girly room, decorated in pink and lilac. The bedspread was quilted and decorated with fairies, and the curtains matched. A stuffed unicorn sat on the bed. The room wasn’t particularly large, but it didn’t feel cluttered despite having a large wardrobe, a dressing table and a bedside cabinet beside the bed.

She pulled the wardrobe doors open and hunted through the bulging mass of fabric within. From somewhere in the depths of all the froth and frills, she pulled out a dark plum coloured dress, not quite knee length with a bodice made from a sort of matching floral lace and sequins.

“My mum bought this for my prom,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe how much she paid for it.”

It was one of the most beautiful pieces of clothing I had ever seen, and my legs went out from under me as a flood of adrenaline coursed through me. I settled unsteadily on her bed and took a nervous sip from my drink.

We wound our way through the maze of corridors, the knight always in the lead and following some instinct I seemed to lack. In time I began to see a familiarity to the place, and at the edge of my hearing, the quietest and saddest of sounds. The further we went, the more I felt certain I wasn’t meant to be down here, but the less I was able to think of turning away.

I began to guess which way the knight would lead us, and the further we went, the more often I guessed right. I had picked more than twenty turns without error when we turned a corner and came into a room.

It was more a widening of the corridor than a room for real, but it had doors down one side. All but one was open, and it was the closed door the knight approached. He lifted a boot and kicked the door, which flew off its hinges. He stood to one side and bade me enter.

That strange mix of terror and desperate hope filled me. Tentatively, almost too slowly, I approached the doorway and looked inside.

She sat on a stool with her back to the door, but the violence of the knight’s actions had startled her, and she was looking over her shoulder as I appeared in the doorway.

I knew her.

She stood, and a metallic rattle drew my eyes to a shackle about her ankle, and a length of chain leading to a spike embedded in the wall. The dress she wore was torn and filthy, threadbare to the limits of decency, and she was covered in foulness of the worst kind from her matted and greasy hair to her bare, scabrous feet.

I didn’t care. I ran to her and threw my arms around her. “I’m sorry,” I cried as I drew her to me. “I’m so sorry. I should never have let them take you from me.”

She stood, transfixed with shock, neither refusing my embrace nor returning it. I paused and held her at arm’s length, searching her face, finding hers searching mine. I let my arms drop.

“Can you forgive me?” I asked.

“It was…” She swallowed and coughed, clearing her throat after so many years of disuse. “It wasn’t you who imprisoned me,” she managed at last.

“But I did nothing.”

“You were young. We were both young.” She lifted a gentle hand to my cheek. “It is enough that you’re here now, only tell me that we will never be apart again.”

I opened my mouth to reassure her, but before I could form the words…

“What’s going on here?”

I spun around to find a guard standing in the doorway, has sword drawn and a grim expression on his face.

I spun around to find my stepbrother standing in the doorway, an expression of disbelieving delight spreading across his face.

The gentle swirl of fabric about my thighs distracted me and I looked down at myself. Warring emotions of horror and delight overwhelmed me and I froze. A wild buzzing filled my head, and I barely heard what came next.

“Hey Dad, come up here,” my stepbrother called down the stairs. “You are not going to believe what that little fairy just did.” He turned back to me, grinning with a deep malice. “I don’t believe in fairies,” he said, advancing on me slowly. “That means you gotta fall down dead you little pansy, you know like in Peter Pan? It don’t matter though, ‘cos you’re dead anyway. When Dad gets a look at you in that get-up, he is going to freak.”

He’d been the bane of my life ever since Mum remarried some years back. He was three years my senior, old enough for him to feel he should have some sort of dominion over me, but not so old that he had any amount of maturity. It incensed him that I should dare to defy him, and so he took every opportunity to make my life hell. Usually I took care not to give him an opening, but this was far from usually. I didn’t even remember putting the dress on. I backed away from him as he advanced menacingly into the room.

“Hey, back off ass-hat,” she stood between us and pushed at him. “I never invited you into my room.”

“What’s going on here?” Dad’s face appeared in the doorway. He caught sight of me and his face darkened.

Before he could react further, my mother squeezed past him into the room, her own features registering shock and dismay. She pushed past the others in the room and took hold of me by the shoulders. “Oh baby,” she said, “I thought we were over this. We talked about it, didn’t we?”

“What is going on here?” Another face appeared in the doorway behind my stepfather. She was about my parents’ age, and if I’d been paying attention I might have seen some resemblance between her and my newest friend, but I didn’t recognise her, and she was one straw to many.

I pulled out of my mother’s grasp and reached for my drink. With shaking hands, I brought the glass to my lips and swallowed down its entire contents.

I was back in the dungeon with her standing beside me. She had a hold of my hand and was squeezing the blood out of it. The knight stood between us and the guard. There were others in the room with us, but before I had a chance to look at them, a voice boomed out of the air around us, filling the cell and causing everything to shake.

“And so, the players are assembled!” The exclamation was filled with mirth and mischief and perhaps a hint of malice. “All that remains now is to set the scene and assign them their parts.”

The dungeon dissolved around us. Stone walls floors and ceiling all evaporating into smoke and fading into nothing…

…revealing a forest clearing of gargantuan size. There were toadstools nearby that were taller than me, and blades of grass bigger than the knight’s broadsword.

A shadow loomed overhead, blocking out the moonlight.

“There’s my beloved. I wondered where you went.”

The voice was at the same time gentle and deafeningly loud, its source grown large enough to blot out half the sky. A hand reached down towards us, and towards my new friend in particular. Long slender fingers, soft, delicate skin, immaculately shaped nails, but from wrist to tip of the longest finger, it was longer than any of us were tall.

She made ready to defend herself, even unarmed and unarmoured, even against such a terrifyingly immense adversary.

“My queen, if you will permit, each of these mortals has a part to play in the drama soon to unfold.”

The hand paused then slowly withdrew. “Very well, fair Puck. Though I have little enough cause to trust you, even so I will permit you this indulgence. Only see no harm comes to my dear one.”

“You wound me majesty, for who can say there is anyone more trustworthy than Puck? I am and always have been utterly faithful to my own nature.”

“Aye, good servant,” another voice rumbled from the shadows, “faithful in your faithlessness. It is cause enough for concern, but not so much so that we would deprive you of your sport, and us of our entertainment. Only heed your queen’s warning and mine, that no harm should come to any of these.”

“None of any permanence, majesties, for every story requires conflict; hardships to overcome, protagonists to face off, one against the other, lessons to be learned.”

“Proceed then, dear Puck,” the queen said. “If your players are returned to their rightful place unharmed and unchanged when all is said and done, we shall be well enough pleased, only begin this night’s entertainment, for I find myself curious besides all better judgement to see what you have prepared.”

“Then, most noble king and queen, may I present to you the players?”

A creature appeared in our midst. Humanoid, but decidedly not human. Naked except for a plant that wound around an arm and a leg and grew foliage thickly enough to cover his modesty. A body so thin as to appear almost emaciated, but with muscles fully defined in his limbs and torso, and a sharply downturned hawkish nose accentuated by upward slanting eyes and an evil grin that promised nothing good.

He advanced on my friend with the buzz cut. Once again she stood ready to defend herself, even lacking the means. In a blur of speed, the creature was beside her, arm around her shoulder, leading her into the centre of the clearing.

“Here, your majesties, is the hero of our piece. A brave knight who stands for justice and all that is true.” He waved a hand and she grew in size and stature, armour and weapon forming about her until she was as I had seen her in the dream.

The creature turned to me, and I would have cowered back had he not sped to my side so fast I hardly noticed his passage.

“And here is our beautiful damsel abducted by a foul beast and locked away in a remote corner of his castle, never to be seen by the world and destined to live out all her days in solitude and misery.” I felt myself changing subtly. The plum coloured dress lengthened and lightened into a shimmering silvery gown with a full skirt that fell to my ankles. My chest swelled to fill the upper part of the bodice and my waist narrowed. My hair, already long enough to reach to my shoulders, grew to halfway down my back and sprung into golden coils. My hands and arms became thinner and grew slender and elegant, and I reached to my face to feel smooth skin and a delicate nose. I searched around the clearing, desperately seeking a mirrored surface to see the new me and became aware of an absence.

“Where is…”

“She is back where she belongs,” the creature told me, and placed his own slender hand on my new beasts. Had his appearance not been so alien, it would have felt like a violation, but it seemed no more shocking than having a dog sniff between my legs.

Between my legs. That was one place that hadn’t changed. For all that my appearance was now one of a young woman, I still was anything but. He caught my eye as he noticed my noticing and held a finger briefly to his lips, winking so rapidly I barely noticed before spinning away towards my stepfather.

“And so to the monster, a creature equally as hideous in form as in spirit.”

My stepfather grew tall and broad and misshapen. His back stooped over, and his head sprouted oversized horns and tusks.

“What ish thish?” he bellowed. “Whash happening?” He raised his arms, lifted his head back as far as he could and let out a roar that seemed to put substance to his usual response when things didn’t go his way.

The slender creature danced out of his reach, ignoring him and turned to my mother.

“This, your majesties, is the mother of our fair maid. Ensorcelled by some fell magic to fall hopelessly in love with this grim creature. Try though she might, she is incapable of aiding her own daughter against the wishes of her gruesome lord.”

The only change to my mother’s appearance was in the clothes she wore, which were now better suited to manual labour than to any degree of elegance.

“Here is our knight’s councillor, a gentleman of some experience, but altogether too much opinion.”

Where the other woman had stood, there was now a middle-aged man, unarmed and unarmoured wearing a tunic and hose of better than fair quality. On his head was a floppy hat with a long feather sticking out of it.

“And lastly we have this fellow.” He turned his attention to my stepbrother. “I had in mind, as with all these others, that your character should reflect your true nature, and so you would have been a hideous wart of a creature with all your father’s grotesque nature and none of his strength. It worried me greatly, for what could such a part add to any drama? But your words from a moment ago have presented me with another idea.

“We have a place for a fairy in our tale. Not a faerie as are we, but such a one as the creature from your feeble children’s stories. A vain and jealous thing, it becomes you well enough, and for all its weaknesses and limitations, it is far better than you deserve.”

All the while he spoke my stepbrother shrank and changed, taking on a gentle glow, and a delicate shape with large eyes and sharp features. His clothing turned leaf green and shrank into a short dress with a ragged hemline. He started yelling as soon as he realised what was happening, but his voice had already transformed and all we could hear was the gentle tinkling of bells.

“And so, to set the scene. A distant land, and a dark and forbidding forest. At its centre, a castle, once grand and majestic, now run down to ruin.” While he spoke, the scenery changed around us. The trees grew dark and ominous. Walls grew up from the ground, covered in moss, stripped of mortar, crumbling and in places fallen. “Its inhabitants, a grisly beast and the hapless wench, fallen under its thrall.” A room grew around my mother and stepfather, separating them from the rest of us. “Their prisoner, the wench’s daughter, locked in a tower in the remotest corner of the keep.” And so I was closed off from those around me and heard nothing of the rest of the introduction.

My room had a window – little more than a hole in the wall with heavy drapes across it to keep out the worst of the chill. I went to it and looked out at the scene continuing to build around me. The tower grew even as I watched, the ground already a long way down and receding fast. Not a climb I would have contemplated even if I hadn’t been wearing a dress. I absentmindedly pulled my hair over my shoulder and looked at it, but this wasn’t that kind of fairy tale. It reached down almost to my waist, even over my newly formed breasts, but it wasn’t likely to offer any assistance getting out of here.

Overhead the sky turned dark and stormy. Heavy clouds drifted across the Moon, plunging the scene into deeper darkness. A gust of wind set the tower swaying gently, and nervously I stepped back from the window.

The room was small, cold and miserable. Round, as you might expect from a tower, with a hatch in the floor on the side opposite the window which, unsurprisingly, was locked. It contained a rather uncomfortable looking bed, a small table and chair that seemed to serve as both dresser and desk, and a rough door built into the wall with a familiar and unpleasant smell coming from the other side.

The door opened easily, and the pungent stench of ammonia and stale faeces sent me reeling. Dresses, coats and cloaks hung to either side of the door, and in the middle was a rough wooden seat with a hole in the middle of it. Bile rose in my throat and I shut the door before it could complete its journey.

Well I had a way out if ever I could bring myself to take it. I vaguely recalled something I had read once about medieval garderobes acting as both privy and a place to store expensive clothing where even moths wouldn’t go. It would most likely be easier and safer to climb down the inside of the toilet than the outside of the tower, just as long as the miasma didn’t overwhelm me on the way down. Right now I wasn’t sure I could even stand to stay in there long enough to take care of my normal bodily functions.

I wasn’t that desperate yet though, not to attempt either. I was cold. The long skirts of the dress were doing a good job keeping my legs warm, but my arms and shoulders were beginning to suffer more than a little from being less well covered. I took in a breath and opened the garderobe door long enough to hunt out a fur lined cloak.

It still smelt faintly of the foulness inside the closet, but my need of warmth won, and I wrapped myself in the soft fur, luxuriating in the feel against my hairless, and therefore far more sensitive, skin.

I settled onto the bed and gave free rein to the warring emotions inside me. For so many years I had been unable to cry, and now the tears came easily, in a great deluge. For almost as long as I could remember, my life had been one of constant depression, my daily awareness of being unable to fit inside my own life weighing down on me to the point where I couldn’t find room for any other emotions. Then there had been the surprise and delight of finding myself wearing that gorgeous plum coloured dress, then almost immediately the fear of seeing my stepbrother, followed by the terror when my stepfather arrived. The confusion when they all invaded my dream that deepened when everything changed. The unbelievable hope when my body transformed, the disappointment when it failed to do so completely, and then the cold and misery of this place.

I’ve never much cared for roller coasters, and this had been the ride to end them all. It also seemed that the modifications to my body had included bringing my emotions closer to the surface, so the effort I now faced was keeping them in check rather than trying to find them.

I was interrupted by an annoying tinkling sound and looked up, sweeping my hair back out of my face. The little green fairy I knew to be my stepbrother stood on the bed in front of me, hands on hips and shaking her (his?) head vigorously as she spoke her little bell sounds. I wiped my eyes and bent in close to see him clearer.

Whatever that creature had been who made the changes in us all, he had done a number here. The facial features still belonged to my sibling, but they had been altered to make him look very much like the Tinkerbell he evidently was. No, it was no good, he was definitely a she right now. Blond hair done up in a high ponytail, overly large blue eyes, pointy ears poking up through the hair and scolding away like a truckload of windchimes. Definitely Tinkerbell.

“You’re going to have to do some sort of magic if you want me to understand you,” I said.

Then a thought occurred to me and I snatched him – no, her. Really her – off the bed and shook him over my head, bathing myself in a shower of glitter.

“Ow!” He bit me. I let go and sucked on my finger. “You know, if I were to say, ‘I don’t believe in…’ well you know, I really do wonder what effect it would have on you.”

His – oh come on! It’s not that difficult – HER face blanched and she flew back down onto the bed, looking terrified.

“I wouldn’t say it,” I said. “I’m not like you, and I wouldn’t try something like that just to see if it worked. It probably would here, you know. Now would you mind giving me a little more of your pixie-dust?”

She rang her bells at me as angrily as I imagine is possible with the tiny sound.

“It may help me to understand you,” I said. “Right now, all I can hear is an annoying tinkling.”

He – SHE! took off again and swooped over my head, shaking HER self until I was covered in glitter, then SHE settled back on the bed and went back to ringing her bells.

“Sorry, still nothing. Try willing me to understand you.” I wasn’t paying much attention. I had closed my eyes and was trying to find some happy thoughts. They weren’t too far away, even in this place. The feel of soft fabric against my sensitive skin, then sense of release inside me, the thought of the knight with his pretty face and oh so well-built body. I opened my eyes and looked down at the room from my vantage near the ceiling.

“Thanks bro,” I said and willed myself towards the window.

The storm chose that moment to arrive. Rain began streaming out of the sky, the wind gusted suddenly and rose to a howl, lightning and thunder crashed across the landscape. I settled to the floor of my dismal tower room and drew the curtains shut.

“Afterwards then,” I promised myself, and turned back to the bed and the rather forlorn little figure of my stepbrother. “Look, it’s pretty much as that guy said, you’re like Tinkerbell now, straight out of Peter Pan.”

The bells rang louder than ever as the little figure threw an almighty tantrum. I waited for it to subside a little.

“There’s no sense denying it,” I said, not a little unkindly. “You are what he made you just as I am, and evidence suggests that he’s given you all of her abilities. You can fly, obviously, you can give others the ability to fly, you should be able to make yourself understood too. Peter Pan, Wendy, the Lost Boys, Captain Hook, Smee and the rest of the pirates could all understand her, so we should all be able to understand you too.

“The flying thing just now was just me willing it. Why don’t you try? Will for me to understand your words and try speaking again.”

“I £@<(!^$ hate this.”

The voice appeared in my head, with the only word not translated being the inevitable vulgarity. My stepbrother had a real potty mouth, and he swore often when I was around because he knew I didn’t like it, but rarely when his father was near because he knew he didn’t either. Fortunately, it seemed that fairy language didn’t have swear words.

“I imagine you do,” I said calmly, settling back on the bed beside hi… her.

“This is all your £@<(!^$ faulty, you know?”

“Yes, I imagine it is. This does seem to be my dream, though I’m not sure what’s happened to it, or what you are doing here. I certainly didn’t invite you.”

“I hate being a £@<(!^$ fairy!”

“You’d rather be a… what was it he said? ‘A hideous wart of a creature with all the grotesqueness of your father and none of his strength.’ I mean that would have suited you better, but I’m not sure you’d have enjoyed it.”

“You’re not £@<(!^$ helping.”

“I’m not sure how much help I could be. I mean here I am locked in a rickety old tower with a storm raging outside. What do you expect me to do?”

“I don’t know. £@<(!^$ wake up or something.”

I pinched myself. It hurt.

“I don’t appear to be able to.”

“Then what the £@<( are we going to do?”

Her distress seemed to bring a calm and clarity to my own thoughts. “I think we all ought to play our parts. That whatever-it-was that put us all here spoke of us and this whole situation as though it were a piece of theatre, so if we follow it to its end, there’s a good chance things will go back to normal.”

“Well £@<( that for a game of £@<(!^$ dominos. How the £@<( are we supposed play our £@<(!^$ parts.”

“You know how ridiculous you sound when you do that? Whatever translation magic you’re using seems to be U rated, and all I’m getting whenever you use your favourite word is bells.”

“£@<(!“

I couldn’t help it; it was funny. Besides I was on the edge of hysteria anyway. I started laughing, earning me some dark looks from my fairy stepbrother, but laughter is the most contagious of afflictions, and she couldn’t keep the smile from her face. Soon enough she joined in.

“You know, there’s not much we can do right now. I don’t want to risk flying outside with that storm happening. I mean what if it washes off all the pixie dust?”

“I guess.”

We sat in silence for a while. It wasn’t exactly companionable, but it was less tense than usual.

“Can I ask you something?” I didn’t wait for a reply. “If I’d been born a girl for real, would you be so mean to me?”

“No, of course not. But you weren’t born a girl, were you? You’ve got a @!<( just like me.” A sudden panicked expression overtook her, and she scrambled about under her short skirt for a second before breathing a sigh of relief.

Not a her after all then.

It took a few seconds, but his expression turned suspicious. He looked my way. “You too?”

I shrugged. “The only bit about me that’s wrong now.”

“You’re weird.”

I decided to push my luck. “Yeah, I suppose not many girls have one of those do they?”

“You’re not a £^”(!^$ girl!”

“I am inside. Always have been. Well…”

“Well what?”

“These last few years it’s been like she wasn’t really there. I haven’t felt like anything; just hollow. She was there from the first though, until you and your dad came along, then he got Mum on his side, and between them they locked the girl in me away. She belongs inside me though. She’s the biggest and best part of me, and I’m kind of nothing without her.”

He looked over at me, uncertainty etched into his expression.

“Imagine you had been born looking like you do now. I mean kind of normal sized and without the wings or the ears.”

“What about my ears?” He reached up and felt the pointed tips for the first time.

“Hey, it goes with the package you know? So, imagine you were born a girl. Pretty face, slim and delicate, mother who put you in dresses and made you grow your hair long, gave you dolls to play with. Now imagine you were always the way you are inside right now. What would you do?”

“I guess I’d rebel. But that’s okay for girls. They can get away with the whole tomboy thing.”

“Just because it’s okay for girls doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen the other way around. If it’s alright for a girl who feels more like a guy to be that way, why shouldn’t it be the same for someone like me?”

“It’s just the way things are.”

“That’s not an answer. Just because never won an argument.”

“No? Every time I wrestled you to the ground and twisting your arms, you seemed happy enough to accept it.” Something of his old sneer was back.

“So it wasn’t the just because that won, was it? It was the pain. Do you want to find out what it’s like?”

He looked up at me, briefly alarmed, but I was smiling gently.

“Just because I gave in doesn’t mean you won the argument. It just means you forced me to say I agreed with something I didn’t. If you want to win an argument, you have to change my mind, and you can’t do that through bullying.”

He looked down at his knees – his very pretty, delicate little knees.

The wind was easing; the curtains weren’t flapping about quite so vigorously. I stood up and walked over to the window to look out at the receding storm. The rain had nearly stopped.

“Shall we get out of here?” I asked. “Go find the others? I’d appreciate another shake of pixie dust if you don’t mind.”

He obliged me, and I climbed out onto the window ledge, looking down at a couple of hundred feet drop at least. Enough to kill me if this didn’t work.

I took a breath and stepped off.

“See how the play unfolds!” Puck exclaimed. “Already that miserable creature in the fairy’s guise discovers the limitations of his new form. Already he sees that, without his strength, he has need of his wits, and he has scarce few of them.”

“And what of this damsel you have found?” Titania asked, intrigued despite herself. “She seems a rare individual indeed.”

“Aye, you have a connoisseur’s eye, my queen. But do you not already have a changeling child?”

“Aye. The one you chose to put in the roll of knight. Though I understand why you should give the girl’s part to this creature, I cannot fathom your reason for the roll you gave my own precious child.”

“Majesty, with only so many parts to play and so many players, sometimes there is need for the cast to adapt.”

“And yet you chose to give that wretch a different roll in your play.” The queen waved her hand at the little fairy, hovering at the window ledge looking down.

“A minor roll majesty, and one incidental to the plot. The knight is one of the principal players. I thought your majesty would be pleased to see you protégé so honoured.”

“Well, let the play continue and we shall see how pleased I might be. I am eager to see how fairs my chosen one.”

I fell. I shouldn’t have been surprised, having given no mind to the happy memories that had lifted me to the ceiling the first time. It was terrifying, and I had to close my eyes and force myself with every fibre of my being to banish the fear threatening to shut down my mind.

I focused on my new body, on the feeling of the dress, hugging my breasts tightly, of the sensitivity of my skin, of my hair whipping about my face. I was a girl, or as near to one as I would ever be. I was beautiful. I had almost everything I had ever wanted, and so much more than I’d ever dreamed might be possible. I was me!

And I wasn’t falling anymore. I felt myself rising in the cool air and dared to open my eyes again, just as I rose level with the tower’s only window.

“I thought you were £^”(*@,” the fairy’s voice said in my head.

“Dream come true?” I asked.

“No… not really. I just felt… helpless. It was kind of horrible.”

“Well, it’s over now, and thank you for your concern. Shall we?”

He joined me in the air and together we headed towards the only other source of light in the ruined castle.

It turned out to be an immense hall. I’d been dragged along to barn dances on several occasions before now, and this had to be four times the size at least of the biggest of those. Torches guttered in sconces mounted in the wall, and an enormous fire burned in a grate as large as our garage. The carcase of something the size of a cow rotated slowly above the flames while my mother and stepfather, or whatever they had become, sat at the high table at the far end of the room.

Tinkerboy and I eased through an open window onto a balcony above the main floor and settled into the shadows to watch. My stepbrother glowed with an inner light which added to the challenge of hiding until I suggested he find a place near to one of the torches.

“So, what happens now?” my mother asked.

She wasn’t so much sitting beside my stepfather as standing and crouching low. She wasn’t there as his spouse, but his servant.

I winced as I realised how much this seemed to reflect real life. I had been so caught up in my own misery that I had never given it much thought. My stepfather was an aggressive brute of a man, and he tended to dominate my mother.

Mind you, it had been her choice to get married, hadn’t it? Maybe he’d bullied her into that as well.

“Shurrup!” he growled around his mouthful of tusks, “And get me shome of that meat. I’m shtarving!”

“I believe it still needs to cook, dear.” My mum was genuinely cowering. I don’t know if he’d ever hit her in real life, but in this form, he seemed much more likely to, and with devastating consequences.

“What do I care? I’ll eat it raw if I have to. Jusht get it, wensch!”

Mum ran off to the fire and carved off great slabs of meat. It was rare and bleeding, but just beyond being raw. She ran back to the table where he started grabbing hunks of it and jamming them into his mouth even before she had a chance to put the plate down. She shrank back from him and watched the carnage.

“Thash better,” he said, wiping the blood from his jowls. “Now what we gonna do about that panshy piesh of pish of a child of yoursh?”

“Don’t you think we have bigger problems than to talk about my…?”

“It’sh dishgushting ish what it ish. It doshn’t know what it ish, and it needsh a good shrashing!”

“But what about all this? What’s happening here? Don’t you mind that you’ve turned into a… a…?”

“Ash far ash I’m consherned, thish ish an improvement. I’m shtronger’n I wash, and thish plashe ish better than our condo. All we need to do ish sortch outch tha’ misherable excushe of a kid of yoursh.”

“And what makes you think I have any desire to stay in this place? To stay married to a… a… a monster?”

“Yeah, well I’ve been thinking about that. It hashn’t been much of a marriage, hash it?”

“What do you mean? What are you saying?”

“I mean betchween you an’ the brat thish hashn’t worked out grea’ for me. Ash a wife, you been shomethin’ of a dishappointment, sho I been thinkin’, maybe you should just stay here as my shervant. I mean you’re pretty musch that already.”

“I’d rather die!”

“That can be arranged.” He rose menacingly from his seat. “Your choicshe. Shervant or nexsht meal. And while you’re Shinking about it, get me shome wine and more of that beef.”

I watched my mother wilt. She’s never been a particularly strong person. Besides, I’m not sure that I’d have faired much better under the same circumstances; alone in front of an ogre like my stepfather. There wasn’t much I could do, but I figured I could offer her some support.

“Get away from her you animal!” I stepped out of the shadows and shouted down my challenge. “Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?”

“Ah! The Pansy hash shome shpine.” His right hand snapped out grabbing my mother by the head, his fist all but engulfing it entirely. “Come down here you pathechic excshushe for a human being. If you don’t wantch me tcho chrush your mummy’sh shkull.”

Okay, so maybe there was much he could do. Spiral staircases led from the balcony down to the main hall at each corner of the room. I headed for the nearest, nearly tripping on my long skirts as I hurried down, and approached the high table, my footsteps slowing as I approached.

He sneered – something truly hideous given the head start his face already had – and let my mother go. She ran to me, rather a long way round the long table, but she reached me nonetheless, and pulled me into a tight embrace.

“Mummy’sh favourite. Tha’sh why you’ll never amount tcho anything. Sure, you shcrub up well, but thatsh jusht makesh it all the more wrong.

“Shtill, you’re my reshponshibilitchy, jusht like your mother ish, and there’sh enough work around here tcho keep bosh of you buszhy. Sho here’sh what’sh going to happen.

“You, you misherable little tick, are going tcho keep out of my shight, because your very exshishtencsh shickens me.”

Pots and kettles, I thought, but had good enough survival instincts not to say.

“You are going tcho keep to the kitchensh and out of the way placshesh, and you are going tcho work for your living. Your mother ish going tcho djo the shame, excshept she getsh to shtay here wish me.

“Now you go find me shome wine.” He waved in my direction, making a nonsense of his most recent instructions. Then he turned to my mother. “And you get me shome more meat. And remember, either of you putsh a foot wrong and I’ll crush the other like a cockroach. Now go before I deshide not tcho be sho magnanimush no more.”

There really wasn’t much else to do. Asking whether he wanted me to get out of sight or get him his wine didn’t seem like a particularly helpful thing to do under the circumstance, so I made my way round the table to where the jug of wine stood behind him. Tears of helpless frustration welled up in my eyes. I’m not sure how I’d hoped my intervention might improve the situation, but this definitely wasn’t it.

“You have created a monster indeed,” Oberon rumbled, “but do you justify twisting even a mind such as his to the ends to improving your story?”

“Lord Oberon, in no wise have I altered the nature of a single one of these creatures, but only their outer form. Each has become on the surface a reflection of inner truth, so what e’er might be hid within is now risen into full view. The brute you see before you was always there, and is now laid bare for us to see in plainest and truest glorious ugliness.”

“Have a care, fair Puck.” Titania’s tone held a tone of warning. “If you would recall my words ere this tale of yours began, it is my wish that nary a one among them be harmed. Ephemeral as they are, even such mayflies’ lives as are led by mere mortals bear consequence among themselves. I would not have this taken from them.”

“Ah, my queen. What harm can befall a mortal within the depths of a dream? The play must unfold this, for what lies at the heart of any story worth telling but conflict? And so there must be hardship to overcome within our tale. But be assured, all will awaken when the play is done, and none will be the worse for their experience, and perhaps some the better. For how often is one gifted with that rare gift to see oneself in truest light, and so learn how others see oneself?

“I’ll warrant not all present are enabled to see the benefits of such a true reflection. One absorbed in his own selfishness is likely only to admire himself and remain oblivious to his affect on others. Whereas another, more attuned to the responses of those around herself, might better understand how she is loved – despite her nature – by those who love her.

“There is much to be learned this night, though only those who realise their need of learning will embrace the lesson. There will be consequences for all, but then are there no consequences in everything ventured?

“You have my assurance, fair queen, that none will be harmed in body by the events that unfold here this night, though what harm or healing comes to the soul is the choice of each individual here, and though I lay the scene for such lessons to be learned, I accept no blame for the choices made by any involved.

“But soft! Our hero approaches. Let us see what he is to make of matters.”

I was midway through pouring Lord Ugly’s wine – very much from behind his shoulder so he couldn’t see me – when a crash from the other end of the hall made me start.

“What the f…! Be careful you shtupid…!” He interrupted himself as he became aware of an imposing figure in plate armour striding into the centre of the hall, broadsword held at the ready in both hands.

I stepped hurriedly away from the table and out of harm’s way. I recognised the armour and couldn’t help the sensations of hope and relief that flooded through me. Behind the knight – well behind it must be said – the cowering figure of the knight’s advisor stood obsequiously wringing his hands.

“My, er, my lord would have you explain your behaviour,” he said, just loud enough to be heard. “He, erm, he would know why you sit at ease while these, er, these fair maids stand ready to respond to your least whim.”

“I have no need to exchplain myshelf to anyone,” my step-ogre replied. “Thish ish my cashtle and I will run it ash I wish.”

A few uncomfortable seconds passed. Eventually, the knight turned towards his council and cocked his head.

“Erm. Er, my, er, my lord would venture that this is not in fact your castle, but rather was bequeathed to your wife by her former husband.”

“Don’t the marriage vowsh include that one that shaysh, ‘Wiszh all my worldy goodsh I thee endow?’”

“Er, er, well, er, well I suppose…”

The knight turned around to face his councillor, the movement interrupted his uncertain drivelling.

“Er, my lord would argue that, er, that any such vows should be upheld, er under law, only so long as both parties, er hold to their promise.”

“Watch’sh that shupposed to mean?”

“My lord would, er remind you that you made vows as well.”

“Yesh, and I endowed her wisth all my worldly goodsh. Me and my shon ish pretty much itch. Where ish my shon anyway?”

“My lord would remind you that you made other vows. To er, to love, honour and, er, cherish? My lord would argue that he has seen no evidence of any of these.”

“Tell your schtinking lord that it’sh none of hish businessh, and if he continues to push hish luck, I’ll shquash him like a bug.”

The knight spun back to face the monster, raising his sword high. The councillor continued in a tiny voice.

“My lord accepts. If you will not satisfy his mind with your words, you will at least satisfy his honour with your life.”

The monster stood with a roar, throwing the entire table almost as far as the knight’s feet. He stood his ground, holding his sword ready.

“Jusht who do you think you are?” roared the monstrous thing my stepfather had become. “Coming into my home, trying to tell me how I should live my life!”

The knight lowered his sword, resting the tip on the ground, then lifted a hand to his visor, raising to reveal his pretty face. “Perhaps if you don’t like it so much yourself, you should try not doing it to others.” His eyes were on me as he spoke.

My stepfather turned, following the knights gaze, and snarled. “You!” he growled. “I might have known you’d have something tcho djo wiszh all thish.” His arm snatched out, grabbing me by the throat. I’d thought I was far enough away, but I hadn’t counted on the extended reach of his knuckle dragging arms.

“Let her go!” the knight yelled, dropping his visor and raising his sword.

“Her?” The roar was deafening even though my stepfather had turned back to face my friend. “Your as bad as ‘her’. Neither of you knowsh what you’re shupposhed to be.”

“Not true,” the knight said, advancing with slow menace. “We both of us know exactly what we’re supposed to be. It’s you who won’t accept the truth, just because it’s something you don’t like, and to quote you form a few minutes ago, ‘who are you to come into our homes and tell us how we should live our lives?’”

I was fighting for breath and losing. Black spots appeared before my eyes and, rather bizarrely, I found myself wondering what would become of this dream and everyone in it if I should lose consciousness. I didn’t have a chance to find out.

At first I thought the buzzing was just another symptom of asphyxia, but then my blurring vison filled with a green light, and the world was all tinkling bells and pixie dust.

“What the!” My step father started flailing around with his free hand. Mercifully the distraction caused him to relax his grip around my neck, and I managed to suck in a few precious gasps of air. My vision cleared in time for me to see him catch my stepbrother a blow that sent him halfway across the hall. “Thish ish notch happening,” he bellowed. “Thish ish too much. I do not believe in fariesh!”

“No!” I gasped. It was a mistake. He realised he’d loosened his grip on me and tightened it again. I tried to tell him, but with his fist squeezing me throat, I couldn’t make a sound. My vision darkened again.

“Thish ish your fault!” he spat in my face. “You and your airy fairy waysh. Cashtlesh, and shining knightsh and fairy-tale creaturesh, and jusht like you to casht yourshelf ash the damshel in dishtresh. You shicken me!”

I clawed at his hand, but without effect. I could barely raise my arms. I just about heard the crash of the plate as it bounced f his head.

“Let her go you animal!” my mother shouted. “I don’t know why I didn’t see it before. You’re right, this really isn’t a marriage, and I’ve had as much of it as I can take.”

He roared and threw me across the room. I collided with my mother and knocked her onto her back. On the plus side it meant I could breathe again. I drew in a rasping breath and tried feebly to disentangle myself from the mess of limbs and loose fabric that tied me to my mum. I rolled away onto my back and looked up at my stepdad’s thunderous features.

There was a roaring in my ears, which I only realised was real when he spun around with remarkable speed, his fist flashing out and catching the knight an almighty blow across the side of his helmet. For all his apparent strength, my would be saviour let go his sword and fell insensible to the ground.

My stepfather turned back to me.

“Stop!” I croaked. “Your son…”

“What about my shon?” he growled.

I pointed a shaking hand towards where my stepbrother had fallen. All the light had gone from him and he lay as still as death.

“No way,” the brute snarled. “Notch him tcho. I won’t believe he’sh like you.”

“No choice.” It hurt to speak.

“What’sh that shupposhed tcho mean?”

“You, me, them, him. No choice…”

“I, er, I believe what the young lady is trying to say is that, er, that none of us were given the choice of how we appear in this place. I certainly would have preferred…”

“What’sh wrong with him?” The stepmonster headed towards his fallen son, visibly deflating as he noticed how still the small figure was.

“You,” I rasped. “What you said.”

“What do you mean?”

My mum had risen to her feet and was also looking at the still, small fairy, her face white with shock. The knight’s councillor, who’s words had trailed off earlier, was similarly transfixed with horror. The little green figure was so still; not even the slightest movement of breathing.

A crazy thought crossed my mind. It was more pantomime than Peter Pan, but maybe all you needed in a place like this was faith. “I do believe in fairies,” I whispered, and clapped.

The others stared at me as though I’d gone mad. I don’t know, maybe I had.

“I do believe in fairies,” I said again, louder this time, and clapped again.

I nodded at me mother, who turned towards the tiny body. “I believe in fairies,” she said and clapped. “I do. I do believe in fairies.” She looked at the night’s councillor.

“I, er, I suppose…”

“No,” I said. “You have to believe it.”

“Er… I, er, I believe.” Then more strongly. “I do believe. Yes, I believe in fairies.” He clapped.

“What’sh thish rubbish?”

“In the story of Peter Pan,” I said, “every time some says they don’t believe in fairies, one of them falls down dead. If you want your son to live, you have to say it, and mean it. And clap.”

“Nonshenshe.”

“Like having him turn into a fairy in the first place? Like you turning into whatever you are? Like all of this? Whatever this place is, it has its own rules, and just because you think they’re rubbish doesn’t make them any more real.”

He stooped down and picked up his son. The tiny body was barely the size of his thumb. “I can’t believe…”

“Oh, stop being so stubborn, you thick-headed, thick-skulled moron! Are you so arrogant that you’ll let your son die rather than just say the words?”

He stared silently, hopelessly.

“Do you believe in what you have in your hand?” I asked, fighting to keep the desperation out of my voice. I had no idea how long before it would be too late; not idea if it might already be too late.

He nodded slowly.

“Do you believe that in a place like this, a place where your son could be transformed into a being like that, that those words you spoke could have the power to drain the life from him?”

He was still for the longest few seconds I’ve ever lived through. I mean my stepbrother had always been horrible to me, but he didn’t deserve this. The great head nodded, once, slowly.

“Then isn’t it just the least bit possible that saying, ‘I do believe in fairies,’ and clapping might bring him back? Even if it sounds ludicrous, even if there’s only a million to one chance it might work, isn’t it worth trying?”

“I…”

The silence stretched out taut, so tight it felt like it had to snap.

“Please!” I cried. I really cried. There were tears, and my voice, still raw from his crushing grip, broke with anguish. “He’s your son!”

“I do believe,” he said faltering a little. “I do believe.”

“In fairies,” I said. “Say it all, and clap. And you have to mean it.”

He put the little figure down, carefully, reverently. “I do believe in fairiesh,” he said, and brought his hands together with a dull thump. “I do believe in fairiesh.” The second time was barely a whisper.

I looked over at my would be knight in shining armour. He was just as still as my fairy brother. No only almost. His chest moved slightly. He, at least, was still breathing, but he would be saying anything.

“I do believe in fairies,” I said because there was nothing else to do. Maybe I could say it for him. Maybe… I didn’t know. I looked at the still fairy on the ground and willed with all my might for him to live.

It might have been a glint of reflected light from one of the torches, but for a moment it looked like the faintest flicker of a glow. I was so desperate for a sign, I let out a gasp of relief and clapped. “I do, I do, I do believe in fairies,” I said, then repeated it in a sort of chant.

Mum gave me an oddly sad look, then joined in the chant, then the counsellor, my knight friend’s mother, joined us. Finally, with unsteady words, my great oaf of a stepfather was speaking the same words.

That faintest glimmer flared again, then grew. Something of the original glow returned and a wing twitched minutely. It was enough encouragement for us all, and we took up the chant and started clapping as though a life depended on it. Maybe it did. Maybe the life had been saved. Maybe it had never been in danger in the first place. The scene began to melt around us, and in a moment we were back in the forest clearing, back in our old bodies and clothes.

“The play is done,” the voice of Puck said. I turned and there he was in our midst. “No original tale, for which I beg your humble pardon, but, I hope, well enough played out to provide adequate diversion. My queen, here is your chosen. I hope she performed well enough to please.”

Titania stood among us, taller even than my stepfather, and resplendent in a gown of gossamer, trues spider silk, and so light and airy is seemed to float about her. She walked over to my friend’s unconscious form.

“She faired well enough. Certainly, she gave herself to the part, and though it was not a part I would have chosen for her, she seemed to embrace it with great passion, for all that she lacked the skill. Lord Oberon, it seems to me she might benefit more from your attention than mine.”

“You would give her to me, my queen?” Oberon also stood in our group, taller by a head than even Titania, he would have been imposing enough even without his antlers.

“If you would have her, she is yours. I find my attention drawn to another.” The queen turned towards me, and glanced about, looking for whoever might be standing near who might have caught her eye. She laughed. “Can you doubt that it is you, my dear? All that is fair, all that is kind, all that is compassion and selflessness, these things you embody and show yourself to be a truly remarkable young woman. I would nurture this nature within you if you would permit.”

I looked around me nervously for the second time in as many seconds. I mean sure, I was wearing my friend’s plum coloured prom dress, but did I really look enough like a girl to fool this the queen of fairies? She was waiting patiently for a response, but I sensed a limit to that patience, and its proximity.

Puck’s impish smile caught my eye and he cocked an eyebrow at me. It was enough of a prompt.

I curtsied, perhaps a little clumsily. “It would be very much my honour, your majesty.”

“Then it is decided. I shall visit you in your dreams, child, and together we shall draw out the girl inside you until she is all there is. Lord Oberon, I would enjoy your company for what remains of this night.” With that she turned and was gone, vanished back into the night.

Oberon reached out a hand to the recumbent form of my friend, who stirred gently. “Sleep now, fair child. We shall find such sport in your dreams, and through them, you shall grow into your fullness as should always have been.

“Faithful Puck, you have done well this night. Perhaps it will not be so long ere I call upon you once again. For now, my queen awaits, and I am as eager as she to discover what else remains to us this night. Fairwell all.”

A twitch of his cloak and he too was gone, leaving us all with Puck alone.

“This adventure is ended for you all,” he said, winking especially at me. In a moment you will sleep, and when you wake, you will remember little enough of what passed here. Whatever you may have learned in your hearts, that will remain, but dreams are like cobwebs in the breeze. You see them for a moment, and then they are gone.

“I thank you, fair mortals, for bringing substance to my tale.” He turned to face me. “And you I thank above all for embracing your true self. May my queen’s attentions be reward enough, just as I hope my king’s will be for your companion.

“Fair thee well, one and all. May you wake from here to find yourselves in the lives you truly deserve. Perhaps we shall meet again in our dreams.”

He backed away, and as he did, the forest around us faded to deepest black. Even the shapes of my friends and family around me darkened until I was alone.

Nearly.

“Are you still here?” I asked.

“Of course,” she said. “I’m never leaving you again.”

“Are you sure about this?”

“Absolutely. I never liked any of this stuff anyway. Not for me, I mean. It should look amazing on you.”

“But there has to be thousands of quids worth of clothes here.”

“Hey, my mum can afford it. Besides exchange is no robbery.”

“Oh come on, the stuff I’ve brought you is barely worth a couple of hundred.”

“So if my mum had bought things like that for me in the first place, maybe she’d have a bit more in the savings account. Look, it’s fine. None of these things fit me anymore in any case.”

“I’d noticed.” It had only been two days in since the party, and my friend had somehow grown significantly taller and broader across the chest. There was still something of the pixie-like beauty in the face, but even that was looking more rugged. “What does your mum make of the changes?”

“She’s freaked out, naturally. The doctors already said they’re not planning to start me on hormones for a few years yet, so she thinks I’m getting hold of some on the sly.”

“You’re not, are you?”

“Of course not! Do you think I’m stupid or something?” He was understandably affronted.

“No, no! I mean obviously you’re not, but I don’t know, I had to ask.”

“Yeah well, you’re one to talk.”

He’d noticed too. I let my hair drop in front of my face, half hiding my smile. Only half hiding you understand. I mean I did want him to see I was pleased. I hugged myself, feeling the small but sensitive swellings on my chest press against the fabric of my clothes.

“I suppose so,” I said. “I mean different results, but I guess we’re the same in getting what we want.” I twirled on the spot, allowing my skirt to rise up and swirl around my knees. My skin was smoother than it had been two days ago, my hips broader and my waist narrower. My face was more delicate too. Every time I’d looked in the mirror these past couple of days, I’d seen more of the girl inside me and less of the nobody I had been. “I’ve done nothing to make this happen. Not that I’m complaining.”

“Me neither. How about your folks? How are they dealing with it?”

I flinched a little. I couldn’t help it, even though the situation wasn’t as bad as it had been. “Mum’s kind of okay with it. Freaked out like yours, but overall accepting it. That chat she had with your mum helped a lot. My stepdad still hates it. He’s been a lot quieter since the party, but you can see it in his eyes.”

“I still don’t understand why your mum didn’t go to the police after what he did to you.”

I raised a hand involuntarily to my neck. I was wearing a scarf to hide the bruising, which still looked pretty nasty. I took control of my hand and changed direction, touching the lump on his temple as gently as I could. “What about you?” I asked. “He did a number on you too.”

He winced and backed out of reach. “It’s not that bad. Not even a concussion.”

“What did you tell the doctor?”

“Mum said I fell out of a tree, which is kind of believable with me. She did want to get the police involved, but your mum pleaded with her not to, so…”

“Yeah. I think my mum figures having his son collapse like that was enough for him to cope with. I’m not sure she’s right, but…” I shrugged.

“How is your brother?”

“Stepbrother.” The correction was automatic after years of trying to distance myself from him. “He’s doing okay. They kept him in the hospital for observation, which I’m taking to mean they have no idea what’s wrong with him. They’re saying something about emotional stress, which you can imagine my stepdad really hates. When we visited earlier, he made some muttered remark about not another fairy in the family. Mum gave him an acid glare which shut him up pretty quick, but you get the idea. He’s not changed much, just burying it.”

“Hey, at least your mum’s out from under his thumb.”

“It’s not enough though. He’s keeping his head down for now, but I get the feeling that when the dust settles he’ll be back to his old self. I think Mum’s looking for some sign that he’s changed, but she’s already dropped a hint or two sounding out how I’d feel if it were just the two of us again.”

“That’s good though, right?”

“Kind of. I mean I wouldn’t miss him for a second, but I hate to think what would happen to my brother.”

“I thought he made your life hell.”

“He did, but I’ve been thinking. When I look back, pretty much the only thing he ever does to make my life miserable is tell his dad something he thinks will get me in trouble.”

“So?”

“Don’t you get it? He’s looking for an ataboy. Can you imagine what it’s been like been like for him growing up with just him and his dad? I think the concern he’s shown these past few days is pretty much the only recognition he’s ever given my brother. Right now he gets something from Mum and me, but If Mum kicks them to the kerb, they’ll be back to square one.”

“You’re too kind-hearted for your own good, you know that?”

“I’m not really, but I wouldn’t wish that sort of thing on anyone, not even someone as annoying as my stepbrother has been. Besides, he’s been trying these past few days. He’s still weirded out by me, but he tries to say nice things. He told me he liked my dress today.”

“It is a pretty dress.”

“Yeah, but think about it from his point of view.”

“So what then? Shall we get the cops involved and get your stepdad sent to prison after all? Your stepbrother would end up staying with you then, wouldn’t he?”

I shook my head. “For some unnamed reason he still sees his dad as his hero. It would crush him to see the old git go to prison. That and he’d hate us for being the reason his dad was arrested.”

“What then?”

“I guess we let things play out and do what we can.”

We drifted into a silence which lasted long enough to become uncomfortable. He gave in first.

“So, er… has anyone asked you to the prom yet?”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“No. A pretty girl like you, you must have them lining up to ask.”

“Really not. They all know who this pretty girl was last week.”

“Would you consider going with me?”

The rush of adrenaline knocked my breath out of me.

“It’s just I thought it would solve a lot of problems. My Mum doesn’t like the idea of me going out with girls, and like you said…”

“Is that the only reason why you’re asking? That this is convenient?”

“No, of course not. I mean it’s a reason, but not the only one, not even the main one. I mean I pretty much feel for you the first time I saw you sitting on that step out in the garden, and when you put on my prom dress…”

“My prom dress now.”

“Okay, your prom dress. When I saw you wearing it, you blew me away. And you’re so much prettier now, and…”

“Yes. Yes, I would love to go with you, but on one condition. You let me pay for your tux. It’ll help me feel a little less guilty about all this.”

“Deal. It’ll mean I can afford a limo to take us.”

“You don’t have to.”

“I know, but I want to. Nothing but the best for my girl.”

I looked up at him. It registered in the back of my mind that we’d been pretty much the same height when we’d first met, so how was he half a head taller than me now? This time the silence was saturated with expectation. I could see in his eyes that he wanted to kiss me, and a big part of me wanted him to. Another part wanted to wait for the prom, for that perfect moment in that perfect evening. I turned away just as he started to make his move.

“I’d better take these down,” I said picking up one of the boxes of clothes. “Mum’s in the car, and she’ll be wondering what we’re up to.”

“I’ll give you a hand.” He recovered quickly and picked up the other, larger, box and squeezed past me into the corridor, where he paused. “A bit of a random question,” he said. “Are you…?”

“Am I what?”

“Nothing. Stupid idea.”

“Am I having weird dreams?”

“Like running through the forest, chasing after wild animals? Or wrestling in the moonlight with this enormous guy with a crazy set of antlers on his head?”

“Mine are a little more sedate,” I said. “I’m in a forest, like you, but with a group of really beautiful women. We sit about chatting about… well about women’s things I suppose. Sometimes we bathe together, and do each other’s hair.” I laughed nervously. “It seems a little tame after what you’re describing, but there’s this one woman, very striking, tall and regal and so serene. Whenever she brushes my hair or washes me, it’s like some of her essence flows into me. I know that doesn’t make sense, but…”

“No, it makes perfect sense. All the while I’m doing things with this person in my dream, it’s as though his strength is flowing into me.”

“Do you think this is what might be making us, you know, change?”

“I really don’t know, but does it matter?”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s like I don’t know how my phone works, but it doesn’t stop me appreciate having one. I’m just glad this is happening.”

“Yeah, me too.”

We headed down to the car where Mum opened the boot so we could fill it.

“So, I’ll be around to pick you up at seven on Friday.”

“I’ll be waiting. Send me the bill for your tux.”

“Sure.”

He didn’t sound convincing. I tried a pout on for size. “I mean it, otherwise maybe I won’t be waiting.”

“Okay, okay, I’ll send it, only be there, alright?”

I let me lips relax into a smile, which seemed to be their default setting whenever he was around.

“I’ll see you Friday, and thanks for, you know, all this.”

“You’re welcome.” His smile seemed to come just as easily. He sauntered back into his house and I slid into the passenger seat next to Mum.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

“Never better. How about you?”

“Oh, I’m fine.” It was a phrase she was quite practiced at. Usually I didn’t believe her, but this time I more or less did. “What was that all about?”

“He asked me to the prom this Friday.”

“He?”

“Get used to it Mum. There are a lot of us changelings about, and we’re not keeping to the shadows anymore.”

A movement caught my eye and I turned to look. Hidden deep in the shadows of a nearby hedge a sharply defined, impish face grinned back at me with mischievous glee. Then the breeze stirred the leaves and the shaped broke up. A trick of the eye, still it stirred the ghost of a memory. I smiled and whispered quietly to myself.

“I do believe in faeries.”

-Fin-