Author's Note: This story didn't start out as a story at all; it was a collection of unrelated scenes I wrote to fight off writer's block. Later I went back, turned it into a story and changed a few details to give it some sort of plot.
The World in The Mirror
Once upon a time there was a girl with a terrible name and two of the worst parents in history. They were the sort of trendy idiots who named their poor daughter "Mackaelah Lindzee" (as I said: a terrible name), fed her all sorts of nonsensical ideas and refused to let her do anything remotely dangerous. Mackaelah couldn't walk to town on her own – didn't you know she might be kidnapped, or hit by a car? – or play too often with other children –they might be a bad influence! - or read anything "unrealistic" – she might believe carpets really could fly or (gasp!) that there were such things as mermaids and fairies, and we mustn't have that!
At the time our story takes place Mackaelah was fifteen, and one of the most insufferable fifteen-year-olds who ever inflicted herself on an unsuspecting world. The day it all started, she made several extremely rude remarks about a schoolmate's parents because said schoolmate had dared to sit at a seat she wanted. The thing that started it all was the schoolmate's sisters locking her in a storage closet as revenge.
Mackaelah threw a tantrum when she discovered the door was locked. She screamed and kicked the door and generally acted in a way that would have been ridiculous for a toddler and was utterly disgraceful in a teenager. Finally she calmed down enough to consider her situation. She could keep screaming and hitting the door until someone heard her and came to investigate, or she could wait for her captors to let her out. She decided to choose the first option.
Now, there was a mirror in the storage closet that had once hung in the library. For some reason or other it had been moved to the closet, and there it remained.
Mackaelah took a step back to give the door the strongest kick she could. She bumped into the mirror – and fell right through it!
She noticed three things almost at once. The first was that it had suddenly gotten much brighter. The second was that she was lying in a grassy field. The third was that someone was crying.
Mackaelah sat up and looked around.
The field was, in fact, a large garden surrounded by a high stone wall. She was lying on the grassy part of it. A few feet away it changed to a mass of rosebushes, and in front of the rosebushes a strange figure knelt, sobbing. It was a girl, but what a strange girl! Her hair and skin both glowed with a strange white light, and her only clothes were a few old sacks stitched haphazardly together to make a sort of dress.
Mackaelah ignored the girl for a moment and thought about the situation she was in. It was impossible that she could have gone from one place to another, completely different place just like that. So, the only plausible explanation was she'd knocked herself out when she bumped into the mirror. She didn't have a headache, but that was entirely beside the point.
Her situation explained to her satisfaction, she lay down and waited to wake up.
She didn't. The girl kept crying in the background. Mackaelah tried to ignore her. For a figment of her imagination, the girl was very hard to ignore.
Finally Mackaelah could stand it no longer. She got up and stormed over to the girl.
"Stop that crying! You're giving me a headache!"
The girl turned to look at her, and Mackaelah got a shock. It was a boy!
The boy seemed just as surprised as she was.
"Who are you?" he asked curiously. "You're not a Light Elf. You're not even a Dark Elf! Are you a Goblin? You're not–" he looked terrified at the mere thought "–a... a Fair One, are you?"
Mackaelah was very offended at being called a Goblin. "Don't be stupid. There are no such things as Elves or Goblins. Now, can you tell me where I am and how I can get back home?"
"You're in Fairyland, of course," said the boy. "But you can't get out of here. I was the Prince of the Light Elves, but the Fair Folk came and killed my parents. They've shut me in this garden and won't let me out until I've pruned all these rosebushes."
Mackaelah knew as much about gardening as she knew about gardening as she knew about fairy-tales – that is to say, nothing but a few vague ideas – and so thought that pruning a rosebush was a quick, easy job. "Well, why don't you?"
"I can't. They cut off my hands." He held up his hands – or where his hands should be – to prove it. Sure enough, someone had cut off his hands. The sight nauseated Mackaelah. It was even more shocking for her than it would have been for a normal girl, for her parents had taken care to ensure she knew as little about injuries as possible (it would frighten her to see anything worse than a skinned knee, after all!).
She sat in silence for a moment. Despite herself she felt sorry for the Prince and wanted to help him, but her parents had told her repeatedly that helping others was a foolish waste of effort. This was really none of her business, anyway. The garden, the Prince, the roses... they were all just figments of her imagination. This was nothing but a dream.
Part of her, the part that hadn't been stifled by years of bad ideas, whispered, So it wouldn't do any harm to help him, would it?
"If you help me get back home, I'll prune them for you."
The Prince brightened up – literally; the glow that already surrounded him became brighter. "I will do my best to help you find your home," he promised.
She got up and gazed dubiously at the rosebushes. "...How exactly do I prune them?"
He gestured to the side of the wall with... where his hand had been. "There are shears over there."
Her hands were slashed and bleeding. She had bitten through her lip with trying to stifle her yelps of pain. Her sleeves were reduced to ribbons. And there were still at least fifty rosebushes to go. Mackaelah took several deep breaths and and tried to gather the courage to continue.
"What's your name?" she asked the Prince to take her mind off her deeply unpleasant self-inflicted task.
She was sure at least a few hours had passed since she started pruning, but the sun remained stubbornly in one position. The hands on the expensive watch her parents had given her for her birthday alternated between sitting in one position and spinning wildly around the clock's face. The Prince had remained sitting on the grass, watching her, the whole time. This annoyed her, even though the logical part of her brain pointed out he could hardly be expected to help when he had no hands.
"Huireraluthchaninual," he replied.
She blinked. "What did you just say?"
He repeated it, and added, "That's my name."
There was a long, awkward pause.
"I can't call you that," said Mackaelah. "I can't even remember it. Do you mind if I call you something else? What about Kegan?"
The Prince looked doubtful. "If that's the best you can do. What's your name?"
"Hmm," said the Prince, who I will continue to refer to as such. "Now there's a difficult name. Do you mind if I call you Gwenrannheciabh?"
There was a longer, more awkward pause.
"Certainly not," Mackaelah snapped when she got her breath back. "You can't just go around renaming people like that." She remained blissfully ignorant to the fact this was what she had just done.
"Have I given you offence?" the Prince asked timidly.
Something about his tone gave her pause. He sounded like a very young, lost child. Not that she had any first-hand experience of young children, lost or otherwise; her parents were of the opinion that one child was quite enough and two the height of selfishness, and so she had no siblings to annoy her into being a better – or at least, more normal – person.
"Yes," she said distractedly. "It's rude to make someone change their name." She didn't seem to realise that he hadn't asked her to change her name. "How old are you?"
"Twenty-two," said the Prince sadly.
"Then you're an adult!" exclaimed Mackaelah in astonishment.
He certainly didn't look twenty-two. In fact, he looked like a ten-year-old.
"An adult?" The Prince looked amazed. "I won't be an adult until I'm fifty. How old are you?"
His eyes widened. "But – But you look like you're at least forty!"
Mackaelah felt offended. How dare anyone say she looked forty! But, if what he said was true, then his species aged at a different rate to humans. So he was younger than she was despite being older than her, and he thought she was older than he was despite... Oh, forget it. Her head began to hurt. All that mattered was, he was a long way from being an adult by the standards of his people.
She was certainly not the sort of person to whom anyone in their right mind would entrust the care of a young child. And so, she wouldn't have had the slightest idea how to cope with an ordinary child. An Elf child – and one who, by his own admission, had been orphaned, maimed, and set an impossible task – was utterly beyond her.
So, she did what her parents and their ilk always did when faced with awkward facts. She ignored them, and went back to pruning the roses.
The sun rose and fell. Mackaelah worked, and paused when the pain in her hands grew too great, and grumbled, and bitterly regretted ever offering to help. The roses seemed utterly determined that they would not be pruned, and if she had been a more imaginative girl she might have thought they were trying to hurt her on purpose. The Prince tried to distract her by telling her about his kingdom, and asking about her world. He was endlessly fascinated by the idea of planes.
But how can metal fly?" he asked as she wrestled with a particularly vicious rose. "Is there a spell on it?"
"Of course not," Mackaelah growled, snipping too eagerly at the rose and cutting it off entirely. "There are no such things as spells. It's all about science. You see–" Here she abruptly broke off. The sum total of her knowledge about planes was "they fly". How they flew she neither knew nor cared. She had been too busy looking at her mobile phone during class to pay attention to her lessons. So, she fell back on another favoured tactic of her parents when confronted with something of which they knew nothing: she made things up.
"They fly because – er – someone invented a way to – er – decrease the weight of the metal until it was lighter than air," she said, and thought that was a very good explanation.
"If that isn't a spell," said the Prince gravely, "then what is?"
Mackaelah, at a loss for words, went back to her work.
Night fell. It was a very strange night. The sun went down and the moon came up, but it was as bright as day. The stars, instead of moving slowly over the course of hours, either moved very quickly or didn't move at all. They went flying from one part of the sky to the next, stopping next to other stars for anything from a few minutes to an hour.
"Why do they do that?" Mackaelah asked, pausing in her work and rubbing at her eyes, which kept sliding closed as the effects of hard work and natural tiredness caught up with her.
"They go to visit their friends," said the Prince, as if she was very stupid.
"Don't be ridiculous. Stars don't have friends; they're just balls of gas."
"They most certainly are not!" The Prince looked outraged. "They're people, just like you and me. They're all related to each other in some way or another, so they sleep during the day and then go visiting at night. Look, do you see those four stars there?"
Mackaelah looked up. Sure enough, a group of four stars glowed in the sky above the garden. Now that the Prince had pointed it out to her, she had to admit they did look like a group of friends exchanging gossip.
"Those are the Kastan siblings," the Prince said, "Urihad, Melcefar, Bran and Gwidoc. They're probably laughing at the Alvalin siblings, over there."
Mackaelah looked where he pointed and saw another group of at least six stars on the other side of the sky.
"The Kastans and the Alvalins don't like each other," the Prince continued. "I don't know why. I suppose someone insulted someone else."
Mackaelah shook her head in despair at this childishness and continued her work.
The sun rose to find Mackaelah finally finishing her task.
"I thought that would never end," she groaned, rubbing her grazed and scratched hands. "See if I ever do something for someone ever again! Hey, Kegan! Where's the person we go to and say this is finished?"
"We have to call them," said the Prince.
He whistled. Or, more accurately, he made a hissing, whispering, trilling sound. The best way I can describe it is by saying it sounded like someone who had never heard birdsong trying to imitate it.
A section of the wall began to rattle. Its bricks flew apart and stacked themselves neatly in a pile. Through the gap stepped an extraordinary figure. At first glance it appeared to be a beautiful woman in a long white dress. But the longer one looked at it, the less human it appeared. Its movements were too graceful and measured; its face was too perfectly beautiful; its dress did not move the way fabric should. It resembled nothing so much as a particularly lifelike doll or puppet: an attempt at mimicking humanity that ended up more frightening than something obviously inhuman.
The figure approached them. It showed no surprise at seeing Mackaelah, or the pruned rosebushes.
It stopped in front of them and smiled. It smiled literally from ear to ear, and showed more teeth than a human mouth could contain.
"Well, Prince, have you finished your task?" it asked gently.
"You asked for the rosebushes to be pruned," he replied. "You can see they have been. You never said I had to prune them."
"Did I not?" The figure continued smiling. Its voice was still perfectly calm and gentle.
"No. Your exact words were, 'You shall remain here until the rosebushes have been pruned. There are shears over there. If they are pruned a week from now, we will return your hands and set you free. If not, we will kill you'."
"Indeed I did," the figure agreed placidly. "You have kept your side of the agreement. I will keep mine. You have your hands; you are free to go."
Mackaelah looked from it to the Prince, and her eyes nearly fell out of her head. He had hands now! But... But...
She began to wonder if this wasn't just a particularly vivid dream. It had to be, no matter how painful the scratches on her hands were. No one ever regrew hands after losing them. Ever.
She was so bewildered by this turn of events that she didn't hear a single word of the Prince's conversation with the figure. When she finally took notice of her surroundings again, she found herself outside the garden, walking down a cobblestone path towards a dark, ominous-looking forest. The Prince walked at her side.
"Where are we going?" she asked. Dream or not, she didn't fancy walking into that forest.
"I'll tell you when we're past the crossroads," the Prince replied, taking care not to look at her. "Don't say anything; we're still within earshot of the palace."
Mackaelah looked over her shoulder. The palace was slightly more than the length of a football field behind them.
There was no path through the forest, yet the Prince led her through it, weaving around trees and bushes, as quickly as if they'd been walking on a paved footpath. Mackaelah's cloth shoes were soaked after a few minutes. Her feet began to hurt. She was out of breath. But the Prince continued on, never pausing for an instant, and it was all she could do to keep up.
At last they reached the end of the forest. They found themselves on a road that was little more than a dirt track. A large boulder lay in the grass by the roadside. Mackaelah collapsed onto it and waited to get her breath back. She was sitting down for less than a minute before the Prince pulled her to her feet again.
"We have to reach the crossroads," he said, starting off down the road. "We're not safe until then."
Mackaelah groaned as she tried to keep up with him. Back home she had viewed walking – or any activity that required moving around – with the revulsion most people reserved for murderers and tax-collectors. Now she was paying the price.
They hurried down the road for at least ten minutes. Then they came to a crossroads.
"We can stop here," the Prince said.
"Finally!" Mackaelah sat down on the grassy verge, too tired to worry about getting her school uniform dirty.
Silence reigned for a while. The sun shone overhead, clouds drifted across the sky, the scent of flowers filled the air, and an occasional butterfly fluttered past. Everything was so peaceful that by the time the Prince spoke again, Mackaelah had half convinced herself that the events of the last day really were a dream, and she was asleep in her bed at home.
"We must go to my kin, the Dark Elves," the Prince said.
Mackaelah immediately snapped back to reality, or whatever currently passed for it.
"Dark Elves?" she repeated. She knew nothing whatsoever about Elves, Dark or otherwise, but it seemed to her that going to anyone with the word "Dark" in their name was a bad idea. "Are they safe?"
"Safe?" the Prince sounded offended at the very idea. "Of course not. Nothing in this world is safe. I'm not safe, and I don't suppose you are either. But they will help us."
Going to the Dark Elves involved walking. A lot of walking. So much walking, in fact, that by the time the Prince stopped and said they were at the edge of the Dark Elves' lands, Mackaelah's canvas shoes were a collection of holes held together by a few strands of string, and she might as well have been walking barefoot.
The strange thing was, no time at all seemed to have passed since they set out. Mackaelah's legs ached, she had a terrible stitch in her side, sweat ran in rivulets down her face, and she was so out of breath you'd have thought she'd just run a marathon, but the sun was still in the position it had been in when they started. Try as she might, Mackaelah couldn't remember a single thing about the country they'd walked through.
She straightened up and looked around her. What she saw was enough to strike despair into her heart. They were in a snowy, rocky wasteland. There was no other road for it. No trees grew. No grass grew. No birds sang. The ground was hard rock, and snow covered everything. It wasn't the fluffy, powdery snow that children love to play in (not that Mackaelah had ever played in snow – she might get a chill, after all). It was the dirty, slushy sort of snow you saw on busy footpaths; the sort of snow that had been trodden on so many times that it was practically ice.
Mackaelah looked at this desolate area, then down at her almost-nonexistent shoes. Under the circumstances, the misery she felt was understandable. She reacted the way she always did when things didn't go as she liked: she threw a tantrum. This never failed to get her what she wanted when her parents were around – it might hurt her feelings if she was denied anything! – but it was of no use here.
"I don't want to go any further!" she whined, sounding like a toddler. "I won't! I want to go home!"
All right, then," said the Prince. "You can stay here. I'll go on alone."
Mackaelah stopped whining now it seemed she'd gotten her way. She sat down on a relatively snow-free rock and watched as the Prince headed further into the wilderness, towards a sheer cliff that rose up about half a mile away and was so high that clouds hid the top of it.
She saw there for some minutes. Gusts of cold wind swept past her, chilling her to the bone. She shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. Out of the corner of her eye she saw something move. She looked round. Nothing there.
She couldn't say when she began to feel that someone was watching her. The sensation crept up on her so gradually that she never noticed it until she felt as if a dozen hostile eyes were glaring at her from all directions. She dealt with this in another tried and tested way: she complained.
"It's not fair," she grumbled, sounding like a four-year-old who'd been told they had to eat their dinner before getting any dessert. "I didn't ask to come to this horrid place, where everyone's crazy and nothing makes sense. I want to go home! I want a nice hot hamburger and a bottle of lemonade and plenty of chocolate! I want new shoes and clothes, and better ones than anyone else has! I want – Eek!"
She had some reason for screaming. An icy sensation shot down her spine. It felt like someone with freezing-cold fingers had sneaked up behind her and run their fingers down her back. She leapt up and looked around. There was nothing to be seen but the cold, empty wasteland.
Mackaelah sat down again and continued to complain aloud about everything from the scratches she'd received from the bushes, which still stung, to a nasty remark a girl had made about her yesterday (which had been provoked by an even nastier one from Mackaelah; something she conveniently forgot).
She leapt up with a scream. Someone had grabbed her arm! But there was still no one there.
This was the last straw. Mackaelah ran after the Prince, her tantrum forgotten. Behind her, she could have sworn she heard the high-pitched, cheerful laughter of children. She didn't dare look round. She could already guess what would be there if she did: nothing.
When she finally caught up with him, the Prince did not look at all surprised to see her.
"I thought you'd change your mind," was all he said. "Now hurry up. We're almost there."
'There' turned out to be the base of the cliff. Viewed from directly beneath, it was even taller and more imposing than it had been from a distance, and – most puzzling of all – it was as smooth as glass. Mackaelah looked all around them, but couldn't see what they had come here for.
"Here we are," said the Prince.
"Where–" Mackaelah began, then broke off in amazement. "What are you doing?"
He had dropped to the ground and was wriggling through a narrow gap in the cliff face. It crossed her mind that he looked like a glowing, humanoid snake. She shuddered and pushed that thought out of her mind. She hated snakes.
"This is the way in," he said, his voice muffled. He added something else, but she couldn't hear what it was.
Mackaelah hesitated. The thought of crawling through a hole to find who-knew-what on the other side made her shudder. So did the thought of staying out here, in the cold, empty wilderness. And who knew if the Prince would remember to come back for her?
A child's laugh rang out behind her. She looked round. There was still nothing there.
That decided it. Crawling through a hole to an uncertain destination was infinitely preferable to staying out here, with invisible children.
She knelt down and studied the gap. It was too small to crawl through. She would have to lie down and wriggle through it, like the Prince had.
"Why me?" she complained aloud. "What did I do to deserve this?"
The invisible child laughed again. Mackaelah threw herself down flat on the ground and slithered through the gap at a remarkable speed. She could just about cope with cut-off hands, living stars and long walks, but disembodied laughter was too much.
She regretted her decision the moment she was fully in the tunnel. It was so small that the walls, ceiling and floor pressed in on her from all sides. The air was stale. Her every move stirred up dust that made her cough. She tried to move back, but her feet bumped into a wall of rock.
Now that she had some reason to be miserable, Mackaelah felt much less miserable and much more angry than she had a minute ago. How dare this wretched tunnel be so unpleasant? She'd go through it just to spite it, even if it killed her!
Slowly, uncomfortably, she slid forward. Dust got under her clothes and in her eyes. She gritted her teeth and moved onward.
The air became colder the further she went, but it was mercifully less stale. An icy breeze drafted down the tunnel and chilled her to the bone. The stones in the walls grazed her arms. She kept her mouth and eyes shut and continued down the tunnel.
Finally the tunnel opened out into a cavern. Mackaelah staggered to her feet and dusted off her clothes.
"There you are!"
She looked up. Three tunnels – mercifully wider than the one she had just crawled through – led out of the cavern, and the Prince had appeared at the mouth of one.
"I was beginning to think you weren't coming," he said.
It cost Mackaelah a great deal to hold her tongue.
The Dark Elves, it turned out, lived up to their name. Their skin was jet black, and a strange black aura – it made no sense to say a black glow, but that was the best word for it – surrounded them. Mackaelah, with her pink skin and blonde hair, and the Prince, with his white hair and skin and white glow, stood out like sore thumbs.
Mackaelah stood awkwardly at the wall of the large chamber, watching the Dark Elves throng around the Prince and talk at the top of their lungs in their incomprehensible language. They sounded like a swarm of jackdaws chattering. Mackaelah didn't like not being able to understand them; who knew what they were saying?
Someone touched her shoulder. She almost jumped out of her skin and turned to glare at the person. It was a Dark Elf; she thought it was a female, but it was hard to tell with the black "glow".
"I wish to speak with you, child," the Dark Elf said. Its voice was female.
"Who are you?" Mackaelah asked dubiously.
"I am Diarhinmiseddgairelochbhile. I brought you here."
Mackaelah's jaw dropped. She spluttered, trying to find words.
"How?" she demanded. "And why?"
"How is easy; I placed a spell on every mirror around you. I knew that sooner or later you would touch one, and when you did the spell would pull you through time and space to Fairyland. The spell could only affect you, for I restricted it to only people with your exact name and your exact spelling of your name. Why is more complicated to explain. You have heard of fairy godmothers?"
Mackaelah nodded slowly. "They're characters in stupid stories."
"Perhaps you would have been better off if you had read a few of those 'stupid' stories," muttered Diar. "To return to the subject of fairy godmothers, their name is misleading. Fairies are not the only ones who can be fairy godmothers, nor is the role restricted to women; the only requirement is that one resides in Fairyland.
"I am your fairy godmother. Since your birth it has been my duty to watch over you and do my best to make a half-way decent creature out of you. I have been thwarted at every turn by your parents – heaven only knows what sort of godparents they have – and later by you yourself. After much deliberation I decided the best thing for you was to take you away from their influence and force you to do something for others. So, I brought you here, to Prince Huireraluthchaninual."
Mackaelah listened in silence, getting angrier and angrier with every word. Finally she couldn't stand it any more.
"You can't just kidnap people like that!" she burst out – rather too loudly. Every head in the room turned to see what was happening. Embarrassed, she continued, more quietly, "It's against the law!"
"Against your laws, perhaps. We have no such laws here." Diar did not look remotely perturbed by this. "Your kidnapping, as you put it, did you good, which is all that matters. Before coming here you would never have considered helping others, or doing anything that would cause you discomfort."
Mackaelah was livid. She knew next to nothing about fairies, elves or fairy godmothers of any kind, and so didn't know that they had utterly alien moral codes.
"It's not right!"
"Here we are not concerned about what is right; only about what works." Diar spoke as calmly as if she had been talking about the weather.
Mackaelah found herself at a complete loss for words.
"Send me back!" she demanded once she recovered her breath.
"I'm afraid it's not that simple. You see, you must prove once and for all that you have truly changed for the better. The quickest and easiest way to do that would be to make a sacrifice for someone else, but it must be out of no self-interest whatsoever. In other words, you must do something unpleasant for someone simply for its own sake, not to be returned home."
Mackaelah gritted her teeth. "What sort of sacrifice?"
"Something like, say, giving your dinner to someone who hasn't got any, or keeping watch all though the night so someone else can sleep."
Here their conversation ended. A commotion arose among the assembled Elves. Mackaelah looked to see what was happening. Groups of people were running off in different directions, and the remaining Elves were gathered around the Prince and chattering to each other.
"The council has reached a decision. We are going to war against the Fair Folk," said Diar.
"Why?" Mackaelah wondered.
"To avenge the deaths of the Prince's parents, our kin."
Mackaelah was never certain how it happened, but within an hour of the Dark Elves gathering their army – had she known anything about armies, she might have thought this one assembled very quickly – they were marching across the country she and the Prince had travelled earlier. Why she came along, she couldn't say. It seemed to have been taken for granted she would be accompanying them, and before she could disabuse them of this notion she found herself sitting on a unicorn trotting alongside the Prince. He was wearing a thick black cloak that hid the white glow around him. The Dark Elves had no need of such cloaks; they were naturally so dark that they became invisible to human eyes after sunset.
She had been given new shoes, a knife (the Elf who gave it to her assured her it was merely for self-defence) and strange new clothes. The clothes were made of a strange material that was like silk, and yet clearly not silk.
"What are these clothes made of?" she asked the Prince curiously.
"Spiderwebs," he replied.
She wished she hadn't asked.
Night had fallen, and the stars were still racing around the sky. Some of them stopped overhead, and she got the oddest sense that they were the equivalent of bystanders come to gawk at a marching army.
One of the stars came lower, and lower, until it ceased to be a glowing orb and she could see it was a person: a strange, elongated person almost like a stick drawing.
"Hail, Elves!" it cried in a voice like a ringing bell. "Why are you so far from home?"
"Hail Melcefar weru-Kastan!" replied one of the Elves. "We go to avenge a wrong."
The star appeared satisfied with this answer, for it shot back up into the air to join a group of other stars. Mackaelah couldn't help feeling it was telling them what it had heard.
Mackaelah was almost asleep on her unicorn by the time they stopped in a clearing.
"What's happening now, Kegan?" she asked the Prince sleepily.
"We have to stay here," he replied in a low voice. "We're too young to fight."
Once Mackaelah would have taken great offense at being considered "too young" to do anything. Now, however, she was too tired to care about it, and besides, she didn't want to fight. Fights were dangerous.
She got down from her unicorn, sat down on the grass with her back to a tree trunk, and promptly went to sleep.
She slept through the army leaving. She slept through the distant sounds of a battle. She slept through the Prince pacing around the clearing. She slept through a group of stars descending to have a chat with the Prince. She slept through everything, in fact, until a terrible sound rang out. It was a horse's scream, but she didn't know that. She woke up abruptly and stared.
Her unicorn was dead, its stomach slashed open and its internal organs spilled over the ground. The Prince's unicorn was dying, its throat cut and its legs twitching weakly. Standing over it was a figure very like the one that had appeared in the garden, and it was pinning the Prince against a tree and holding a knife at his throat.
"It was a mistake to let you live," it was saying. "Now I will remedy that mistake."
It raised the knife.
Mackaelah jumped up, with no thought in mind except to save her friend.
"Hey, you!" she shouted, waving her arms.
The figure turned to her and bared its teeth. If she hadn't known better, she'd have said its teeth were made of metal. It left the Prince and advanced towards her like a wolf stalking its prey. Mackaelah backed away. Her hand brushed against the knife in its leather holder at her side. She drew it and held it in front of her as she backed slowly away. The figure laughed.
"You think that will stop me?" it asked. "You don't even known how to use it."
This was unfortunately true. The full extent of Mackaelah's knowledge of using weapons could be summed up as "point them in the general direction of the enemy". She did this. It had no effect on the figure beyond distracting it.
Its distraction proved its undoing. While it was advancing on Mackaelah, it forgot all about the Prince. He pulled his knife from its holder and crept up behind the figure.
Mackaelah's back collided with a tree trunk. The figure was mere inches in front of her. It raised the knife –
It screamed, a terrible, gurgling sound. The Prince had plunged his knife between its ribs, into its heart.
Its body fell to the ground and began to writhe and squirm like a snake. It still clutched its knife; with the last of its strength it twisted round and stabbed at the Prince. Mackaelah lunged forward – to grab the creature's arm or shove the Prince out of the way, she couldn't say.
A sharp stabbing pain shot through her leg. She looked down. The knife was embedded in her thigh, and bright red blood gushed from the wound.
Oh, she thought, remarkably calmly for someone who'd just been stabbed. That doesn't look good.
The world blurred around her and went dark.
Mackaelah buried her face in her pillow with a groan. It was too bright! The light hurt her eyes.
"Are you awake?" a voice asked.
"No," she replied groggily, her voice muffled by the pillow. "Turn off that light; it's far too early for–"
The memory of the events in the clearing came back to her all at once. She sat bolt upright, suddenly wide awake.
"Oh, good, you are awake!" the Prince said cheerfully. He sat in a chair beside her bed. He was the source of the light.
There were many things Mackaelah wanted to say. 'Where am I?' for a start, since she was in a room that strongly resembled a miniature hospital ward. 'Why doesn't my leg hurt?' for another, because there wasn't the faintest twinge of pain from her leg and she was fairly sure that wasn't normal.
What she said instead was, "I was lying. About planes."
The Prince looked baffled.
"They don't actually make them lighter than air," she continued. "I made that up because I wanted to look smart."
"I see," the Prince said, sounding as if he didn't see at all.
"Ah, you're awake." Diar swept into the room as if she owned it. "Good. It's time you were on your way home."
Mackaelah gaped. "Home? But didn't you say–"
"Yes, I did say," Diar agreed. "I said you couldn't go home until you proved you had truly changed. Being injured while protecting someone else fulfils that requirement. We've healed you, so now you can go home."
"...Oh," was all Mackaelah could say.
It had happened so gradually she couldn't say when it had started, but going home had lost its appeal. Go home? Go back to a world of rules and warm clothes and "you can't do this – it's dangerous!"? Leave a world where there were Elves and living stars? Did she really want to do that?
Of course you want to do that, a little voice whispered. It sounded like her parents. This world is dangerous.
So is home, returned another little voice.
You could be killed here, the first voice said.
You could be killed at home, too, the second voice said.
Mackaelah settled the dispute by asking, "When I go home... can I come back?"
"Certainly, child," Diar said. She handed Mackaelah a small silver hand mirror. "Touch the glass to go home. Touch it again to return, and again to go home."
Mackaelah stared at the mirror. It looked like an ordinary mirror, except for the strange symbols carved around the edges.
"Well," she began awkwardly, "goodbye, Fairy Godmother and Huir... Huirer..."
"Huireraluthchaninual," said the Prince. "Goodbye until your next visit... Gwenrannheciabh."
Mackaelah took a deep breath, reached out, and touched the glass.
There was a terrible sensation of falling, then of being upside down. She squeezed her eyes tightly closed and waited for the feelings to fade. Once they did, she opened her eyes.
She was back in the school storage closet, in her school uniform. The only proof she hadn't dreamt it all was the mirror in her hand.
She took a deep breath and pushed the door. It opened.