Chapter 3

Petal Mara was a loving child, brought up in a loving family. When she grieved those around her grieved too. Yet there was a puzzle in what ailed her, for there was a fierceness in her grief unlike the gentleness of former days.

She would not be comforted. She would not listen to pleas for enlightenment. She would be alone.

In the Mara household this was an impossible thing. The thoughtless jovial spirit of young Joshie, her little brother, could not be avoided nor suppressed so Petal had but one option, to flee, to create a distance from loving kindness that refused to understand.

Narman Berry had proferred some clue to the girl's behaviour and there was a sort of belief her parents understood.

"These creatures are sweet and harmless," her father said through an open window for Petal's door was locked. "They serve no purpose and were unnaturally made."

"Animated litter!" Petal spat back unkindly. "That's what a speechifier of the Anti-fairy League said. A flying paper cup that should be plucked out of the air and incinerated." Thus that attempt at reconciliation ended.

"A hundred years ago," Granny Moldor mumbled softly by the girl's bed, for this frail and loving creature had been let in out of deep respect. "A hundred years ago these little colourful scraps did not exist and Greenvale was no less a pleasant and peaceful land for their absence." She chuckled thoughtfully a moment, remembering. "They do get in one's hair. Granny Thrums was left completely bald when one of the dears swooped down thinking to pluck a strand only to come away with a complete nest. Don't tell anyone I told you that story. She won't speak to me again and she makes such wonderful peach jelly." Like her granddaughter the elderly lady had a very sweet tooth, though toothless withall.

"Why Gran, must they be exterminated? Just for pulling hair?"

The old lady sighed.

"They say there's a thing about them. Some disease or some pollution. Read it in those reports. Recent investigation, recent discoveries, recent conclusion. All so sudden. So they got a vote and that League, can't say I mind them much, they got a budget to set up trappers and hunters and even licences for a bit of sport."

Petal gasped and sat up on her bed where she had been coiled in tight despair.

"It's cruel and inhuman. They're murderers!" she cried.

"I think they liken it to culling flowers or some souless thing that don't think or feel pain. Because there's a deviousness about the critters, that gives some folk a sporting thrill to bring them to heel. Can't murder a flower now can we?" and she shook her grey locks. Petal could see the matter weighed heavily on her and she hugged the frail lady in gratefulness at even a reluctant show of sympathy.

Petal's boy cousins were boys and the thought of bagging a fairy at a bounty seemed a matter of high delight. Village boys were recruited as beaters and hunting packs were incorporated with gruesome names like Winged Massacre and Flight of Death. All amounting to extreme horror for the girl who had heard a fairy laugh.

One glimmer of hope prevailed. The High Council had received a majority vote in the western districts to exterminate the flying pests but the other areas had not put the matter before their leaders and those in the south were vehemently opposed to the measure. The fact few fairies had ever been spotted south of Pretty Falls undermined their position and debates raged on. Simply put, no hunting or extermination plan could legally exist unless the whole of Greenvale was in agreement. The Baron's Accord, the High Councils and the Harvest Guilds all had a say, though a disproportionate one.

"Councils outweigh all the others put together," Narman gleefully said. "They'll sway the vote once the south gets a sight of those scientific reports." He wasn't being cruel, just hooked upon the arguments, wordy battles in a peaceful land being a heady replacement for war that he could only read about in old Winkel histories. People raising fists, marching like armies and chanting slogans made his excited boy's heart thump with eagerness for the fray, even if the subject was the slaying of harmless little things rarely seen and rarely felt. It was intoxicating to his action starved soul.

Petal would hear no more of it. Satisfied the Winged Massacre and other such groups were powerless without the mandate of Greenvale's leaders, she took herself off in the saddle of a well-supplied bouncy buggy, aiming to hit the high grasslands above Pretty Falls, a place notorious for an infestation of dangerous fairies. If the vote for extermination became law, Petal had imagined herself camping amid the grassy tangles and scattered copses as a guardian of the defenceless, though her protective shield might be nothing more than words of mercy.

Now she merely set up camp there to be alone with the miracle of life that she knew the little creatures represented.

"You can murder a flower," she said to herself as she pinged a message to her mother to say she was summer hazing, a local term for camping out for the night. From where she had positioned herself she could see through that summer haze a whole series of mountains and deep valleys for the high grasslands commanded a splendid prospect. She wondered not for the first time if the fairies chose certain places to linger because of their natural beauty. Would that not suggest they were more than just animated scraps of paper fluttering in a breeze?

After a meal Petal sat crosslegged on the edge of a cluster of bana trees, bright with purple blossoms that wafted sweet scented air around the meditative girl. She listened for the chirping sounds, the buzzing of wings and recalled the fairies did something clever when they sought to seize upon someone's hair. They glided silently to get close undetected and then in a tangled moment escaped with their prize. Sometimes though it seemed as if the mere sensation of entanglement was all they sought, exploring each lock of hair as if in search of a particular strand, and then flying away without so much as a tug.

Petal closed her eyes and remained still, listening, willing some winged creature to settle upon her and explore her scalp to her heart's content, if fairies had hearts of course. All she heard were the sighing winds of a warm afternoon, and faint cries from the nearby settlement of Pretty Falls and its busy inn next to the rumbling water that was a constant backdrop of sound to the whole area.

"Talk to me," Petal said to the grasses around. "Tell me your secrets."

"Ain't got none," came a distant mutter that startled the girl and she opened her eyes.

"Granny Moldor!" she gasped as the elder huffed her way through thick grass to where Petal's tent was erected.

"What? You think I'm too old for summer hazing?" Answering her own question she collapsed in a heap near the bana blossoms, pots and pans strapped to her rucksack clattering together, as loud a sound as a cascade of utensils tumbling over a cliff.

"What are you doing all the way out here?" Petal asked once she had settled the old lady comfortably and plied her with flavoured water.

"Got to thinking," came the terse reply. Then there was some incoherent mumbling as if the thread of her thoughts escaped her a moment before she grasped them vigorously. "Killing them little fairies is like murder to my reckoning. Don't know how, but it feels like it."

Petal clapped gleefully, delighted to have someone on her side at last.

"Besides," she said in a voice carrying a curious solemnity within it. "I ain't ever had the privilege of feeling one of them in my hair. Not in all the time I wandered these lands. Guess I'm too old now, and perhaps if all goes bad for them critters, it'll be too late."