By Harriet N. Darling
I reached for Mom’s hand as we entered the empty, echoing house where I used to live with both my parents. Now that Daddy was gone, the large house seemed abandoned and haunted, not like the warm, comfortable place it had been just a week ago. Mom closed the front door and eased her hand out of mine.
“JoAnne,” she said, her voice rough, “you go on upstairs and fix your hair. You’re thirteen now; you don’t need to look like a bag lady. I’ll wait for our guests in the living room. They should be here any minute now.”
“Mom, wait a minute. Aren’t you sorry Daddy’s gone?” I asked, standing on the bottom step.
“You didn’t cry at all during the service or at the cemetery.”
“Of course I’m sorry, JoAnne,” Mom snapped, turning away without a smile. “Don’t be silly. Now go on up and make yourself presentable.”
“But why didn’t you cry, if you’re sorry?” I didn’t bother to wipe my tears away. Mom was already in the living room and might not have heard the question, but I knew the answer. Mom wasn’t sorry—she was relieved. Though they’d been married for more than fifteen years, as far as I could tell they’d been unhappy my entire life.
My father had been my devoted coach since I first took up the harp when I was five. His coaching led to my current status as one of the leading junior harpists in the country. And now that awful disease, cancer, had taken him from me. What would I do without him? I wasn’t sure I even wanted to play the harp again. And even if I did, who could coach me like Daddy had? Who could help me keep on improving, as I’d have to do if I planned to join the symphony orchestra in five years?
I pulled a brush through my unruly hair and the tears started again. Daddy had been a wonderful father, especially considering how distant and remote Mom had become. Daddy had always got a kick out of taking me to the zoo or the children’s playhouse; he even enjoyed shopping with me when I needed new shoes or jeans. Mom was always too busy. But Daddy and I had had lots of fun together, going to the beach, or driving alone to concerts, or having picnics in the back yard. Mom only wanted to clean house and cook. She was pretty good about helping me with my homework, but even then she could become very impatient with me, where Daddy always had a kiss and a smile for me.
Finished with my hair, I glanced into the mirror. I looked as if I’d been crying for a week—which I had, but Mom would not be happy if her guests saw me like this. Maybe I’d sneak away and take a walk in my secret garden; they’d never miss me.
I drifted quietly down the stairs and through the house to the back door, adroitly avoiding the sympathetic neighbors and pitying cousins who stood around eating Mom’s baked goods.
Crossing the back yard quickly, I slipped through a small gate that led into the woods and my secret garden where flowers grew wild and the trees and bushes seemed like old friends. As I strolled among the flowers, thinking about times I’d come here in the past, I thought I heard harp music from far off. It wasn’t clear, but it somehow made me feel calmer. I wished I could hear it better—the tune was something I could swear I’d heard before.
Suddenly, the realization of Daddy’s death hit me again and I sank down on a large white rock for a while, just letting myself feel the pain. Something shiny caught my eye and, when I turned, I thought something slipped behind a tree. I stared for a while but saw nothing else, and then my eyes closed; I might have dozed off in the sunny warmth. But then I noticed a motion directly across from my rock. It was at the outer edge of a wide grassy circle, and a shaft of sunlight shone directly onto the grass. The sun sparkled in several places on the grassy spot, and then one of those sparkles rose into the air and drifted near me.
When it was about two feet away, I saw that the sparkles were on the hair, fingers and feet of a tiny fairy. Her dainty wings fluttered as the creature hung in the air, looking directly at me. I stared back boldly, wondering if I was hallucinating. The fairy was soon joined by three others, sparkling and fluttering like hummingbirds. I studied them; each fairy wore a tiny tiara on wavy pink hair, and a filmy gown and tiny high-heeled sandals that glittered with jewels. The gowns were pale green, blue, pink, or lavender, and were cut low on gently sloping bosoms. More jewels gleamed on their hands.
You must be JoAnne. This just came into my mind, unspoken. Not certain I’d really heard anything at all, I nodded slowly and said aloud, “Yes, my name is JoAnne. Are you fairies?”
We are what humans call fairies, yes, I thought I heard. The quartet fluttered closer to me, one at a time, and I could see their eyes. They were of varying shades of blue, and their features were very different from one another.
“Is this your garden?” I asked, ready to leave if they didn’t want me here. “I hope I’m not intruding.”
No, you do not intrude. You are in pain.
“Yes,” I admitted, and the tears began to fall again. “My father died, and we had his funeral this morning.”
Shall we take your pain away? The fairies fluttered together, holding hands and circling in the air in front of me.
“Oh, no,” I said. “I don’t think that would be right. I do miss my father and it hurts, but I have to feel the grief. He told me a long time ago, when my dog died, that grieving helps me to remember. I don’t want to forget my dad.”
You loved him very much. The fairies were no longer holding hands; they stared at me from two feet away.
“Yes, I did. He taught me to play the harp and helped me compose music for it. Now, I just don’t know what I’ll do. I don’t think I want to make music anymore.”
Would you like to come with us to the fairy realm? We can help you with the pain of your father’s death, and we can also help you to make music for your harp.
“Where is this fairy realm? I have to be back in the house before Mom’s guests leave.”
Come with us. The four fairies fluttered off ahead of me, and I found myself rising and walking behind them. They led me to another gate which they flew over. I opened the gate and followed. This was definitely not my secret garden. Were we even still on Earth?
The trees were gracefully shaped and velvety in texture, with straight branches and shiny, silvery leaves. The canopy of green and silver overhead rippled like a wave on the ocean, and the shafts of light shining through were soft. Beyond the slender tree trunks, I could see clearings lit seemingly by moonlight, where groups of fairies fluttered and sang wordlessly. They sounded very much like my harp, and left me feeling soothed and blessed.
Tiny flowers grew everywhere around me and seemed to sway, tinkling delicately with each subtle breeze. Not far away, dozens of colorful fairies flitted around the lovely garden. I began to forget my despair over Daddy’s death in the delight of this fairy garden. The air here was pure and clean. Unfamiliar strains of music drifted in the air, sweet melodies that cried out for a harp to play them.
My fairies urged me forward and drifted lightly onto my arm or shoulder now and then. They felt like wisps of moonlight, and the breeze from their wings brought soft scents of peppermint and roses. I was soon feeling light-headed, and collapsed under a tree to lie watching my four fairies dance all around my head. When I became aware again, I was in another place altogether, lying on a platform in the midst of a stadium. Fairies hovered over most of the seats in the large amphitheater, and my own four fairies drifted around me. One of them, whom I dubbed Blue because of her gown, had awakened me and now, in a voice that penetrated to the farthest seats, said, “We shall be addressed by His Honor, the Sidhe Judge of the Magic Realm.”
The fairies in the stadium applauded and cheered, and a white-robed creature stepped out onto a platform a few feet from me. This was not a fairy, but a bigger, more substantial figure that made me think of a leprechaun, though he wasn’t dressed in green and when he spoke, he didn’t have an Irish brogue.
I sat back and watched all this, feeling strange. I wondered what was going on; was I dreaming? Or maybe I’d gone crazy and this was all a hallucination. Had Daddy’s death driven me crazy? I started to slide down off the platform, but the fairy I thought of as Pink flew up beside me and pressed against my shoulder, implying that I must stay where I was.
The audience quieted. “Please give me your attention,” the judge said in a voice as loud as the fairy’s had been, and gestured to a previously hidden door near my platform.
This door opened and a huge knight, all in black armor, emerged and stood beside the Judge. He must be ten feet tall, I thought, astounded at the sight. He carried a lance and a shield in one hand, and a glittering sword in the other. A black steel helmet covered his entire face, with only a narrow slit for his eyes; a tall black plume rose from the top of the helmet, making him even taller. I took one look at his eyes, and shrank away from the dead black stones that stared back at me.
The Judge spoke again. “This is the Black Knave. He has crossed the Emptiness into the fairy realm from his own dreadful dominion. He has threatened to bring his soldiers through the Emptiness to kill or maim every fairy here, if you do not hand over your queen.”
There was a loud uproar of boos and stamping from the fairy audience, and then a buzz of whispers and angry chatter. I sneaked another look at the Knave who stood rigid, legs apart, looking as dangerous and evil as I imagined he was.
The Judge quieted the audience. “The Knave has demanded the fairy queen as a gift for his leader, the Malicious King, who lost their last war and is in deep despair. The King has threatened his own life, and the knave was sent to take the fairy queen to him to bring him out of his gloomy mood.”
The audience of fairies erupted again with boos and hisses, but the Judge quieted them once more.
I listened to this, feeling very sorry for the fairies as this Black Knave was truly terrifying. How would these remarkable, gentle fairies get out of this, I wondered. Will they just give in and hand over their queen? I was glad I didn’t have to make that decision.
The Judge spoke again. “I understand that you fairies will not give the Black Knave your queen, as she is most precious to you. And besides, she is very securely guarded and shielded.
“Therefore,” the Judge went on, turning to face the knave, “the fairies are forced to do combat with the knave to prevent him from returning here with his soldiers.”
The audience once again erupted in chatter that I was unable to understand, but the four fairies who brought me here huddled together as far away from the knave and from me as they could get. Their dainty wings were now drooping, and seemed somehow oilier and dirtier than before.
The Judge demanded quiet once again. “It is obvious that all the fairies together would be unable to have any effect on the Black Knave,” he said with a frown. “Therefore, they are granted leave by the Sidhe to name a Champion to do their battle for them.”
The fairies in the theater all yelled “Hooray!” at once as if they had rehearsed it, and I looked at my quartet of fairies again. They were all smiles and floated nearby, clapping; even their wings looked pleased and sparkling once again.
The Judge held up his hand for quiet. “If the Champion of the fairies is defeated by the Black Knave, your queen shall be turned over to him to take back to his dreadful dominion. But if the Champion defeats the Black Knave, the fairy realm will be safe once again as the knave shall be dead.”
When the audience’s cheers had faded a little, and mine with them, the four fairies flew back to surround me again. The Judge said, “The Champion selected by the fairies is here now.”
He turned to me! Me, JoAnne Marsh, a thirteen-year-old junior harpist! I admit I stared, mouth open and mind dazed. I first turned numb with shock, and then felt freezing cold, frightened, and finally furious.
“What are you talking about?” I shrieked. “I’m no soldier! I can’t be your Champion! There’s no way I can fight a battle for you, even if I knew how to fight. I’m just a child, and this is not my problem, anyway!” I’m ashamed to say I stamped my foot just then.
The Judge frowned and stood with folded arms, and the fairies fluttered, agitated, around my head, but I stubbornly refused to fight the knave.
Finally the Judge said quietly, “JoAnne, if you do not defeat the knave, the fairies shall lose their queen and their entire empire. In addition, if you refuse to enter into combat, you will never play your harp again as you shall never go home.”
Never go home! As I calmed myself the best I could, I began to see that there was no hope for me. It was fight, or let the Black Knave have the fairy queen. I was tempted to simply refuse since I had no hope of winning. But how could I refuse? I sighed, said a murmured goodbye to my Mom, and stepped down onto the grass at the center of the stadium.
The Black Knave towered, unwavering, before me, weapons raised and blocking out the sun with his bulk. I gazed up and up at his armored face, and was suddenly seeing horrifying visions of what he might do to me. I saw myself dead in a casket, like my father. I saw my dying body, pierced through the heart with that awful sword. Then I saw my mother, sobbing on her bed, entirely alone.
I turned angrily to the Judge and cried, “I have nothing to fight him with! Will you send me to fight an armed and dangerous foe with no defense? How is that fair?”
The Judge said, “Neither of you may use swords. You may not use guns, nor spears, nor daggers, nor even boxing gloves. You must use no weapons at all.”
No weapons! Then how could I possibly defeat a professional soldier like the Black Knave? I was only a junior harpist, with no fighting skills at all. I looked hopelessly at the four fairies who still accompanied me, and heard in my mind, We will help you all we can, JoAnne.
That was reassuring, I scoffed mentally. The Judge had said that all the fairies together couldn’t defeat the knave—that’s why they’d been given a champion. If all the fairies together couldn’t hurt him, how were four tiny fairies going to help me?
A tiny tinkle sounded in my ear and I heard, It is time, JoAnne. Then I saw the knave go down on one knee and begin to wave his arms around, muttering in some weird language, and I suddenly felt sick to my stomach. A door seemed to open in my mind and black fanged demons raced through it, yelling and thrashing about. Terrified that they were after me, I stepped backwards on the grassy spot and almost tripped, but the fairies buzzed around my head, beaming encouragement to me.
Following the demons through the door in my mind now came dozens of short troll-like beings dressed in white and smiling angelically. Holding sledge hammers, they scurried after the demons and swung their weapons left and right. Apparently, weapons were okay for magic spells. The demons dropped like flies, and I was back on the grassy spot staring at the knave, now sitting flat on the ground.
So that was it—this was to be a magical battle. I was slightly less discouraged, but still saw no way I could defeat the huge soldier. I had no magic. The Black Knave scrambled to his feet and sent more spells at me, terrifying and nauseating me, but not actually hurting me, which added to my courage. When he paused in this, I decided to try my own form of magic. I yelled, “What’s black and white, and (read) all over?”
The knave stopped short and tilted his head, as if thinking, and then reached toward me as if to pluck me off the grass. Backing up hastily, I yelled again, “What has four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three legs at night?”
The knave shook his head sharply as if to remove something stuck to his helmet, and started forward again. I saw the door in my mind opening again, and this time something like a werewolf charged through, slobbering and growling. I cringed in terror, but the fairies told me, We’ll help you, JoAnne. Out of the door came a huge white python, at least sixteen feet long, which quickly wrapped the werewolf in its coils and soon suffocated it.
I came back to myself sitting on the grassy circle, and tried to think of other riddles I knew. They did seem to faze the knave a bit; maybe a puzzle would work, too. I stood again and thought about a Rubik’s Cube, which Daddy had been very good at, and found one sitting solidly in my hand. I tossed it to the knave, who immediately busied himself trying to solve it. He turned it in various combinations, but it wasn’t long before he tired of the puzzle and tossed it aside. He started towards me again.
“I challenge you to a dance-off!” I shouted, having no idea where that had come from. The Black Knave stopped, glared at me with his beady stone-like eyes, and started to move rhythmically. I realized just then that I’d been hearing soft dance music in my mind, and I began dancing to it, my movements fluid and graceful; I loved to dance. I saw the jerky, stumbling, march-like efforts of the knave, and knew this was a contest I could win easily. But as he danced, he was soon tossing spells at me again with both hands.
Now that I’d countered most of his spells with the help of the fairies, they bothered me much less. I held my ground and dodged his thrusts more and more expertly. Finally, the knave stood still and rumbled, “Methinks yon silly little damsel is out of her league. Give it up now and I shall not hurt you.”
I pressed my lips together thinly and stood foursquare facing him. “I think you’d best give up before I hurt you!”
I was afraid I had nothing left to do battle with, but determined not to let him win. The thought of my harp back home crossed my mind, and I wished I had it with me and could play it to calm myself. My four fairies smiled, drifted down to my feet and waved their tiny hands for a moment, and suddenly there was my harp, right in front of me, with a stool beside it.
I sank down on the stool, reached for the harp and plucked the strings. Immediately a bright, sparkling tone came from it. I proceeded to play three of my favorite chamber pieces from beginning to end. Wrapped up in the music, I was somehow totally uninterested in what was happening with the knave and the fairies.
When the third piece was done, I stood and looked around at my audience. All the fairies in the stadium seemed spellbound, and the Judge had a wide grin on his Irish-looking face. The knave, however, was crumpled on the ground, his armor jumbled around him.
“What happened?” I asked. My fairies fluttered down to sit or stand on my shoulders.
Your music was too much for him, JoAnne, I heard. He knew he could never overcome the effect of that music, and he simply gave up.
“Then I won?” I asked, astonished.
The Judge nodded at me and said, “Indeed. The fairy queen is safe now, as is her empire. And you, my dear, may return to your own realm whenever you please.”
As I crossed into my backyard woods, I thought about my experience with the Black Knave. It felt like it was essential not to let Daddy’s death stop me from continuing to play—it had been too important to him. My victory had taught me the power of music and, as a tribute to my father, I knew I would now put all my efforts into my harp. So, even though I knew I’d always miss my Dad, I’d be okay.
I opened the little gate into my yard, happier and better prepared to deal with the death of my father. Mom saw me and ran out to hug me. It seemed her icy reserve had begun to thaw.
When we reached one another, Mom held me tight and began to cry. “I’m so sorry, JoAnne,” she wept. “I’ve been very stupid. Your father and I argued over and over, years ago, about how hard he worked you. I wanted you to have a normal childhood, but he insisted you work on your music all the time. He refused to let you be a little girl. And he succeeded in coming between you and me.”
“It’s all right now, Mom,” I assured her as we hugged. I patted Mom’s back and tears of happiness flowed down my own cheeks. “I’m just happy to have you back.”
We headed back into the house together. “But where have you been?” she asked.
Where had I been? It had already begun to fade in my mind. “Nowhere,” I said with a smile. I was just happy to be home, and was filled with wonderful new music from the fairies’ realm. I could hardly wait to sit down to my harp again.
Harriet Darling is a 70-year-old cock-eyed optimist who still believes in fairies. Besides fairy stories, she writes Young Adult fantasy and mainstream thrillers. She has worked as an Executive Assistant, a newspaper publisher, a freelance editor, a research coordinator, a real estate appraiser, and a market research interviewer. She lives in Lodi, California, and unfortunately has no grandchildren.