A Fairy’s Courage
* Chapter One * THE FAMILY OUTING
“She’s alive, Dad! And she loves you. She wanted me to tell you.”
Rowan was so full of hope and excitement, it positively burst out of her.
“But . . .”
It was too much for her father to take in all at once.
“Dad. We have to find a way to bring her back. . . .”
Rowan looked up at her father to see his eyes opened wide in shock.
The morning sunshine was flooding through the windows high up in their block of apartments. Rowan could see her mom’s chair in its familiar position—not facing the television like all the others but facing out the window, out across the rooftops of the city and far
into the distance. Toward Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. The parks that had been her mother’s escape from the worries of her life before she’d disappeared from theirs, all those seven long years ago. Rowan sat herself down in her mother’s chair, and her dad and sister gathered around her.
“Slowly, Rowan,” said her father. “Tell us what happened to you.”
“It’s the parks, Dad,” said Rowan. “All the Royal Parks of London. They’re not really parks at all. They’re . . . sanctuaries.”
“What do you mean?” said Dad, looking puzzled.
There was no easy way to say it, so she just came right out with it.
“Sanctuaries . . . for fairies.”
Willow’s face immediately lit up in excitement. “Fairies!”
But Rowan was trying to read the look on her dad’s face. It had immediately tensed.
“Rowan, it’s been a long few days for you. We’ve been going mad with worry here.”
“Yes, yes, it has, but please let me explain. I know it sounds crazy—”
“It sounds fabulous!”
said Willow, not entirely helpfully.
“Promise me you’ll hear me out, Dad. Just let me tell you the truth.”
Dad took Rowan’s hand and slowly nodded. Willow sat on the floor cross-legged like she was back in the story corner at school, beaming with anticipation. Rowan took a deep breath, and the whole story spilled out of her like toys falling from an overstuffed cupboard—not necessarily in the right order.
“It was Queen Victoria who started it, back in the olden days. She knew about the fairies and so she created the parks to protect them from all the people and the pollution of the city. It was Harold who told me that. He’s a . . . robin.”
“A talking robin?” gasped Willow.
“Harold told me how I had become a fairy—”
“You . . . WERE A FAIRY?” said Willow, practically shouting with excitement.
Rowan knew how this was sounding. She realized it seemed like a fantastical story to Willow, and complete nonsense to her dad. But she’d lived it and knew that it had really happened. So she pressed on.
“Yes. I cried beneath the weeping beech in Hyde Park and fell asleep. When I woke up, I was a fairy. Harold said that”—Rowan knew this next bit might be hard for Dad to hear—“it was because I felt nobody cared about me after Mom disappeared. That’s how people become fairies. That’s how Mom did.”
Rowan waited anxiously for her father’s response. She hadn’t wanted to hurt his feelings, but it was the truth. Finally he spoke.
“You went all the way to Hyde Park by yourself? Is that where you’ve been all this time?”
Rowan’s shoulders dropped. He obviously hadn’t believed a word. Willow, on the other hand, had read enough books to know that life was generally a lot more exciting than grown-ups made out.
“What about Mom? She was a fairy too?”
Rowan turned back to the only person who seemed to want to hear this story.
“Yes. Yes, she was a fairy too. And she still is. She’s trapped in Bushy Park on the other side of London. That’s why we have to find a way to get her back.”
Willow was already on her feet.
“Let’s go now!”
“Hold your horses, madam,” said Dad, throwing out an arm to sit Willow back down with a thump. “Rowan, you’ve been missing for days. I had to call the police, so first I have to tell them that you’re okay. I know you miss your mom. We all do. But this? I need to know what really happened to you. Just to put my mind at rest. Please.”
Rowan slumped back into her chair. There was no time to waste if she was going to get Mom back, and she really needed all the help she could get. She knew there was a chance that the thing she wanted most in the world could really happen, that their family could be whole again. But how was she ever going to explain? And what she’d told them so far wasn’t even the half of it. In fairness, she wouldn’t have believed it herself if she’d been the one doing the listening. She gazed back out the window at the parks in the distance, and something clicked in her brain. She held her wooden pendant out to show him, her acorn now fixed within the oak tree charm that had belonged to her mother.
“Where did you get that?” Dad asked, taken aback.
“Let me show you,” said Rowan. “I’ll retrace my
steps, and you can see for yourself what happened. From the beginning.”
Dad narrowed his eyes, and Rowan could see his mind whirring. Her father’s work had something to do with computers, and he liked everything to be explained “by rational means.” So after all the talk of fairies, this must have seemed like a pretty reasonable suggestion.
“FAMILY OUTING!” shouted Willow.
Dad gave in. “Okay,” he said. “Tomorrow. First you need a hot bath, a proper meal, and a good night’s sleep, young lady. And I have to let everyone know you’re safe. There’s a lot of people who have been very worried about you. The outing can wait till then.”
“Please can we go this afternoon?” pleaded Rowan. “There’s no telling what might happen to Mom. There’s foxes, there’s Jack Pike, there’s Vulpes . . .”
Rowan trailed off. Maybe that was too much information for one day.
“Who’s Jack?” asked Willow brightly. “What’s a Vulpes?”
Rowan winced. Fortunately, Dad wasn’t listening again. At least not to the bits that mattered.
“Absolutely not, Rowan. We’re not going anywhere today. We’re spending the day safe and sound in the apartment. Tomorrow you can show us everything.”
Rowan accepted that was the best she could expect for now. She would have to convince her dad in the place where it all happened tomorrow. Back in the parks. The place she knew now as the Fairy Realms.
• • •
The next day Rowan was back on the top deck of the bus, sweeping through the London streets as the long summer shadows stretched around her. She remembered very well how she’d felt the last time she’d taken this journey. Full of sadness and feeling more alone than ever. But this time she wasn’t by herself. She had an excited little sister and a skeptical father for company. As their dad sat behind them looking out the window, Willow leaned in to whisper into her sister’s ear.
“What was she like?”
Willow had been only two years old when their mother had disappeared from their lives, and Willow was frequently upset by the fact that she couldn’t remember anything about her mom. Rowan took her gently by the hand.
“She was playing a violin made from reeds, and she was wearing a crown made from willow twigs, and she was so beautiful and kind and . . .”
Rowan trailed off when she saw that Willow’s eyes were scrunched up tight, desperately trying to picture the scene in her mind.
“Don’t stop!” said Willow.
Rowan knew how much this meant to her. And that knowledge weighed heavily on her mind.
“You’re going to see her for yourself, Willow.”
Rowan felt the weight get heavier still. But she nodded all the same.
They jumped off the bus at Hyde Park Corner, and Rowan raced through the park. Willow skipped at her heels, and Dad had to do a kind of running walk just to keep up with his two girls. They arrived at the Elfin Oak and peered through the railings that protected it. Just as before, there were all manner of colorful painted fairy-tale creatures carved into its trunk.
“So, this is what I did first,” said Rowan. “I looked at the little blue fairy there with two shells for wings—just like I did the last time we came here with Mom.”
“I remember!” cried Willow.
“You were too young to remember, Willow,” said Dad.
“And then I looked over at the clock tower where we used to sit with Mom, and there was another mother there. And that made the sadness come back.”
Dad crouched down. “It’s okay, Rowan. I think I’m starting to get the picture.”
Dad started to circle the oak and began to speak a bit like one of those detectives on television when they were solving a mystery.
“You were missing Mom, Rowan, and you were feeling lonely, so you came to the park. To be in the last place where you’d been with her before she disappeared.”
Rowan nodded. He seemed to be getting it.
“You walked around the Elfin Oak, like this, and you looked at all of these little fairy-tale creatures. Just like that blue fairy there. A little fairy Rowan. And look, there’s an elf, and a wise old bird . . . and it took you back, straight back to the moment when you were last here with Mom. But then you saw the other mother sitting in your place, and you were already feeling terribly sad, and that just made things ten times worse.”
Rowan nodded a little more slowly this time. She wasn’t sure where he was going with this anymore.
“So you got yourself away from here. And your heart was hurting, and your head was full of fairies and elves and Mom, and it all got mixed up and churned around inside you like in a washing machine. And you fell asleep under that tree like you said. . . .”
Dad came back and held Rowan’s hands, his eyes meeting hers.
“And you had this most wonderful dream.”
Rowan felt tears coming to her eyes, but she refused to let them out and blinked them back down. She scrunched up her face and shook her head, too emotional to speak for a moment. When she did talk, her voice croaked a bit.
“What about this, Dad?” She held up the necklace that had been tucked beneath her dress. “It belonged to Mom, didn’t it? And now I have it, because everything I’ve told you is true. The fairies called this pendant ‘the Heart of Oak.’ They thought it was part of a prophecy, that ‘When the fairy of most power unlocks the Heart of Oak, they shall become human again.’ And here I am!”
Rowan’s dad did one of those sad-happy smiles
that parents do when they don’t believe you but don’t want to hurt your feelings.
“You’ve always been a human, Rowan, and it’s just a necklace. You could have gotten it . . . anywhere.”
Rowan squeezed the oak pendant in her hands, as if to prove she still believed it was more than that. But the lump in her throat was proof that her father didn’t.
“Come to the tree, Dad?” Rowan asked quietly. “To the weeping beech? Before we go home? That’s where I went next.”
“Of course, Rowan. Let’s go and see the tree. We still have a little time.”
Dad clearly thought she was making everything up. He thought it was a silly little story she was telling to make herself feel better. She knew how it sounded, but still she had to convince him. How else would they be able to get Mom back?
With Dad hanging behind them savoring his early evening summer stroll, Rowan walked hand in hand with Willow across the park, along the length of the Serpentine Lake.
“The bobbily boats!” shouted Willow.
Rowan smiled. “You do remember, Willow Pillow!”
“That’s what I said, didn’t I?”
“Do you believe me, Willow?”
Rowan squeezed Willow’s hand a little tighter.
“You’re a terrible liar, for a start. You’re such a Goody Two-shoes,” said Willow, squeezing Rowan’s hand back. “I’d know in a second if you were making it up.”
They rounded the lake, toward the café where they’d bought ice creams the last time they’d been here with their mother.
“Pink ice cream!” cried Willow.
Rowan dragged her reluctantly past the window as Willow gazed longingly into it, and then they turned the corner to find the little dell where the majestic weeping beech stood behind its railing.
At least it looked like the weeping beech that Rowan’s tears had seeped into, the tree that had transformed her into a fairy. But even though it was the middle of summer, the beech had no leaves at all. Something, or someone, had stripped it completely bare.