Day in a Year
by Base Hydroxide
©2001 Base Hydroxide -- all rights reserved
"All right, girls, here's the outfits for you tonight." Ms. Boyle put a box on the table. "They're all about the same size, so just take one and have it on tonight. Remember, they must be next to your skin so don't wear anything underneath them."
Carol picked a dress out of the box and regarded it dubiously. It was a plain white shift made of what appeared to be silk. The cloth was a very coarse weave, however, so the effect was almost that of gauze. Certainly, this sort of garment would be extremely revealing, especially with no underwear. Cold, too, for wearing outdoors at night. "Uh, gee, Ms. Boyle, these don't look too warm."
"Linda, call me Linda from now on. No, they're not warm but you can wear anything you want over them. And I know you're thinking about how they'll look but don't worry. There won't be any men present for this. Just me and the six of you. You've all been out there at least once so you know where to meet me. I'll be there all night but you can all come whenever you want, although I wouldn't mind some company. Just be there by 4 a.m. at least. And remember," she looked significantly at Jill and Alison, "no drinking tonight. I don't want any of you messed up for this." She left the box behind and climbed the stairs to her room.
"Is she serious?" Jill was a tall blonde from Ohio who wasn't very enthusiastic about tonight's project. She had signed up, as had Carol and Alison, for this Celtic Studies overseas course merely as an excuse to take a trip to Ireland. Since she was getting credits, her parents were willing to spring for it. Mostly, though, she and her cousin Alison had taken the opportunity to party hearty several nights a week. They had visited a few sites, listened to a couple of lectures, but nothing like this had been demanded of them so far.
"Yah, she is. We do this every year at Beltane." Deidre and the other two girls in the group were local assistants. They actually were interested in the subject and, more importantly, were on the payroll. Ms. Boyle was their boss. "We stand on the hill for a few hours before sunrise and she runs through some old rituals. Says it's to help you understand the feeling of it, of the old ways."
"Anything ever happen?" Jill queried.
"Not for me, anyways, we just stand there until the sun comes up, then we go home. I don't know what she thinks is going to happen, she won't say, but she looks disappointed after. Anyway, let's go." She rolled up her shift and headed out the door to go home for the evening. The other two local girls silently followed her. The three Americans took their shifts up to their rooms.
Even with the flashlight, Carol couldn't see the path through the scrub very well. She stumbled a couple of times as she clambered to the top of the hill. The moon was just past full and should have been bright but the sky was mostly cloudy so it was no help. Once at the top, though, she could see a little better. The first glow of dawn was just appearing in the east. Ms. Boyle, no, make that Linda, was sitting in a little hollow just below the hilltop, chanting softly to herself.
She rose to her feet as Carol approached. "You're a bit early. Are the others here too?"
"No, but they were getting into their cars when I drove off. They should be here in a few minutes. I just wanted to see what it was like up here."
"Not much to see in the dark," Linda ventured, "and not much out of the ordinary in the day either. But this is a special place. Carol, do you mind if I tell you why we're here? Promise you won't laugh or tell the others?"
"Of course not." Unlike Jill and Alison, Linda actually wanted to learn about the old Celtic history and folk customs. She spent her nights reading and talking to the local people around here rather than with the young men in the pubs.
Linda sighed and began. "It's like this. The Other Folk still exist, they're still here. I've met them, I've talked with them a bit. No, now you said you wouldn't laugh, just hear me out."
"So I come back over here every year and teach my courses and try to learn what I can from the Other Folk. Sometimes they'll talk to me for a bit, but usually not. But they have told me if I really want to learn more, I could visit them for a while. It would be all right with them, if I can cross over. So every year I come to this hilltop the night before Beltane and I do what they tell me to do. And every year nothing comes of it and the girls up here with me go away thinking I'm crazy. But I'm not crazy and I want at least one other person to know that."
"I don't --" Carol started.
"-- think that I'm crazy?" Linda finished. "But of course you do. Who wouldn't? But try to keep an open mind about this, at least. Listen! Hear the cars coming? The others will be here in a few minutes."
Perhaps ten minutes later, Alison, the last of the lot, staggered over the ridge top. Carol didn't think she'd had that much to drink but she just wasn't used to walking up brushy hillsides. The others waited for her to catch her breath.
They all clumped together as Linda began her speech. "Tonight, or rather this morning, we're going to recreate an old ceremony that's been performed on this hill for at least two thousand years, maybe longer than that. It's a women's ceremony, for the start of this half of the year, and it needs seven to perform, which is why I made all of you come up here. I'm the only one who is supposed to be affected but you are here for support." Carol thought she could hear a smile in her voice at that. "Anyway, as Deidre, Ciara and Mollie know by now, you six don't have to do anything but stand in the circle. When I tell you to, take off your coats, shoes and whatever else you have on over the garments I gave you this afternoon. You don't move after that but it's only for a few minutes and it's not cold tonight so you should be able to handle the chill."
She pointed with her flashlight at several small cleared plots forming a rough oval. "Everybody pick one of these spots to stand in, it doesn't matter which, except I get this one at the brow of the hill." Since Linda was already standing in hers, the others milled around until they each had one. The three local girls, having been through this before, preferred the positions nearer the hill top, since they were slightly protected from the breeze that was gathering. Jill wound up in the downhill spot nearest Linda, with Alison and Carol behind her.
"You can all sit down and be comfortable for a while. I'll let you know when to stand up and take off your things. After that, stand still." Linda faced away from them and began muttering, apparently a continuation of the chant. Occasionally she would stop and look up, searching for the moon. The clouds were breaking up and occasionally the moon could be seen for a few moments in the breaks. The hill commanded a wide view and Carol noticed she could see the patches of moonlight approaching them across the fields below. It was really a very dramatic setting and Carol was glad she was there to see it.
Finally, Linda stopped her quiet chant and threw off her overcoat. "Okay, everybody stand and get rid of your outer clothes. Then face inward."
They all did, amid some minor grumbling. Surprisingly, even in the breeze, it wasn't uncomfortably cold. Carol kicked off her shoes, dropped her coat and wriggled out of her sweater and sweatpants. She saw the others do much the same until the seven of them stood facing each others like a ring of pale white candles.
Linda scanned the sky. "I hope the moon comes out for a moment soon." Carol twisted her head to look behind her and saw a small patch of light moving over the brush towards them.
"Here comes a break, if it gets to us." she announced. The bit of moonlight was briskly moving their way but it was so small she wasn't sure whether it would come to them or miss them. As it came nearer, though, it seemed to slow, almost halting as it crept toward the top of the hill. Carol thought it might miss them altogether; it looked like it would pass on the hillside below but she turned back to face the others in the circle.
Linda looked up, hoping to see the moon break through the moving clouds, but it merely tantalized her, hanging on the very edge of a cloud and not quite shining through. She looked aside to see if the patch of light was passing closer and was disappointed to find that it was barely grazing the downhill side of their circle. It might touch Carol or Alison briefly but clearly it would never shine on the entire group as she needed.
Even as she watched, though, the light broke on both Carol and Alison and suddenly intensified and came to a halt. The unexpected effect startled Linda and she took an involuntary half-step forward. She couldn't complete the step though, for it was as if the air around her had thickened around her, resisting her movement. She could see that the others were having the same experience for they all stood stock-still, straining against the air.
Carol and Alison looked as though they had spotlights trained on them from above. Although their bodies were motionless, the wind was whipping Alison's long blond hair to the side while Carol's shorter red hair tangled about her face. Their white shifts fit too tightly to be much windblown and the widely spaced threads glowed brightly against their skin.
As Carol stood frozen, all the others were in her field of view, but as the moonlight hit her, Jill and Linda and the local girls all seemed to fade into the greyness, leaving only Ali clearly illuminated at the edge of her vision. She wasn't paying much attention to that, however, for it seemed to her that the cloth of her dress was crawling on her skin. It wasn't slipping off or getting tighter but somehow it was moving. She looked at the fabric of her sleeve and saw that what was happening was that the threads were drawing together, forming a tighter weave without changing the dress' size and shape. She looked up and it seemed to her that the others were all slowly moving away, expanding the circle. But none of them were moving their feet and she couldn't understand their increasing distance from her.
Jill was stuck in place like the rest of them but she had a good view of Alison and Carol, with Deidre beyond them. The brilliant glow from the two Americans reflected off the Irish girl, showing a little of the astonishment on her face. For she could see as well as Jill that Carol and Alison were beginning to shrink, becoming slowly smaller as they stood in the moonlight glare. Jill tried to reach out for her cousin standing next to her but found her arms were pinned. She managed a muffled cry. "Ali, what's happening to you?"
Alison didn't know what was happening and neither did Carol; they could each see the ground slowly growing closer, they could feel the fabric of their dresses creeping on their skin but they didn't understand the cause as they dwindled in size, frozen upright in their places, hair swirling about their heads.
Finally, as the others saw they were now less than waist-high to them, it became obvious to Carol what was happening. "Sh, shr, shrinking, I'm shrinking. Why? Ms. Boyle! What did you do to me?" She was bewildered and a little shocked as the realization struck her but she felt no fear. Truth to tell, she felt an involuntary thrill as she was swept down from her old size.
Alison heard her neighbors calling out but even though she was seeing the ground rise to her and watching the others grow, she couldn't believe this could happen to her. She had always been in control of her life, control usually granted by her own strong will and good looks, or at times by her family's money. Not until she and Carol were less than knee high and she could hardly see the dim shapes of the others through the brush around her, did she accept what her new reality was. To her annoyance, she had been shrunken and was shrinking further.
Linda Boyle was filled with a mixture of triumph and despair. She had been proven right, she had witnesses to swear this was possible, the old ceremonies still worked their effect, but still... For the effect had been worked on the wrong ones. She was the one who should be dwindling, going to the Other Side, learning what could be learned and done there. Instead, the moon had accidentally illuminated only part of the circle, the wrong part, and now two innocents were shrinking, leaving their old lives behind for a while, on their way to a different sort of existence.
She nervously watched as the two glowing figures shrank below the level of the brush, catching glimpses of the ever-smaller figures glowing in the moonlight until they were gone. With a start she realized the patch of moonlight had moved on and she could move again. She called to the four others. "Stay where you are. Don't go near them. We can't risk..." She left the thought unfinished. We can't risk hurting them in our clumsiness. They're too small now to safely be around us.
They all remained in place a moment and realized that it had suddenly gotten light. Night had ended and the sun was about to rise. Linda took a tentative step to where the two girls had been and peered to where their shrunken forms should still be. She saw movement in Alison's patch, a flash of white and waved the others over. "There they are. Look there. You only have a minute to see them."
Carol had seen the world grow larger and larger. She could see no signs of the others now, only increasingly huge shadows of bushes and grass, further and further from her at the edge of the cleared plot she was standing in. Finally the shadows quit growing and her white shift quit changing. She could move again and lifted her arm to see her sleeve again to see that now the fabric looked like perfectly normal silk. That looked normal to her but nothing else did. Now she could clearly see what had been small bushes and blades of grass towering over her. She was tiny now. Tiny and alone. She thought of how Alison alone had been affected like her and turned to where she should be. "Ali! You there?" But Ali was in her own plot, separated by what was now a jungle to them.
Deidre had heard stories about things like this since she was a child but always claimed they were just stories, tales told to amuse and frighten the young and credulous. There had always been a lingering doubt about that deep in her heart though, and now the doubt was replaced by wonder and fear. The old tales were true. She stepped out of her plot to where she could see both tiny girls, Carol standing in the center of her plot, Alison rushing to the edge of hers.
She could hear Ms. Boyle speak as she joined her staring at the two. Then the shrunken American girls were suddenly gone, vanished from her sight. Deirdre rubbed her eyes is astonishment and looked up to see the Sun coming over the horizon.
Carol spun around, looking all about her but especially up. She saw the giant form of a woman in a white dress and realized it was one of the local girls, Deirdre. A second later she was joined by Linda, no Ms. Boyle after this, and the two ordinary women peered at their former companions. Ms. Boyle spoke pleadingly to her. "I'm sorry, girls. This wasn't supposed to happen like this, please believe me. I was the only one who should have been changed but the moonlight tricked us, it took you instead."
She paused for a second and spoke again. "Listen, now, we only have a minute. You should be okay if you keep your wits about you. I'll be back for you, you can cross back over. I'll be here next year. But one thing, remember, whatever you do, don't" Her voice cut off abruptly as she, and Deirdre next to her, vanished. At the same time, it seemed to Carol that the quality of light changed, that the shadows shifted and colors changed. She looked up and around in all directions but could find no sign of any others. She called out more pleadingly than hopefully, "Ms. Boyle? Deirdre? Anyone hear me?" She listened intently for a few minutes. Nothing. Then she thought of the only one of her companions who might have been shrunk with her. "Alison! Are you here? Ali, can you hear me?"
To her surprise she heard branches rustle and twigs snap behind her. She spun around to see a white-clad figure the same size as herself emerge from the edge of the brush surrounding her plot now grown to a clearing. Alison shouted and staggered out, disengaged herself from one last grasping branch and ran toward her. Relieved, Carol hurried to meet her. Just before they met, though, the light shifted again and the constant breeze suddenly fell quiet. A light, brief shower fell on them. Alison ran her hand through her damp, tangled hair and halted. "What's happened?" she demanded. "Where are we now?"
Carol was so happy to have some company she didn't respond to the other's impertinence. "I think we're on the same hill we were on last night," she answered mildly. "The others are gone and we're alone here. As to what happened, I'm not sure of it all but I know we somehow shrunk." She wondered how much she should share with Alison, not knowing what to believe herself.
Finally she began an explanation. "I talked with Ms. Boyle last night before you others arrived. She told me she was trying to visit the Other Folk, she called them. Only she wanted to visit them herself, not take us. Certainly not send us. You heard her say she was sorry, didn't you?" When Alison nodded agreement, Carol carried on. " And she didn't say anything about shrinking, like what happened to us."
Alison looked at her indignantly. "I'll say she didn't say anything about shrinking! This was supposed to be a nice safe overseas course, not some crazy adventure in the never-never or something. How do we get out of here?"
Carol forced herself to calm. Getting angry at Ali wouldn't help matters. Anyway, as she well knew, Ali was much better at being angry than she was. "I certainly don't know how to get out of here. I'm more worried about surviving for a while. If there are Others, though, maybe we can find them. They might help us, if they exist."
"Certainly we exist." Carol and Alison looked to where a new voice was addressing them. Walking toward them were two people their size, a man and a woman wearing sensible looking boots, shirts and trousers, in various hues of green and brown. The woman continued, "And a good thing for you we welcome visitors." As they grew near, Carol saw they both appeared to be in their 30's, both handsome rather than pretty. Although her hair was light brown and his almost black, they shared striking deep green eyes.
The man spoke as they stood next to the girls. "Sorry we took a while to find you but we stayed a ways away from this spot until we were sure the others were gone. We know Linda; we were expecting her to come if she could, so we went to her place in the circle first. She wasn't there but we knew the Power had acted and that somebody had crossed over. So we started looking at the other places. Is it only you two or did any others come?" He apprised their figures appreciatively.
"No, it's just us," Carol began, when the light shifted again. She and Alison glanced at each other but the newcomers seemed not to notice. "It was supposed to be just Linda but something went wrong, something about the moon, and here we are. But where exactly are we? And who are you?"
"Ah, I'm Brigid," the woman announced, "and my love here is Sean. And where do you think you are? You haven't gone anywhere, you've just changed a bit."
"A change we don't want." Alison broke in. "I'm not interested in adventures like this. I don't want to be tiny. You have to get us back the way we were."
"You'll go back if you want, but not because we can send you. We didn't bring you here, you know. But, since you are our guests for the day, shouldn't we know your names?"
"Sorry. I'm Carol and this is Alison. But where can we stay after today? Ms. Boyle, Linda you call her, said she'd be back in a year. Is there someone we can stay with the rest of the time?"
Brigid laughed gently. "Of course you don't know about our time. We are the people of your twilight. We don't see the Sun or the night, only a few minutes of dusk each morning and evening. A day to us goes by in the same time as a year to you folk." She corrected herself. "A year to the folk you were, anyway." The light shifted again. "Did you feel that? A day ended and another is beginning where you're from. We hardly notice."
"So we're stuck here for a year." Alison blurted. "My family, my parents will think I'm dead. I've got to go back now."
"But we tell you, you can't." Sean explained. "People can only cross once in each of your years, women on Beltane, men on Samhain. It doesn't happen for women often anymore and never any men." He stood thoughtfully for a moment. "But why are we discussing this out here in the open? Brigid, let's get our visitors home where we can show them some hospitality." He reached for Alison's hand and nodded to her. "With your permission." And they were gone, vanished as suddenly as Linda and Deirdre had vanished earlier.
Carol turned to where they had stood and spun back to Brigid. "Where did they go? Where did he take Ali?"
"They're probably home by now, unless he's showing her some sights along the way. Come, I'll show you." Brigid took Carol's hand and suddenly they were in a different place, on top of a hill. Carol looked about and recognized the top of the hill of the ceremony. She could see the ring of plots below.
"We're too small to walk far in the world," Brigid explained, "so we have a different way of traveling. Anywhere we can see, we can go, when we want. That's why we like hills; you can see a long way from them." They both stood silent a few minutes, observing the view through several changes of light. Finally Brigid spoke up again. "See that patch of eleven thorn trees over yonder? That's my home, where we're going."
Carol peered in the direction she pointed. She could make out the grove Brigid pointed to but it was much too far away for her to make out any details. "I guess I see. I guess there's eleven trees if you say so."
Brigid took her hand again and suddenly they were in the patch of thorn trees or, more accurately, thorn bushes. Through a break in the branches, Carol could make out the hilltop they had just left. "Welcome to our home." Sean greeted them. Carol looked to see him, Alison and another man, very similar to Sean, with the same dark hair and intense green eyes. "And this is my brother Kevin, looking for an excuse not to work this morning. Kevin, meet Carol, our other guest for the day." From the way they were looking at each other, Carol could see that Kevin and Ali had already met; had already hit it off quite well in fact. Alison could be a fast worker, she remembered.
"Well, I have things I must do today." Brigid informed him. "You two can take a holiday if you want but I'm staying home to tend to things. You girls can stay here or go with them." She turned and entered the door of a well-hidden partly underground house.
"Oh, I'm not taking the day off," explained Sean to Alison and Carol, "just Kevin. He'll show you two around, maybe introduce you to some others. Or you can stay here, talk with Brigid while she works. Not too exciting, that would be."
Carol frowned and considered her options. "I think I will stay here. I've had enough excitement already. And maybe I can learn a little from Brigid about how you live. Ms. Boyle will have a thousand questions and I don't want to disappoint her."
"Not disappoint her!" scoffed Alison. "After what she's done to us? No, if I'm stuck here for a day or for a year, I'm going to try to enjoy it, not sit around watching someone do household chores. Kevin, you said we could meet some others and see some interesting things. I'm ready to go."
"And I'm ready to take you." Kevin's tone was more than slightly ambiguous. He took her hand and they vanished.
"He'll bring her back here, won't he?" Carol questioned. "In time for us to go back, right?"
"Oh, sure, they'll be back by Samhain time at least." Sean assured her. "We have our supper then and he won't be missing a meal. But you'll excuse me. I have a few things to do right now." He looked to the doorway where Brigid was standing. "I'll be back for a break at Midsummer time, love. Until then." And he suddenly was gone.
"Come on in, dear, " Brigid urged Carol. "Would you like a snack or anything? Perhaps a bit of a rest. The day has been... strenuous for you at the least." Carol stooped slightly as she stepped through the low door.
"No, I'm fine. I'm not really hungry and I'm too keyed up to rest right now. You know, I should be terrified at all this, at being shrunk, at being separated from everything I know. But I'm not. I don't understand any of this but I feel at home here. It's not uncomfortable."
"We don't get many visitors of your sort but none of them I've met seemed to be frightened. I thought that was because they all wanted to come here, they volunteered, you might say. But there is really nothing for you to be scared of." She waved an arm about the room. "We are really ordinary country folk, living ordinary lives."
As Carol's eyes adjusted to the relative darkness, she saw they were in a rustic kitchen, a lot like the ones in the more remote villages she had briefly visited. Naturally, she thought. They wouldn't have electricity or running water here. "Well, let me help you with your work, if I can. And maybe you'll tell me about yourself and how you folk live."
"Wanting to help out!" Brigid cried in mock astonishment. "Who would have imagined that? Certainly not from your lovely friend. Quite a little princess, she fancies herself." She chuckled to herself. "Well, let's get you to work, then."
For the next hour or so they cleaned the house, washed dishes, started a pot of soup simmering. Simple chores which Carol found very comforting. As they worked, Brigid told her of her life, how she and Sean got along (quite well, thank you) and of local gossip about their various neighbors and kin. She wasn't sure she approved of Kevin entirely. "Nice lad, but he should be settling down by now. He's still too busy having a good time."
The time passed quickly enough until Sean reappeared, bearing a skin bag of cream. "Somebody left us an offering for Midsummers," he explained proudly. "That doesn't happen as often as it used to," he told Carol. Brigid had prepared plates of light cakes with honey for them, with some huge berries to pour some of the cream over, washed down with spring water and some sort of herb tea.
After their midmorning breakfast, Sean immediately left for more work. Carol found herself growing drowsy and had to shake herself awake.
"Why don't you have a nap?" Brigid offered. "Thanks to you, I've got most of the cleaning and such done. After I do up these few dishes, I'll be weaving and sewing most of the day. You can sleep in here where it's quiet while I sit outside." Carol protested weakly but allowed herself to be led to a guest bed where the short night, letdown from the morning's excitement and full stomach all conspired to put her into a deep sleep.
Carol awoke to the smells of supper cooking. She climbed to her feet and went to the doorway leading to the kitchen. "Ah, you woke by yourself, did you?" Brigid said. "I was about to come get you. There's a washbasin and brush on the stand next to the bed. And I laid out a clean dress for you. It's one of mine but it should do for you. Better than what you have now, anyway." Brigid not quite sneered at the rather revealing white shift Carol still wore. "Come on out when you're ready. You can help with the table if you want."
Carol quickly washed up and brushed her hair with aid of the silver mirror she also found on the bedstand. The dress proved to be dark green, wool perhaps, although she couldn't be sure. She was somewhat taller than Brigid, so the hem didn't quite reach her knees but the dress fit fairly well, if a bit snugly. She reemerged in the kitchen, where Brigid immediately nodded at a cupboard. "There's plates and things in there. Set the table, please, I'm running a bit late here. Sean's outside already and Kevin and your friend should be back soon."
When the table for five was ready, Carol asked what else she could do. "Not much," Brigid replied, "Everything is almost ready. Would you like a glass of wine while we wait?" She motioned to a clay jug and cups near the sink. "I've already got mine." Carol poured herself a cup and sat down at the table opposite where Brigid waited.
"I want to thank you so much for what you've done for us. We'd have been in a lot of trouble without you."
Brigid waved her aside. "It's nothing, one has a duty to be hospitable. And you're no trouble, you help out when you can."
"Still, I thank you very much. But, I have so many questions. How many of you folk are there? Where did you come from? Does anybody from my... world besides us know about you. And when..."
Brigid cut her off. "No questions until supper is over. Interferes with the meal. Afterwards, though, if you like, we can tell you some tales that might answer some of your questions. Not for too long, though. We need to get you to sleep early so you can rise early and be on your way." She looked directly into Carol's eyes. "If you want to go, that is. You're welcome to stay."
Carol was taken aback by the casual offer. She had adjusted well enough so far, true, but she hadn't contemplated staying here forever. "No, I think I better not. I think I belong where I came from, at my proper size."
"As you wish. You're more than welcome to stay here with us if you want."
Just then the door burst open and Sean, Kevin and Alison came in from the perpetual twilight. Judging from their expressions, Brigid was not the only source of wine around here. Sean immediately excused himself and headed for Brigades and his room. "Got to clean up and change. I'll be right back." He and Brigid shared a quick kiss and he was gone.
Alison dropped onto a chair at the table and sighed tiredly. "We got around quite a bit today, didn't we?" She looked to Kevin for confirmation.
"Yes, where have you been with her all day?" Brigid inquired. "Other than to the wine cellar, I mean."
"C'mon, we only had a couple of glasses over the whole day. And then one more just now with Sean." He looked defensive. "No, I showed her around the whole country, we visited my friends over in Sloway and lurked around some of the Big Folk."
"It turns out somebody knows about that hilltop." Ali informed Carol. "Maybe the local girls who were with us. We weren't close enough to tell. Somebody was up there, though, right where we got shrunk. Two girls, anyway, just looking around."
"That's good, I think." Carol considered. "Maybe they'll be back again at Beltane, give us a ride to town."
"Maybe," Brigid agreed as Sean rejoined them, "but enough of that talk now. Supper's ready."
After the dishes were cleared away, they gathered outside under cloaks and blankets to ward off the late autumn chill. Instead of answering Carol's and Alison's questions directly, the three Other Folk took turns telling stories: some of their lives and their neighbor's lives, some of their observations of changes the Big Folk were working on the land, but mostly old tales of battles and migrations and of people with hard luck. Finally Sean called an end to the evening. "It's time we got some sleep. Tomorrow's another day and Ali and Carol have to be back on the hilltop at Beltane time."
Kevin got to his feet and led Alison away. "We'll be back by then, don't worry." he called over his shoulder as they disappeared, hand in hand.
"Don't worry about your friend, dear." Brigid told Carol. "Kevin's actually a gentleman in his way. She doesn't have to fear anything from him." Carol suppressed a giggle. Maybe Alison didn't have anything to worry about, but Kevin probably did. Ali was always a fast worker.
To Carol, it seemed she had barely fallen asleep when Brigid shook her awake. "Time to rise, if you're going to leave us." she was told. She entered the kitchen and found Alison and Kevin waiting there. Sean and Brigid soon entered as well.
"Well, Carol, you have been the best of guests. You are always welcome to come back here."
"Thank you. You have been the best of hosts. And someday I may be back. But I guess it's time for us to go."
Sean nodded. "Yes, we'll all accompany you back to the hilltop. But you don't have to go if you don't want. You can stay with us if you like and become one of us." He gestured to Alison. "Like your friend here has."
Carol looked at Alison in amazement, only to see Ali looking even more astonished. "Me? Stay here with you? Stay shrunk to tiny size? I'm not staying. This has been a nice enough visit but I'm certainly not staying here."
Sean looked puzzled. "But you're one of us now. You can't go back to your old size, to your old world. Not now." Carol looked at Ali's angry face and thought she looked different somehow but she couldn't quite see in what way. Then it struck her.
"Ali, what color are your eyes?"
"My eyes? What does that have to do with anything? They're blue, of course." She looked at Carol's worried expression. "Is something wrong with them? What's going on?"
In answer, Brigid silently handed her the silver mirror from the other room. Her reflection in it told her what the others could see for themselves: her eyes were now a deep, vivid green, a match for those of Kevin and Sean and Brigid. "What have you done?" She whirled to accuse Kevin, who was trying to squirm toward the door.
Brigid blocked his path. "We know what you've done. Seduced this poor girl. Didn't give a thought to the consequences for her, did you?"
He stammered out. "But, but, she was the one who... I thought she knew. I thought she wanted to stay with me."
Brigid glared at the two of them. "So now you're blaming her, eh? It doesn't matter now, I suppose. What's done is done. Carol, it looks like you're going alone."
Alison was staring again in the mirror, as if she could change her eyes back by force of will. "But this doesn't mean I have to stay like this. I can grow back to my right size, so what if my eyes turned green." She looked at the others pleadingly. "Can't I? Tell me I can."
Sean shook his head sadly. "Sorry, lass but you're one of us now. What you would have called the Other Folk. You'll be staying our size now." His voice took on a comforting tone. "But we'll look out for you. And maybe you and Kevin..."
Kevin had apparently resigned himself to his fate. "That's right, Ali. You can be with me. We can share a long life together, a good life."
"A good life." She spat the words out. "I've seen how you live. Hard work all day, hardly ever a day off, no travel to speak of, no cars or movies or toys, no fun. Peasant life." She glared at him, but with perhaps a hint of softness in her expression..
"We don't mind it. Still, even if you're staying, it's time for Carol to be on her way. Ready, dear?" Brigid stepped through the door into the twilight. The others followed.
"I guess, I guess I'll come along to see you off," choked Alison. She held out her hand to Kevin.
"You don't need me to get you around anymore." He tried to force a laugh. "Look at the hilltop. Can't you see it any clearer now? Well, just think about being there."
"I can see it now." Alison seemed impressed. "All the trees, all the branches on the trees, even the leaves on the branches. And I can go there myself? How..." And she was suddenly gone.
"I'm right after her." Kevin called. And he was gone too.
"Last chance for you to stay." Brigid offered but still she held out her hand.
"I've got to go." Carol decided. "One of us should go back, just to let everybody else know we're not dead." She reached out.
Brigid withdrew her hand for a second. "Don't tell too many people about us. We've had... problems with some of your people in the past, you know. We can hide but it's easier not to have to. All right?" She grasped Carol's hand and suddenly they were on the hilltop with Alison and Kevin, now standing together. Below them, they could see the faint traces of the ring of plots from the day, or the year, before. Sean abruptly stood next to Brigid.
"We'll take you back to your clearing now." he announced. "You have to walk from the edge to the center by yourself and then wait. The change should happen by itself." As they stood on the hilltop, the light shifted dramatically as clouds suddenly covered the sky. A light rain began to fall.
Carol looked sadly to Alison. "I'm sorry, Ali. If anyone should be staying, it should be me. I'll tell your family you're okay, somehow."
"If you can, I'd appreciate it. But I suppose I'll have to get used to this size, and this life, now. I'm really stuck, aren't I?" She looked hopefully at Brigid and Sean but they just shook their heads sadly. She looked more assertively at Kevin, standing silent beside her. "I'm not alone at least." She stood quietly herself for a second or two. "Just go, would you? Leave us here." Brigid grabbed Carol's hand and they were gone.
They stood at the edge of the clearing and looked into the mist. "I think Kevin might have his hands full." Carol remarked.
"I'm sure he will, or maybe not. She'll be in charge, for sure, and if he's smart he'll accept that. It's his own stupid fault, after all." Brigid smiled grimly. "Now, the light will change again any time, to Beltane eve time. When it does, just walk to the center of the clearing." She broke into laughter. "I just noticed, you didn't change back into your white dress. There better not be any men waiting or they'll get quite a show."
Carol looked at her dress in concern. "You mean, this one, it won't grow with me? That means it'll be ruined. And I can't return it to you." She started to take her borrowed green dress off.
Brigid continued laughing. "Don't worry about it. I'll keep your silk one; the material's more than a fair trade." The rain stopped as the light shifted to that of a clear, still evening. Brigid gently pushed her into the clearing. "Go on, now. And don't look back." She disappeared.
Carol stood uncertainly for a long second, then began her march to the center of the rough clearing. As she reached it, the air grew dense around her and she slowly stopped moving, trapped as she had been trapped here before. She took a deep breath and felt the dress grow tighter on her. She dragged her arm to the collar and ripped her dress down the seam, peeling the sleeves from her arms and letting the material fall to the ground before her arms were firmly pinned at her sides.. The ground was slowly receding, or so it seemed, and the bushes at the edge of the clearing were growing smaller and closer to her. As she grew taller than the surrounding brush, she became aware of four figures waiting in the shadows: four women, she hoped.
They came nearer as she grew and she felt the twilight darkness grow deeper. She looked to the hilltop where the small group had stood but there was no sign of anyone there. Finally the air around her thinned and released her, while Linda and Deirdre ran to her. The other two women, Jill and one of the local girls -- Ciara, was it? -- stood frozen at the edge of the plot next to hers.
"Where's Ali?" Jill screamed. "Why are you here and not her?"
Linda had taken her coat off and wrapped it around Carol. "Did she decide to stay?" she asked in a low voice.
"It wasn't her choice, but, yes, she stayed." Carol looked at Alison's hysterical cousin sympathetically. "I don't know how we'll explain it, though. We'll just have to tell Jill that Ali's all right. Maybe she was meant to be the way she is now." Linda motioned to Deirdre and Ciara and they began to slowly lead Jill away, down the hill to the car.