Nature held its breath before the sunrise, and the expectation of magic and possibilities hung heavy in the cool morning air. A light mist lay over the long grass covering the hill. The sky was lightening to the east; it promised to be a warm midsummers day. A rabbit hopped cautiously out of its burrow and sniffed the air, ears erect and twitching left and right for the sound of possible enemies – a fox perhaps, or an owl returning from its nightly hunting. But it was absolutely still this morning; even the birds sensed this moment was special, and withheld their joyous chorus a while to feel the magic which now shimmered all around. With infinite slowness the luminous sun rose above the horizon to the east, caressing the trees and the grass with golden strands of light.
The air above the hill appeared to shimmer ever so slightly, and with the faintest of pops, two rather unusual characters stepped out of the air and walked out onto the damp grass. They were as tall as adult humans, and at first glance they could have been mistaken for men. A closer inspection would however reveal the unusually pointed ears which poked out from under curly jet-black hair. They were smartly attired from head to toe in wondrous shades of green. One was tall and lanky, elevated more than a head over his rather stout companion, but their demeanour hinted at a close and deep companionship. They both sat promptly down on the grass and watched in silence as the sun rose fully over the horizon, burning away the mist, bathing the countryside in a warming glow.
The stout companion was the first to break the silence. “Ah Hingrek!” he sighed, “I had forgotten how much I love this realm!” He breathed in deeply, savouring the warming air, a smile of contentment settling on his chubby countenance.
“Aye, Nobble,” replied his friend, “’tis indeed a fair country, and at times like this I would wager it is the fairest of the seven realms.” His face turned earnest. “But don’t forget why we came, and that we can’t stay long. We have to complete the task and return at sunset, otherwise we’ll be stuck here admiring this realm until the next solstice, and I doubt that even your good humour could tolerate that.”
Nobble sighed, and his mood also turned serious. “Ah, the task,” he muttered, shaking his head. Do you think we really have to go through with it? Couldn’t we just go back and say we couldn’t find one?”
“Our queen would be most displeased”, his friend replied, shivering as though he could already feel this royal wrath. “Remember what she did to us last time we mucked up? We can’t fail this time!”
“But does it really have to be a human child? Can’t we just bring back a rabbit perhaps, or how about a pig? I’m sure that would work just as well, don’t you?”
“Now Nobble, you know as well as I do, that a human child captured on the solstice contains high magic. Nothing else will do.”
“Oh my,” his friend exclaimed. “What do you think she will do with it?”
“The usual, I would imagine”
“Sacrifice!” Nobble whispered, is voice aghast. “Oh, this is a bad business, and that’s for sure.”
“Now, my friend, don’t get all sentimental. Do you know how many human children roam this realm? Millions, I would wager, and we only need to take one. I doubt that it will even be missed. Now come, shake off this melancholy, and let’s walk a bit in this realm. We do have the whole day to enjoy, after all. And, if I’m not very much mistaken, over there is a rather fine crop of blackberries.”
“Blackberries!” his stout friend exclaimed, jumping up and running over. “Early ripeners, and good ones too, there’s no mistake. Let us feast awhile, Hingrek, to fortify ourselves for the task ahead. The day will be hot, and we will require plenty of sustenance.”
The boy lay in the dust, lining up his toy cowboys in rank and file. Footman at the front, crawling along the ground armed with rifles, or walking steadfastly ahead bearing the banner. The generals on horseback made up the rear of the attack. A few feet away he lined up the indians, war chiefs with painted faces and sharp tomahawks, and brave warriors armed with daggers and bows and arrows. They snuck through the undergrowth, camouflaged and unseen until it was too late. They picked off the cowboys one by one, the boy flicking them over to emphasise their newly deceased state. Once the indians had vanquished, the boy sighed and stood up, scuffing his feet in the dusty yard, and looked around.
His sister came out of the backdoor carrying a pitcher of lemonade and two glasses. She was three years older than him, and could be really bossy, but today their parents were away, and she was being nice to him. She passed him a glass of lemonade, and they drank companionably in silence for a while, before the boy spoke.
“When are mum and dad coming home?” he asked. He didn’t want to admit that he missed them, as she would only tease him for it, but he didn’t like it when his parents went away. They always left their grandma in charge, but she was half deaf and always sleeping, so they usually had to fend for themselves on these occasions.
“Oh, they won’t be back for hours and hours,” she said with relish. “They’ve gone to a solstice party, so they’re not going to be back until at least midnight.”
“What’s the solstice?” he asked. He had heard his parents talking about it, but to him it seemed very mysterious.
“Today is the solstice,” his sister explained, pleased to take the role of imparting knowledge. “It’s the longest day of the year. Mum and dad were up early this morning to watch the sunrise, and now they’re celebrating with their druid friends. They’re going to watch the sunset too, so the party will go on into the night. They say the solstice is a special time, where magic can really happen.”
“Magic?” repeated her brother, wide eyed. “Do you really believe that? What sort of magic?”
“Oh, you know,” his sister replied. She had actually thought about this a lot, so she expounded on her ideas. “There’s probably lots of magic folk about, you know, like goblins and fairies, and all that kind of stuff.” Secretly she would love to believe that was real, and it was her dearest wish to meet some of these folk. Her brother however wasn’t so impressed.
“Well,” he said, “there’s no fairies here, just this stupid dusty yard.” He scuffed the dirt around with his toes, drawing random patterns in the earth. “I’m bored, Bea! Let’s play a game.”
“What sort of game?” she asked. Scott was really good at making up games, his sister had to admit, unlike her. She was happiest when she was curled up in her favourite chair on the porch with a good book.
“How about dares?” replied Scott, with a mischievous glint in his eyes. Scott’s games were usually fairly wild, and he always chose dares when he wanted to try something adventurous, which usually meant dangerous. With their parents away, and grandma asleep somewhere, now was the perfect time to try something new.
“Okay,” replied Bea, and tried to think of a dare for her brother that would be suitably challenging, but which wouldn’t result in any broken bones. She looked around the yard, and her eyes alighted on the old apple tree in the corner. The branches were strong, so he shouldn’t have too much difficulty. “I dare you to climb to the top of the apple tree” she said, certain that he would be game. To her surprise, he glanced up only briefly at the apple tree, a look of boredom on his face.
“That old apple tree?” he said disdainfully. “I’ve been to the top loads of times, whilst you had your head stuffed in your books.” She tried to keep the surprise from showing on her face. Was he lying? No, probably not, that sounded like just the sort of thing her brother would do. “That’s too easy,” he continued, “I was thinking of something far more adventurous.” His eyes strayed over to the house. There was a step ladder attached to the end wall of the building which led all the way to the roof. Their father used it occasionally, but the children were strictly forbidden to step foot on it. His eyes continued to walk up the ladder and along the rooftop. She felt a sudden lurch in her stomach as she understood what her brother meant to do.
“You wouldn’t dare!” she gasped, but then bit her lip, as those were exactly the wrong words to say.
The sun was high in the sky as Hingrek awoke with a start. He groaned, and gave his companion a nudge. “Wake up, Nobble!” he cried. “Oh, what fools were are to have fallen asleep. Look! It’s past midday, and we haven’t progressed more than fifty yards!”
Nobble sat up slowly, and wiped away the blackberry juice which was dribbling down his chin. “Oh, this is a fix, and that’s for sure!” he lamented. “I’d forgotten the effect that blackberries have on us!”
“Never mind that now, let’s get going!” replied Hingrek, jumping up and setting off on a path that led down the hill. His stout companion trotted after him, catching him up a few moments later. The path wound through a short forest which leant a welcoming shade, before opening up onto a rolling landscape of fields and arable land. The companions walked a time in silence, each wrapped up in his own thoughts.
“Have you given any thought to exactly how we’re going to catch a human child?” asked Nobble, after a while. “I mean, it’s not going to come voluntarily, is it, and we can hardly just club it over the head and carry it back.”
Hingrek, who to be honest had been considering doing exactly that, appeared to give the matter some thought before shrugging his shoulders, and pronouncing that the best strategy would be to simply play it by ear. Nobble didn’t appear too convinced by this strategy, but he decided to keep his own council. What was worrying him more was the fact that they had come a good way now, and so far they hadn’t encountered any human habitation. Just as he was about to remark upon this fact, Hingrek stopped with a suddenness which almost led Nobble to collide into him, and pointed into the distance. Nestled between the fields a good half mile distant was what looked to be a farmhouse. With an encouraging pat on his friend’s shoulder, Hingrek set off along the small track which led to the house.
Hingrek signalled for caution as they approached. There was a yard at the back of the house enclosed by a hedge, so they crept nearer. Peeking through, they saw a small boy playing with some small figures in the dusty yard. The door to the house opened, and slightly older girl brought some drinks to the boy, sitting down next to him. Hingrek and Nobble punched each other on the arm in excitement.
“Two of them!” whispered Hingrek gleefully, “Let’s observe them for a while and see what they do.” Nobble nodded in agreement, and carried on watching.
Scott stood up, grinning impishly at his sister and swaggered up to the house. He tried to look confident, but in reality his heart was thumping in his chest, and his legs were suddenly strangely wobbly. When he reached the ladder and looked up, his nerve nearly gave way. It didn’t look so high from where they were sitting, but now he was here and about to do it, it seemed dauntingly high. He started to climb, hand over hand, one step at a time, making sure to keep a firm grip. The trick was not to look down, he told himself, but that was easier said than done, and besides, he could feel how high he was. He reached the top, and now he had a dilemma. Did he really have the nerve to climb up onto the roof and walk along the crest? The tiles were flat on the roof ridge, maybe a hand-span wide. His balance was good, so he just had to keep his nerve, right? He climbed over the top of the ladder, then sat first on the ridge, legs straddled over both sides. He slowly lifted himself up, and started to walk tentatively along the rooftop.
The two companions were agog at this new development, and glanced at each other wide eyed with astonishment, before looking back to witness this drama.
Scott was scared, but nevertheless he carried on walking slowly along the ridge. He focussed straight ahead not daring to look left or right. After a few steps he mastered his balance and gained more confidence. He grinned to himself – he was going to do this! He looked down to his sister far below to grin at her, and that was his fatal mistake. He suddenly realised how far up he was, and how far away she was. He felt dizzy, and the world suddenly started to spin. Before he realised what was happening, he was tumbling head over heels down the slope of the roof. He tried to grab the guttering as he rolled past but to no avail, and he found himself plummeting towards the ground.
Hingrek cried out. Before he knew what he was doing, he had jumped up and snapped his fingers. Scott was suddenly surrounded by a blue light which swirled around him, arresting his fall and transporting him to the ground with a soft bump.
“What have you done!” cried Nobble. “You’ve used magic in front of humans! Oh, there’ll be hell to pay for this!”
“Well, I couldn’t just let him die, could I?” retorted Hingrek, realising the irony of his words as soon as he had spoken them. The game was up. Bea had rushed over to her brother, amazed that he was still alive, and they both now looked at the fading blue light with wonder. She then turned and look at the two companions hovering behind the hedge, so now there was no choice for them but to go and introduce themselves.
“Oh, thank you!” cried Bea, hugging Hingrek tightly as they joined the children. “You saved my brother! But who are you? Where did you come from? Did you use magic?” She stared open mouthed at the two strange men standing in front of her.
Hingrek sighed, then sat down with the children and started to explain who they were and where they came from, without, of course mentioning the real reason why there were there. With a shrug, Nobble also sat down, and listened to his friend’s picturesque descriptions of their home realm. By the time he had finished, the sun was lower in the sky, and Nobble shifted nervously. “Hingrek,” he muttered, “we don’t have long. The door will be closing soon, we really must be going back”
“I want to go with you!” Bea jumped up in excitement. “I want to see your wondrous land, and meet these marvellous people! It’s what I’ve always dreamed of!”
“Me too!” said Scott. “I want to come too!”
Nobble and Hingrek exchanged glances. Was it really this easy? The children were begging to come! All they had to do was go back to the portal, and their task was accomplished! With exaggerated reluctance Hingrek appeared to give the matter grave consideration. When he finally agreed, the children jumped up in the air in excitement, and Bea ran back into the house to pack some food quickly, and to leave a note for their grandmother. In next to no time she was back outside. Without wasting any time, the companions set of at a quick pace back the way they had come. The children were talking all the way, bombarding the friends with all manner of questions, and Nobble even let the boy ride on his shoulders for a while, carrying him up the hill when the way got too steep.
The sun was dipping towards the horizon when they reached the top, and Hingrek quickly searched out the spot where they entered. He then turned back to the children.
“Now, listen up”, he said. “It’s easy to get lost in our world, and I wouldn’t want that to happen, so just to make sure we stick together, I’ll tie us all together with a bit of magic rope”. The children nodded mutely, so with a slight movement of his hand he conjured up a pale blue cord, which bound the children’s hands together. As the sun started to dip below the horizon, he raised his hands in the air, which shimmered slightly before a door appeared. Through the door they could see a pale light, and they now heard a shrill laughter which sent shivers down the children’s spines.
“Two children!” the voice sounded in glee. “You have done well! Now come, quickly, return before the door closes!”
The children were scared now, and suddenly seemed to realise that they were in danger. “I want to go home!” cried Bea, and her brother joined in too.
“Quickly!” screamed the voice, before it’s too late!”
Hingrek caught his friend’s eye. “You know, Nobble,” he said, “I’ve always fancied a holiday in this realm, haven’t you?”
“Aye, that I have,” agreed Nobble. As the dying embers of the sun fell below the horizon, the doorway between the realms closed. The magic dissipated into the air, and the evening stillness fell over the strange companions.