Don’t think us rude if we stare, stranger. We get so few who visit here, you see. Same weathered faces, same laboured jokes, but the beer’s good. Arthur, he knows how to keep a good cellar, don’t you, Arthur? Stay for a drink. We’ll entertain you.
Hartwood Farm? Take the Brompton road a brace of miles, where it runs by Bretton Oaks, up Malton Hill, and if you turn left where you see the Wishing Stone there is a drovers’ track; it is there you may find it. A mile or so. A short mile, no more.
As the river runs about the foot of Hartwood Fell it leaves a basin of green land, not so large as you might think it, nor so green as you might wish it, but a farmer’s living once. I knew him, the man. He who farmed that pasture – who lived there. Sair, he was, with cheeks scoured black by the north-blown rain. His name was Borden; Isaac Borden.
His home is standing, still, you’ll see it there, afore the narrow band of trees that skirt the Fell. Of random stone it is, bare-laid on clay, and it might not be a house to make you proud, with no boards to warm your feet or plastered walls, yet when the easterly blows its flagstone roof holds firm against the worst, and when the river runs high from the fells in the spring rains it stands above the flood. And there he spent all his years, did Isaac.
When I knew him he was old and he was broken. But he was husband and father once, and inasmuch as a farmer is ever happy in these hills, he was contented with his lot.
What happened? What was it led to his misery and his downfall? Arthur, this man would like to buy me a pint, so my throat shall not dry. I have a tale to tell.
He met her at the Wishing Stone. She was waiting hooded in the snow for something she said would never come. And he thought at first she was a wayward girl, but she was as hungry as she was cold, and so he took her in. She warmed by his fire, she ate the hot soup he kept beside the hearth. She pushed back her hood, she put her cloak aside.
They were married in the spring, Isaac and Mirabelle. She bore him a son, she bore him a daughter, she stayed beside him through the years, but although he loved her best and knew her as well as any man can know a woman, there’s some would say she loved him not at all.
Now the daughter, Naomi it was, who paved their downfall. A lonely child, as any child so raised must be, but with a yearning that might not be answered and a song in her head she could not name. As she grew towards womanhood that song became more insistent, the words sweeter, until at last she took to wandering in the hills as if to search for it. One summer forenoon when the heat was on the gorse and the curlews mewing she discovered what she sought. Faint at first, it was, the music; the entice of rhyme but very near to silence. Yet Naomi turned her steps to follow the tune: she followed because she was curious; that at first. Then, as the song grew louder, she followed because she must; because the music would not let her go.
Her head swam with the melody; her feet danced to the tune. She climbed higher and higher, some said as high as Canford Bluff, and there she found upon the summit of the moor, as she thought, a fissure in the rocks whence the music came. Such was the magic in her dance that she could go where no human might, and though the cut was no wider than the thickness of an arm, she slipped inside it. She stepped through, into another world.
Isaac Borden waited, Jacob his son waited, hour upon hour all of that day, for Naomi to return. You may not think of them as idle, for there is always work for poor farmers such as they, but they fretted and worried. Mirabelle meantime, going about her tasks, she made no sign of worry. As she worked she sang, a song neither man nor boy had ever heard her sing. And when Isaac her husband spoke to her of Naomi’s tardiness, she smiled and made no answer.
Come that eve a thunderhead was building. Jacob could contain himself no more. Bearing his crook to guide his arm and setting his cowl against the lancing rain he set out, the boy, to find his sister. In gathering dark, over rocks made slick by the downpour of the storm you might think his task was hopeless, yet he did not stumble and his stride did not vary. Once and again bright lightning revealed his path, but a dozen times he might have slipped and fallen, were there not the strangeness of a pale green light that seemed to dance before him; and that light it was that beckoned him upward, until the music found him and drew him in thrall to the rocks of Canford Bluff.
Jacob saw his sister there, in a land beyond. Through the narrow cleft he saw her figure dancing in a resplendent ballroom, with a score of courtiers all about her. Jacob knew at once that he had stumbled upon the palace of the Fairy King. He saw musicians in frenzy thrashing out the tune that had enticed him, fine ladies whirling to their rhythm, and watching over them all, upon his high crystal throne, the Monarch of the Wild People himself. His Majesty, he was as impressive a figure as you might expect – his stout body, too heavy for his wilted wings, clothed in rich silks and ermines, his round legs clad in white stockings, his feet in velvet slippers buckled with gold. And the moment – the very second – Jacob set eyes upon him, the King’s frog-like stare matched his own! Instantly, the boy felt a furious buzzing in his head. White flashes skittered before his eyes and the stinging thrusts of a thousand fairy swords prickled upon his skin. What could he do? He called, he shouted as loud as he might to his sister: “Naomi! Naomi!” But though she may have heard she paid him no attention. He was too large to pass between the rocks; he could not reach her. The stabbing swords became spears – they probed deeper, drawing blood – and try as he might, there was no riposte. His assailants were too quick, their intent would all too soon become mortal. Reluctantly, then, he turned away, but with one last vision in his head. Utterly disbelieving, he saw his mother there among the dancers, looking up to meet his eye, and she was laughing!
When Jacob returned, bloody and torn, to his home, he discovered his father sitting in the pasture by the rushing river with tears upon his face. And when they spoke and took some mead together the old man told how Mirabelle had left her wedding band upon his table, then walked without a word from his house; and how he knew at once what had happened, for these hills are rich in fairy lore.
“She was a child of the woods, my son. I met her by the Wishing Stone and always knew in my heart it was so. Your sister was destined; it was marked upon her. Much as I have dreaded this day, it had to come.”
Now Jacob, he grieved for his father, but he puzzled how it was his mother’s seed had grown in his sister, yet not in him. The years went by, and father and son struggled with the land each season in its turn. The wild call did not visit Jacob’s ears again, though he worried greatly that it should.
Then one even, when the blackthorn bloomed snow white on the bough, and Jacob in his thirtieth summer, was returning from market on weary feet he discovered a maiden seated by the Wishing Stone. Her head was cowled and her body wrapped in a gossamer cloak, so he knew her at once for what she was. Nevertheless a wood nymph’s beauty intoxicates and a wood nymph’s voice is sweeter than song, so when she drew her veils aside; when she told him he was the one for whom she waited, he could not deny her.
One winter they spent together in the cottage by the river, Jacob and Linantha, his bride. And before they left in the spring Jacob learned how his wife well understood the wild blood that ran through his veins, for Mirabelle his mother it was who sent her to him.
You see, upon that long-ago time when Isaac Borden met with Mirabelle at the Wishing Stone, she was waiting for her prince, rightful heir to the throne of the Fairy King. He had not come, therefore she knew the usurper Malegon must have slain him. When she lay with Isaac her purpose was plain. She should bear two children with an earthling – the one a girl, who, with her wild blood, must become of age as a nymph. The other a male child in whom the father’s seed was the stronger – who would remain with earthling kind until she sent a key.
So Mirabelle stirred the music in her daughter, and firm in her resolve, joined Naomi at court. Together they charmed the fat usurper Malegon. Naomi tempted and cosseted him, Mirabelle plied him with her sweetest wine, until he grew too fat and dissolute to defend his crown. Among the courtiers was a girl so lovely all the courtiers fell upon their knees before her, and she was Linantha, Mirabelle’s niece. Therefore Mirabelle selected Linantha as her key.
Let Linantha and Jacob but lie together once, and Mirabelle knew the music would begin. Jacob’s wild blood would be awakened. Came the spring, and it was so. Jacob bade farewell to his father, and with Linantha made his journey to the court upon the high fell. The slaying of Malegon would be a simple thing. Jacob would take his crown with Linantha as his queen, and Mirabelle, though thwarted in her wish to wear the crown, would be content to be the Queen Mother.
And there the tale ends. These things the old man revealed to me when I spoke with him; when he was old and broken and alone. He knew their purpose when they left that Spring, Jacob and his nymph bride. As he believed, they had gone to take their place on the throne of the wild people, and he died believing his son was a king. He never saw them again.
What really happened? No-one knows – or no-one knew until today. This very day, come to think of it. Go to the house. You may find what you are seeking there. You will find the old man’s grave, in the field by the river. But I think you know what you will find, just as I think I know you, because I see in you your grandfather’s face, your grandfather’s eyes. And at last, the truth. The coup failed. Malegon still reigns as fairy king.
How should I know this? Because you are still an earthling, for all the cold fire in your eyes. You were born on this earth. But let us talk of the song playing in your head, son of Jacob. Perhaps ’tis Canford Bluff you really seek?