Margarita Surprise was eleven years old when she first heard the fairies sing. She was, as she often did, not attending to her chores; rather than busily washing her family's laundry by the river, she and her friend Julie Mint were hunting for wildflowers in the field behind the mill. The girls were happily braiding stems together to form a chain when the sound first reached her.
"Oh, how pretty!"
Julie looked up curiously.
"What is it, Margarita?"
"That song. I wonder who it is?" The voices were high-pitched and the melody bright and enthusiastic—a happy song sung by happy people. Margarita hummed a few bars along with the singers, then stopped when she saw Julie giving her a very strange look. "What is it, Julie?"
"What are you talking about, Margarita? I don't hear anything."
"You don't? But it's..."
She broke off when she realized that she, too, couldn't hear the music any more.
"Oh, well, it must just have been somebody walking by. It's gone now."
"We'd...we'd better get back. If we don't get our chores done, I'll get a whipping for sure." That was just like Julie. If the least little thing went wrong, she always wanted to run and hide. Margarita supposed she couldn't blame her, though; her father was the local magistrate and so he always had to be more upright, more proper, more correct than everybody else in the village—or at least that's what Mr. Surprise had complained when Mr. Mint had fined him sixpence for drinking before the harvest was in. Margarita would not have wanted Mr. Mint for a father, nor his equally stuffy and proper wife for a mother, and she felt sorry for Julie.
"Okay!" she agreed, and set her flower chain on her head like a crown. The girls got up, dusted off their skirts, and scurried back towards where they were supposed to be.
It didn't occur to Margarita until much later that the song hadn't been coming from the village, but from the direction of the forest line on the other side of the field.
~X X X~
It was nearly four months later, when spring had passed into summer and nearly come around to fall again, before Margarita heard the music once more. It was late one evening, the full moon streaming through the gaps in the shutters, and she found herself suddenly awake in her narrow bed. She wasn't used to waking in the middle of the night, and it took her a while to figure out what was going on. Slowly, curiosity drove out sleep, and Margarita became aware, consciously, of the song that had roused her from slumber.
It was not the same song as she'd heard that day with Julie by the mill, but the memory came to her at once. Something about it, the high-pitched voices that rang like chimes, or the way the music seemed to swell from far away without losing volume. It was nothing like the hymns she'd heard in church; those songs were solemn and stately, full of a worshipful humility. This was different; though Margarita could not make out any words she could sense an energy, a joy in the richness of life. It was like nothing she'd heard before save that one time.
A few months ago, she would have woken her older sister and asked what she thought it was, but Paloma no longer shared the small room with her, the older girl having married over the summer. There was certainly no point in asking her parents; her father would get angry and her mother would no doubt set her to copying some improving tract on being an obedient and dutiful daughter.
Yet, she thought to herself, she just had to know where the singing was coming from! It tugged at her, called to the unruly part of her soul that wanted to romp and play rather than work at lessons and chores and embroidery.
She didn't bother to change out of her night-dress, which was of sturdy cotton anyway and plenty warm enough on a night that hadn't yet caught the autumn chill, only pushed her feet into her shoes as she crept to the window. Slowly she unhooked the casement and swung it open, then climbed out into the house's back garden.
The music's strange nature, how it rose and swelled around her, confused Margarita at first, making it difficult for her to tell which direction it came from. Soon, though, she got her bearings and was scampering out of the garden, then out of the village entirely across the mill-field towards the woods beyond. As if guided by unseen hands, her feet found a path through the undergrowth which after a hundred feet or so widened out into a clearing.
Margarita gasped in surprise and amazement as she saw a display of light and color like none she'd ever even imagined before. The clearing was full of revelers, but these revelers weren't people. They were human-like figures about a foot tall, dressed in a brilliant array of blues and greens, reds and yellows, so unlike the dour blacks and grays of the villagers. They danced with wild abandon, joy on their faces, some twirling around a ring of standing stones with such light steps that their tiny feet left no impression on the grass, but others even more amazingly danced on the air, carried on wings that shone azure and gold with iridescent gleams like the dragonflies that buzzed above the stream. Will-o-wisp lights in a dozen shades gleamed from all around them, illuminating the scene, and the stones themselves shone with a runic green light.
The little girl's gasp drew attention to her, and many of the dancers turned their heads.
"What's this?" one said, her voice high and pure like a jingling bell. "What's this? What's this?" others took up the cry. Several flitted towards her, regarding her with curiosity and, in a couple of faces, caution.
"A human girl!"
"But why is she here?"
The tiny figures swirled and swooped around her. One's wings brushed her cheek; Margarita giggled at the tickling touch.
"She can see!"
"She can feel!"
"Can you sing?" one asked, hovering a foot before Margarita's face.
"Can you dance?"
"I...I don't know..." she stammered out.
Tiny hands seized hers.
"Then let's learn!"
"Yes, let's! Come sing!" others chorused, and before she knew it, Margarita found herself drawn into the circle, the fairies swirling around her. She tried to move with them, stumbled a bit, and then one of the fairies flitted up before her.
"Like this!" he cried, clapping out the beat of the song, and soon Margarita found herself, too, swept along on the wings of the music. Her steps came with more confidence, and soon she was raising her own voice to join the song. Her human voice sounded rough and harsh next to the soaring tones of the fey creatures, but they adapted at once, harmonizing with her as they wove their voices in and out among Margarita's.
Enraptured, the child threw herself wholeheartedly into the revelry, the night dissolving into a swirling celebration of joy and music and laughter that swept her away.
Reality returned with the cold light that came with pre-dawn. Margarita blinked, finding herself stirring awake. At first she was confused, waking not in her bed but in the cool air of the outdoors. Memory then came back to her...but it was clouded, unclear. Had she been dreaming? But if so, why was she there in the woods? She glanced around, realizing that she was lying within a circle of stones. Unlike in the dream or memory, they were plain, seemingly ordinary; she touched one and felt only common rock beneath her fingertips.
Then, as the light filtering through the trees grew brighter, reason replaced wonder, as Margarita realized that whether the fairy dance had been a dream or a reality, she was alone in the woods while her mother would soon be trying to wake her. Clambering to her feet, she gathered the skirts of her nightdress and set off running. Getting out of the woods was relatively easy since she wasn't very deep within them, and she oriented herself quickly in relation to her house when she came out.
Margarita nearly jumped out of her shoes at the sound of the voice. It was a rich sound, dry with a hint of good humor, not at all accusing or upset, but its presence at all was enough to startle and almost terrify the girl.
"My apologies," he said, stepping out of the shadow of the tree where he'd been standing. He had a long face, thin, with a prominent hooked nose and deep laugh lines carved in his cheeks by the years. He had thinning white hair and looked to be in his mid-fifties or so. His high, black hat had a floppy brim, and he had a cloak pulled tightly around himself, as if he felt the coming fall more keenly than the child.
The details of his appearance, though, weren't important. What mattered most from Margarita's perspective was that she didn't know him. He was a stranger to her, and she knew almost everyone in the village.
A stranger, and one moreover who'd caught her out where she shouldn't be.
Her fears must have shown on her face, because he smiled at her.
"So, young miss, do you think you could tell me where a man might find a place to rest his eyes after being out all night?"
"Goodwife Royal lets a room to travelers now and again," Margarita answered.
"Ah, and where is that?"
"Two houses down from the church, sir."
He chuckled at her.
"Ah, no 'sir' for me, I'm afraid. Just plain old Mr. Michael H. Lemon, at your service. And you, miss?"
She could have lied or refused to answer, and was about to do so, when she realized that if he was going to be staying in the village it wouldn't take him any time at all to identify Margarita, daughter of Mathew Dorr Surprise, and then he would know he had a strong hold on her.
"I'm Margarita Surprise, Mr. Lemon."
"So you are, so you are. Well, Miss Margarita, since we're friends now I'll make sure to do you a friendly turn. Don't give a worry, for I shan't tell anyone what you were up to last night—and I strongly advise that you do the same, for your own sake." He tapped the side of his nose with a finger.
She flinched slightly. Did he really know about what had happened? Or was he just guessing since kids weren't supposed to be coming out of the woods in their night-dresses at first light?
"Thank you," she said all the same.
He touched his hat-brim to her.
"No need for that. Just a friendly gesture. Now get on home with you, before the equinox-night passes forever."
Margarita didn't know what he meant by "equinox," but even so she didn't need to be told twice to get going. She scurried for home, having to duck out of sight to keep from meeting Farmer Rickey and his hired hand going to tend his cattle, and scrambled back into her window and shut it again before her mother came calling "the lazy slugabed" to come awake and start the day.
For her part, Margarita decided that Mr. Lemon's advice was sound; she certainly didn't want to get in trouble! The problem was her fundamentally curious spirit. It had taken her in search of the music, but now she wanted to know more. What were those strange creatures, and why were they dancing in the middle of the night? She wanted to know the answers, and yet she couldn't ask the question.
It took her a day and the better part of another to think her way through the problem and come to a possible solution that wouldn't give away the fact she'd been out all night or anything about the creatures she'd seen. It was even better, she thought, that on the very day she'd thought of it, Magistrate Mint had come over to share a pipe and a mug of cider with her father. The men had been yarning before the hearth for nearly an hour when Margarita's mother handed her the earthenware pitcher and sent her in to refill the men's cups, "for I'm not setting foot in that smoky den 'till they air it out!" Mrs. Surprise had strong opinions when it came to tobacco.
"Ah, Margarita, thank you, gel," the magistrate said. "You've got a kindly girl here, Mathew."
"Thank you, sir," she replied. The two men were much the same physically, big and bluff despite their sober gray and black clothing. Margarita's father had red hair and a bristling moustache, while Mr. Mint had thinning sandy hair and a slightly ruddier complexion, but all in all they were more alike than different. "Um...may I ask a question, Father?"
"Of course, m'dear, of course."
"Well...I've heard that in the woods east of the village there's a clearing where there are stones set in a ring. What is it?"
The genial expressions dropped from both men's faces at once; they stared at her with hard eyes and barely suppressed fury.
"Where did you hear about that?" Mr. Mint snapped at her, sounding just like when he was accusing criminals in his court. "Quick! Where?"
"I...I don't know," Margarita stammered. She hadn't thought anyone would ask that!
"Margarita, it's very important," her father said sternly. "You have to tell us who told you about the fairy ring."
"A heathen place!" Mr. Mint barked.
"Isaiah, you'll scare the girl," Mr. Surprise chided. To Margarita he said, "The circle of stones you asked about. We need to know who was talking about it and what they were saying."
Margarita trembled. This wasn't at all what she'd been expecting to hear! She'd just wanted an answer, but the two men were angry! A girl much less intelligent than Margarita could have figured out that the truth was absolutely not the right answer. Or at least not the safe answer!
"I don't know, Father."
Mr. Mint slapped his hand on the wooden arm of his chair with a sharp crack.
"Tell us, Miss Surprise!"
"Margarita, that ring is an evil place," her father explained.
"E-evil?" she asked. It certainly hadn't seemed evil to her. The little winged dancers had been happy and joyful.
"It's a place of magic, where witches gather for their sabbats, and call their devil familiars up from Hell to do their wicked work!" he snapped sharply. Hate and fear warred with each other in his eyes, emotion building rapidly with every word. "So you see, we have to know where you heard about it. No decent person would even mention such a place."
"Let alone to a child!" Mr. Mint added.
"So you see, we have to know who it was who told you."
"I...I don't remember," she stammered.
"Think, girl! Look back in your mind and try to remember where you were when you heard about it," Mr. Mint pressed her.
"Where did you go today? Was it at the general store, is the street, while you were at your chores?"
They snapped their questions at her fast and furiously, barely giving her a moment to collect her wits, to think the way they kept telling her to. She shrank back from them, wanting to say something, anything to get them to stop. Her father gripped her shoulders.
"For God's sake, Margarita, you have to tell us!"
Is this what Mr. Lemon meant? she thought. That I should keep quiet for my own sake? Father and Mr. Mint were talking about witches! Does that mean Mr. Lemon is a witch? I should tell them about him! But...he might tell about me, so I can't say anything!
"I don't remember, I don't!" she wailed. "I just heard it somewhere!"
"My word, stop it!" Mrs. Surprise snapped, rushing into the room. Margarita flung herself at her mother, clinging at her apron. "Can't you two see you're terrifying the girl?"
"Priscilla, she asked us about—"
"I heard the shouting, Mathew, and I heard poor Margarita, too. She doesn't remember anything any more than you remember where you left your hat this Tuesday last. It didn't mean anything to her to hear it, and so she didn't mark it down in her mind the way you or I would. Instead of yelling and shouting, you should be thanking her for speaking up, or else who knows how long it might have been until you found the truth?"
The two men looked at her for a long moment, then glanced at each other and some of the frenzy went out of them. They sagged back into their seats, faces hard and set, like iron will rather than wild emotion.
"Priscilla's right, Isaiah," Mr. Surprise stated. "I wish Margarita could have called it to mind, but what will be will be. The important thing is that we know. We'll investigate and see if it's been restored, and if it has..."
Magistrate Mint nodded.
"We'll know that witches are at work again."
Margarita could feel the shudder run through her mother's body.
"God preserve us," Mrs. Surprise whispered.
Her husband rose from his chair and crossed to her. "Don't worry, Priscilla; I won't let them do anything to you or Margarita. I swear it."
"Thanks to your Margarita's ears," Magistrate Mint said, "we at least have warning. We'll root these hellspawn out and treat them to a taste of cleansing fire. We shall burn this corruption from our midst once and for all!"
The tale exploded from there. The words "magic" and "witchcraft" were on everyone's lips throughout the village, whether in fearful awe or hushed whispers. The whole town was caught up with it; the magistrate and sheriff railed against it at the meetinghouse while Father Braastad thundered denunciations of the Devil's works from the pulpit. Neighbors cast suspicious glances at one another and frenzy took hold. Goodwife Royal's herb-garden was ripped up by a mob searching for evidence of mandrakes, for which Magistrate Mint put Goodwife Underberg in the stocks for a day for making the accusation against her long-time rival that got them riled up. Another accusation claimed that old Mr. Nocino's little collection of first editions was really a library of sorcerous grimoires, and he was lucky to save half of them when the sheriff intervened. The fairy ring was of course dug up and its stones scattered, buried in different spots in the woods (for no one would have them in the village) after a blessing with holy water.
Through it all, Margarita was terrified. The sudden frenzy that had gripped her family and neighbors was frightening all by itself; the way they had all seemed to be possessed by some terrible force was enough to make the stories of witches and devils seem quite real. Worse than that, of course, was the idea that somehow her own secret, the truth of what she'd seen and done, would be discovered. She heard nothing of Mr. Lemon, which itself frightened her. A stranger in the village should have been big news, especially the way things were, and yet Margarita hadn't heard a whisper about him, or of Goodwife Royal having a guest.
Should she have told someone? Maybe...maybe it was more important to tell, to protect people. What if he was a dangerous witch? The one everyone was afraid of? Yet he hadn't been at the fairy ring. And why was it such a bad place? The things her father and the magistrate and the priest talked about were scary, but she hadn't been scared. She'd had fun! There hadn't been anything frightening, nothing trying to hurt her, had there?
So she stayed quiet. Fear and confusion kept her from speaking out.
It was about two weeks past when Margarita's question had sent off such a frenzy that her mother sent her to the Mints next door to deliver a fresh-baked pie. She was very surprised when Mrs. Mint herself answered the door instead of the housekeeper.
"I...I'm sorry," she apologized hastily, realizing that her uncouth double-take hadn't been very nice.
"That's quite all right," the lady reassured her. Julie's mother was a brunette in her mid-forties, with an elegance that suited her position as the magistrate's wife—indeed, it would have been out of place had she been of any lesser status. "My husband is at the meetinghouse with the other townsmen, no doubt including your father and our servant, while the housekeeper has taken Julie to attend to the market, so I'm left to answer the door by myself. Do come in, Margarita."
The girl wondered in passing why Mrs. Mint had bothered with such a thorough explanation, but followed her in. They passed through the high front hall with its staircase and landing, then through a paneled dining room into a large, well-appointed kitchen.
"And now do you see, young miss, why it was I suggested you stay quiet?"
Margarita nearly jumped out of her shoes at the sound of the deep, hollow voice. She'd only heard it the once, but under the circumstances she could hardly have mistook it for anyone else's. She turned her head and, sure enough, there was Mr. Lemon, seated causally on the kitchen stool next to the hearth. He had a pewter tankard in his hand and he raised it in greeting. "Well met again, lass."
Margarita shrank back away from him.
"W-what are you doing here? I thought you were going to stay at Goodwife Royal's?"
"Good questions both, but not, I think, the one you really wish to ask. But"—he waggled a finger at her, then tapped the side of his long nose—"I appreciate discretion. Too curious to keep quiet, you were, but too clever to say anything about yourself or me, was it? Well, no harm done, except to a few shortsighted fools."
"Michael is a very old friend of mine, from before I moved to the village," Mrs. Mint explained. "Do sit down, Margarita. I made sure to ask your mother if I could have a share of what she was baking and emptied out the house so that he could have a talk with you."
"And to answer what you didn't ask," he chimed in, while still smiling, "why yes, I am a witch. But then again, so are you."
Margarita gave a little shriek.
"I don't believe you!" she cried.
"Oh, it's quite true. Do you think any of the village cloth-heads even heard the fairies singing on equinox-night? Let alone see them or dance with them?"
"It's not true!" she protested.
"Of course it's not," he said, bringing her up short, and leaving her very, very confused. In reflection, she'd later realize that was probably his intent, as the easiest way to still her panic.
"Sit down, Margarita." Mrs. Mint gently guided her into a chair with a hand on her shoulder. "We're trying to help you."
"Magic, you see, is nothing but a natural force, put on this world by God just as He made the seas and the air and the land. You, Miss Margarita Surprise, are one of the few who are awake to its presence, capable of seeing and touching it. That's all—but they'd call you a witch for that, wouldn't they?"
He held the child's gaze steadily. Reassurance on the one hand—a threat on the other. Did she believe him? Of course she did. She'd seen the rage in her father's eyes, heard it in Magistrate Mint's voice when they spoke of the fairy ring. If she told them what she'd seen and done there, they would be sure she'd been caught up in deviltry.
"They're deluded fools, so scared of what they don't understand that they believe it's all the Devil's work," Lemon went on. "They cower from shadows they create in their own minds, and lash out with their terror." He frowned sourly. "Usually their sort ends up immolating lonely widows, unpopular ladies, cranky gaffers, and anyone else that's earned their ire."
"Isaiah is a bigoted, fearful zealot like the rest of the people hereabouts," Mrs. Mint summed up her husband with a chilling callousness, "but he isn't a complete idiot. He can tell magic from malice, even if he can't see that it isn't all sorcery."
"How reassuring," Lemon said wryly. "Of course, that would be no help to Miss Margarita, would it?"
"What are you talking about?" Margarita asked.
"You're an intelligent girl," the witch said. "Do you know what the fairy ring truly is—not the absurdities that your silly priest trumpets, but the truth of it?"
"There are other worlds that pass near our own. The closest one, which parallels ours, is called Faerie, and it is a place of magic, some kind, some wicked, some beautiful, some horrid, all the same as people. In certain places, at certain times, the worlds touch, without need for a magician's powers, and those places are usually marked. The turning of the seasons is one such time; the fairies react to the currents of magic and celebrate." He smiled at her. "You, of course, heard their song drifting between worlds and were able to join them, so you understand, don't you, that magic is not evil, not the 'devil's work'?"
Hesitantly, she nodded. Whatever else was happening, she couldn't imagine the smiling faces of the singing, dancing fairies alongside the hellfire-and-brimstone horrors that the villagers shrank from.
"But I don't understand any of this. Who are you? Why are you here?"
"As I said, Michael is an old friend of mine. And as for why he is here, why, that is for your sake, Margarita."
She looked at the magistrate's wife in surprise.
"Yes, indeed. I knew that you had the talent, and I wanted to save you the fate I foresaw. In a decent nation it wouldn't matter. You could go through life without ever touching your power, besides seeing or hearing the odd thing that escapes another's notice. But you don't have that choice. You can't live your life in ignorance, or else you'll end up at the stake. Just imagine the glee of those hysterics if they find a real witch to burn."
"But I haven't done anything!"
"Do you think that matters to people like them? You can see visions of where worlds touch. You can hear the fairies, and step into the fairy ring to see and talk with them. To their minds, these are clear signs of witchcraft, condemning you even as a child. Aren't your parents working hard to find the witch?"
"Mother and Father wouldn't—!" Margarita gasped.
"They would and you know it! They'd cry over your fate, then kindle the flame themselves. And when you'd died in agony they'd smile, believing that fire had exorcised the devilish influence that had tainted your soul."
She stopped her rant suddenly and dripped into one of the kitchen chairs, letting out a long, shuddering sigh.
"I didn't want to see that happen to you, to a bright, inquisitive girl with so much promise. So I asked Michael to come and help you."
"Just in time, too. Of course I knew the equinox would be a risky, vulnerable time for you, but it was still good luck I made it."
"Help me?" Margarita asked.
He beamed at her, the deeply ingrained laugh lines in his face crinkling.
"But of course! It is as Abigail said. If you remain ignorant of magic, you will inevitably blunder into danger—just as you have already done. You have only one practical choice: to learn magic and to become in truth what they would accuse you of, a witch."
He let it hang in the air.
"You're...going to teach me magic?" Margarita said, blinking in amazement.
"As a magician, you would be aware of the phenomena you encounter and know better than to give yourself away."
"You'll have the chance to live your life, to make something of yourself. Maybe even someday to leave this village and be able to use the arts we teach you for a greater purpose."
"But most of all, you'll have the chance to live."
Margarita tried to reply, but couldn't quite get her words out.
Lemon chuckled and held up his hand.
"Don't try to answer just yet. I know how you feel; your life's been tipped on its head. You're scared, confused, and excited all at once. I was there once myself, and I came from the city where magic was a legitimate craft, not a sin to be burnt out of you. Run on home now, and we'll talk tomorrow when you've had a chance to think a bit."
She rose, trembling a bit, and Mrs. Mint showed her to the door.
The truth, though, was that she didn't need to think. She was afraid, yes, afraid of human consequences, and a bit, too, afraid of spiritual punishment as well. But in her heart, she already knew. The promise of magic, of the mystery and excitement so different than gray life in a gray village, beckoned to her, more for its own sake than for the safety Lemon offered.
The fairies' song danced on in her heart even still.
~X X X~
"What do you think, Michael?" Abigail Mint asked when she returned to the kitchen after seeing the girl out.
"I think that Mrs. Surprise makes a fine apple pie," he said with a smile. He'd already cut himself a slice and eaten a bite.
"That is not what I meant."
"Now, now, don't be so cross. That bit about 'a decent nation' and 'a greater purpose' nearly gave the game away."
She sighed heavily.
"Michael, she's probably never even heard of the Archmage, and if so it's as a bogey story completely unrecognizable from the facts."
"That isn't the point." He paused to take another bite of pie. "We want to show her the beauty of magic first, before acquainting her with who we are and what we stand for."
"You have to admit, she's perfect. Well worth my time rusticating in this superstitious backwater."
"Quite so. Curious, clever, and above all genuine. In a few years, she'll be ideal to send to the Tower. A talented apprentice, fleeing the so-called justice of these folk...Gammel Dore will take to her at once. Others of our brethren will likely have their candidates but I do think your little find will be the one who can at last enter the Tower and free our master."
She smiled, and not pleasantly.
"And then I shall very much enjoy teaching these wretches what it truly means to have a witch in their midst."
~X X X~
A/N: Name references (ahh, Wikipedia's extensive liquor articles are so useful for the budding GrimGrimoire fanfic writer!) include:
Julie Mint—from the mint julep
Paloma—another tequila-based cocktail, so I thought it'd make a good name for Margarita's sister
Goodwife Royal—because she's a widow, named after the Royal Widow cocktail
Michael H. Lemon—from Mike's Hard Lemonade
Mathew Dorr Surprise—the Matador is yet another tequila cocktail; clearly the Surprise girls were named after their father. ^_-
Farmer Rickey's first name is obviously Lime.
Braastad is a brand of cognac.
Underberg is a German bitters
Nocino is a nut liqueur
The other random family members, however, do not have liquor names except by relation (hey, neither does Gaff!): Isaiah is used as a generic Biblical name for the Puritan magistrate, Priscilla from Priscilla Mullins (of the Pilgrims), and Abigail from Abigail Williams, accuser/witness at the Salem witch trials (obviously, I couldn't name her after one of the accused witches, since of course they weren't witches and Mrs. Mint is one).