Ciara stumbled forward, her lungs small with exertion, while her mind kept circling back down the mount. The red of Cymru’s earth stained her hands. Red like the dragon Myrddin said would defeat the Saxons. Red like blood.
Cresting the rise, Ciara was hit by a full wind. It pushed her toward the sloping cliff on her left and threw her twisting black hair into her face. Below her, the sea was dark with a coming storm, foaming over the jagged rocks of low tide.
The rumble of thunder echoed in her hollow chest. She felt like a cavern.
King Arthur sleeps in a cavern, whispered the voice of her mother. He sleeps and will not wake until the bell is rung. Then Cymru will unite under him, magic will return, and we will be free.
Lightning streaked across the sky. Ciara turned inland.
“Please,” she said, her voice hoarse and swallowed by the wind. “Let there be magic.”
An empty expanse was before her, only fields of tall grass for miles around. No thatched cottage or strong tree rose out of the desolation to shelter her. Ciara looked at the wilderness she had once loved and no longer recognized it.
The Normans had taken everything from her, from her people. Spilling Cymry blood or sending them fleeing, it seemed to make no difference now. Even when they fled, they ran to their deaths. Ciara’s very bones ached with running.
They could take Ciara now, or kill her if they pleased. None of it seemed to matter anymore.
Ciara sensed the rain, a sheet of gray on the horizon, a trembling in the ground. She walked toward it, almost relieved when the stinging drops hit her, burning into her exposed arms like a fever. A weight settled on her scalp. But she lifted her chin higher, higher, until she was staring through squinted eyes at the broken sky.
Magic is stronger in the rain, her mother whispered.
The stories said that portals to the fairy realm used to open through puddles. Her grandfather remembered when the belief was widely accepted—remembered the times when people would not leave the house for fear of slipping between worlds. Even then, sometimes fate would work magic. But it had been many, many years since the last such story.
King Arthur fell. Not dead, just asleep. Magic sleeps with him.
When the magic went out of the world, darkness came over it. There were wars, and Cymru began to crumble.
Ciara’s mother had told her—again and again, in a voice as warm as honey—of the light in a world filled with magic. Her grandfather would listen, shaking his head, and say afterwards, “Those words could make flowers bloom.”
How many times had her mother whispered the stories during the long, hungry nights?
How many times had she made Ciara recite them as they escaped a new attack from the Marcher Lords? A thousand days and nights Ciara had heard it: The red dragon will rise, the rightful king return, and we will be free.
It had not mattered, in the end. Her grandfather kept saying that the legends were just fables that became more golden with every telling. Perhaps he was right. No matter how many stories her mother had told, they had not kept the new, dark world at bay. The stories did not stop the Norman’s pillaging. They did not stop the Normans on the night they took her grandfather.
They did not stop the rain and wind and cold as Ciara and her mother fled.
They did not stop the arrow from piercing through her mother’s neck.
Her mother was dead. And, for the first time in her life, Ciara felt that magic was, too. The puddles gathered around her ankles. She did not lift her skirt, but let it drag in the mud. There was a prayer on her lips, a desire she could hardly speak.
“Please, please, let there be magic.”
Perhaps if she fell into the fairy realm, she would find help. Perhaps if she fell, she could wake the sleeping king. Perhaps when the world was mended, and magic returned, she would find this had been a bad dream. Reality was a bad dream. Her mother would be awake, waiting for her. She would be spinning her stories, and the flowers would bloom again.
Ciara walked. The pounding rain drenched her, washing the red earth off her hands, washing away the traces she carried of her mother’s fresh grave. Her foot caught on a rock, and she collapsed forward with a cry. The mud seeped around her shaking arms, clinging as she pushed herself up on hands and knees. Ciara stared down at the murky puddle beneath her, stared at her limned shadow. Her overwrought mind sought for some story, some tale that would give her the strength to rise again. But all she could see was the empty silhouette of her face.
Light seeped across the water, and she realized the storm was breaking. She sat back on her legs, shuddering with cold and exhaustion. The puddle became blue, with white clouds in it. It was like a reflection of another world.
A bright world she hadn’t seen before. Hope crept into her heart, a hope so painful she wanted to wish it away again.
Slowly she reached out. Her fingers hovered over the surface.
“Please,” she whispered.
She dipped her hand.
A flicker—a tingling—
But then nothing. She was sitting in the mud, with her hand in a puddle, watching the sky rippled around her fingers.
Her mother had been wrong. There was no bell, no king, no magic.
Ciara dug her fingers into the mud until her fingernails hurt. A bubbling hatred rose up her throat, choking her, and she struck out, trying to destroy the reflection. Her palm collided with something hard under the mud. Gulping back a sob, she felt the object. Her hand could just close around it—a shape almost like a goblet. She pulled it out.
It was a bell, only a little smaller than her hand. As she wiped the mud away, silver gleamed in the sunlight. There was a tree—made of twisting, intricate knots—etched in the surface. Her heart went still.
Ciara lifted her head and looked around quickly. No sign of the Norman scouts. No sign of life. It had been foolish of her to leave so recklessly, so blindly. She had no idea where she was now, or where the nearest Normans might be camped. If they were in hearing distance…
She looked down at the bell. The impossibility of it was more than she could let herself believe.
But she had to try.
With a cautious, slow arc of her arm, she swung. A clear note rang out, a sound that cut through the air with pure joy. She found herself smiling.
There was no other change. No rumbling. No rush of magic. No king springing up before her.
Yet the sound brought her comfort. It warmed the cavern in her chest. It seemed to promise that though everything was dead now, soon it would be alive.
Contributor’s Notes: Alyssa Hollingsworth is a senior English major with a Creative Writing concentration at Berry College. Her work has appeared in Ramification, Berry College’s art and literary magazine. She also writes extensively for the Berry College website and alumni magazine. You can find her at http://midenianscholar.wordpress.com.