ALTEA, DAUGHTER OF GLITTER
Fairy Trilogy – Volume III
This story is a work of fiction. Any reference to real facts, characters or events is purely coincidental
2265 AD/52nd year of the Reign of the Oak Fairy, April 12th
England, Forest of Dean
"Girls, let's start the lesson!" the Thistle Fairy exclaimed, clapping her hands twice as twenty small creatures, all three inches tall and with large butterfly wings, interrupted their playful conversations to arrange themselves in a circle around her. "You, Mulberry Fairy, come forward," she said to one of her pupils.
"Mulberry Fairy present, Miss!" the pupil answered in a shrill voice, jumping to her feet to stand stiffly to attention.
"So, let's see if you've learned the previous lesson... What are we?"
"We are fairies, Miss!" began the fairy with white hair.
"And what are fairies? Where do they come from?"
"Fairies are sentient vegetables," rattled off the Mulberry Fairy, "they are the highest step in the evolution of plants."
"Good, good," the older fairy murmured with satisfaction, stroking the shoulder of her very young disciple (one was in fact about two hundred and eighty, the other barely twenty). "One last question: what do fairies eat?"
"Fairies..." The Mulberry Fairy took a deep breath, then: "Fairies feed on air, light and hatred for Humoids!" she concluded, bursting into laughter as the audience emitted a scandalised "Ooohh".
"How dare you?" cried the Thistle Fairy, striking the young fairy on the cheek with the back of her hand; she pushed her hard, making her fall to the ground, and forced her to lie face down. "Now I will whip you until your wings are reduced to shreds, so you'll really learn!"
The Mulberry Fairy's happiness had given way to the purest terror. "I beg you, Miss, have mercy," she moaned, "it was just a witty joke... I won't do it again..."
"Too late," said the instructor, raising her right arm and summoning the air currents to create a whip of wind.
"No!" A fairy with long, straight blond hair, and blue wings that glowed with all the colours of the rainbow, stepped forward and set her emerald eyes firmly on the Fairy Teacher. "I was the one who taught the Mulberry Fairy that stupid joke," she admitted, "so if you want to punish someone, punish me," and she knelt down with her back to her.
The Fairy Teacher was surprised for a moment, then anger got the better of her: "As you like, arrogant little one..." she barked as she prepared to strike.
"Stop!" said a voice with the hardness of a thousand thunders in it. All those present turned and prostrated themselves on the ground, since all the Fairy People knew that voice: it belonged to their beloved sovereign.
"My Queen," the Thistle Fairy began to explain indignantly, "this conceited young student made fun of our..."
"I know," the Oak Fairy interrupted with a wave of her right hand. "I see everything and I know everything." She walked over and placed her hands on the other’s shoulders. "You're doing a good job, Fairy Teacher," she assured her with a conciliatory smile. "Keep it up."
"Yes, my Queen," the older one murmured, bowing her head.
"You, go back to your seat... and consider yourself lucky," the Queen hissed at the Mulberry Fairy, still frightened and incredulous at having got off so lightly. "And you, Rose Fairy, follow me," she addressed the other one.
"Y-yes, my Queen," stammered the brave fairy, walking away with her.
"She didn't let her be punished," a small creature whispered to her neighbour.
"I should think so too," the latter whispered with a sarcastic smile. "It would have taken her at least three days to completely regenerate those beautiful little wings of hers."
"It's because she's the daughter of the Great Glitter," a third fairy said with a knowledgeable air. "The Queen wouldn't allow anyone to touch her, not even a finger!" she said, waving a stern forefinger.
"We know," snorted the second fairy, crossing her arms angrily. "And anyway, apart from descending from such a great fairy, she's a complete nobody. She constantly refuses to exercise her destructive powers, and no one, since she was born, has ever seen her rain a single bolt of lightning on the Wreck... She's a disgrace to the Fairy People!"
"Quiet, now," the first warned them, "we must resume the lesson."
After moving a few steps away, the queen took off and the Rose Fairy followed suit. For a few seconds she savoured, inebriated, the caress of the wind on her face and in her hair: only when she flew in the sky did she feel truly free. Then the two fairies alighted on the highest branch of a large fir, from which their eyes could survey the entire forest already in full bloom.
"Why are you doing this?" the Oak Fairy asked her little subject harshly. "Why do you question our values, and teach your sisters to do the same? Why don't you commit yourself like your peers to becoming a grown-up fairy aware of her duties?"
"F-forgive me, my Queen," the Rose Fairy replied, trembling. "Th-the fact is that... the Fairy Teacher does n-nothing but talk to us about humans, how bad they are... but we younger students have never even seen one..."
"I have!" the other fairy shouted in her face, grasping her arms tightly. "I have seen them, I know them very well, and I fought against them to defend our People and this forest which is our home. Look!" she exclaimed, pointing to the heap of rusted sheet metal and polycarbonate plastic that everyone called the Wreck. "That is the everlasting symbol of the Humoids' cruelty, and our victory over them! It is the testimony that we fairies are stronger than the Humoids, because we are better than the Humoids! For this reason you too, like any young fairy with any self-respect, must learn to use your powers of domination over the elements, to be ready to successfully face the Great Test."
"But I don't want to go through the Great Test, successful or not! I don't want to!" The fairy freed herself from that violent grip and shook her head. "The Fairy Mother told me clearly: ‘Abstain from human blood!’"
"This story again!" snorted the Queen, waving her to be quiet. "There is no Fairy Mother! It's just a fantasy, a dream you had before you came into the world... You have only one, true mother: have you perhaps forgotten?"
"No," the Rose Fairy sighed, "I'm the daughter of the Great Glitter..."
"Don't say her name with that bored look!" roared the Oak Fairy; she moved as if to slap her, but barely held back. "Glitter was my best friend, my companion of many adventures! For her I left my beloved forest and followed her into the world of the Humoids, to save this place from the devastation they were wreaking, uprooting trees, polluting rivers, killing animals... Glitter was the first of us all to fight and win to defend our home; and if she were here now, she would be ashamed of having such a cowardly descendant!" She turned away from her and gave her a final warning: "Repent, or it will be worse for you," then spread her wings and walked away.
"I'm not a coward!" the Rose Fairy screamed as copious tears streamed down her face. "I'm not a coward..." – but the Queen pretended not to hear her. She glided down to the entrance of the mole tunnel she had chosen as her home, slipped inside and threw herself exhausted on her straw mattress, thinking once again of the events that had taken place fifty years earlier...
2214 AD, June 21st
Great Indian Federation, Himalaya region
"Humans, always the same!" the Oak Fairy exclaimed aloud, crouched on the large lawn. Not far away, a torrent rushed towards the bottom of the valley; behind her, very high, Everest and K2 soared with their dazzling whiteness.
Almost two centuries had passed since Oaky – as she had chosen to be called, when she lived among humans – had hidden in that lonely place, one hundred and ninety-eight long years in which she had done nothing but shed rivers of tears in memory of Danny Josephson, the MI6 agent who had been her partner for fourteen months and with whom she had fallen in love; for him she had experienced a feeling that was impossible, absurd (a fairy and a human, together!) and yet concrete, tormenting and passionate... until Danny was killed before her eyes, while she, with a huge bullet hole in her stomach, drowned in the pool of an Iranian nuclear reactor. Ah, she remembered very well the agony, the powerlessness of those moments! And then, suddenly, the bluish light from the plutonium rods enveloped her, her wound had closed, and she emerged from the radioactive water filled with a new force, a force so great that it caused an earthquake and plunged the entire building into the bowels of the earth. She had become the most powerful fairy in the Universe and at the same time, having lost the ability to procreate, she had become… immortal.
"What good is a fairy, if not to give life to another fairy?": so she had once been told by the Alder Fairy, the younger of the two sisters with whom she had shared her life as a spy (or as a counter-spy, in short...) For this reason, after avenging the death of her beloved, the Oak Fairy had chosen not to return to the Forest of Dean and, after wandering by sea and by land, had retired to live on the slopes of the Himalayas, in perfect solitude... aside from some shepherd or hunter, once every five or ten years, who dared to enter her shrine of pain; then her fury was kindled, and she unleashed thunder, lightning, storms and avalanches to induce the unwary to flee with their hearts in their throats. Sometimes, before chasing them away, the need to confide in a sentient being was stronger than her surliness, and then she would tell them about her life and her martyrdom, as far as they could understand them. Thus, over the centuries, she had become part of their myths as the reincarnation of Kali, the Goddess of Destruction, and now, in the name of those tales, in a village about six miles away – she could distinctly hear every word spoken within a thousand miles, just as she sensed the content of all the radio transmissions that plied the ether from one end of the planet to the other – in that village, a group of humans was about to do something terrible. "Well, goodbye to tranquillity," she said sarcastically before taking off.
The young monk in the orange tunic unrolled the parchment and began to read: "A thousand and a thousand and a thousand years ago, a beautiful daughter was born to the king of the mountains, who was given the name Parvati... One day the girl came down from the mountain and met a young warrior, with whom she fell madly in love; but the young man died in battle. Then the divine girl, mad with pain, raised fire from the earth and annihilated the murderers of her beloved; then, with a broken heart, she returned to her father's house and chose to live in solitude... Thus it was that sweet Parvati became Kali, the bloody goddess of destruction who kills anyone who violates her temple. So learn, O mortals, not to arouse her anger."
A sixteen-year-old girl, dressed in a red sari finely embroidered with gold threads, and adorned with necklaces, bracelets and earrings likewise made of the noble metal, lay bound hand and foot on the altar. The high priest placed his right hand on her forehead, raised his eyes towards the distant mountains and uttered the invocation: "O Kali, we offer you the life of this virgin, the beauty of beauties in our miserable village, and pray: rein in your anger, so that this world does not go to ruin!"
"Don't kill her! She is my only daughter!" cried a grey-haired woman as two beefy servants prevented her from approaching the pyre. "Offer me, not her!"
"You have already known a man," the old man merely replied; he reached out his hand, grabbed the dagger, lifted it up… and suddenly a bolt of lightning shattered the blade to pieces, while the man's eyes widened, unable to believe what he saw. "It's Kali! Kali the Destroyer!" shouted all those present, prostrating themselves on the ground.
Oaky, eyes half closed, a blinding glare veiling her fairy nakedness, slowly descended among them (Oh, how I like these little surprises!, she thought to herself); with a gesture, the ropes that held the young woman untied, danced for a few seconds like snakes before the astonished crowd, and finally collapsed to the ground. She stared at them with the look of a biblical prophet, took a deep breath and began her rant: "Fools! Who ordered you to sacrifice little boys or girls to me, or cows or goats or chickens, squirrels or foxes or dumb river fish?" she exclaimed in a thunderous voice.
"Certainly not I! I never asked you for anything, not even the fruits of the earth, not even a grain of wheat did I ever ask from you! Why then do you profane my name, using it as a shield to do evil? I want to know; answer!"
"Oh divine one," murmured the priest with a trembling voice, "we believed we were acting rightly... for three years now our land has been dried up, and our crops are increasingly scarce... and then our country is on the verge of war, so..."
"If the harvest is poor, it's your fault, not mine!" cried the indignant fairy. "You humans exploit the earth without mercy, without respecting its rhythms, and then you complain when it is exhausted and no longer bears fruit... And the war is also your fault: fault of your folly, fault of your selfishness! Since the dawn of time you have split into groups and done your best to kill one another, tribe against tribe, nation against nation! You are at odds and divided on everything, instead of being a single peop... Iiiiihhhh!" she gasped, putting her hands to her ears. The weeping of a thousand fairies rang in her head so loudly that she feared it was about to split in two; then it was reduced to a faint, distressing background noise. "I... I have to go..." she murmured.
"Go? But where?" the human asked in amazement.
"Goodbye," said the Oak Fairy. She crossed her arms across her chest, and instantly the fabric of spacetime warped around her, opening an interdimensional tunnel between that Greater Indian village and a place 5,000 miles away. She was out of their sight, and in the blink of an eye found herself floating above the Forest of Dean. She had come home.
The Pine Fairy and the Alder Fairy were the first to run to meet her. "Oaky, Oaky! You're back at last!" the latter exclaimed, unable to hold back her tears. "The Queen was so sorry for you… many times she would have liked to send some of us to look for you, but with everything that's happening in the world... And then she… she…" she sobbed.
"She... what? Where's Glitter? What happened to her?" Oaky cried, grabbing her and shaking her by the shoulders.
"She's dying," she sighed, her face sad.
Glitter lay on a bed of leaves, in the shade of the flower that had seen her born five hundred years ago. The Oak Fairy approached her and knelt at her feet. "I'm here," she said softly.
Glitter opened her eyes and looked at her. "Oaky, my sister," she began in a breathless voice, "my time is up..."
"Don't joke," Oaky said with a smile that could not hide her despair. "You are the strongest of us all, you'll see that in a few days..."
"You know that a fairy's life ends when her descendant is ready to come into the world... and now that time has come for me," Glitter interrupted, barely raising a hand. "I have no regrets… I have lived a long and adventurous life, full of joys and sadnesses like no fairy ever had, and soon, perhaps, I will see my Charlie again... After me, you are the eldest," she gasped, "so you will become the new Queen... Promise me that you will always defend the Fairy People, and this forest... and also promise me..."
"Yes," whispered the Oak Fairy, gripping her hand convulsively, "anything, anything you want, as long as you stay with me!"
"Promise me... that you will take care of the new Rose Fairy..." Glitter murmured, now out of breath. "Promise me that you will love her, and protect her from all harm... even from yourself... Promise!"
"I promise you," Oaky said solemnly, heartbroken.
"Thank you," she sighed, and closed her eyes forever.
"Nooo! Glitter! Please don't leave me alone! Don't leave me alone too! Glittteeer!" the Oak Fairy yelled, shaking her several times before her sisters pushed her away. She cried, shouted, tore her hair, scratched her face; she stirred up the wind, the rain, the snow, but it was all in vain. Glitter, her precious and only friend, the only one to whom she had revealed her secret pain, was dead; and she would never see her again, not even in another life (she had long since stopped believing in the humans' gods), because she could not die.
She fell into a catatonic state. Nothing seemed to arouse her interest: neither the chants that were sung for the queen's burial, nor the mushroom-shaped clouds that appeared on the horizon a week later, where London, Edinburgh and Manchester had been. But one day – when more than three months had passed since the death of her beloved sister and friend – the air was torn apart by the cries of frightened fairies. "A monster! A monster is destroying everything! Flee, flee!"
Oaky awoke from her mental sleep, looked around and saw it: a giant over thirty metres tall, with a head, two arms, two legs and four tentacles protruding from its abdomen; it rattled forward, burning many trees with a flamethrower placed in its hands and uprooting others with its tentacles. Glitter's last words echoed in the fairy's mind: "Protect the Fairy People! Protect the forest!" And she went on the attack.
She struck the mechanical monster in the chest with all her strength, opening a three-metre-wide hole from which gallons of lubricating oil began to flow. A flame shot towards her, but she pushed it away effortlessly; then she tore off all the tentacles one by one and used them as clubs, inflicting further damage on the monster; finally she grabbed it, lifted it a thousand metres high (while her sisters watched in admiration) and threw it down, making it crash to the ground amid the cheers of all the Fairy People.
The Oak Fairy wiped the sweat from her brow and caught her breath for a moment, then swooped down with the speed of a missile: she wasn't done yet. She smashed the protective glass and fixed a glacial stare on the pilot still tied to the seat and covered in bruises. "Prepare to die," she ordered. He drew a pistol and shot her six times, shouting, "Proklyatyy! Proklyatyy!" but she stopped the bullets in mid-air and with a wave of her hand created an oxygen-free bubble around the human, causing him to gasp for a few seconds and robbing him of his strength.
"Lieutenant Ilyushin, answer! Lieutenant Ilyushin, answer!" the communications apparatus croaked in Russian. The fairy focused the onboard camera on herself. "Humoids". She uttered that word for the first time, with disgust. "How did your master Mao Tse-tung say? ‘Strike one to educate one hundred’? Well, now watch... and learn your lesson!"
She moved the camera over to the pilot, and with a tiny atom of her powers began to explode his blood vessels, first in his feet and hands, then in his arms and legs. The human gave atrocious screams of pain, while from the radio came the cries, prayers and curses of those witnessing that carnage. Oaky felt her stomach turning, but went on with studied slowness: two centuries earlier she had understood that Man was the fiercest beast ever to appear on Earth, a beast that was tamed only when struck by an even greater ferocity. She had to protect her sisters, she had to defend her forest… and she would, whatever the cost. "Maybe you're right," she murmured to the pilot, "maybe I really am damned, and this is my Hell."
She continued to tear the human's body apart methodically, avoiding damaging the vital organs in order to prolong his agony as much as possible; finally, after eight long minutes, she turned his head to mush. "She's killed him! She's killed him!" she heard someone shout over the intercom; she shifted the camera back over towards herself and looked into the monitor. A man with a shaven head, whose powerful muscles she could make out under his major's uniform, stared at her with hatred. "Who are you?" he shouted.
"Stay away from this forest," she replied placidly, "or you'll all end up like this," and with a wave of her hand she cut the power of the few still intact systems of that killing machine.
When she came out of the cabin, taking with her what was left of the pilot's body, all her sisters stared at her in horror. "Look!" she shouted as she raised the macabre trophy. "This is the end of our enemies! Look!"
At once the horror gave way to adoring enthusiasm. "Yes!" exclaimed a fairy. "Oaky has defeated our enemies!"
"Oaky has killed our enemies!" her neighbour shouted even louder.
"Yes, Oaky has killed our enemies!" repeated a third creature, and after a few seconds all the Fairy People clapped their hands and repeated endlessly: "Oaky! Oaky! Oaky! Oaky!" Only the Pine Fairy and the Alder Fairy on the sidelines did not join in the chorus, crying softly.
"Do you know how I did it?" Oaky asked them. "Do you know why I did what I did?"
"Because you are the strongest fairy in the Universe!" cried a fairy. "Yes, yes, you are the strongest of all!" repeated another.
"No!" exclaimed the Oak Fairy, leaving them speechless. "I did what I did because I am a fairy! Because every fairy, every fairy, is stronger alone than all the dirty Humoids put together. You too," she said, pointing her finger at one of them, "you too can do what I did; and you too, and you, and you, and you," she urged them, pointing at them one by one. "Each of you has within herself the power to dominate the natural elements; you just have to believe in yourself, and let it out." With a leap she landed next to the group and placed her hands on the shoulders of a middle-aged fairy. "You can rain lightning on that wreck, did you know that? You just have to take a deep breath, close your eyes, concentrate and say, ‘I wish it’. Try it! Come on, try it!"
The fairy was at first unsure of what to do; then she took a deep breath, narrowed her eyes for a few seconds, and shouted hysterically, "I wish it! I wish it, I wish it, I wiiiish it!" At that moment the clouds grumbled, and a bolt of lightning struck the now inert monster, severing an aileron. "I did it! I did it! Thank you, Oaky!" the little creature shouted, holding her in a joyful embrace.
"Can I try too, my Queen?" another fairy asked hesitantly. "I want to try too! Me too!" trilled two more.
"Of course," said the Oak Fairy radiantly. "You can all try, you can do whatever you want to it. Practise with lightning, fire, wind… you are the strongest! You are fairies!"
"Yeeeees!" they shouted happily, from the youngest to the adults. For half an hour they rained lightning on that heap of twisted metal sheets, made fire gush from the earth and melt it, stirred up whirlwinds and tornadoes, turning it over like a stick, until, tired and out of breath, they exclaimed: "We can do it… we can really do it! We are stronger than the Humoids! We are the strongest!"
"Yes," Oaky proclaimed, spreading her arms in a universal embrace. "You are stronger than Humoids. You will learn to use your powers at the highest level, and you will defend our forest from our enemies. And when new fairies are born, you will teach them to use these powers, as I have taught and will teach you, so they too will know how to defend our home from our enemies, from generation to generation, forever!"
"Long live Oaky!" cried a fairy.
"Oaky is a humoid name," she stopped her, "and I won't use it again. I am a fairy; I am the Oak Fairy, your Queen!"
"Long live the Queen! Long live the Queen!" all the Fairy People repeated in chorus.
"Tell me then: who are you?" the Oak Fairy asked them.
"We are fairies!" they replied proudly. "We are fairies! Fairies! Fairies! Fairies!"
"And who are your enemies? Who are the enemies of the fairies?" she urged them.
"Humoids! Humoids are the enemies of the fairies!" they howled in chorus.
"But who is stronger between a fairy and a Humoid? Who is stronger? Come on, tell me!"
"We are! We are the strongest! We are! We are! We are! We are!"
The Oak Fairy listened to
them radiantly as they repeated "We are! We are!". She had broken the
chains of fear that had bound the minds and hearts of her sisters for
thousands of years, making them jump and driving them to hide when a
human approached. From that day on, no fairy would need to fear the
Humoids any longer. They would be the ones, from now on, to
2265 AD, April 12th, Forest of Dean
The Rose Fairy kept mulling over the Queen's harsh words: "Glitter's daughter is a coward!" she had screamed in her face in anger and pain. How can I convince you? she sighed. Only I, only I know that the Fairy Mother really exists, because I've seen her.
She was in the dark, in complete darkness. She saw nothing, she felt nothing; she barely noticed she was curled up, her tiny hands encircling her knees; she couldn't speak, couldn't think, didn't even know who she was. Then, suddenly, a voice calling her from an immeasurable distance: "Altea, Altea, wake up!". She immediately felt her tongue unstick and asked: "Who is Altea?"
"You are Altea, my daughter," the voice replied, as a shining creature appeared before her. "Altea is the human name for the Rose Fairy."
"I am... the Rose Fairy?" she replied, amazed. "What is a fairy? What is a rose? And what does 'human' mean?"
"You will know all these things and more in due time, after you have opened your eyes," the mysterious creature resumed, "but abstain from hatred and from human blood, or you will not be worthy to enter my presence."
"Wait!" the Rose Fairy had shouted at her as she disappeared from sight. "Tell me your name!"
"I am the Fairy Mother," she replied. A moment later, she had opened her eyes and perceived first light, then colours and coloured things, and finally many small winged creatures watching her curiously. One of them, with brown wings, short green hair and black eyes, had stepped forward and smiled at her: "Welcome to the world, new Rose Fairy. I am the Oak Fairy, your queen, and these are your sisters," she had said. Thus she was born, in the corolla of a flower with large red petals...
"Look, look who's here! The little rebel!" The Rose Fairy roused herself from her memories: before her, one of her peers was staring at her with her hands crossed behind her back and a mocking smile. "What are you doing, still running after your fantasies?"
"They are not fantasies," she cut her short, "but you are free not to believe them."
She started to walk away but the fairy stopped her, pressing a hand to her breast. "Where do you think you're going?" she snarled. Two more fairies came out from behind her and grabbed her arms, one to her right and the other to her left. "Leave me in peace!" she screamed in fear.
"The Queen is too good to you," said the first fairy, smoothing her fists. "You deserve a good lesson."
"No! No! Help me! Somebody help me!"
"Let her go," a familiar voice called.
"It's the Huntress!" murmured the two fairies who were holding her tight. The third turned with a grim look: "It's a matter that doesn't concern you. Be on your way."
"It concerns me," said the Larch Fairy called the Huntress, stepping forward, "and you know I can defeat all three of you in one fell swoop, without any effort. So go away now, before I get really angry." The little creatures walked away in silence.
"Thank you, Larch Fairy!" the Rose Fairy exclaimed, throwing herself into her arms. "You have saved me once again."
"It's becoming a habit for you to be saved from me... a bad, very bad habit," the other replied with an air at once sweet and severe. "If you learned to use your elemental powers, you could defend yourself against those witches."
"You know why I don't want to use those powers... I don't even want to have them!" sighed the green-eyed, golden-haired fairy. "Those powers are not for fighting fairy against fairy... they are for terrorising and killing humans, and I don't want, I don't want to hurt them!"
"My dear sister and friend," said the other, dark-faced. "You know Humoids are our enemies… that's why every newborn is taught their weaknesses, and everything they need to inflict the greatest possible pain on them; and for this reason, when they turn fifty, they are divided into bands and sent to perform their Great Test, as you will do in four days in the village north-west of the Forest." She stood to attention and began to recite in a stentorian voice: "Hurl fire and lightning upon their houses until they wake up and come out in panic! Destroy their food supplies, take their leaders and elders, and slowly torture them to death! Strike one to educate one hundred! And in the end, before leaving, sternly warn them to stay away from our forest, if they don't all want to end up the same way!"
"Stop it, please!" the Rose Fairy pleaded with tears in her eyes. "You scare me when you talk like that! You look... you look like a monster..."
"Don't be afraid," the Larch Fairy tried to soothe her. "It was tough for me too, at first, but then I got used to it... You too will slowly get used to it… and who knows, maybe one day you will become a great Humoid huntress like me, and can proudly wear a necklace of skulls like this," she concluded proudly, showing off her collar adorned with tiny skinned heads.
The Rose Fairy had just been wondering why her friend was allowed to violate the ban that had always concerned clothes and ornaments. "Those… those are skulls? Human skulls?" she wailed, putting a hand to her mouth: although fairies did not eat, she felt an urgent need to vomit. "Excuse me..." she murmured, moving away among the blades of grass.
What a strange fairy, thought the Huntress, then shrugged and walked away: the sun was setting, it was almost time to go to sleep.
"May we? Can we come in?" the Pine Fairy and the Alder Fairy asked together. "Are you there, Queen?"
"Of course I am," the Oak Fairy answered, welcoming them to her home, "and the door is always open to you, Alna, Pina, my friends..."
"Didn't you forbid all fairies from using human names?" Pina answered bitterly. "And by the way, even the name Glitter, which you fill your mouth with morning and evening, was coined by a human..."
"Have you come to talk about this? Sorry, but I'm not in the mood," the Queen said sharply.
"Actually, Queen, we have come to tell you about the young pupils preparing to face the Great Test," Alna interjected. She instinctively brought her hand to her hip, but only grasped the void and sighed: since having to give up her beloved glasses, she had felt naked as a worm and terribly insecure – but she had to be brave. "The night of the Black Moon is approaching, and we wanted to ask you... yes, well, we wanted to ask you to postpone... at least for once..."
"Alna," sighed the Oak Fairy, "we've been talking about this every year for half a century now... It’s no longer the time for games and youthful carefreeness... You are now three hundred years old, Pina three hundred and twenty-five, and I..."
"Three hundred and fifty, we know," snorted the Pine Fairy. "But at least the two of us have only become grumpy old fairies, while you have become..." and she bit her tongue.
"What? What have I become? A monster? A demon? The Goddess of Destruction? Come on, spit it out!" Oaky attacked her vehemently.
"Yes! Yes, you've become a monster!" Pina exclaimed in pain. "When humans tried to kill you and you killed them mercilessly, Alna and I backed you up, because your life was in danger... Then you defeated that iron giant and quartered the pilot, and even then we believed it was a desperate way to defend our people, our forest... But then," she gasped and continued, "then you turned the Fairy People into an army of cold-blooded killers, you taught them how to terrorise, torture and kill humans on each first new moon of spring, generation after generation! When will you stop, Oaky? Do you only want to exterminate the villagers around the forest? Or all the British who survived the Total War? Or maybe, when you're done with them, you'll send armies of fairies across the Channel to clean up France, Germany..."
"What Pina is trying to make you understand," Alna said quietly, placing a hand on her sister's arm, "is that in all things there must be a limit, even in the desire for revenge. You can take an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, you can even retaliate sevenfold; but not seventy, or seventy thousand! We all remember how dear young Danny was to you," she persisted, looking at her softly, "but continuing forever to sacrifice victims to his memory won't bring him back to life..."
"He has nothing to do with any of this!" cried the Oak Fairy, turning, as an uncontrollable tremor began to shake her. "Humans are the fiercest beasts… they are the natural enemies of us fairies; and I, as your Queen, will do whatever it takes to make sure they can no longer harm us, no matter what! And now go away, leave me alone!"
"Come, Pina," sighed the Alder Fairy, pushing her friend away.
When the door closed behind them, Oaky looked at the palms of her hands: they were furrowed with a thousand little cracks, like obscene mouths regurgitating blood, human blood! She closed her eyes and opened them again, shook her head several times, but the vision did not stop. "Water... I need water..." she murmured. A pure crystalline stream gushed from the tunnel floor; the Queen washed her hands furiously, rubbed them again and again, then looked at them and moaned desperately: "It doesn’t come off! All this blood doesn't come off! It doesn't come off!" She fell to her knees and kept for hours raising screams and cries that no one heard; then her fatigue was stronger than her remorse, and she fell asleep on the bare ground in a foetal position.
2265 AD, April 13th, Forest of Dean
"Caiii! Caiii!" The Rose Fairy approached and saw the red fox with its left paw stuck tight in a trap. "Wait a minute, little darling," she said in its language, "I'll free you right away." She grabbed the two sides of the trap and opened it effortlessly; the animal pulled out its limb and ran off without looking back.
The fairy felt a hint of disappointment in her heart. Was I hoping it would thank me? she immediately thought. Am I so mean that I do a good deed just to get something in return? "Do good and forget it," she repeated to herself, quoting one of the proverbs contained in a book with yellowed pages she had found in a cave ten years earlier, and which she carefully kept hidden under her bed for fear that her sisters would find out.
She had long since begun to go to the edge of the forest from time to time, and sometimes she even went recklessly beyond the last tree. She looked for humans, but never found any; yet she knew their form well, and her eyes could spot every detail from miles away. Did they only move around at night, like owls and bats?
Then she saw two of them from afar: one was large but thin, his hair was prematurely grey from daily fatigue, but his blue eyes shone very brightly; the other was small, so small he barely reached the first one's thigh. They both carried on their shoulders a wicker basket full of logs; the smaller of the two, it was clear to see, trudged under the weight, although his load was much lighter than the other's. The Rose Fairy watched them curiously as they approached her; suddenly the larger human saw her and his face filled with terror. "It's a fairy! Run away, run away!" he exclaimed to his younger companion.
"No! Please don't run away!" murmured the fairy, extending a hand towards them, but the effect was the opposite of what she wanted; the adult grabbed the little one's arm and started running, dragging him along with him. The Rose Fairy flew after them, but the closer she got, the more frightened they ran.
Suddenly the smaller human stumbled and fell: "Aaahh! It hurts! Dad, it hurts!" he cried, as a dark red liquid oozed from his bare knee.
"Dad?" the Rose Fairy murmured in surprise, stopping in mid-air. The older human, who in the meantime had stopped and turned back in anguish, stood between the two. He had a double-edged sword tied to his left side, but didn't even try to grab it; instead he spread his arms and said to her in a firm voice: "I beg you, kill me, but let my son live!"
"I don't want to hurt you," said the confused and saddened little creature. "Let me see your son's wound… I can heal it. Please!"
The parent, surprised, remained motionless for a moment, then curled up beside his still sobbing son, hugging his shoulders in an extreme gesture of protection. The Rose Fairy approached the child, placed her little hands on the wound, took a deep breath and concentrated: after thirty seconds the sore stopped bleeding, the torn muscles began to regenerate, the skin reformed on them, and within three minutes there was no trace of the wound. "How do you feel, little darling?" she asked.
"I'm fine... dad, I'm fine!" cried the child, throwing himself around the neck of his father, who could not believe his eyes. The little one stood up and started jumping and dancing: "It's not bleeding anymore! It doesn't hurt anymore! La la la… la la la…" he kept repeating happily as he jumped like a cricket; and the fairy, for her part, could not stop looking at him smiling, as if in ecstasy. Then the adult knelt in front of her, pulled out his broadsword – for an instant, the Rose Fairy feared he was going to attack her – and pointed it at his heart. "My life belongs to you," he said solemnly.
"Your life belongs only to you," said the little creature. "Go in peace with your son."
The man sheathed the weapon. "So... we can both leave, safe and sound?" he asked, even more surprised.
"Of course... go wherever you want," the Rose Fairy replied, her voice serene and her heart afflicted. He was really sure I would kill them, she thought. So is this being a fairy?
The man took his son by the hand and together they walked away, leaving the baskets and the wood on the ground. "Bye bye, fairy!" exclaimed the child, turning back and waving at her with his free hand. "Please, Tim! Have some respect…" his father scolded, still worried and distrustful. Neither the one nor the other noticed the Sentinel watching them, her eyes like wheels of fire.
When she came back, she found all the Fairy People waiting for her with their sovereign at their head. "Is that her, Sentinel?" the Oak Fairy asked.
"That's her, Queen," the guard fairy confirmed. "I saw her meet two Humoids, I watched her treat the injured leg of one of them, I heard her conversing amiably with them, and in the end she let them go unharmed, without even giving them a lashing," she concluded disdainfully.
"And I inspected her bed," added another fairy, showing the book, "and I found this: it's a Humoid thing, no doubt about it."
"How do you respond then, Rose Fairy?" Don't you hear what they witness against you?" the Queen urged her.
The fairy was shocked for a moment, then roused herself: "Yes!" she proclaimed resolutely. "Yes, I found that human book, kept it with me and read it! And yes, I met two humans: they were a father and his son gathering wood. Yes, I healed the child's wound, and yes, I let them go without hurting them, because they didn't hurt me. Because humans aren't all as bad as you say, Fairy Queen!"
"Be quiet!" Oaky screamed, slapping her so hard that she fell to the ground. "Your own words condemn you! You are a fairy abortion, you are not worthy to be part of our people! I banish you from this forest forever, and if you try to return, any member of the Fairy People may kill you. And now go; go where you want, but go!"
"Go! Go! Go!" all her sisters screamed; one of them picked up a stone and struck her on the forehead, then the others followed suit by throwing stones, branches and clods of earth at her, which scratched her pearly complexion and tore her wings.
"No! No, please don't drive me away! Larch Fairy!" she cried, throwing herself at her feet. "Larch Fairy, save me!" The Larch Fairy's face was a mask of pain and anger. "Go away," she hissed, giving her a shove and a kick in the stomach.
It was then that the Oak Fairy remembered Glitter's last words: "Promise me you'll protect her... even from yourself." "Stop! Stop!" she shouted, stepping into the middle and blocking the blows with a force field. "Begone!" she said then. "Begone, if life is dear to you!"
Rising with difficulty, with death in her heart, the Rose Fairy walked towards the edge of the Forest of Dean accompanied by furious cries. She walked for a day and a night, without knowing where to go, until at dawn she collapsed exhausted in a meadow and fell asleep.
And that same night, in her underground dwelling, the Oak Fairy wept bitterly.
April 14th, County of Gloucestershire
"Dad, look! It's the fairy from yesterday!" little Tim exclaimed in surprise. Hearing that voice, the Rose Fairy opened her eyes and sat up; she was covered in bruises that still smarted, and her once magnificent blue wings were reduced to stumps. Mark Fischer approached with his heart in his mouth, followed by his wife; when he saw her, he picked up a large round stone and lifted it with both hands.
"Nooo, dad! Don't do it!" the child moaned, while the woman covered her mouth with one hand, petrified.
The fairy closed her eyes in resignation, but nothing happened; she opened them again, and saw the man cast the stone aside and hide his face in his hands. "No, I can't," he exclaimed. "May God punish me, I can't kill you."
"Dad!" sobbed the child, approaching his parent. "Don't worry, my son," the latter said, embracing him tenderly, "we won't hurt her." Then he turned to the little creature: "You spared my son's life and mine… therefore I am in your debt. Go ahead, go back to your people."
"Thank you... but I can't go anywhere," the Rose Fairy murmured, her eyes swollen and red. "I no longer have the strength to walk… and I can't even fly, because my wings are in pieces… and then… and then… I have been cast out, cast out forever! My queen, my people no longer want me with them! I'm no longer a fairy… I'm nothing anymore…" and she began to shed a flood of tears.
Magda Fischer whispered something in her husband's ear, while he listened wide-eyed. "Tell her, Mark. Come on, tell her!" she urged him, then giving him a slap on the back of the head. Mark bent his knees and leaned towards the fairy, seeking the right words.
"Listen..." he began hesitantly, "we are human, and we are poor, but you don't take up much space... so, if you want, you can come to our house... I will try to heal your wings as best I can… in short, you can stay with us for as long as you want," he concluded, picking her up in his cupped hands.
"Thank you... thank you," the Rose Fairy replied, wiping her eyes.
2265 AD, April 15th
England, village of Lydbrook in Gloucestershire, northwest boundary of the Forest of Dean
Early in the morning, little Tim jumped out of bed and ran into his parents' room, looking inside a tin box. "Dad, dad!" he shouted in anguish. "The fairy's gone!"
"Where did she go?" the mother asked her husband. "Yesterday she was reduced to a rag, poor thing!"
"I don't know," the latter said, spreading his arms.
"Here I am!" the Rose Fairy exclaimed joyfully. "I brought you breakfast," and she handed the humans a basket full of ripe wild peaches. "We fairies don't eat, but you do… so I took the liberty of collecting them for you. Did I do something wrong?" she asked doubtfully.
"But... your wings..." Magda murmured, taking the basket.
"They're beautiful now, aren't they?" she said, doing a twirl. "The wounds have healed too... you know, we fairies can regenerate our body at extraordinary speed!"
Mark was frowning. "Did anyone see you?" he questioned her. The fairy thought about it for a while, then: "Ah, yes: while I was gathering the fruit from the highest branches I heard footsteps, and when I went back down I found human footprints... I didn't see who it was, but I think he or she saw me..."
"Mark! Mark Fischer! Come out here!" voices roared outside the house. The man said to his wife and son, "Stay here, and don't go out for any reason," then he turned to the Rose Fairy, "The same goes for you," and went outside.
About twenty men armed with swords and clubs had surrounded the house. "Is there a fairy in your house?" asked one of them, with white hair and beard. "If so, hand her over to us!"
"The fairy healed my son's wound," Mark replied, trying to hide his fear. "She's my guest now, so I won't let you touch her."
"Mark, you're naive," the other replied, stepping forward. "Don't you realise it's a trick to spy on us closely, so as to catch and kill us all? Fairies are smarter than the devil: listen to me, I had a narrow escape, twenty years ago... and as certain as my name is John Huysmans, if you don't get out of my way immediately, I... "
"John, John!" yelled an old woman, arriving out of breath. "What is it, wife?" he muttered. "Sara... Sara is sick!" she answered breathlessly.
John dropped his cane and ran to his home. "Come, Doc," another human said, nodding to Mark. The Rose Fairy, who had seen and heard everything from behind the door, said to Magda and Tim: "Excuse me, but I have to go."
Little Sara lay unconscious in her bed, foaming at the mouth. "She woke up with nausea this morning," murmured her desperate father, "then suddenly she began saying that her head was bursting and she had a high fever; we put her to bed right away, then she started having convulsions, and now..."
"It's meningitis," Mark said disconsolately after touching her hot forehead and feeling her pulse. "Before the war, antibiotics were used for this disease... but now there's no one who produces them..." he concluded, shaking his head.
"Nooo!" the mother moaned as she slumped to the floor.
The Rose Fairy, flying high without being seen – "Humans never look above their own noses", the Pine Fairy always repeated – approached the girl and placed her small hand on her forehead. "It's the fairy!" cried a panicked man. "What are you doing here?" Mark scolded.
"I sensed them... I sensed the microorganisms attacking her brain," the fairy tried to explain. "We fairies can secrete various types of substances... I can administer molecules that will kill the bacteria, and neuronal growth factors to repair the damage..."
"Molecules? Bacteria? Growth factors? But who do you think you are, a medical graduate?" snapped the doctor. "If we can't do anything, what can you do?"
"I can do things you humans can't even imagine," the Rose Fairy replied; then she turned to Sara's father and grandfather: "Let me try, please! If you can't do anything more, what will it cost you to let me try?"
"Do as you please," said old John and his son desperately. The little creature touched the girl's forehead, concentrated, and her breathing became steady again. Half an hour later the girl opened her eyes, got up and called her parents: "Dad! Mum!"
"Sara! My child, how are you feeling?" they shouted in unison.
"I'm fine... I had a strange dream: I dreamt that an angel touched my forehead and healed me... but it was only a dream, wasn't it?" she asked, rising to her feet.
"It wasn't a dream," said John Huysmans with shining eyes, and indicated the fairy to his niece: "Here is the angel who saved you, thank her."
"You're not a medical graduate," Mark said gratefully. "You are the Nobel Laureate in Medicine, today and for all centuries to come!"
"You don't have to thank me," sighed the breathless fairy: the healing process had been more complicated and tiring than she had anticipated. "As your proverb says, do good and..."
A sound of gunfire interrupted her. "Brigands! The brigands are coming!" some shouted. "Who are the brigands?" asked the fairy.
"Bad humans," John said grimly as everyone went outside.
"Be good or I'll shoot your skull open!" began the plump leader of about fifty men on horseback, armed to the teeth. "Now we'll take your food, then, when we're full, your women... and finally everything else!" he chuckled as he dismounted.
"Go away," Mark said, throwing a punch that the other parried easily before hitting him in the face and stomach, leaving Mark gasping on the ground. "You wanted it," he said, drawing a gun. "No!" cried the Rose Fairy. "Don't kill him!"
"What are you?" exclaimed the surprised bandit. "I'll crush you, you little gnat..." He reached out to grab her, but the little creature lifted him by the arm and threw him at one of his henchmen; they both rolled to the ground. "Forgive me!" murmured the fairy.
The brigand rose red-faced. "Carajo! Kill them! Kill them all!" he barked at his men; they all fired together, but the bullets disintegrated against the shield created by the Rose Fairy.
"Forgive me!" she cried, spreading her arms and causing an ever stronger storm. "Forgive me! Forgive me! Please forgive meee!" The whirlwind swooped down on the outlaws, knocking them to the ground and blinding them with clouds of dust, until they struggled back onto their steeds and fled.
"Begone, wretches, and never come back!" exclaimed old John, waving his fist.
"Are you all right?" the fairy asked Mark. "I'm sorry…"
"I've had far worse blows," he assured her. "But how are you? You're all sweaty..."
"Don't worry," the Rose Fairy
murmured, "I'm just a little bit tir..." and she slid to the ground
2265 AD, April 16th
England, village of Lydbrook in Gloucestershire, northwest boundary of the Forest of Dean
"Altea, Altea, my daughter!" called the splendid creature seated on a high throne.
"It's you, Fairy Mother!" answered the Rose Fairy, surprised. "So it wasn't a dream... you really do exist!"
"I have existed for more than eight thousand years," replied the Fairy Mother serenely. "You have been good so far," she told her tenderly: "You have abstained from hatred and from human blood, even though it has cost you suffering and humiliation. Keep it up, because great things await you in the future."
"Fairy Mother," she sobbed, "what joy can I expect for the future? The Fairy People cast me out because I did good to humans, and the humans are afraid of me because I'm a fairy... I don't belong with anyone... tomorrow is my fiftieth birthday, and no one will throw a party for me... My life has no meaning..."
"Life has meaning only if it is given," the Mother consoled her, bending down to wipe away her tears. "You are destined to restore peace in the heart of your queen, peace between fairies and humans, and between humans and humans... but you must keep yourself pure from hatred and blood, or you will not be worthy to appear in my presence."
"Don't leave me yet, Fairy Mother!" exclaimed the fairy, seeing her slowly disappear. "How will I find you if I don't know where you are?"
"In the great country beyond the vast sea, where the sun sleeps," replied the Fairy Mother, "in the great forest, under the roots of the great tree: there you will find me."
The Rose Fairy opened her eyes and found herself on a soft feather pillow, huge for her small body. "Well awake, sleepyhead! You had us worried, you know?" Magda Fischer exclaimed with a broad smile, while Tim and Sara handed her a cake adorned with fragrant red roses in the shape of a big "50" and all the humans around the bed sang: "Happy birthday to youuu, happy birthday to youuu, happy birthday Rose Fairy, happy birthday to youuu!"
"Happy birthday, fairy, and a hundred... nay, a thousand of these days," cried little Tim, dipping a finger in the cream and sucking it. "Delicious!" he said.
"Tim, you silly boy, don't do that!" his mother scolded him. "But it's too delicious..." he tried to justify himself.
The Rose Fairy could still not recover from the surprise. "How do you know it's my birthday today?" she asked them.
"You told us," Mark explained. "You talked in your sleep, so we found out your birthday and your age... and everything that happened to you because of us."
"So you got banished by your sisters, eh? It's true: Mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, hath lifted up his heel against me," sighed old John, lighting his pipe – filled with a pinch of tobacco over half a century old – and blowing two puffs of smoke. "Does it bother you?" he asked the fairy.
"No, it doesn't bother me… indeed, it smells good. And yes, I was banished from my forest… I have nowhere to go," she murmured, hiding her face between her knees.
"I told you," Mark replied, "you can stay here as long as you like."
"Right," added his wife. "Me and little Tim too, and Sara, and her parents, and John too, we all want you to stay with us. Isn't that right, old grouch?" she asked rhetorically, nudging him.
"That's fine with me," confirmed John Huysmans, "indeed, more than fine: if the fairies are beginning to fight each other, it means their reign of terror is about to end."
"Unfortunately, there is an eternal enmity between fairies and humans," the Rose Fairy sighed. "The Oak Fairy, our queen, says it has always been like this, and always will be..."
"Your queen is lying," cried a bald man with a drooping moustache as he stood up with the help of a cane.
Mark made the introductions: "Rose Fairy, this is Alois Nathanson, the eldest man in our community and head of the village."
The fairy rose in mid-air and bowed deeply: "The Head of the Village? We fairies, too, respect our elders, and we always choose the longest-lived member of the People as our queen."
John Huysmans tried to get back on track. "What were you saying, Nathanson?"
"There hasn't always been hatred between fairies and humans," he replied. "Indeed, there was once a beautiful and courageous fairy who saved the lives of many humans during the war."
"What war? The Total War?" Mark asked curiously.
"No, silly boy!" replied old Nathanson, tapping the floor. "I'm talking about the war that took place before this last one, the war of 1939-1945."
"1939-1945... more than three hundred and twenty years ago... But what do you know of that?" asked John.
"I know because I have a book that tells of these things, and many others," the old man explained. "Do you want to see it? Then come with me!"
"Can you move, Rose Fairy?" Mark said worriedly.
"Yes, I feel fine now," she replied.
Nathanson pulled a very old folio-bound book out of a cupboard and handed it to the little creature. "This is the only copy in existence... Can you read, fairy?"
"Of course," she replied fiercely. "We fairies know how to read, write and do arithmetic in all of your languages."
"Blessed are you," sighed one of the humans present. "I've never learnt to read and write, and I can only count to twenty."
"Then read," the elder invited her. The Rose Fairy took the book and read the title on the cover: "The Adventures of the Fairy Glitter, a True Story to Edify the Lost Hearts... Glitter?!?" she repeated in amazement.
"That was her name," confirmed the old man, "or rather, that was her human name... It was a boy named Charles Dickens who called her that the day they first met."
"Charles Dickens? The author of A Christmas Carol? Wow! Mum always reads it to me in the evening…" exclaimed little Tim.
"Precisely him," Nathanson said. "The two met in 1808, when the fairy, tired of living in the Forest of Dean, decided to explore the world and meet the humans... but why are you crying?"
The Rose Fairy's face was streaked with tears. "Glitter was my mother... our people worship her memory with devotion, because she managed to save our forest from deforestation and pollution... Does this book tell of those exploits?"
"No." The old man shrugged. "This book narrates your mother's life only until 1944, when the author, an Austrian priest, met her for the first and only time; then he was deemed mad, and locked up in a monastery for the rest of his days."
"Poor fellow... But what is a priest?" the fairy asked Mark.
"A man of God," he replied. "There aren't many more... the last in our village died fifteen years ago..."
"And who is God?" she asked again.
"God is the most perfect Being, Creator of heaven, earth and all living beings," Nathanson explained solemnly.
All? Even fairies?" the little creature insisted.
"Don't you believe in God?" little Tim piped up. "I don't even believe in myself," she replied in a colourless voice.
"Glitter must have asked herself similar questions, too," the old man continued. "In the book it is written that Charlie... Charles Dickens educated her in the Christian religion, after having already taught her to read, write, count, and having imparted notions of astronomy, history, medicine and other disciplines..."
"A fairy taking lessons from a human? Incredible! I… we have all always thought that fairies were better than you…" exclaimed the embarrassed fairy. "And then what happened to this Dickens?"
"He died at sixty-eight, in 1870," replied Nathanson, "and Glitter, who was in love with him, swore on his grave that she would never again shed tears for a human being... whereupon she wandered alone for years until the British entered into war with the Germans, from 1914 to 1918..."
"Another war? But how many have there been?" exclaimed the child.
"Thousands," the Rose Fairy snorted. "The Fairy Teacher explained to us that you humans have been fighting each other since the dawn of time. That's why you are so dangerous… at least so she said."
"Anyway," continued the elder, "Glitter decided to take part in this conflict – which was the first true world war – by taking sides with England. After all, Charlie was English, he had educated her according to the values of his people, and therefore she found the choice so natural that she did not think about it for a moment. It was only after killing many enemies that she opened her eyes to the madness of war..."
"I'm sorry, but I don't believe it," the fairy said flatly. "A fairy who falls in love with a human being, who takes part in a deadly conflict between humans and other humans that she shouldn't care a hoot about... this book is lying, I'm sure of it!"
"This book was written a long time before you were born, so it wasn't designed to deceive you," the village chief replied dryly. "You can keep it and examine it, until you have made your judgement... I know it by heart now."
For the rest of the day, the Rose Fairy read and reread the big book, gradually shifting from radical scepticism to the benefit of the doubt. The human who had written it seemed sincere... and then, she reasoned, Glitter had saved the forest just before she became Queen, when she was already three hundred years old (Ah, how useful the Fairy Teacher's history lessons are now!, she sighed); before then, anything could have happened to her... even getting so deeply involved in human affairs, and believing so firmly in their God as to get, what did it say? ah, yes, "baptised". Wasn't she herself living in their homes, sleeping in their beds? And hadn't she also taken part in a battle between humans, siding with one faction against the other? "There must be something true in this God, if a wise fairy like my mother believed in him," she muttered to herself, closing the tome. "Maybe I should too...?"
"Sorry to bother you," Mark whispered, entering on tiptoe.
"You don't have to apologise. This is your home," she replied politely.
"I have to get ready to go looking for medicinal herbs," the man resumed, rummaging in a trunk and pulling out an alcohol candle. "You know, tonight there will be a new moon, and without a light... but what's wrong?" he asked, seeing her jump to her feet in horror.
"The Black Moon... the Black Moon!" exclaimed the fairy, grabbing him by the sleeve. "Tonight the fairies will come here to complete their apprenticeship… they will kill you! You have to escape!" she pleaded.
"No," he replied resolutely. "This village, these houses are all we have. If we have to fight to defend them, we will fight as we can… and die."
"Then I'll be by your side... I know their sole weakness," she went on even more determinedly. "Do you have bows and arrows, and people capable of using them?" she asked.
"In abundance, but what..."
"Get ready," the Rose Fairy announced. "It's going to be a long night."
2265 AD, night of April 16th, at the village of Lydbrook
"Are you sure they'll come right here?" Mark asked sceptically.
"Completely sure," the Rose Fairy confirmed, as her supersensitive eyes scanned the darkness in the infrared and ultraviolet bands. Behind them, about thirty men armed with bows and arrows wondered in their hearts if they would see the sun rise again.
"They're coming," she whispered after a few minutes. "At my signal, take good aim... and fire, fire as many as you can," and she took off to meet the fairy squadron.
"We are close, my sisters," the Huntress announced, intoxicated by herself. "Remember the watchwords: looting, fire, terror and death... Ah!" Her voice trailed off in her throat as she saw the Rose Fairy standing in mid-air before them, her eyes bright as emeralds.
"So you're still alive, you little traitor... now I'll take care of you!" she shouted. A bolt of lightning fell from the sky towards the little blond-haired creature, but she grabbed it with one hand and threw it at her former playmates; the Larch Fairy was quick to dodge it, but many fell to the ground moaning in pain and with scorched wings.
Forgive me, my sisters, but I must to do it, the fairy prayed silently. Inside her body she felt a new force, and her mind was filled with a single thought, clear and distinct: ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. She raised her arms, gritted her teeth, and two large larches began to rise towards the sky. "No!" murmured the Huntress, seeing her symbiont plants so mistreated. "She's uprooting the trees... What horror!" the other budding warriors shouted in terror.
"Ya-aaah!" the Rose Fairy screamed with all her breath, hurling the trees at them like bullets and knocking some of them down. "Fire!" she cried, and a cloud of arrows streaked across the sky, piercing the other fairies. "What do we do, Huntress?" called one as she struggled to extract a dart from her shoulder.
"What do you think we can do?" the Huntress yelled in her face, grabbing her by the neck. "Gather the wounded and retreat. Retreat!" she shouted to the others. "Retreeeat!" Thus, for the first time in fifty years, a Great Test ended with the complete defeat of the Fairy People.
"They're leaving! We've won!" the humans shouted.
"She won," Mark corrected them, pointing to the Rose Fairy. "Are you tired?" he asked her. "You must have made a huge effort..."
"It's all thanks to the Fairy Mother," the fairy reassured him. "It was she who gave me strength and courage, I'm sure of it."
"The Fairy Mother? And who is she?" he asked in amazement.
"I'll explain tomorrow," she replied quietly. "Now we must go... home."
In the village, the victors were given a hero's welcome. There was a party outdoors until dawn, and then all the following day; in the evening, Mark Fischer whispered something in young Sara's ear. "Don't worry, doctor," she replied. "Tim can stay with us tonight."
"Come with me, my love," Mark whispered softly to his wife. "I-in what sense?" she asked, blushing.
"In every sense," he replied, and kissed her; then the embracing couple walked towards their home.
"You know what, Tim?" the Rose Fairy said, smiling at the child. "Soon you will have a little brother or sister. I can tell."
"Really? Hooray! Yippee! Thank you, fairy!" he exulted, doing somersaults. Then he scratched his forehead thoughtfully: "But doesn't the stork bring babies?"
Dawn of April 17th, Forest of Dean
The Oak Fairy could not appease her own anger. "Shame on you! Getting defeated by a herd of Humoids! So what were the years of training for? You are incapable!" she screamed in the face of the failed killers.
"It wasn't Humoids alone who beat us," murmured the Larch Fairy, still astonished. "It was all the fault of the Rose Fairy..."
She's alive! Oaky thought gratefully in her heart for a moment, then resumed her usual demeanour. "What does the Rose Fairy have to do with it? Come on, speak!" she exclaimed, shaking her vigorously.
"She was the leader of the Humoids who attacked us... She used terrible powers against us... I had never seen such a powerful fairy..." the Huntress murmured, hastening to add respectfully, "except you, my Queen."
The Queen was not in the mood for flattery. "Don't talk nonsense! 'Terrible powers'? But she never practised, not even once! Whence would such power come to her? The Huntress isn't getting soft?" she asked sarcastically.
"It's all true, my Queen," confirmed one of the wounded fairies, and with her all the others. "She was like a Fury..."
"What are we going to do?" asked a small creature. "We can't leave her unpunished... not after what she did tonight!"
"She won't go unpunished," the Oak Fairy promised. "The pupils must complete their transition to adulthood. So we will wait until they are healed, after which I myself will lead you to the village... and I will take the Rose Fairy's life, I and no one else!" So Glitter's curse will fall on me alone, she sighed.
2265 AD, April 18th, village of Lydbrook
"Altea! Altea!" called the now familiar voice.
"I am here, Fairy Mother," the Rose Fairy replied promptly, "and I thank you for giving me the strength needed to defend the humans."
"I was able to give you my powers because you were ready to receive them," resumed the Mother from her high throne, "because you abstained from hatred and blood, as I prescribed. Always keep yourself thus, my daughter, and you will do even greater things than you have accomplished up to now."
Now the fairy could see her better: she wore a splendid purple tunic and wore a golden crown on her head; in her right hand she held a sceptre, formed by a long bronze rod wrapped in coils of ivy, culminating in a blue and winged globe. "You said you were over eight thousand years old," she asked. "How is that possible if a fairy cannot live beyond five hundred?"
"I drink every day from the Source of Regeneration, which keeps my body young and my powers active," answered the Fairy Mother; then she continued: "A great mission awaits you, Altea: you will heal your queen's wounded heart, and you will bring peace between the Fairy People and the Humans... but to do so, you will first have to join me in the great country beyond the vast sea, where the sun sleeps, in the great forest, under the great tree. Come quickly, my daughter, because I am waiting for you, and time is short." And she disappeared again.
The Rose Fairy woke with a loud yawn and rubbed her eyes. "Good morning, fairy!" little Tim greeted her. "Breakfast is almost ready, we're just waiting for you."
"Good morning to all of you: Mr Mark, Mrs Magda, Tim... good morning to you, Mr Huysmans, and to you, Sara, and also to you, Mr Nathanson," said the fairy, seeing them gathered in the small living room.
"This is your place, Rose Fairy," replied Mrs Fischer, pointing to a chair with a pile of cushions at the head of the table and placing a small glass in front of her. "I know you don't eat or drink, but if you're thirsty..." she added courteously.
"I'll gladly accept some water," the little creature thanked her, before taking a tiny sip. "After what's happened, I don't want to be called the Rose Fairy anymore," she announced confidently. "From now on my name will be Altea."
"That's fine with us, but... what does it mean?" Mark asked.
"It comes from Greek," explained old Alois Nathanson with a smile, "and it means 'she who heals'… a very appropriate name for our little doctor."
"Then a toast to Altea the Healer, and to Altea the Warrior too!" John Huysmans exclaimed, taking a flask of whisky from his pocket; he took a long sip and handed it to Magda, who refused, put off by the smell, and asked in surprise: "Drinking this early in the morning?!?"
"You're not out of danger," Altea warned them. "If I know my queen and my sisters, they won't rest until they find me and punish me... so, to keep them away from this village, I must leave as soon as possible."
Her words left all the humans dismayed. "Leave? But where to?" little Tim asked her unhappily. The fairy thought for a few moments, then decided: "I'll go in search of the Fairy Mother, and ask for her help."
"This is the second time you've talked about her," Mark Fischer mused. "Who is this Fairy Mother?"
Then the Rose Fairy told them in detail about the three visions she had had up to that day. "The Fairy Mother really exists, she's not an illusion… and thanks to the Source of Regeneration she must be the most powerful fairy of all, more powerful even than the Oak Fairy, our queen! I'm sure that if I prostrated myself at her feet and begged her with all my heart, she would make my sisters more merciful, and force them to harm you no longer!" she concluded resolutely.
"Sounds like a story without rhyme or reason to me," Mark murmured, scratching his chin. "And where would this Mother be?"
"Under a great tree, in the great forest," answered Altea promptly, "in the great country beyond the vast sea, where the sun sleeps... But I don't know where that is," she reflected.
"A great country beyond the vast sea? Let's see..." the man replied, getting up and pulling an old atlas out of a drawer. "We're here, in England, further west is Ireland, but it doesn't seem like a great country... and here, beyond the Atlantic Ocean," he concluded, sliding his finger, "is America."
"That's the great country! I'm sure of it! And there, in the great forest, I will find the Mother!" the Rose Fairy exclaimed with a resolute air. "It will be hard to fly across that vast sea... but if the Fairy Mother wants me to come to her, she will also give me the strength to make the journey!"
"Maybe you won't need to fly there," said old John. "My family owned a tobacco factory... and my father once explained to me that many cargoes were transported by land to Liverpool, and from there, by ship, to Belfast," he explained, drawing a broken line on the paper.
"Yes, but... is this relevant?" the little creature asked.
"Belfast has always been famous for its shipyards," Huysmans said slyly. "The largest and most robust boats came from there... if we're lucky, we could find some still in good condition."
"We could?" the fairy asked, dumbfounded.
"I certainly can't let you go alone after you've helped us so many times; I'll be your guide," replied John, lighting his pipe.
"And I can't let an old friend and such a small creature get into trouble," Mark Fischer added, "so there will be three of us."
"So, are we clear?" Mark asked old Nathanson.
"We will post sentries at the edge of the Forest," the head of the village nodded. "If they see the fairies coming, they'll sound the alarm, and we'll hide in the caves around here."
"Take care, my dear," Magda murmured, hugging her husband. "We will await your return... all three of us," she added, placing his hand over her womb.
The man was surprised for a moment, then kissed her passionately. "I'll be back, you can be sure of that," he told her before setting off.
"First stop, Liverpool: it's about one hundred and twenty-four miles north," John announced, looking at the map.
"Excellent!" Let's go!" the Rose Fairy exclaimed, starting off like a rocket.
"Hey, wait!" Mark shouted. "We're not as fast as you!"
"You're right, I'm sorry," Altea whispered, stepping back with her tongue out and letting the humans catch up.
"It will only take four or five days," the old man assured her. "In the meantime, if you like, I can tell you some uplifting stories," and he pulled a Bible from his backpack.
"Yes, yes, tell me some, I will listen most gladly," replied the fairy. John took a deep breath and began: "Well, in the beginning God created the heaven and the earth..."; at sunset, when they stopped in a clearing, they had already reached Moses. "What fascinating stories... maybe they were true!" Altea exclaimed.
"But they are true," old Huysmans replied fervently.
"I am a man of science, and I cannot believe that the world was made in six days or that the Almighty shaped man like a potter shapes clay," smiled Mark as he lit the fire, "but what matters is the meaning of those stories: we are not alone and lost, Someone watches over us and protects us."
"Glitter, my mother, was convinced too," the Rose Fairy said to herself. "How I would like to believe it too..."
At that moment a bear, attracted by the smell of heated dried meat, approached the trio menacingly. The two humans jumped up looking for their swords, but the little creature interposed, exclaiming: "Leave it to me!"; she approached the animal, touched it and ordered it to leave, and the beast gruntingly obeyed.
Two days later, the humans realised they had run out of supplies. "I'll take care of it," said Altea. She closed her eyes and invoked: "Fallow deer, noble inhabitants of the forest, please come to me!" After a few minutes, about ten animals emerged from the undergrowth and came to meet her; the fairy examined them, chose a young and tender one, and put it to sleep with the touch of her hand, then told the others: "Go." The animals moved off into the forest, and the Rose Fairy said to the two humans, "Kill it and eat it... and when you're hungry again, I'll get you more food."
"I would never have believed that a fairy could sacrifice an animal to feed a human being," Mark exclaimed as he plunged the dagger into the beast's heart.
"You welcomed me when I was alone and disheartened; you have given me so much love, and with love I return the favour... To me, you are worth more than all the fallow deer in the world!" Altea proclaimed, embracing them.
At sunset, old John read the parable of the Good Samaritan to the fairy. "Did you like it?" he asked her.
"A lot," she replied, yawning. "I too want to be a good Samaritan..."; two seconds later she was snoring loudly against the man's chest.
"You already are, my little one," he whispered, stroking her head.
April 22nd, Liverpool
Around eleven o'clock on the fifth day, they finally reached what was left of Liverpool. "So this is the sea?" How wonderful! So much water... and this fine land... it's magnificent!" Altea exclaimed, kicking the waves, chasing the seagulls and building piles of sand like a child. "The easy part is done," Mark warned her. "Now we have to find a boat."
"Stop where you are!" ordered two men armed with rifles. "Are you brigands?" John asked them.
"Us, brigands? No... but we don't like strangers," one of them answered, pointing his weapon at him.
"Hey, Al, look!" the other said, pointing to the little creature with a tremor in his voice. It wouldn't be..." "Don't bullshit... it can't be..." the first silenced him.
The smell of their fear had not escaped the Rose Fairy; she rose in mid-air, made her wings shine and said in a threatening voice: "Lower your weapons and surrender: I am a fairy, you don't want to arouse my anger!" Upon hearing this, the two dropped their rifles and prostrated themselves on the ground, imploring: "Please spare us, O mighty lady!"
"These two men are with me. Treat them with respect, and obey them as if it were I commanding you," said Altea magnanimously.
"We need a boat to go to Belfast: can you tell us where we can get one?" Mark asked.
"A boat? I have one!" exclaimed the human named Al. "It will be an honour for me to take you away from here... that is, wherever you want to go."
It was already night when the thirty-foot boat rounded the Isle of Man. "We'll be in Belfast tomorrow at noon," Al announced to the passengers, then whispered to his young friend, "The sooner we get them out of the way, the better..."
"Too bad she's so small," he replied. "She has such beautiful breasts... and her ass isn't bad either..."
"Shut up, pig!" old John reproached him, grabbing him by his shirt collar and raising his fist. "No!" the Rose Fairy stopped him. "It's my fault... my fault alone..." she murmured, sitting back down on the boat.
"I didn't think my forms could trouble you... among the Fairy People there are no males..." she explained to Mark, embarrassed.
"Wait a minute," he said, fumbling with a knife; he cut a piece of cloth from a disused sail and draped it around the fairy's body. "Here, now you have a dress," he told her.
April 23rd, Belfast
"Thank you for your kindness," Altea said solemnly, bowing to the two sailors.
"Go with God... or the devil," they muttered, before putting the boat back on the water.
A boy with tawny hair and a freckled face met them on the dock, taking off his cap and bowing low: "Welcome to Belfast, capital of the Free Republic of Ireland!" he greeted them cheerfully in perfect English. "Are you from Wales or Scotland? Are you merchants or pilgrims?"
"One question at a time, boy!" exclaimed old Huysmans in amusement.
The young man remembered himself: "Sorry... it's just that for us, receiving visitors means a celebration..." then he saw the fairy and rolled his eyes in surprise.
"My name is Altea," she introduced herself.
"Nice to meet you, Altea... but what are you, an elf?" the boy asked.
"Can you take us to the head of this community?" Mark asked.
"But of course! It's my father, Commander Richard Paul… and by the way, my name is Ron. Follow me!" he replied, starting off down a long asphalted road where they first met some sailors, then women holding children in their arms or by the hand, and men carrying sacks of flour and other loads on carts; many greeted them cordially and somewhat surprised, owing to the little creature one of the 'strangers' carried on his shoulder.
The party passed in front of a majestic building: the imposing neo-Gothic facade was flanked by two slender bell towers that were chiming the hours at that very moment, while an oval dome soared more than fifty metres high. "How beautiful! What is it for?" the Rose Fairy asked young Ron curiously.
"It is our main church: the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Ocean Sea," he explained. "You know, we live on trade... and She is our patroness," he added, making the sign of the cross.
After a few minutes they came to a two-storey building. A man was putting out a cigarette butt with his foot; "Damn it!" he cursed. "Hello, Bosun Smith," said Ron. "These gentlemen, and this… creature want to talk to my father. Is he home?"
"This is not the time to disturb the Commander," the man said darkly. "Your mother has been in labour for over an hour, and things are not going well."
"Mum! Mum!" the boy shouted, rushing into the house. "What is 'labour'?" Altea asked anxiously.
"It means she's about to have a baby," Mark replied; then, turning to Smith: "My father was a doctor, and he taught me a few things... take us to her, quickly!"
The woman screamed incessantly; her huge belly made her look even smaller than she already was. At the foot of the bed, Ron looked as if he was about to cry. Mark felt her belly and said to her husband: "I think it's turned feetfirst."
"My God... Mary!" exclaimed the Commander, running a hand over his sweat-beaded forehead. "What can you do?"
"I don't know," sighed Mark desperately. "We should do a caesarean... but I've never done one in my life! I can try, but..."
"Please explain: perhaps I can help you," the Rose Fairy begged. "If I understand correctly, the baby has to come out with its head first and then its feet, right?"
"Right," Mark replied, "but what can you do?"
"Let me try, please!" the little creature begged the Commander. "I don't know who or what you are, or if you come from Heaven or Hell," said the latter after a very long moment, "but if you save my wife, I'll give you anything you want, even my soul!"
"Move," Altea said to the humans crowding around the bed, "let her breathe." She placed her hands on the abdomen, closed her eyes and murmured: "I feel it… I feel the baby. I'll start turning it now," she told the mother. “At first you will feel a lot of pain, but I will give you some anaesthetising substances, so after a few minutes the pain will subside. Do you understand?" The exhausted woman nodded.
The fairy took a deep breath and remained motionless, as if petrified; Mary groaned and her husband had to hold back not to intervene, but after a few minutes she relaxed. Altea continued to use her telekinetic powers for an hour and a half, slowly turning the baby inside the amniotic sac, very slowly, so that the placenta would not detach, while the humans around her watched in anguished silence; at a certain point, she turned to the woman: "When I tell you, push, push as hard as you can!"
"Y-yes," she confirmed.
"Mark, be ready to get it!" ordered the little midwife. "Ready," the man said.
"Now!" cried the Rose Fairy. "Push!"
The woman raised herself on her elbows, pushed with all her might, and her final scream mingled with the baby's first cry. Altea touched the neck and cheeks of the woman slumped on the bed, injecting her with vitamins and electrolytes via the dermal route to lift her muscle tone, then said to her: "You did very well, your son is alive and well; rest now," and she wiped her forehead with a corner of the sheet.
"You were great, Altea!" Mark exclaimed, handing the baby to its father, whose eyes were bulging with happiness. "How did you do that?"
"It's all thanks to my mother, the Great Glitter," the fairy proclaimed proudly. "The Fairy Teacher explained to us how she once delivered a kitten who had the same problem... I just copied her," she concluded, blushing.
"A kitten?" Mark couldn't believe his ears. The Commander handed his son to a nurse and bowed down at the fairy's feet. "I am doubly indebted to you," he said gratefully. "Ask of me what you will."
"I don't want anything," Altea replied embarrassed. "Yes you do," Mark said. "We need a ship to go to America, a big and fast one."
"You'll have it," the man swore.
"I'll go with you," said the freckled-faced boy. "Ron!" exclaimed the Commander. "You can't, you're too young..."
"Your father's right," John muttered, preparing himself a nice pipe. "Ours is no trip for kids."
"I'm no longer a child!" Ron exclaimed with flushed cheeks. "You need someone to steer the sails and the rudder… and I know how! Furthermore, I too am indebted to you... Please, father, let me!"
"Very well," the man sighed, hugging him tightly. "I am proud of you, my son."
2265 AD, the night of April 26th
England, Forest of Dean
"No, no and again no! We will not kill our sister and friend Oaky!" cried the Pine Fairy.
"Ssssh, don't let yourself be heard," whispered Alna. "By now the Oak Fairy has lost her mind... she's become a bloodthirsty tyrant! It's the only solution, I tell you: all we have to do is crush her in her sleep with a large stone, so she won't suffer; then you, who are the oldest in the community, will take her place, and..."
"Pine Fairy! Alder Fairy! Come, our Queen calls us together!" another small creature invited her peremptorily.
It had taken ten days for the fairies injured during the Great Test to regain full bodily integrity, ten long days during which the Oak Fairy had champed at the bit like a wild colt; but finally, she thought, the time had come for her revenge. "Fairy People, my sisters!" she invoked the great assembly. "You all know what happened ten days ago: that is, how the Rose Fairy, the little rebel we banished from the forest, treacherously attacked our apprentices, using her powers against them as if they were Humoids..."
"The 'apprentices' were on their way to slaughter innocent humans, that's the truth," muttered Pina amid general indifference.
"... for all these reasons, therefore, I have decided to lead a group of fairies myself in search of the traitor, to give her the punishment she deserves: death!"
"Death! Death! Death! Death!" the Fairy People howled as one.
"My Queen," the Larch Fairy begged, "allow me to come with you, to deal her the final blow."
"No, Huntress," the queen replied. "If I know that rascal, she won't have stayed in that village long; therefore our search could take some time... You," she continued, placing her right hand on her shoulder, " you will take care of defending our house if the Humoids, mounted in pride, decide to attack us." Then she turned to the others: "I'll take twelve sisters with me: who's going to volunteer?"
"U-us, the two of us volunteer, Queen!" Alna cried, raising a hand and at the same time pulling on the Pine Fairy's arm.
"Good," Oaky concluded with a sinister smile. "We leave tomorrow at dawn."
April 27th, village of Lydbrook
"They're coming! Sound the alarm!" one of the panicked guards yelled at his companion, who hastened to put his lips to the horn and make a long, eerie sound. The two men were preparing to escape when three fairies swooped down, imprisoning them in a force field.
"Where's the Rose Fairy? Talk, or we'll kill you!" one of them asked, squeezing their necks with her little hands.
"She's gone... but we don't know where... The head of the village knows…" the two gurgled almost breathlessly.
"If you've lied to us, we will imprison you in a vacuum bubble until you choke, I'm warning you!" the little creature replied, lifting them up like twigs.
They flew to Alois Nathanson's house, as the two sentries had indicated; and when they saw him standing before the door of his house, they threw the men at his feet half dead. "Search all the houses," the fairy ordered the others. "Gather them all, and make them talk!"
"There's no one left, Myrtle Fairy," her sisters reported after a futile inspection. The Myrtle Fairy broke into a mocking laugh. "So they left you alone, eh, old man? That means we'll let off steam on you..."
"I am ready to die," the man replied seraphically, "but do you not respect the elders?"
"We respect our elders, not yours..." the small creature with the fierce face resumed, preparing to strike.
"Stop!" ordered the Oak Fairy. "Don't kill him."
All the fairies turned to look at her in shock. "B-but Queen," murmured one of them, "you taught us that... ‘Strike one to educate one hundred’... Do you wish to go against your word, your law?"
Think, Oaky, think! Come up with something! The Fairy Queen remained silent for long minutes, arms crossed, amidst the tumult of her subjects; then she said: "I have but one word: the Humoids are our enemies, and they deserve to die... But before killing a Humoid, a fairy must prove that she is better than the Humoids. She must have refrained all her life from any form of hatred, jealousy, envy, backbiting, resentment or even impatience towards any of her sisters; she must always have obeyed her queen, and she must have dedicated her whole life to the good of the Fairy People, rather than to her own comforts... I," she went on, "I myself have not kept to these noble principles: for, as you all well know, I disobeyed the command of the Lily Fairy, when she was my queen, and I followed the Great Glitter into the world of the Humoids; for more than a year, then, I neglected my people, thinking only of my own pleasure... If any of you think you're better than me, please raise your hand against this man," and she waited.
Upon hearing those words, the other fairies fell silent, surprised and embarrassed, looking down at their toes, their arms hanging by their sides. "Go on," the Oak Fairy told them. "I will join you shortly."
"You were very good, my little lady... and thank you for saving my life," old Nathanson told her when they were gone.
"I know," Oaky replied with a chuckle. "I've always done better with sermons than with practices; a friend, a dear friend, often repeated it to me..."
Again the wound opened in her heart, again the tremor began to shake her body. She couldn't, she mustn't be weak now! "I salute you, old man," she said to the man, bowing with deference, "let me kiss your venerable hand..."
The old man handed her his right hand, she touched it with her lips and the human's face turned pale. "Now you will tell me everything I wish to know about the Rose Fairy," Oaky ordered with a satanic smile. "I want the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth."
Half an hour later, Nathanson awoke from his torpor and saw the Oak Fairy standing in mid-air: "Thank you kindly, old man: it was a pleasure to hear your confidences! Ha ha ha ha!" she laughed mockingly, hurrying to join her companions.
"My God... what have I done?" the man exclaimed, leaning on the ground in pain, his head in his hands.
The Pine Fairy had seen and heard everything from afar. "Now I agree with you," she told Alna in horror and indignation. "For the good of all, the Oak Fairy must die."
April 30th, Belfast
"What is that?" a little fairy asked curiously, pointing to the Cathedral of the Sea. The troop of small creatures was now a few dozen yards from the Irish coast.
"I think it's an important building of the Humoids," the Oak Fairy replied casually. "As soon as we get ashore, we'll look for one of them and question him."
When they alighted on the dock they found a welcome committee in full force, as the sentries had spotted them with their binoculars and taken care to raise the alarm well in advance. "Welcome, fairy ladies," said Richard Paul.
"Hey, Alna, didn't you say they don't know of us here in Ireland?" Pina whispered, nudging her friend.
Oaky decided to employ diplomacy. “We are looking for a sister of ours: she has green eyes, blond hair, and two large iridescent blue wings. Have you seen her?" she asked in a persuasive voice, while her subjects wondered why their Queen would stoop to politely asking a Humoid for information, instead of skinning him with a whip of wind.
"Of course!" the human replied jovially. "She was with two men: I gave them our best ship, with my son as helmsman, and they left for America a week ago."
"Whaaat?" cried a furious fairy. "And why did you do that?"
"Because I have one... or rather, two large debts to her," said the Commander, frowning suddenly.
"What is America, Queen?" a second creature asked curiously.
"It is the great country beyond the vast sea, where the sun sleeps," she explained. Like the Rose Fairy said, she thought. Who taught her? "I went there a long, long time ago, before the last war between Humoids... between humans."
"And now what will we do, Queen?" asked another fairy. "If it was so tiring to fly up here, we will never be able to cross such a vast sea: we would fall exhausted among the waves!"
I could teleport with all my sisters, the Oak Fairy mused, scratching her chin, but the cities will have been destroyed and contaminated by radiation; and as for the rest of the country, who knows? Better not to take unnecessary risks. "Who said we'll have to fly?" she exclaimed. "If they've taken a ship, we'll take one too!"
"I would gladly oblige," the human said slyly, "but that vessel was the only one large and strong enough to cross the Atlantic unscathed. But, if you like..."
"Go on," the Queen urged him.
"If you like, we can build another one… with your help, of course. We have all the material we need: wood, nails, tar… it will be fine, I guarantee it."
"Help you Humoids?" a fairy exclaimed scornfully, spitting on the ground. "Never!"
"Take it or leave it," the Commander concluded.
"I'll take it," Oaky announced.
"B-but Queen, o-our law... your law..." the other murmured in a faint voice.
"Necessity is the supreme law!" proclaimed the Oak Fairy. "If it is necessary to collaborate with humans to find and punish that little traitor, then we'll collaborate with humans. Have I made myself clear?"
"Y-yes, Queen," she murmured. "Yes, Queen," her nine sisters repeated in chorus.
"Very well, then. Let's start, guys!" the man shouted, clapping his hands twice and turning to his own men. Then he asked Oaky, "What's between you and Altea? Do you want to hurt her?"
"I don't know what debt of gratitude you have incurred towards her," retorted the Oak Fairy, "but I'd ask you not to interfere. It is a dispute between us, ours alone, and that's it."
"As you wish," he replied, shrugging.
For the first six hours, the fairies just watched curiously as the humans tinkered with wood, nails and ropes; all of a sudden, the Commander turned to the Lily Fairy: "Please, miss, take those boards over to the other side."
"I am the daughter of a great queen," grinned the little creature from below her two hundred and fifty years, "and I do not obey the orders of a Humoid."
"Lily Fairy!" the Oak Fairy scolded. "He knows how to build a boat, we don't. Besides, if we work together it will take half the time or less. So until the work is done, all of us, myself included, will work side by side with the humans, and obey their orders as if they were my own. Do you understand?"
The Lily Fairy struggled with her pride for long moments, then lowered her head: "I obey, my Queen."
"This is the first time in fifty years that a fairy has recognised the superiority of humans in any sphere," the Pine Fairy pointed out to the Alder Fairy. "Maybe something is changing."
"Maybe," said the other sceptically.
At sunset, a man tried to persuade his little collaborator: "We've worked in the sun all day, never stopping... we need to eat, drink and sleep, then at dawn we'll get back to work."
"You Humoids are inept!" muttered the Sunflower Fairy. "We fairies don't need to eat or drink, and we can work very well even in the dark!"
Oaky intervened again. "If the humans get weak, the work will proceed slowly. So let them eat, drink and rest if this is necessary to complete the ship!"
"Yes, Queen," the Sunflower Fairy nodded along with her companions.
During dinner, a fairy timidly approached Oaky: "Queen, the Humoid they call 'cook' asked me to help him distribute food to the others... may I?"
"Certainly you may," the queen replied with a smile.
"Queen, Queen!" another piped up. "A human asked me to help him get water from a well. I would like to, but... do I have your permission?"
"You have my permission," Oaky replied calmly.
In a corner, the Rhododendron Fairy fumbled with a compass. "Why does this needle always point north?" she asked the bosun. "I turn it around, turn it around, and it always points north... is it a magic needle?"
"No," the man exclaimed, laughing. "It's a question of magnetism... do you want me to explain it to you?"
"Yes, yes! Please explain it to me!" begged the fairy.
A little further on, another fairy showed a human a large crumpled sheet of paper: "What is this?" she asked.
"It's a map," the man said. "A drawing of all the land and seas on the planet."
"Really?" The little creature was beside herself. "And there's England too… and the Forest of Dean? It's our home..."
"Yes, there it is," the human replied, pointing with his big finger. "Here, you see, England is here, next to green Ireland, which is where we are now... and here, on the other hand, read: what does it say?"
"Fo… re… st of De… an…" spelled the fairy, then more quickly: "Forest of Dean! Forest of Dean! Wow! Thank you, thank you!" and she gave him a double kiss on his bristly cheeks.
"Yes, maybe you're right," Alna whispered to Pina. "Maybe things are starting to change."
May 7th, Belfast
"It was hard work, but we did it. Thanks to everyone," said the Commander, handing the Oak Fairy a bottle of single malt.
"I'm sorry, but we don't drink," she responded, refusing the offer.
"You don't have to drink it," he explained. "You have to throw the bottle against the side of the ship, so that it shatters… it's our way of inaugurating it. Oh, and when you throw it you have to choose its name."
"Ships have a name?" asked the fairy, touching her right cheek with her index finger. "Well, my sisters," she exclaimed, throwing the bottle, "the ship that takes us to America will be called 'Glitter'!"
"Hooray! Long live Glitter!" cried the fairies.
"I really don't know how to thank you, Commander," Oaky said, surprised by her own words.
"I had a double debt to you fairies, and now I've paid it off," he replied. "When do you want to leave?"
"The sooner we leave, the better," the Oak Fairy cut in.
"Did you hear that? Get ready!" the Commander said to two sailors. "Yessir!" they answered in unison, snapping to attention. Their leader introduced them to the fairy: "They are Thomas and Frank. They will help you steer the ship."
"S-steer the ship? Ah, of course!" she exclaimed, slapping herself on the face. What a fool she had been! Building a boat was the easy part, you also had to make it work... and when had a fairy ever sailed by sea? "S-so they're going to come with us? And afterwards?" she stammered suspiciously.
"Afterwards, they'll spend their time hunting fur animals – the hold is big enough – and they'll wait for your return, to bring you back here... otherwise I'll tear off both your heads, understand?" he grunted severely at his men, who hastened to reply: "Yessir, yessir!"
"Hunting animals?" asked an incredulous fairy. "We fairies protect animals and plants..."
"Winters are severe here," the Commander replied. "My men need warm clothes, and women and children even more so... So, my fair lady, if it's a good deal for you, let's shake hands."
Oaky thought for a second, then placed her small hand in the man's huge one. "Yes, it's a good deal."
"Long live the Oak Fairy!" exclaimed a fairy.
"Long live the fairies and humans!" ventured another. There was silence for a moment, then they all repeated: "Yes, long live fairies and humans! Long live fairies and humans! Long live fairies and humans!" On the sidelines, the Pine Fairy and the Alder Fairy were crying together, but this time they were crying for joy.
May 2nd, Astana, capital of the Eurasian Empire
The Tupolev had just finished taxiing when Vassili Voronin impatiently descended the ladder; the officer waiting for him jumped to attention and saluted. "No pleasantries," he said. The two boarded a black armoured Lada, which quickly left the airport escorted by four trucks armed with heavy machine guns.
The convoy travelled along the wide avenues of Astana, passing by the imposing monument – one hundred thousand cubic metres of white Carrara marble – which celebrated Russia's triumph in the Total War. Observing it, Voronin could not help but admire the strategic skill with which Moscow's leadership had conducted the deadly conflict: first they had persuaded their minions – China, North Korea and Neo-Persia – to launch the first strike against the West and had abandoned them to the inevitable as well as useless retaliation; then the Russian armed forces, after holing up in the Central Asian "Heartland" beyond the range of American missiles, spread from Portugal to Japan, from Egypt to Indonesia.
He was at that time only a major of twenty-five; then, thanks to blind obedience and his innate ability to weave intrigues, he had managed to climb the ladder of power, and after killing his predecessor by his own hand, for seven years he had been the undisputed Autocrat of the largest country in the world… but he still wasn't satisfied. A well-disguised but tenacious anguish pervaded his soul: the fear of having to die, sooner or later. He thus followed a strict vegetarian diet and had undergone all kinds of anti-ageing therapy, including the transplantation of stem cells extracted from embryos grown in vitro.
Not that such treatments hadn't had an effect: at seventy-five he still had the physical, mental and sexual vigour of a fifty-year-old; but it wasn't enough for him to age well, he wanted to live forever! It was this obsession that had prompted him to suddenly depart from China, leaving his generals to quash the riots that had been breaking out for over a month, and to go to that desolate steppe.
"My respects, Your Highness," General Maxim Ruzkhov greeted him when he arrived at the massive military base ten miles from the city.
"You can call me Vassili, you know," he replied with a smile to his fellow soldier. "At what stage is the preparation of the Gigadroid?" he demanded anxiously.
"It's almost done," Ruzkhov assured him. "It will be operational in two months."
"Two months?" Voronin roared. "That's too long, too long! It must be ready in a week… ten days at the most! Put the technicians and workers to the whip, halve their hours of rest, but hurry up!"
"Calm down, please... let me check the project," his friend tried to soothe him. He consulted some graphs on a monitor, then picked up the receiver and gave a series of orders. “Three weeks… in three weeks it will be ready. I'm sorry, I cannot do better than that," he murmured, wiping the sweat from his brow.
Meanwhile, the Autocrat had recovered his calm. "Very well, but not a day longer," he said.
"Do you want to see the combat tests tape?" the senior officer suggested. He pressed a button on the keyboard and the full-wall screen lit up: a giant of steel and reinforced plastic one hundred metres high, with eight tentacles protruding from its abdomen, confronted and defeated three much smaller monsters without any difficulty; then it was hit by a missile armed with an ADB (Accelerated Decay Bomb), but the tremendous explosion did not even cause a scratch.
"Excellent, excellent!" Voronin congratulated him. "How long can you keep such an intense force field active, tovarich?"
"For ten hours straight, Your Highness," the general replied proudly. "We have increased the yield of the fusion reactor by one hundred and thirty per cent, and we have also equipped it with a two hundred-thousand-volt electric shock generator, just as you ordered... But..." he whispered worriedly, "Vassili, why spend time and money on one such powerful specimen, when a fleet of thirty Megadroids would have been more than enough to stifle the rebellion in the eastern provinces, and at a much lower cost?"
"I don't care about the eastern provinces," the Autocrat replied. "I have to face a much, much stronger enemy," he told himself.
"You're not still chasing that fantasy?" Ruzkhov asked him despondently. "We've talked about it many times... a Superman-fairy can't exist..."
"It does exist!" Voronin cried, his face red. "I saw it for a few minutes on a monitor, but I tell you that it does exist... It tore our Megadroid to pieces like a puppet, and then dismembered the pilot... An incredible display of power, like I have never seen before! And then, ten years ago, we found those documents..."
"Yes... the filing cabinets classified as "F" 1, 2, 3 and 4," agreed the officer, silently thanking the inventor of Accelerated Decay (the technique that had enabled the dual effect of multiplying the bombs' power by a thousand, with the same weight, and access to the affected areas within a few decades rather than centuries or millennia).
He was referring to the material contained in four armoured cabinets, found in an underground archive soon after the radiation level in the London area dropped below the guard limit: scientific reports from a Third Reich institution specialising in biology, the limb of a small creature stored in a formalin jar, tapes recorded with psychodestructive sounds – decoded and transcribed by a specially programmed AI – and detailed reports on four 'fairies' named Glitter, Oaky, Pina and Alna. "For me it was just a Western disinformation ploy... but even if they really existed, what..."
"But don't you understand?" Voronin reacted, grabbing him by the collar. "Those creatures are able to regenerate their bodies, to heal from any wound, and they have terrifying powers... If only I could get my hands on one of them, I could snatch from her the secret of eternal life and their strength... and become a god!"
2265 AD, May 17th
Pan-American Union, Tennessee
Danny... her Danny, beautiful as the sun, strong, intelligent and with a great sense of humour... there he was now in her little arms, pierced to death... and she, the Oak Fairy, could do nothing to save him... she could only cry and shout her infinite torment... Then suddenly, out of the darkness a small creature emerged: its lips were pursed in a satanic smile, and its hands were dripping blood, human blood! "Who are you?" she asked.
"Forget it," the other hissed. "Don't you see how much it makes you suffer? Here…" it gestured and Danny Josephson's body dissolved. "I will help you forget him, but you will have to obey me... You will kill the Rose Fairy, and then you will wipe the humans off the face of the earth…" it said, taking her face in its hands.
"But you... who are you?" Oaky whispered, trembling.
"Haven't you figured it out yet?" I am you!" replied the wicked creature, blowing into her mouth, while her soul... screamed...
"No!" The Rose Fairy awoke panting and drenched in sweat. "What's wrong? A bad dream?" Mark Fischer inquired.
"The Oak Fairy... The Oak Fairy has a wound in her heart that is driving her crazy…" Altea tried to explain. "She's coming here... she's coming here for me!" she murmured in panic.
"Then we'd better get moving," old John said to Ron Paul.
"Too bad," he said, stretching, "I was sleeping so well... But where will we go, exactly? We've been travelling inland for ten days, looking for a great tree in a great forest… but the forests and trees are never great enough for our young explorer," he sighed.
"It's not her fault," Mark said. "If we haven't found it yet, that means we have to go even further west: 'where the sun sleeps', as the Fairy Mother said."
"All right, then let's get going!" concluded Huysmans pragmatically.
May 17th, Pan-American Union, North Carolina
"Queen! Queen, wake up!"
The Oak Fairy got up with difficulty: she had had a strange dream... "What's going on? Is there a storm?" she asked the sister who had shaken her.
"No, my Queen: we have arrived!" she answered.
Oaky stood up and hurried out of the hold: the "Glitter" was anchored about ten metres from the shore, and all the fairies were curiously observing the beach and the vegetation beyond it. "Where are Frank and Thomas?" she asked.
"We don't know... they left these," said a fairy, handing her a map and a note written in pen.
"'Your companion Altea warned us about you... The Commander does not want you to harm her'," read the Oak Fairy in the grip of growing anger. "'That's why he convinced you to build a ship from scratch, instead of entrusting you with a ready-made one... and that's why he ordered us to cover our tracks as soon as we reached North Carolina, and not to offer you any help... We are leaving you a map so that you can find your way around the American continent... Good luck’... Damn them!" she shouted, tearing the paper to pieces. "I knew we couldn't trust the Humoids... we'll have to exterminate them all, one by one... But first," she exclaimed to her acolytes," we'll find the Rose Fairy, the traitor, and kill her!"
"But my Queen..." a small creature murmured, "we worked together with the humans... they aren't as bad as we thought... maybe the Rose Fairy was right..."
"Quiet!" the Queen silenced her with a glare. "The Humoids are our enemies… it has always been that way, and it always will be! Besides," she continued, pointing to the fragments of the note scattered on the sand, "if they weren't our adversaries, they wouldn't have abandoned us in this unknown place! We trusted them, and this is how they've repaid us! But this will never happen again, do you understand?"
"Yes, Queen! Death to the Rose Fairy! Death to the Humoids!" all the fairies shouted in chorus… all except Pina and Alna. "And how do you think you will find the Rose Fairy, Your Majesty?" the latter asked ironically. "There's no one to ask for information around here..."
"We'll see," Oaky replied, closing her eyes and concentrating. Two hundred and fifty years ago she had learned to sneak into human computers; perhaps, if that area was covered by a satellite network, she could... Found it! she silently exulted; one after the other, she went through the security systems set up to defend the server and launched a query for the terms "great forest", "great tree" and "west". In two microseconds the answer came: "To California... we have to go to California," she exclaimed, pointing to a precise point on the map. "There is the great forest, there is the great tree… there we will find the Rose Fairy. Flying at full speed, it will only take us five or six days to get there... Let's go, then: are you with me?"
"Yeeeees! Yes, Queen! We are all with you!" ten fairies answered in unison. Alna turned to Pina and whispered in her ear: "Tonight, or never."
"All right," said the Pine Fairy.
May 17th, Buenos Aires, capital of the Pan-American Union
President Andrew Jefferson III reread the cable for the umpteenth time. "Are you sure?" he asked his deputy.
"Very sure," Vice President Steve Banner replied. "Twenty minutes ago, Globalnet suffered a hack that our software couldn't stop... do you think it was the Russians?" he asked worriedly.
"They don't have the necessary technology," resumed the Commander-in-Chief of the Pan-American Union. "Do we at least know the entry point?"
"On the North Carolina coast," the other said, handing him the coordinates.
"Warn Dallas," the President ordered. "So they can send forward patrols."
Night of May 17th, Tennessee
The Alder Fairy and the Pine Fairy silently approached the place where their queen slept apart, as was her custom. Forgive me, my sister, Alna prayed in her heart; then she lifted a large stone with her telekinetic powers and dropped it on the helpless little body, while Pina created a sound barrier to prevent the other fairies from noticing what was happening. "Is she... dead?" she sobbed.
"We'll soon see," her friend replied. She lifted the stone, looked... and realised that she had crushed not the Oak Fairy, but a puppet with her likeness!
"So you've been caught, traitors," the Queen exclaimed behind them, and before the two could react they found themselves bound by strong ropes made of vines.
"You tried to kill your queen... and you will die for it," Oaky said mercilessly. "But first... first it's the turn of the Rose Fairy!"
May 19th, Arkansas
"Stop where you are!" shouted the marine, aiming the laser rifle at the three men. "You, search them!" he ordered a rookie, who was stunned to see that the 'doll' on the shoulder of one of the aliens was alive. "No firearms, no electronic equipment, sir," the young soldier said after a thorough inspection, "and nothing suspicious, apart from... this creature..."
"Let's take them to the base ... and don't you try any nonsense!" the commander ordered.
"Hey, Mark, you don't want us to be caged?" John Huysmans whispered to his friend. "Altea could defeat them in one fell swoop..."
"We don't know this country," Mark Fischer replied. "The more information we can get, the better."
May 20th, Dallas military base
The control room was crowded with IT technicians and orderlies. On one wall was the Union banner: a map of the American continent from the Arctic to Patagonia, with a large triangle in the centre surmounted by an eye and the motto 'Annuit Coeptis – Novus Ordo Seclorum'. "So North America is practically deserted," Mark commented.
"Precisely," replied General Foster Grooves, commander of the base. "After the Total War exterminated two hundred million Americans, we concentrated the surviving population in the southern hemisphere, outside the range of the Eurasian missiles; we cleared the Amazon, creating a chain of megalopolises in its place, and thanks to natural resources and technology we are able to ensure a dignified life for our fellow citizens," he concluded proudly.
"But you keep practising the art of war," Altea observed. "Our teachers have taught us to recognise your weapons, and you have many here, and powerful ones... aren't you tired of fighting yet?"
"Our weapons are what guarantee our freedom," the officer replied. "God created free men, but an unarmed freedom is a freedom that any bully can trample on."
"That's true," the little creature murmured sadly, remembering the brigands' assault on the village that she had repelled with her powers.
"General, we're connected to the New White House," the communications officer announced as Andrew Jefferson's image appeared on the giant screen.
"Mr President, these are the foreigners found yesterday morning in an Arkansas forest," the general explained, introducing them. "They said they were, respectively, two Englishmen from Lydbrook and an Irishman from Belfast... and then there's her..." he said, pointing to the fairy.
A look of utter surprise came over the President's face. "Come over here, and take that rag off," he said to the Rose Fairy with a nod. "I don't want to hurt you... just see you better." Altea went to the screen and took off her cloak.
"You… you're Glitter! You're just the way the old CIA reports describe you..." the man exclaimed.
"Glitter died fifty years ago," the little creature explained. "I am her daughter."
"I'm sorry..." the President mumbled, embarrassed. "Why have you come to our country?" he then asked the three men.
"Mr President," Mark explained, "we are accompanying this fairy on a mission of the utmost importance, for the survival of mankind in England and, in the long term, throughout the world"; and he succinctly recounted all the events that had taken place in the last four weeks. "We have to find the great tree in the great forest, where the sun sleeps... could you help us?" he finished.
The President exchanged a glance with the general. "So you claim that a squadron of murderous fairies is chasing you... am I right, Mr Fischer?"
"That's right, sir," he confirmed. "That's why we must get out of here as soon as possible... also so as not to endanger your men."
"My men are afraid of nothing," Grooves chuckled.
"uattroQuattroTre TreTreThree days ago our computer system was hacked," Jefferson informed them. "The hack started off the North Carolina coast. Our patrols found a ship at anchor, empty, and two sailors who stated under oath that they had brought a group of arrogant little fairies with great powers there... I think it might be useful to know what information they have stolen from our databases."
He took a sheet of paper and read it: "The largest tree in the world is a sequoia called 'General Sherman', named after the Civil War hero... it is 84 metres high, weighs 5,445 tonnes, has a circumference at the base of 31 metres, and an age of about three thousand years..."
"It's the great tree! It's the one, I'm sure of it!" Altea exclaimed, full of enthusiasm. "Where is it? Where is it? Please tell us!" she begged.
"In California, in Sequoia National Park," the President replied dryly.
"California… where the sun sleeps! That's where we have to go!" confirmed young Ron. "Let's continue our journey," Mark said.
"I'll do you one better... General, prepare a fast convoy and an escort," Jefferson ordered.
"Yes, sir," the general exclaimed, standing to attention; then he turned to Mark: "We'll leave tomorrow."
"Thank you," he said, shaking the soldier's hand.
May 21st, Astana military base
"The Gigadroid is one hundred per cent operational," General Ruzkhov announced to his Autocrat.
"Good," Vassili Voronin replied, walking to the hangar. "I'll leave immediately."
"Hey, wait! Don't you care what's going on?" the other addressed him. "China is now out of our control, and the revolt has spread like wildfire to the west; if you leave now, the soldiers will lose confidence and..."
"I have far more important things to attend to," replied the despot of Eurasia.
"Then take me with you!" Ruzkhov pleaded, grabbing him by the arm. "If everything collapses, I don't want to stay under the rub..." but a red stain spread over his uniform; a moment later he fell down dead.
"I'm sorry, friend," murmured Voronin, sheathing the dagger, "but this world can only have one divinity."
2265 AD, May 21st, 8:23 pm local time
Dallas military base
"Sir, we have ten... no, thirteen small objects approaching from the east!" the radar officer announced excitedly.
Will they be explosive drones? General Grooves wondered. "Visual contact!" he ordered. The features of thirteen little fairies appeared on the big screen; two of them were tied like salami with ivy threads, and were being transported inert by the others. "By my grandmother's beard!" swore the high officer. "Sound the alarm," he barked, "and prepare the missiles for launch."
The Oak Fairy was already looking forward to revenge; at first those two conspirators had slowed down their flight considerably, but now that she had put them to sleep... She awoke from her daydreams when she heard the warning siren: from the base they were flying over, four anti-aircraft missiles shot up towards them.
"Dodge them!" she warned her sisters as Pina and Alna were tossed from side to side; the missiles swept past, then Oaky gestured and the bombs reversed course. "Now I'll show you!" she screamed at the humans below. The missiles hit the buildings and infrastructure of the military complex, causing some deaths and many injuries. "Cease fire," Grooves ordered in shock, "and warn the convoy."
"Over and out," the radio attendant murmured, then turned to his captain: "A squadron of fairies attacked our base, sir... yes, they said fairies... there was a lot of damage, thirty injured and... two casualties..."
"It's the Oak Fairy! She's chasing us!" Altea exclaimed.
"Don't worry, we won't let her hurt you," Mark tried to reassure her. "You can count on it, we'll defend you with our lives!" John and Ron confirmed together.
"Thank you, my friends," the fairy murmured resolutely, "but it's up to me to face her."
May 22nd, 7:17 pm local time
England, Forest of Dean
"How boring," sighed the Huntress. Almost a month had passed since the failed Great Test, and the Humoids had not made the slightest attempt to attack the Fairy People... Suddenly there was a rumble, like a thousand thunders; she looked up and saw a huge iron giant that descended vertically and alighted in the middle of the forest. "Now I'll take my revenge," a voice growled from the cockpit as hundreds of small creatures fled in terror.
"Don't run away, sisters! Remember what our Queen taught us!" the Larch Fairy encouraged them. "We are stronger than the Humoids! If she defeated such a monster, so can we!" she exclaimed, starting to attack. She tried to grab the monster's arm to knock it down, but when she touched it she was hit by a powerful electric shock and fell to the ground exhausted.
Voronin caught a fairy and started pulling her from head to toe. "Aaaahhhh! Larch Fairy, help me!" cried the little creature subjected to that painful torture. "Answer my questions, or I'll break her in two!" the human threatened the Huntress.
The fairy banged her fists on the ground in anger and humiliation. "Okay, I'll talk, but leave her be!" she exclaimed. "What do you want to know?"
Voronin only loosened his grip a little. “Where is she you call Oaky, the Oak Fairy? Tell me!" he roared.
"She went in pursuit of a traitor, in a village northwest from here," murmured the Larch Fairy after a brief hesitation, "but she left almost a month ago... I don't know where she is now..."
"Thank you very much," the Autocrat laughed mockingly, discarding the fairy like an old shoe and walking briskly towards Lydbrook.
"A monster! A monster!" the humans screamed when they saw him. Magda and Tim started running with the others, but the woman had to stop short of breath. "Mummy!" cried the child, coming back, but two of the Gigadroid's fingers grabbed him by the scruff of the neck. "Let me go, ugly bad!" he screamed with all his might.
"Tell me where the Oak Fairy is, or I'll kill him!" Voronin barked at the mother. "I don't know, I don't know!" she wailed.
"I know," Alois Nathanson interjected. "Let him go and I'll tell you everything."
"All right," said the tyrant smugly. "Begin."
The old man told him everything: from the arrival of the Rose Fairy to the victory against the assailants, to the Fairy Mother and the Source of Regeneration. When he had finished, Voronin placed little Tim on the ground, who immediately took refuge in his mother's arms. "A great tree, in a great forest, in the western United States... Yes, now I know where it is!" exclaimed the despot of Eurasia after consulting his own database. "Another twelve hours of travel, and I will be immortal... while your life ends here, old man!" he exclaimed, grabbing him with a gigantic hand.
"No!" cried Magda. The Gigadroid clenched its fist, and Alois Nathanson's body fell to the ground sliced in two. "Torture, terror and death: this is the law of Vassili the Supreme!" sneered the Autocrat, taking off again.
At that moment there came a swarm of small creatures led by the Larch Fairy. "What do we do, Huntress?" a fairy asked in anguish in the face of this carnage.
The Larch Fairy was just starting to recover from the shock. "Heal the wounded, humans and fairies..." she murmured.
"A-and the Humoids?" the other asked, unsure what to do.
"Are you deaf?" cried the Huntress. "Heal all the wounded, whether they are fairies or humans! Get moving!"
Late at night Magda Fischer, exhausted, thanked her on behalf of everyone: "We have had many deaths..." she acknowledged with tears in her eyes, "but if it hadn't been for your help, there would have been far more victims... Thank you," and she held out her hand to the little creature.
"The enemies of our enemies are our friends," the Larch Fairy brushed it off, smiling.
May 23rd, 4:42 pm local time
New Mexico-Arizona border
"That creature does nothing but sleep... what is it, its speciality?" chuckled the sergeant.
"Don't make fun of her! She saved the lives of my mother and my little brother!" Ron replied angrily.
"Altea's speciality is rescuing humans," Mark Fischer added. "Whoever touches her, touches all of us, got it?"
"Well said!" exclaimed old John Huysmans; then he added tenderly: "Altea is sweet, kind and goes out of her way to help those in need… yes, she really is a Good Samaritan," he concluded.
"As you wish." The sergeant crouched in the seat, lowering the visor over his eyes. "Expected arrival in seven hours."
May 23rd, 10:30 pm local time
Dallas military base
General Grooves was still taking a census of the damage suffered two days earlier when he received an alert from PANAD, the Pan-American Aerospace Defence Command: an extra-large fighter droid had entered continental airspace. "With the base reduced to this state we can't do anything," he snorted. "Report speed and direction to the New White House... and Heaven help us!"
"I have two pieces of news, Mr President: one good and one bad," said Vice President Banner, entering the Oval Office out of breath.
"Good first," the President instructed him.
"According to our 'observers', bloody riots are underway throughout Eurasia: China, India, the Middle East, Europe... everywhere the population is rising up against the regime; the army has joined the rioters, and the lackeys of the now ex-Autocrat Vassili Voronin are being summarily killed! The news we had been receiving for years about the discontent caused by the famine and the harassment suffered proved to be correct, in the end!" the first exulted.
"We will have to act quickly to prevent their nuclear arsenal falling into the hands of some fanatic," Jefferson observed. "Arrange the immediate dispatch of the special teams."
"Already done," the Vice President assured him seraphically. "You didn't choose me just because I'm good at signing paperwork."
"Good... very good." The President relaxed in his chair and breathed a long sigh of relief; then he asked: "And the bad news?"
"Voronin left Eurasia aboard a Megadroid three times the size of the models known up to now," Banner replied despondently. "Dallas reported him passing by half an hour ago... it seems he's headed for California."
"Whaaat? And you're telling me now?" Jefferson yelled, jumping to his feet. "Get the strategic bombers in the air... and switch to Defcon 1!"
May 23rd, 11:15 pm local time
California, Sequoia National Park
"We're here," the sergeant announced, stopping the vehicle. "Here is your great tree."
"Wow! It really is great!" Altea exclaimed.
"You said the Fairy Mother is down here," Mark Fischer reminded her, "so now we should find an underground passage... but I don't see one."
"I'll try to 'listen' to the subsoil," replied the fairy; she closed her eyes, moved her arms left and right like two antennae, then announced: "There's a large cave beneath the roots... now I'll open up an entrance." She concentrated, and a great clod of earth crumbled to dust, revealing an abyss that not even the soldiers' torches could illuminate. "It's about two hundred feet deep," the Rose Fairy informed them.
"Two hundred feet? Then maybe we'll be able to lower you down," the captain said hopefully. "Get the winch ready!" he ordered.
After a few minutes Mark, John and young Ron descended into the cave secured with slings to a long steel cable, while Altea went ahead, cutting through the darkness with the glitter of her wings. When the three humans reached the bottom, they broke free and looked around.
"I'm going to shed some light now," the little creature said, and immediately the cave walls began to glow.
"Where could the Fairy Mother be?" John Huysmans wondered, scratching his head.
"One problem at a time," Altea replied. "Right now I have to deal with the Oak Fairy... they're coming, hide."
Just then, the fairy squadron came upon the big tree. "There are the Humoids!" one of them warned.
"Ignore them," Oaky replied. "Let's go in here!" and they all followed her down into the cave. A familiar voice greeted them: "I've been waiting for you, my Queen... and you too, my sisters."
"Rose Fairy, you're alive!" the Pine Fairy and the Alder Fairy shrieked in chorus.
"So you finally stopped hiding, little rebel," said Oaky. "My name is Altea," the fairy corrected her.
"Die!" the other shouted, hurling lightning at her, but Altea deflected the bolt effortlessly. "You can't defeat me," she said. "The Fairy Mother will give me enough strength to withstand you."
"There is no Fairy Mother!" cried the Oak Fairy, launching a flame at her that went out upon contact with her adversary's white skin. "It's absurd... I should be the most powerful fairy in the Universe..." she murmured incredulously, shaking her head.
"I know your secret pain, Oaky," Altea insisted, "and I'm here to heal you."
"Don't call me that name!" the Queen screamed furiously, then turned to her retinue: "Strike her, strike her all together!" An ocean of fire, water and lightning struck the Rose Fairy, but it was repelled by a huge force field.
When the attackers lay numb on the ground, Altea slowly approached Oaky. "Now I will help you see clearly inside yourself," she said in a voice at once soft and firm.
"No! No, please stay away!" cried the Oak Fairy, backing off. "Stay away from me!"
"Look the truth in the face," the fairy ordered her, taking both her hands with her own: the vital energy of the Fairy Queen passed through Altea's body, returned to her, and Oaky saw... she saw again, as in a mirror, the happy moments she had spent in the company of MI6 agent Danny Josephson; she felt again the pang of jealousy she had experienced when she discovered him in bed with a human woman; she relived once again the agony of his death, the sense of guilt that had devoured her ever since... and for the first time in two hundred and fifty years she wept in front of her sisters, shedding all the tears she had hidden up to that moment.
"So this is the wound that infected your soul," the Rose Fairy told her sadly. "You blamed yourself for the death of the man you loved, and to silence your conscience you cast the blame on all mankind."
"Yes," muttered the Oak Fairy inconsolably. "After Glitter's death, I believed that her legacy authorised me to let loose without restraint... Persecuting humans was the only way not to suffer; but remorse assailed me in every moment of solitude, and to avoid feeling it I became crueller and crueller, ever more ruthless... But most of all I was maddened by the certainty that I would never, never be able to see my Danny again, not even in another life... because I am immortal, I am condemned to live forever, returning evil for evil..."
"Nothing in this world is forever, Oak Fairy," proclaimed a powerful voice, which each heard in their native language.
Everyone turned to look at her: a fairy of noble appearance, dressed in a splendid purple tunic, sat on a high throne; on her head she wore a golden crown, and in her right hand she held a sceptre, formed by a long bronze rod wrapped in coils of ivy, culminating in a blue and winged globe. "Fairy Mother, it's you!" Altea exclaimed joyfully, while the fairies and humans watched in amazement.
"My sin is inexcusable, Mother," Oaky begged. "If you can, please let me die, and release me from my suffering!"
"Fairies die when they are ready to generate new life," replied the Fairy Mother. "Bathe your body in the Source of Regeneration, and find your lost fertility!"
So saying she raised her sceptre, and a corner of the cave that had remained dark until then became bright: a source of clear and pure water gushed from the rock, creating a waterfall ten metres high and forming a small lake about fifty metres deep. "The waters of this spring can heal any wound a fairy has suffered, both in body and soul," added the Mother. "So immerse yourself: you have my permission!"
"Can I... can I really?" the Oak Fairy asked hesitantly.
"Yes," replied the matriarch. "Yes," the Rose Fairy and the other little creatures confirmed.
Oaky walked slowly toward the Source, hesitating. When she reached the shore of the lake, she paused for a moment; then she advanced into the water, immersed herself for a very long minute… and when she re-emerged, she immediately felt that new spores had begun to germinate inside her. "I'm healed... I'm healed," she murmured, shedding tears of happiness this time.
"Yes, you are healed," confirmed the Fairy Mother. "The spores now contained in your body will develop very slowly, as is the law for us fairies, and when you close your eyes forever, a new Oak Fairy will be born from one of them. You have about one hundred and fifty years left to live… enjoy them to the full," she concluded gently.
"I will have a descendant! I won't be the last of my kind! Thank you, Mother, for healing me… and thank you, Altea, for opening my eyes!" the Oak Fairy exclaimed, embracing her.
"Aren't you angry with me anymore?" she asked.
"Angry? Of course not! And I'm not angry with you either, Alna, Pina… on the contrary, I ask for your forgiveness," Oaky replied as the little creatures released the Pine Fairy and the Alder Fairy.
"It's over... the nightmare is finally over!" all the fairies rejoiced. "We will no longer have to train to make war on humans..."
"I'm sorry, but it's not over yet," the Fairy Mother warned. "There is still one last enemy to defeat."
As the fairies wondered what the Mother meant with those words, a huge fighting robot landed in front of the great tree and uprooted it, casting it aside like a toothpick; then it hit the ground with a colossal punch, causing the cave ceiling to collapse, while Oaky, Altea and the other fairies created an energy shield to protect themselves and the humans from the rubble. The Gigadroid leapt to the bottom of the cave and Oaky launched into attack, only to be repelled by a force field. "It's too powerful even for me," she gasped.
"Its weak point is its feet," the Rose Fairy guessed. "The force field doesn't reach there... I'll take care of it!" She stretched out her arms and roots sprouted from the floor of the cave, enveloping the legs of the mechanical monster, which swayed for a few seconds and finally fell to the ground with a crash, to the jubilation of all present.
Vassili Voronin stepped out of the Gigadroid brandishing a laser rifle. "Are you the Fairy Mother?" he asked angrily in Russian, aiming the weapon first at the fairies, then at the humans. "Tell me where the spring of eternal life is, or I'll kill everyone!"
"The Source is there, in front of you," replied the Fairy Mother, pointing at it with her finger. "You can immerse yourself in it if you want... but know that the gift of regeneration was not reserved for humans."
"That's what you say," replied the villain, throwing his gun aside and striding towards the spring; Mark moved to stop him, but the Fairy Mother waved him off.
As he advanced, Voronin took off his jacket and shirt, his boots and trousers and even his underpants. "I want to bathe every square inch of my body in this holy water," he grunted; then he executed a perfect dive, remained under the water's surface for about ten seconds, and emerged with an inhuman cry. "Aaaahhhh! It burns! It buuurns!"
"We have to help him!" the Oak Fairy exclaimed in shock as she took off, followed by Altea and all the others. She walked over to the man, who was still screaming, and tried to grab him by the arm, but he dealt her a backhand that sent her spinning.
"Let's use telekinesis! Quickly!" she urged her companions; but as they pulled him out, a greenish flame enveloped him completely, consuming first his flesh, then his bones, until the Autocrat of Eurasia was nothing but dust.
"My God," Oaky groaned, "my God, why did this happen to him? I immersed myself and was healed, whereas he..."
"This water contains such quantities of sulphur, chlorine, potassium and heavy metals that it is beneficial and healthy for a fairy, but corrosive and lethal for a human being," explained the Fairy Mother. "I warned him that the gift of immortality was not reserved for your lineage," she added to the humans, who were also astonished, "but he preferred to listen to the voice of his ambition, and his ambition destroyed him. Pray for his soul, that's all you can do for him." And so they did, men and fairies together.
2265 AD, May 24th, just before sunrise
California, Sequoia National Park
"Thank you for everything you have done for us, Fairy Mother," murmured the Oak Fairy, moved. "Not only did you restore my fertility, but you healed my heart of hatred... There will be no more war between fairies and humans, I swear on my life!" she exclaimed.
"There will be no more war between us humans either," Mark promised with his right hand on his chest. "We have learnt our lesson: there will be no more groups against groups, nations against nations. We will become one people; we will rebuild cities, roads, aqueducts, hospitals, and everything needed for a decent life… and this time there will be no more rich states and poor states, dominant states and vassal states. There will be bread, freedom and justice for everyone!"
"And we'll help you," Oaky assured him. "And when we go back to our forest, it won't be to lock ourselves in like a fortress, but to..."
"The humans will return to their homes," interrupted the Mother, "and you fairies will return to your forest, but not all of you will return."
"Whaaat?" cried the Oak Fairy and the others in chorus... all except Altea.
"I am not the first Fairy Mother to have lived on this planet," the matriarch explained. "Since the Earth was shapeless and deserted, and the first plant species swam in the depths of the seas, since then countless before me have kept Balance and Order intact so that life could flourish and evolve... and when catastrophic events like the eruption of a mega-volcano, the fracture of continents or the impact of an asteroid have sown death and destruction, each of them has done what I am about to do now: release in one fell swoop the energy accumulated in their own bodies from a life spanning thousands of years, to reshape the world at the cost of their own death."
Upon hearing this, everyone was frozen. "Do you mean you will sacrifice yourself... to heal the Earth?" Mark asked.
"That is why I was called by those who occupied this throne before me," proclaimed the Fairy Mother solemnly. "But the throne cannot remain empty... For this I have summoned you, Altea, my daughter."
"Altea?" wailed the Oak Fairy with a lump in her throat. "What does she have to do with it?"
"I chose you before you were born," continued the Mother, turning to the fairy with golden hair, "and I ordered you to keep yourself pure from hatred and blood, and to grow strong and good, so that you could reach this moment, and take my place, if you wish, becoming the new Fairy Mother for the millennia to come."
"No!" Oaky cried with all the breath in her body. "It's not fair! She has to come back with us, to her forest! We have so many faults for which to ask forgiveness, so many flowers to pick in the meadows, so many years to spend in games and parties among ourselves and with humans... She can't be locked away in this prison all her life… it's not fair…" she sobbed.
"Fairy Mother," Mark pleaded, stepping forward, "I'm only human, but please listen to me! Altea has been good to us: she cured our illnesses, she defended us from brigands, she brought about the reconciliation between humans and fairies… can't you let her stay with us? After all, for better or worse, this world survived even the Total War; there are regions reduced to uninhabitable deserts, of course, but there are also places where life flows quietly... You've kept the balance of this planet for fifty years, can't you continue to do so?"
"After the Total War, the Balance of this world became unstable," declared the Fairy Mother: "earthquakes, eruptions and climate change follow one another without cease. Even now, as I speak to you, my forces are busy making sure that Death does not cast its shroud over this planet... and even so I cannot prevent it from sliding slowly, as if on an inclined plane, towards Nothingness. The alternative is: put everything back in place now, or let everything fall apart in a hundred or a thousand years. But the choice is up to Altea, and to her alone," she concluded.
Everyone turned to her. The Rose Fairy stood with her eyes closed and her hands together for what seemed an interminable length of time. Finally, she opened her splendid green eyes and said in a firm voice: "I accept the call, Mother."
"Altea!" Oaky cried, hugging her and bursting into tears; the others were crying like babies too. "Forgive me... forgive me..." she pleaded.
She wiped her queen's tears away with a finger and smiled at her: "I have already forgiven you, Oaky... I have forgiven you all the harm you have done to me, right away, because I knew that while you were inflicting pain and humiliation on me, you were the one suffering more… And for you too, my sisters, I have forgiven everything," she told the other broken-hearted fairies, "because you thought you were acting rightly, to obey our Queen, to defend our people and our home... For a long time, I had sensed that this was my destiny..."
"But..." the Oak Fairy again tried to dissuade her.
"Alna, you once said that the life of a fairy makes no sense, except to give rise to another fairy," Altea continued, turning to the Alder Fairy. "Well, now I understand what you meant: life has meaning only if given... Don't be sad for me, because I will use my life and my death, when the time comes, to give life not only to fairies, but also to humans, plants, animals, the whole world! My life will have a meaning, because I will transform it into a gift for everyone... Goodbye, Oaky, my sister, queen and friend," she concluded, her eyes swollen with tears.
"If this is your destiny," the Oak Fairy whispered, "I will pray that you have the strength to see it through to the end," and she hugged her one last time before they parted. All her sisters said their farewells the same way: "We will always remember your courage," they promised, "and we will speak of you to the newborn, from generation to generation, forever."
"Thank you for everything, dear friends," the blonde fairy said to the humans emotionally. "Mark, say goodbye to your wife for me, and little Tim, and the child yet to be born... My dear John, I will always carry with me the memory of your good heart, and your pipe tobacco... Goodbye to you too, Ron, goodbye to everyone," and she climbed the steps until she stood before the throne.
"Altea, the Rose Fairy," asked the Mother, "do you promise to take on the title of the new Fairy Mother when my life is over?"
"I promise," she replied.
"Do you promise to stay in this place, drinking from the Source of Regeneration and using all your strength to maintain the balance of this world, as long as you may live?"
"I promise," she replied again.
"And do you also promise," and here the Mother's voice cracked, "also promise, should a new catastrophe strike this world, to give your life to heal it, after choosing who will take your place?"
"I promise," Altea replied.
"Now I will pass on you the memories of all the Mothers who preceded me," said the Fairy Mother, placing her crown on her head and handing her the sceptre. "What I received as a gift is now yours; keep it and grow it to entrust it to those who will come after you."
"I will, Mother," promised the fairy, and immediately her body was dressed in a splendid red tunic.
"And now," said the Mother, walking slowly towards the spring, "let everything begin anew!" She threw herself into the abyss and a healing aurora filled the whole cave, came out and enveloped the entire globe. And along with it, thousands of intangible spores spread to the four winds, ready to give birth to new little creatures.
"Tomorrow we will come within sight of Ireland," Thomas announced, scanning the horizon, then waved his arm to greet Ron Paul at the helm of the other boat.
"Good," Oaky said, looking at the waves beyond the side of the 'Glitter'. Then she turned to Mark: "Hard work awaits us: we will have to ask forgiveness from the inhabitants of all the villages around the forest, and tell them that we will no longer harass them, indeed we will do everything in our power to help them. It will be difficult to overcome their mistrust, they have every reason... but if we can persuade you, we will manage with the others too, I'm sure!"
"We too will have to work hard to build a peaceful coexistence on a planetary level," replied the man. "We will have to convince villages that have so far scorned each other to get along; and then there are Europeans, Russians, Chinese, Africans, Indians… it will be a long journey, but the approval we received from the Pan-American Union gives me hope. And we won't be alone in our efforts: there will always be someone watching over us and protecting us," he smiled, pointing to the west.
"Indeed there will." The Oak Fairy also smiled and turned to watch the sun fall asleep: there, in a great country, deep in a great forest, under the roots of a great tree, Altea – the Rose Fairy – devoted her life to preserving the balance and order of the world. "She really is worthy of being your daughter," she said, looking up at the sky. "You can be proud of her, Glitter."