Thursday, December 18, 2014

A Gift for Readers: Malcolm MacGillivray and The Fairies


This is a scene (a story) I cut from the final manuscript for ONCE UPON A HIGHLAND CHRISTMAS. There’s been a terrible fire in the village, and the Clan MacGillivray has come to take shelter in Craigleith Castle. Lady Alanna McNabb volunteers to tell the children a story to keep them calm and out from underfoot. This is the story I wrote for her to tell, a fairy tale within my Highland Christmas fairy tale. Enjoy!


Alanna McNabb settled a dozen children on the settees and chairs and on the rug before the fire in the library. Nessa the pig took her place among them and went to sleep, curled on the hearth like a beloved dog
“Why don’t you tell a tale, lass?” Donal said. “They’ve heard all of mine.”

Alanna looked at the children. Their eyes were fixed on her expectantly. “Then I shall tell you a story that I heard when I was a child. It’s one of my favorite tales at Christmastide.”

“Is it a true story?” one boy asked.

Alanna smiled. “Of course it is. All the best tales are true,” she promised. “As long as you believe in magic, that is. Do you?”

The youngest children nodded, their eyes wide, but the older ones looked skeptical. “Close your eyes, and try your hardest to believe,” she told them, and began the story.

“Once there was a lad named Malcolm McNa—,” she began. “Malcolm MacGillivray, that is,” she corrected her tale for her MacGillivray audience. “And he believed in magic. Malcolm needed a Christmas gift for his true love, a pretty lass named Catriona, but he had no coin to buy her a ring. He decided to go up into the hills and ask the fairy folk for a favor. He left home on a bright sunny morning, after his chores were done, and took the path that wound up into the high peaks. He’d gone hardly any way at all when he heard a dreadful cry coming from a stand of trees, and he hurried along to see what the matter was. He found a magnificent stag cornered by a pack of wolves, about to die. Malcolm used his walking staff and his sling to chase the wolves away. He ran his hand over the stag’s broad flank, and wrapped a scrap of his plaid over the worst of the breast’s injuries, and gave the creature water to drink from his own flask.

“Thank you,” the stag said. “You came along at the perfect moment. Another minute or two, and—” He shuddered. “So where are you going on this snowy morn?”

“I’m off to see the fairies to ask a boon,” Malcolm replied.

“Then I will help you, in return for your kindness,” the stag said. “The fairies will ask you a riddle. If you cannot answer, they will turn you to stone. They will ask you what the very best Christmas present is.”

Malcolm stroked his chin and considered. Many ideas came into his head, but he wondered if any were right enough to please the fairies. “What is the right answer?” he asked the stag.

The magnificent beast shook his head. “That I cannot tell you. You must look into your own heart to find the answer. But be warned: The fairies will try to trick you and keep you, even before you’ve had a chance to make your reply. You have a handsome face, and fine manners, and will make a good companion for the fairy queen.”

Malcolm though of his Catriona, her fine sparkling eyes, as clear as a loch in summer time, her sweet smile that made him feel as if he’d drunk a whole cask of the finest whisky. He couldn’t turn back now. “There’s danger, surely, but still I must go ahead with my plan,” he told the stag.

The beast nodded. “Then tie a thread from the hem of your plaid to my antler. When you are ready to leave the fairy queen’s castle, tug on the thread, and it will guide you safe back here again.”

So Malcolm tied the thread to the stag’s antler and set off up the mountain. It wasn’t long until he met the fairy folk, and they spun him and poked him, and bundled him off to their castle to meet heir queen.

The fairy castle stood on a silver cloud, and could only be reached by crossing a bridge made of stars. There was a long staircase, and the great doors at the top of the steps were three times as tall as a man, and five times as wide. Colored lights danced around him like curious children as the fairies led Malcolm inside.

The great throne room was carved out of a crystal, set with precious jewels. It took Malcolm’s breath away, for he’d never seen anything so grand before. At the far end of the room sat a lady on a throne, the second most beautiful lady Malcolm had ever seen, since the most beautiful was his own sweet Catriona.

“Why have you come here?” the queen asked, her voice soft as a melody.

“I’ve come to ask a boon. I want a ring of gold if it should please your majesty to give it to me” Malcolm said.

Now the queen was imagining that ring around her own finger as she looked at the braw, handsome Highlander before her. She smiled, certain that a clansman—even a MacGillivray—would never be able to guess the answer to her riddle.

“Tell me, Malcolm MacGillivray—what is the best Christmas gift of all? Is it gold, or jewels, or riches beyond counting?”

“I’ll need a moment to think,” Malcolm said, for he knew any of those things would make fine Christmas gifts indeed.

The queen pointed at the window, and cast a spell on the world outside. Snow began to fall, grew thicker, and soon blotted out the distant hills and valleys until the world was entirely white. “I will give you until the snow piles up against the foot of my tower to answer the question,” she said pleasantly enough. “Until then, eat, drink and enjoy all the pleasures of my castle.”

She clapped her hands, and an army of servants appeared at once, each one bearing rich garments, plaids woven of shining silver and gold threads, shot through with rainbows, rich velvets, and shimmering silks. Malcolm shook his head. “No thank you. There is no cloth so fine as my own MacGillivray plaid,” he said. The servants bearing the garments instantly disappeared in a puff of green smoke.

They were replaced by a hundred men carrying coffers filled to the brim with rubies, golden brooches, pearls the size of pigeon’s eggs, sapphires, and emeralds. Malcolm was near dazzled by the display, but he turned away. “The gold of the hills, the blue of the sky in summer, the green of the hills of my own homeland shine brighter than jewels for me,” he said. Those servants vanished as well, in a puff of purple smoke.

Malcolm cast a glance at the window, and saw that the snow had reached the foot of the stairs that led up to the tower, and was piling up quickly. He still had no idea how to answer the queen’s question. More servants appeared, bearing dish after dish of tempting delicacies to eat and drink. There was every kind of fish from the seas, roasts of beef, partridge, and hare, and pies made of fruit so sweet and plump it could make you cry with the pleasure of tasting it. Malcolm’s mouth watered, and his stomach rumbled, but he said, “‘Tis not so fine a feast as the simple porridge my mother makes at our own hearth.”

The queen turned three shades of red with anger. She waved her hand, and her fine gown was instantly transformed to one finer still, silk and satin and velvet, and she was decked with jewels from the top of her head to her dainty feet. “You will soon forget your mother’s hearth, Malcolm MacGillivray, for the snow has reached the foot of the tower. You must give me the answer now, or remain here forever.

Malcolm tilted his head and smiled at her. “I think I can answer you well enough now, your majesty,” he said. He looked around the room, and back at the lovely lady. “The finest gift of Christmas is to be home and happy with the folk you love most in the world, hand in hand with your own true love.”

He was right, of course, but the queen grew angry, and drew herself up, taller and taller, until she filled the room. “I shall keep you anyway,” she said, waving her hand again. “I shall draw a mist over your eyes, make you forget everyone you love, save for me. You shall be my Christmas gift.”

She reached out to touch his forehead, to make him forget, but quick as you please Malcolm tugged on the thread at the hem of his kilt, and rushed down the stairs, following the bright line of thread through the snowstorm. The fairy queen rushed after him, crying out, but Malcolm hurried onward, sliding over the snow, faster and faster. Still she stayed right on his heels. At last, Malcolm rounded a hill, and there stood the stag before him.

At the sight of the queen, the stag transformed himself in a puff of silver smoke, and when Malcolm looked again, the beast was gone, and in his place stood a man arrayed in gold, with a fine crown upon his brow. He raised a bow, and shot an arrow into the queen’s breast, instead of blood, there was ice, and the snow gathered around her, swirling her higher and higher until her disappeared into the sky, never to be seen again. The sun came out, and sparkled on the new fallen snow.

Malcolm looked at the stag king in astonishment. “Thank you for your help, Malcolm MacGillivray. I was the true king of the fairies once. The false queen asked me the riddle put to you, but I foolishly forgot the answer. She turned me into a stag until the answer could be revealed by one of kind heart and true character. You have broken the spell, and returned me and my folk to our true forms. He raised his hands, and all around them, the trees and rocks woke, and became fairy lads and lasses again. The true queen, a lady as lovely and sweet as Catriona herself, glided over to stand beside her king.

“You shall have your gold ring,” the king said, “and all manner of good things to take to your family for Christmas.” And so Malcolm MacGillivray returned home with the gold ring in his pocket, and he placed it on his Catriona’s finger on Christmas morning, and there was a fine feast, and all were merry for many days after.

Alanna looked at the wide eyes of her audience. Even the older children were enthralled by the tale. The children sighed, satisfied, and settled down to sleep, crowding around Nessa and Donal, who was already fast asleep.

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