Charles Bewitched
fairies! It would almost make up for the grinding
he had to do—
    “The barrow’s on the crest
of the hill, on the other side from us,” Nando whispered. “I been up there, but
only in day. The hill’s not real high, and flat on top with a big clearing.”
    Charles gazed up at it. A
faint flickering glow—torchlight, perhaps?—could be seen from the summit.
“Lorrie was right to have us wait. If we’re careful, we shouldn’t be heard over
the music. We’ll go up, get an idea of how many there are, and see if we can’t
spot Persy.”
    They crept up the hill,
trying to move as soundlessly as possible from tree to tree. The music and
laughter grew louder as they ascended, till just below the hill’s crown it was
as loud as any of the parties Charles had attended with Mama and Papa this past
Christmas for his first forays into Society. He exchanged one last nod with
Nando, then crawled to a tree at the edge of the clearing. After a few deep
breaths, he rose to his knees, then to his feet, and peered around its trunk.
    Light dazzled him, making
him blink and squint. Golden-red light from torches stuck in the ground at
intervals around the broad clearing mingled with dimmer light from the waning
half-moon, which had been hidden by the trees while he and Nando had padded
through the woods. After a moment his eyes adjusted, only to be dazzled in a
different way.
    At least a hundred figures
were gathered on the hilltop. Their attire varied wildly—from several who
looked as though they’d stepped from a Botticelli painting to one girl who
appeared to be clad entirely in feathers, to others dressed in leaves, or
skins, or fluttering classical-like draperies, or what looked like the latest
Bond Street fashions.
    Perhaps two-thirds of them
were dancing, arranged in two concentric circles around a small group of
musicians. The two circles somehow wove in and out of each other in an
elaborate pattern as the musicians played a sprightly tune that made Charles
want to tap his toes despite its odd, eerie pitch. Others stood in small
clusters or strolled in pairs around the dancers; directly across from Charles,
a group sat in chairs at the base of the mound amid a blaze of torches, like a
lord and his entourage presiding over his court. He tried to examine them, but
the circling dancers made it impossible. Did one of them look like Persy?
    Just then, the musicians
shifted into a different tune. Without a pause, the dancers re-formed into two
long lines and began what looked almost like a country dance; some of them
dropped out, while others took their places. Aha! Now he’d have a chance to see
if it truly was Persy down there. If he could move enough to see between the
lines of dancers—
    “Eeee,” Nando said in his
ear. Evidently he’d decided it was his turn for a look. “Look at them! Queerer
than the stories Nana Jacaranda used to tell. Does that one have a tail?” He
pointed.
    “Ssshh!” Charles pushed his
hand down but stared, just as wide-eyed as Nando. The dancer in question indeed
possessed a tail, long and ending in a tuft like a lion’s, swishing in time to
the music under her swirling silk skirt.
    Then he started to notice
other oddities: dancers with bat ears, or the scaly skin of a lizard, or hands that
were anything but five-fingered. One gentleman appeared entirely unremarkable,
except for the fact that his skin, beard, and hair were a handsome shade of
indigo. His partner danced on delicate deer’s hooves.
    But not all of them were
fantastical; there, making her way gracefully down to the end of the line of
dancers, was the girl dressed in a gown made of feathers. She had blonde hair
and porcelain skin and delicate features that seemed somehow familiar.
    And she was looking directly
at him.

Chapter Five
     
     
    Blast! Charles dropped into
a crouch again, yanking Nando down with him, but it was too late. Within
seconds she’d picked her way through the undergrowth and stood before him.

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