The cottage was isolated, three miles from her nearest neighbour and the thought set Cara’s heart racing. In the moments between darkness and dawn, shadows faded, light grew and ephemeral shapes crept about her bedroom. She knew them for what they were, the night ghosts slipping between worlds, uneasy in even the palest dawn glow, but she was yet pathetically grateful for the armful of dog with her in the middle of the bed.
Snaps grumbled low in his chest, straining a little at her hold on his collar. Both of them heard the movement again; a scraping and rustling from somewhere beyond the bedroom door. It was followed by a squeak, a muffled thud and the faint sound of speech. Cara held tight to Snaps, barely managing to silence his incipient barking with a hand around his muzzle.
‘Not now, Snaps, please. I know you are brave, and I know you want to see them off, but what if they are armed.’
Snaps’ liquid brown eyes pleaded with her to let him ‘get ‘em’- a phrase she used often when throwing things for him to fetch - but she remained firm. Cara’s mind raced through possibilities. She rarely used her mobile and was pretty sure it lay forgotten in a kitchen drawer. She was more certain the noises were coming from the kitchen. A glance around the room revealed little in the way of ammunition or weaponry. A determined, possibly armed burglar wasn’t likely to be stopped in his tracks by a brandished hairbrush.
A volley of loud whispering was followed by a huge crash. It made Cara jump and she lost her grip on Snaps. Liberated, he rushed out of the partially open bedroom door, barking wildly. Cara sat for a second or two, paralysed by indecision, then grabbed a glass bottle off of her dresser and sprinted after the dog, whose barks had reached epic proportions.
Cara skidded to a halt on the kitchen tiles, eyes wide, mouth agape and the perfume bottle in her hand raised high above her head. Weak dawn filtered through the open back door and she spent a long, confused moment absorbing the scene.
Two pixies, both dressed in scarlet and sky blue, were wrestling with a deliriously happy Snaps amongst what looked like the aftermath of an explosion in a talc factory. Her pantry door stood ajar and she could see a degree of disarray within. An earthenware pot lay in three pieces on the slate floor, freshly milled flour sending up puffs of dust to dance in the light morning breeze.
‘Snaps, heel’ she mumbled, Snaps blithely ignoring her until one of the pixies managed to gain his feet and push the dog off. He looked up at Cara, down at the disaster area of her kitchen and back again as the second pixie shoved off Snaps eager licks and came to stand beside him.
His voice was uncertain, probably due to Cara’s complete stillness.
“We’ll put it right, Mistress.”
Finally released from her befuddlement, Cars fell into a chair and shook her head, addressing the first pixie.
“What were you doing in my pantry at 4 in the morning?”
Leafin and Logan, twins by Treebo’s seventeenth wife – pixie marriage being a thing of instant passion and equally swift boredom – glanced at each other and one began to speak; Cara never did learn to tell them apart, bar one spoke constantly, the other seeming to feel his rare input more than enough in the communication department.
“Me and Leafin were after some yeast. Didn’t want to disturb ya so early like.”
“You failed.” Cara grumbled, heading for the kettle, “Coffee?”
She had recently discovered that pixies were coffee addicts, when they could get it, and the familiar eager grin crossed both faces. A couple of moments later the pair were sat on Treebo’s booster cushion – not that Cara would ever have dared to call it such to his face – sipping rich black coffee and Logan continued to explain.
“It’s pop time and we use yeast, but that darn farmer over Micklebury way sprayed his crops with some chemical stuff. We always scrape our yeast off the plants in his greenhouse but that spray made ‘em useless this year. Leafin ‘ere” he nudged his brother causing a tidal surge of coffee to spill onto the table top, “reckoned you might have some so we came to trade, but you was sleepin’.
“So you decided to creep about, breaking pots and scaring the heck out of me. You could have waited half an hour. I’d have been up then.”
The pair looked sheepish, covering their discomfort with large gulps of coffee. Logan made the decision that a word was required and managed to drop it into the slowly lightening day.
“Excuse me?” Leafin’s occasional sound expulsions always wrong-footed her.
“The pop’s gotta be made before noon see. Takes a wee while. Not much time to get it started if it’s gonna be ready.”
Cara rose, rolled her eyes at the shifting floury sands underfoot in the pantry, and grabbed a tub containing her yeast from a shelf. She placed it in the middle of the kitchen table and questioned…
The brothers shared a meaningful look, nodded and smiled, Leafin claiming the pot.
“You come with us, mistress, and you can see pop making.”
Cara’s curiosity overcame her lethargy. She scurried back to the bedroom, threw on jeans and a jumper and headed to the back door, Snaps bouncing around her ankles. She followed the pair and was further surprised to find her garden alive with a variety of pixies industriously combing through her borders. They appeared to be collecting as many convolvulus flowers as possible and placing them carefully into nets on their backs. At her questioning glance the pair grinned and headed down the path. By the gate, they held up the yeast pot and whistled.
“Done. Home now.”
Half an hour later, Cara was seated next to a large, well-scrubbed pewter cauldron. It was set in the middle of a clearing, and pixies bustled back and forth. Some poured in buckets of spring water, others dribbled honey from combs into the mix, and then a ring of pixie children encircled the cauldron. Each held a next of the pure white blossoms from her garden. They began to dance clockwise, chanting.
‘Morning’s waning and around we hop,
Makings into the pot we drop,
Our weaving now none can stop,
For the hour has come and we must POP’
The last was screamed in childish glee and the circle came to an instant stillness. The nets were hoisted high above giggling heads, and the contents flung into the cauldron in a storm of white petals. The little ones, all with a pair of flowers in their hands ran about the clearing, seemed to choose an adult at random and paused.
Cara stared down into the nut-brown eyes of her pixling, smiled and waited. At some unspoken signal, all the children held up their hands, flowers held firmly by the base. A single shout ran around the group;
Tiny fingers squeezed firmly and dozens of blooms separated from their cups and popped into the air, a flowery fusillade which brought gales of laughter from the adults who fought to grab a flower keepsake. Then the mayhem stilled as a gold-garbed pixie blew a firm note on a snail shell. Queen Tarina, a vision in lavender from her hair to her petal-garbed toes – lavender being her colour of the month – glided up to the cauldron. One of the twins stepped to her side and offered her Cara’s yeast pot.
For a moment, Tarina looked a little lost. Clearly she hadn’t been told of the yeast issue, but she gathered her dignity, unlidded the pot and paused. Cara wondered what everyone was waiting for, but Treebo, across the clearing, caught her eye and indicated silence before she could speak.
A moment later a shaft of pure golden sunlight speared the trees and hit the cauldron. At the same moment Tarina shook out the pot contents and it was blessed by the light before falling into the cauldron. Two burly brownies hurried over and snapped a lid on the concoction and a palpable feeling of relief rippled around the folk. Tarina smiled, waved vaguely and headed back the way she’d arrived.
Treebo came over and grinned ruefully.
“Sorry about the boys, lass, but they meant no harm.”
“I know, honestly; I was just a bit thrown at that hour. Speaking of which, what was with the rush? Couldn’t it have been done tomorrow?”
Treebo looked genuinely aghast, shaking his head vehemently.
“Pop’s always been made on this day. Always will be. How’d it be ready for Spirit Night if we didn’t make it now?”
Cara smiled, accepting there was still so much she didn’t know. There were days she wasn’t sure she would ever know it all. Still, this had been a lovely lesson, and she thanked the twins for their trade.
“You wait til Spirit Night. See what happens when we opens that cauldron.”
The pair chuckled and the trio wandered off. Cara and Snaps watched the cauldron hauled away with the aid of a local badger, and set off for home. She wondered if Grace had written about Spirit Night in her journals. No doubt she had, but Cara decided, gently popping a white blossom between her thumb and finger, seeing it land behind Snaps’ ear, that she would wait and see for herself.