Today's Reading

Worried at the strange nature of the prophecy, some of the men of the clan—the loud and substantial ones—roughly searched the old tower and found a steel chest. They were certain it contained the flag, which had not been seen for centuries. The men forced it open, but it was empty. Then, one of the men's small sons spied a lump in the chest's red lining. Hidden inside was a little key. It opened a second chamber in the bottom of the chest. When it clicked open, there was a strong scent of wood. The boy carefully lifted out a white square of fine silk, with crosses made of pure golden thread. There were tiny elf-spots—the marks of magic—stitched in red with great care. They had found the Fairy Flag.

At that same moment the MacLeod heir, a fine young man, died in an accident at sea. The rival Campbells assumed ownership of the Maiden Rocks, and a fox was seen pacing nervously in the west turret.

Olive drew her knees closer.

But luckily, though the flag itself had triggered the curse, it was not actually waved that day. Its presence alone was strong enough for the MacLeods to hold Dunvegan Castle. They hold it still today.

Flora nodded, satisfied with her telling of the tale. It always changed, as it had to.

As she went to sleep that night, Olive told herself not to be scared. It was a ridiculous tale.

Olive looked around her. In addition to the fireplace, with its orange fire, there was her blanket, colored poppy gold with thin lines of red and black. There was a high table, a piano, and the door. A crest was also visible, picturing a bull's head over sable. On the other side of the fireplace a cold stone staircase wound its way up.

It was a truly ridiculous story, thought Olive, and no doubt Pooh-oh (her nickname for her sister) had added parts to make it even scarier.

But for all that Olive tried to convince herself of the fictitious nature of the story on that cold, drafty night, it would have been much easier if she and her sister weren't in the Fairy Room itself in Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye. It would have been easier if their last name were not MacLeod. Olive looked at the wooden door, imagining the long hall behind it.

Olive would sleep much better if the Fairy Flag itself weren't downstairs in the drawing room, in a glass case next to an old cup and horn. The white flag was there, as Flora had described it, and just as Olive had stared at it every day since they had arrived.

Sleep might come easier if the story weren't real.


• 2 •

THE PARTY GIRL AND THE NATURALIST

April 1908: Olive MacLeod Visits the Regent's
Park Zoo, Attends a Boisterous Dinner Party,
and Later Meets a Man of Science

The snow fell gently upon the hippopotamus. The animal did not seem to mind, not in particular, but it was hard to know for sure. It was a cold, gray April day at the London Zoological Gardens, and though some of the animals shunned the snow (the lions) or even tasted it (the monkeys), for the most part it was viewed by visitors as an unavoidable natural phenomenon. Everything was outlined in a thin, cold layer of white.

A young woman walked briskly down the path from the Gazelle House. She was wrapped in a coat and wool scarves and wore fashionable black boots. As she turned her head, she pushed a long strand of red hair back until it disappeared somewhere on the other side of her ear, and behind her large hat. She looked anxious, as if someone were chasing her. She began to walk faster.

From behind her came a dull kind of stamping, followed by a roar. Emerging in a loud swell of noise was a pack of boys, mostly school-aged and in far fewer layers of winter clothing. The lads bolted toward the caged hippopotamus, nearly knocking the redheaded woman down in the process. As her lock of hair escaped back to a less-than-agreeable position directly in front of her right eye, she lost sight of the children for a moment. She sighed. Of course these were her boys, the ones she was in charge of. As such, she imagined the worst sort of circumstances: fisticuffs, chomping, and the inevitable destruction of property. With a huff, she pushed the strand of hair back and, her vision restored, tried to focus on her charges. She counted quickly: ten . . . eleven . . . twelve . . . all were accounted for. The hair bounced back in front of her face, but she didn't seem to mind. As the boys pointed and laughed at the hippos, Olive MacLeod felt satisfied that her little animals, the boys of the Children's Happy Evening's Association, were safe at least for the moment.
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