Copyright 2017 David Petrey
Published by David Petrey at Shakespir
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Table of Contents
For Estelle and Violet.
Deep underground the beast doth sleep,
Then over our hearts a fear doth creep.
Bound by magic, wrapped up in slumber,
When enchantment fails it feels the hunger.
We send a Sacrifice to appease its appetite,
So young and old can sleep better at night….
……………………….for a little while….
Chapter One – The Sacrifice
She could smell it before she could see it. It had by far the foulest, most vile reek ever to have assaulted her tiny, young nose; a nose which was now wrinkled in sheer disgust. So pungent did the stench prove to be that her tender young nostrils tingled with a slight burning sensation, which in turn caused her frightened green eyes to involuntarily begin watering.
In Amber’s short life she had come across the odd dead rat and bird, and there had even been a poor old dog this one time, with flies and maggots feasting away at the rich and rotten fleshy banquet; but even the smell of those paled in comparison to the hideousness of what she was now suffering through. She found that not even holding her breath helped. In fact in some ways that made the experience all the worse, because eventually she was forced to gulp another toxic mouthful, which meant actually being able to taste the sour air rather than just endure its rancid smell. Her stomach turned, ready to unload the delicious final banquet she had been presented with just hours beforehand. Had she known in advance she would have eaten nothing. At least then her stomach would be empty, rather than now being faced with the prospect of her last meal dancing around her insides threatening to escape upwards. She found herself having to fight the urge to breathe deeply in order to help settle her wild interior, as breathing only meant more noxious fumes.
Once a year, as the bleak winter concluded for yet another season, a different kind of chill would appear, creeping over the remote city of Glenkinver; it was a cold fear over the heart, particularly for those with children in the city. For it was every year at this time that the draw was undertaken and a child’s name was chosen as the Sacrifice. The Queleon’s appetite had to be appeased. So the selected unfortunate would be led off into the cold shadows deep within Blackstone Forest, never to be seen again. And it proved enough to keep the Queleon satisfied, whereby it would slink back to the depths of Blackstone Swamp, until next year. And the people of Glenkinver would express their deep sympathy for those who had lost, but inwardly they would breathe a sigh of relief at having escaped once again, and count the years till their children had matured past the point of selection.
It had been the way for as long as people could remember. Of course there had been attempts to put a stop to such terror; from fearless knights to the self-proclaimed mightiest of Sorcerers. All had failed. And the monster’s revenge always varied, as if it took extreme pleasure in conjuring up new ways to punish its unfaithful livestock. A particularly nasty year that stuck in the memories of those grey-haired enough to remember had occurred when the beast laid waste to the prime farmland skirting the west side of the city. It had been decided to abandon the Sacrifice for that year, with the city all prepared to fight. And then the Queleon had failed to make an appearance, making some think it had seen the resistance and had decided to give up and move on, or that it had even simply died of old age. But it wasn’t until the late summer that a sighting came of it plodding through the vast fields of wheat. And whilst the city rallied for an attack, with just a single ball of flames erupting from its body the monster caused crops to wither in mere seconds as a raging inferno engulfed everything in its path. It then casually ambled its way back to the swamp, knowing its revenge would come in the following months. And despite the city’s attempts to stockpile any remaining food, and venture beyond the encircling mountains to trade with other far-off cities, the following winter had been a struggle. Everyone had keenly felt the cold, not quite having the energy to maintain a comfortable level of warmth. But it was mainly the young and the old that had suffered the most from the lack of food. Remoteness was nearly the city’s downfall, but also its slight saviour. It was only thanks to the local knowledge of living off the wilderness that the city wasn’t starved completely. And that was the year ‘chew some bark to stave off hunger’ became a widespread saying.
The last time the city had dared to challenge the beast it had simply trudged through the streets. And behind each doorway it passed, any child within the household had dropped to the floor like a ragdoll, as if overcome by sudden sleep. Overall the Queleon claimed the lives of exactly one hundred children that day instead of its usual one. It was as if to send a message; ‘disobey me and things will be a hundred times worse.’ Many in the city had no doubt that next time it could be a thousand souls lost, therefore any further acts of defiance were quickly shouted down.
Amber hadn’t been present for the selection this year. Her mother had been on edge for weeks, convinced that so many silly little things, from the last of this week’s milk turning sour to the appearance of a dead bird on their doorstep, had been a sign that all wasn’t well for them. Amber’s father had been the voice of reason, but even behind the usual calm exterior gifted to a strong and steady-handed blacksmith Amber could see the increasing dread every time she gazed into his eyes.
Upon the day of the draw Amber’s mother had won the argument, and Amber was made to stay at home to look after her younger brother Alfred. So when their parents had returned home afterwards and were accompanied by the City Guard Amber had known instantly that either her own fate or that of her brother had been sealed. Knowing that the chosen weren’t even allowed to steal one last hug from the ones they held most dear she embraced her brother tightly. This rather cold-hearted ruling had been decreed because one previous year the father of a chosen individual had taken it upon himself to end the life of his son, rather than have him suffer at the hands of the Queleon. But then of course a replacement Sacrifice had to be selected, so yet another set of parents that year were subjected to heart-breaking grief. And the father simply disappeared that night. Rumour spread that he had fled in shame. But other whispers suggested a more sinister end as a consequence of his selfish deed.
So as the guards approached Amber and her brother they had to prise the tearful pair apart, and it was Amber who was marched away along the cobbled streets, serenaded by wails of anguish from her mother as onlookers of friends and neighbours bowed their heads in respect. However the greatest detail Amber had taken away with her of that moment had been the look on her father’s face. It was burned into her memory. When she had gazed up at him for that final time he had tried to remain his usual pillar of strength, despite his only cherished daughter being led away to her doom. But once again his eyes deceived him. It was as if he had died inside.
Amber found her thoughts had wandered. Maybe it was the intoxicating smell. She became aware of a taste of salt hit the edge of her tongue. Tears; they had rolled their down her face after having recalled those all too brief final moments with her family.
Raising her hands to rub at her burning, wet cheeks she winced at the pain in her wrists which hurt from the tight rope coiled round them, which in turn was wrapped around a sturdy oak tree behind her. Despite having the freedom to move everything except her hands, she hadn’t been able to unpick the expertly tied knots. Having tried everything from using her teeth to nearby stones to the tree’s roots that poked from the ground like wooden snakes, her efforts for freedom only seemed to make the ropes cut that bit deeper and eventually she put a stop to her futile attempts of escape. The gruesome thought had even crossed her mind of simply sacrificing her hands. One sacrifice instead of another. She had given a few tugs of the rope, using her own weight against that of the tree. But she was either inwardly too scared to give it all her strength and lose her hands, or she simply wasn’t physically strong enough.
Shifting her weight she stumbled at the ridiculously oversized ceremonial dress she had been adorned with. Mud clung to the frilled hem with damp rising slowly up from the cold and wet ground. It made the dress all the heavier to wear, adding to Amber’s misery. Still, as a bonus to the Queleon it would get a hearty fix of minerals as it chomped upon her.
Rolling her head round the clearing her vision caught sight of a flash of white in the trees above. Her heart leapt. It was a white squirrel. It stopped to regard her from afar and sniff the air. With a vain hope Amber lifted her bonds to as if expecting it to descend and nibble her to freedom.
Then the snapping of a twig drew her wide-eyes eyes into the darkness under the trees at the edge of the glade. She could see nothing. And when she returned her gaze back to the squirrel it had gone. A foolish, childish idea that it would actually help. So she looked back to the edge of the clearing where the noise had originated. Still nothing. Maybe it was a wolf and it would get to her before the Queleon did. But no, the pack wolves of Glenkinver weren’t normally deep-forest dwellers. If anything it would be a bear that saw her off instead. After consideration she’d probably prefer the Queleon. At least her misery would be over in one big gulp. Or maybe it was a fussy eater. Maybe it would select only the most tender meat and go for her liver, eyes, or heart, and just leave the rest of her body cold and alone under the forest canopy. She gave a shiver, starting to feel the cold. Soon darkness would set in. She didn’t want to be left alone in the dark to start imagining movements in the shadows.
The noise of splitting timber forced her gaze to the edge of the clearing. A large holly bush blocked the view of what was advancing, and the trees behind it quivered. The light dusting of snow upon their naked branches rained down. Slowly the trees began to part. What approached was neither bear nor wolf.
The glen darkened as a cloud passed over the winter sun and Amber felt an icy chill run through her veins. A gust of wind whipped strands of her dark red hair across her face but she remained motionless and unblinking, standing transfixed at the parting trees. Inch by inch they creaked and then all at once a huge figure fought its way through the tangle of branches and brambles. The holly bush, the only splash of colour in this otherwise depressing place, was crushed like paper, to be replaced by the monster which held Glenkinver in such terror.
The Queleon was the height of three men, and was almost equally as fat as it was tall. Black matted hair covered its entire body from head to toe, making it appear like some huge dirty hairball, with its head and limbs proving difficult to distinguish from the body. Amber could only just make out a pair of short, hairy stumps that must have been its legs, shuffling its rotund body forward. The only other distinguishing feature of the beast included a patch of dirty-white fur right around the location where its heart would be nestled behind, like a bullseye inviting some saviour with a trusty bow and arrow to come to her rescue. Even in her final moments of life Amber found this thought cruelly amusing, as there would be absolutely no saving her.
Once the monster had tumbled into the clearing it stopped dead, looking ahead in the direction it had rolled in rather than at Amber. But then it spun its head, its eyes darting her way causing her to jolt back with shock as if having been struck by the beast’s paw. Stumbling over a tree root her behind thumped to the hard, cold floor. The Queleon’s steely-grey, emotionless eyes remained fixed upon her. She involuntarily gave a cry which instantly choked in her throat as she foolishly gulped a mouthful of the acidic air, causing her to wretch instead.
With the beast eyeing her up she lifted her head to return its gaze trying her best not to appear afraid. She had read in a book once that wild animals could smell fear, so it would surely know anyway how scared she really was. It probably got some wicked sense of satisfaction from this whole performance. The thought made her ever so slightly angry.
Eventually she could stand it no more and screwed her eyes tightly shut, silently awaiting her fate with more dignity than most would. She heard the beast shuffle closer so that its slow, wheezy breath was audible. Then once again it came to a stop, its short legs no longer dragging through the occasional tangle of brambles. Silence reigned for some time. It was long enough for Amber to open her eyes out of curiosity. There the beast stood, looming up mere yards from her. Its ragged fur was thickly encrusted with clumps dirt. She boldly looked up into its hesitant and bloodshot eyes. There Amber read an expression she hadn’t expected to find. It was afraid.
Chapter Two – The Aurora Sisters
Amber awoke with a jolt. Her breathing came heavily and beads of perspiration glistened like jewels upon her forehead. She had been plagued by the same dream for two weeks now. But not even she could explain whether the lingering fear of the Queleon disturbed her more, or the broken memory of what had saved her life. Through gritted teeth she had thanked the three witches for their help. But now Amber’s new life was to serve them. The worst part was knowing that nobody back home had any idea of her unexpected twist of fate. Her poor family had been left with the thought that she had suffered at the hands of the Queleon, when actually she was alive and well. And now she was expected to cook and clean for the Aurora sisters. Better than being sacrificed, she supposed.
Over the past two weeks she had relived that moment again and again in her sleep. However events always seemed to differ, to the absurd point where even her family were showing up to have a cosy little tea party with the Queleon, whilst she stood there struggling with her bonds to gain freedom, screaming at them for help. What she could most definitely recall was the light. It had started faintly at first, like a burst of sunlight poking through the clouds to light up the glen. But it had kept growing in intensity until it was too bright for comfort. Casting her squinted gaze around she hadn’t been able to identify the source of the sudden illumination. Eventually the radiance had become so bright even her skin had appeared translucent, showing her veins pulsing red rivers of blood around her body.
Amber knew it was the light, or the cause of it, that had frightened the Queleon so. But as the light display unfolded she had felt faint and her head had spun. Then there had been a cackle; one of the witches? Had they planned this all along? Tired of living in their own filth they had hungered for a servant. Saving the sacrifice from the Queleon was the best way to achieve such a goal as there would be nobody to care afterwards. However following the crooked laugh Amber’s world had gone blank and she remembered no more. Now she was at the beck and call of the Aurora Sisters. Already ideas of escape were filling her confused head. But it wasn’t going to be as easy as she had originally hoped. Such an opportunity had presented itself yesterday.
She had been stood in the misery of the cold and dusty main hallway. Within her hands were a tin bucket and a limp mop. Gertrude, the eldest Aurora sister, was departing and Amber’s eyes hatefully followed the witch as she made her way into the depths of the old house. Once gone, Amber stared at the silence and considered her task of cleaning the hallway floor with a heavy sigh. Before her the wooden front door groaned on its iron hinges as the wind picked up outside. Slowly it creaked open, wider and wider with each gust. Amber darted her eyes first one way around the room and then the other. Nobody was about. What was stopping her from making a dash for it? Gently lowering the bucket as quietly as she could, as if making any kind of noise would suddenly summon one of the witches before her, she then apprehensively crept to the door, mop still in hand. As she reached the open doorway she paused once again, listening out for movement in the house behind her. All was silent.
Before her lay a dirt track snaking to freedom through the gloom of Blackstone Forest which surrounded the house. As she stood there her mind rolled into action, hatching a plan for escape. She needed to ensure the witches wouldn’t find her, so it would be better to head off west, in the opposite direction to the path. However the big danger was getting lost. The forest was vast that way on. But she could use the sun to help keep her bearings and circle round when she had covered a reasonable distance. Though with winter having just passed it was still bitterly cold at night and the dark would descend all too soon. And what about beasts of the wild? Doubt crept over her and she cast her eyes to the mop, tightening her grip upon it. A mop wouldn’t help defend herself against something truly monstrous; something like the Queleon.
She decided it was worth the chance. Propping the mop against the wall, as it would only slow her down, Amber made a sprint for the open air. Waiting to feel the chill of early spring envelope her, it didn’t arrive and she hesitated and slowed as the air surrounding her still felt warm and smelt like the stale, old air from inside the witches’ house. At the same time the air even seemed to be growing thicker and heavier as if she was now running though honey. Some strange invisible force felt to be actually pulling her back rather than just slowing her down, as if attached to some unseen elastic leash. In fact, in just a few brief seconds all her energy was being focussed into just keeping herself from being drawn back to the house, rather than actually running any further forward. The harder she fought the more the force seemed to work against her. Very soon she was fighting against the air, straining with all her might even to stay upright. A sweat quickly broke out across her forehead from the exertion. She reached out a clawed hand as if grabbing the air would help pull her forward. Then finally, with all energy exhausted, her entire being was catapulted back through the entranceway of the house as if someone had given her invisible leash an almighty tug. She skidded across the hard, cold floor and came to a halt after rolling several times.
Startled by her sudden flight across the hallway she lifted her dazed head. With her vision refocussing a pair of large black boots came into view before her. Looking up, there stood Gertrude with a wicked smile fixed across her warty face. The witch looked even uglier than usual, if that was possible. A faint cackle of delight came from her cracked lips.
‘You wouldn’t be trying to leave us now, would you dear? The enchanted forest surrounding this house isn’t a place for little girls.’
Amber didn’t respond. It wasn’t necessary. Gertrude had left her alone on purpose with the door slightly ajar, knowing what the outcome would be. The house wasn’t going to let her leave.
‘For being so wilfully disobedient you can clean the whole of this room from top to bottom till it shines. Only then will you be allowed to go to bed.’ Gertrude told her this with a gleam of pleasure radiating from her wicked eyes.
Returning her thoughts back to the present, back within her bed, Amber exhaled as if trying to rid herself of the hatred she felt for her captors rather than let it poison her insides. Her breath fogged before her in the cold surroundings of her pokey, draught-ridden bedroom. She gave an uncontrollable shiver before pulling the covers tightly round herself, careful not to let the straw-like blanket scratch her soft chin. Then, not yet ready to greet the morning, she closed her eyes in an attempt to snatch a morsel of more sleep before her next hard day’s work was due to begin.
Chapter Three – Potions
Amber had a continuous day of work dished out by the mean sisters; traversing the long and murky corridors of the old house whose shadows seemed to shift at the very corner of her vision. It gave Amber the creeps. Within every room she walked into something seemed to shift or scurry out of sight just before she could see what it was. It made her feel like there were others in the room, as if she was being watched. Worst of all doors would slowly open and then close again for no apparent reason. Amber kept telling herself that the place was old and draughty to help stop fear taking control of her mind. But she soon found herself muttering words of reassurance to herself. This place was truly going to drive her insane.
Her work primarily involved boring everyday tasks such as washing and cooking. Amber learned how to prepare what the sisters considered the finest of delicacies, from toad in the hole with a creamy frogspawn mash to a light snack of grilled caterpillar on toast, all washed down with a bat-blood brew. She was also taught unconventional skills, learning the ways of the witches’ magic in order to assist them. Each sister had her own speciality. Gertrude was the oldest of the three and her field of expertise was using magic through potions. Amber would assist her in the potion room, dashing from shelf to shelf to gather the ingredients that Gertrude snarled as the witch stood by the large cast-iron cauldron in the centre of the room.
‘A lizard’s tail…no not those ones fool, the golden-speckled ones! Do I have to do everything myself?’
From the open window would also come the rasping caw of Gertrude’s pet raven, Vlox. In his ill temper he would sit at the window ledge and bark nonsensical orders at Amber as much as Gertrude did, always trying to peck at her if she came too close. Vlox seemed larger than most of his kind, though Amber wondered if it was just because she had never been so close to a raven before. If ever an animal had been born to serve all that was not good, then Vlox was it. Just his appearance alone suggested ill will. It was mainly his eyes, or rather his lack of one eye, that spooked Amber the most. His face had a scar across it from some violent encounter which had cost him his right eye. Because of this he always turned his head to the side, regarding Amber suspiciously with his remaining good eye.
On only her first day of helping Gertrude, the witch had quickly grown frustrated at how slow Amber was to rush across the room, pull a ladder into place and then scale the towering shelves laden with their curiosities.
‘Stop!’ the witch howled.
Amber halted and turned to see Gertrude with frown lines crossing her already wrinkled face. Was this the end? Amber wondered. Had the sister already had enough and was about to turn her into a newt and plop her into that large cauldron she constantly hovered over?
‘This won’t do at all,’ the witch complained. ‘I’ll be here till next Midsummer waiting for your stumpy little trotters to gather what I need. Come here.’
Gertrude pointed in front of her cauldron. Amber hesitated.
‘Well hurry up, scrawny runt! I don’t have all day.’
Then before Amber could even begin to take a step her body whisked magically to the exact spot where the witch was pointing to, almost tipping her into the bubbling pot of purple sludge. Not being brave enough to return Gertrude’s mean stare she instead looked down at the bottles of multi-coloured potions littering Gertrude’s side. Surely the green one would turn her into a frog.
Gertrude snatched up the green potion. Amber thought her suspicions had been confirmed. Carefully a small measure was poured into an empty cup.
‘Drink this,’ she was ordered.
Amber gingerly navigated her way round the grimy cauldron and timidly took the offered cup as if it would burn her hand. Gertrude kept her eyes fixed on the girl’s every action, impatiently rapping her dirty clawed nails on the edge of the cauldron.
Amber took a sniff of the green liquid. It didn’t smell as bad as she had expected, and not wanting to prolong the inevitable any further she tipped her head back and downed the contents of the cup in one. It was surprisingly warm and thick, and she could feel it line her stomach like a woollen blanket. Then a slight fizzing sensation arrived, growing from her core and coursing through her limbs like wildfire. She suddenly felt alive with energy, like the rumbling of a coming thunderstorm before it unleashed its electrifying temper. Her body felt lighter as if made of fluffy cotton that would sail away on the laziest of summer breezes. Yet she felt superhuman, capable of doing anything.
‘Now bring me that bottle up there, the one with the purple potion,’ Gertrude ordered, and extended a crooked, bony finger. Amber turned her head and followed its direction to a shelf in the very top corner. She went to take a step across the room and her body sailed effortlessly into the air for several feet. Instinctively she flailed her arms for balance, flapping like an agitated chicken as her body flew out of control and her legs went from underneath her. She approached the ground with a gentle bump, slightly startled by the experience, but unhurt. Behind her the witch gave a small croaking chuckle from her throat, amused at her own handiwork.
Picking herself up, Amber dusted down her clothing. This time she eyed up her destination, braced herself, then cautiously bound across the room to the foot of the shelf. It happened swifter than expected. But coming to a halt with a wobble, a grin spread across her face. It was like being an infant and having to learn to walk all over again. But the fluid feeling of weightlessness was fantastic. It was almost like flying. Amber soon got the hang of bouncing round the potion room. It made her work for Gertrude much easier.
‘Drink just one small cupful each day before helping me in here. Guzzle down any more than that and you’ll be sailing off to the moons with no hope of return.’
Despite enjoying the lightness that the potion bestowed upon her, as the days went by Amber found she had to drink a few drops more just to achieve the desired effect. And afterwards, when the magic had worn off she felt hollow. The potion was like drinking a lie. It was only pretend power and when it was gone she felt that part of her soul had drained away that little bit. And inwardly she cried out for more of the potion just to hold onto that feeling of strength. Only the more she drank the worse she felt.
Amber often wondered that if she drank enough whether she would actually be able fly. Maybe she could sail right out of this prison? But she wasn’t bold enough to try more than needed, just in case Gertrude’s words about floating to a moon proved correct. But it didn’t stop her pondering of how else she could use the abilities she was temporarily bestowed with. And so it was that with the help of the potion Amber was beginning to form a plan of escape.
Chapter Four – The Garden
Accompanying the large house stretched an expansive walled garden. Unlike the enchanted front door, Amber was at least able to freely exit from the back door of the house to enjoy a little piece of outside as spring warmed the air, growing thicker with floral scent, cottony wisps of airborne seeds and the buzzing of insects. However any thoughts of escape from here were firmly quashed after seeing how high the mighty granite walls rose around her overgrown prison.
The garden was Deirdre’s domain. It was also thick with a tangle of weeds and grasses which grew well over Amber’s head. Dotted here and there were cleared patches used by Deirdre to grow the plants and flowers that Gertrude required for her potions. By herself Gertrude had no aptitude for knowing which flowers went in what potion, and used a collection of books within a small library adjoining the potion room for assistance. Deirdre however seemed to have an instinctive ability for this task, along with the nurturing talent to grow the required plants. However she was unable to produce a potion that had any magical ability, something Gertrude was able to do. It was as if the magical skill to create a viable potion was spread between both the sisters.
Deirdre was actually Gertrude’s twin, but having been born a day later she was considered the inferior child, and Gertrude made sure her marginally younger sister knew who was boss. Deirdre was as squat and round as Gertrude was tall and thin. The elder sister was always making snide comments and bullying her younger twin. Maybe Gertrude even considered her sister to be nothing but stolen magic that should rightfully be hers. And rather than standing up for herself Deirdre obeyed all of Gertrude’s demands.
Poor Deirdre was also inflicted with a disfiguration. Her right arm was shrunken and withered, like a once plump and juicy piece of fruit that had been left out in the scorching sun to shrivel up dry. Amber was reminded of her mother and how she used to tell her younger brother Alfred that if he sucked his thumb too much it would shrink away. Maybe Deirdre did the same as a little girl.
Despite such an impairment the curious limb seemed to contain Deirdre’s entire magical prowess, apart from her inner knowledge of potion ingredients. With a wave of her shrunken appendage she could command objects to move, encourage her plants to grow with more vigour, or ignite candles to illuminate a darkened room.
But to add to Deirdre’s woes she was also hard of hearing. She would often carry with her a large ear trumpet, holding it up to the side of her head like listening to the sea through a shell. Having only one useful arm however meant she often left it lying around, effectively leaving her deaf. Amber often found herself having to repeat words louder in the witch’s presence. Though this also meant she could mutter angry words under her breath that wouldn’t be heard by the witch.
During her short time in the house so far even Amber recognised Deirdre as being at the bottom of the sisters’ pecking order. She also had the feeling that before her arrival Deirdre had been the one expected to complete all the housework, even with her disability.
As if having to run around after the witches wasn’t bad enough Amber’s misery was heightened by a particularly warm spring. Had she been back home this would have been a joyous time to cool off by the riverside; or take the opportunity with the growing light of the evenings to sneak from her bedroom window to enjoy the buzz of the city with its exotic visitors and their tales of far off isles. Instead she toiled away under the blazing sunshine, receiving scratches by some particularly wicked shrub with barbed thorns as big as Gertrude’s angular nose, which when caught upon felt like they were trying to pull Amber’s flesh from her bones. And with the trees still not fully in leaf yet the only place of shade she had was the pig hut.
The first time Amber waded in there the filth was heaped layer upon layer and seemed to be multiplying as if it was alive. Rising wisps of steam drifted up from the mountainous piles of pig poo; and a cloud of midges waiting eagerly to feast on Amber’s tender skin. It made her wonder if she would depart with any blood left after being eaten alive. The hut was home to Scarlett, the one thing in the household which didn’t seem to want to bite, kick or order Amber around. Scarlett was a small pig with a fuzz of red hair covering the top of its head which then snaked its way down her spine. She was a playful animal who enjoyed Amber’s visits, delighting in the sudden attention. Amber knew all too well the pig was only there to grow fat for winter and tried not to grow too attached to the animal. But her endlessly snuffling snout, her short grunts and squeals, and her playful galloping bursts around the interior of the hut soon won Amber over.
It took her about a week to finally discover the floor of the hut under the piles of muck and then a further two weeks to clear it. Scarlett loved Amber being there as the girl toiled away lifting spadeful after heavy spadeful into a wheelbarrow to then spread onto the garden to help the plants grow. Amber found the going tough to begin with, as the mess pulled her down like it was trying to eat her. Her boots would squelch and slurp their way through the brown ooze, and on one occasion one of them got stuck in the gunk and came off as she walked. Amber was left hopping on one leg trying to keep her balance and replace her missing boot. Scarlett found this all a wonderful game and began danced happily around her. But the playful pig’s exuberance caused Amber to lose her balance and she fell forward with a splat, face-first into the filth. Poor Amber was left with Scarlett’s cold wet snout nuzzling at her mucky face, breathing rotten pig-breath all over her.
Today Amber was toiling away outside, digging up the hard ground for a new flowerbed. Hearing the door to the house creak open Amber took the opportunity to pause from her tiring work and raised up slowly, rubbing her poor, aching back. Resting her forearms on the spade in her grasp she watched Deirdre exit the house with Norman, her pet python. It was wrapped neatly around her plump torso and neck. The way the witch always waddled breathlessly, and the fact that her eyes naturally bulged, made her at this particular moment look like she was in a slow-motion life or death wrestle with her beloved snake.
Taking quite some time just to shuffle her rotund body over to Amber’s location, Deirdre spent yet more time with the trouble of unwinding Norman from round her neck. This was made all the more difficult by only having one good arm. Amber wondered if the snake had actually considered going in for the kill. It would surely be able to overpower the unfortunate witch. Amber decided it must be content with its life to remain loyal to its Mistress.
Deirdre scanned Amber’s handiwork.
‘I suppose that will be doing for a novice. But if you is not working to my liking you might just be waking up breathless as you finds Norman has silently slithered his way up to that room of yours and coiled himself round your skinny little frame. It would only take a little squeeze for him to be cracking every feeble bone in your body. Then he will be having the pleasure of unhooking his jaw and gulping you down in one.’
Deirdre studied Amber’s reaction with a crooked smile. The witch liked trying to belittle Amber in the same way Gertrude did to her. But she wasn’t very good at it and Amber remained unaffected by her words.
Then an angry voice barked from above, from an upper room of the house.
‘Have you finished hogging her yet, dear Dreary? My potions won’t make themselves you know!’
Deirdre scowled before looking up to see the fierce expression of Gertrude leaning from the potion room window. With her message received Gertrude disappeared from view. Deirdre lifted Norman’s head and gazed into its eyes.
‘Or maybe you could be a-creeping into her room instead.’ she muttered venomously under her breath about her sister. ‘Though we don’t wants to give you an upset tummy, does we my treasure?’
Amber left the downtrodden sister to her murderous fantasies. But it was later the same day, back in the garden helping Deirdre once again, that her ambitions for escape were furthered.
‘Finds me a plant with small blue flowers and bright yellow centres,’ the witch had told her. ‘It should be growing in the shade, so make your ways down to the south wall.’
Amber did as instructed. Following the wall, her hand trailing across its unusually smooth surface, she craned her head up. The wall was far too high for her to scale. But during her time in the garden helping Deirdre she had noticed a large tree near the south wall. She had kept eyeing it up. It appeared to be her best hope of offering any way over the wall. This was the first time she had been able to venture to the bottom of the garden for a better look without raising any suspicion.
Reaching the base of the tree and gazing up she could see that one of its branches grew out towards the wall a little; still not enough for her to escape however, even if she risked jumping. And it would be a long fall on the other side. But hope wasn’t lost yet. There was another idea stirring in her mind and it involved Gertrude’s potion. If she was quick enough after helping the witch one day, and Deirdre wasn’t about, there may be just enough magic left for her to float the distance from the branch to the wall and allow her to slowly drop down the other side safely. Amber gave a slight smile at her cunning plan. Best of all it was the witches’ own potion that was giving her the means of escape.
Returning to her task at hand she strolled beyond the tree to look for the blue flowers. It was a waiting game now. The right moment would come. Patience.
Chapter Five – The Unbearable Beauty of Roisin
‘Where are my gloves?’ she muttered to herself. Amber had been bestowed with several pairs, but they all seemed to have vanished. Lifting the threadbare blanket from her bed and giving it a gentle shake first one glove then another hit the floor with a slimy plop. They had been chewed.
‘I could kill that mutt!’
Bounding down the stairs she encountered the culprit guarding the hallway; Skarpie, the family dog; if a dog is what it really was. It was certainly the ugliest mongrel Amber had ever cast her eyes upon. Bald but with the occasional thick tuft of wiry black hair sprouting from its body, its upturned snout stuck out making it seem more like some elephant-pig hybrid rather than a dog. Every time it drew a breath it made a slight wheezing sound as if struggling for breath, like it was at least a thousand years old. Amber had seen larger rats than this dog, and with its diminutive size came an annoying yappy bark. When its mouth was closed several crooked teeth still poked out, causing it to constantly drool ever so slightly. And because of its variably sized teeth its face was crooked with misaligned eyes meaning it had to tilt its head so its eyes could see straight.
Whenever Amber passed it by Skarpie would often snarl at her, though now it was silently staring forward. Amber was unsure if the darn thing was watching her or not because of its uneven gaze; making up its mind whether or not to dart forward and nip at her ankles. This time it let her be as she cautiously tiptoed past. Sometimes Amber wondered if it was actually blind. She had seen it on several occasions rushing headlong into a wall with a startled bump. Maybe it relied upon its oversized snout and fox-like ears to sense the world around it. Yet despite all its shortcomings and unsurpassed ugliness even Roisin cooed over it. And in Roisin’s world beauty was everything. Maybe beauty really was in the eye of the beholder.
Rushing downstairs to the kitchen Amber discovered a washed pair of gloves still drying by the stove. She snatched them up and immediately hurried back the way she had come, then abruptly halted at the foot of the stairs and had to double-back having forgotten her satchel. She grabbed it from the kitchen table before finally disappearing upstairs once again. Her gloves were slightly damp between the fingers. She tugged at them in order to loosen their fit round her hands. Slightly soggy but clean gloves were better than Skarpie-slimed ones. Roisin would go berserk if anything got stained.
Flustered, she arrived at the third sister’s chamber and mildly tapped upon its door.
‘Don’t knock so loud,’ she had been ordered by Roisin. ‘It’s not good for my delicate ears.’
A pause followed. There was always a pause. Roisin liked to keep others waiting, even when there was no need.
‘Enter,’ came her soft, musical voice after some time.
Amber opened the door and a great waft of perfume tingled up her nose. Roisin was sat at her dresser, as always, brushing her hair. The long, satin-white curtain shimmered with each brushstroke like the reflection of a moon upon a lake on a calm summer’s night. She paused to observe Amber from her mirror. Could the witch actually even see herself in it? It seemed to be tilted at an angle on purpose in order to observe the door. Though a lack of mirrors wasn’t anything the room had to worry about. Reflective surfaces were all over the place allowing Roisin to cast a glance at her appearance at any time from an assortment of angles. And Amber was expected to stand or work from certain blind-spots in Roisin’s presence, just so the witch didn’t have to look at her all the time. ‘You’re in my eye-line, Sweetie. You know it’s bad for my eyesight,’ she would complain, as if the very sight of Amber might cause her to go blind. Surely the sight of her sisters or their ugly dog were far worse; or even the strange and tatty old dolly sat upon the shelf above Roisin’s head. It was the first thing Amber’s eyes always saw as she entered the room and she always wondered why Roisin kept the festering thing around. Amber was forbidden to touch it.
Roisin was the complete opposite of her sisters in appearance; pale skin, long silver hair and piercing blue eyes, like sapphires. She was the vainest person Amber had ever encountered; and there had been pretty girls in the city who had obsessed over their appearance. But their actions paled into insignificance compared to Roisin’s. Everything the witch did was all in consideration of its impact on her looks. She wouldn’t touch anything if it compromised the cleanliness of her meticulously manicured hands and nails. Therefore everything was moved with magic, even opening a door. Whilst on the move she would inspect the ground beneath her, deciding whether to float along rather than face a speck of dirt on her pale pink satin slippers or risk chipping the nails of her perfectly pedicured toes.
Roisin never smiled; never frowned; always wore a blank expression. Anything else would crease her perfect skin texture. It made her mood incredibly difficult to read. It was this unpredictability that made Amber more scared of her than the other two sisters.
‘Are you wearing gloves, Umber dear?’ Roisin asked, still staring at her through the mirror. She always asked this question, and she always got Amber’s name wrong.
‘Yes, Miss Roisin.’
‘Good. We need to keep your filth off my garments,’ Roisin explained for what seemed like the millionth time. ‘They’re made from the finest dragonworm silk. Wear gloves at all times or they’ll be ruined. Are they a clean pair? Just to make extra sure your grubby mitts don’t muddy everything. You can scowl all you like, Amanda dear; it will only wrinkle your complexion.’
Amber was required to do the laundry for the entire household but because Roisin changed so often and never even considered being clothed in the same garment again, Amber had scores of washing to keep on top of. Of course during washing she had dared to feel Roisin’s special dragonworm silk-spun garments without gloves. They were magnificently delicate. She had rubbed it against her cheek to get a feel for its true sensitivity. Almost too soft to be real. She imagined it was what clouds felt like to the touch.
‘Would you hurry up, Agatha?’
Amber was still standing at the entrance of Roisin’s room with the witch staring at her again through the mirror.
‘Now look what you’ve done; I almost frowned. It’s not easy to look this beautiful you know. The last thing I need are lines creasing my face like an old hag.’
A soft cry came from an adjoining room. Roisin moved her head at the sound then looked over to Amber, expecting her to go and attend to the noise. Reaching for the pre-prepared bottle of deer’s milk inside her satchel Amber made her way across Roisin’s bedroom. Creaking open the door to the adjoining room the baby gazed over, its large eyes waiting hungrily as it anticipated a feed.
Chapter Six – Pomroy
Pomroy was Roisin’s baby. As astounding as this idea seemed Amber was quickly made aware of what had been involved.
‘Babies are such darlings, I simply had to have one.’
She had grown him in a large bell-jar.
‘Well, I wouldn’t want to ruin my figure, would I?’
As Amber entered Pomroy’s room he stared over at her with his large blue eyes like a picture of pure innocence. With an adorable half-smile to his mouth and a curled tuft of golden hair above his forehead, it was enough to melt even an ice demon’s heart. But Amber was no ice demon, and she was no longer a fool; behind that sugary smile was a calculated menace. Amber wore the battle scars to prove it. Get too close and his thin little neck would shoot out to chomp a gummy mouth down upon anything within reach, with his singular tooth able to sink deep into flesh. Amber glanced down at the discoloured patch of skin between her thumb and forefinger and gave it a gentle rub; a nasty reminder of her first encounter with Pomroy. Once bitten, twice shy had never been more apt. It had happened the very first time she had picked him up. He had acted so innocently as well, biding his time for just the right moment. She had cradled the bundle of joy in her arms, thinking life in this horrid prison wasn’t going to be so bad after all. Gently caressing his cheek with her forefinger he finally took the opportunity and bit her. Amber had been so shocked she had dropped him. But he hung by his mouth onto her hand momentarily before opening his jaws and dropping to the floor. With a slight bounce he landed, dazed but unhurt, and simply scampered off with a grin, pleased with his handiwork as Amber cradled a bleeding hand.
Just to test her theory was still valid she slowly reached out her hand. Pomroy watched with his big blue eyes fixed on what was coming his way. Then with overeager zeal he shot his head forward, snapping his mouth at the air just a hair’s breadth in front of Amber’s fingertips. She quickly retracted her hand before he could take aim once again.
He gave Amber a hateful stare. She still needed to feed him and he wouldn’t allow her without a struggle, as usual. But Amber was adept at handling the little monster now. Her reach was longer than his neck so she would grab him by his foot and whisk him upside-down. At first he had squealed and squirmed, snapping his mouth in a desperate attempt to take another chunk from Amber. Upside-down was now how he would feed. There was no other alternative.
Before Amber endured the latest feed she took precautions. Reaching for her pockets she revealed a long pair of socks and donned them like gloves, after having taken off the pair she used to protect Roisin’s clothing. The last thing she wanted was to get baby-slime all over those. She rolled the socks up her arm as far as they would go. The brat’s little, scratchy hands were just as bad as his tooth at making marks. The protection allowed her to whisk Pomroy up from under his arms, keeping her own arms stretched out as far as she could. He would try and bite first of all, craning his neck down to get some flesh, his eyes bulging and his facial skin stretching in a comedic manner. Amber found it impossible not to laugh at the struggling infant. But he didn’t like being the focus of her amusement and would scream. Failing his attempt at biting his scratches would come next, but the socks on her hands and up her arms helped prevent any damage here.
Right now Amber needed to feed him. So moving her left hand she pretended to go and grab his leg. He fell for it and went in for a bite. Then with her right hand she grabbed his other leg, flipping him over and had him dangling upside-down. She rested his back against the side of the cot. He was too heavy to hold for long. Then before he could recover from the dizzying spin and scream the place down she planted the bottle of milk into his gaping mouth and he happily suckled away.
Roisin breezed into the room, riding on a cloud of perfume with her blue silken dress wafting to and fro. Amber hoped that would be her final dress choice for the day, but wasn’t holding her breath.
‘Hello my Little Pommy,’ Roisin cooed, wiggling her index finger at him, but still not changing her facial expression or attempting to touch her baby in the slightest.
Pomroy paused his relentless attack of the bottle and gave a smile and a half-giggle before continuing his feed with intent. The witch didn’t seem in the slightest way disturbed by the manner in which Amber was holding her child. In her eyes her job as a mother was done for the day, so she waltzed back out again.
Being a witch’s son Pomroy was no ordinary child. He had decided to remain looking like a one-and-a-half year old baby, with the ability to babble only a few words, knowing that was how his mother preferred him. When walking in his unbalanced way he would stumble occasionally, though Amber knew he could scamper around quite fast when he felt like it. He always scowled at Amber and his big blue eyes seemed to be forever searching for some kind of mischief, either something to bite down upon or for his hands to grab and squeeze. Skarpie knew to keep at a distance or face a pulled tail.
When the bottle was almost drained Pomroy’s eyes slid closed and he was soon fast asleep, even whilst dangling upside down. Amber lowered him gently into his cot and rubbed her aching arms. Retreating back into Roisin’s bedroom she noticed the witch wearing something new, with the previous blue dress now in a heap on the floor. Amber gave a sigh and went to pick it up, taking off the socks she used as protection against Pomroy’s scratches and replacing them with Roisin’s gloves. She had been hoping for a short morning and a bit of time to wander round the big old house. It was only when she noticed Roisin stifle a yawn that she decided it was time to use the witch’s weakness to her advantage.
‘I’ve cleaned your yellow dress, changed your towel and swept out Pomroy’s room,’ Amber lied. She hadn’t actually done some of these tasks for over three days now. But Roisin wouldn’t know. Because of her clinical obsession with cleanliness Roisin used a great deal of magic. It was almost constantly at her fingertips, on the end of her tongue, or in her icy stare. Amber had also observed the effects of such prolonged use of magic; Roisin was always tired. The exhaustion caused by using so much magic impacted both physically and mentally. Roisin would sleep for lengthy periods, not even keeping track of the days. This provided opportunities which Amber learned to rapidly jump upon. The witch was quick to confuse to the point where she simply just didn’t care anymore if Amber rambled on for long enough.
Roisin dismissed her. She turned and smiled slyly, before taking the castaway blue dress and heading off. First she dashed to Deirdre’s, then Gertrude’s bedroom to perform a quick clear up. Thankfully the older two sisters weren’t as particular about the state of their bedrooms as their younger sister so Amber was able to rush through these tasks, stuffing whatever was lying around into Deirdre’s closet and doing the same within Gertrude’s small library. Amber knew they were rarely used and she could always tidy up at a later date.
When Amber had first seen Gertrude’s library her attention had immediately been drawn to the fact that it was actually an adjoining room from the witch’s bedroom to her potion room. Amber’s heart had fluttered at the idea, thinking she would be able to lay her hands on the potion she needed to leap to freedom. But just like the main door to the potion room, Gertrude kept the side door securely locked. This didn’t prevent Amber from trying both doors each day as she cleaned, ready to pounce on the opportunity if ever Gertrude forgot. There was also one other door down Gertrude’s wing of the house that Amber had noticed was locked. There was a keyhole through which she had peered to nothing but darkness beyond. Walking by every day she wondered what lay beyond the mysterious door.
Chapter Seven – Dinnertime
The first time Amber was led down to the kitchen she wondered whether Deirdre was leading her into a dungeon to spend the rest of her days. And whilst Amber would indeed spend a good deal of her time down there, it wasn’t half as unpleasant as she first imagined.
Halfway down the narrow spiral of stairs Deirdre had to stop, exhausted from the physical effort. She stood bent over and wheezed heavily, sucking in vast lungfuls of air to catch her breath.
‘Go on ahead,’ she gasped between breaths, which only made Amber all the more paranoid at what lay in wait below.
Descending into the inky-black depths, using only the rough, cold stone wall on her right side as a guide, Amber eventually felt the stairs beneath her end. The ground and walls suddenly opened out before her. All at once she felt too exposed and hugged the wall all the more. The darkness was complete, but as if to compensate her other senses came into focus. A stale, mouldy smell flooded the room; and the occasional patter of tiny paws told her the place had a rat problem. Wasn’t it Skarpie’s job to keep the rats at bay?
From the stairs above Deirdre’s gasping and panting grew louder as she too reached the floor. There was a faint sound, as if someone had clicked their fingers just the once. Amber knew Deirdre had done this using her withered arm to cast a spell. There was some grim fascination in wanting to see the curious limb at work. Amber regretted having missed it in the darkness.
Just above her head a candle flickered into life. Then across the wall other candles burst into flame as if being lit by an invisible sprite darting round the edge of the room. The display of light ended with a roaring explosion at the far side of the room as a large iron stove flared into being. In the warm, orange glow of the firelight Amber surveyed her new surroundings. She was stood in a kitchen. A hard, grey-stoned floor beneath her; rows of wooden shelved units lining the walls; a large oven accompanied the roaring stove adorned with an array of heavy iron pots and pans, all encrusted with a thick layer of grease and grime built up over countless years. The place was clearly designed for someone with true culinary skill but having long since been left to decay and gather dust, clearly without undergoing a decent clean for a long time.
At the centre of the room rested a large wooden table with the remains of various animal carcasses festering upon it. Considering this, the smell hadn’t struck her as being that revolting. But having suffered through the stench of the Queleon, the kitchen seemed like a fresh, spring meadow in comparison.
Deirdre waddled over to the nearest table edge and went to sit upon a chair. To Amber’s surprise the chair took a discrete step backwards sending Deirdre crashing to the floor, arms and legs flailing wildly. With a screech she eventually managed to roll over and scramble back to her feet.
‘How dare you?’ she hissed at the chair. ‘Try that again and you’ll be kindling for the fire.’ Pointing to a spot next to her the chair reluctantly slunk into place. This time Deirdre took her place with the chair bowing under her weight. Amber felt sorry for it and wasn’t at all surprised it had backed away with the witch’s oversized rear coming at it.
Comfortable at last Deirdre proceeded to remove a bag that had been slung over her shoulder. It was the first time Amber had noticed it. Given the witch’s large frame it had been swallowed up in the rolls of her faded grey and lavender dress. Every action Deirdre undertook seemed a struggle with only one good arm, but eventually she lifted the strap of the bag over her head and plonked it onto the surface in front. Then reaching through a surprising number of pockets, which seemed to be dotted just about everywhere on her clothing, she removed jars and boxes and packets of various other items, placing them on the table as well.
‘These be getting you started. I’ll bring you something each day. If you be running low or need other things then let me know. Some we find in the garden. You be needing to leave the eggs a few weeks. You can tell they is ready ‘cos they be floating when put in water.’ And with that Deirdre went to leave. Amber suspected it would just about take her till dinnertime to get back upstairs.
Stepping up to the table Amber lifted the nearest jar in front of her. Pulling a face as she peered through the glass she recognised two poor frogs squashed in there. She popped open the lid and picked one of the unfortunate souls out, holding it up by a leg. It began to wriggle at having suddenly been given the space to move, trying to hop away in mid-air whilst pincered between Amber’s thumb and forefinger.
‘What do I do with this?’ She turned to see Deirdre still having only managed a few steps. The annoyed witch stopped and turned and pointed to the table. Amber followed the direction of her frown to a large book.
‘We be eating many an exotic meal in this here household. It helps with our magic.’ Then the witch turned and continued her struggle upwards.
Flicking through the pages of the dusty cookbook Amber read several recipes. Fish-gut fritter, salty swamp slime soup, grilled rat like momma makes. Her mother had never made rat before. She discovered that Deirdre’s suggestion of leaving the eggs till they floated was because then they would be rotten. Her stomach soon started to perform cartwheels with sickness from reading the revolting recipes and decided it was best to tackle meals one at a time. Flipping the book back to the beginning she read the foreword. The author described that eating his specially formulated recipes would ‘increase magical prowess and help your body to instinctively ward off spells cast against you.’ Amber wondered if the book had been a joke that had gotten out of hand. Deirdre’s ‘exotic’ meals were nothing more than what could be found at the bottom of the garden thrown onto a plate.
Turning to the table to gather inspiration from her ingredients she noticed the chair Deirdre had previously been sitting upon was now cowering in the far corner. Amber slowly approached and held out her hand. ‘Come here,’ she said softly. ‘I won’t hurt you like that nasty witch.’
The chair leaned towards her ever so slightly, but then lost its courage and cowered further back.
‘There, there,’ Amber reassured. ‘I’m nowhere near as heavy as Deirdre. And I don’t need to sit much anyway.’ She braved to give it a brief stroke, which it seemed to accept. Then she backed off, not wanting to frighten it. It remained in place as if observing her, so she decided to leave it be. Turning back to the table she felt a brush by her leg as it skipped past and hopped happily into the air, bounding round the table. Amber smiled. She seemed to have made a rather unexpected friend. On its way back round it charged and swept Amber off her feet this time taking her on a trip round the table. At first Amber gave a squeal, which quickly turned into laughter at the ride she was being given.
Coming to a stop she found her feet and watched the playful chair for a while as it went round the room, inspecting this and that, as if checking everything was in its rightful place. Then glancing back at the table at the job in hand she noticed some slugs making an escape from a basket, so she reached over and hesitantly plucked them from the table’s surface between thumb and forefinger. They made a soft sucking noise as their cold, slimy bodies were prised away. Popping them in a nearby jar she wondered what they could be used for and scanned the index at the back of the cookbook.
‘Slugs, grilled on toast; slug pate; slug sauce; slug and snail salad.’
All sounded thoroughly revolting. She decided to give the salad a try for this evening’s meal.
The sisters were served their dinner in the dining room. It was a spacious room dominated by a large wooden table and had expansive floor to ceiling windows on one side. Unfortunately all they looked out upon were the trees that surrounded the house. Though as the sun crept round the sky with the coming summer, on good days the light would flood in at dinnertime making the room quite a pleasant place to be. The windows couldn’t be opened Amber noted. She had double-checked when alone as a potential for one of her many escape ideas. Maybe she could throw a chair through one of them and be away in seconds; though everyone would be sure to hear such a noise. And what if they held the same enchantment as the front door? She would be flung back towards the jagged teeth of broken glass. The thought made her rule this completely out as an escape route.
With munches, crunches and the occasional popping of a slug as it burst between their teeth, Deirdre burped and farted her way through the feast Amber had prepared, chewing with her mouth open; behaviour Amber’s mother had drilled into her not to do.
‘At least she uses a knife and fork,’ Amber thought, though more food seemed to be making its way onto the table and down to the floor than into her mouth. With a roll of her eyes Amber knew it would be her job to clean the mess up after the meal concluded.
Roisin seemed to delicately pick at everything in front of her, as if getting even a speck of food on herself would ruin her fabulous appearance. But she still needed to eat a lot to fuel all the magic she invoked, so it took her absolutely ages to finish a meal.
However it was Gertrude’s eating habits that Amber found the most peculiar. She would often go into a trance halfway through eating, as if somewhere far away. One time Amber was made to wait patiently to clear away. Even Roisin had finished her food and departed the dining room, but Gertrude just sat there completely immobile. Eventually Amber had cleared up everything except what was in front of Gertrude. And still the witch didn’t move. Sometimes there was the occasion, slow and mechanically chewing away at her food, but still she mindlessly stared at some distant point that didn’t exist. Amber wondered what on earth was wrong with her.
Eventually Amber got used to leaving the sisters to their meal. But when coming to and fro with plates it was interesting to see how they interacted with one other. They would each come up with a tale to try and prove how their magic appeared superior to that of the others. Gertrude would always try to irritate her sisters, but Roisin simply ignored her and sometimes Deirdre was too slow to realise. So after a while Gertrude would fall silent and go into her usual daze.
Following their first meal the witches announced that the cooking was adequate. But Amber knew from the way they had wolfed it down that they secretly loved it; if nothing else because they didn’t have to make it for themselves.
Afterwards she cleared the dining room, then the kitchen. Despite her best efforts in cleaning, the kitchen still had a constant reek about it, as if a rat had died behind a cupboard and been left to rot. With the rats Amber had seen scurrying around this was a likely possibility. She had checked behind every fixture possible with no luck. But she soon got used to the smell and the kitchen became her private quarters. Nobody ever came down to disturb her, not even Skarpie who seemed somewhat afraid of the dank depths, or Pomroy who couldn’t handle all the stairs. Deirdre now left all ingredients upstairs. It was a surprise the witch had bothered to struggle with them the first time. But then thinking ahead wasn’t Deirdre’s strong point. Occasionally Amber would hear a screaming call from the top of the stairs if a witch had need of her. With a roll of her eyes she would lift off the hot stove whatever was bubbling away and go to see what tedious task was being set for her this time.
Once all her chores were complete Amber eventually found time to feed herself at the end of each long day. She left out the worst of the ingredients that the book suggested, though over time she actually came to quite like a bit of frog.
Chapter Eight – Mamma
There existed one final person within the silent, stone walls of this most uncanny of houses whom Amber had yet to meet. And despite living there for three weeks now, Amber was completely unaware of her presence. But when the sisters were satisfied with her mastery of cooking they placed an order for one extra person. Filled with intrigue Amber climbed the kitchen stairs with their meal wondering who the dinner guest would be. The witches weren’t the kind to entertain guests. This person must be someone very special indeed. So as she creaked open the heavy door to the dining room, being careful not to spill any of the four servings on her tray, she was surprised to see the witches sitting there patiently, but faintly disappointed that their guest had not arrived, unless invisible.
After serving the sisters their meals she stood there waiting, as if to ask, ‘What do I do with this final portion?’ It was Gertrude who answered the unspoken question.
‘You’re not dining with us, dear, if that’s what you’re thinking.’
The thought hadn’t even crossed Amber’s mind. And looking down at the plate of worm pie she had never been more relieved that the witches hadn’t made her sit down to eat with them. That truly would be punishment.
Gertrude rose and sauntered to the door.
‘Follow me,’ was all she said, briskly breezing out so Amber had to hurry after her with the tray of food.
Ascending several flights of stairs and navigating numerous corridors Amber realised they had travelled to the other side of the house from where her own bedroom lay. Creaking up the last flight of wooden stairs Amber heard a strange babble. Looking ahead in the gloom she could make out a small landing with a door, behind which the noise had emanated. Gertrude clasped at the door handle and paused. ‘Mamma lives on the other side of this door. She is very old and her memory doesn’t serve her so well anymore. So she is quick to confuse and anger. When I open the door, just slide in the tray and get out of the way so I can close it. Okay?’
Amber faintly nodded. She was digesting all the information, very much looking forward to seeing the sisters’ mother.
‘At least they don’t keep the door locked for the poor woman,’ she thought. ‘But then this house doesn’t need locks when binding spells can do a much more secure job.’
Quickly Gertrude flung open the door and Amber just stood there still in thought, gaping at what lay ahead. In the pokey, dusty room lay a bed with an old woman resting there. She was propped up with a few pillows, her long white hair flowing down over her shoulders, patiently staring at her two visitors.
‘Well, hurry up, idiot!’ Gertrude hissed.
Startled into life, Amber crouched and spun the tray into the room across the dirt-encrusted floor. Then Gertrude hastily snapped the door shut almost catching Amber’s nose. They both remained outside like statues, listening. There was a period of silence, then a shuffling. Amber could see a shadow move around the room from under the door. It seemed to come close and inspect the tray and then leave. There was silence once again. Then a tremendous bang hammered against the door which caused Amber to jump back and fall onto her behind, almost slipping off the small landing. It sounded like the shattering of a plate, followed by the pattering of its shrapnel landing on the floor along with the plops of soft pie.
‘She’s thrown her food,’ Gertrude stated the obvious. It seemed like a regular occurrence. ‘She’ll pick through it when she’s hungry. Go in and clear it up before you go to bed. She’ll get used to you after a while. Use the wooden plates next time.’
And with that the witch departed without another word.
Amber spent the rest of the evening dreading her return visit. Despite being curious to get a proper look at Mamma, Amber felt unease about going back to the room considering the fate of the old woman’s dinner. However when she returned by candlelight Mamma was sleeping soundly. Amber leant over to get a better look at her. There was nothing strange in her appearance, which Amber found mildly disappointing, as she had come to expect the curious in this place. The old woman looked a lot like her own grandma; thin and white hair, skin furrowed like a river-course mapped across her complexion; or ‘just plain wrinkled like a prune’ as her grandma described herself.
Then the old woman opened her eyes. Amber jumped with fright but before she could do anything else a bony and icy-cold clawed hand had shot out from beneath the covers and grabbed her wrist. How Amber didn’t scream the place down she would never know, but it felt like her heart had burst from her chest with shock and taken flight across the room, leaving her to face Mamma alone. The old woman stared at Amber, keeping a vice-like grip on her arm so she couldn’t escape. The blue-veins surrounding the old woman’s bulbous grey eyes showed clearly in the candlelight, with milky patches clouding her sight over.
Just as Amber was about to collapse with fear Mamma simply let go, laying her head back down and dropping back to sleep. Amber stood there for a good while in shock. It was a drip of hot candlewax on her thumb which brought her to life again. Hastily she cleared up the mess, noting that the pie had indeed been scraped from the floor and eaten, and then she departed.
Over time Amber was able to enter Mamma’s room without the old woman being suspicious of the new girl before her. Mamma’s mood changed frequently. Some days Amber would visit and Mamma would sit there gently smiling and eat her dinner peacefully. Others she would be wide-eyed, sometimes stroking what seemed like a cat cradled within her arms when there was actually nothing; but all the while she would stare directly at Amber without blinking. This gave Amber the creeps but she soon learned such behaviour also meant Mamma would be launching her dinner across the room that day.
The poor woman was clearly senile and lived in a world created by her own mind. She spoke in a language Amber was unfamiliar with. It sounded harsh, like she was extremely angry, so she seemed to spit out her words like venom. Mamma would often fall into conversations with people who weren’t there, ignoring Amber’s presence completely. At first this disturbed Amber because it felt as if there were others in the room. Maybe with the combination of her terrible eyesight and her madness, the old crone really thought whoever she was speaking to genuinely stood in front of her.
Mamma didn’t have the greatest control over eating either thanks to her old age. She would munch her food and most of it appeared to slip out, surrounding the old woman with a pile of semi-chewed mess. Amber could see where Deirdre got her eating habits from. It didn’t help that Mamma only had a few more teeth than little Pomroy. At least she hadn’t tried to bite Amber, yet.
Once Amber had gone to change the bedclothes after a regular clean-up of what Mamma had spat out. Pulling back the sheets there was a sudden scurry of activity. Amber had remained motionless at the unexpected blur before her vision and it took her a moment to realise a family of mice had just darted for cover. She was horrified. And the old woman seemed blissfully unaware of her bedfellows. Or maybe she knew all about them and preferred their company. Another time Amber had entered the room to witness Mamma cradling an invisible baby. She was smiling down at the bundle of nothing in her arms with all the affection in the world. Amber remembered that smile well. It instantly reminded her of her own mother and she had to supress the stab of pain that shot through her heart as the happy memory surfaced.
Chapter Nine – One Key to Fit a Lock
Spring ebbed away, with Amber’s life being routine. Gradually the grime, dust and cobwebs began to clear from the tired old house, and the battle with the overgrown jungle in the vast garden was appearing to be won thanks to Amber’s efforts. Her day was still continuous maintenance, but less physically demanding. However the monotony soon gave way to boredom as summer came into bloom. And the house was hot. Amber found herself opening as many windows as possible (all with binding spells Amber noticed) to let a refreshing breeze run through the long corridors to clear the stale house. Down in the kitchen she had no such luck. With no ventilation and with the oven constantly burning, what had once been a cosy haven soon became a dreaded inferno. Descending the stairs she would feel the layer of warm air stick to her, like sinking into a bath of thick soup. Her once draft-ridden ice-box of a bedroom soon became a cool and refreshing sanctuary, which at least meant she was gaining a good night’s sleep, no longer plagued by dreams of Queleon tea parties.
Being less rushed in her day meant Amber had time to explore the rest of the house as she made her way from one sister to the next under the pretence of cleaning. Opening a door here and another there would reveal an empty and dusty cupboard, or a darkened dusty room. Dust was a common theme on her travels. Occasionally she would be shadowed by Pomroy, or Skarpie. But the baby couldn’t keep up with her and she could shut them both out behind a door when she wanted some peace. Though the sisters were always telling her to keep the doors open for this very reason. The last thing they wanted to hear was a dog or baby whining away and have to expend a few precious seconds to go and let them through themselves.
During Amber’s wanders she visited a spacious guest bedroom. It contained a large, plush four-poster bed at its centre and the room came with a pleasant view over the garden. It was better than her own attic cupboard.
‘Be thankful for a room all to yourself.’ Gertrude had told her. ‘And with a window and all. Better than us making you sleep in the corner of the kitchen.’
Amber had considered this, deciding that the kitchen would have been warmer and far less draughty when she had first arrived. In fact she had often ended up falling asleep down there whilst sat at the kitchen table after a particularly tiring day’s work.
As she half-heartedly dusted the guest bedroom she wondered how often it was used. The sisters entertained no guests. They hated everyone, including each other. So why couldn’t she sleep here?
Another spacious bedroom she discovered on her travels seemed frozen in time. Purple drapes over the windows were shut but moth-eaten, letting thin beams of light cascade through with swirls of dust sifting around. A layer of even thicker dust than usual clung to everything and seemed to linger in the air holding the secret to some untold story of the place.
The room was home to a large, ornately framed painting hanging on the wall opposite a double bed. The picture was fading with age now and showed cracks, but could still be recognised to show a young family. Amber scanned her eyes from one end of the painting to the other. The father had a dark complexion with thick, black hair and a bushy black moustache sat between a hooked nose and a pointed chin. The mother had slightly lighter skin with long hazel-brown hair. Next was a young man; their son Amber presumed. He looked in many ways like his father but a younger version, without the moustache. Then came a tall, slender young woman; a daughter. She had the same hair as her mother, but the unfortunate facial features of her father, possibly even a shadow of her father’s moustache also. Next, another daughter, about the same age as her sister but she was short and stocky in her frame. She had a more rounded face and wore a thatch of dirty yellow hair, like straw.
And then Amber reached the final family member; the youngest daughter. It was Roisin, looking almost exactly the same as she did now. Amber stepped back and squinted at the other two daughters. They were indeed Gertrude and Deirdre, almost unrecognisable as young ladies. If it hadn’t been for Roisin Amber would never have realised it showed the sisters and their parents. And there was the other male figure in the picture; the sisters’ brother, perhaps.
Wanting to discover more about the Aurora family Amber continued her prying. There was one room she opened to come face to face with a wolf baring its teeth at her from the gloom. She jumped with fright and stifled a scream. About to slam the door she realised it hadn’t moved or made a noise. So pausing to take a better look she noticed a world’s worth of animals dotted round the room. They were all motionless, but stuffed and positioned in fearsome poses. At first it was striking to see, but Amber soon began to think it seemed sad. These had been creatures wandering free and living their lives once. Now they were dead and shoved in this room to gather dust. Strolling round the room Amber caught sight of various animals she didn’t recognise; a scaled lizard-like creature sat up on its hind legs with hooked talons; a small and cute animal with adorably large eyes but fearsome, clawed hands.
Upon the walls of the room hung several paintings. Amber strode up to one. It showed a grand city bathed in golden light. In the foreground grew a tower, and rising up the hill behind the tower was the rest of the glittering city leading to a central castle which no doubt housed a wealthy King.
Returning back to the room’s entrance Amber held onto the door and glanced around the room one last time, her eyes finally resting on the wolf once again. Its tail gave a twitch. She faintly shook her head in disbelief and looked again. Her eyes widened as the wolf shifted its head and stared right at her, slowly screwing up its snout to show two enormous fangs amongst a mouthful of other large teeth. A low rumbling growl came from deep within its throat. Frightened, Amber fumbled with the door handle, ready to slam it shut behind her as the wolf braced itself to pounce. Taking a step back she bumped against something soft and twisted her head sharply, expecting to see another wolf behind her. Instead it was Gertrude. The witch gave a cackle. Amber glanced back to see the wolf was lifeless once again. It was just a magic trick.
‘Pappa liked to hunt,’ Gertrude explained about the stuffed animals. ‘And some people should have been helping me ten minutes ago, not snooping around the house!’
But pretty soon Amber’s snooping was virtually exhausted. The house soon felt too familiar and Amber grew increasingly bored of the same old sights. Then one day, whilst cleaning the usual dust-ridden cupboard, the likes of which she had cleaned countless times throughout the house, her hand brushed over a small object buried within the layers of grime. Off the shelf it fell and hit the floor with a ringing of metal. Looking down she spied a key. By its shape and size Amber instantly knew it had to belong to the mysterious locked door on Gertrude’s corridor. The only room in the house she had yet to enter.
A shiver of nervous excitement hit her as she stood before the door, turning the key in its rightful home. There wasn’t much in her life to get excited about any more so the prospect of a locked room was positively thrilling. Bracing herself for yet another empty room of dust Amber pulled at the stiff old door. Rather unsurprisingly, from behind it bellowed a thick cloud of dust. She was forced to squint her eyes and stifle several coughs as the powdered air attacked her lungs. Then raising her head she peered into a small dark room the size of a large cupboard or a small bedroom. Hastily reaching for her pockets she pulled out a box of matches, an invaluable resource for her in this gloomy place. Lighting a candle housed along the corridor she lifted it from its holder and held it up to gaze into the room. Choking through the swirls of dust still filling the air she saw the room was lined with shelf upon shelf of books. This room of books was about to change Amber’s life forever.
Chapter Ten – The Library
There were so many things that Amber found comforting about the library, her library; the smell; the secrecy; and of course the books. They were an escape to distant lands, away from the drudgery of her life here in the confines of the house that had become her prison. The room also had a wall which was part of the chimney from the large fireplace in the main hallway below, and then the kitchen below that. It therefore always remained toasty in there so she could sit snugly at night bathing in the warm, orange glow of candlelight as she read. The room quickly became her sanctuary, allowing her to retreat to her inner space, a place all her own that the sisters couldn’t reach.
In her previous life, before her sacrifice to the Queleon, she really hadn’t cared for reading. It was some boring activity she had been forced to undertake at school. And even when she had seen the small library adjoining Gertrude’s room her first thought had been that it was a way into the potion room rather than a means of potentially occupying her time. But now poring over all kinds of books, Amber learned about the world like never before. Back home she had been told stories or had been taught about the other islands of Tellus at school. But here it was slightly different; here she genuinely loved it. Maybe because she wasn’t being forced to learn, or maybe because there was nothing else in her life now, or just maybe because the library was something she could claim as her own. Whatever the reason the tiniest spark of happiness could now be felt nestling deep within the protective layers Amber had been forced to wrap around herself in order to deny her horrid existence.
In one book she found a map of the Tellusian Archipelago and would try to pinpoint the tales she read about. Some stories would refer to Tellus ‘when the world was larger.’ Her curiosity stirred, she hunted out older maps and found one. Amber was shocked by what she saw. The world all that time ago had contained so much more land. What had caused the oceans to devour the land? She searched through countless pages but frustratingly couldn’t find the reason why.
The time Amber spent in the library was confined to the night. She would eagerly wait in her bedroom till the house had fallen silent at the end of each tiring day then creep down the corridor towards Gertrude’s lair, ever on the lookout for the witch, or Skarpie, or anything else lurking down the dark corridors. Amber would devote about an hour to reading. She couldn’t afford to spend too long with her new-found love. In the beginning she had been absorbed in reading for hours, but the next day she had stalked about the house like the undead. ‘What’s wrong with you, girl?’ Gertrude had snapped. ‘I asked for the swirling red potion. This one’s orange and is clearly not swirling. Are you colour-blind?’
Amber feared the witch would become suspicious so she rationed her nightly activity, which made it all the more precious to her.
Today, one of her hourly sessions was drawing to a close, and Amber was returning books to the shelves. During each trip she had been trying to put the books in some sort of order based on their content. This made it easier if she wanted to refer back to them at a later date. Her most recent book had been about the creatures of Tellus. She had been specifically hunting out books on this subject, wanting to gain greater insight into the Queleon. Despite it being a nightmare from her past, she felt the need to understand a bit of its nature. However the only reference she had so far picked up involved a snippet describing ‘a legendary beast with immense magical power that devours others.’ There was disappointingly no picture but the book had actually given a reason for this; ‘the Queleon is thought to change its appearance depending upon that which it consumes’. The one Amber had encountered seemed like an overgrown woollen teddy bear. Was that from years of devouring children?
As she returned the book to its shelf, a noise from the corridor behind caused her to tense up. Her instinct was to extinguish the nearby candle, plunging the room into darkness. A faint shadow appeared under the crack of the door, cast by the pale moonlight in the hallway. Amber heard a snuffling sound at the base of the door. It was Skarpie. It remained there for what seemed like an eternity sniffing with its long snout. Amber remained frozen and held her breath, listening to its wheezy sniffles. Her only thought was for the loss her library. The creature was sure to alert the witches and she’d never be able to come here again. But instead it finally trotted away without fuss. Amber exhaled silently with relief.
Giving some time to make sure the dog had departed she reached into her pocket and took out a match. As she struck it there was a snap and the flaming end of the lit match broke off and fell to the floor. It landed on a pile of books she had yet to give a proper home to under her new system. The top book wildly flared up as if possessed by a fire demon, causing Amber to tumble back. But she reacted quickly, scrambling forward onto her knees ready to extinguish the flames with her hands if necessary before her whole precious library became consumed by an inferno. However no sooner had she raised her hands when the flames turned several pastel shades, from pale pink to bright blue to a lilt of yellow, before dying down once again so all was dark. Amber sat bewildered at first and then began groping for the book. A faint glimmer caught her eye in front. It was the book. Its cover soon shimmered like a dark pool under moonlight. Then slowly words started to form, glowing with an eerie white light. The TimeSunder Histories, it read.
Chapter Eleven – The TimeSunder
The consuming fire revealed my identity. Now quench my thirst to reveal my truths.
Those were the opening words to the book. The rest of its pages were blank. Before having been bathed in flames all the strange book’s pages had been blank Amber recalled. Now its secrets had awoken.
The fact it had been so expertly hidden was enough to peak her interest. The little riddles were an added bonus, though the one contained in the opening line wasn’t a difficult one to solve. If accidentally burning the book had caused the first words to appear, now giving it some water should reveal others. She had automatically reached for the cup she usually brought on her journeys to the library. But it now sat drained. She wanted so much to rush off to the kitchen and get some more, but her allotted time for the night had already passed. So it was with a heavy heart that she crept back to her room, her mind filled with wild ideas of what the book would contain.
The following day dragged. Amber prayed to the Keeper of Time to speed the day over, but either he was playing games with her or was shackled with a ball and chain to slow him down. Following her usual wrestle with Pomroy, then helping Roisin decide what to wear (she only changed her mind three times today), even bounding round Gertrude’s potion room seemed to lose its thrill. In the garden she took her frustration out on a particularly thick patch of thistles, so by the time she had finished the ground was picked clear of every root, leaf and twig, ready for a fresh bed of flowers. For dinner she cooked up a feast. She found that after a good feed the sisters were more inclined to retire to bed earlier. However this evening they unusually hung around talking. Amber only caught glimpses of their discussion as she pretended to clean around them, involving ‘the city coughing up payment’. She didn’t know what the payment was for, but she had no doubt that the city they referred to was her own beloved Glenkinver. Most of the time however the witches seemed to fall silent when she drew close. Amber got the suspicion that they were talking about her.
Finally the house settled into silence, or rather as silent as the old, creaking house could settle. Amber waited a fraction more just to make sure all was calm and then hurried her way to the library with her cup of water. As she carefully tipped it to pour a few drops onto the page she noticed her hands were shaking. The water soaked into the dry, blank page, spreading out in small circles. Writing began to faintly appear across the wet areas. She dropped on yet more water where the book remained dry to reveal more. Eventually a full page of text lay before her.
Here contained is a collection of accounts regarding the TimeSunder. Nobody knows exactly when this legendary figure first appeared, as fable stretches back so far it becomes difficult to determine. The TimeSunder is believed to be a hero who can tear through the fabric of Time, often appearing when the land of Tellus needs him the most to help banish great evil.
Some regard him as mere myth, and that all the deeds in this book should be attributed to the rightful individuals throughout time, many of whom risked their lives for what they believed. Personally, I believe the TimeSunder existed, but if any tales within this collection do indeed concern another then I apologise to the Universe for the mistake, but your actions have still been recorded here, deemed just as worthy by their selflessness and heroism.
The page came to an end. Amber turned it to reveal nothing but more blank pages. What else was she to do? She tried dropping water on the next pages. Nothing happened at first. But as one of the drops soaked closer to the top of the page she noticed some letters begin to reveal under the encroaching damp. Letting yet more water fall at this location uncovered her next instruction.
A drop of blood, if you please.
Amber frowned. How far was the book going to go with this? Would she next be losing a finger, a toe, before the book demanded of her to chop off entire limbs? She had only just escaped being made a sacrifice to the Queleon, now it appeared she would be sacrificing herself to this book bit by bit. Maybe it was best to call it a day. She could bring a pin tomorrow. So carefully closing the precious book she placed it to the end of a shelf all by itself. Then she crept back to her room.
The next night, pin in hand, she carefully pricked her finger and squeezed out a drop of blood onto the page. As promised the book’s page came alive. The drop of blood spread its way across the page in a creep of burgundy as if the book itself had been stabbed. Silvery words revealed themselves in the bloody mess. Amber drank them up like a vampire bat.
Over the next few days Amber learned of the mysterious figure known as the TimeSunder. He was someone who appeared throughout history to lend a hand in events both large and small. Amber read how he restored the Order when magic was threatened, set out to tame the dragons, and saved the children of Tellus from an evil Sorcerer.
And as well as using fire, water and blood, the book’s secrets were hidden in many other different ways.
Read under moonlight.
Read under the first rays of the morning sun.
Amber had to take the book from the library for these particular requests. She didn’t like it. If she was caught with a book there would be questions to answer.
But one of her favourite instruction was:
Fold me in half and count to three.
A simple instruction, but Amber still felt the thrill of seeing writing on what had previously been a blank page as she had folded it, counted and unfolded it again. The writer’s intention wasn’t to make uncovering its secrets too difficult, that was for certain. The tricks seemed to have been created just for amusement, with the effect of adding that extra piece of excitement as the words were revealed. It also helped prolong the experience as Amber often had to wait each night and acquire the magical ingredient throughout the day that would reveal the book’s latest secret.
One time Amber had opened the book and something slipped from the pages. On the floor rested a leather string holding a metallic pendant inset with a clear but dark orange stone. Amber knew she was named after such a stone as this. A coincidence she told herself.
Protect thyself against time itself.
That was the book’s description of the gift it had bestowed upon her. Amber carefully placed the necklace round her neck. She felt a tingle as the cool pendant caressed her skin and expected something to happen. Nothing did. Still, it was a nice gift, and she didn’t have to worry about being questioned about it. The witches barely noticed when she was around and only ever seemed to pay attention to her absence, always complaining of her being late. It was only Roisin who made a passing comment about it, ever the one to obsess over appearance.
‘Where did you acquire that piece of tat?’
‘I found the stone in the garden,’ Amber lied.
‘I hope you scrubbed it first.’
Amber nodded in reply. And that was all Roisin said about it, asking nothing further.
Chapter Twelve – The Storm
Amber lay in bed impatiently awaiting the moment the witches would go to sleep. Rather annoyingly, and unusually, they were gathered in the dining room.
‘That will be all for the day,’ Gertrude had said, meaning for Amber to shove off. So she had done as ordered, cleaned up in the kitchen, eaten her dinner, and was now in her bedroom eager for her date with The TimeSunder.
Hearing noises from outside she clambered to her window. It was the sisters. They were in the garden chanting. Holding hands, they were stood in a circle. Amber could just about see them if she peered down at a sharp angle from her tiny window. They remained like that for some time. This was the longest Amber had seen the witches in each other’s company, apart from at meal times. She was surprised they hadn’t started bickering yet.
The light of day began to fade and it became more and more difficult to distinguish the sisters, especially as they were stood as still as statues. Their strange monotone chanting continued however. Amber frowned. It was usually lighter for longer at the current time of year. Looking up to the darkening sky she could see immense, threatening clouds rolling in, causing the day to prematurely end. In mere minutes a wind had whipped up and the garden was swaying to its force, as a warning of the approaching storm. In the gloom Amber could make out Roisin’s fine white hair wildly thrashing around her head like a huge halo. It almost seemed to glow. No, Amber corrected herself, it was glowing. In fact all three sisters were emitting a light. It was faint, but enough for them to become noticeable again in the darkness. The wind continued to howl. Pushing against the window pane Amber had her nose pressed up against it. She withdrew her head in fear the glass would shatter before her eyes. But her curiosity was stronger and she returned to the window so she could see the witches once again. A whimper came from the house below her. Skarpie didn’t seem to like the approaching storm. Then a cry. The dog’s protests had either woken Pomroy, or he didn’t much like the commotion either.
The wind raged on, with the old house creaking and groaning under the strain. It felt like it would be shaken apart at any moment, and yet the sisters remained outside, lost in whatever they were doing. At this rate Amber would be seeing them whisked into the air and carried away on the wind. At least that’s what she inwardly hoped; either that or for a tree to come crashing down and squash them flat; or maybe for a lightning bolt to sail down and fry them to a crisp. Anything that basically involved her freedom, no matter how unlikely or gruesome it sounded.
At that moment a blinding light seared over the sky, as a branch of lightning forked through the menacing clouds. It looked like a monstrous claw searching the sky. It illuminated the billowing clouds with a divine glow, along with the forest canopy for miles around. The sight was frightening, yet breathtakingly beautiful. The faint crackling of energy was quickly followed by an ear splitting boom which seemed to burst the sky asunder like world’s end. The house shuddered under the explosion. It was too close for comfort. Through the continued deafening rumble Amber looked down to see the sisters still within the garden.
The noise withdrew and left silence in its place. Even the wind had calmed and all seemed eerily still. Then a large drop of rain pelted the window, causing Amber to jump. It was followed by another, then another, until the constant patter of rain was sounding on the window and the roof above. The wind picked up once again and the storm continued its war. Amber looked down into the garden through the water streaming down her window pane. She didn’t think she could see the witches anymore, but with the growing darkness and now the rain, she couldn’t be sure.
Another flash of light lit up the sky. This time from behind the house, so Amber didn’t see where the electrified fingers grabbed for this time. The thunder seemed just as loud and Amber shrank back to her bed. Her heart was beating faster. She kept telling herself to grow up. She wasn’t scared of storms anymore. That was her brother’s job in the family. Amber suddenly thought of her family. They would be braving this storm as well. Her brother was sure to be scared, probably awake and whimpering with every howl of wind, like Skarpie. He used to creep into Amber’s room for a cuddle of reassurance. It would be her mother’s job to cradle him to sleep now.
Amber decided not to go to the library that night. She wasn’t scared, she kept telling herself rather unconvincingly. She still wasn’t sure what had happened to the sisters. Being caught sneaking round the house at night would only rouse their suspicions. So instead she wrapped herself up as best she could to keep warm and tried to sleep through the relentless wind, rain and thunder.
The next day Amber was woken by a bright sun streaming through her window like molten rays of honey. She lay there at peace as no sound of wind or rain could be heard. It seemed the world was in for a pleasant and calm day, after last night’s tempest. With a yawn she uncurled herself with a stretch. She was still tired from being kept awake by all the noise last night and couldn’t bring herself to get up. Then her little moment for peace was shattered by an ear-piercing shriek. Her eyes widened and she leapt from her bed. Hurriedly she got changed and then bounded down the stairs two at a time to see what the noise concerned. It didn’t sound like the musical tones of Roisin, so it had to be either Gertrude or Deirdre. She guessed Deirdre, as Gertrude wasn’t the wailing type.
Sure enough, as Amber reached the main hallway she could see Deirdre from the top of the stairs. The witch was down below, crouched over. Amber slowed and began to creep the rest of the way down. She could see Deirdre was shaking and making strange noises. It took a moment to register that the witch was crying.
There before Deirdre lay Norman her python, motionless at the base of the staircase. Soon the other sisters arrived, also drawn by the noise.
‘At last,’ Gertrude gleefully chorused. ‘I’ve been dying to try some of those delicious snake recipes for ages. There’s at least a week’s worth of feasting here. We’d best move it otherwise it’s just a trip-hazard at the moment.’
Gertrude was all heart. Deirdre glared at her sister. If looks could kill, Gertrude would have melted over the staircase. Maybe there was even a spell to do that, but Deirdre wasn’t as strong as her sister, so she kept silent.
Gertrude clicked her fingers and the python’s head rose as if miraculously stirring back from the afterlife. The whole lifeless body gradually uncoiled from the floor and levitated into the air. It drifted towards Amber where it dumped itself upon her shoulders. She sagged under the weight, knowing it was up to her to try those delicious recipes Gertrude had spoken of, so she headed slowly down to the kitchen.
By the time she arrived downstairs she was hot and the snake’s weight had her pressed almost to the floor. She sidled over to the kitchen table like a crab where with one last heave she plonked Norman down and decided to leave him there till this evening. There would be more pressing matters to attend to in the garden, where she was sure the storm would have made plenty work for her.
Heading back upstairs she swung open the back door leading to the garden and surveyed the chaos caused by the storm. Her heart sank. It would take days for her to put right what the storm had spent the night undoing. Casting her eyes further round the destruction her heart then leapt at the unexpected. She blinked as if her eyes were deceiving her. About halfway down the garden on the left-hand side, there lay a huge pile of stones where the wall had collapsed. It was a way out; a stone-cobbled staircase to freedom.
Chapter Thirteen – Hope
Amber’s pulse quickened. But no sooner had she commanded her legs to move, taking a tentative, wobbling step which was supposed to turn into a sprint, when she heard a familiar croak behind her.
‘We can’t have that mess can we? Any intruder could get in, couldn’t they?’
She turned to see Gertrude standing there with a wicked smile. Her crooked teeth glistening with mucus in the morning sun. Amber supressed a scowl, knowing full well the witch hadn’t meant her comment about keeping people out. It was to keep Amber in.
‘Outta my way,’ Gertrude commanded before quickly striding forward, brushing by as if Amber wasn’t even there. Amber stumbled round the witch then watched as she marched down the garden to the pile of stones. There appeared both a confidence in her walk and a sense of pride. Gertrude liked to show off, even to someone she considered a nobody such as Amber.
Halting at the base of the rubble she stood there and tapped one of the blocks with her foot, relishing the challenge. Amber knew Gertrude was taking her time on purpose and made a mental note to appear as unimpressed as possible when the witch was done. But secretly she knew there was about to be a performance worth the viewing time.
Gertrude finally took several steps back and lifted her arms to the air. She shouted a short command. Amber didn’t recognise the word, but immediately a gust picked up, focussed solely round the witch. It whipped her clothing round her body, and her tangled hair came alive, like writhing snakes snapping at the air.
And then Amber noticed one of the stones levitate. It rose slowly from the ground in front of Gertrude and hovered in place just above head height. Other blocks started to do the same. The whole gravity-defying spectacle looked somewhat surreal. But this was nothing compared to what happened next. Rather than methodically placing the blocks neatly back into the wall, Gertrude stepped up her showpiece. The stones, which had been moving with uncharacteristic grace up until now, suddenly exploded into speed. Shooting high into the air, they flew after each other, spiralling round and round to create a twisting helix of stone in the sky. Curving round in an arc the visual feast of blocks began to descend and take a perfectly aligned place in the wall, which now seemed like such a positively dull undertaking for them.
As the final few blocks dropped from the air, Gertrude turned with an expression of smug satisfaction, leaving a perfectly formed wall behind her.
‘Clear the rest up dear,’ she said to Amber and departed indoors.
Amber scowled. It would take the witch no effort at all to use her magic to tidy the rest of the garden. But making Amber slave away to clear it up would be much more satisfying. Instead Gertrude would probably just sit by the window all day and watch her toil away. Amber took aim at a pebble by her foot and kicked it as hard as she could, imagining it was Gertrude’s behind.
That evening Deirdre didn’t show for dinner to enjoy her snake steak in caterpillar sauce. Amber didn’t blame her.
‘Shame to waste it,’ was Gertrude opinion, and with just a glance from Gertrude at the plate in front of Deirdre’s empty space it slid across the table, neatly replaced the empty one in front of the greedy witch. Amber scowled as she left the room. She was annoyed at Gertrude for her current callous attitude, as well as for ruining a perfectly good opportunity for her to escape earlier.
Returning to the kitchen she quickly pulled together a meal from scraps. Then she made her way up to Deirdre’s bedroom. The witch lay staring up at the ceiling upon her hard bed, mourning the loss of Norman. She didn’t move as Amber entered.
‘I’ve made you a little bite to eat,’ Amber said softly and paused. No response. She took a few steps into the room and left the plate on a dressing table. A certain level of sympathy for the tormented witch rose within her.
‘I must be going mad,’ she thought. ‘They’re the ones making my life miserable. It’s about time they enjoyed some for themselves.’
She turned and went to leave.
‘Thank you,’ came a weak voice from behind as the door closed. It was a strange feeling; a compliment. It felt like progress, a very small bit of progress. It gave her the hope of one day getting out of here; maybe even by convincing them it was the right thing to do.
The house was quiet that night. After their late night yesterday the sisters had turned in early, though Amber still hadn’t discovered what they had been up to. Why had they felt the need to stand around in the cold wind? Maybe they were recharging their magic in the storm. But at least it allowed her trip to the library to start earlier than usual, which meant more time to enjoy in there as well. She began by looking for evidence about magic and how people acquire it. Maybe she could even find a weakness to exploit within the sisters. But after half an hour of fruitless searching her attention kept being drawn to The TimeSunder.
Lifting the familiar book from its shelf Amber slowly traced her finger over the silvered title on the cover. What would she reveal tonight? So far Amber was glad that everything the book had asked for she had been able to obtain to help expose its secrets. Her biggest fear being that it would request something beyond her ability to acquire.
Turning the pages she had a dreamy half-smile on her face as her anticipation grew. But reaching the latest page the smile upon her face quickly faded.
Let me drink snake’s blood.
Amber closed the book slowly, but firmly, and her lips tightened. For some time she stared down at its cover. Then without emotion she left the library for that night. It wasn’t until the next day that the anger hit her, throwing a plate across the kitchen which made the playful chair accompanying her down there jump in fright and scamper away to a corner. How could the book possibly know she had access to gallons of snake’s blood, thanks to Norman’s departure? It was no coincidence, she was sure of it. She went over and apologised to the chair which forgave her in an instant.
Throughout that day she eyed the witches with suspicion. It had to be one of them. Gertrude was her most likely culprit. Or maybe it was all of them playing this cruel trick on her. Though none of them gave any hint of knowing anything that day. And at the expense of Norman as well? Amber couldn’t see Deirdre playing any part in it. She had genuinely loved her pet.
With mixed emotions she stayed away from the library for several days. But with nothing else in her life she eventually relented. Taking a small cup of Norman’s blood she poured a gloop of the thick, burgundy liquid onto the page. What she revealed was completely unexpected and startling.
Don’t give up hope, little Pumpkin.
Amber’s breathing faltered. It was a personal note. Only her father called her Pumpkin. The witches couldn’t possible have known. Her head felt heavy with the weight of a thousand thoughts which now swamped her mind. Who wrote this book? How did it know such an intimacy of her life? She was so confused that her head spun. Then her breath started choking in her throat and she raised a hand up to her mouth to help keep her calm. But after months of self-control, of holding back the swirling waters of anger and loneliness, of promising herself she wouldn’t cry for fear that she would never be able to stop, she finally submitted. The dam of feelings breached to unfurl a torrent from within her. After all, how long could she have kept on ignoring her heart before it burst from sorrow? She slowly collapsed to her knees, hugging the book as if it contained the entire love of her family. A small sob burst from her mouth, as quietly as her pain would allow her without anyone else overhearing. Amber then spent the rest of her usual time in the library silently unleashing her grief in that crouched position, her tears burning down her red cheeks and gently soaking the book’s pages.
Chapter Fourteen – A Gamble for Freedom
Amber had a lot on her mind that night, but she still managed to sleep soundly. She dreamt of her family. After trying to deny their existence for so long she was allowing them to slide back into her heart. It wouldn’t be long before they were reunited once again, she was sure of it. The book had all but said so.
The next night Amber stole herself back to the library, wanting to learn more. The next riddle read as:
Let me share your grief.
And immediately below this instruction words had already been revealed. Amber sat puzzled for a moment. The sharing of grief must have been her tears. She hadn’t noticed this last night. She had just crouched there letting out all her sorrow. Then she had placed the book back on its shelf without looking at it before retiring to bed. The author of this mysterious book must have known she would have cried to reveal the next secret. This time Amber felt comfort rather than anger, as if a guardian was watching over her. Looking at what came next she was somewhat disappointed by how short the revealed text proved to be.
Fortune comes in threes:
Give my blank pages to he who asks for them;
When your life is endangered, become the wind;
Escape – summon the Lacunarity.
That was all. Amber turned a few blank pages. Nothing else. No more riddles. No TimeSunder stories. No messages. The book had come to an abrupt end but had left its biggest riddles of all.
She stared at the last lines once again. They felt like predictions of things to come. It put Amber slightly on edge; particularly the suggestion that her life was going to be in danger. And what did it mean by ‘become the wind’? That didn’t make any sense. Was she meant to blow out a candle? Join the sisters in the embarrassing noises they made at the dinner table? Amber was clueless. She hadn’t even heard of the last word, Lacunarity, whatever that was. But it suggested an escape which raised her spirits.
Despite no longer having any more of her favourite book to read, Amber’s mood changed for the better. There was a growing sense of hope deep within her and she believed it was only a matter of time before her freedom would be granted. Whether scrubbing the kitchen floor or feeding a dangling Pomroy in her grasp, her optimism increased so that at times she wanted to laugh in the face of the absurd sisters. She wanted to yell at them ‘I shall be leaving here soon! Do your own cooking and cleaning.’ But instead she somehow managed to keep her calm and bided her time.
Amber speculated as to how her escape would happen. Would someone come to banish the evil witches? Would there be another storm? It was only a few days later that an opportunity presented itself, and it involved her plan of using the large tree in the garden overhanging the wall.
Amber appeared as usual to help Gertrude but the potion room door was locked. She knocked.
‘Wait one moment,’ came Gertrude’s crabby voice from the other side. After a few minutes the door swung open and Gertrude was stood in the middle of the room as usual. Amber wondered what she had been doing. Her door had never been locked when the witch as inside before. However she quickly dismissed the idea as she didn’t really care what peculiar things the witch got up to. But as Amber helped out she noticed Gertrude’s particularly shorter than usual temper. The witch kept glancing at the door leading through the small adjoining library to her bedroom. She clearly wanted to be somewhere else and soon her impatience got the better of her.
‘That’s enough for today,’ she snapped. ‘You’re being slower than usual. I haven’t the patience for timewasters.’
If anything Amber thought she’d been more sprightly than usual, but she wasn’t going to argue. Bounding down the staircase she opened the door to the garden. Deirdre was nowhere to be seen. The witch had been spending a lot more time in her room since Norman’s death. The thought crossed Amber’s mind to go up and check she was okay when another part of her mind awoke and suddenly screamed at her. What are you thinking? Now’s your chance to escape! The potion still lives in your veins!
This was it. Her legs suddenly felt like rubber. At any moment she expected one of the witches to appear, but all was quiet. She raced to the bottom of the garden, her chosen tree looming up larger and larger in her sight. Glancing back she looked up at the window of Gertrude’s potion room expecting to see a long nose pointing out to dash her fragile hopes. But Gertrude would be in her bedroom, dealing with whatever had been preoccupying her all morning. Amber’s gaze moved across the roof of the house which had gargoyle statues dotted across it. They all seemed to be spying on her and their eyes had followed her to the bottom of the garden. Telling herself to stop being paranoid she then noticed the back door left wide open. How foolish of her. She should have closed it. Still, no time to go back now.
Her legs gained several scratches as she rushed her way to the base of the tree. But she didn’t care about a few cuts. She didn’t even feel them with the excitement that surged through her. The ground seemed to be moving under her as she reached the tree and came to a halt. Its trunk was swaying and the ground refused to stay still. It was an earthquake. She had experienced only one before, years ago; but now was absolutely the worst timing. She gripped the trunk. There was no way she could safely escape now. Her hopes were fading fast. There was nothing for it; she would have to try even if the tree felt like it was trying to shake her out.
She glanced up for a moment to choose her destination. The shaking stopped. It was only a minor tremor. Amber felt a surge of relief and renewed confidence. Her moment was at hand. Taking aim at a lower branch she crouched before springing upwards. She soared effortlessly into the air thanks to the remaining power of the potion. Reaching out for a branch she kicked her foot against the tree’s trunk to propel herself even further up until she was firmly at the centre of the tree. She came to a temporary halt on a large, solid branch to get her bearings. She spied the crucial branch which grew out closest to the wall, then bounded swiftly from one branch to another until she reached her destination. Pausing, her breathing was fast and she felt hot. She took one final glance back to the house, relieved not to see any commotion caused by the earthquake. Then facing towards the wall she carefully let go of the trunk. Placing one foot in front of the other, with her arms outstretched for balance, she slowly walked along the branch. It began to narrow and sway slightly, so she paused. Looking ahead the other side of the wall started to reveal itself. A shiver of excitement shot through her. She tried not to think of her escape, which was about to happen. It was affecting her concentration. Instead she focussed on the task at hand. With a small run from this spot and a jump she would easily clear the wall. Her experience in the potion room gave her this confidence. She had to trust in the potion. Though she had never been this high up before. Her nerve felt like it was going to fail. She wouldn’t allow it. To relax herself she reached out for a thin branch above her head, to prepare for her launch. Gripping it tightly, she gathered her nerves. What she didn’t expect was to hear a cry of pain. It came from above her. Turning she came face-to-face with someone. Shocked at suddenly having a pair of eyes stare right at her up close, she instinctively took a step back into thin air. The branch she held onto gave way and Amber fell.
Whoever had startled her also gave a yelp and fell down with her. Fortunately the magic of the potion slowed her descent as the pair bounced to the floor. Amber gave a dazed shake of her head and realised she was clutching the leg of some strange creature. She let go and the creature pulled its leg back, rubbing where she had been gripping so tightly. She examined the strange thing before her. It looked like a little boy. But it also resembled a branch. Its skin has the texture of bark; its hair like moss. Raising her hand, almost to wave, almost to touch it, the creature gave a fearful cry and cowered back against the tree trunk.
‘Don’t be afraid. I won’t hurt you,’ Amber told it.
The little creature gave its leg another rub, as if to say that she already had. At least it seemed to understand what she was saying.
‘I’m sorry. That was an accident. I didn’t mean any harm. I thought you were a branch. You certainly look like one.’
The creature let go of its leg. It kept staring. It still didn’t trust her.
‘I’m Amber,’ she said and smiled, trying to put it at ease. It remained silent. Would it ever speak? Maybe it couldn’t. Amber’s patience wasn’t her strong point. ‘It’s usually polite to tell others your name also,’ she pointed out.
Once again the peculiar creature just stared, but this time Amber could tell it was thinking. Then slowly it opened its strange wooden mouth, its lips looking like the small knot of a tree trunk, and softly whispered, ‘Chestnut.’
Chapter Fifteen – Chestnut
Amber lifted her battered body from the garden floor and dusted herself down. The lightness in her limbs had gone. The potion’s magic shaken from her with the bump to the floor and with it her hope of escape was lost. Though she blamed the strange creature in front of her she tried not to show her disappointment and went to help him up.
As she reached out her arm he stared at it, like she carried some fungal disease that would rot through his bark-like skin and eat away his wooden core, he then realising she was being helpful so reached out in acceptance of her kindness. As their hands met Amber was surprised at its smoothness. She had expected a roughness to its texture. Instead he was unexpectedly spongy. A tingle buzzed its way from her hand up to her forearm and she looked down. She noticed the skin of her hand darken. Its texture started to resemble that of Chestnut’s. The little creature noticed as well.
Amber gave a yelp and shook her arm to let go. Chestnut fell back with a bump. She grabbed at the changing hand with her remaining good one as if trying to rub away the transformation that was taking place. It seemed to do the trick, or maybe because she had let go of Chestnut. Her hand gradually began to lighten in colour and look like its old self again.
‘Why did you do that?’ she barked.
‘I didn’t do anything.’ Chestnut pleaded his innocence. ‘Well, at least I didn’t mean to.’ He suddenly seemed unsure. ‘I’m sorry.’
Amber believed him, but from that point on kept her distance. Equally, Chestnut didn’t want the same to happen, and seemed just as vigilant in making sure he didn’t come into contact with any part of her.
There was an awkward silence.
‘Are the witches keeping you here as well?’ Amber asked to fill the gap.
Chestnut slowly shook his head, unsure of what she had asked.
‘I got lost during a big storm the other day. I took refuge in here, coming through a hole in the wall. But being tired I slept too long and the next day when I awoke the wall had been mended. It’s too smooth to get a grip on to climb. I also tried to dig a hole underneath but it seems the wall reaches far underground also. Who are the witches?’
Amber told him all that had happened to her, about the Queleon and then the three sisters and how she now had to serve them.
‘If the witches find you they’ll use you for firewood,’ she warned.
Just then the noise of a door opening was heard. Someone had left the house. Taking a few sidesteps she gained a view of the house and the door. Deirdre was in the garden. With her bad eyesight she wouldn’t be able to see Amber from down here, but Amber didn’t want the witch to come hunting for her and find out about Chestnut. But looking back Chestnut’s way the boy had completely vanished. Amber was astonished. He had been stood right beside her a second ago.
‘I’m here.’ She heard a whisper, and a pair of eyes seemed to appear upon the tree. There was Chestnut pressed up against the tree. It seemed as if he had become part of it. With his body shaping round the natural curves of the trunk and his hair appearing as a mere mossy growth. Amber was impressed at his ability to camouflage.
‘I have to go,’ she whispered. Any onlooker would think she was mad, talking to a tree, because Chestnut was so well hidden. ‘I’ll come back when I can. Don’t let the witches catch you. I’ll help you escape. The witches have a potion we can use.’
Without waiting for a response Amber trampled back up the garden. Deirdre soon caught sight of the movement.
‘Have you cleared out Scarlet yet, lazy maggot? There be no time for idling around. That quake has created a right mess indoors.’
Amber had forgotten all about the small tremour with the excitement of what had followed. Not giving Deirdre an answer she changed direction for the pig hut, casting a longing glance down to the bottom of the garden. She wanted to speak more with Chestnut. For the rest of her time outdoors with Deirdre she would occasionally peer down the garden trying to spot him. But there was no chance of seeing him. He was too well hidden. The thought of Chestnut sent a warm feeling through her. Was it the thought of helping someone, or just that she had a friend after all this time of feeling alone?
Chapter Sixteen – The Witches’ True Magic
Amber had spent a pleasant morning in the garden. Well, as pleasant a morning as a slave of three mean witches could get. The weather had been warm, but not stifling, with a refreshing breeze that had gently sifted through Amber’s hair to cool the back of her neck. She was now pulling weeds when unexpectedly she heard a whisper from a nearby bush. It was her new friend, Chestnut.
‘Not those. Don’t touch those.’
Amber looked dumbly at Chestnut, then registered what he had said and looked down at what appeared to be a harmless weed in her hands. But looking beyond the pale, green stems she noticed red spots had formed on the palms of her hands. It didn’t take long for each hand to swell up as if they were bread in an oven, till her fingers looked like juicy plump sausages.
She gave a short cry and dropped the infectious plant. Her hands were beginning to feel sore now. Deirdre lifted her head from the patch she was tending to see what all the fuss was. With a huff and considerable effort she picked herself up and waddled over. Amber held out her hands, hoping the witch could wave her little arm and instantly make them better. Instead Deirdre just stared at the weeds beside Amber.
‘Silly girl. Those are poisonous.’ As if Amber was meant to know. The witch grabbed a few herbs then marched Amber up to see Gertrude. Amber tried to keep her fingers spread to ease the growing pain, but being so swollen they rubbed against each other causing shoots of agony up her arm. It felt like her fingers were going to burst and her hands would drop off. Part of her even hoped for this outcome so at least the pain would stop.
As they made the final climb up the stairs to Gertrude’s potion room Amber was ready to chew her fingers off just to get some relief. The elder sister wasn’t impressed.
‘Why aren’t you keeping an eye on her?’ she complained to Deirdre. ‘She’ll be no use to me today now.’
Gertrude popped Deirdre’s herbs into her cauldron and muttered a few words under her breath. Amber wasn’t sure whether it was a spell or just grumbles of complaint at having lost her slave for the day.
The potion Amber was made to drink tasted foul. It felt like a greasy, slimy slug as it slid its way down her throat. Why couldn’t medicine be made to taste pleasant? To its credit though it had the effect of reducing the pain in her hands almost instantly, with her fingers no longer feeling like they were going to pop. However they still remained puffed up. Without the ability to bend them she wouldn’t be doing much else for the rest of the day. So instead she was sent to her room and had to spend a boring day staring at its four cramped walls.
Come dinner time her hands were still too swollen so it was Deirdre who reluctantly had to help in the kitchen under Amber’s instruction. The sisters sat down to their meal, each of their faces dropping at what was presented. Over the weeks they had become accustomed to Amber’s fine dining. The slop presented to them now was a return to the not-so-good old times. Gertrude quickly reverted to her usual dream-like state, making her look like she could be part of the stuffed animal collection housed upstairs. Her stomach gave a hungry rumble which was the only thing to show she was alive.
Roisin moved her narrowed eyes over to Deirdre. ‘Is this the best you can do?’ she complained as she chewed on some unidentifiable chunk. She was managing to look angry and even appearing to frown without adding a single crease to her face. At the same moment something fell in front of her vision causing her to blink and tilt back her head. From Deirdre and Amber’s perspective they could see that it was actually a chunk of Roisin’s hair. It was falling out and floating its gradual way down to the floor.
Roisin shrieked as she realised what was happening and lifted her hands to her head as if to help glue it all back into place. But great clumps of her luscious hair filled her fists. She fumed at Deirdre.
‘What have you done! You useless oaf? Can’t you get a simple meal right? Even the girl can manage it!’ She pointed her manicured finger at Amber.
The few threadbare strands of hair that still clung to Roisin’s head began to rise as if a great electrical storm was brewing right above her. With a sudden movement she swung her right arm up, lifting her hand in a claw-like fashion. In the space of just a few seconds crackles of lightning sparked from the tips of her fingers and collected into a ball of energy in the palm of her hand. Then a streak of electric shot out and zapped its way over to Deirdre. The witch received the blow and was flung back from her chair, thudding against the wall behind her. There she slid down to the floor and slumped to a smoking, frazzled heap.
From where she was stood Amber noticed Deirdre wave her little arm from the ground. Nothing happened at first and Amber thought whatever magic she had tried hadn’t worked. So turning her attention to Roisin she saw the witch was bending down gathering up the hair from around her. Amber shook her head at the sisters’ childish behaviour and gave a sigh. But by breathing out she noticed her breath mist before her eyes. The temperature had dropped. Soon Amber was feeling the chill and rubbed their arms to keep warm. Roisin stopped her gathering and stood up sharply, glaring over at her sister once again. Deirdre gave a crooked smile and was about to wave her spindly arm again when Gertrude seemed to snap into life. Up she jumped and flashed a scowl at her sisters who shrunk back, appearing genuinely afraid of her. Gertrude stared them both into submission then darted her gaze at Amber.
‘You!’ she snapped, with a point of her bony index finger. ‘Clear this mess away and fix us something quick.’
Amber did as told, as best she could with her clumsy hands. This evening there had been several demonstrations of power she hadn’t seen before. First, with the lightning and the cold she had witnessed some proper magic from the sisters. But mostly she had observed how little Gertrude needed to do to make her younger sisters cower under her anger. The witch was certainly a force to be reckoned with.
Chapter Seventeen – Hector
The next day Amber awoke to a darkened room. Peering out of her bedroom window she saw the sky was almost black with cloud, and rain shot down from the heavens relentlessly. Turning her hands in front of her to inspect them she could see they were blotchy but the swelling had gone down. Time to get to work.
She took a step towards the stairs leading from her room and felt a faint trickle down her thigh. Glancing down it was evident a small amount of blood had seeped from her. Looking to her bedclothes she saw they were stained also. Was this a side effect of the poisonous plant, something unknown to the sisters that had no cure? She would slowly bleed to death.
Quickly gathering up her sheets she rushed to Gertrude’s bedroom. Knocking loudly on her door, not caring for the witch’s fury over what was happening, she heard a complaint from the other side.
‘What is it? This had better be worth waking me for. Look at the time!’
Amber tumbled into the room and held her bedclothes aloft as Gertrude looked on with narrowed eyes, not impressed at being awoken so early.
‘I’m b..b..bleeding. The poison…?’ She looked down at herself, trembling now, the blood still caked on her legs showing below her nightdress.
Gertrude eyed her up and rolled her eyes somewhat unsympathetically before giving a sigh. ‘It’s not the poison, dear. You’re becoming a woman. Congratulations. No doubt you’ll be even more unbearable now. This will happen each month from now on. Get used to it. Swing by later and I’ll give you a brew that will help. Now scram!’
Amber left with mixed feelings; glad she wasn’t dying, puzzled why such an occurrence would happen to a woman. She would quiz the witches some more later, trying to avoid the thought that in the past her mother would have been the one there for her.
She spent the entire of this grey and miserable day indoors. With the curtain of rain descending outside there was no hope of stepping outside and remaining dry. On the bright side, at least Chestnut would get a good drink.
After her usual round of helping each sister she was tasked with mopping the floor to the entrance hall. Lugging up a heavy tin bucket of water from the well in the kitchen she wondered whether simply sticking the bucket outside and waiting for the rain to fill it would have been quicker and easier. As she hauled the bucket past the final step, careful not to slosh it everywhere, she let it clatter onto the hallway floor letting it echo round the room. There she spied Skarpie sitting at the centre of her vision already chewing away at her mop. Therefore Amber spent half an hour wrestling with the dog for control over it. In the end Amber stopped this eternal struggle and allowed the mutt to chomp down, simply dragging both mop and dog across the floor.
Halfway through this ordeal Skarpie rather unexpectedly let go and sat up. It cocked its head to one side having heard something, an unfamiliar stirring perhaps in another part of the house. Amber seized the opportunity to lift the mop out of the dogs reach with a satisfied smile. However as she raised her arms there was the subtlest of sounds, a gentle clinking of metal hitting the floor. Looking down, there lay her library key, having fallen from her pocket.
Like a furry blur Skarpie was over and into its mouth the key vanished. Amber watched in despair as it sped away with small bounds up the stairs. And before she could pursue the rotten thief the front door suddenly flung open with a blast of cold and damp air filling the room. Alarmed, Amber stumbled backwards tripping on her mop. In stepped a tall cloaked figure along with a sheet of blown rain. His cloak was rather elaborately embroidered with bold red and golden shades making up the swirling patterns stitched into the heavy, velvet-like fabric. The weather hung from it, dripping small pools of rainwater where she had just mopped.
Gazing up with mild annoyance from the floor Amber watched as the mysterious visitor lifted back the hood of his cloak, confirming it was a man. His hair was dirty grey, grown down to touch his shoulders. Paying Amber no attention the man removed his cloak and gave it a vigorous shake to remove the moisture. Amber blinked through the unwanted shower.
Finally the man turned and at last noticed the girl sprawled upon the floor before him. He paused for only a moment and made a slight noise through his nose, before stepping past her as if she once again no longer existed. Amber watched as he made his way across the hallway and up the stairs. He was heading in Gertrude’s direction.
She knew who he was of course, but not his name. She had seen the likeness of his face before. There was a much younger version of it captured in the portrait in the old parental bedroom. He was the sisters’ older brother.
‘Hector,’ Gertrude told her afterwards.
He had come, spoken with his sister a brief while, and then left.
‘He’ll be staying the night so make sure the guest bedroom is spotless. He’s gone to talk with the city council for now. They want him to stop the quakes.’
There had unusually been several tremors to rock the house recently. Amber wanted to know more. She found the witches often talked to her now, not expecting to be talked back to but expecting supportive nods, and allowing the odd question to encourage further mudslinging about each other.
‘Gertrude and Deirdre are afraid of Hector.’ This information she gleaned from Roisin.
‘Why?’ Amber had asked.
‘He’s always been a bit stern,’ came the reply.
Then over to Deirdre. ‘Roisin was always spoilt, being the youngest. And she quickly be learning that fluttering her eyelids like butterflies got her what she was a-wanting. And Hector always let her be.’
There was hint of jealousy in Deirdre’s words.
Finally to Gertrude, who submitted in telling Amber what she really wanted to know.
‘Hector had a gift and so did us sisters. But people got jealous of our family.’ She paused in remembrance and then smiled. ‘We showed them though.’
Gertrude gave a small, throaty cackle to herself and seemed lost in a happy memory, no doubt unpleasant for others.
‘Tell me what happened,’ Amber encouraged, knowing Gertrude liked nothing better than talking about herself. Having been interrupted, the witch slyly moved her eyes over to Amber and a cruel smile crept over her haggard, old face.
Chapter Eighteen – The Life and Times of the Aurora Sisters
‘We were once like any normal family. If anything we were poorer than most, living in a small hut no bigger than this room. At night we would cram ourselves into one big bed. You were often awoken by an elbow or a foot in your face. But when a cutting winter was keenly felt, suddenly having the warmth of others mattered.
Father sold junk to make a living. Anything he could lay his hands on he’d try to pass off to someone else, either swapping it for money, food or clothing. I sometimes think people only took his offering because they knew he had a wife and four children back home to feed. It was an undignified way to have to live.
Hector, being the oldest, showed the first signs of magical ability. Though that’s not the only thing that was different about him.’ Gertrude leaned in closer to whisper, as if Hector would overhear. Amber could feel the witch’s warm, stale breath on her soft cheek.
‘He has a tail!’ she hissed and waited for a reaction. Amber scrunched up her nose at the thought.
‘It’s thin and leathery like a whip and long enough to reach the floor, though he keeps it well coiled up. The people in our town knew about it though, and when he started to show his ability they questioned whether he was actually human. But with our mother coming from a foreign island of Tellus they assumed that people in other parts were a bit odd. However we all knew they were just jealous. In a time when magic is becoming increasingly rare, having a family member show promise was like a breath of fresh air, particularly in our cramped and dusty hut.
And the magic didn’t stop with Hector. I will always remember that day the gift awoke within me. Hector was becoming a bully. Overproud of what he could accomplish, his parlour tricks were earning us enough money for a reasonably comfortable living and he knew how important he was. Teasing Deirdre and I had become a habit of his. Then this one day, I remember it was a particularly hot summer’s day, and I was sitting outside trying to catch any breeze to keep cool and Hector sauntered along and decided it would be funny to flick a pebble at me, using only the power of his mind. It bounced off my forehead and he gave a cruel laugh. Then one after another, once his eyes had scanned over the ground to locate a pebble, it would be sent with a ping in my direction. All I could do was try to avoid them, or raise my arms to take the blows, which stung like attacking wasps.
‘Come on, flick them back,’ he would torment.
Eventually I grew angry enough and dared to shout back.
‘Stop!’ I shouted angrily. Hector didn’t like that. How dare I have the nerve to speak out against him? He glared at me, then searched around for a particularly large stone to send my way. I’ll always remember the vicious grin creep over his face as he spotted one. He then looked over at me just to make sure I knew what was coming so he could see the fear register upon my face. Then come my way the stone did.
At first I went to scream with fright, but also there was something else inside which took me over, a strange feeling as if another part of my mind was in control. So rather than dodge what was coming my way my head told me I was going to stop it instead. And that’s exactly what happened. The stone came to a halt about an inch in front of my face and hovered there. After a few seconds it dropped, along with Hector’s jaw.
Following that Father encouraged Hector to teach me more. Hector hated it. All of a sudden someone else was sharing his glory. Whereas Father could already feel the cold, heavy sensation in his hands of gold we would be earning.
Magic became out lives. Father started collecting as many spell books, mystical scrolls and magical texts that he could lay his hands on with the earnings our family had acquired. Many were no good, but a handful were inspirational and his gamble paid off. Soon we were being hired out to help around town, then nearby towns and villages, and then trips to the city. More money quickly rolled in. So much so that Father built us a new house. Suddenly we each had our own room and could get the food and clothing we had always dreamed of.
With the new house we soon realised that Deirdre had been showing her magic for quite some time. Any room she occupied would fall cold. So all that time spent huddling together in the cramped hut for warmth was partially Deirdre’s fault.’
Gertrude said this with a hint of bitterness. She clearly resented Deirdre just as much as Hector had resented her. ‘Once her ability was discovered Deirdre was soon taught to channel it at will. Then all eyes turned to Roisin, who was just a baby at this time. She grew up to be one of the happiest little girls the town had ever known. Always smiling and chirping a greeting to anyone she met. As the years went by we encouraged her to try and move objects by thought, or chant incantations. But nothing worked.
The breakthrough came unexpectedly. There was an incident in town that we were called to. It had involved Roisin. And there was another girl seriously ill. From the account of onlookers it seemed the other girl had been a bit of a bully and had taken Roisin’s dolly. Roisin, for possibly the first time in her short life, got seriously angry. People described her golden braids rising like two cobras ready to strike. Then with a fury of crackling and bursts of light that exploded from her very body she fried the other girl to a crisp. From that day on Roisin showed little emotion except through her magic, and her hair rather strangely turned from pure gold to silky silver.
Father experimented, setting up tests for us. He encouraged Deirdre to imaging a cold so deep any water around us would freeze instantly. At the same time he would try to get little Roisin to ignite that spark she had shown. But Roisin wasn’t interested at first. Father found he had to hire people to come by and shout at her or try and take away her dolly to get any success. They were instructed to quickly do what they were being paid for then run away as fast as they could. But there aren’t many people who can outrun lightning and soon the willing workforce dried up. But by that time Roisin had developed a taste for magic which grew into a hunger and experimenting became second nature.
And then there was me, getting left behind by my sisters. I had the same tricks as always, useful when someone needed a boulder or tree to be shifted, but it wasn’t the spectacular show of magic that Deirdre or Roisin could conjure up. I would leave for errands each day and return to see my sisters magic looking even more impressive, as if they were saving their best performances for when I showed up on purpose. Father noticed this oddity as well. It seemed strange that he would try his hardest with my sisters all day long with little success, and then upon my arrival a miracle seemed to occur. He reckoned there was definitely more to it than my sisters waiting to show off in my presence. So he kept me home the next day to test his theory. At first I was sent across town just to keep out of the way. Then, placing a bucket of water at a suitably challenging distance he asked Deirdre to freeze it, and nothing else. Then of Roisin he requested she send out a bolt to blast the frozen bucket into an icy pulp. The experiment failed.
An hour later I returned and the same experiment was conducted. I wanted it to fail so much. I imagined sending the stupid bucket sailing away through the air and falling through the roof of a nearby house instead. I had the ability after all, but kept my feelings under control.
Deirdre stepped up and we all saw and heard the frosting crisp over the outside of the bucket to tell us she had been successful. Inwardly I seethed with anger.
At the same instant Roisin let out a crackle which tore through the air and shot straight for the bucket. As contact was made the bucket did indeed explode into a shower of snow. But the cloud of flakes, rather than gently descend and settle to the ground, began to spin faster and faster, and rose into the air until a spiralling twister had formed and raced away heading straight for the house I had pinpointed only moments earlier. The damage was costly, but nobody was seriously hurt. Father was elated. His three girls were the key to something very special; the ability to control the weather. Best of all though, I was the one who had made it all happen. It was me who had been responsible for boosting my sisters’ power as well as deciding the path the twister would spin along, all by thinking about it.
Now it was Hector’s turn to quietly bubble with jealousy, especially as a bit more experimenting showed us sisters had no influence on his magic at all, or vice versa. His parlour tricks were being left out in the cold whilst the rest of us became highly sought after. We honed our ability to control the air and the Aurora name soon spread in fame. Of course Aurora wasn’t our real family name, but Muddybottom doesn’t quite sound fitting for our talents, does it? So we travelled the world, bringing rain to the Pel Ulimar desert and calming the monsoons of Trezlar.
Then one day Hector announced he was leaving us for a while. Said he needed to find himself. Even without seeing his tail I could see it was tucked firmly between his legs in shame as he departed. For nearly a year he was gone. Upon his return he declared he had found his true power. I was sceptical, but when he made the ground shake for only a few seconds I realized he was back for good. I don’t know why he felt the need to come back though. Maybe just to prove that he was the strongest after all and would now be in charge. So whilst we three controlled the air, he wielded power over the ground. His ability to stop quakes and tame the fires of Tellus soon made him just as desired.’
Gertrude said this with a tone of regret. She would so dearly have loved for her brother to have faded into obscurity.
‘There was another potential threat to our success. Deirdre actually had an admirer. He was the village idiot, as dumb as she was. They were perfect for each other. But that had to end. He was a distraction, and even without Deirdre’s pitiful magic our power was incomplete. She became sloppy and her magic grew weaker. Hector wasn’t happy. It was making us look bad when we couldn’t deliver on our promises.
At the same time the town was also getting restless with us. Their jealousy grew and grew as our wealth and fame did the same. We started to find ourselves unwelcome. People criticised us, saying they had never experienced such bad storms before, and that tremors had only started when Hector came back. They were accusing us of causing all the problems, so we could demand money to get rid of the problem. The town held a meeting and voted that it was for the best if we left. My father, who had lived in the town his whole life, was heartbroken. Friends and acquaintances had turned against him. We were all angry, but we left with our head held high. Hector moved our house with his magic, gliding it across the ground as if floating it gently over a lake. We came to this very spot in the forest, away from the hateful, jealous stares. Our departure proved to be an unlucky omen for the town. After leaving there was heavy rain, the likes of which had never been seen. The dam was breached and people awoke to find their homes knee-deep with water. The rain continued and inch by inch buildings were swallowed up. The whole town had to be evacuated. I hear there’s a huge lake there now with the whole town still submerged underneath. I suppose we left at the right time.’
Gertrude ended her story with a cruel smile across her face. Staring at nothing in particular, she was thinking of that moment all those years ago. Amber knew it was the sisters who had flooded out the town.
‘I should be the strongest.’ she suddenly muttered. It was more to herself now; an argument she had gone over in her head time and time again. ‘I read in one of the books Father brought home that twins are originally one person that splits in two. The book listed things which can make this happen. Eating Quodgy berries was on the list. We all ate plenty of those. It was cheaper to gather fruit in the forest than buy food at market. My mother must have eaten buckets of them when she was pregnant with us. I’m sure that’s what caused Deirdre and I to separate. Her magic should be rightfully mine. If our power was contained within one person then it would be even stronger than Hector’s. Still, the chance to prove this theory may be close at hand.’
Amber had no idea what the witch’s last cryptic words meant as she left for the kitchen to prepare that night’s meal. Gertrude was clearly up to something. There was no way for Amber to know it at that time, but she was about to find out sooner than she expected.
Chapter Nineteen – Goodbye Gertrude
From what Gertrude had revealed about her family Amber was convinced that the sisters had summoned the recent storm. She also wondered if Hector was responsible for the quakes. The family was rotten to the core and was using its magic for personal gain. Corrupted by magic from a young age, they knew no better. In some ways Amber felt a bit of pity at what they had become. Not much though. They were still fully aware of what they were doing and still also held her here against her will. Nothing could justify that.
Amber was bored. She missed her books. Having kept a close eye on Skarpie she decided the library key must have dissolved in the dog’s stomach. She had even braved the messy task of poking around its greasy-brown, slug-like poo with a stick. But there had been nothing revealed.
That morning Roisin made Amber endure eleven clothing changes before being satisfied. At least Pomroy hadn’t given her a hard time. In fact the baby seemed a lot more pleasant these days, and even genuinely smiled and giggled without the hidden agenda of trying to steal a bite out of her. Though she wasn’t ready to fall his sly tricks.
Gertrude worked her hard in the potion room. The witch was even more irritable than usual, if that was possible, and had rushed Amber like she had somewhere important to be. Her mind seemed occupied with something else and once again Amber found herself dismissed early. Unfortunately she found Deirdre in the garden, so there was no chance of escaping with the remaining power of the potion within her. Though if she left that would leave Chestnut all alone. She had promised to help him escape.
Even more annoyingly, Deirdre stuck by her side for the whole time in the garden, jabbering away about this plant and that, with Amber nodding occasionally to pretend interest. But what she really wanted to do was talk with Chestnut and she kept glancing around in the hope of spotting him, but his camouflage was too complete.
It was during her mindless weeding that Amber made up her mind; if she wasn’t going to get her library key back then she needed to acquire a book by other means. There was only one alternative. Gertrude had a small library which joined her bedroom to the potion room. Amber had already discovered that whilst the witch kept the potion room firmly sealed when out and about, her bedroom and library were left unlocked.
She decided to dare securing a book from Gertrude’s collection that evening whilst they ate. As she served the witches their meals she tried not to appear too over-eager so as not to rouse any suspicion. Then she left them as usual, with Roisin and Deirdre squabbling away at eat other and Gertrude sitting and eating as if in a dream. With the precious time available she made her way to Gertrude’s bedroom. She would have to be quick about it, taking only one book during each trip, with no time to be choosy. And she would have to take the book to her room and read it at night, replacing it with a new one when complete. And because Gertrude didn’t seem to use the books she probably wouldn’t notice one had been taken.
Hastening her way along Gertrude’s corridor she passed the locked door to her own library, slowing down briefly with the wish that she had her key. Then continuing on she reached the end of the corridor where there were two doors. The one straight ahead was for the potion room; the one to the left for Gertrude’s bedroom. Forever hopeful, she tried the potion room, just in case there was the slightest chance Gertrude had forgotten to secure it. Unsurprisingly it was locked so she tried the bedroom door instead. Open as usual.
Entering, she gently closed the door behind her and looked across the room. The door to Gertrude’s cupboard-like library was ajar. After taking a few steps across the room she heard a noise which bought her to a halt. It was coming from the library. Cautiously Amber took several more steps, but this time side-stepped to get a better view inside the small library. A flash of movement caused her to instinctively duck behind Gertrude’s bed. There was someone in there. Amber’s first thought was to escape and raise the alarm to the sisters about the intruder. But that would mean telling them she had been snooping around. There was no good reason for her to be in here, or even near here. But who was this foolish intruder? Had Chestnut found his way into the house and was attempting to access the potion room?
Nervously she raised half her head above the bed and peered across the room. She could hear a muttering and then saw a face. It was Gertrude!
Amber quickly ducked back down. The witch would kill her if she found her in here. But what was she doing in here anyway? It didn’t make any sense. Amber had left her in the dining room eating with her sisters. Could she magically jump through space? Amber had read about this form of magic, but didn’t think it applied to Gertrude. She felt something else, something suspicious was going on. It would explain Gertrude’s strange behaviour at the dinner-table. Was that really Gertrude or just some magical fake to hide the fact that she was up to something? Amber was certain of it.
Remaining crouched by the bed she didn’t dare move in case the witch saw her. She was trapped. Could she squeeze under the bed and wait for Gertrude to leave? What if she was here all night? The other sisters would be expecting her to clear the table. Amber decided to brave a retreat.
She raised her head once more to see if the way was clear. She could see Gertrude turned to the side. The witch was acting peculiar. She seemed on edge, acting nervous and twitchy. It was all very different from her usual bold ways. Amber realised the witch was being secretive. It didn’t suit her. She was clearly doing something she really, really didn’t want her sisters to know about. The secrecy had Amber transfixed.
A creak came from the corridor which caused both Amber and Gertrude’s hearts to jump. Gertrude flew across her bedroom and carefully poked her head round the door. Amber could see she was clutching a sheet of writing paper. The witch seemed satisfied that nobody was about and retreated back into her room. Amber could hear Gertrude’s breathing but not see her. She knew the witch was close by, probably stood on the other side of her bed. She could sense the witch above her, expecting to hear her angry bark at any moment. But instead Amber heard a muttering coming from the witch.
Taking a peek under the bed she could see Gertrude’s feet on the opposite side facing in the opposite direction, so Amber dared to glance over the bed. The witch was stood facing the library, away from Amber. She had the paper held up in front of her and was reading from it. It was a spell. Gertrude had written it herself, having spent evening after evening looking through her library to perfect it.
‘…unwind like string.’ Amber heard the witch whisper before lowering the sheet of paper. She seemed to be waiting for something to occur. But Amber noticed her shoulders fall with disappointment.
And then it happened.
It was the strangest sound Amber had ever heard. To describe it wouldn’t be doing it any justice. But it was like a tearing sound, as if something was being ripped apart with sparks of lightning. And from the air a few feet in front of Gertrude, where the sound had fizzled from, grew a hole of pure nothingness, as if reality itself was being torn apart. It was black like the night. No, not like the night, because even the night had the moon and starlight as company. The entity that grew before Gertrude seemed to contain nothing. If anything, it was eating the light in the room. The whole place seemed duller as if the life and colour were being drained from the entire room’s contents. And after the strange sound it had made entering this world, there was now nothing. Both Amber and Gertrude stared at the silence before them.
Amber suddenly felt a darkness burn its way through her, as black as the void, and her heart fluttered with fear. This thing was dangerous. It wasn’t meant to be here. Gertrude had gone too far; crossing a line that wasn’t meant to be stepped beyond. Gertrude knew it also. The witch took several steps back and bumped into her bed. She turned her head slightly to see what had stopped her retreat. Amber could see the fear etched onto her haggard face. Then before them the black entity pulsed and the room around it seemed to distort. This was something the likes of which Gertrude had never had to face before.
In a flash, a thin tendril of darkness whipped out from the void and coiled itself round the witch’s ankle. Amber found herself jumping up with a sharp intake of breath, wanting to get a better view of the spectacle before her. Gertrude reacted by giving a shriek and pointed her finger down at the black coil that ensnared her. A spark flew from her fingertip towards the darkness, but it sailed right through and scorched the rug underneath.
With a tug from the void Gertrude was on her back and being reeled in like a caught fish. Amber stood motionless, transfixed by the whole display. First the witch’s feet and legs were swallowed up by the darkness. She clawed with her long nails into the rug beneath her to try and pull herself back, but all efforts were in vain. Soon the whole lower part of her body had vanished.
Tilting her head back Gertrude caught sight of Amber gawping at her from the bed. The witch went to say something, but stopped. She was too proud, even as her doom approached, to ask for help. Instead the witch just stared at Amber with her cold, veiny eyes as a second later her head disappeared into the void. Finally the trailing strands of Gertrude’s dirty grey hair were the last Amber saw of her, looking like a nest of rats with their tails poking out from a mound of soot. As the hair was slurped up like a bowl of worms the void immediately collapsed in upon itself, shrinking to almost nothing in a second, until it was completely gone. It left no trace, as if it had never been there at all. Amber remained staring for a good while, too scared to move. However eventually she climbed across the bed and stepped over to where Gertrude had been. Only a hat and the piece of paper the witch had held remained.
Chapter Twenty – Deirdrude
Amber crouched and picked up the piece of paper left by Gertrude, holding it before her, and read:
Become Keeper of Time and summon the Lacunarity.
The gateway will open, and Time runs before thee.
Where past and future collide, and Time itself doth sing.
Beware of its power; happenings unwind like string.
The word Lacunarity seized her immediately. This was the second time she had seen it written. The first had been the parting word of The TimeSunder Histories.
Fortune comes in threes;
Give my blank pages to he who asks for them;
When your life is endangered, become the wind;
Escape – summon the Lacunarity.
Amber shuddered with excitement. This was it, her moment to escape. She must summon the Lacunarity. Though the prospect of seeing that black hole of nothing again actually filled her with dread. But the author of The TimeSunder Histories had told her to. However what if they were wrong, or lying? It could be a trap. She felt that wasn’t the case, but lifting the sheet of paper to recite the words she could see it shake within her trembling grasp. Something wasn’t right. What about the other things The TimeSunder Histories had said.
Fortune comes in threes.
The Lacunarity had been the last of the three items listed. Amber lowered her arm as she contemplated this. It wasn’t the time right now. Someday she knew it would be, but not until the other two predictions had been seen through. However now that the means of her escape was within her own control she was filled with a sense of empowerment.
Folding up the precious note of paper she tucked it with care into her pocket and hastened downstairs. The other sisters would have finished eating by now. Should she tell them what had happened? Perhaps not. She would have to explain the spell. It was hers now.
Back in the dining room she glanced immediately to the empty space that had once been occupied by Gertrude, or her fake double. There wasn’t even a plate there now, as if no food had ever been served.
With a belch and a clatter of cutlery Deirdre finished her meal. Amber glanced over then nearly lost her balance in disbelief at what she saw. Deirdre was sitting there with both hands resting in front of her. Gone was the short stump that she had previously been plagued with, and in its place was a perfectly formed arm and hand. The witch noticed the slack-jawed Amber staring at her and frowned.
‘Are you alright, Wart? Stare anymore and I’ll pop those eyeballs from your head and into one of my potions.’ Amber looked down in submission, but wanted so much to keep inspecting Deirdre’s arm. Maybe she had been mistaken. Shuffling her way over to collect the dishes in front of Deirdre she got the chance to look again. Sure enough, there was a perfectly normal arm. Amber clumsily gathered the crockery and went to collect Roisin’s.
‘I need you to tidy away some clothing this evening,’ Roisin said to Amber. Then yet more surprisingly she asked permission from her sister. ‘That is alright, isn’t it Deirdrude? You don’t need her for anything?’
Overwhelmed, Amber dropped the plate she held. It fell to the floor in slow motion, but all Amber could think about was the name Roisin had just used for her sister. Deirdrude. It was unlikely Roisin would get her own sister’s name wrong the way she did with Amber. And was it a coincidence that Deirdrude was a mixture of Deirdre and Gertrude? Had Gertrude’s spell actually come true and were the twins now as one?
The plate finally hit the floor and shattered with a loud clatter into fragments of many shapes and sizes that scattered across the hard floor of the dining room. Both witches looked at their slave with scorn.
‘That’s fine,’ Deirdrude said to her sister. ‘That’s even if she’ll be of any help at all, the useless oaf.’
Deirdrude gave a wave of her hand and the shards of broken plate lifted from the floor and reassembled into one again before floating over and plonking itself onto the table next to Amber.
That night Amber lay in bed with the piece of paper containing Gertrude’s last words held above her. The final, rheumy glance of Gertrude as she was sucked into the Lacunarity was stuck in her mind. What had become of her? Amber pondered the spell’s meaning, particularly happenings unwind like string. Gertrude must have been playing with Time. That’s what she had meant about changing things the other day. She had wanted to change the fact that she was a twin. She had wanted the power all to herself. Her plan had failed and she had been pulled through this gateway which the spell called the Lacunarity. Her life had been unwound like a ball of string. It was Deirdre who had remained.
Amber knew that one day soon she would be following Gertrude. The TimeSunder Histories had said so. Maybe she would even find out what had become of the witch. For now though she studied the spell, over and over again in her mind, till she knew it without looking. Her biggest fear was its secret falling into the hands of Deirdrude. Gertrude hasn’t been strong enough to control it, but Amber had the feeling Deirdrude was. So taking the candle by her bedside she let its flame lick at a corner of the paper and watched as the spell was slowly eaten by fire.
Chapter Twenty-One – Changes
Over the next few days Amber came to realise that the remaining witches had no knowledge of their departed sister. It was as if she had never existed. Also, Deirdrude commanded way more power than before and didn’t appear half as slow as she used to be. The ear-trumpet was gone and her hearing appeared perfectly normal, if not sharper. It’s like she had become the new and improved, but unfortunately for Amber, crueller Gertrude. Roisin remained the same, except she was now far more obedient of her elder sister. This alone told Amber how terrible Deirdrude could be.
Amber’s daily routine also changed with only two sisters. To the witches the daily pattern was the same as it had ever been, but Amber was growled at several times for being idle when really she was just unsure what was fully expected of her under the altered circumstances.
Roisin’s morning routine remained very similar, and Pomroy still required to be fed but seemed like a much quieter baby. Though when Amber thought about it she realised this hadn’t been a recent change due to Gertrude’s departure, it had happened gradually during her time in the house and he was now a lot more friendly and playful towards her. She even got a few genuine smiles and giggles, with less biting and scratching.
Deirdrude spent her time between the garden and potion room, now having complete knowledge of what to grow and how to make potions. She had little time for Amber who was often left in the garden, though never the potion room to her disappointment. That was still kept securely locked. One of the biggest shocks of change for Amber came when she went to clear out the pig-hut. Expecting the usual squeal of delight from the pig as she brought yesterday’s slops for it to much down upon, Amber was surprised that the appearance of the place seemed cleaner than normal. Then she became concerned when a little movement came from the ball of bedding hay. Thinking poor Scarlet was ill she reached out her hand to give it a stroke only to have the sleepy head of a little girl, maybe a few years younger than herself, poke out from beneath the hay. Amber stepped back sharply and stifled a cry of astonishment.
‘Five more minutes,’ mumbled the little girl sleepily. Amber didn’t respond, which the girl mistook to mean she had to get up. ‘Oh alright,’ she said with a grumble and wriggled her way from her bed. Amber still said nothing but stared at the plump little girl with the red hair dressed in brown rags. ‘What’s that for?’ The girl pointed to the bucket of slops.
‘Er, the um, garden,’ Amber answered unsurely. Where had this girl come from?
‘Have you got my breakfast? You’re the best cook I know, Amber. All the meals I made tasted so bad the Sisters threatened to turn me into a pig.’
The realisation suddenly hit Amber. This girl was Scarlett, the pig.
‘Scarlett?’ Amber cautiously asked.
The girl nodded, expecting Amber to say more. When nothing else she came asked, ‘Are you feeling ok, Amber?’
Amber couldn’t believe it. All along the pig had been a girl, another slave of the witches. Questioning Scarlett as they both toiled in the garden Amber discovered she was from a family of travellers and had been found in the woods, lost whilst playing one day. The witches had taken her in, promising to track down her family. That was two years ago. Scarlett had proved to be a useless cook, and was always being told she was slow and lazy. Amber knew Gertrude had previously gotten tired of poor Scarlett and turned her into a pig. Were they really planning on eating her as well? That was the more horrid thought that went through Amber’s mind.
Amber’s exploration of the rest of the house for change found all traces of Gertrude throughout the house had disappeared. The portrait in the old parental bedroom showed a conspicuous gap where the tall and skinny witch had once stood. Yet occasionally there would be a ghostly whispering reminder of her presence. One such time was whilst Amber was serving dinner to Mamma. The old woman croaked some strange words in her own language, but added the name ‘Gertrude’. Amber tried her best to get some other reaction.
‘Do you remember her too?’ she asked with some hope.
The old woman stopped her babbling and stared suspiciously at the girl standing over her with the over-eager expression.
‘Gertrude,’ Amber encouraged with a smile. ‘You remember her?’
The old woman laboured to raise her frail arm and then slowly extended her veiny, twig-like index finger and pointed at Amber. The girl gave a sigh of disappointment.
‘I’m not Gertrude,’ she said.
But the old woman was no longer paying any attention and had gone back to conversing with the ghosts of her past.
After a few days Amber began to wonder whether Gertrude had actually been real, or just a figment of her imagination. Maybe there had only ever been two sisters and she was just going mad from her time in here. The complete removal of Gertrude grated on her so much that she eventually confronted Roisin about it, in a round-about way.
‘Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have another sister?’ Amber began as she was tidying away a pile of Roisin’s laundry. The witch stopped brushing her hair and turned to stare directly at Amber; a rare event. Amber suddenly felt naked under her gaze and shuffled uncomfortably wondering what next to say.
‘I’ve often dreamt of having another sister,’ came the surprise response from Roisin, who had even stopped brushing her hair. ‘A much stupider sister that I could boss around.’
Amber knew she was talking about the old Deirdre. Roisin stopped short of complaining about how Deirdrude bossed her about. But Amber seized the chance for further investigation.
‘What if you actually had another sister, but something happened to change everything and you could only half remember her, like it was a dream?’
The witch whose face was forever expressionless almost gave a frown at this unexpected comment. Amber could tell she was struggling with the concept. As ridiculous as it sounded, there was something about it that rang true with her.
‘Stop making up such preposterous stories,’ Roisin eventually snapped. ‘Or we’ll send you to the Sorcerer.’
Amber frowned. ‘Who’s the Sorcerer?’ she asked innocently. It was the first she had heard of such a person.
This time Roisin really lost her patience.
‘What an absolutely ridiculous question!’ she shouted. ‘I’m not even going to dignify that with an answer. Have you gone mad? Now go and feed little Pommy and stop bothering me or I’ll turn you into a toad and serve you up for supper.’
Amber plodded over to Pomroy’s room sulking at her unfair dismissal. She doubted the witch was being serious about turning her into a toad. After all, who would do all the cooking and cleaning in this place? But she was intrigued as to who this Sorcerer was. From Roisin’s reaction it seemed as if she was expected to know. Was it Hector? She didn’t think so, otherwise why not just say his name rather than call him the Sorcerer? Maybe she could ask Deirdrude. On second thoughts, if the witch reacted in the same way as her sister then maybe Amber actually would end up as a toad. Once more she longed for her library key. If only she could enter the place. Within it there may be a book referring to this mysterious Sorcerer. There was always Gertrude’s library of course. She had avoided the place since what had happened there. But tonight she decided she would brave a return.
Walking into Pomroy’s room she was surprised to see his crib empty. Then a second later her eyes moved to the side and there in front of her stood a little boy of about seven years with luscious golden hair, brilliant blue eyes and a beaming angelic smile.
‘Hello Amber,’ the boy chirped. ‘I’m all grown up now. We can go play in the garden.’
It was Pomroy.
Chapter Twenty-Two – The Sorcerer of the Golden Keep
Amber stood there stunned, wondering if this was a delayed change that has been triggered by Gertrude’s disappearance. Then from behind her she heard Roisin who had also caught the sound of the strange voice.
‘Who are you talking to, Andrea? Who’s in there with you?’ she asked, waltzing into the room to see the boy standing there smiling up at her. As the recognition hit her, Roisin’s jaw dropped. She reached out for something to hold on to as if about to faint. That something happened to be Amber, who was just as startled because the witch was actually touching her for the very first time, though she hadn’t taken her eyes off the little boy. Then something even more irregular, Roisin’s mask finally cracked, breaking into a smiling grimace.
‘See he’s fed, Anthea dear,’ she instructed before hastily backing out of the room as if allergic to her own son.
Judging by Roisin’s reaction Amber knew this had never been normal. Pomroy had decided to grow up.
Amber left for the garden, with Pomroy at her heels like an obedient puppy. Upon catching sight of the boy Deirdrude smiled, knowing her sister wanted a baby not a little boy. Or maybe the smile had more to do with the magical potential Pomroy might hold. Deirdrude’s greedy eyes were already eyeing up the profit.
Pomroy shadowed Amber around the garden. At first she was glad of the help, but soon found him a hindrance. Plus she had no chance of talking to Chestnut after Deirdrude had departed to the potion room.
That night Amber made her way to Gertrude’s bedroom. Rounding the corner that had once been Gertrude’s corridor she stopped and gazed down its dark and narrow walkway. Memories of the witch’s departure flooded back and she almost felt lost for breath, wanting to leave. She even began to imagine the shuffling of footsteps behind her and turned back to check. There was nothing.
‘Stop being a baby,’ she muttered quietly. Of course she had been down this corridor since Gertrude’s disappearance in order to help Deirdrude in the potion room. But in the dark it seemed a different place, as if the blackness of the Lacunarity was taking over. She forced herself onward. Reaching the end of the corridor she tried the door to the potion room as she always did. Locked. Then apprehensively she clutched at the handle to the bedroom and pushed the door open. Standing in the doorway she surveyed the room. Gertrude’s hat was still on the floor. The only reminder of what had happened.
Taking a deep breath she entered the room and marched with purpose over to the library. The smell of dusty books hit her. She had missed it. So taking a moment she stood for a while to drink deeply from the familiarity.
Amber soon found out that nothing in the library had any order to it. She quickly scanned over the books’ titles, piling up those she thought could be relevant. However delving into the pile of about twenty books nothing could be found that related to the Sorcerer Roisin had mentioned.
Disappointed, and with her usual hour almost up she began adding them back to the shelves, taking the utmost care to place each book exactly where she had withdrawn it from, just in case there was the slightest chance of leaving any evidence she had been here. A noise from Gertrude’s bedroom behind made her fumble the last book and almost drop it. She shot her gaze over, expecting to see a returned Gertrude, or even worse, some sinister being that had escaped from the void. Then out of nowhere there stood Pomroy in a spot that had just a second ago been empty. Amber blinked with astonishment.
‘Sorry to frighten you,’ he said. ‘I was coming to say goodnight and saw you leave your room, so I followed you.’
‘But..’ Amber’s tongue stumbled over itself to get the words out that she wanted to say; that Pomroy had just appeared from thin air. He seemed to guess at her surprise.
‘I can make myself disappear when I like. Sorry for tricking you.’
That explained why Amber thought she had been followed on the way here. Now she felt the need to say something. What if he told his mother she had been in here?
‘I won’t tell anyone; I promise,’ he said as if guessing her thoughts again. ‘I watched you searching. What were you looking for?’
Amber began to wonder if he could read minds as well as vanish so she decided to stick to the truth.
‘I was looking for a book about a Sorcerer, but can’t find anything.’
‘The only Sorcerer allowed to call himself such is the Sorcerer of the Golden Keep.’
This had to be the one.
‘Tell me about him, please,’ said Amber. ‘But I think it’s best we go to my room. If your mother or aunt find me out here they won’t be too happy.’
Pomroy nodded and smiled, then held out his hand. Amber took it and they silently walked back to Amber’s room. The change in the little boy was a welcome surprise. Amber even contemplated letting him into her secret about Chestnut; but she decided not to. Pomroy may have grown up but he was still Roisin’s son and one day he could stamp his foot if ever unhappy and cause her a heap of trouble. She would at least wait until the winter, as Chestnut would have no choice but to come indoors or freeze to death.
‘The Sorcerer is a wicked man, though he claims to have brought peace to the lands of of Tellus.’
Pomroy began his account when he and Amber had settled in her room, bathed in soothing candlelight.
‘He lives in what used to be a city made of gold, where a great war took place. The golden city and the outer castle fell, but the Keep remained standing. From the ashes of battle the Sorcerer shamelessly tread over the bones of the fallen and claimed his place as ruler of Tellus.
Legend has it he has been living in the Golden Keep for a thousand years. He mostly forbids magic as he says it is the one thing that will undo the peace he has created. When he took his place on the Golden Throne it is said that the Dragons departed Tellus. The Sorcerer claims it was he who banished their dark enchantment. Now, anyone caught practicing magic who hasn’t been authorised is never seen from again. Those that do show magical promise are young when they do. It is then that the Children of Tellus are sent to him. He uses the excuse that those with magic must share their talents in a time when it is so rare. Some say they become his magical army against anyone who dares challenge him. But I don’t believe that. Most never return. If my ability is discovered my mother and aunt will have no choice but to let the Sorcerer know. I may be sent away.’
The little boy fell silent. Amber could tell he was scared.
‘I don’t want to go,’ he sobbed, burying his head in his hands. ‘I don’t want you to go either.’
‘I’m not going anywhere,’ she said. Was she lying? She wasn’t sure. Deidrude and Roisin had her imprisoned, but there was still The TimeSunder Prophesy to consider.
She leaned over and gave him a reassuring hug.
‘You’re going nowhere either,’ she said with conviction.
Pomroy looked up at her kind words with a half-smile.
‘We can keep your ability a secret,’ she told him. ‘But how come your mother and aunt are allowed to use magic?’
‘They work for the Sorcerer; they are his eyes and ears in this remote part of Tellus, informing him of those with a magical ability.’
When Pomroy had departed Amber lay in thought. She was sure the Children of Tellus had been mentioned in The TimeSunder Histories. It was the TimeSunder himself who had saved them from a wicked Sorcerer. But that was a long time ago. Amber wanted more than ever to gain access to her library once more. There were too many things changing; she was growing more and more confused with what had been and what now was. Even Pomroy had no memory of Gertrude when Amber had quizzed him. She decided that keeping a written record of events might help. This new task could begin tomorrow evening.
Chapter Twenty-Three – A Warm Summer’s Evening
Amber was home alone. Rather unexpectedly after lunch the Sisters had announced they would be going out. Pomroy, who ate in the dining room with them now, would also be accompanying them; and they would be taking Scarlett to carry various pieces for them.
‘Where are you going?’ Amber asked.
‘Did I ask for any questions, worm?’ snapped Deirdrude with a harsh reply. ‘Just clear this mess up.’
Amber did as told. Whilst tidying up in the kitchen she heard the quick stamping of footsteps on the stairs, announcing someone was approaching. She turned to see Pomroy leap into the room. His cheeks were red with tears.
‘They’re taking me to the Sorcerer’s Watch,’ he wailed. ‘They’re going to hand me over to him, aren’t they?’
The poor boy was inconsolable now. Amber put her hands over his shoulders and guided him to a seat, then handed him a glass of water.
‘What’s the Sorcerer’s Watch?’ she asked.
‘It’s… it’s a meeting they go to every year. It’s how they find out what the Sorcerer’s wishes are; and how they report anything back to him.’
‘So it always happens?’ Amber asked for confirmation.
‘And your mother and aunt no nothing of your ability?’
A slow shake of the head this time.
‘Well then, why are you so upset? You’re a part of the family. It’s your duty to attend these things. Will your Uncle Hector be there?’
Again Pomroy nodded.
‘There you are; nothing to worry about. Come on, dry your eyes. You’re going to be just fine.’
At least that’s what Amber hoped. Would the witches really turn in their own son and nephew? If they found out about his magic they may not have a choice judging by Pomroy’s story of how feared the Sorcerer was.
That evening Amber had planned to put her memories to paper, to help her make sense of all the changes that had occurred. But the prospect of the house all to herself was too exciting an opportunity to let pass. In the end she decided to seek out Chestnut, but not until after she had tried the potion room door though, which was locked securely as always.
‘Pssst, Chestnut,’ she whispered, on her walk through the garden. ‘The witches have gone for the evening. It’s safe for you to come out.’
‘Then why are you whispering?’ she heard Chestnut’s voice ask.
Looking over at a nearby tree she saw a pair of eyes open, and then the rest of Chestnut emerged as if a part of the tree was peeling away. Amber could see that a million times and never tire of how remarkable it looked.
The evening was mild. There had been several hot days of sunshine and the air was humid. Amber sat with Chestnut at a grassy spot. She told him of Gertrude’s disappearance.
‘The only witch I’ve seen is the one in the garden; but I can’t remember if she had one arm smaller than the other. I wasn’t really paying much attention, as most of the time I close my eyes when hiding.’
Amber felt heavy-hearted. It seemed only she knew the truth.
‘Please, tell me of your family.’ She asked this to take her mind off the growing confusion she felt over Gertrude’s departure.
‘We’re nomadic,’ Chestnut began. ‘We move around with the seasons so nobody can hurt us. It also helps us become the stuff of myth in the eyes of humans. Sometimes we never go back to the same place twice. I imagine there are countless people who wouldn’t like us if they knew they’d turn to wood just by touching us.
Amber remembered how her arm had begun to look just like Chestnut’s when she had touched him. From then on he had been very conscious of keeping a polite distance from Amber.
‘My family won’t know what’s happened to me,’ Chestnut said with a lonely whisper. ‘They’ll have to move on soon, so even if I do escape I’ll be all alone. I’ll seek them out if ever I escape from here.’
Amber looked at her friend. He appeared incredibly sad. They were in the same hole, both trapped by these witches, unable to see the ones they loved.
‘You will get out; I promise,’ she said a bit teary. She wasn’t sure exactly how to help, but she would do her best any way she could. ‘Please tell me of the places you’ve seen,’ she suggested, mainly to avoid flooding with sadness. ‘What’s been your favourite?’
A smile rose on the little wooden boy’s face. Considering he was made of wood, he appeared to be surprisingly elastic.
‘I love it when we visit the mountains, and their meadows. We don’t climb too high because it can get too cold. To us there’s nothing worse than ice, other than fire. The meadows in the mountains are so peaceful. And the clear springwater that bubbles from the rocks is the most delicious and pure I’ve ever tasted. And the giant spotted bees that live there can make honey that helps soften bark-peel.’
Saying this he instinctively rubbed at his forearm. It did look a bit dry and cracked. He noticed Amber look down.
‘There are only muddy pools of rainwater for me here,’ he said.’ It’ll do though, don’t worry.’
He gave a gentle smile, which she returned with her cheeks flushing red.
‘One of the other places I dream of seeing again is the sea. There the water stretches as far as the eye can see. It’s said that in winter it can completely freeze over, though we’re never around for such cold weather.’
Speaking of the cold got Amber thinking of Chestnut’s fate again. Summer would soon be drawing to a close and the nights would begin to feel chill. She needed to help him escape before the frosts arrived, or he would have to hide in the house. He seemed to mistrust the place. The front door was only along the corridor and across the main hallway. He could be free in a minute unless the binding spell affected him like it did her. But for Chestnut entering the house wasn’t an option, for now. He was afraid of the confined space.
‘You can’t drink the Sea of course,’ Chestnut continued, breaking Amber’s thoughts. ‘It’s too salty. But the marshes that grow in places by the Sea contain the most delicious soil I’ve ever tasted.’
‘You eat soil!?’ Amber screwed up her face at the notion.
‘Better than eating meat,’ he countered. ‘That’s barbaric.’
All her short life Amber had considered what she ate to be normal; yet now she lived with a family of witches who ate the most disgusting of things and a wooden boy who ate dirt. She tossed back her head, closed her eyes and laughed. It almost shocked her to hear the sound of her own laughter, it had been so long. Her eyes began streaming with water from her merriment. Eventually opening her eyes once again she gazed up through crystal tears into the clear blue sky. There in the heavens she could see the three moons of Tellus and its two brightest stars; Vela and Velorum. They were almost in alignment, the way it was said to have been when Tellus was first formed. Next year they would be fully aligned and the whole of Tellus was preparing to celebrate.
Then in the sky Amber noticed a black moving object high above. Rubbing her eyes for better focus her smile faded as she realised what kind of bird it was.
‘It’s Vlox!’ she cried.
Chapter Twenty-Four – Beast-whispering
The bird wheeled around above them. Chestnut looked up and they both watched it glide down, appearing to make for the open window of the potion room. But at the last moment if gave a flutter of its wings and landed on the roof just above the window.
‘I’ve seen Vlox before,’ Chestnut said coolly. ‘He flies like one of his eyes is hurt. He would probably mistake me for tumbleweed if I ever let him catch sight of me. That bird up there is not Vlox.’
Chestnut kept pulling out these surprises. Amber was amazed how he could tell Vlox had a bad eye just by the way he flew.
Chestnut raised his hands to his mouth and blew, making a low, hollow sound. The bird gave a call and swooped down with a flurry of feathers, causing Amber to shield her face as the bird expertly landed on Chestnut’s outstretched arm.
‘It’s a crow’, Chestnut explained and turned to the bird. Making several strange clicking noises at the bird, it gave several short caws in reply. Amber sat by, still eyeing up the bird suspiciously.
‘It’s true, corvids like ravens and crows will often act as messengers for witches,’ Chestnut told Amber. ‘But not this one. I just asked him if he had seen my family. No luck. The crow says it will keep a look out and let me know.’
‘You can talk to the crow?’ Amber was once again surprised by her remarkable friend. It was almost as if he could command magic, but Amber knew it was his connection to nature, which was just as good as having magical power. She had heard tales of people who could talk to animals; beast-whisperers they were known as.
The bird spread its wings and took flight across the garden. They both watched enviously as it swooped over the wall and flapped to freedom across the forest. Turning back to the hateful house Amber’s gaze fell to the floor a little way in front of the door. There sat Skarpie scrutinising them with its crooked eyes, head tilted to one side. With the arrival of the bird, not even Chestnut had noticed the dog creep up. So instead of Vlox letting the witches know of an intruder it would be the dog.
Realising it was suddenly the centre of attention Skarpie carefully rose to its feet. Amber took a tentative step towards it, but the dog backed off a few paces. She decided to make a dash for it, not knowing quite what she was going to do if she caught the mutt. But Skarpie was more nimble and raced back for the door. Then Amber felt a gust streak past her cheek, causing her hair to whip up. The next thing she saw was a figure dart forward and whisk up Skarpie. There stood Chestnut holding tightly onto the squirming dog. It began to squeal and Chestnut clamped his wooden hand round its snout. He then bent over the animal and seemed to whisper into its ear. The dog immediately went limp and Chestnut lowered it gently to the floor.
Shakily it stood back on its feet and started to cough and splutter like it’s choking. Amber suddenly wondered if Chestnut has managed to poison it. With a gurgling wretch out popped a hairy, slime-ridden ball which slopped onto the floor. The dog then gently trotted inside.
‘You let it go!’ Amber couldn’t believe what Chestnut had done.
‘She’ll be okay,’ he told her.
‘It’s a she? I thought it was a boy.’
Chestnut smiled and nodded to the floor. ‘I think that’s something you’ve been looking for.’
As Amber stared with disgust at the lump of gunk, the realisation finally hit her and she rushed to grab the nearest stick to give it a poke. There nestled within the steaming mound was her library key.
Cleaning it on her apron she held it up with glee.
‘Come with me,’ Amber said, but Chestnut shook his head at the thought of entering the house.
‘Then I’ll bring some books down for you. I won’t be long.’
She raced into the house and flew upstairs to Gertrude’s corridor on a cloud of joy. Her demons about the place were gone in an instant at the sheer happiness of having her library back. Fumbling with the key and flinging the door open she saw everything was as it had been. She had almost expected it to have changed like so many of the things around her. With a smile she bounded over the small room and grabbed The TimeSunder Histories. She also moved her eyes along the shelves to find an appropriate book about the sea or saltmarshes; Chestnut would appreciate it.
‘What are these strange markings?’ Chestnut asked when Amber presented him with the two books.
‘Why they’re letters, which make up words, to read.’ Amber hadn’t thought about Chestnut not being able to read.
‘I’ve seen things like this before, on pieces of wood by the roads that your people make.’
‘They are signposts,’ Amber told him. ‘They let travellers know what direction places lie, and how far they have to travel.’
Chestnut found this amusing. His people roamed about freely, not flocking to a particular location.
‘Teach me how to read,’ he asked. ‘It could be useful to know what the signposts mean.’
Amber liked the sound of this. She used to help her younger brother to read. She decided to keep The TimeSunder Histories aside for now as Chestnut might find it easier learning to read about something he liked so she picked up the book about places by the sea.
Starting with the basics of the alphabet she told him the sounds each letter made, before moving on to words. Chestnut caught on remarkably fast.
‘How do the letters get onto the page?’ Chestnut asked after some time. He had been trying to feel the letters on the page, but they were flat under his touch.
‘Someone writes it with ink,’ Amber replied.
Chestnut frowned not understanding what she had said at all. Amber picked up a nearby twig to demonstrate.
‘Ink is like black water, but thicker; and someone dips the pointed end of a feather into it and then moves it over the page in the shape of the letters. The ink soon dries leaving behind the black marks of the letters.’ She pretended to write with the twig as she described all this. ‘People write down their thoughts and memories, or information about themselves, or others, or the world around them. Anything really.’
Chestnut seemed interested. He liked the idea of recording memories.
‘Do you have any ink?’ he asked. ‘I would like to try some writing.’
Amber sat and thought for a moment. She hadn’t written anything in months. Then she remembered, Gertrude had written her spell. There was an inkwell in her library.
‘I’ll be back in a minute,’ she said and jumped up to retrieve the ink. A few minutes later she was back and sat cross-legged beside Chestnut. He held aloft a feather he had found whilst she had been away. Amber laughed as it ticked her nose.
‘Oh, we need some paper to write on,’ she said downcast. She had forgotten that part and was about to get up to find some inside.
‘Can’t we use the paper in the book?’ Chestnut suggested.
She shook her head. ‘No, it’s been written on already. It would make the page a mess and you wouldn’t be able to read it properly. You’re supposed to write on separate sheets.’
As she said this her eyes rested upon The TimeSunder Histories. It contained several blank pages. And the book itself had specifically told her to give them to he who asked for them. The first prophesy had come true.
Chestnut noticed her expression change. ‘What’s wrong?’ he asked.
‘The book said this would happen,’ Amber said quietly as she reached for it, expecting it to burst into its mysterious multi-coloured flames or at least shimmer in recognition of the significant moment. But it remained looking like it always had.
A nervous shiver ran through her as she warily opened the book. It was as if she had been expecting what she now saw before her. The book’s words had changed.
Chapter Twenty-Five – The TimeSunder Disappears
There was once a figure known as The TimeSunder. He was meant to do good in the world. But something changed; Time flowed off its course and the TimeSunder was lost to Tellus. The darkness of the Sorcerer became absolute. But one girl remembers; she is his last hope.
That was all the words the book now contained. Gone were the tales, the riddles, the prophesies. A lonely tear slowly travelled its way down Amber’s cheek. Her world kept on falling apart around her and she seemed powerless to stop it. Chestnut looked on with concern. He tried to read the passage but the mention of time flowing and losing a person called The TimeSunder made him confused.
‘Don’t cry,’ he said. He wanted to give her a hug of reassurance. He knew things had once again changed for her. He knew the book’s passage spoke about her. He also knew that she had a burden set upon her, heavier than anything he had carried before.
Amber didn’t speak of what was on her mind. But after a period of silence she wiped her face dry with the back of her hand and lifted her book. She tore out several blank pages.
‘The book told me to give you these. What once was written has to be fulfilled.’
Chestnut gratefully received the paper with a bow of his head. Amber fell silent once more, her mind still troubled. The wooden boy remained fixed on his friend. Then raising his hands to his mouth he began to breathe out, producing a reedy-whistle. At the same time he began to make both a low humming noise and higher-pitched warbles.
The sky had begun to darken. Amber looked up once again, awoken by the sounds Chestnut was making. Being made of wood he seemed to make a rather good instrument.
Nearby some of the plants were emitting a strange glow. Amber hadn’t been out here at night so she had never seen their strange behaviour. She wondered if they always did this, or if they were reacting to Chestnut’s music. An assortment of neon colours were flashing from the leaves and flowers in the garden. Tilting her head up slightly Amber also noticed a cloud of fireflies congregating.
The noises from her friend grew in strength until Amber realised he was actually saying words; words of a language unknown to her, but a language that was natural, beautiful and musical. His song filled the atmosphere as if it were part of the air. It felt like he was telling a story, a simple story of a warm summer’s evening; a time for creatures to relax and dance their courtship.
The fireflies above seemed to react in time with the tune, circling and chasing each other playfully, creating ephemeral curves of light-beams in the air. The whole garden seemed to dance, with the plants swaying to the rhythm of Chestnut’s beat.
Amber felt at peace, and in the warm evening she thought of home. Today she should have been playing in the ripening corn fields, which would have grown over her head by now; and picking sweet honeyberries, which her mother would make into jam; and then in the evening she would sit on their porch with her brother and watch the fireflies swarm, just as she was doing now.
A drop of water pattered onto her hand and she looked down, before raising her hand to her cheek. It was soaking wet with tears. She was crying once again, but this time there was a faint glimmer of happiness. With the hope offered to her by whoever had written The TimeSunder Histories she had the conviction her time trapped here wasn’t going to be too much longer. But she had been given a bigger task by the book now. She had to put right what had gone wrong.
Chestnut stopped his singing and looked at the sky in the distance.
‘A storm is coming,’ he said with his nose held to the air, as if smelling the approaching rain. But if only the wooden boy realised the significance of his words in what was to come in the approaching days.
Chapter Twenty-Six – The Rescue
The next day Amber was feeling in better spirits and as soon as she had finished her chores for Roisin and Deidrude she sought out her friend to ask how his writing was going. She found him, or rather he suddenly popped up, at the bottom of the garden, hidden from view of the house.
‘I wrote this,’ he said with a grin, waving a piece of paper at her. ‘It’s about the best tasting mud in Tellus.’
Amber smiled as she read the first few sentences of spidery words. He was doing so well after having only started to learn yesterday. Then a flapping of wings disturbed her reading. A crow had landed on Chestnut’s arm. Amber wondered if it was the same one as yesterday. She noticed it had a tiny roll of paper within its beak.
Chestnut accepted the paper from the crow, which took flight again and sailed off. Smiling, Chestnut handed the small roll to Amber.
‘I think this is for you.’
Amber took the offered paper and carefully unrolled it between her two hands.
We’re coming for you Amber, our darling daughter.
Amber frowned and slowly lowered her arms. ‘What’s this?’ she asked. She didn’t want to believe the words on the little note.
‘I wrote a letter last night,’ Chestnut confessed. ‘I asked the crow to take it to your family in the city. It wasn’t hard for him to find the house that is still in mourning for the little girl sacrificed to the Queleon. They know where you are now, Amber. You’re going to get out of here.’
The news finally sank in. Amber gave a nervous smile and raised her hand to her mouth. Her dreams had finally come true. This amazing wooden boy before her, who could disappear as if part of the undergrowth, who could talk to the animals, who had remarkably learned to read and write in only one evening, he was the truest friend she had ever had. She leapt forward and flung her arms around his neck, throwing her caution to the wind about turning into a wooden girl. If it meant she was able to do half the things Chestnut could do then it would surely be a wonderful way to be.
There were tears weeping from her eyes, but laughter singing from her heart as she finally let go of her friend. No ill effects had come from touching him this time; therefore she leaned forward and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. It seemed that even boys made from timber could blush.
Things moved fast from here. Within an hour Amber could hear the angry voices of many people gathered outside. Deirdrude and Roisin were at the entrance to meet their unwelcome guests. Amber was on the stairs, holding her breath as a wave of excitement surged over her. This was it. The city had come to her rescue, demanding her freedom.
Deirdrude glared at her from across the hall and Amber’s feet stuck fast to the floor, like her shoes were made of lead. She heard her mother’s voice and wanted to call out, but her voice was mute. Eventually Deirdrude’s shoulders lower in surrender to the angry mob. Amber almost tumbled down the stairs as her feet unstuck from the floor.
That first free step outside into the fresh air was overwhelming and she stumbled as if intoxicated. Someone caught her and she looked up to thank the kind stranger. The face of her father gazed down at her with all the love in the world.
‘Pappa!’ she cried and buried her head into his chest. After months she finally felt at peace given the familiar touch and smell of her father.
‘Little Pumpkin,’ he whispered into her ear as he cradled her head, almost unable to say the words from his own disbelief. He was finally holding the daughter he thought lost to him.
As Amber heard these words a shadow crossed her heart. The TimeSunder Histories hadn’t predicted this. She was terrified that this was all a dream and that she would soon wake up in the draughty attic. She never imagined things would end like this. But she knew events had changed since Gertrude’s departure. So things could happen differently to what the book had written. But what about The TimeSunder? What was his fate? She tried to ignore the rising fear within her. It was the voice of Deirdrude that helped take her mind off the growing unease, causing everyone around to look up.
‘As much as I love to see a touching reunion, everyone is forgetting who saved the girl in the first place. We were the ones who banished the Queleon. Who’s to say it wouldn’t just suddenly make a return? And then where would you be? Back to losing a child each year.’
It was a threat; the crowd knew it and awaited her terms.
‘We have a busy schedule and need an assistant,’ Deirdrude continued. ‘I think it is only fair that Amber remain here and help us.’
A murmur of discontent swept through the crowd. Amber felt her father’s grip upon her tighten. He wasn’t going to let her go. The witch sensed the anger and kept talking.
‘Of course, it is only fair that she gets to see her family. I think monthly visits that fit round our hectic lives wouldn’t be out of the question. And I propose that when she comes of age she is replaced with another. A far better alternative than losing a child completely, wouldn’t you all agree?’
The witch ended with a crooked smile, casting a sly sideways glance at her sister who returned the look of satisfaction. The crowd fell to a hush. Amber knew she was staying with the witches. But trying to look on the bright side at least now she would get to see her family, and in a few years would be released.
Amber’s people reluctantly had no choice but to agree to Deirdrude’s terms through gritted teeth. The reunion with her parents was a magical occasion with Amber being hugged ragged. She eventually said tearful goodbyes to her mother and father. A date was set for their next meeting, which Amber’s brother would attend also. She couldn’t wait.
The front door closed after everyone had departed, with Amber still on the wrong side. But she now had a reason for joy. That was quickly extinguished.
‘You sneak!’ Deirdrude spat callously, staring at her with large hateful eyes. ‘After we saved your life you try to throw our gift back at us. I don’t know how you managed it but you’ll live to regret your actions my girl.’
Chapter Twenty-Seven – The Queleon’s Return?
Hector had returned. There had been another tremor the previous night like none before it. The house had rattled away for several minutes. Amber’s body had felt like jelly afterwards and her teeth remained gritted for the hour following. The new and improved Deirdrude was now relishing the apparent failure of her brother.
‘Well, I’m sure you’ll be successful this time,’ she said, rubbing salt into his wounds. The fear Gertrude used to have for her brother had gone. Deirdrude was his equal now; maybe even stronger.
That evening Amber headed to her library. Having it back was a real pleasure. She still had to make a start on writing down her memories of what had been before Deirdrude arrived. She knew she was avoiding it; but why? Maybe she didn’t want to face up to what The TimeSunder Histories now said, and was accepting that at least her family knew she was alive, and she could see them, albeit only once a month. But it wasn’t forever. So instead she looked up earthquakes and their causes. She had a whole book on them, describing some of the awful consequences. She didn’t linger too long here, not wanting to scare herself during the next tremor.
There were various theories described; giants, the oceans pushing at the land, even exploding mountains of fire. That last one just seems ridiculous to Amber. The book described people who had the magic to make the ground move. The book didn’t mention Hector, though it was quite an old book. Amber was sure he could, and was possibly even the cause of the tremors at the moment. Though the way Deirdrude poked fun of his inability to stop them, maybe not.
The book also mentioned that certain animals were known to cause the ground to shake. The giant moles of Pel Ulimar were said to dig through the desert sands at phenomenal speeds creating a huge network of tunnels that would eventually collapse. The book included a drawing. It disappointingly looked like a regular mole.
Dragons were also capable of shaking the ground. Amber had previously looked into these creatures when they were mentioned in The TimeSunder Histories. They were described as being like lizards, but much larger, with hard scales that made up a coat of armour and with huge bat-like wings to soar through the air. They could control raw magic to breathe fire or ice. But there were no dragons left in the world any more. Amber was disappointed. How terrifying, yet beautiful and magnificent they sounded.
Queleon were the final animals on the list. Amber’s attention suddenly picked up at the mention of the horrid creature that she had been sent to as a sacrifice. The book described them as mythical beasts which sought out magic and took on the appearance of what they ate.
Replacing the book about tremors she sought out a book of animals from those she had yet to categorise. She still felt the need to know more of the Queleon. There were three other animal-related books in her collection. One didn’t mention Queleon at all and the other two just repeated what she already knew.
Disappointed she flicked through the book in her hand and looked at the pictures of other animals. There was the Shirf Devil, a small, scrawny creature with huge eyes and long claws. It climbed trees and ate grubs with one extra-long finger poking at holes in the trees. The book also described a Broggle, a rare creature from the mountains of Tellus that could feed on raw energy. It was no bigger than a rabbit but looked like a cuddly woollen teddy bear. Because of their friendly appearance they made very good pets. Amber moved her eyes across the page to see the picture of the animals one by one and then nearly dropped the book as she saw the Broggle.
‘It can’t be,’ she said aloud.
The Broggle in the picture looked remarkably like the Queleon she had been sent to. It brought the memories of that horrific day back to her. If Queleon were supposed to look like what they ate then hers must have had a huge appetite for Broggles at one point.
Amber didn’t sleep well that night, plagued by dreams of Queleon and Broggles. She couldn’t separate the two in her head. Then at one point in her dreams a dragon swooped down and all three caused the ground to shake.
Amber awoke. The house was rocking again and dust was falling into her face from the creaking timber above. Spluttering she sat up and rubbed her eyes, trying to keep herself steady. The tremor didn’t last long. Maybe Hector was finally winning the battle. But no sooner had she thought this when another started up, but not as strong. Amber waited. This one only lasted ten seconds. Quickly she pulled on some clothes and made her way downstairs to prepare breakfast. But as she crossed the landing a third quake erupted. This one was much more violent, almost throwing her down over the railing and into the hallway below.
She spied Deirdrude, Roisin and Hector down there as she clung on. The house rocked from side to side, its timbers creaking and groaning under the stress. The occasional crash of a tile from the roof could be heard smashing to the ground outside.
Luckily the latest tremor came to a rest quite quickly, just like the previous one.
‘Do something!’ Roisin shrieked at her brother. ‘You’re the Master of the ground.’
Amber looked down. Hector’s face had darkened to a colour akin to beetroot. Everyone stared at the flustered man for an answer. But he seemed hesitant. He had tried several times already, and clearly failed. Now he had no idea what to do.
Another tremor. Only a few seconds of shaking. Then another, and then yet another short burst. They were almost continuous now, as if the very ground was going to wrench open and swallow the whole of Tellus. Amber gripped onto anything she could for dear life and made her way as best she could downstairs before the balcony and staircase collapsed from under her.
And then as she finally reached the ground there was nothing. The silence was all too noticeable. Nobody said a word. There was a mixture of relief, anger and embarrassment in the room. Nobody moved for several minutes, almost expecting another shake to occur.
Hector was the first to act. He made for the front door.
‘I must consult my books,’ he announced weakly.
Despite always making sure his tail was hidden from view, at this moment it was well and truly tucked between his legs in shame. He was running back home. It was plain for all to see, and Deirdrude was loving it. She didn’t dare openly smile in front of Hector but her eyes said it all. If they could laugh there would be peals of delight ringing through the house right now, perhaps even bursting into song and dance over Hector’s grand defeat.
‘We have a full library upstairs, brother,’ she dared to comment.
He chose not to hear. Opening the door and taking several strides outside, the sound of splitting timber crashed into the hallway coming somewhere from the surrounding forest. Amber’s memory cartwheeled back to that fateful day in early spring; the day when she had been tethered to a tree awaiting her doom. The sound of trees being parted by the Queleon had sounded exactly the same. It had returned.
Chapter Twenty-Eight – The Awakening of Amber
Hector slowly stepped back from the open doorway. Eventually he looked back to them, speechless. They could see his complexion had turned an ashen grey.
‘What is it?’ Deirdrude snapped impatiently, but even she faltered. Something to trouble her brother in such a way must be something to fear. But before he could muster an answer the entire front of the house was ripped cleanly away, as if made from paper, exposing the outside for all to see. Everyone blinked through the sudden flash of morning sun and shielded their eyes. Dust swirled through the air and pieces of rubble rained down. And through all this commotion there stood a monster, supported by four stout legs, as thick as tree trunks, and still making it nearly as tall as the open house that everyone trembled within. Its rounded, dark green head appeared to be lined with some shell-like armour to protect its face that curved up round the beast’s head into a fan of large horns at the back, like some kind of crown. A pair of menacing eyes peering out at them from underneath the hard mask, sizing them up.
The monster stamped its front foot which shook the ground, and it opened its wide-beaked mouth to let out a screeching roar which left a ringing in everyone’s ears. From behind its large, low body a long tail swung menacingly through the air. The tail’s tip ended with a large bulbous growth that looked a useful tool for pounding any poor victim’s bones into dust.
As they stood there in shock at the house having been so effortlessly torn open, the beast’s tail darted over its body, heading straight for Hector. But rather than beating him flat into the ground, the round tail-end suddenly blossomed like a salivating flower and grabbed Hector like a mouth snapping up food. It swallowed him whole and then swung back up into the air. Everyone looked on in horror as Hector’s prison began to glow, eventually becoming translucent so they could see a paralysed Hector curled up inside like an unborn baby.
The witches turned to Amber.
‘Do what you did the last time!’ Deirdrude shrieked.
‘We shouldn’t have kept her magic locked up, sister,’ Roisin wailed. ‘She’s powerless to help now!’
‘What do you mean?’ Amber said slowly. She was confused. Why would it be up to her to help?
The witches hesitated. Amber knew something was being hidden from her.
‘If I can do something to help then tell me now, or we’re all done for,’ Amber said, a hint of anger rising over her current fear.
The witches glanced at each other again. Amber could tell they were at pains to tell the truth.
‘You saved yourself that day,’ Deirdrude eventually said with reluctance in her voice. ‘My sister here saw the whole thing.’
She looked up at Roisin who shook her head. Both sisters frowned.
‘No, no, that’s not right,’ Deirdrude corrected herself, confused. ‘I guess I was alone. It must have been me. That’s right; I saw you glowing like the golden sun. You cast off the Broggle’s power like flicking away a bogey and it shrank back to normal size.’
Amber had a feeling the sister Deirdrude actually meant was Gertrude, but now wasn’t the time to argue over detail. There were other confusing details, such as the witch calling whatever she was sacrificed to months ago a Broggle. She had read of that creature before. But why did everyone in the city call it a Queleon?
‘You fainted as all this happened,’ Deirdrude continued to explain, seeing Amber’s confused expression. ‘So we used the opportunity to our advantage. We disposed of the Broggle after that, so technically we weren’t lying.’
Amber remembered seeing a light that day not realising she had been its source. As if on cue her body began to give off a faint glow. She looked down at her hands and arms which were starting to sparkle as if a thousand tiny stars were igniting from within her. What was she meant to do now though?
Looking back at the monster a glowing trail seemed to be moving from the prison at the end of its tail that held Hector, down into its body, as if sucking the life-force out of him. Subtle changes started to take place across its body. It grew bulkier than it already was and turned a browner shade, till its skin looked more like hard, sun-baked earth, with dry cracks lining its body.
As the light in its tail faded Hector’s prison opened, releasing him. His lifeless body fell to the floor, skin stretched so tightly over his face it looked like he had been pickled in brine. Hitting the floor his body instantly crumbled into a pile of dust, with loud gasps coming from the crowd of onlookers. They watched speechless as the broken husk of poor Hector began to slowly get sifted away on the breeze.
The creature remained motionless. It seemed content with its fill. Hector must have provided quite a hearty meal with the magical energy he possessed. Its eyes suddenly darted Amber’s way, watching her greedily. It could sense the magic gathering within her.
By now Amber was shining so much she could see the very veins in her arms, pumping blood through her body like rivers of gold. The beast took a step forward, then hesitated and breathed in deeply, as if trying to guess Amber’s strength from her scent. It seemed to conclude it was in no danger of being hurt and Amber saw its tail swing her way, open mouthed for its dessert.
But Amber knew what was coming her way unlike Hector before her and she dived aside to escape its clutches. However a vice-like clamp round her left leg told her she’d been ensnared. Immediately she felt herself being hoisted up and swung through the air. The world became a dizzying blur. When it settled enough she realised she was being held upside down with her arms dangling below her like a ragdoll. Beneath her was the open house with the sisters powerless to help, and there too cowered poor, frightened Pomroy at the foot of the stairs.
The cocoon that was secured around her leg adjusted its grip, pulling in her other leg also. Soon she would be enveloped by this hideous creature’s second stomach and digested into dust. What a way to go; so much for The TimeSunder Histories’ predictions. And then she remembered:
Become the wind.
Those were the book’s words for when her life was endangered. But what was she meant to do? It seemed a most ridiculously unhelpful command. And yet the sudden thought helped to calm her down from the rising dread of her impending doom. The world seemed to slow before her. She looked around as everything swayed back and forth. From up here she could see into the garden, as well as up to the open window of the potion room, which contained her first hope for escape. She felt a tingling in her limbs and her gaze shifted to her flailing hands in the air below her. They had grown paler in colour, no longer aglow like starlight.
It’s already happening, she thought. I’m so weak I don’t even need to be swallowed whole. It’s just going to suck my life away through my trapped legs.
She continued fixing her gaze on her hands which grew fainter and more see-through, until eventually they began to drift apart. It was happening to her whole body; unable to hold itself together, she could feel it floating away. She felt like a ghost, destined to haunt the remains of the witches’ house. In years to come children would brave the journey through the forest to this very spot and scare each other with the tale of the witches and the girl who were eaten by a terrible monster.
As she thought this her consciousness drifted towards the house as if she was the very air itself.
Become the wind.
The words echoed through her mind once again. What exactly had happened to her?
She had now floated near the open window of the potion room and continued to sail right through. Wanting to plant her feet on the floor she felt no sensation of them being physically part of her body at all, or her legs, or her arms. She tried to look at her hands, if look was the right word; with no eyes all she could do was think where her feet would be. Then one faintly came into view. She could also see a hand faintly drawing itself back into shape. It kept growing in substance all the time as if reforming from the very air. Her body also seemed to gain weight and felt like it was becoming part of her thoughts once again. The floor beneath her pressed up on her legs and she found she could stand with a wobble. Her hands, arms, feet and legs were all there again. Raising her hands to her head she could feel the soft skin of her face. What had just happened to her? She had become the wind and under her own will had drifted towards the potion room. But there wasn’t much time for her to puzzle this event over. A shriek from outside had her rushing back to the window to peer out. She arrived to see Deirdrude push her defenceless nephew in front of the beast. Poor little Pomroy trembled there helplessly.
Chapter Twenty-Nine – Feeding Time
Amber needed to think, but didn’t have the time to do so. She whirled back round to face the room. Her eyes swiftly passed over the familiar scene, coming to a rest at the shelf-space she had used so often. The pale green elixir sat there, almost calling to her. Her first thought was to escape; use it to bound out of the window and over the garden wall and get as far away as possible. But what about poor Pomroy? The affection she now felt for him welled up in her, like that for her own little brother. She couldn’t leave him.
Racing over she grabbed the bottle of potion and rushed back to the window. Taking a sip she felt her body pulse with elastic energy. Then she nimbly hopped through the window and gracefully dropped down to the garden below.
‘Chestnut!’ she cried. ‘Please, quick. There isn’t much time.’
With a rustle of foliage and a flash of green her wooden friend was by her side in no time.
‘What’s wrong? What’s all the commotion?’
‘There’s something attacking the house. It has Pomroy. Can you help me free him?’ She held up the bottle. ‘Take a small sip of this. I’ll help you leap over the wall.’
Chestnut eyed up the fluid with suspicion. Amber had already told him about it’s magic, as well as her failed plan of escape when they had first met.
‘You’ll be free,’ she encouraged. ‘It’s my gift to you, after you helped reunite me with my family. Please, trust me. We don’t have much time.’
Chestnut sniffed the potion with a wrinkled nose then carefully took a sip before handing it back. Amber could see the magic take its effect. It was visible even on the outside. His moss-like hair seemed to sprout new growth as if it was reaching for the sun.
‘Not too much, she warned, ‘or you’ll float away.’ The words gave her a flash of inspiration. She had another plan. It was risky but it might just work.
‘Over the wall?’ she smiled at her friend and leapt effortlessly to the top of the stone wall. A gently breeze wafted through her hair. How she had dreamt of this moment, but under much more different circumstances. She felt Chestnut by her side a moment later. They both saw Pomroy now encased in the glowing bulbous prison. He had probably only been in there less than a minute, and could still be seen squirming for freedom.
‘A Queleon,’ Chestnut hissed.
There wasn’t time for further questions. Amber pointed over to the creature’s tail. ‘Please try and free Pomroy. I’ll distract it.’
She leapt down and bounded round the creature to bravely face it head on. Deirdrude and Roisin were nowhere in sight.
‘Cowards,’ Amber murmured under her breath.
The beast’s eyes followed her from behind its armoured mask, recognising the one that had gotten away. She knew it was thinking. It would be assessing the magic she held and how worthwhile she was to digest. Was it contemplating letting Pomroy go? She was banking on it.
Behind it she saw Chestnut leap up to the creature’s tail. She watched as he clamped his strong, vice-like grip directly below the chamber that imprisoned poor Pomroy. The beasts’ eyes rolled with pain. It wasn’t used to its lunch biting back. It swung its tail wildly through the air, but Chestnut wasn’t going to let go.
The beast finally made its move. Out spat Pomroy like a rotten piece of fruit and immediately its tail shot towards Amber. But the weight of Chestnut still clamped there caused its aim to miss. So instead of claiming Amber it glanced off her side. She sailed back several yards hitting the ground hard.
Winded, Amber clambered back to her feet to await its tail once again. It was quicker than she had expected, but the next assault she would be ready for.
However the Queleon had other ideas. Instead of its tail she was surprised yet again, this time by its long and slimy tongue. It darted from its wide mouth and she felt its warm, wetness wrap around her body as if it would squeeze the breath from her. Then in the next instant she was whipped into the beast’s mouth.
Round she rolled, wondering when its huge teeth would mash her to a pulp, or if she would just be swallowed whole. There was a cracking sound like something fracturing, as if her skull had been crushed into several pieces. She felt a sharp pain in her hand thinking at first she had been bitten, but then realised the bottle she had so preciously held onto had been broken. If she hadn’t been in her current situation she could have smiled. Her plan was working, in a way. She had intended on feeding it to the monster all along, but not with herself included. And would it even have any affect at all?
Chesnut’s familiar voice came to her muffled hearing over the slurps and squelches from within the monster’s mouth. She craned her head first one way and then the other, before seeing a glimmer of daylight. There was her friend actually attempting to prise the beast’s jaws open.
‘He surely is phenomenal’, Amber thought. But not wanting to sit around helplessly during her daring rescue she grabbed at a shard of glass and began slashing at the Queleon’s insides with as much force as she could in the tight space. Its grip on her loosened and she wriggled towards the growing light as if being born again.
‘Grab hold,’ Chestnut told her. He now stood there like a toothpick holding open the colossal giant’s mouth. He was actually smiling even through all the danger. She wrapped herself round his slender but strong torso and he let go, leaping backwards. Amber felt the wind rush against her and looked around noticing they were actually at least twenty feet in the air. Landing firmly on solid ground she fell from Chestnut into a face-full of grass. Quickly spitting out the unwanted mouthful of grass-blades she turned herself round and looked up to see their foe was floating slowly upwards, unable to stop itself. The potion had worked.
The Queleon let out a shrieking roar in its defeat so loud Amber covered her ears. Higher and higher it rose and it seemed to be growing fatter and fatter like it was being filled with gas. Its mouth foamed and its eyes rolled and its tail swirled round and round, lashing out but hitting nothing. Then with a huge trumpet from its rear it rocketed even higher into the air and gave one last screech before it exploded with a fizzing boom. A shower of blood and guts rained down, with the pair below hopping to avoid the biggest chunks.
When all the debris had fallen Amber turned towards Chestnut with a smile and threw her arms around his neck, hugging him with joy.
Chapter Thirty – Amber Alone
As Amber embraced her friend their current situation came rushing back to her and she let him go.
‘You’ve got to run, now! If the witches find you, all they have to do is click their fingers and you’ll be charcoal.’
Chestnut held her hand, reluctant to let go. Finally he loosened his grasp. There was a noise from the house and she looked over, but no-one was there; just some loose piece of falling timber. Turning back to whisper one last farewell she was too late. Chestnut had already melted effortlessly amongst the surrounding vegetation.
‘Goodbye,’ she mouthed, and fought to hold back her tears. Then it suddenly struck her; she could make a dash for it too. But taking one more look at the house there stood the two sisters. Her chance was gone. But with what she had learned the witches couldn’t possibly keep her here any longer.
A whimper by her side caused her head to turn. There lay poor little Pomroy sprawled on the ground. She rushed over. He was weak, but seemed ok. Helping him to his feet she heard a noise from the house and looked up. Deirdrude had her arms raised and was patching the house back together from the rubble.
‘Maybe things will be different,’ she wondered. ‘After all, I saved their lives.’
However Amber was in for bitter disappointment when she asked to leave as they were stood in the main hallway.
‘But we have a right to you dear, till you come of age,’ Deirdrude said as a malicious smile grew over her warty face. Roisin gave a small chuckle from behind her sister.
Amber grew angry. How could they be so cruel?
‘You didn’t save me from anything! People will find out what really happened!’
She was shouting now, not caring of the consequences.
‘And what really did happen?’ Deirdrude smiled. ‘It’s our duty to report all magic to the Sorcerer if you have been using any. Imagine that, you’d have to travel the hundreds of miles to his castle.’
‘It would be far better for you if your parents were told that you unfortunately didn’t survive the attack,’ Roisin added.
‘What? No! You can’t do this. I won’t let…’
Amber tried to shout more in protest but Roisin had waved her hand and Amber’s voice was lost as her last words fell from her tongue. She could no longer speak.
‘They certainly won’t be hearing anything from you.’ Roisin waved her hand once again. ‘Or see anything from you.’ The witch pointed a slender, manicured finger across the hallway to a mirror. Amber’s reflection had vanished. The sound of cruel laughter filled her ears; one beautifully melodious giggle coming from Roisin that was lined with pure poison, and one cruel cackle from Deirdrude that was just as equally filled with malice.
‘Do exactly as we say from now on!’ Deirdrude threatened, moving her warty face right up close to Amber’s so the witch’s rotten breath could be smelt.
The poor girl was tasked to work immediately, first clearing the hallway of debris. She felt so isolated. Chestnut was gone; she wouldn’t be seeing her parents now, and she couldn’t even speak her mind.
After a while Roisin returned to assess the handiwork. ‘Time for lunch I think.’
What she really meant was it was time for Amber to make lunch for everyone.
‘Pomroy will need help with feeding, he’s very weak; and don’t forget about Mamma. And this room still needs finishing off. And then who knows, at some point this afternoon you might just find time to hide yourself away in that library you seem to love so much.’
The witch walked away with a cruel smile. Amber was left stunned. She thought the library had been her secret.
‘Don’t think we don’t know where you go and play when we’re asleep,’ Roisin added as she departed. ‘Just be glad we’re such kind souls to allow your own leisure time.’
The thought of retreating to the library that evening suddenly lost its appeal. It was no longer her secret; had never been. It was tainted now.
Dropping the mop she currently held in her hand and leaving it on the floor was the only form of protest she could manage before dragging herself off to the kitchen to make lunch. After serving up the usual slop for the sisters she hurried to Pomroy’s room. He was the one person she still had on her side, and she clung to this for comfort.
When she arrived the poor boy could barely sit up; barely chew his food. Amber assisted by propping him up. At least he could still see her, despite the invisibility spell she was under.
‘I overheard Mamma and Aunt Deirdrude talking before,’ he told her weakly. ‘The thing that attacked us was called a Queleon. For years Aunt Deirdrude had wondered why the people of your city refereed to the beast that you were sacrificed to by that name, when she knew it was an animal known as a Broggle. Now it makes sense to her; the Queleon must have terrorised the city a lifetime ago, but at some point the Broggle came along. It started feeding off the Queleon’s energy, keeping it in a state of sleep whilst the Broggle grew unusually large and wicked from the Queleon’s energy. Everyone had kept on assuming the Queleon was still around. Then when you stopped the Broggle, the Queleon was allowed to awaken once again.’
The little boy paused, breathless; but he wasn’t finished all that he wanted to say. ‘The Broggle can take away magic. It’s what is keeping your magic from growing. It’s hidden somewhere in your room.’
Amber’s jaw dropped at the revelation.
‘I’m sorry Mamma is being so mean,’ he croaked tearfully.
Amber shook her head as if to say it wasn’t his fault. She gently stroked the top of his head for comfort, feeling his super-soft blond locks through her fingers.
The little boy paused and seemed to stop breathing, even going red. Amber began to panic, thinking that something was amiss. But after only a few moments he let out a deep breath and sank down onto his pillow, exhausted.
‘You can speak now,’ he said weakly and closed his eyes.
‘Get some rest,’ she whispered with a faint smile, relieved to hear her own voice again thanks to Pomroy’s magic. She bent over and tenderly kissed his forehead, then left him to sleep.
‘Amber,’ she heard as she was about to leave the room. Turning back he was lying there with his eyes barely open.
‘I decided to grow up because of you. Mamma only liked me as a baby. I don’t care about pleasing her anymore.’
Amber left with a lump in her throat and tears welling up in her eyes. How had the little boy turned out to be so nice when around him his family were so horrid?
Next she had the job of feeding the witches’ mother. It was only just past noon but today had already been too long and she was tired. Trudging to Mamma’s corridor she looked down the long hallway and nearly dropped the plate of food she held. There stood an old man just outside Mamma’s bedroom. He was so thin and pale he looked like a living skeleton. Amber was sure he was a ghost. And this ghost was looking directly her way. It noticed her staring at him and took a slow step forward, raising a frail arm to point to her.
‘You can see me,’ he rasped with a thin voice that sounded like it hadn’t spoken a word in centuries. He took another few slow steps down the corridor and Amber instinctively backed away.
‘Please, don’t be afraid,’ the old man wheezed. ‘It was my daughters who did this to me. They’ve done it to you as well now, haven’t they child? Nobody can see us anymore. I’ve been so lonely.’
Amber stopped as the meaning of the words hit her. This old man was the Aurora sisters’ father.
Chapter Thirty-One – The Sacrifice
Within Mamma’s room they sat. The old woman seemed to be aware that both of them were there, despite the invisibility spell. All the time Amber had assumed she had been talking to herself when she had most likely been talking to her husband. And the way the doors seemed to move by themselves in this place now also made sense.
‘I regret ever encouraging them to use magic,’ he said with such sorrow. ‘It’s all my fault. I had visions of making the world a better place. But when those with power have a rotten core, there’s nothing anyone can do to change their minds. They wanted money and fame, and when I protested too much for their liking I was banished. I sit here most days by my dearest’s bedside. Sometimes she remembers me, but her mind is gone now.’
He fell quiet for a moment, tenderly gazing at his wife.
‘It’s from her that our children get their ability. I can do nothing.’
There was a moment of further silence.
‘I know things have changed,’ he spoke again. ‘I was there when Gertrude was pulled into the Lacunarity. She had been perfecting that spell for years. With such a powerful spell every word is important. In the wrong order, or using the wrong word will completely ruin it. Gertrude finally cracked it. It was probably luck more than skill. I tried to change her mind, but she wouldn’t listen. I thought about letting the other’s know, but I’m too much of a coward. Gertrude would have surely gotten rid of me for good if I’d dared to say anything. And there was part of me that wondered what would happen if she succeeded. Maybe the outcome would be for the better.’
He looked straight into Amber’s eyes.
‘I know you have the spell. It’s pure evil. What have you done with it? Don’t let it fall into the hands of the others, particularly Deirdrude’s.
‘I burnt it,’ Amber told him truthfully.
He seemed happier so she kept quiet about knowing the spell word for word. All his talk of the Lacunarity got her thinking. She had magic within her. It was her own power that defeated the Broggle. The very thought of it made the hair at the nape of her neck slowly rise, and her body trembled. Then there was The TimeSunder Histories’ predictions. Become the wind. That is exactly what had happened to her. She had felt like part of the air; weightless and invisible. There was only one prophesy left to fulfil now. Despite the old man saying it was pure evil, he didn’t know about the prophesy. It was meant to happen; the time was now.
‘You’ll have to excuse me, she said. ‘I have something I need to do.’
Up she got and left. She stormed to her bedroom. She had so far managed to keep her emotions under control but having finally decided to use the spell she quivered with an assortment of feelings; fear, rage, excitement; all raced through her head.
She scanned the room. There weren’t many places to hide something in the bare surroundings. She moved her hands along the timbers above. Nothing. She looked around once more, and then she noticed it, in the corner of the room, a floorboard slightly out of place. Scrabbling at the loose plank with her fingernails she managed to prise it up slightly to get a better grip and pulled as hard as she could. Up it popped and there below was an empty space. Inside she could see the lid of a jar with holes. Lifting it up for inspection there was the tiny creature. It was indeed the Broggle she had encountered all those months ago, still with the white spot off-centre of its chest. It was now such a miniscule thing.
Taking the jar she marched off intending to confront the first sister she found. She came across them both in the main hallway.
‘I found this,’ she said holding the jar up as she approached the two witches.
Deirdrude just gave a smirk. Roisin seemed speechless that Amber could talk.
‘My power is already growing,’ she bluffed. ‘I’ve managed to break the spell of silence on me.’
Then before they could silence her once again, or before she had time to change her own mind, she recited the spell.
Become Keeper of Time and summon the Lacunarity.
The gateway will open, and Time runs before thee.
Where past and future collide, and Time itself doth sing.
Beware of its power; happenings unwind like string.
Silence. Roisin looked anxious. Deirdrude didn’t look impressed.
‘Read that in one of your little books, did you dear? You’ll have to do better than that.’
Deirdrude was mocking her. She raised her hand, meaning to smite the rebellious girl down with her power. But at that moment there was a loud thumping on the door. Amber frowned. This wasn’t what she had expected. The sisters looked puzzled also.
‘Open up in the name of the Sorcerer of the Golden Keep!’ came a command from the other side.
At the same time Amber heard a strange, but familiar sound behind her. Without even looking she knew the Lacunarity had appeared. She remained focussed on the sisters, relishing the perplexed look on their faces as the void drained the colour from the room.
The front door burst into splinters and in stepped two armoured soldiers. They looked at the witches, at Amber, then at the strange entity behind them.
‘We have orders to arrest this household for crimes against magic,’ one of the men announced, suddenly unsure of himself. He was still staring at the void. ‘Do you surrender?’ he added weakly.
‘What do you mean?’ Deirdrude said with a high-pitched and rather unconvincing voice. ‘We have an understanding with the almightly Sorcerer. We are His eyes and His ears.’
The other soldier pointed at Amber, seeing through the simple invisibility spell on her. ‘She wasn’t part of that agreement.’
Deirdrude tried to play dumb. ‘She is a mere servant. The magic she performs is purely from the potions we make her drink; to help the lazy wretch get through her work quicker.’
The soldiers weren’t going to fall for it.
‘Did you really think you could deceive the Sorcerer?’ one of them asked.
Roisin looked desperate. She gave a quick wave of her hand. Nothing happened. She stared at her hand, then at the soldiers and waved it again. Her magic wasn’t working. She gave a shriek of helplessness.
One of the soldiers brought forward a jar, taking off the lid and placing it on the floor.
‘NO!,’ screamed Roisin. She began to step away but was also being pulled forward. At the same time she was noticeably shrinking. She stumbled and fell to the floor. Rolling onto her front she began desperately clawing at the ground with her fingernails. Amber watching with horrific fascination as the witch was sucked into the jar. She recognised the spell. It was a similar one to that which kept her from leaving the house, only in reverse, plus a sprinkle of shrinking.
Another jar was brought forward. Deirdrude knew what was coming. She wouldn’t suffer the indignity of crying over it. So into a jar she went after a bit of a squeeze, as her plump frame got stuck, but eventually went in with a plop. Amber felt a grim but sweet satisfaction in seeing the witches get a taste of their own medicine.
A third jar was suddenly revealed. Alarm bells chimed through Amber’s head. It was for her. She had to escape this instant. So she turned to face the Lacunarity at last. There it was, the infinite nothingness, waiting for her patiently knowing she would come of her own accord. It was her only escape. Amber knew it was the only way to put right what Gertrude had wronged. Her destiny was waiting.
She leapt. The magic of the jar behind began to pull her back. For a second Amber panicked thinking she had left it too late. But the power of the Lacunarity was far greater and it reached forward to take its prize. And so it came to pass that after several eventful months the Sacrifice had finally been made.
About the Author
David Petrey is an online author. His day job revolves around more mundane tasks of making digital maps where he dreams of being a full-time author. When not writing he is most likely reading, gardening or sighing at the growing pile of videogames he finds no time to entertain. See more of his work at
Other books by this author
Please visit your favorite ebook retailer to discover other books by David Petrey:
The quoQuantum Saga
The TimeSunder Histories
The Mischief of Apprentice Brown
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Amber is tethered to a tree, awaiting her fate as the annual sacrifice to the monstrous Queleon. Saved by the Aurora Sisters, a trio of witches, Amber must serve them for their benevolence. The book sees Amber plot her escape, finding unlikely solace in a mystical book, making friends with a strange wooden boy and ultimately realising the inner power she holds to set herself free.