Flames danced over the logs as they burned in the grate in the king’s private study. The king himself sat in a high-backed well-worn leather chair gazing into the fireplace, trying to make sense of the events of the past few months. His train of thought was interrupted by the arrival of his son and the wizard.
“Good evening, sire,” greeted Urquhart, as he took a seat on a low stool to the king’s left. “You summoned us saying it was important?”
“Yes,” replied the king, watching his son lower himself into the chair opposite him. Seeing his son still in agony thanks to the curse’s poison tore at his heart. “It might be something or nothing but I’ve been reading my wife’s diaries. Folk tales and legends fascinated her. I recall that she favoured a tale of three witches from the mountains to the north east of here. Do you remember it, Jem?”
Hearing his mother’s soft lilting voice in his head, the prince nodded and replied, “Yes. She loved that story. I have fond memories of her tucking me into bed and reading it to me from a big blue book.”
“And do you remember the details?” asked the king, his tone surprisingly sharp.
“Some of them. It was a long time ago, father. I remember the book itself more vividly.”
“I believe the book is still here somewhere,” commented the king. “If my memory serves me well, each of the witches was tasked with finding a particular jewel. Once brought together these jewels would give them the combined power to control every living being in the land.”
With a sudden flashback memory vivid in front of him, Jem exclaimed, “And each of the witches had the power to transform themselves into a bird!”
“And one of them favoured the form of a hoodie crow,” finished off the boy wizard calmly. “We need to find that book.”
“All of my wife’s things are still in her bed chamber. Nothing has been touched in there since her death,” said the king, his voice filled with emotion. “I ordered the room to be sealed after her funeral.”
“And where’s the key?” demanded Urquhart bluntly.
“Here,” said the king, handing him a large ornate key on an emerald green ribbon. “You know where it is, don’t you?”
“Yes, your majesty,” replied the wizard, pocketing the key.
“Father,” began Jem softly. “Will you help us search for the book?”
The king turned his chair to face the blazing fire, signalling to his son and the wizard that their audience was at an end.
Leaving his father lost in his memories, Jem followed the court wizard out of the room and down the dark corridor that led to the narrow passageway to his mother’s room. He had been only ten years old when a fever took his mother from him and he had avoided that part of the castle since. It was with mixed emotions that he entered the room.
The air, although stale and musty, still carried a hint of the late queen’s perfume. A film of dust covered everything. Much to their surprise though, there were footprints leading from the window to the dressing table and then over to her writing desk. When Urquhart investigated further, he found bird footprints in the dust on the window sill.
“The witch has been in here,” he muttered sourly. “I wonder what she was looking for and if she took anything?”
“We’ll never know, Artie,” sighed Jem wearily, as he gazed round the room.
It was more luxuriously furnished than he remembered. Memories of sitting on his mother’s knee by the fireplace, of bouncing on her large four-poster bed, of having his hair brushed as he stood by the dressing table all tumbled through his head and he felt tears prick at his eyes. The far wall was lined with bookshelves, each shelf piled high with leather-bound volumes of all sizes and colours. In front of the shelves, the layer of dust was untouched. The witch had been nowhere near the books.
“So what does this book look like?” asked Urquhart, gazing up at the towering library. “We could be here a while trying to find it.”
“No we won’t,” whispered Jem, as he walked across the room towards the books. Instinctively, he reached for a large, slightly battered looking volume on the second shelf from the bottom. “It’s this one.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” said the wizard with a smile.
Once the baby was finished feeding, Amber lifted him onto her shoulder, gently rubbing his small back to wind him. After a few moments he obliged with a loud “burp” then snuggled into her neck. For the first time Blain noticed the baby’s tiny elven ears and smiled.
“Yes,” he said quietly. “I’ll help you if I can but I won’t put either of you in danger.”
“Thank you,” whispered Amber with a relieved smile. “And I promise not to put you at risk either.”
“Do you have a plan, princess?”
“I’m working on it,” she sighed, as she hugged her tiny son. “It would help if I knew what was being transported to the fayre to trade. I will also need to find someone the same height and build as I am.”
“Why?” questioned her friend.
“The less you know for now the better. If you don’t know the details then you can’t be punished if I am caught,” answered the fairy/elf. “Can you get me the trade schedule? The High Council still approves it, don’t they?”
“Yes,” said Blain. “It is on the agenda for our next meeting. Finding someone to match your height and build will be more of a challenge. You are somewhat taller than most of the women in the village.”
“Ah, my elven blood again,” acknowledged Amber. “It doesn’t have to be a female. Just someone my size.”
“In that case, I know the very person,” declared Blain, with a wink.
In the distance they heard the long bow on a horn that signalled dinner time at the High Council chambers. Quickly Blain lifted his cloak and the now empty basket.
“I need to go, princess. I’ll be back in a couple of days. Is there anything else you need me to bring you?”
Amber thought for a moment then, just as her friend reached the door, she said, “Yes. A silver thimble. A needle. Some soot and a rowan twig. A green twig. Not a dried up one.”
“I won’t ask. Consider it done.”
The door closed softly behind him leaving her sitting alone cradling her sleeping son.
Deep in the mountain fortress, two raven haired witches stood staring at the half dead crow that lay at the bottom of a wicker cage. The guard who had picked the bird up from the floor had given it some water laced with wine and it had briefly rallied before collapsing a second time.
“I tell you, it’s our sister!” screamed the smaller of the two witches.
“How can you possibly tell?” squawked the other witch instantly. “There’s no ruby. Karina wouldn’t return without it. That was the arrangement, sister dearest, or had you forgotten?”
“This creature is Karina,” insisted Isabella, the youngest of the three witches. “I can smell magic on her. She’s been cursed.”
“By whom, may I ask?” demanded Greta, the eldest of the three sisters.
“I smell her own magic but it’s been tampered with. I don’t know who else is involved but they’ve had power to match hers. I tell you, this is Karina!”
“Well, if it’s Karina,” hissed Greta with a sneer. “Transform her back!”
“Very well. I will,” snapped Isabella.
Try as she might, the witch failed to transform the exhausted crow back into her human form. Eventually, after an hour or more of wasted spells, she changed tactics. With an intricately woven hand spell, Isabella restored the power of speech to the bird.
“About bloody time, sisters!” screeched the crow, as she struggled to stand.
“I knew it!” declared Isabella triumphantly. “I knew it was Karina.”
“Hmph,” snorted Greta, peering into the cage. “Whatever happened to you, Karina dearest?”
“A meddlesome half-breed fairy and a wizard called Urquhart.”
“Do tell us more,” implored Greta, her curiosity triggered by the bird’s response.
“Let me out of this cage and I’ll tell you.”
“Ah, perhaps not,” commented Greta with a malicious smile. “Explanations before freedom, sister.”
It took the cursed witch a further hour to tell her tale while her sisters crowded round the cage. As she told of the events that transpired in the king’s bedchamber, Greta cursed her stupidity. When her story was told, Karina stood in the centre of the cage staring at her sisters with her black beady eyes.
“Very well,” muttered Greta. With a snap of her fingers, the cage door flew open.
Slowly Isabella reached into the cage and Karina hopped onto the trembling outstretched hand. Not quite the welcome home she had envisaged.