On the table the candle flame guttered and died swathing the hovel in darkness. Light was slowly seeping in through the tattered curtain that partially covered the one tiny window. A stale smell of urine filled the air. Curled in a foetal position on the rotting hay mattress he lay shivering under his torn blue travelling cloak. For three days and torturously long nights he had lain there as the witch’s poison coursed through him, its magic ravaging his body. He had writhed in agony as his youthful body once so athletic twisted and contorted in spasms. A fever had followed and now he lay exhausted and spent- just like the burnt out candle. Sleep, restful sleep, finally came.
When he next woke, bright sun was filtering through the curtain casting shadows on the wall. Unaccustomed to his new form, he stumbled as he tried to get out of bed. Slowly, holding onto the meagre pieces of furniture for support, he made his way to the door. A clean breeze of mountain air swept through the room as he opened the door, its unoiled hinges protesting loudly at the sudden movement. After his dark confinement the sunlight hurt his eyes but not as much as he had anticipated. The world outside looked to be layered in a filthy lace curtain. With a sigh he realised the potion had ruined his sight as well as his body.
Beside the door a walking staff stood propped up. Wrapping his twisted aged hand round it, he slowly ventured outside towards the spring. He needed water – both to drink and to wash with. The foul smell of himself was turning his stomach. Every step was agony as he made his way slowly down the narrow twisting dirt path to the pool and the fresh water spring that fed it. Through a hissing fog he could just hear the birds singing in the trees and the occasional rustle in the undergrowth beside the path. Eventually, sweating and breathless from the exertion, he reached the pool and sank to the ground at its edge, longing for a drink of the cold clear mountain water.
As he bent over the glassy surface of the water, the witch’s curse dealt him a final stinging blow. His true reflection stared back at him from the watery mirror. The youthful good looks, strong athletic body and bright blue eyes. His all too familiar self. Tears fell from his now milky blue eyes.
From her room at the top of the keep the witch witnessed the whole scene in her crystal ball. Seeing her spurned lover reduced to a twisted ancient looking imp brought a malicious smile to her lips. As she watched him remove his cloak she realised though that she had made a mistake. The silver Celtic knot brooch with the dragon entwined in the knot had still held his cloak in place. For as long as he remained oblivious to the brooch’s true identity and power she was safe.
Taking care not to fall headlong into the pool he scooped up handful after handful of clear, cold water and splashed it over his face, washing away the frustrated tears. His skin felt instantly refreshed by the icy liquid. His twisted fingers almost numb, he scooped up a few handfuls to drink. With a sigh he felt the cold water travel through him, chilling him to the core.
Common sense told him this pool was too cold to bathe in but the stench coming from his body reminded him he desperately needed to wash. From memory he recalled a shallower pool further down the mountain, fed by the stream that ran from this pool. If he could get there the water might be a few degrees warmer, more suited to bathing. It would also remove the risk of contaminating the nearest water supply to the hovel with any lingering residue of the witch’s potion.
His arthritic knees screamed painfully at him as he hauled himself to his feet with the help of the staff. In his haste to escape from the bothy he had forgotten to lift a water skin. With a resigned sigh the imp formed a simple plan. He would return to the hut, fetch two water skin, seek out the lower pool and fill the skins before bathing. If there were any clean clothes in the hut he would take these too. To his inner youthful self it sounded like a simple plan that could easily be accomplished in an hour or so; to his aged poisoned “imp” form he knew it would take considerably longer. The additional factor in this equation was the concern that there might not be enough hours of daylight left to make the short journey and he didn’t want to risk being out on the mountain side after dark. In his fever weakened state it would take the last of his remaining reserves of strength to get there and back but in his heart of hearts he knew he had no choice but to try.
Steadier now on his bare feet he made it back to the hut in good time. The air inside the room smelled fresher than when he had left. In years gone by his family had used this hut for hunting trips but it had been several years since any of them had ventured so high into the mountains. A wooden chest sat below the window. A waft of stale musty air filled his lungs as he prised open the lid. Inside there were some clean shirts and breaches. He also found two clean woollen blankets at the bottom of the box. Beside the empty fireplace there was a small cupboard. Inside he found two water skins. The stoppers for them had long since perished however the hide bags themselves looked sound. A canvas bag hung on a hook behind the door.
With the clothes and empty water skins stowed in the bag he picked up the walking stick and began the treacherous journey back down the mountain. Progress was steady while he was on the main path but as soon as he turned off onto the trail that led towards the stream he stumbled and faltered. This path was uneven and overgrown and he doubted if any human had passed this way in the last few years. Several times he had to use the stick to hold back the undergrowth and felt the trailing barbed stems tugging at his cloak, adding to the tears. After what felt like an eternity the path smoothed out and widened revealing a tranquil sunny glade surrounding a large shallow pool half shaded by overhanging branches. An old fallen tree trunk served as a bench as he sank down on to it to catch his breath.
Fumbling the pin of the silver brooch that held his cloak in place he removed the cloak and laid it across the fallen tree to air it. With the two water skins filled and their openings covered over with makeshift stoppers fashioned from leaves and grass “twine”, he slowly peeled off his stinking clothes. Seeing his poisoned naked body for the first time turned his stomach almost as much as the smell of him did. Naked he walked over to the edge of the pool, sat down then slowly lowered himself into its cool shallow waters. Try as he might he couldn’t avoiding catching sight of his reflection but with each glimpse he gradually accepted what had happened and vowed to restore himself to his true form. Using handfuls of moss that he tore roughly from the grass beside the pool, he scrubbed himself until the warty scarred wrinkled skin was red and raw. Taking a deep breath he submerged himself completely, emerging again feeling clean and somewhat refreshed.
Dressed in clean clothes he felt almost human again. Roughly he stuffed the stinking clothes into the bag, picked up the heavy water skins and headed slowly back up the hill to the hut – headed “home”. As he walked he tried to work out what he was going to do next. In his current state he was incapable of returning to the castle and confronting the witch. Top of his list of priorities was to find some food. Without a weapon and with his poor eyesight hunting was out of the question. Trapping might be an option. Fishing was another possibility.
As the sun set and dusk descended, the imp rounded the last turn in the path and the hut came into view. It was a relief to see it. Exhausted and shaking, he finally reached the front door. It was closed over. Surely it had still been open to air the place when he had left? Pushing it open he stepped inside. A fire had been lit in the hearth. A pile of logs lay beside the fireplace. On the table lay two apples, some smoked meat and a small loaf of bread, still warm. The candle had been replaced and its flame flickered in the breeze from the doorway. The hut was empty. Stepping back outside convinced his fever had returned and that this good fortune was a hallucination he looked around for a sign of his benefactor. In the failing light he couldn’t see anyone. With a smile he turned and went back inside, closing the door behind him.
From behind a tree, a few yards from the hut, a young girl watched silently. Satisfied that all was well for the evening she disappeared into the gloaming, her wings glinting in the last rays of the setting sun.
Birds singing in the trees surrounding the hut wakened him from an uncomfortable night’s sleep. Deciding against sleeping on the soiled straw mattress, the imp had wrapped himself in the clean blanket from the chest and slept in the chair beside the fire. With one of the blankets draped round his hunched shoulders, he stepped outside into the new day. The sun was only just rising and there was a damp chill the early morning. Moving stiffly he hobbled over to sit on the bench beside the door. Closing his eyes, he relaxed to the chorus of birdsong until he felt the first warmth from the sun’s rays on his face.
When he opened his eyes he noticed two sacks sitting at the other side of the doorway. Had they been there the night before? Curiosity got the better of him and leaving the wool blanket on the bench, he went over to inspect them. Both of the large hessian bags were packed full of fresh straw- enough to make a new mattress. Sniffing the fresh bedding the imp realised that the straw was mixed with fragrant grasses and pine needles. It smelled fresh and clean.
“Thank you,” he said to the world around him, hoping his benefactor was close by.
In the shade of the trees she watched as he dragged the two large sacks into the hut. From her hiding place she could just see into the room and she smiled as he set to work burning the soiled bedding and replacing it with the fresh scented straw.
The exertions of the previous day and the morning, coupled with the lack of sleep, had taken its toll on the imp’s wizened form. His inner youthful self was growing exasperated by his physical limitations but he knew he had no choice but to rest for the remainder of the day. By late afternoon, with his aching muscles warmed through by the sun’s warmth, he felt able to return to the upper pool to fetch fresh water. As he walked there and back he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched. Occasionally he thought he caught a glimpse of a shadow but his cataract covered eyes were so poor it was almost impossible to be sure.
He had almost reached the bothy when his foot caught on a tree root and he was sent sprawling headlong into the grass and bushes at the side of the narrow pathway. Groaning as bolts of pain shot through his prematurely aged body he lay tangled in the undergrowth. Behind him he was aware of something rustling and he thought he heard a voice muttering.
“Are you hurt?” came a soft musical voice from above him.
Looking up through his lace curtain vision he could make out the shape of a girl’s face.
“I don’t think so,” he replied. His voice came out rough and hoarse.
“Let me help you up,” she offered.
He felt her hot hands take his arm and reach round his shoulders to help ease him into a sitting position. With the girl’s help the imp managed to get awkwardly to his feet. Dusting leaves and twigs off his shirt he said, “Thank you.”
“Are you sure you’re not hurt?” she asked picking up the water skin from the path. By some miracle the makeshift stopper had held and it was still full – not a drop spilled.
“I’m fine,” he assured her. “I take it that it’s you I have to thank for the food and the bedding?”
“Yes,” she replied softly, sounding almost embarrassed. “I’ve been watching over you. I followed you when you fled from the witch.”
“You did?” he sounded surprised. “Why?”
“It’s complicated,” she said as they set off back towards the hut.
Moving out of the shade of the trees into the late afternoon sun, the imp noticed her wings.
“You’re a fairy,” he commented his tone more accusing than he had intended.
“Of sorts,” she replied with a sigh. “That’s another complicated tale “
“Yes and not one for just now.”
“Do you have a name?” he asked intrigued by this odd young lady.
“Amber,” she answered.
“Jermain,” he replied offering her his hand. “Jem to my friends if I have any left.”
“I know. Son of the king. Fiancé of the witch.”
“You have me at a disadvantage. Now how about you sit with me and tell me exactly what is going on here?”
“I guess I owe you some answers.”
As they walked the last few yards back to the hut he discretely surveyed the fairy creature walking beside him. She was tall for a fairy and slender with a long thick auburn braid reaching down beyond her waist. Her majestic wings seemed to sparkle in the sunlight, gossamer thin but strangely veined in gold, almost leaf like. There was something familiar about her but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. She was simply dressed in tight fitting dark green leggings and a loose fitting blouse that was belted just below her ample breasts. Around her neck she wore a small amulet on a leather cord. He felt sure he had seen that amulet before – but where?
“You were at the castle,” he stated as they arrived back at the bothy. “You and I met at the banquet my father held to celebrate my sister’s engagement. I remember you now. You spilled wine in my lap.”
Bowing her head, Amber nodded,” Yes, I did.”
“I don’t remember those wings though.”
“That was part of my bargain with the witch,” sighed Amber sadly. “She granted me one week as a mortal in exchange for some fairy magic.”
“I was sure I’d have remembered bedding a fairy creature,” said the imp with a smile, remembering their night in the castle stables’ hayloft all too clearly now. His father had insisted he take the “clumsy serving wench” outside and punish her for dowsing him in claret. Instead he had taken her to the hayloft above the stables. With a smile he recalled how she had licked away the wine stains from his thighs.
“You wanted answers,” Amber stated diverting conversation away from his memories. “Let’s go inside and I’ll tell you what I can. Time is shorter here than you may realise.”
A short while later they were both seated at the table in the bothy and the fire had been lit. A plate with the remains of the bread and smoked meat sat between them and they both had a cup of fresh water. Nibbling at a crust, Amber began to provide some answers.
“The witch isn’t who she claims to be,” she said quietly as if she were afraid to be heard. “She’s not of this world. My people, my fairy family, have tracked her for years. It would appear she is after your father’s crown and seduced you as a means of getting closer to him. When it became clear that your father could live for a long time yet she plotted to get rid of you to allow her to focus her attention on him. Now that she has dealt with you he will be easy prey for her. He’s distraught by your sudden unexplained disappearance. I have a few contacts in the castle but not many. The news isn’t good.”
“The crown itself or the kingdom?”
“Both. Once she succeeds she will turn your people into slaves. It’s the ruby at the centre of your father’s crown that she really covets. The dwarves from the East who mined it and gifted it to your ancestors had it blessed by Elven magic. The witch feeds on white magic and twists it to her own evil purpose.”
“How do we stop her?” asked Jermain. “I’m of little or no use to my father like this.”
“Not so,” replied Amber pausing to take a sip of water. “In fact you are the only one who can stop her.”
The imp laughed, ”And just how am I meant to do that, my dear? Look at me! I can barely see, hardly hear and have the energy of a corpse.”
“Where there’s magic there’s a way,” promised Amber eyeing the brooch at the neck of his cloak that lay carelessly discarded across the bed.
“Can you reverse the spell?”
“No,” answered the fairy sadly. “But I think I know a way and someone who may be able to help. He too has suffered at the hands of the witch but her curse on him didn’t take full effect. It’ll be risky but we have to try.”
Nodding Jem silently agreed.
“If you’ll let me try I think I can do something to make things a little easier for you for now,” she said hesitantly. “I’m only half fairy but I can perform some basic healing magic. My grandmother taught me.”
“What’s the other half?” Jem asked curiously.
“Elf,” stated Amber. “Now are you prepared to let me try? No guarantees that this will work. Even if it does I don’t know for sure that the effect will last.”
Without another word Amber stood up and moved gracefully to stand behind him. She cupped her slender hands over his ears then gently blew on them. Immediately his head was filled with the sound of tiny high pitched bells tinkling. As she moved her hands away the ringing stopped, as did the hissing he had been hearing. Now he could hear the birds in the trees outside; he could hear the flames licking in the hearth. Next she moved to stand in front of him. Gently she placed her hands over his eyes and as before blew softly on them. This time Jem saw bright stars in a rainbow of colours. When the fairy/elf lifted her hands away, he saw her clearly for the first time. His sight had been restored.
“Thank you,” he sighed with a smile.
Seeing her properly for the first time Jem drank in the delicate beauty that had captivated him several months ago in the hayloft. Seeing her properly he realised that her loose tunic was disguising the fact that she was heavily pregnant. Eyes wide in wonder, he stared up at her as she rested her healing hands on her swollen stomach.
Storming into her room the witch threw her black riding gloves angrily onto the bed. A dull glow from her crystal ball immediately caught her attention. Still scowling she picked the sphere up and scrutinised the image. Her view of the imp’s mountain hideaway was blurred. Someone had cloaked the hut in magic. Either Jermain had accidentally discovered the power within the brooch or someone had discovered him. There was only one way to be sure.
Bolting the door shut, the witch shed her cloak onto the floor and began the short transformation incantation. With a gentle cloudburst of feather she transformed herself into large black hoodie crow. One strong beat of her wings and she was soaring out of the window towards the mountain.
Up on the mountain in the hut Jem stared at Amber, the obvious unspoken question hung in the air. Keeping her eyes cast downwards the fairy turned towards the door.
“Amber,” began Jem softly.
“If we are going to stop her I need to go,” she said calmly. “I’ll be back by dusk tomorrow. If all goes as I hope, we will leave under cover of dark. She’s watching you. I can feel her.”
As she reached the door she paused momentarily then turned back to face him. With a hand resting tenderly on her bump she nodded and whispered, “Yes.”
Before he could respond she was gone.
He sat staring at the closed door for a while trying to make some sense of everything Amber had told him. Despite attempting to maintain a logical train of thought, his mind insisted on focussing on one word – baby. In his current bewitched form how could he support a child? How much time did they have until the baby was due? Could a fairy even safely deliver a half human child?
Suddenly the room felt oppressively hot and stuffy. In need of fresh air, the imp got stiffly to his feet. His tumble had jarred every bone in his twisted body and each step sent knives of pain stabbing through him. Sheer will power and determination got him outside and onto the bench where he had sat earlier. The sun was sinking lower in the sky and a gentle breeze was rustling the leaves in the trees. He gazed out at the magnificent view, relieved to be seeing the world about him clearly again but took little notice of the crow sitting high in the tree closest to the bothy.
Silently he watched the sun set then, with a weary sigh, the imp headed indoors.
Satisfied that all was as it should be, the crow spread her wings and flew back towards the castle.
Under the cover of the trees, Amber began the long trek back down the mountain. In her current condition she couldn’t fly. Her elf senses were telling her that the witch was close by. Using a simple cloaking spell she vanished in among the trees. As she made her way down the steep path a wave of guilt swept over her. It had been cruel of her to leave Jem alone without explaining about the baby but then again perhaps the less he knew about the dangers of that the better. If her calculations were accurate there was less than one full cycle of the moon until the child was due. Hopefully when she reached her destination there would be reassuring news about that as well an up to date report from the castle.
It was after midnight by the time she crept through the sleeping village that was nestled in the shadows of the castle walls. A dog growled at her as she walked wearily along the narrow cobbled street towards the house at the end of the row. The last house was shabby and rundown. Once the door had been painted green but now the faded paint was curling off in large flakes and rot was visible at the hinges. With a deep sigh of relief at having made it there safely, Amber knocked on the door. It was opened within seconds by an elderly woman wearing her night gown.
“Come away in,” she whispered ushering the exhausted fairy into the house.
The older woman led her to the kitchen at the back of the house where a fire was still burning in the hearth. Above it hung a large pot and the room was filled with the welcoming smell of broth.
“We didn’t expect you so soon, child,” said the woman as she ladled out some broth into a wooden bowl. “You look worn out.”
“I’ll be fine in a minute,” assured Amber, sitting on a stool beside the fire. “There was a change of plan.”
“Should I waken him?”
“Not just yet,” said Amber rubbing her back. The baby was stirring, making her feel sore and uncomfortable.
“Drink this,” ordered the woman handing her the bowl of soup. “Has he seen you?”
Amber nodded as she sipped the hot vegetable broth, “I had no choice. He fell. I had to help him”
“How much did you tell him?”
“Enough. Too much,” answered the fairy. “And before you ask, yes he knows about the baby.”
Muttering under her breath the older woman sat down opposite her. Quickly Amber explained all that had happened that afternoon and confessed she had used magic to restore Jem’s sight and hearing.
“Time I wakened him,” declared the older woman. “Urquhart has news for you too.”
Leaving Amber to finish her supper she went to wake the sleeping Urquhart. A few short minutes later she was back leading a small boy, wearing a long white nightshirt, in by the hand.
“I may look like a child but stop treating me like one,” he snapped sharply, yanking his hand free from her grasp. When he saw Amber his face lit up. “Ah my beautiful fairy elf princess! How are you?”
“Tired, Artie,” she admitted with a smile. “It was a long walk back here.”
“In your condition it must have been,” he conceded. “Now what news did you bring that was so important that I had to be dragged out of bed?”
“Oh, Artie,” she giggled. “You’re as disagreeable as a child as you were as an old man.”
“I am an old man.”
“In theory,” she agreed. “Jem has the brooch. It’s still fastened to his cloak.”
“Does he know what it is?”
“Two pieces of good news,” nodded the small boy. “And I have a third.”
“Yes but it can wait. How do you plan to get the prince here?” asked Urquhart bluntly.
“I’ll go back and fetch him tomorrow and bring him back down tomorrow night under the cover of darkness.”
“Risky for both of you,” he commented. “And possibly premature.”
“I can’t leave him up there alone for long,” protested Amber, wincing as the baby kicked her sharply. “And I don’t know how much longer I can make that journey. This little one is due within the next moon, maybe even the current one.”
“Not much time,” sighed the boy. “Fine. Bring him here but not for another few days. I need to get back into the castle. There’s a few things I need to collect.”
“Like what?” demanded the older woman “You’re not the king’s wizard now, Urquhart. You can’t just waltz in there.”
“Actually, I think I can,” replied the wizard. “At least as far as the stables.”
As court wizard, Urquhart had been one of the witch’s first targets. He had been the primary threat to her plans. It had amused her to watch him transform from a formidable aged wizard into a weak eight year old boy but she had underestimated his power. Unable to stop her curse in time, Urquhart had been able to deflect it and, despite his physical change, had retained of full use his magic powers. Masquerading as his sister’s grandson, he had easily hidden himself amongst the village’s children. Only Amber and his sister knew his true identity.
“Care to explain?”
“I’ve made a new friend,” he confessed, his cheeks flushing red. “Martha. She works in the castle kitchens. If we’re lucky she could fetch the items I need to help the prince. Every day around noon she delivers lunch to the workers in the stables.”
“Could she get a message to the King?” asked his sister. “He must be frantic at the prince’s disappearance.”
“Possibly,” nodded the wizard. “But that’s too risky for now. If Martha can fetch the items I need then the prince could be home within the month with a bit of luck.”
He paused, deep in thought for a moment or two, then stared directly at Amber.
“Go back to Jermain tomorrow as planned but don’t bring him here for five days,” said Urquhart calmly. “If I need you both here before then I’ll get a message to you somehow.”
Amber nodded her agreement then said, “You said you had a third piece of good news.”
“Yes,” said Artie coming over to take her hand. “I spoke to your grandmother. You can go home to have the baby. She told me she has sent word to the elves to send a midwife to assist her.”
“If the baby lives will they let me keep it?” she asked, her voice barely audible.
The childlike wizard shook his head.
A single silent tear slid down the fairy’s pale cheek.
Safely out of sight in his hiding place in the hayloft above the stables, Urquhart watched the comings and goings of daily castle life. He had crept out of the house at the end of the village before dawn, slipping into the castle grounds under the cover of the last shadows of night. Nestled in the sweet smelling warmth of the hay, it had taken him all of his time not to fall asleep. In the far corner he could hear the rustling and intermittent squeaking of mice. A shiver ran down his spine. He had never been fond of mice.
Shortly before noon his patience was rewarded as he saw a young blonde haired girl enter the stable below him. Silently he watched as she struggled to drag two bales of straw together to serve as a makeshift dining table before setting out the freshly baked bread, smoked meat and cheese for the workers’ lunch. She sang softly to herself as she worked, oblivious to the fact that she was being watched.
The smell of the bread caused the wizard to drool and his empty stomach to rumble loudly. In his hurry to get to the castle before sun up, he had forgotten to bring any food and had skipped breakfast. Praying that there would be leftovers, Urquhart looked on as the workers gathered round for their midday meal. From his vantage point they resembled a pack of wolves devouring their kill and within minutes the meal was gone and they had returned to work.
“It’s now or never,” he thought as he headed towards the ladder.
A few seconds later he appeared beside Martha, who was pre-occupied with the task of clearing up.
“Hello,” whispered the boy wizard quietly.
“Oh!” she squealed, almost dropping the plate she was holding. “Where did you spring from?”
“Here and there,” replied Urquhart, with what he hoped was a friendly smile. “Any leftovers? I’m starving.”
“Not much,” said Martha shyly, passing him the last of the bread and a tiny sliver of meat.
The girl blushed as he chewed the fatty meat then poured the last of the ale from the jug into a cup for him.
“Wash it down with this,” she suggested.
With the meagre meal over Urquhart offered to help her back over to the castle kitchen with the basket of dirty cups and plates. Between them they carried the large wicker basket across the cobbled courtyard and round to the kitchen door.
“I need to go now,” said Martha, glancing anxiously about. “Cook will be searching for me.”
“Martha,” began Urquhart, slowly moving his fingers to weave a spell of compliance. “Will you do me a favour?”
“If I can.”
“I need you to acquire three things for me,” said the boy wizard, his nimble youthful fingers finishing the silent spell. “Can you bring me Lady Karina’s hair brush, one of her gloves or a stocking that has been worn and not yet washed and the key to the wizard’s tower?”
“I don’t know,” began the girl, looking fearful. “The stocking I can get. We do the laundry first thing every day. I don’t know about the hair brush. What does the key look like?”
“Cook has one on her key ring. It’s small with a snake on it. Very small.”
“I know the one,” nodded Martha. “But why?”
“I can’t tell you, Martha. I’m sorry.”
Subconsciously she was resisting his magic. Weaving his fingers, behind his back, in another intricate spell, Urquhart continued “I’ll meet you the day after tomorrow in the stables after lunch. Bring the items then. If I can, I’ll explain to you why I need those things so badly.”
From behind them, inside the castle kitchens, came a roar, “MARTHA! Damn girl! Where are you?”
Martha turned to run but paused to stare at Urquhart.
“Will you do it? For me?” he asked.
She nodded then ran indoors.
With a sigh the wizard slipped back across the courtyard, into the stables and, keeping to the shadows, retreated towards the castle gates.
As the sun set that evening Amber prepared to leave the house, planning to make her return journey up the mountain under the cover of darkness. She had slept for most of the day but, since she had wakened, the baby had been stirring restlessly making her feel restless and anxious. Rubbing her taut belly she whispered, “Not yet, little one. Too soon. Snuggle down for a few more days.”
Her soothing words were rewarded with a sharp kick to her already tender ribs.
“Are you all right, my dear,” asked Urquhart’s sister, noticing the look of pain cross the fairy’s pale face.
“Fine,” she replied sounding far from convincing. “Times I was on my way back to Jem.”
“Is there no other way?” asked the older woman. “I worry about you travelling up there alone in your condition.”
“I’ll be fine. This little one isn’t due for a while yet,” assured Amber as she lifted the canvas bag of supplies that she was to take with her. “We’ll be back in a few days then I promise to return to my own people in time for the birth.”
“Four days from now?”
“Yes,” nodded the fairy. “No more than five. That was Artie’s orders. It might take two nights of travelling to get back here. Jermain isn’t too steady on his feet and the curse makes walking painful for him.”
“Take care, child,” said the older woman as Amber reached the door. “Be careful.”
Without another word the fairy slipped out into the dusky evening. From the attic window the wizard watched her depart, sending a subtle protection spell swirling after her.
Around the same time high up on the mountain, the imp was sitting on the bench in front of the hut, watching the orange sunset spread across the vista. That afternoon he had gathered some stones together to form a circular fireplace in front of the hut and, as darkness fell, he risked lighting a small fire to keep him warm as he kept watch for Amber returning. As the first flames licked upwards, the hoodie crow spread her wings and headed back towards the castle, safe in the knowledge that the imp was still where he should be and completely and utterly alone in the world.
With a final graceful swoop the transformed witch glided back into her tower room, landing on the end of the bed frame. In her absence the lamps had been lit, the bed turned down for the night, her fresh laundry delivered and the dirty laundry removed. Casting the transformation spell in reverse there was a single puff of purple smoke. As a single black tail feather drifted to the floor, the witch stood naked in front of the full length mirror. She had been fortunate. If the servants had closed the window she may well have found herself stuck overnight on the cold window ledge in her crow guise. Her reflection caught her eye and she smiled. With her slender figure and ample breasts it had been easy to seduce poor Jermain. His father on the other hand was so far immune to her subtle advances.
“Patience,” she thought. “Plenty of time. Jermain’s not going anywhere. Brooch or no brooch.”
Flight always left her long hair tangled and tangles angered her. Quickly she dressed for dinner then sat down at her dressing table to brush out her hair. Where was the ebony handle brush?
“Thieving servants,” she muttered to herself.
Downstairs, in the tiny room beside the castle kitchen a she shared with the cook, Martha slipped the dirty silk stockings – it had been easier to steal a pair than just one- and the shiny black handled hair brush out from her apron pocket and stuffed them under her pillow. Stealing the snake key was going to be more of a challenge.
Shadows seemed to reach out to grab at her as she slowly and carefully made her way back up the mountain. In the dark, the path was treacherous, filling her with a fear of falling and injuring herself or the baby or both of them. Once clear of the village and completely surrounded by dense forest Amber whispered a soft fairy spell and produced faint ball of light that rested in the palm of her hand. The ball emitted just enough light for the fairy/elf to see the path; it gave off more than enough to make the shadows from the trees feel dark and menacing. In the distance she could hear a wolf howling then, a few moments later, a returning lonesome howl. The chilling sound reminded her just how alone and vulnerable she was. The thought was enough to cause her to quicken her pace.
“If only I could fly,” she muttered to herself. Over the past few months the loss of the use of her wings had frustrated her greatly. She loved to fly but pregnancy had made it impossible not to mention dangerous.
After she had been trudging up the mountain for a couple of hours Amber thought she caught a glimpse of a tiny glowing light higher up the mountainside. It was hard to tell but she thought it looked like flames.
Outside the bothy the damp chill of night was creeping into the imp’s wizened body. He added another couple of logs to the fire then fetched a blanket to help him keep warm. In his heart he knew Amber was out there alone in the darkness, risking everything to come back to him. With a sigh, he settled back on the bench and prayed she was returning with good news and some answers. As he stared into the dancing flames, his eyes grew heavy and he drifted off to sleep.
Following the orangey fiery glow kept Amber focussed on her goal. After an initial panic that the hut was on fire, she guessed that Jermain had lit a bonfire outside. The light was too small for a house fire, she reasoned. Every few yards the forest grew too dense for her to see it but then the trees would thinout and the fire would be there blazing like a beacon for her. After another couple of hours, as the fire should have seemed larger and closer, it seemed to be growing dimmer and smaller. With steely determination she focussed on reaching the hut before the fire burned out completely.
The last tiny flames were licking up the side of the charred log as she staggered out into the clearing beside the bothy. Her heart was pounding; she was struggling for breath. She was exhausted. In her hand the glow from the ball of fairy light was growing dim, her magic spent along with the last of her strength. There was just enough light left to show her that Jermain was lying on the bench, fast asleep and snoring loudly. The wool blanket had slipped off onto the ground. Tenderly Amber draped it over him, tucking it in down his back then she kissed his cheek.
“Goodnight, Jem. Sweet dreams,” she whispered as she entered the hut.
Birdsong and the first rays of morning sun roused the imp from sleep. In front of him the fire had long burned cold. Every inch of him ached as he sat up and stretched. Glancing round, he was disappointed that there was no sign of Amber. With a groan he got to his feet and headed indoors to find himself some breakfast.
The bothy felt warm and welcoming as he entered. A fire was still glowing in the hearth. “How could that be?” he thought sleepily.
A movement from the bed caught his attention. He smiled with relief at the sight of the fairy/elf curled on her side sound asleep on his bed. She was safe; she had returned. Trying to be quiet, he added more wood to the fire then hung the kettle over it to boil some water to make tea. Her canvas bag lay on the table and, when he looked inside, Jem was thrilled to find it full of food. Wrapped in a cloth, he found some small round cakes.
“Breakfast,” he declared quietly as he bit into one. The honey sweet taste was instantly familiar to him. In his memories, he was back in Urquhart’s tower as a small boy, sharing the cakes that the wizard’s sister had baked as a birthday treat. Staring first at the half eaten cake and then at the sleeping Amber, Jem wondered if these cakes had been baked by the same hand. His father’s court wizard had disappeared mysteriously several month ago. Was it possible that Urquhart was still alive and that Amber knew where he was? He wondered….
Above the fire, the kettle began to whistle shrilly. Before he could swing it to the side and stop the noise, he heard Amber yawn and moan softly.
“Good morning,” he said warmly. “Welcome back.”
“Good morning,” she replied without making any attempt to sit up.
“Would you like some tea?” offered the imp, feeling a little awkward around her. So much had been left unspoken between them.
A few minutes later he brought her a cup of hot sweet tea and one of the cakes. With a grimace of discomfort Amber sat up, taking care not to damage the lower tips of her wings. Her hand was trembling as she accepted the cup.
“Are you alright?” asked the imp, noting how pale and drawn she looked.
“Just tired. The journey back up here took longer than I expected. Carrying a passenger didn’t make it any easier,” she replied, patting her swollen stomach.
“Yes, we need to talk about that,” stated Jem, taking a seat on the edge of the bed. “How long til the baby’s due to be born?”
“Not long but hopefully long enough,” she replied cryptically.
“I think you owe me an explanation, Amber,” he said softly.
Nodding her agreement Amber stared into his now clear blue eyes then sighed.
“I’m sorry I left without explaining,” she apologised quietly. “It’s complicated, Jem. My fairy family banished me when they found out about the baby. I can’t go to the Elves as they shunned my father before I was born and I have no one there. I was trapped here. Trapped between worlds. A friend in the village took me in.”
She paused to sip her tea and nibble on the small cake then continued, “My friend has petitioned my grandmother on my behalf and convinced her to allow me to return home for the birth of the baby. Elf healers have also been sent for. When we go back down the mountain I need to go home.”
“You said we?” interrupted Jem sharply. “When are we going? And why?”
“Four days from now,” replied Amber. “My friend needs time to acquire a few things needed to break the curse. We’ve to meet him four days from now.”
“At the last house in the village.”
“I knew it!” declared Jem loudly. “Urquhart!”
Eyes wide with surprise Amber began, “How did you…..?”
“The cakes,” laughed Jermain, delighted to learn that the wizard was alive. “His sister baked those cakes in your bag. I ate one a moment ago and knew I’d tasted those before. She baked me some for my birthday once when I was a little boy,”
“Cakes,” giggled the fairy/elf, her tinkling laughter filling the bothy. “I can’t believe that cakes have given him away.”
The imp sat in silence while she explained about the curse that the witch had placed on Urquhart. It was hard for him to imagine the aged wizard transformed into the body of a small boy but it was a relief to hear that his magic powers remained intact. Patiently he listened as Amber explained what she knew of the plan.
“So all we have to do is wait here for four days then go back to the village? Urquhart will take care of the rest?” he asked in disbelief. It sounded so simple.
“In theory, yes,” answered Amber calmly. “All you need to do is to make sure you take the brooch on your cloak to him. It’s the key in all of this.”
“Yes. Artie will explain it all when you see him.”
“And will you need to go home as soon as we get there?”
“I can maybe stay for a day or two,” whispered Amber sadly. “Jem, I need to warn you about something. No one knows if I’ll survive giving birth to this baby. I’m of mixed blood and we’ve introduced a third people into the mix. It’s not certain if this baby or I will cope with the birth. Fairy babies are tiny, not like human or elf babies. My grandmother told Artie that either way I won’t be allowed to keep the baby even if I survive.”
The imp stared at her in shocked disbelief. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. The tears shining in Amber’s eyes told him it wasn’t her choice. Tentatively He reached out to put his arm around her. This simple gesture of empathy was all it took to trigger her tears. With her face buried in his shoulder the fairy/elf sobbed.
“Can’t Urquhart do something to persuade her?” Jem asked as her tears subsided.
“I doubt it. When she makes up her mind there’s no moving her. It might also be the High Council’s orders. Punishment for my behaviour,” she whispered tearfully.
“And if I want to raise our child in the castle?”
“Oh, Jem, I can’t ask that of you,” sobbed Amber. “Even if it were possible.”
“But this is my child too, Amber,” he said softly, still holding her close. “If I can raise him or her, I will.”
“What if the baby is more fairy than human though? Or more elf?”
“Let me worry about that. If it can be arranged with your people, I will make sure the baby is cared for,” he promised faithfully.
Fresh tears flowed freely down her pale cheeks; tears of relief and gratitude at his unconditional offer of support. This was the Jermain that she had been attracted to all these months before.
In the bedroom behind the castle kitchen, the cook lay writhing in agony on her bed. Her guts felt as though they were being ripped out of her as she clutched at her ample stomach. When she had wakened that morning, she had felt a sharp pain in one side. The pain had intensified as the day wore on until, just as dinner was due to be served, she collapsed in agony. Martha had helped her to bed and gone to fetch help.
“I’ve brought the healer,” gasped the young girl as she burst into the room. “The King’s asking for more wine to be brought to the hall but the cellar’s locked.”
“Take my keys, child,” instructed the cook, her words followed by a loud scream pain. “In my pocket.”
Scarcely believing her luck, Martha slipped the large ring from the cook’s apron pocket then stepped aside to allow the healer to examine her mistress.
Quickly she ran to the cellar door, not wanting to keep the King waiting, unlocked the heavy wooden door and ran down the torch lit stone staircase. Safe among the rows of bottles and barrels, she prised the tiny snake key from the ring and dropped it easily into her pocket.
An icy chill crept into Urquhart’s bones as he moved silently along the passageway to his tower. The torches in the wall sconces were almost burned out and the diminishing flames were flickering, casting dancing shadows across the damp stone walls. The wizard had met Martha as arranged at lunchtime and thanked her for acquiring the three items he so badly needed. As she had handed him the tiny snake key, Martha had told him that the cook had passed away shortly after giving her the key. News of the cook’s death had saddened him; the loss of an old friend always painful. He had taken the stockings and hairbrush back to his room in his sister’s house for safe keeping then returned to the castle under the cover of darkness. As he had entered the castle gate Urquhart had spun a silent cloaking spell and disappeared into the shadows. Making the familiar journey to his tower felt surreal, not to mention dangerous. Reaching out with his mind the wizard tried to detect any signs of the witch’s presence in the dark hallway.
The large carved door to his tower room loomed large ahead of him. In the flickering torchlight, the carved serpent design seemed to writhe and slither. With three quick words Urquhart lifted the protective enchantment from the lock then slid the tiny key into place. Despite having been shut tight for months, the lock turned smoothly, allowing the heavy door to glide open soundlessly.
With the door closed and locked behind him, the wizard breathed a sigh of relief and let go of the cloaking spell.
“Home sweet home,” he thought as he gazed round.
Everything was exactly as he had left it. Nothing had been disturbed. A protective layer of dust and cobwebs shrouded his realm.
Time was short and Urquhart knew he had to retrieve what he had come for and leave as carefully as he had arrived. Taking care not to disturb the dust, he tiptoed over to his desk. It was piled high with precarious looking stacks of leather bound books and scrolls. His wand lay in the middle of one of the tomes, marking his place. Resisting the urge to retrieve it, Urquhart instead opened the desk drawer and drew out a long narrow wooden box. Inside lay an intricately carved wand. It had belonged to his master and been passed down the line of wizards for centuries. This slender ancient wand contained an essence of the power of every wizard to ever touch it; this wand was his best chance of ridding them of the witch for ever. He shut the box and slipped it into the canvas satchel that was slung over his shoulder.
Next he went over to a tall narrow glass fronted cabinet. Every inch of shelf space was covered. Thousands of tiny glass bottles filled the entire cabinet. Instinctively his hand went out and he lifted two bottles and slipped them into the bag. He closed the doors over again then paused. A tiny bottle down on the bottom shelf caught his eye. It was a non-descript cloudy grey colour but as he lifted it something sparkled in the murky liquid.
“I wonder,” he mused as he stared into the bottles depths. “Perhaps you are the answer Amber is looking for.”
He slipped the bottle into his trouser pocket, feeling it hot against his thigh.
There was one last thing that he needed. Quickly he darted across the room, opened a narrow door and scampered up the spiral stone staircase to his private study. In the centre of the cluttered room stood a round table with a large wooden bowl in the centre. The bowl was filled with innocent looking coloured pebbles. In silence Urquhart used his fingers to weave the spell to lift the enchantment disguising the bowl. As the spell broke, there was a small flash of light. The bowl now contained an array of sparkling vibrant crystals. With his trained wizard’s ears, he could hear the crystals singing. He lifted a large angular amethyst stone then replaced the protection spell over the bowl. Again it stood silent on the table – an innocuous bowl of pebbles.
His task was complete. In his bag he had the last things needed to break the curse on Jermain. All he needed now was the prince and the brooch.
Their four days together, alone in the safety of the bothy, were too short. Once Amber felt fully rested after her arduous trek up the mountain, they had spent their time taking short strolls, collecting berries, fishing in a nearby stream, talking and finally, on their last full day, taking a swim in the pool near the bothy. Wearing only a long white shift, Amber had allowed the cool water to support her weight, relaxing for the first time in months. Beside her, Jem kept a close watch over her. When she saw his “real” reflection gazing at her from the water, tears pricked in her eyes. In that moment, seeing the love in his eyes, she resolved to do everything in her power to get their baby back to his safe keeping and, if she survived, to return to him.
As darkness fell, they gathered together a few essentials for the journey then stepped out into the dusky evening, closing the bothy door behind them. Taking no chances, Amber spun a cloaking spell to cover them both from prying eyes. She still couldn’t shake the feeling that the witch was watching their every move.
Their progress down the mountain was slow but steady. Both of them needed to rest for a few moments every few hundred yards. Every step jarred Jem’s twisted aged body and walking down hill sent sharp blades of fire through his hips and knees. Beside him, he was aware of Amber struggling, the weight of the baby making walking and breathing difficult. Eventually the lights of the village came into view; the end was in sight.
“Jem,” said Amber softly. “I need to talk to you about something before we reach the village.”
The imp turned to look at her, “Is everything ok?”
“Yes, “replied the fairy/elf. “I want to agree a message between us for after I’ve returned home. Something only you and I will understand.”
“What did you have in mind?” he asked curiously.
Amber fingered the two pendants she wore on leather cords round her neck.
“I’ve worn these since birth,” she explained. “And I intend to pass them on to the baby. I promise to try to find a way to send the baby to you, if I can. If he or she arrives with both pendants then, you’ll know I’m alive too and coming back to join you as soon as I can.”
“And if only the baby is delivered to me?” asked Jem, dreading the answer.
“Then I’ve passed from this life,” whispered Amber, tears glistening in her eyes.
Nodding, Jem reached out to hug her. He placed one wrinkled hand on her swollen belly and promised, “I’ll guard this little one with my life. I promise you that.”
Under his hand he felt the baby give a sharp kick. The first time he had felt the new life move. With a sad smile, Amber held his hand in place while the baby wriggled.
“We need to keep going,” she said reluctantly. “It’ll be light soon and it’s too dangerous for us to be seen in daylight.”
Hand in hand, they continued down the narrow path.
In the house at the end of the village, Urquhart sat alone in his attic room staring out of the skylight at the dawn sky. If all had gone to plan Amber and the prince would arrive at the house shortly. On the wooden floor in front of him he had used the wand to draw an intricate circular pattern. Each of the items were strategically placed in the swirls of the pattern – the hair from the hairbrush, the silk stockings, the amethyst crystal. All he needed now was Jermain and the brooch.
The first rays of sunlight were filtering through the clouds as Amber and Jermain knocked on the door of the last house in the village. Within seconds the door swung open and Urquhart stood there smiling up at them, relief written all over his youthful face.
“Your Highness, Amber, please step inside quickly,” he welcomed warmly.
Closing the door behind him, the wizard ushered them through to the kitchen. His sister stood at the hearth preparing a large pot of porridge. Tears of relief flowed down her cheeks when she saw their visitors had arrived safely. Ignoring protocol she greeted Amber first, hugging the fairy/elf tightly.
“You look exhausted, child. Sit down before you fall down.”
“Thank you,” said Amber, collapsing into the chair beside the hearth.
“Your Highness,” greeted the wizard’s sister, curtseying deeply. “It’s an honour to have you in our home,”
“No need for formalities,” said the imp, taking her hand and helping her to rise out of the curtsey. “It’s Jem among friends.”
Before she could protest he reached out and hugged her then kissed her on the cheek. Despite his current grotesque form, she blushed at the royal attention.
A soft cough from behind him caused Jermain to spin round. Seeing his aged wizard friend standing there looking like an eight year old boy made him laugh.
“Oh Urquhart, you’re a sight for sore eyes.”
“I could say the same to you, young man,” retorted the wizard with a playful smile. “And I see you have the brooch.”
Jem nodded as he fumbled with the silver brooch that was holding his cloak in place. After a few failed attempts, the catch gave and he was able to remove it from the thick blue woollen fabric.
“I believe you need this,” he said as he handed it to his old friend.
“Thank you,” replied Urquhart, slipping the brooch into his pocket.
“Artie,” began Amber, her usually musical voice sounding tired and flat. “Did you get the rest of the things you needed?”
“Yes,” nodded the wizard. “Everything is ready. We need to wait until tonight though before we can attempt this. It’s a full moon and I’d like to draw on that energy to help the spell. Plus you both need to rest before we start. This is not going to be easy.”
“But you can reverse the curse?” asked Jermain as he sat down at the table. “On both you and I?”
“I’ll do my best,” promised Urquhart sincerely. “Now, before I forget, Amber, I have something for you,”
Reaching into his other trouser pocket the wizard brought out the small grey cloudy bottle. He passed it to the weary fairy/elf who gazed into its murky depths at the hint of glitter.
“When your labour pains begin, drink this,” instructed the wizard. “I was given this fairy magic a very long time ago along with a rather cryptic message. I never understood it until now. This was meant for you, my dear.”
“Thank you,” said Amber with a smile.
“Right, enough of this, young man,” scolded his sister sharply. “Breakfast then rest for you two. Artie, if you want to maintain this ruse, you need to get to school.”
Laughing at the thought of the wizard attending the village school, Jem and Amber both accepted warm bowls of honeyed porridge from their hostess.
In her tower room the Lady Karina had taken great pains over her appearance. Finally the king had invited her to his chambers to enjoy a private supper. It was the opportunity she had been waiting for and she wasn’t about to let it slip by. The dark green velvet gown that she had chosen was low cut and well fitted to her slender figure. Her long ebony black hair was plaited with a gold cord twined through it. Around her neck the witch carefully fastened a gold pendant. It nestled between her full breasts. On the dressing table in front of her sat a small bowl containing a pungently fragranced oil. With a knowing smile the witch dabbed the oil behind her ears, on her wrists and into her cleavage. Coupled with the seduction spell she planned to weave, the enchanted perfumed oil should render the king helpless to her charm.
A knock at the door startled her back to reality. She unlocked it and opened it to find one of the king’s pages standing outside trembling.
“His Royal Highness the King is waiting for you, Lady Karina.”
“Well, we mustn’t keep the king waiting,” she purred as she stepped out into the hallway.
The king’s private chamber was surprisingly plain and simple. As she swept into the room, the witch was disappointed by the lack of luxury; at the lack of a woman’s influence. In front of the large fireplace, where a fire burned bright in the hearth, sat two high backed cushioned chairs. The king sat in one, gazing silently into the flames.
“Good evening, your majesty.” greeted the witch as she approached.
“Ah, my dear,” he sighed. “Welcome. No need for formalities this evening.”
“As you wish, sir,” she replied, her tone soft and sultry.
“Please be seated.”
Needing no second invitation, she took the seat opposite him and accepted a goblet of wine offered by a page.
“You may advise the kitchen to bring up our meal,” said the king. “And tell them to make sure the food is hot.”
The page boy bowed then darted from the room, leaving the king and the witch alone together.
Sipping her wine the witch surveyed the room, taking note of the large four poster bed and simple furnishings.
“Not what you expected?” asked the king softly.
“No,” she confessed with a smile. “Less luxurious. Less regal.”
“I lead a simple uncluttered life,” he confessed. “It was more opulent when my wife was alive. She liked pretty things around her.”
Before they could continue their conversation, there was a knock at the door and two maids entered carrying their meal. A third, Martha, followed bringing a fresh jug of wine. The king offered the witch his arm and escorted her across the room to the small table that had been set for them under the open window. As they ate their meal the both made polite conversation about court life; both avoiding mentioning the prince’s dramatic disappearance. Eventually though, after a few more goblets of wine, the king asked if she had heard any news of his missing son.
“It makes no sense,” he declared, gazing at her with grief etched into the lines of his face. “Why would he just vanish like that? So soon after Urquhart took off too. I miss them both.”
Seizing the moment Karina moved round to the king’s side of the table and knelt at his feet.
“I miss him too, sir,” she whispered, forcing herself to sound tearful.
“Of course you must, my dear,” soothed the king, reaching out to stroke her head.
Patiently she sat at his feet and allowed him to console her. With her hands covered by the heavy velvet folds of her gown, she began to weave a seduction spell. Her magic combined with enchanted fragranced oil she was wearing soon began to have the desired effect on the king. All maudlin thoughts of his missing son melted away as the magic captured him. Gently he ran his finger along her jawline, pausing under her chin, to tip her face up towards him. Staring him in the eye, the witch allowed him to bend forward and kiss her, gently at first but gradually becoming more demanding. Slowly she moved towards him until she was kneeling in front of him. With a lustful sigh, the king reached forward and began to unlace the bodice of her gown. With the leather laces loosened, he slipped the green velvet dress from her alabaster pale shoulders, pausing to kiss her neck as the bodice fell to her waist.
“My son doesn’t know what he’s missing,” murmured the king as he cupped her breasts in his hands.
The king pulled her roughly into his lap and began to suckle at her breast before biting her nipple hard. With a grimace of pain, the witch relaxed into his embrace. Her plan was working like a charm.
Darkness cloaked the village when Urquhart came into the bedroom to waken the sleeping prince. Both Jem and Amber had slept the day away in the wizard’s bedroom. Around sunset Amber had wakened and slipped soundlessly from the room, leaving the prince to sleep on. He was going to need all the strength he could muster when it came time to reverse the curse.
“Jem,” called Urquhart softly. “Time to wake up.”
“Mmmm,”mumbled the sleeping imp.
“Boy!” snapped the wizard sharply. “Now!”
“What?” Jem exclaimed, struggling to sit up. “What’s wrong? Is it Amber?”
“Nothing,” muttered Urquhart sourly. “But we need to prepare. My sister has a meal ready for you. Once you’ve eaten the moon should be high enough in the sky to shine into the room.”
Both of them looked over at the magic pattern drawn on the floor, still in shadow.
“And all I need to do is stand where you tell me to?” asked the prince, climbing stiffly from the bed, every movement agonizing.
“Yes,” replied the wizard. “And to stab through the bundle I give you. That will connect you to the witch. You need to hold that pin in place for as long as you possibly can. Hopefully that should give me a strong enough link to reverse the curse.”
“You don’t sound too sure, my friend,” commented the imp nervously.
“There’s always a risk,” stated the wizard. “Now go and eat. You’ll need all your strength to help me with this.”
Dinner was a simple meal of broth accompanied by freshly baked bread. None of them spoke much during the meal; all of them too scared to voice their concerns about what was about to happen. With their bowls wiped clean, the wizard said simply, “It’s time.”
“You go on upstairs,” said Jem, looking over at the silent fairy/elf. “I want a moment alone with Amber.”
Nodding Urquhart left the room, closely followed by his sister. Once alone, the imp reached out to take the pregnant fairy/elf’s trembling hand.
“Is this goodbye?” she whispered, her words barely audible.
“I hope not,” replied Jem with a weak smile. “If I don’t survive this night, I want you to still send the baby back to Urquhart. He’ll know what to do. I’ve left him a note upstairs.”
With tears in her eyes, Amber nodded, “I promise.”
“Amber,” he began,” I….”
“Don’t say it,” she interrupted sharply. “Please.”
“Alright,” agreed the imp. “Let’s do this.”
Hand in hand they made their way up the stairs to the wizard’s bedroom. In the centre of the room the enchanted circle was swathed in moonlight. Taking a deep breath, the imp let go of her hand and stepped into the pool of moonlight, taking his place in the intricate design. Urquhart stepped forward and instructed his sister and Amber to step back well clear of the moonlight. The wizard lifted one of the silk stockings from its mark on the floor and some of the witch’s hair, that had been teased from the brush, from its spot. Wrapping the two together he handed the bundle to the prince then passed him the brooch.
“When I give the word,” said the wizard calmly. “Force the pin of the brooch into this and hold it there for as long as you can.”
“That’s all I need to do?”
“Trust me, that will be challenge enough. This is going to be painful for both of us.”
With a final glance up at the full moon, Urquhart raised the wand and said simply, “Now.”
As Jem pressed the sharp silver pin through the bundle in his hand, the wizard began his incantation. Blinding pain shot through the imp’s cursed body and he let out a blood curdling scream of agony. As he collapsed onto the floor, Amber felt a sharp pain crush her swollen stomach, momentarily taking her breath away. Her leggings felt wet and, as she looked down, a pool of liquid was spreading across the floor towards the moonlight.
Entwined in the king’s arms, naked after their lovemaking, the witch glanced out of the window at the full moon. Soon the ruby would be hers. The plan was falling beautifully into place.
A sharp shooting pain suddenly filled her head. Instinctively she brought her hands up to grab her temples. Magic, cursed magic, was flooding into her! Her body began to writhe and contort in agony. Beside her the king looked on in horror as the beautiful woman he had bedded began to transform into a hag. The witch gathered enough strength to cast her transformation spell. In the blink of an eye, she was gone. A bewildered king watched as a large black hoodie crow, with a white flash on its wings, flew out of the window and into the darkness.
A single black feather lay on the pillow beside him.
As the crow flew overhead, two tall slender visitors arrived outside the last house in the village. The two elves didn’t stop to knock. Knowing that time was now against them, they walked straight into the house.
With a scream Jem awoke. It was daylight. He was lying in a clean white bed. Searing fire was coursing up his left arm. It was this pain that had caused him to scream.
The door to the room opened and Urquhart’s sister came rushing in.
“How are you feeling?” she asked as she placed a cold damp cloth across his forehead. “We’ve been anxious about you.”
“I don’t know,” sighed the prince, the coolness of the cloth on his fevered brow feeling divine. Before he could say anything else another bolt of feverish pain shot through him and he lost consciousness again.
“Was he awake?” asked Urquhart from the doorway.
“Briefly,” replied his sister. “Then the fever took him again. I think you should send for his father, Artie.”
Nodding in silent agreement the wizard said, “I’ll take a message to the castle.”
For three long days and nights Urquhart and his sister had watched the prince fight the fever triggered by the reversal of the curse. His screams had echoed round the house as his battered body battled with the magic coursing through his veins. Without a word of complaint, Urquhart’s sister had sat with him, trying to break the fever by bathing him down with cool water every few hours. The magic had badly burned his left hand and arm. Taking great care, she had dressed the burns regularly, fearful of infection setting in. Now, while he was unconscious again, she began to remove the soiled bandages, knowing that the slightest touch must be excruciatingly painful for him.
With a folded sheet of paper clutched in his hand, the page burst into the king’s private chamber. From his seat at the fireplace, the king looked up, one eyebrow raised.
“This better be urgent, boy!”
“It is, your majesty,” promised the boy breathlessly. “It’s a message from Master Urquhart.”
“Urquhart? You’re sure?” quizzed the king, his tone sharp, as he took the note.
“Yes. A young boy delivered it a moment ago. Said it came straight from Urquhart.”
The note was short and straight to the point; typically Urquhart-ish.
“Sire, I am at my sister’s house. It is the last house in the village. I have news of Jermain for your ears and eyes only. Urquhart.”
“And you are sure this isn’t a hoax or a trap, boy?” asked the king, folding the note over.
“I’ve seen the boy before, your majesty. He hangs about the stables. I think Martha, one of the kitchen maids, slips him leftovers from the workers’ lunch,” replied the page.
“Fine. Go to the stable. Tell them to ready my horse. I want two guards to ride out with me. I’ll be down in an hour,” instructed the king.
After the page had left the room, the king got to his feet and walked over to his desk. He lay the note down next to the black feather. Try as he might he couldn’t make sense of it all. After the events of the other night with the Lady Karina he hadn’t breathed a word to a soul. In truth he was embarrassed at having slept with his son’s fiancée; he was terrified by the transformation he had witnessed. If the note truly came from Urquhart, he hoped the wizard had some answers for him.
Handing the reins to one of the guards, the king walked up the path to the front door of the last house in the village. Casting his eyes over the flaking paintwork and poor state of repair, he knocked sharply on the door. It was opened a few minutes later by a middle aged woman. When she saw the king standing on her doorstep she fell into a deep curtsey.
“Your majesty,” she said warmly. “We’ve been expecting you.”
“Rise, madam,” he said curtly. “Is Urquhart here?”
“Yes, sire,” she replied, stepping aside. “Please, follow me.”
Silently the king followed her down the narrow hallway to the warm welcoming kitchen at the back of the house. A small boy sat by the fire.
“Artie,” prompted his sister.
At the sound of her voice, the wizard looked up. Seeing the king standing behind her, he leapt to his feet.
“You came, your majesty! Praise be!”
“And who might you be?” asked the king with a frown. “What’s this all about? Where’s Urquhart?”
“I am Urquhart!” snapped the wizard rudely.
“Yes and I’m trapped like this thanks to that witch Karina,” grumbled Urquhart. “Treacherous witch nearly killed us all.”
“The Lady Karina? My son’s betrothed?”
“Yes, the very same!” shouted Urquhart angrily then, realising that the king hadn’t the faintest idea about what was going on, added, “Please take a seat and I’ll try to explain this mess to you.”
With eyes wide open, the king stared at the wizard as he listened to the tale. He wept with relief when he heard that his son was alive in the bedroom upstairs. Once the wizard had finished his tale, the king explained what had happened in his private chambers on the night of the full moon.
“Damn and blast!” growled the wizard. “She’s escaped.”
“For now,” agreed the king. “But there can’t be many black crows with white flashes on their wings.”
“True,” admitted Urquhart. “And she left a feather behind?”
“That might be enough,” mused the wizard almost to himself. “But that will have to wait. We need to focus on Jem for now.”
“Can I see my son?” asked the king softly.
“Of course,” said Urquhart’s sister from behind them. “I’ll take you up. He’s feverish and lapsing in and out of consciousness. I don’t think he’ll know you’re here, sire.”
“I just need to see him,” whispered the king. “He’s my only son.”
A rosy sunset glow filled the room when Jem next opened his eyes. Despite having just wakened he felt exhausted and weak. His eyes adjusting to the light, he glanced down at his injured arm. It was resting in a clean white sling and he could see the edges of a bandage at the base of his fingers. Gently he tried to move them and was rewarded with a fresh assault of fiery pain. Sinking back into the pillows, he attempted to make sense of the fragments of memories filling his head.
The door opened a few minutes later as Urquhart’s sister came in to check on him. Finding him awake she smiled and asked if her felt better.
“I feel weak as a kitten,” he confessed, his voice sounding like his own “real” voice and not his hoarse “imp” voice.
“That’s to be expected,” she said softly, pouring him a cup of water from the jug on the night stand beside the bed. “Here, sip this slowly.2
With her assistance Jem managed to sit up and take the cup. As he reached out his hand, he noticed it was “his” hand – his real hand.
“What happened?” he asked between sips. “Where’s Amber?”
“I’ll let Artie explain,” she replied evasively. “He’s better at these things than me.”
“Where’s Amber?” repeated the prince.
“The elves took her home,” answered Urquhart’s sister. “It was her time.”
Jem sank back onto the pillows. She was gone.
He was still staring up at the ceiling when Urquhart entered the room.
“Welcome back, boy,” said the wizard coming to sit on the edge of the bed.
“But you’re…” began Jem looking confused.
“I know,” said Urquhart keeping his eyes lowered. “There never was going to be enough magic to transform both of us back.”
“Urquhart, what happened?” the prince asked simply.
“The witch. A backlash of magic,” began the wizard calmly. “As soon as she felt the magic enter her, she cast a counter spell. She transformed herself and fled.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Is that what happened to my arm?
The wizard nodded then, climbing down from the bed, added, “You’d best see the rest for yourself.”
The boy wizard went over to the wooden chest that sat beneath the window on the far side of the room and lifted a looking glass. With a heavy heart, he took it over to the prince, passing it to him mirror side down. He watched as Jem turned it over and looked at his reflection.
Laying the looking glass down on the bedcover, Jem reached up and touched the left hand side of his face with his good hand. From the inner corner of his left eyes and at an angle down to his jawline the skin was still that of the aged imp. Once again a milky white cataract covered his left eye. The skin on his neck too was that of the imp. An everlasting mark of the magic curse.
“It could be worse,” he said finally.
“True,” agreed the wizard with a smile. “The magic struck back through the bundle you held in your hand. The brooch protected the rest of you.”
“And my arm?” asked Jem calmly.
“Will heal in time,” promised Urquhart quietly. “The magic has burned it up beyond your elbow. It’s too soon to tell if you will regain full use of it. I’ll not lie to you, Jem. You were lucky to survive at all. Her magic is strong and a deep evil runs through it. I’m unsure how much has passed into you but you’ve fought it for five days.”
“Yes. It’s five days since the night of the full moon,” replied the wizard. “Let me tell you what happened and has happened since.”
Settling back on the pillows Jem listened as his wizard friend explained that after the spell had backfired everything had spun out of control. When he heard that Amber had collapsed as he had fallen, tears welled up in his eyes. While they had both lain on the floor, the two elves had arrived. Without a word to anyone, one of them had scooped the fairy/elf up into his arms and they had both left as quickly as they had arrived. The backlash of the spell had thrown Urquhart off his feet but he had crawled over to where Jem lay and dragged him clear of the magic circle to protect him, fearful of an attack by the witch. When the fluid from Amber’s waters had seeped across the floor to touch the edge of the magic circle there had been a small crackle of fire along the lines of the pattern then an air of calm had descended on the room.
“And there’s been no word from Amber?” asked the prince hopefully when the wizard finished recounting the tale.
“Nothing,” he replied. “There is one more thing.”
Jem looked at him, dreading to hear what else the wizard had to say.
“Your father is downstairs,” said Urquhart softly. “He’s been here for two days. He’s been sitting with you while you fought off the last of the fever.”
“Yes,” nodded the wizard. “And it’s time I let him see you. I’ll be back shortly.”
Alone again in the attic room Jem struggled to take in all that the wizard had told him. In his fever weakened state, he couldn’t think straight; all he could think about was the fact that Amber had been gone for five days. Had she survived? Had their baby been born safely? Where were they?
The sound of his father’s voice brought him back to the present. Ignoring the pain from his arm, Jem reached out and embraced his father. Standing in the doorway Urquhart watched their emotional reunion then left them to talk in private.
When the wizard re-entered the kitchen, his sister insisted that he sit down and eat. She fetched him a bowl of stew and some bread then sat beside him at the table.
“What happens now, Artie?” she asked as he broke his bread into the bowl.
“That depends on Jermain and his majesty,” replied the wizard, taking a mouthful of the hot meaty stew. “If I’m to track the witch I need to return to my tower. The prince shouldn’t be moved until he’s stronger and that arm has healed but then he will want to get some answers about Amber.”
“Can you get him some news?” asked his sister hopefully, anxious to hear from the girl herself.
“I’ve already tried,” he sighed. “When the elves took her back, the fairies closed the gateway for good. The portal connecting both worlds is gone and I don’t know of any other.”
High up in the shady branches of the tree next to the bothy, the crow sat silently watching the landscape. Since the night of the full moon, now almost two weeks hence, she had been unable to transform herself back to human form. The backlash she had felt from the cursed magic had almost killed her. Gradually, hidden high up in the mountains, her strength was returning but if she attempted the transformation spell what form would be left? A hag? And what if she couldn’t transform herself back? She had a long journey ahead and needed to be able to fly.
A movement in the long grass of the meadow beside the hut caught her eye. In the early morning sun she struggled to see clearly but she could just make out the cloaked shape of someone disappearing towards the path that led down the mountain. From the brief glimpse she caught, it looked like a fairy creature and it was carrying a large basket.
Spreading her wings the witch set out to follow the newcomer, curious to see where they were headed in such a hurry.
In the small rear garden of the last house in the village, Jem sat napping in the later afternoon sunshine. Over the last few days, thanks to the care and attention he was receiving from the wizard’s sister, his strength was beginning to return. Wanting to get the bedroom cleaned and aired, she had suggested he sit in the garden for a while. He had started to protest but his hostess had overruled him, telling him that the fresh air would be good for him.
As he slept, reclined on the chair, with a blanket spread across his lap, Jem never saw the crow land in the tree at the end of the garden; as he slept, he never saw the fairy visitor who left the basket at his feet.
Having seen enough and sensing the danger of being so close to the castle, the crow spread her wings again and headed away from the village, heading far to the east.
A soft whimpering sound roused Jem from sleep. Glancing about for the source of the sound, he spotted the round wicker basket beside his chair. A thin muslin cloth was covering it. He reached out and pulled back the cloth. At the sight of the contents his heart almost stopped. Throwing aside the blanket that was covering his lap, he leapt from the chair and knelt on the damp grass beside the basket. Inside, nestled amongst some soft animal furs, lay a baby, wrapped tightly in a swaddling cloth. Gingerly Jem slid his injured arm from its sling and, favouring his right hand as much as he could, he lifted the whimpering baby into his arms. The swaddling cloth loosened as he rested the baby on his knee. A tight lump of emotion threatened to choke him as he peeled back the cloth. The baby looked up at him with bright blue eyes- undeniably his bright blue eyes. Soft auburn down covered the baby’s head – undeniably Amber’s hair colouring.
It was a baby girl.
His hand felt something at the baby’s back, below her tiny shoulder blades. When he looked, what he saw made him smile. It was the buds of two tiny fairy wings.
Holding his tiny daughter close, Jem wept. Through his tears, he spotted something else in the basket. With his precious daughter tucked in the crook of his arm, he reached into the basket and withdrew the worn leather cord with the two amulets hanging from it. Amber was alive!
From the upstairs window Urquhart and his sister watched as the prince cradled the baby girl and smiled.