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, carrying a large wicker basket. 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 unseen 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 causing her to 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. “Time 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 lifting 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. “Travel safe.”
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 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 trapped overnight on the cold window ledge in 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 handled brush?
“Thieving servants,” she muttered to herself, reaching into the drawer for another hairbrush.
Downstairs, in the tiny room beside the castle kitchen that 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 prove more of a challenge.