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 thin out 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 heavy heart 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.