An icy east wind bit into the crow’s feathers as she flew deeper into the mountain range. All around her grey, lifeless rock faces loomed. The only sound was the wind whistling through the gorge. Far below she could see the silvery, winding ribbon of the river that ran through the stark peaks. Using it as her guide, she continued on and up. Food had been scarce since she had crossed the plains and entered the mountainous terrain but the landmarks below were becoming more familiar. A few more hours and she should reach the sanctuary of her family home.
It had taken her four weeks of constant travel, after spending the first two weeks resting and feeding near the bothy, to reach the mountains that she had called home for the last two centuries. Every feather tip ached with exhaustion. The remnants of the curse’s poison still coursed through her narrow veins, sapping her diminishing energy reserves. She held onto the vain hope that her sisters would be able to reverse the wizard’s magic and restore her to human form. It was growing tiresome being trapped as a bird and she longed to enjoy a hot bath, a fine meal and a smooth glass of wine.
In the distance she spotted two flickering lights high up on the cliff face. The sign she had been searching for – the torches that lit the entrance to her family home. Drawing on her final drops of strength, she flew towards the beacons. As she glided soundlessly into the mouth of the cave, she crash landed unceremoniously on the dusty floor. Her chest feathers heaving, she lay panting for breath. She opened her beak to let out a “caw” but no sound came. As exhaustion swept through her, the witch felt herself being scooped up into a leather gloved palm.
Under the shade of the lower branches of a huge pine tree, Jem sat leaning against the trunk, his baby daughter nestled in his lap. Gently he ran his good hand over her soft auburn hair and marvelled yet again at her beauty and innocence while she slept. Silently his heart wept for Amber. She should be here sharing these first few precious weeks of the baby’s life. Despite the pain it caused him, the imp reached up with his burnt hand to touch the fairy/elf’s amulets that he now wore round his neck. It may have been his imagination, or just wishful thinking, but Amber felt closer to him when he wore her talisman.
It had been two weeks since Urquhart had deemed him strong enough to make the journey home to the castle. Since his return, Jem had struggled to settle. He felt caged and suffocated within the thick stone walls of the castle and longed to return to freedom of the small mountain bothy. At every opportunity he would escape outdoors with the baby and roam the extensive woodland behind the castle.
His injured arm was healing slowly and, with the assistance of the wizard’s magic, the feeling was beginning to return to his damaged hand. The curse’s poison still burned deep within him but Urquhart had devised an enchantment that contained it within the injured arm. Despite his best endeavours, the wizard had been unable to restore the sight in his eye. In his heart of hearts, Jem knew that only Amber held the magic to do that.
A soft cry from the baby brought his attention back to the present. In his lap, the baby had wakened from her nap and was whimpering softly.
“Time for your dinner, little princess,” he whispered softly. “I guess we had better take you back to Martha and Mistress Morag. Time for some milk.”
With the baby securely nestled in his arms, the prince walked slowly back towards the towering castle walls.
Up in the small tower room that was his private study, Urquhart stood by the window with the black crow tail feather in his hand. Several others that had been found in the Lady Karina’s bedchamber lay on the table behind him. These feathers, plus the small chest containing the witch’s personal belongings, were his only hope of breaking the remains of the curse. Beside the pile of feathers lay Jermain’s silver brooch. It too would be required to break the spell, if there was any magic left in it.
“Where has she gone?” muttered the wizard, turning away from the window.
He laid the feather on top of the wooden chest and made his way back down the spiral staircase to his main chamber.
A second dilemma was also troubling him. Where was the portal that had been used to bring the baby to the prince? His instincts told him it had to be close by or near to somewhere Amber could visualise. But where?
While the prince had been recuperating at the last house in the village, the wizard had spent his time trying to retrace the path that brought the baby to them. Whoever had delivered the basket had been clever and cautious in the extreme. His tracking efforts had taken him round the perimeter of the village and into the dense woodland at the foot of the mountain. It had taken all of his tracking skills to follow the trail through the deep bed of pine needles that covered the forest floor but, when he reached the stream, the trail stopped. The mystery person would appear to have walked either up or down the stream for some distance to destroy their trail. Finding it on the far side had so far proved impossible.
His last remaining hope was that the fairies would return to the village during the fayre to mark the end of summer and open a new portal. Traditionally they came to trade and to provide entertainment for the locals. The fayre, however, was still two weeks away.
Muttering sourly, Urquhart sat at his desk staring at the map of the local area that was spread out across the top of his piles of books and scrolls. His search area was marked out on it. Previous portal locations were highlighted. Spinning his wand through his fingers, the wizard sighed.
“Where would I hide the gateway?”
Sunlight rippled through the leaves outside the window of her tree top prison. From her bed, Amber could just make out the lilac mists that marked the boundary between her world and Jem’s. With tears in her eyes, she rolled over to face the wooden wall and rested her hand on her now empty belly.
Less than a week after the birth she had been brought there by the order of the High Council; by the order of her grandmother, the queen. Light fairy chain had been shackled to her ankles, long enough to allow her to move about the small room but short enough to keep the door out of reach. Only once in the following days had her grandmother visited her and then the visit had been filled with hate and disgust.
The High Council had sentenced the fairy/elf to be confined to the tree top cell indefinitely. Her defiance of ancient laws was unprecedented so they determined that solitary confinement for her was the best course of action to take until they could reach a formal agreement on an alternative form of punishment. Only one member of the council had spoken up for her. Her childhood friend, Blain, had risked his position by proposing that they petition the elves for their opinion on the matter, arguing that Amber’s defiance was as much an elf issue as a fairy one. It was a risky strategy but Blain hoped it would buy him some time to try to persuade some of the other council members to review their stance. To his relief, the High Council had agreed and had arranged to send two representatives to consult the elves. It was anticipated that they would be gone for two months. In the meantime, Amber had to bide her time high up in the tree tops.
As she lay on her side, she counted the marks she had scraped into the soft wooden wall beside her narrow bed. She counted thirty five small scores. Adding on the seven days she had spent in her grandmother’s home following the birth, Amber calculated that word from the elves was due to be received in a little over two weeks.
The soft squeal of the door opening startled her. She turned over in time to see Blain tip toe into the room carrying a small basket.
“Good afternoon, your highness,” he said rather formally, setting the basket down on the table.
“That title’s long gone,” answered Amber as she sat up.
“You’re still the queen’s grand-daughter,” argued her friend. “And will always be a princess in my eyes.”
“Flattery will get you nowhere,” giggled Amber, her laughter filling the small room with music.
“I live in hope,” sighed her visitor, shedding his cloak. “But I fear your heart belongs to another. Well, three others to be precise.”
“Perhaps,” sighed Amber, feeling tears prick at her eyes. “Won’t you be in trouble for visiting me?”
“No,” replied Blain, producing a small parchment scroll from his pocket. “I can argue that I’m here on official High Council business.”
“No,” stated her friend, showing her the blank parchment. “But no one will question me if I claim I had to read this to you. Confidential High Council correspondence relating to your trial and for our eyes and ears only.”
“Devious. I like it.”
Reaching into the basket, Blain brought out some fresh bread, fruit and a small bottle of wine. He put his hand back in and retrieved a small round cheese.
“I thought we could break bread together for a while,” he explained with a warm smile. “Break the monotony for you.”
“Thank you. I’d be happy to,” she replied as she came to sit at the table.
Over their simple meal, her friend filled her in on all the comings and goings of daily life in the fairy community. When she asked, Blain confirmed there was no word yet from the elves. Between bites, he spoke about various High Council matters that he wanted her opinion on then he happened to mention that the queen had tried to forbid them from visiting the fayre being held in the mortal realm that marked the end of summer.
“She didn’t succeed, did she?” gasped Amber, her eyes wide with concern.
“No. She was promptly over ruled on economic grounds. We need the trade. Why?”
“No particular reason,” murmured Amber, keeping her gaze lowered.
“Amber?” he said softly, reaching out to touch her hand. “What are you scheming?”
“The portal remains open while the fayre runs. It is usually open for five days and loosely guarded. If I’m to escape from here, those five days are my window of opportunity.”
“And just how do you plan to escape the High Council’s bonds?” demanded Blain sharply, pointing to the silver thread-like chains around her slender ankles.
“Elf magic,” stated Amber plainly. “The less you know the better.”
Before Blain could reply, their conversation was interrupted by a sharp wailing cry. Instantly Amber leapt to her feet and darted to the far side of the room. Whispering softly, she scooped the crying baby into her arms. The wails subsided to whimpers as she carried the baby back to the table. Discretely she opened her tunic to allow the hungry mite to suckle.
“And you’ve that elf blood to thank for the fact that you were allowed to keep this little one,” commented Blain, watching the fair haired child suck contentedly at her breast. “Only act of compassion I have ever seen from the queen.”
“That I have,” agreed Amber, gazing down at her tiny son. “But I have to return to Jem and to my daughter. What if she’s like this little man and needs half-breed milk to survive? She could be starving to death in agony!”
With a heavy sigh, Blain nodded, “You’re right, as always.”
“Then help me find a way back,” pleaded Amber quietly.