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 Jem. “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?” he 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 before 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.