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The Imp – part twelve

Here’s the next, long overdue instalment of The Imp. Enjoy!

The Imp – part twelve

In a room, illuminated only by a small oil lamp, Jem sat beside his tiny daughter’s cradle, singing softly as he rocked her to sleep. The baby wriggled restlessly until she had turned onto her side to face her father then closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep. Loathe to leave her, Jem sat on, watching her gentle breathing with his hand resting on the carved edge of the crib.

High up in her tree top prison Amber was pacing the floorboards with her fractious son. Nothing seemed to settle him at this point in the evening. Night after night he cried himself to a standstill. She had tried everything but to no avail. He wasn’t hungry. He didn’t need changed. He didn’t have wind. He just wailed, a heart wrenching tortured cry. Whispering softly to him, the fairy/elf delicately reached out with her elven magic and probed into his mind. Up until now Amber had resisted the temptation to use magic on the baby but she was rapidly reaching the end of her tether. She was startled to see a clear vision of her sleeping daughter. The baby girl looked to be wrapped snuggly in a soft wool blanket. A hand rested on the edge of the wooden cradle. An adult hand. Jem’s hand. The sight of his signet ring and his long fine fingers brought tears to her eye. Instantly she understood her son’s distress.

The baby boy was missing his twin sister. While she slept, their telepathic connection was severed. It was the unbearable loneliness and the separation that was causing him to wail inconsolably.

“Hush, little one,” she whispered in his mind. “You’ll be together again soon. I promise.”

In his study Urquhart was pouring over the leather bound book. He had read it from cover to cover four times already, desperately seeking more clues about the witch and her sisters. So far he had determined that each witch was tasked with acquiring a gemstone- one from the elves, one from the fairies and one from the mortal men. The last fable in the tome suggested that a fourth stone was needed to connect the three gems. Despite reading and re-reading the six tales, the wizard still had no clue as to what this mystery gem was and not the slightest hint as to where it may be.

Muttering to himself, he opened the bottom drawer of his desk and brought out an ancient elven manuscript. His master had gifted it to him when he completed his apprenticeship, saying he would have need of it in troubled hour. Perhaps this was that troubled hour? The aged elven manuscript was badly faded in places but with a subtle rejuvenating spell, the wizard soon had it restored to its former brightness. Beside him the candle began to splutter as it reached the brass candlestick. Quickly he used the dying flame to light a fresh candle then returned his attention to the manuscript.

As the first light of dawn streaked across the sky, Urquhart found what he had been searching for. After trawling through centuries of elven history he had found a description of a theft that had rocked the gentle race to its very heart. The parchment told a strikingly familiar tale. A beautiful raven haired elf had wooed the newly-crowned and unwed king. He had been completely besotted with her and married her in a lavish ceremony in front of the High Council. Two days after the celebratory feasting ended, the king was found dead in his bedchamber. Poisoned. His new queen was nowhere to be found. Nothing in the room had been disturbed and the door had been locked from the inside. The only item missing was the king’s ceremonial chain of office. It was a heavy ornate gold chain that he used to hold his official royal robes in place. The clasp had been forged by the original elves and at its centre they had set a large emerald in a bed of gold carved oak leaves. Nothing else was annotated in the manuscript as being out of the ordinary apart from the unexplained presence of black crow feathers on the chamber’s window sill.

“Damn and blast,” hissed Urquhart, placing the elven history back in the drawer.

As he stared out of his study window, the wizard recalled a song he had heard the fairies perform at the annual fayre. It was a love song that told of the death of one of the first fairy kings. He had died from a strange malaise after the mysterious disappearance of his queen, following the birth of their twins. The babies, a boy and a girl, were left orphans and deprived of both their parents’ love. One verse of the ballad made mention of a missing sapphire ring that had been the king’s gift to his queen following the birth of their children. The last verse contained a reference to a giant mythical bird carrying the queen away to its eyrie. More feather references.

Suddenly it became obvious to Urquhart that the witch, masquerading as the Lady Karina, had had her black heart set on the ruby that was the centre piece of the king’s crown.

With a flash of inspiration, Urquhart realised that the fourth stone had to be a diamond. Not just any diamond. A mythical stone that had perhaps been connected with all three races in the past; a stone that had long since been lost.

A week had passed since Karina’s return to the family home and she was still trapped in the form of a crow. Her sisters had discarded the cage but her movements were restricted to her own suite of rooms, deep within the mountain. She hadn’t seen daylight for days. Captivity was doing nothing for her humour and she had already bitten three of the household servants as they brought her meagre meals of grain. The last serving girl had apparently lost her finger as a result of a particularly vicious bite.

“Sister, dearest.” Greta’s sharp greeting startled her. “We may have found a solution.”

“You have? About bloody time!”

“Yes,” snapped the elder witch, extending her hand. “Step on and come with me. I’ll trust you not to fly off.”

As she hopped onto her sister’s outstretched hand, Karina felt a gentle tingle of magic round her feet as enchanted shackles held her firmly in place.

“So much for trust, dear Greta!”

“Well, perhaps if you had exercised the same caution, you wouldn’t be in this predicament!”

Silently Karina was carried through the keep’s torch lit corridors until they arrived at a small ornately carved door. It was the door to their brother’s private study. No one had dared to venture inside since his untimely disappearance over a century before. Greta snapped her fingers and the door opened. Once inside the small chamber she released the binding spell and allowed Karina to hop off onto the back of the only chair in the sparsely furnished room. On the desk sat a small dish of seeds and beside it a smoking vial of bright green liquid.

“We consulted the family physick and Isabella found an entry with a potion recipe that should solve you bodily problem,” Greta explained as she poured the smouldering contents of the vial over the bird seed. “Eat, Karina.”

Without a murmur of complaint, the cursed witch flew over to the desk and, perching on the edge of the silver dish, began to eat the sodden seeds. She had expected them to taste foul but was surprised to discover they were sweet, deliciously sweet. Soon the dish was empty.

“Now, we wait,” stated Greta coldly.

Gradually Karina felt a tingling sensation begin to spread through her feathers. She felt as though she was starting to swell. Just as she was on the brink of calling out in fear, there was a flash of blinding green light, followed by a cloud of vile smelling smoke.

When the smoke cleared, Karina stood, naked as the day she was born, in front of her elder sister.

“Welcome back, Karina,” purred Greta as she handed her a dark green velvet robe.

When Amber awoke, her senses told her immediately that someone had been in the room while she had slept. A small package lay on the table, wrapped in a leather cloth. Beside it lay a large bunch of wild flowers and a plate of fresh fruit.

“Blain,” she whispered to herself. No one else would have brought her flowers.

Her son was still sleeping soundly in his plain wooden crib. With a quick check to see that he was alright, the fairy/elf slipped out of bed, crossing the cold damp floorboards in her bare feet and unwrapped the package. In the middle of the leather cloth lay a silver thimble, a long thick needle and a small leather pouch full of soot. Her heart sank. The rowan twig was missing. Without it she couldn’t make use of the other items. Suddenly something in the centre of the bunch of flowers caught her eye. In typical Blain fashion, he had disguised the twig amongst the colourful blooms.

Now she had everything she needed.

Carefully she hid the items under the mattress of her son’s small bed. As she folded the piece of leather, Amber noticed there was a message written in tiny lettering in one corner.

“The portal opens in two days. It will be open for eight days and nights. I will bring you a visitor in three night’s time. Be ready to do what you plan. Time will be short. B.”

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The Imp – part ten

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.”

“You are?”

“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.

The Imp – the penultimate part

This tale that started out as a single stand alone piece  has almost wound its way to the end.

The Imp – part eight.

 

If you’ve missed the start of the tale, it’s all under fiction- short stuff.

 

 

The Imp- part seven

 

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.