Charlotte Stone and the Children of the Nymet

Charlotte Stone and the Children of the Nymet

A Story by Johari
"

If the Memory Dies, a Forest Falls ‘For the good of all the worlds you must heal the severed root. It starts and ends with the tree.’

"


 


That ancient tree, don’t let it fall,


until old age is knelling;


so many things it can recall,


what tales it could be telling.


Hans Christian Anderson




Quite spontaneously and in a matter of seconds, a rose bush bloomed, withered and died in the snows of an English winter. This was the only sign that anything was amiss with the Great Tree, and it went unnoticed by all but one " unless you included the Echo. Deep below the surface, worms turned and wriggled away from the desiccated body that had, till now, lain dormant and harmless " held fast by the Golden Root.


The Echo had known what it was to be human once; but that was now a faint memory. However, it still felt ‘the bond’ to its kind and instinctively reached out to the mortal thoughts that drifted in the air far above.


Earth pressed down hard yet it felt the stagnant blood in its veins start to flow again, cold limbs warming back into life as the root slowly loosened its grip. In the mouldering dirt below the Great Tree it waited for each part of this body to awaken. Synapses started to fire in the brain while the heart jerked into motion.


The foreign lips twisted into a grimace as the Echo reviewed once again the moment of terror in these eyes. The terror of the original owner as they had drifted off into the abyss, light dying, ripped unceremoniously from the fragile threads of the life-giving Wrydweb. The Echo liked to relive the firework display of raw light as the silver cord was severed and a new shadow was born, condemned to drift forever in the darkness of the Dreamtime.


A familiar pain started in the stolen body but he ignored the sensation. Well used to the process now, he knew the pain would soon fade. To kill time, he tested a few names and languages over his new tongue, trying to decide what this body’s new identity should be.


He had no idea how the Great Tree had loosened its grip but there would be time for that later. Plenty of time. All that mattered was he was no longer trapped in this crack in the Dreamtime. The whole Triverse spread out before him, oh such freedoms to savour " and scores to settle. For now though the Shriven could wait.



Transition complete, he simply extended long nails; and began to dig.




THE FAMILY STONE


PINAR, CADIZ


Remote mountains in the heart of Andalusia may not be a normal classroom for a thirteen-year-old girl, but Charlotte Stone was no normal thirteen-year-old girl. Being the daughter of explorers meant curiosity was in her genes (an argument she would often use whenever she wanted to do something her parents were against), and it was curiosity that had led her here.


In fact, it was more than that, because Charlotte had a gift. She was very good at finding things " and unlocking their deepest secrets simply by touch. Her parents’ research student Neva often joked she was more reliable than carbon dating.


Charlotte sat in the dark, cool cave halfway up a mountain in the Pinar Nevada, grateful to be out of the relentless Spanish sun. She looked at the large, lozenge-shaped stone, rolling it around in her hands as she tucked a stray lock of red hair behind her ear. Her strange visions had started when her family had discovered this cave. A withering rose, the symbol, a fireball and perhaps most disturbing of all; the blood-curdling scream in the darkness. Charlotte had hoped this stone might provide some answers.


 


It was smooth to the touch and seemingly undamaged with no obvious markings, yet she had no idea what it was. Charlotte would normally be able to at least identify the basics: location of origin, date and use, but this unusual object was totally silent to her " and it felt wrong. A shadow fell over the mouth of the cave.


‘You going to sit there with that thing all day sweetheart?’ Ella Stone smiled at her daughter. ‘Pop it away now and let’s go.’


Charlotte placed the stone and its cloth wrappings warily into a padded box.



Strings of fairy lights twinkled on the bandstand that evening as both locals and foreigners alike enjoyed the balmy warmth in the numerous café bars of the main square in Pinar. The Stone family and their crew had been in town for just over a month and it was their last night. Richard and Ella were taking the opportunity to relax before their gruelling journey across the Sahara sands, and were currently taking in the fiesta atmosphere from a table at their regular haunt, Casa Vargas.


‘Unusual find by Charlotte today love, any ideas?’ Richard said, swigging an ice cold Moritz.


‘I have some theories… ’


‘No idea then.’ He winked at his wife but Ella didn’t rise to the bait.


‘There’s certainly something intriguing about it. Neva is still studying it now. Never stops working that girl.’


‘Perhaps it’s the elusive Benu egg?’ Richard was wide-eyed and made a mock gasp. Ella jovially punched her husband’s arm.


‘Don’t be daft. Anyway, you know she is the best research student we have ever had. OK, perhaps some of her ideas are a bit… wacky, but I’ll bet she’ll have some exceptional reports for us by the time we get back.’


Ella took a sip of wine as she tried to phrase her next thoughts.


‘I did see something weird today, as we were removing that stone.’


‘You sure it wasn’t a mirage, or lack of sleep, we have been overdoing it a bit out here what with the time restrictions and all.’


‘No, I know I’m not going mad,’ Ella said more harshly than she meant. Perhaps the heat was getting to her.


‘I didn’t mean it like that, love. Go on, tell me what you saw.’


‘You’ve got to promise you won’t mock.’


‘Promise.’


‘There was this plant, like a cyclamen I think, just above the cave where we found that thing. While you were busy digging it out… well…’ Richard was staring intently, urging her to go on.


‘… well… it sort of bloomed and withered right in front of my eyes.’ Richard raised his eyebrows.


‘I’m not joking darling. And that’s not all… once we had the artefact boxed up and halfway down the mountain, this plant… it returned to normal, like nothing had happened.’ There was silence.


‘I believe you love,’ Richard finally said, before adding, ‘not sure what to make of it though.’ He took another swig of his beer.


‘Where are the twins?’ Ella changed the subject.


‘You really have to ask?’ Richard laughed. ‘Edessa will be trying to find some way to get on the stage and Charlotte will be with Jairo doing what she does best " interrogation.’


‘Debating,’ Ella corrected with a smile. ‘I guess we can relax then.’ She sighed.


In the bandstand of the little town square a guitarist ordered them all into silence with a few bars of a flamenco folk song while a singer solemnly walked onto the stage. Richard and Ella looked at each other and a silent agreement was made to discuss the strange incident later. For now, they simply held hands and enjoyed the show.




Mishto… hom me… di… dikava tute.’ Charlotte stumbled over the words while her new Gitanos friends exploded with laughter. Charlotte blushed, Romani was proving to be her Achilles heel and she wasn’t used to failing at things. Jairo shook his head and waved his hands dramatically.


‘You are like timid rabbit, you will never learn this way. You have to be without fear, own the words, Mishto hom me dikava tute.’ He chanted in a sing-song voice, conducting as he went. ‘It means you are glad to meet, so fill your voice with gladness.’ Charlotte smiled in spite of her frustration.


Misho hom me dikava tute,’ the others chorused before bursting into a fresh bout of laughter.


‘You must not be so hard on yourself miri kushti,’ Jairo smiled as he boldly swept an unruly strand of hair out of her eyes.


‘Bet Edessa isn’t struggling like this,’ Charlotte smiled, trying not to feel so defeated.




Charlotte’s twin, Edessa was at the other end of the square loitering around the colourful vardos parked behind the bandstand. She marvelled at the polka-dot dresses as the dancers twisted and reeled through their final warm-up dance. Edessa loved to dance and flamenco was fast becoming her favourite " but it was the singers that fascinated her the most.


Edessa, like Charlotte, had a gift. Whereas Charlotte could read information locked in solid objects, Edessa could read information locked in people. Though she didn’t understand the words, she could still feel the stories and emotions in the gypsy songs.


‘Flamenco is not just sound, not mindless entertainment little one,’ said one of the older singers who had taken Edessa under her wing. ‘The song is always there, woven through all of creation, like a thread in a tapestry. We do not create the song, we simply carry it within us for a short while.’


Satisfied that Edessa understood, the woman smiled before continuing. ‘A true singer weaves the energy of that song into their own voice. They remind us of our place in the web of life; our interconnectedness. Gypsies call it Duende " that indefinable ability to communicate through emotion.’


The woman sang a string of notes and Edessa could feel the emotion pouring out of her, giving the simple tune a life of its own. Edessa could feel it vibrating her whole body, awaking shadowy memories that didn’t belong to her. Taking a deep breath, Edessa echoed the tune back and the memories flowed away.


The woman was clearly shocked.


‘There are few outsiders who can do that.’ She nodded approvingly. ‘It seems you might just have a little Gitanos blood in you, me chavi.’


Edessa beamed with pride. ‘I’ve been listening.’



 


The old Roma woman sat in the archway of her courtyard garden, smoking a pipe and watching the girl with the red hair and curious green eyes as she tried to learn their language. She had a feeling about this one. She was without the grace of the other, but she had the soul of an adventurer. Though not Gitanos, her family was another kind of nomad and she had a touch of destiny about her. Was it her own, the woman wondered?


‘Madame Cortes,’ Jairo said, bowing respectfully, the rest of the group following his lead.


‘You, child,’ Madame Cortes waved at Charlotte. ‘I have words for you, but not here in this… Jaleo.’ She emphasised the last word to make her disapproval of their raucous behaviour clear. ‘Come, come.’


Jairo pushed Charlotte to her feet and she followed the woman through the archway. The cloistered courtyard was so much quieter than the main square and the air was full of the sweet smell of jasmine, which left her feeling quite giddy.


‘Sit,’ the woman ordered, ‘and listen, I won’t waste words on gadje.’


Charlotte sat bolt upright at that word: ‘non roma’. It was the first one Jairo had taught her. If Madame Cortes was indeed suggesting she considered Charlotte as one of her own, it was a huge honour so Charlotte listened intently.


‘Let me see your hand, child.’


‘Are you a fortune teller?’ Charlotte asked, extending her hand.


‘Fortunes take care of themselves, have no need of me. I am Drabarni.’ The woman scrutinised the lines on Charlotte’s hands. ‘Is healer and seer,’ she said in answer to Charlotte’s unspoken question.


Madame Cortes seemed to go into some sort of trance and in the long silence Charlotte could hear the music of crickets and other night bugs. She got so caught up in the melody and the feel of the warm night breezes on her sun-crisped skin that she jumped when Madame Cortes finally spoke.


‘You have been dreaming of a tree I sense, well; it has been dreaming of you too; for a very long time, miri kushti chavi,’ she smiled cryptically.


‘You have important work to do and many knots…’ The woman paused, her forehead wrinkled with concentration. ‘No… is not the right word, many… roots… to untie.’


Charlotte held her breath in anticipation. She desperately wanted to ask questions but suspected she would learn more by keeping silent and letting the woman talk.


‘Your hand shows you were born to travel, you are akin to us in some ways, how many countries have you visited already?’ Madame Cortes continued.


Charlotte had to think for a moment. ‘Ten.’


Madame Cortes smiled and nodded. ‘Very soon you will be going on a journey to a land not on any map, through a gateway that has long been shut. But it will start normally enough; with you voyaging to meet ancient family in the East… they won’t be going with you however.’ She nodded towards the town square where Charlotte’s parents sat and Edessa danced.


Charlotte’s stomach flipped at those words. She couldn’t shake the feeling that Madame Cortes meant trouble was coming, but going anywhere without Edessa was out of the question.


‘Surely I can choose to… ’


Madame Cortes would not entertain any interruptions and she had already moved on.


‘Your lifeline is broken too, see here…’ the woman indicated the crease sweeping around the base of Charlotte’s left thumb. ‘…see how it overlaps. You live both a normal life and a hidden one, this is how it is for all of your bloodline, but with you this duality must end. For the good of all worlds you must heal the severed root… it starts and ends with the tree. You must protect it at any cost.’


Charlotte felt shivers down her spine; it was like Madame Cortes was reading her thoughts. Charlotte instintively knew the tree was important though she still had no idea where the stone came into it all. However, there was something that bothered her more.


‘What about the scream. Have you any idea what it all means?’ Charlotte’s voice was small in the night air.


‘Ah yes, the scream from the Dreamtime,’ Madame Cortes nodded solemnly. ‘The space between worlds and home of the Fey. It has become a dark and dangerous place indeed since the Withering began; especially for the likes of you. You have great power indeed if you can sense it.’ Madame Cortes pulled Charlotte closer and stared at her with the darkest eyes she had ever seen. The gypsy woman held Charlotte’s gaze for an uncomfortable amount of time and just as Charlotte thought that was her cue to leave, the old woman added.  ‘You will need to overcome your innermost fears to recognise your greatest ally; but you can trust the diamond heart. Shala?’


‘Yes, I understand,’ Charlotte said quietly, though she wasn’t sure she did.


‘Sleep soon, me chavi,’ Madame Cortes’ voice was gentler now. ‘Perhaps dreams will bring the answers.’


 


LOUVRE, PARIS


Paris was calming after the excitement of Spain and Charlotte loved walking the streets of Montmatre where their guardian, Morag, lived when she wasn’t in London. Morag De Beau was a naturally stern-looking Scottish woman in her late sixties with thick brown hair and a fondness for tweed. She was an old family friend and wife of the late Renoir De Beau who had been Richard and Ella Stone’s university history professor. They had been his favourite students and a friendship was forged for life.


When alive, Renoir had relished teaching Charlotte pretty much all he knew while Morag, on the other hand, nurtured Edessa’s creativity. The twins were like the grandchildren the couple had never had. Since Renoir had passed away, Morag spent most of her free time with the Stones and was virtually one of the family, acting as guardian for the twins when their parents were away. While she had business in Paris, they were all staying in the tiny apartment above a bakery on the Rue Des Saules.


It wouldn’t be long before it was back to the relatively boring Pimlico flat and a classroom routine (there had even been disturbing suggestions of the twins actually attending a school), so they were determined to make the most of their final days of freedom. Edessa and Morag adored spending hours floating around the various art galleries Paris had to offer, while Charlotte was most at home in the airy halls of the Louvre amongst the Egyptian antiquities.


The various artefacts on display were like old friends to Charlotte and she knew each one intimately. She smiled as she walked leisurely through the collection, mentally correcting a number of the information cards as she went. On the back wall a new stela caught Charlotte’s attention and naturally she made a beeline to it.


‘Hello, you’re new,’ she muttered excitedly to herself, checking there were no guards around.


Charlotte ignored the Ne pas Toucher sign and placed her hands on the cold stone tablet, breathing deeply. It had been marked up as 18th dynasty " that was wrong, this was much older. She got a feeling of 5th dynasty and the birth of Hieroglyphics.


The image showed an acacia tree under which stood two identical people, one on each side of the tree in traditional, symmetrical Egyptian poses. She had no idea why, but the image gave Charlotte goosebumps, especially when she noticed the lozenge-shaped object at the bottom of the stela. It radiated light, each beam tipped with an ankh symbol while a third figure buried it deep in the ground. Charlotte scrolled quickly through the glyphs that accompanied the image for any clues of its meaning, but there was nothing " just like the stone in the cave.


As she closed her eyes Charlotte could feel the power of chisel against granite, biting out deep flecks of sparkling rock, this was an official proclamation and the stela had been manufactured in haste, it was also deliberately vague, its meaning meant to be understood only by a select few. Soon Charlotte found herself in a blur of Nile sounds and the heat of an ancient sun. She would get nothing more.


‘Charlotte,’ someone hissed.


Charlotte snapped back to the stark light of the Louvre to find Morag looking over her square glasses with a serious look on her face. Morag always knew exactly where to find her; amongst the Egyptian collection as usual. She was nothing if not predictable, like father like daughter.


‘Charlotte, you need to come with me please.’ Morag beckoned her to hurry.


‘What’s happened?’ Charlotte could feel her stomach tighten; she could tell something was wrong as soon as she saw Morag’s face.


‘You have to come quickly,’ Morag replied.


‘I’m not going anywhere till you tell me why,’ Charlotte insisted. If Morag had bad news she wanted to be in familiar surroundings.


‘This really isn’t the place for this.’


Charlotte crossed her arms resolutely. ‘It’s the perfect place, and I’m not moving from this spot till you tell me what’s going on.’


‘Fine,’ Morag sighed, taking a deep breath before she continued. ‘You might want to sit down for this.’                     


Under a colossus of Rameses II, Morag divulged the full contents of the email she had just received.


‘Lost? Presumed… dead?’ Charlotte repeated the words. There had to be a mistake. She had seen her parents alive and well less than forty-eight hours ago, waving excitedly as they boarded a plane for Ghadames. No, she refused to believe it; they knew how to take care of themselves.


‘There’s more.’


Charlotte was not normally prone to panic but the room felt as if all the oxygen was being sucked out of it and she was having trouble breathing as her skin became clammy and crawled with dread. Edessa! Something had happened to Edessa.


‘Your sister… ’ Morag struggled to find the words and avoided eye contact. ‘… well, she’s… we don’t know how it happened… ’


‘She’s unconscious,’ Charlotte whispered.


‘She’s in a coma, Charlotte.’


There was no other way to say it.


Morag put her arm around the girl. Normally so full of fire and determination, she had never seen her so fragile and deflated; and in the blink of an eye. Morag had been dreading this moment. She knew Charlotte would take the news of her sister the hardest and she felt powerless as the young girl sat there, silent as a statue. Morag imagined she could see the light dim slightly in Charlotte’s eyes, and her heart broke at the sight.


‘Let’s go home sweetheart,’ Morag finally whispered.


‘No, I need to see her. Take me to the hospital… please,’ Charlotte murmured, determined not to cry.




ROSEMARY HEIGHTS


Charlotte didn’t say a word all the way from London to Norwich. She would have made it all the way to Wykenhall if it hadn’t been for the chatty conductor.


‘So, you off to the seaside little lady?’

 

Charlotte just scowled; something which she now had down to a fine art. Morag gave her a warning glare.


‘I guess so,’ Charlotte muttered mutinously, staring resolutely out the window. The conductor mumbled something about the youth of today before walking off down the aisle.

 


It wasn’t long ago that Charlotte had had a normal life. Well, maybe not normal compared to most thirteen-year-olds, trekking around remote places in the dust and bones of ancient civilizations, but she had a family and a life she loved. She’d even been known to smile then, Morag had once barked after losing patience with her for the umpteenth time. Morag herself had been more laid back and fun then too, Charlotte recalled. 


She would visit the Stone household almost every evening, cooing over Edessa’s artwork and enthralling them all after dinner with a rendition of some Scottish fairy tale. That had been part of ‘family Stone normal’ though, and that had long since disappeared.


Outside, the view was looking decidedly cold and wet and Charlotte’s heart sank. She was not fond of the drab English countryside and it was clear Morag considered her an inconvenience, to be dumped on some stranger in the back of beyond. Anger bubbled inside her.


‘It’s best you’re with family,’ was all Morag would say on the subject but Morag was family and Charlotte felt betrayed.


Charlotte’s things had already been packed and sent ahead to East Anglia and her head was still spinning from the swiftness of it all. Brackenheath-on-Sea. She didn’t know exactly where it was but she already knew she wouldn’t like it. She rolled the word round in her mouth and it felt weird, tasting of sour milk, twigs and damp grass.


Madame Cortes’ prediction was not lost on Charlotte, ‘A journey to the East’, but it didn’t mean she had to be happy about it. A jumble of noise over the tannoy brought her back to reality and the train began to slow.



Though the platform was surprisingly busy, Wykenhall station did nothing to reassure Charlotte. It was little more than a hut. Sickly green paint peeled off the walls and the wooden benches lining the platform were crumbling into dust. Outside the road wasn’t even tarmac, just a narrow dirt track. Squat oak trees enclosed the place, their gnarly trunks stained with dark goo that filled the ugly splits in their bark.


While Morag tried to locate their host Charlotte just stared through the branches into the blue sky above. A breeze sent a shower of waterdrops down on her and as she brushed them out of her eyes she thought she saw something on the track. A watery shimmer appeared for a split moment to her left before disappearing into the air, reminding her of the mirages of the Moroccan deserts.


As the breeze picked up, dust and twigs tumbled down the track in its grasp. Charlotte swore she could hear chanting, like the navigation song of the Bedouins " perhaps her parents were singing their way back home right now. It was a crazy notion ans she dismissed it immediately. Charlotte strained to make out the voices but they were indistinct. She couldn’t tell if they were male or female but she could just about make out the sounds as they echoed around her. ‘Saaaaaaar, Reeeeeeeei, Gaaar…


The sudden blast of a car horn startled her as a yellow VW beetle came charging down the road and the chanting was gone.


So this is the mysterious Aunt Clarissa I’ve never heard of, Charlotte thought to herself as a thin, silver-haired woman dressed in purple gracefully extricated herself from the car.


‘So sorry I’m late dears, traffic is awful again.’


Charlotte raised an eyebrow, looking up and down the road that was empty of any other ‘traffic’.


Clarissa and Morag exchanged greetings like long lost friends then, without warning, Clarissa rounded on Charlotte. She stared intently for a good couple of minutes, which unnerved Charlotte. It wasn’t so much the staring, Charlotte would have enjoyed a good staring match, it was the strange, almost sinister look in the old woman’s eyes and the sense that she had seen her somewhere before.


Impossible, Charlotte thought but Madame Cortes’ words ‘ancient family’ echoed in her ears.


Aunt Clarissa was not so much looking at her but through her, as if she was in some sort of trance. Even the sky had darkened as if in sympathy for her solemn mood. Charlotte was just about to say something just to break the silence when Aunt Clarissa suddenly announced cheerfully, ‘You must be Charlotte. You have your mother’s eyes.’ 


The clouds rolled away and a beam of sunlight suddenly burst through the branches above them making Charlotte jump. What is wrong with you, she thought, trying to maintain her air of indifference.


‘Well, I’m sure you must both be parched after your trip so why don’t we head home for a nice cup of tea…’ Aunt Clarissa beamed, pushing the front seat forward so that Charlotte could get in the back. ‘… And yes, of course you can have something "a bit more interesting" my dear,’ she added, winking at Charlotte.


‘How old are you?’ Charlotte asked as they drove off, face pressed against the car window.


Morag reddened, ‘You child have the manners of a goat. What has happened to you?’


‘Well, let me see…’ Charlotte’s voice was loaded with sarcasm and she desperately wanted to find something clever to say but the statement simply hung in the air while memories threatened to engulf her. She said nothing more in case her voice betrayed her.


‘Eighty-six dear.’


Distracted from goading Morag and grateful for the break in the silence, Charlotte swivelled round in surprise. ‘But that’s ancient!’ Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. ‘You don’t look that old.’


‘Well thank you dear,’ Clarissa stiffled a laugh. ‘Coming from you I suspect that is a compliment!’


‘How are we related exactly?’ Charlotte changed the subject.


‘Technically I’m your great aunt on your mother’s side… it is good to finally have you home, though it’s a shame it had to be under these circumstances.’ Clarissa gave her a sympathetic smile in the rear view mirror.


The landscape was alien to Charlotte, flat and boring with too much sky. Chocolate-box cottages trailed with the bare branches of rose and wisteria passed her by, alternating with freshly ploughed brown fields as the car sped onwards along the bumpy and ridiculously windy country roads. Most were barely wider than the car with bushy hedgerows obscuring from view anything that might be hurtling, equally as fast, in the opposite direction.


A madman must have made them, Charlotte concluded as she was tossed around in the back of the car, and a crazy old bat is driving on them; what a way to die.

 


The first sight Charlotte had of the family house, Rosemary Heights, was a glimpse of the turret room above the tree-tops of the small wood that cascaded down the shallow valley of Brackenheath-on-Sea. Aunt Clarissa pointed out with enthusiasm that it was to be her room. At the top of the cliff, the grand house dominated the skyline, towering over the little village.


As they drove through the main street they passed the only local amenities " a tiny shop, a park and weathered old pub and in that moment the true horror of her situation dawned. She would find no solace in grand libraries and museams here.


Rosemary Heights was impressive and old, but it was out of keeping with the modest buildings that now surrounded it. If it wasn’t for the soft green lawn, rosemary bushes and the climbing ivy that gave it a more homely feel, it would have been very sinister indeed.


Sea mist had melted the pointed turret tops and moss-encrusted stone gateposts, topped with gargoyles guarded the entrance. Charlotte could smell the rosemary that gave the place its name. Large bushes of it full of delicate blue flowers were growing along the neat gravel drive adding a dash of colour to the sleeping landscape. The drive wound its way through a huge undulating front lawn up to the main door at the side of the house and to the most spectacular stained-glass window Charlotte had ever seen.


A life-sized, serene female dressed in simple robes of green holding a bouquet of rosemary coloured from white to dark blue flanked the heavy wooden door. Below the window was a man-made pool, which caught the flowing waters of a natural spring.


‘It’s a depiction of St Lucci,’ said Aunt Clarissa, noticing Charlotte’s thrall as they got out of the car. ‘She’s a local saint and this place used to be her sanctuary at one point in its long history.’


Remembering that she didn’t actually want to be here, Charlotte just shrugged and turned to get her bags out of the boot. Behind her the two women smiled at each other knowingly; she hated it when adults did that and they probably thought she hadn’t seen them!


Aunt Clarissa retrieved a heavy-looking iron key from her pocket and opened the front door to reveal a stone floored porch beyond which was a large circular lobby, its walls partly covered in light wood panelling. On either side of the glass porch doors were two huge geodes of dark purple crystal that were slightly taller than Charlotte.


They sparkled in the sunlight and the cream carpet and walls of the lobby beyond were covered with jewel colours that flickered and shifted like the patterns inside a kaleidoscope. When Charlotte looked up she saw the cause of this light display was another stunning piece of stained glass in the domed skylight overhead.


The place felt wonderfully calm and even had that smoky sweet smell of churches. No other children lived here that was clear but that didn’t bother Charlotte as she removed her shoes reverently, she was quite happy to have this beautiful place all to herself.


Stepping past the crystal geodes Charlotte suddenly felt her legs buckle beneath her and she almost fainted, just managing to steady herself at the last minute on the glass doors. A brilliant light pricked the back of her eyes and after a moment of silence a single note pulsed through her body from the soles of her feet to the hairs on her head. A sense of being home overwhelmed her.


Charlotte couldn’t be sure how long she had been stood there, but the gentle brush of a cat’s tail and plaintive meow brought her back to her surroundings. This is not my home, she thought angrily before marching into the hall. In the middle of the hall a fluffy grey cat sat staring at her, head cocked as if it was assessing this new addition to the household.


‘That’s Quintillian,’ Aunt Clarissa said behind her as if nothing had happened, and the cat meowed again at hearing its name, before running off into the depths of the house.


Pets; that could be fun, Charlotte thought. She had never been allowed pets before, well, if you didn’t count the hamster that Morag had ended up looking after and eventually donating to a local school.


‘Do you have any other animals?’ Charlotte asked.


‘Why yes dear,’ Clarissa beamed. ‘There’s Quintillian’s brother Cicero, he’s a skittish little thing so you probably won’t see him for a while. Then there’s Maude and Maurice the chickens and Obadiah the goat.’ Charlotte nodded politely but said nothing. It was not exactly a typical home menagerie.


Around her now were four chunky wood doors leading to rooms she would explore later. Her attention was drawn instead to the magnificent sweeping staircase to her right that led up to a balcony overlooking the lobby. Somewhere up there was her own turret room. Without even a backward glance at the adults she picked up her suitcase and headed up the stairs taking them two at a time. As first impressions went, she had to admit that this place was amazing but nevertheless, she still wasn’t planning on staying long.


Charlotte instantly disliked her suite of rooms, impressive as they were. Not only was it very girly with the light pink walls, Charlotte had never had so much space to herself. Here she had her own bathroom and sitting room complete with an open fireplace. There was even a veranda and lots of beautiful antique furniture, including a mahogany desk inlaid with green leather and a number of bookshelves, perfect for her collection of scientific journals, artefacts and history books. It should have been heaven, but it felt too big and empty without her sister.


The massive windows allowed light to pour in and gave her panoramic views of the sea and surrounding undulating heathland. Other people might like such a view but to Charlotte it seemed like the landscape was intruding and she felt vulnerable and exposed.


The Stone residence by comparision had been a small flat close to the Thames in Pimlico, which they had inherited from some distant relative on her father’s side.


Edessa and Charlotte had shared a room as the tiny third bedroom was needed for their parents’ study but it had been no hardship sharing with her twin. Even though the room was barely large enough for the double bunk they shared, it hadn’t felt overcrowded, just snug and cosy like the rest of the flat. Charlotte had always been neat and tidy but her sister took after her parents and the flat was full to bursting with an organised mess of ballet pumps, art brushes, archaeology books, tools, journals and trays of various bits of rather boring ancient relics like bones and broken pottery.


An all too familiar sensation knotted in her chest as she thought about her family so before it reached her eyes she busied herself again with exploring her new surroundings where at least there were no painful reminders. Just as she was about to make her way back down stairs, something caught her eye.


On the far wall of the sitting room was a painting of an oak tree, its sturdy trunk topped with a rounded canopy thick with green leaves. The artist had added a golden glow as if to frame the tree and a wild rose wound itself around the base of the trunk. Charlotte was rooted to the spot, her skin icy cold " it was the tree of her vision down to the last leaf. She swore she could even see them moving in the wind the way they did before fire consumed them.


‘Maybe I could visit for weekends,’ Charlotte muttered to herself, unable to take her eyes off the strange painting while shoving her whole suitcase into the sturdy antique wardrobe and shutting the door.


Charlotte could hear the adults talking and shuffling around in the kitchen as she came down the stairs and she stopped to perch quietly on a stair.


‘Did you see that Clarissa, she’s sensitive to the energy of this place, just like her mother.’ Morag’s familiar Scottish brogue was hushed but clear.


‘Yes well, the house has certainly accepted her. I think it’s pleased to have family around after all these years.’ There was the sound of a kettle whistling, which stopped abruptly. ‘How much have you told her?’


‘My goodness; where to start?’ There was tiredness in Morag’s voice, as if she hadn’t slept for days. ‘I am so ill-equipped to deal with this whole situation; how could I bring up a child like her?’


Aunt Clarissa said nothing.


‘I am so sorry I’ve had to bring her to you I feel as though I have fai… ’


‘Perhaps you would like to explore the garden?’ interjected Aunt Clarissa, beaming innocently as Charlotte hovered outside the kitchen door.


‘Not especially,’ Charlotte growled in response, stepping into the kitchen, annoyed that she had been rumbled.


She knew it, she hadn’t even been here five minutes and already this stranger was trying to get rid of her. And there it was, predictable as ever, another of Morag’s evil looks. She had gotten so used to them over the last couple of months that they had lost their threat.


‘… A drink then?’ Aunt Clarissa carried on unfazed as she walked into the pantry, returning moments later with a plate of homemade cookies and a large jug of a pale yellow liquid topped with a doily.


Morag poured the tea and filled a heavy tumbler with ice, which crackled as Aunt Clarissa poured over the liquid. Charlotte sipped her drink cautiously; it was an unusual flavour but rather good.


‘Elderflower cordial, the last of the season’s batch,’ Aunt Clarissa chuckled. ‘It’ll be time for them again soon. Perhaps you could help me gather them this year, though I usually pick more than I know what to do with.’


‘Clarissa grows her own food and sells her homemade biscuits and preserves,’ Morag added, seeing the opportunity to get a conversation going.


‘And that earns you enough money to afford all this?’ Charlotte sneered. She had perfected the art of goading Morag, whose face was getting redder by the minute, but this woman wasn’t even flustered yet.


‘Not exactly… ’ Aunt Clarissa looked at Morag ‘… I also hold meditation classes, and then there’s…


‘So, you’re a hippy; or maybe even a witch!’ Charlotte smirked triumphantly.


Morag had had enough. ‘That is it Charlotte Stone, you are an ungrateful little toad with no manners, none at all. All we are trying to do is our best for you and you just throw it back in our faces.’

 

Charlotte could see that Morag was close to tears as Clarissa put a comforting hand on her shoulder and for some reason this made her even angrier. She slammed the glass down on the table.


‘Do you think for one minute that I wanted to come here, to be passed round from person to person like a smelly pair of old boots no one wants!’ she screamed at the two women, she couldn’t stop, she had been bottling it up for too long. ‘I didn’t ask for this you know, I just want my old life back, I want my sister back, and I want my parents back. Is that too much to ask?’


Charlotte turned to run; it didn’t matter where, just so long as they didn’t see the tears streaming down her face.




THE SEARCH


It had been hours since Charlotte had run out of the kitchen at Rosemary Heights and she wasn’t feeling any better. She was pretty sure she wouldn’t be welcome back at the house after her latest outburst which meant she was officially homeless, except for the empty, boarded-up flat in Pimlico.


Her old key was in her pocket and she toyed with it thoughtfully " it was of no use to her now of course. Ever since the house had been emptied, there had been all manner of padlocks and metal grilles installed. She had nowhere to go and this notion gave her a strange sense of freedom.


Her stomach rumbled but she ignored it, focusing instead on what she was going to do next. Ahead of her was a pair of rusted iron gates set in an overgrown hedge and from the faded sign she read:


 


BRAC     E  TH      SE  PARK  


 


As she followed the weed-cracked path, a strange silence descended and the air seemed to buzz with anticipation. She recognised the feeling, it was the same way she felt when she was about to make an important find " like the stone in the cave. But what on earth was she likely to find here?


Charlotte walked to the end of the avenue of sycamore trees and the full forlorn landscape of Brackenheath-on-Sea Park unfolded in front of her. To her right was a bare patch of dirt, which Charlotte figured must be the remains of a formal garden. Ahead of her was a smelly, snot-green stretch of water set in undulating brown lawns after which was a rundown pavilion filled with broken glass and wood. It should have been another reason to want to leave but Charlotte kind of liked the place. It looked just like she felt, unloved and forgotten, and she found it comforting.


Wandering past the boating lake, complete with rubbish and submerged shopping trolleys, she headed over to the half moon pavilion. It was obviously a brilliant stage in its day and it still had great acoustics.


Saaaar, Reeeeei, Gaaaaaaaaaaaar,’ Charlotte toned absentmindedly as she perched on the edge of the raised platform of the stage. They were the first sounds that came to mind, the ones she heard in the train station, and a plan formed. She would get a train to London and find her sister and… well, that was as far as she had got, but it was a start.


Charlotte needed to get her bearings. She could see the turret tops of Rosemary Heights through the trees " that was definitely not the direction she wanted to go. To her left she could hear the river, which flowed past a giant willow, beyond which were open fields with a ramshackle cottage in the distance.


Turning to see what was behind the pavilion, Charlotte gasped. Set on a small hill, the gnarly old oak was clearly visible through a thin veil of silver birches. It was just a skeleton of a tree at this time of year but there was no mistaking it was the tree from her dreams " and the painting at Rosemary Heights. As she drew closer she could see the naked briar of a wild rose snaking its way around the trunk and the twiggy upper branches swaying in the wind. She found herself swaying along with them.


‘Are you alright, Miss?’A man stood a short distance away with a bemused look on his face.


‘What? Oh! Yes, er… I’m fine.’ Charlotte rubbed her eyes as she realised where she was.


‘You were away with the Fey there,’ he added with a beaming smile now he was sure he had her attention.


He was a strange-looking individual, older than her parents but younger than Clarrisa she guessed but his attire was oddly Victorian. He was already very tall and thin but his grey pinstripe trouser and waistcoat along with the top hat he was wearing made him look even taller. Charlotte had no idea where he had come from but wondered if there was a wedding somewhere nearby.


‘Forgive me, where are my manners, I am Etienne.’ The man tipped his hat and gave her a formal bow before looking at her expectantly.


‘Er, Charlotte,’ replied Charlotte.


‘Wonderful to meet you.’ Etienne shook her hand vigorously. ‘You must be new here, locals take the Evergreen Oak very much for granted, most don’t even know it is here, no appreciation for history.’ He beamed again.


Charlotte hadn’t figured him for a local but he was clearly knowledgeable and, not for the first time, she wished she had Edessa’s ability to read people.


‘I didn’t realise it was special, I just stumbled across it a moment ago,’ she replied.


‘Well, you’ve been standing there… actually more swaying there, admiring it for over an hour.’


Charlotte wrinkled her forehead. ‘No, I’ve only been here a minute, if that.’


‘I assure you Miss, you have been there much longer.’ The man pulled out a pocket watch to prove his point. ‘I wouldn’t worry, it does that to people it likes. Where were you headed?’


Charlotte vaguely remembered her plan to catch a train to London, but now she wasn’t so sure, the tree had changed things.


‘I was heading to the train station… ’ she said, noncommittally, ‘… but I… ’


‘My my, you had better hurry then my dear, the last train departs in ten minutes.’


‘I don’t really know the way so I think I’ll just go another day.’


It was a lame excuse and she knew he was just trying to be helpful but her feet were like lead and she was becoming more and more reluctant to leave.


‘Nonsense, it would be a privilege to escort you, I’m going there myself anyway,’ Etienne insisted.


He offered her his arm and Charlotte smiled at such old fashioned manners. She shrugged off her misgivings and allowed him to guide her. While something within her desperately wanted to stay with the tree, her logical side needed facts; something she was sure Etienne could provide.


‘Why is it called the Evergreen Oak when it’s clearly not?’ she asked, looking back one last time.


‘That is an interesting story; and a good question.’ He threw her another of his charming smiles. ‘Some centuries ago people around here were starving due to a particularly lengthy and cruel winter and the crops failed. One smart soul remembered this was a fairy tree and asked the Fey Nation for their help. The following morning, the Evergreen Oak was full to bursting with green leaves and, more importantly, acorns which magically replenished themselves every day. It was a miracle and the only thing that kept the locals and their livestock from death.’


It was an interesting story but it didn’t shed any light on her dreams at all.


The air had cooled now the sun was below the horizon and the train station was empty as Charlotte and Etienne stepped into the foyer.


‘A one-way ticket to London please,’ she said to the holes in the glass window.


An old man who looked about ninety sat behind the counter reading a battered old paperback that looked as old as him. His movements showed that no one would rush him. Peering over his spectacles, he stared at her, a look of suspicion blooming on his face.


‘Yer a bit young to be travlin’ on yer own aint cher?’


‘She is not alone my good man,’ Etienne stepped forward before Charlotte had the chance to reply and dipped his hat to the man, ‘and make that two tickets if you would.’


The old man looked Etienne up and down but didn’t budge. He simply bent closer to the glass and gave Charlotte a pleading look.


‘Why not go home. I’m sure yer folks are gonna be worryn’ sick over yer.’


‘That is exactly what she intends to do,’ Etienne spokme for her again, his voice strained though he still wore one of his charming smiles, ‘as soon as she has a ticket, dear fellow.’


‘You sure you want to go miss?’ The man ignored Etienne again.


Charlotte nodded and the ticket vendor gave Charlotte her ticket without another word.

                                    


As the train sped through the descending darkness Charlotte fished her ipod out of her shirt pocket. Switching it on, the angry staccato of flamenco music blared into her ears; it certainly suited her mood but it also reminded her also of the last night she had spent with her family before disaster had struck.


Blocking out the real world she relived the joy of that balmy Andalusian night " the very last time her family was all together. In her mind’s eye she could see Edessa desperately trying to keep up with the beautiful gypsy women, their skirts flaring and faces contorted with concentration and passion as their feet duelled skilfully with the guitarist, while their parents watching from their table at Casa Vargas.

                            

Her parents! The thought of them brought her down to earth with a bump, ‘missing presumed dead’. That’s what the report had said. The morning after the fiesta they had departed on a plane to Gadhames where they planned to travel across the Sahara into Egypt. That was the last time she had seen her parents, her mother smiling and waving as she left, blowing them kisses.


‘There we are, one hot chocolate, Etienne said, as Charlotte removed her headphones and wiped her eyes furiously on her sleeve.


He had insisted on accompanying her and she felt it would be rude to refuse considering. Besides he ought to be able to tell her more about Brackenheath, Clarissa and perhaps most importantly the mysterious oak tree on the hill.


‘I’ve interrupted you haven’t I?’ Etienne gave her a pantomime sad face.


‘No it’s fine.’ Charlotte attempted a smile.


‘Alright then, well, as we are going to be travel buddies, how about telling me what brought you to our little village of Brackenheath?’


Charlotte’s emotions threatened to engulf her again and Charlotte had to take a deep breath to steady her voice before she spoke.


‘I’ve come from London to stay with my aunt,’ was all she could manage.


‘Ah the infamous Clarissa Aherne I assume; life will never be dull in that household.’


Charlotte was beginning to suspect Etienne knew more about her than he was letting on but before she could challenge him, he was already talking again.


‘Judging by your presence in the park, I am guessing you were looking for some private time for reflection. Brackenheath is not measuring up to your expectations I suspect.’


Charlotte shrugged. She didn’t really have any expectations, life had changed at such a dizzying pace recently it was all she could do to keep up and it all felt very surreal.


‘I shan’t pry my dear,’ Etienne continued, patting her hand reassuringly, ‘and if you do return, the park is certainly the perfect place to be alone. Most people think it’s haunted.’ He laughed as if the idea was preposterous. ‘Personally I think the Fey drove the humans off,’ he added with a whisper.


Charlotte raised her eyebrows at Etienne’s last comments. He clearly didn’t think imaginary creatures were as crackers as thinking the place might be haunted. She was intrigued.


‘What exactly are “Fey”?’ Charlotte asked him.


‘Oh my dear girl, where have you been all your life? The Fey Nation lives all around us; they are sometimes known as the “Little People” or the “Lords and Ladies”.’


‘You mean fairies?’ Charlotte couldn’t hide the sarcasm in her voice anymore; she just didn’t believe in such things.


‘Not just fairies anymore: dwarves, drakes, trolls, sprites, selkies… the list is endless. They all come under the banner, and protection, of the Fey Nation. I guess they have to stick together now.’


‘And why would they want rid of humans?’ she humoured him.


Etienne shifted in his seat uncomfortably. ‘Relations between Human and Fey have been less than amicable for a while, ever since the ‘Tinkerbell Scandal’ in fact. They made a formal complaint after that, citing all human fairy stories as insulting and derogitory. As for the local Fey - they blame us for a great many things, not least the state of Brackenheath Park, so they retreated to the Dreamtime.’


Dreamtime, Charlotte’s skin tingled at the word as she heard Madame Cortes warning in her head.


‘It is the space between the worlds, the in-between,’ Etienne continued. ‘The fairies left mundane earth in order to dwell there… but it appears they may be coming back.’


‘What makes you say that?’


It was some time before Etienne spoke and the way he stared at her reminded Charlotte of Aunt Clarissa " except unlike her, his eyes were filled with a strange mix of curiosity and fear.


‘You must have heard the tree singing, did you not feel the darkness pouring through? No living creature could survive in that. My guess is the Dreamtime is collapsing and they had no choice.’


Charlotte began to shake her head but as Etienne spoke flashes of memory from her afternoon in Brackenheath Park began to flicker into life. She remembered the subtle buzzing she had felt and dismissed, the shimmer she had thought just a trick of the light, the low hum that had kept her rooted to the spot. Etienne and Charlotte stared at each other. Whatever he thought he saw, Etienne was obviously pleased.


‘I knew it was you,’ he beamed.



The train grated to a stop and in the melee of the crowd departing the train, the guards were unconcerned by the strange pair of the scruffy redheaded tomboy and the man in the grey top hat.


Etienne, of course, refused to leave her alone in the marbled concourse of bustling Liverpool Street.


‘Someone of your age should not be travelling the streets of London alone,’ he had insisted. Something Charlotte found amusing considering she had travelled through more dangerous places without incident but she knew he was just being kind. They made their way to an underground map.


‘Things have changed somewhat since I was last here,’ Etienne said, scratching his head as he tried to make sense of the knot of coloured lines. ‘I’m sure there weren’t this many lines. Where did you say you were heading?’


‘Belleswater.’


‘Ah well, seems we have a way to go in that case.’ Etienne offered Charlotte his arm as he pointed to a blue dot. ‘Sure you don’t want to take a stroll in the night air?’ His face fell when Charlotte shook her head.



It was obvious that Etienne did not enjoy being so far underground so Charlotte got little else out of him for the rest of the journey other than Clarissa had lived on her own for years and that the house had been in the family for centuries. He was clearly relieved when they had returned to the fresh air of the city streets.


‘I trust you will be alright from here?’ he said, looking a little pale.


‘Yes, thank you, Etienne,’ Charlotte grinned.


‘Excellent, in that case I really must be going, I am already late.’


‘I’m sorry, you shouldn’t… ’


‘Nonsense, I won’t hear it. What sort of gentleman would I be to leave a lady stranded?’ Etienne, with his usual chivalry, tipped his hat and bowed to Charlotte before adding, ‘We will meet again, Miss Stone.’


His tone sent chills down her spine, it sounded almost like a threat and she had to force back an urge to run. Charlotte immediately felt stupid, Etienne had shown her nothing but kindness but she was still pleased to see the warm lights of Belleswater Hospital.


 


The welcoming calm of the Crankshaw Wing engulfed her. It smelt clinical like any hospital, but there was an underlying hint of vanilla with soothing pipe music and soft carpet underfoot. This was the one place she felt safe and at peace at the moment.


Visiting time was coming to an end and the hospital was settling in for the night so she ducked into a store room to avoid the burly nurse who was making her last round of the evening. Charlotte had met her before and she was not someone to mess with so only when she was absolutely sure that the coast was clear did she sneak out into the corridor. Soft strip lighting lined the ceiling, plenty enough for her to find her way around and soon she was outside room 11 " Edessa’s room.


 


She still couldn’t get used to seeing her sister like this. It was unnatural seeing her so inactive, quite apart from all the machines she was hooked up to. Charlotte went over to the bed, pulled up a chair and got as comfortable as she could for the long night ahead.


 


She reached for her sister’s hand and felt the faint pulse in her wrist. Though she needed a ventilator to breathe, the doctors had said it was a good sign that her heart was still working on its own. All Charlotte could think of at the moment was that the one person she could talk to about anything and needed most of all right now was unable to help her. She had always thought she was the strong one, but now she felt weak and alone.


 


It had been hard enough to face the loss of her parents but the double whammy of her sister’s coma had been too much to bear; almost. For the first time since that dreadful night she let herself really cry. She cried and cried till she thought her heart would burst and still she couldn’t stop. Eventually she cried herself into a mercifully dreamless sleep.




A fierce wind whistled in the pitch-blackness around Edessa Stone but she felt and heard nothing. She couldn’t recall how she’d got here (wherever ‘here’ was) and though she couldn’t feel them, she knew tears flowed down her cheeks as she desperately tried to keep her fear in check. The last thing she remembered was being with Morag at the Opera Bastille in Paris and now she was alone in the darkness. She had no way of marking time in this place but it seemed as if she had been here for an eternity.


If only Lottie were with her, she’d know what to do; she was practical like that. Edessa was sure her mind was playing tricks on her because she thought she had just heard her sister calling out to her only moments ago. That must be just wishful thinking though as there was no sound in this terrifying place. There was the vision however.


Edessa knew it off by heart now. It started with the gnarly oak, perched high on the hill, with roses wrapped around it. Snow lay on the ground yet the rose was still in full bloom. In her mind’s eye, Edessa saw its petals fall to the ground as the plant began to wither in front of her eyes before the hand, long broken nails thick with dirt, burst out of the ground. As fire engulfed the scene she felt the blood-curdling scream reverberate in her skull, its sound lingering in the dark long after the vision had faded.


Edessa could feel the light of the fireball building and she steeled herself for another onslaught of disturbing images; but something was different this time. She convinced herself the light was not in her imagination this time. For a start, it was cold and silver; a tiny pinprick in the distance like a lone star in the night sky " and it was calling to her.


I wish you could hear me, Eddie, it whispered in her sister’s voice.


Charlotte was out there somewhere looking for her she just knew it. Edessa could feel her sister again and this gave her renewed courage as she focused with all her might on the new silver light, straining to hear Charlotte’s voice again. But it never came. The silence was deafening and most alarming of all, the silver light was flickering and beginning to fade.


Don’t go out, don’t go out, Edessa repeated over and over, willing it to grow brighter. Somehow she knew her life depended on it. To her surprise it seemed to do as she asked.


As the light drew closer, Edessa noticed for the first time the ominous shadows floating in the air around her. Evil-looking creatures with deformed limbs and lifeless eyes flashed razor-sharp teeth at her in an evil smile of anticipation; making their intentions clear. She could feel their longing, their desire for her to become one of them " and that they had been human once. She shuddered inside.


One creature was showing particular interest in her and was the only one not disturbed by the light. Its eyes were pupiless and as dark as obsidian while its pale white face was lined with marble-like streaks and it was reaching a long taloned finger to her chest. Edessa could almost taste its curiosity and felt something flickering across the edges of her consciousness.


Before she had a chance to think, a cord burst from the starlight and lunged at her, attaching itself to her chest where the creature was pointing. Her first instinct was to scream, but in moments energy flowed through her and… she could feel her body again. She still couldn’t move but the cord was pulling her away from the hungry shadows as they recoiled from the light.


Images bloomed in front of her, a hospital room with all manner of machines, Charlotte sitting in a hospital chair and… Edessa gasped as she saw herself lying in the bed. Tubes protruded from her nose, arms and mouth, she barely had time to take it all in as the silver cord pulled her into her body.


In an instant, the sounds of the hospital, the traffic noise outside and her sister’s heavy breathing filled her senses. It was as if someone had turned up the volume full blast on a TV and Edessa realised just how used to the silence she had become.


Lottie, Lottie? Can you hear me? Edessa’s inside voice whispered but her sister didn’t stir.


Edessa wondered how she had managed to hear her sister in the silence, she was so convinced she had heard her thoughts so why wasn’t it working the other way round? A vague memory bubbled and a word repeated over and over " Duende.


Edessa remembered the gypsy woman’s lesson on projecting her emotions through the song of creation. As the lessons of that night came back to her, Edessa imagined she could hear a low, constant humming underneath the noise of the traffic and she latched onto it. Taking a deep breath, Edessa focused with all her might and in her head she sang as loudly as she could.


Charlotte.


The marble-faced creature, who was still hovering nearby, smiled before disappearing back into the blackness.



Charlotte sat bolt upright and rigid, not daring to breath, not daring to move…


Rain was falling so heavily against the window that it almost drowned out the sound and Charlotte thought she was still half asleep though her eyes were open.


Eddie? Is that you? Charlotte whispered half-heartedly. Talking to the air, she must be mad, it was scientifically impossible for her sister to be talking to her in her head, but she so wanted it to be true. She missed her sister so much.


I’m here Lottie; I can hear you. I can feel you. Please, let this work. Edessa’s voice was more determined than before and growing louder. So loud in fact that Charlotte worried that someone would hear " till she remembered it was all in her head.


I… I can… hear you, Eddie. Charlotte imagined she heard a sigh of relief.


Thank goodness, you have no idea how much I’ve missed you.


I think I might. How is this possible?


Beats me, I’ve been floating in the dark for I don’t know how long then all of a sudden, there you were.


What do you remember?


Paris, Monet… then pitch-blackness… oh, and the vision… The sentence trailed off.


Me too. Charlotte tingled all over as she remembered her encounter with the Brackenheath Oak but there was another matter she had to deal with first.


Eddie… Charlotte began. She was no use at giving bad news. … something has happened… to Mum and Dad… She paused to let her sister absorb what she was telling her. The silence stretched into minutes.


I stopped feeling them when I was in the dark… Edessa finally answered, … but I thought it was just this place.


Can you remember the last thing you felt? Charlotte persisted.


Discomfort, like being too hot, then… maybe falling?


Heat is simple enough… but where on earth could they have fallen to in a desert?


Do you think they…


Don’t know, Charlotte replied abruptly. They know how to look after themselves.


Edessa could feel Charlotte’s emotions in turmoil and knew not to push the subject any further. She changed the subject. You had something else to tell me?


That was enough to prompt her sister to tell her all about the strange encounter with the tree in the rundown park in Brackenheath.


Do you think it’s the one we have been seeing since Spain? Charlotte asked.


How could it be any other? Edessa replied.


I don’t know, but I’m not going back. I don’t want to live with that strange hippy woman. Besides, I’ve got to focus on finding Mum and Dad.


Be sensible, Charlotte, Edessa pleaded. That "hippy woman" is family and how exactly do you intend to search the entire Sahara desert by yourself. Anyhow, there must be a reason you found the tree… or that it found you.


You think it could be linked? Charlotte had come to the same conclusion but it was good to have her sister confirm her thoughts.


I honestly don’t know, but it ties in with what Madame Cortes’ told you and it’s as good a place to start as any. I think it deserves further research.


Charlotte thought about what her sister had said for a while. She was certainly good at research.


I don’t want to leave you.


Well you can hardly live in the hospital, and we can always talk like this now.


How do you know? Charlotte was not convinced. The scientist in her still needed proof.


Edessa didn’t know " but she did feel. For some reason the face of the marbled creature smiling at her in the silver gloom came to mind.


Things are different now.


Those four simple words summed it all up and with that they both fell into a comfortable silence.



 


Neva removed her glasses and rubbed the bridge of her nose. She had been working for ten hours solid and was making slow progress. The sun had set ages ago and security would be coming soon to lock up for the night. Outside was now blowing a gale and rain lashed down, so it looked like she would be getting wet on her walk back to the dorms.


The carbon dating of the cloth wrappings she’d requested that morning had finally come back and she smiled to herself " Charlotte had been right again, they were of little interest. However the stone had remained a puzzle. She studied the pictures taken of the object in situ once more in case they could offer any inspiration but they gave her nothing. She returned to her notebook.


O ushalin zhala sar o kam mangela



She had written the translation underneath ‘The shadow moves as the sun commands’. It was Romani and they had found it on a wooden marker post near the site. It had been easy enough to translate with Madame Cortes’ help. She assumed it was some sort of spell for protection but against what? And what of the stone itself? A C scan had determined it was hollow with a second object inside, like a Russian doll, she mused, intrigued by the results.


Neva was also still awaiting the lab findings which might throw some light on the matter. She stroked the smooth surface of the lozenge-shaped object but it gave away none of its secrets. Unusually there were no markings and no way to open it but then; perhaps that was the point.


Neva wished Richard and Ella were there, they’d have some theories. She was sure there was something they hadn’t had a chance to share with her, she could tell from their faces when the object had been discovered. They were always like excited school children when there were new discoveries but this had been different, it was as if they had seen it before. She was probably wasting her time, she didn’t even know if she still had a job after what had happened but she couldn’t help being drawn back to the project.


 An idea struck her and mixing a mild acid solution, she carefully brushed an even coat on a small section of the artefact. Nothing. The solution caused no obvious damage so she risked trying another section but this came up blank as well. She threw the brush down in frustration but just as she was deciding to pack up for the night she saw it.


Gradually, lines started to appear and as they darkened they began to form unfamiliar symbols. Neva’s arms prickled with goosebumps as she hurriedly coated the rest of the vessel. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Neva was alarmed when the writing began to fade so she hurried to jot down the symbols before they disappeared. She was so engrossed she didn’t hear anyone come into the room.


‘Hello Neva.’


Neva cursed under her breath as she nearly dropped the fragile artefact. She turned towards the source of the voice.


‘Who the hell are you?’


The man tipped his top hat and bowed.


‘I’m the money,’ he grinned.

 



 


As the first rays of sunshine filtered through the blinds of room 11, Charlotte squirmed in her chair. She was in that space between sleep and awakefulness and vivid images swirled through her mind. Images of her parents falling through the air, of a rosebush blooming in snowfall before withering and dying in moments and a golden flash of fire that left her blinded. In the edges of her vision a dark marble-faced figure moved and strange chanting filled the air, just like the sort she had heard when she had arrived in Wykenhall.


As Charlotte came too, she swore she could hear the chanting filling her sister’s room and not just her own head, but as she opened her eyes the sound disappeared. Her body was sore from a night in the hard plastic chair and demanded her attention, so as she focused on stretching the stiffness out of her limbs, the disturbing images of the night soon floated away.


The hospital was also waking and Charlotte heard the clattering of pans from the kitchens as breakfast was prepared for staff and patients " but not for her sister. In the corridor outside there was the soft footfall of the morning nurse going about her rounds and Charlotte knew she would have to leave soon or face discovery.

 

Having stretched out the kinks in her neck, arms and legs, Charlotte listened by the door to work out if the corridor was empty. Jut as she thought the coast was clear, the handle turned and she was nearly knocked to the floor by the person entering. There were three of them and she didn’t need to look up to know who the purple dress belonged to.


‘Thank you Nurse Collins, I think we can take it from here,’ Clarissa said calmly.


Nurse Collins looked as if she had a few choice words she wanted to share with Charlotte but luckily she relented and left her to what she obviously hoped would be a long and severe lecture from her relatives. That was clearly exactly what Morag had in mind but as she stepped forward, her face a picture of fury, Clarissa intervened again.


‘There is no need for recriminations Morag, the important thing is she is safe.’


Morag’s face softened and she nodded gently in agreement before throwing her arms around Charlotte who could see her makeup was streaked with tears. She had obviously been very worried and, feeling guilty, Charlotte hugged her back.


Go with them.


The hair on Charlotte’s neck prickled as Edessa spoke. She looked at the adults but they showed no sign of having heard it. Charlotte shut her eyes and concentrated.


There’s no time to explain so listen to me Lottie, something bad is coming, I can feel it, and you need to protect the oak till we work out what it is.


‘What is it Charlotte? What’s wrong?’ Aunt Clarissa’s voice sounded worried but Charlotte could sense something else, something like expectation, lurking underneath it.


Find me by the tree, Lottie. I’ll be waiting.


Charlotte opened her eyes. ‘Nothing.’ She smiled. ‘I’m ready to go now, Aunt Clarissa.’


‘Wonderful… and call me Clarissa, the “aunt” makes me feel like an old maid!’


Charlotte smiled to herself. Edessa had always been a good judge of character so maybe living with this crackpot wouldn’t be so bad after all.




FACE IN THE FLAMES


As the festival fire burned in the central grove of the Tree Weaver’s village, on the edges of the last great forest of Syluria in the province of the Nellpa Barra, a small group sat some distance away exchanging worried glances. Their harmless game had started to take a dangerous turn.


‘It doesn’t look like he is breathing,’ Mor’seka mumbled, ‘and he’s cold as river water.’


‘Stop fussing Mor’seka, you think I don’t know what I’m doing?’


Anya tried to hide her own panic as she played with her newly acquired dreadlock. Fashioned to mimic the roots of the Great Tree, she hoped it would be the first of many " so long as she didn’t accidentally kill her brother before her priestess training was finished.


‘This is how it’s supposed to go. Stop being such a Galoofin. What I want to know is did he manage to break through the Dreamtime? What do you think Albion is like? I wonder if the legends are true?’


Mor’seka was no fool. He knew Anya was concerned for her brother but she was also genuinely more interested in her little experiment. Not for the first time, he worried about her sanity.


‘A worm? You’re actually comparing me to a skittish, flatulent worm?’ Mor’seka retorted as he tried to rub some warmth into Tar’sel’s freezing limbs. ‘It’s no good, I’m going to get some help.’


‘Don’t.’ Anya grabbed his arm. ‘Any second now the nut is going to… ’ She was interrupted by a loud pop and a hazelnut shooting into the sky.


She stared intently at Tar’sel for a moment. ‘It worked.’ She beamed.



The full moons of Syluria bathed the Nellpa Barra in burnished silver and the river wound its way across the valley like a glossy black serpent while ice blue stars hung in the frosted winter sky. On the hill overlooking the Tree Weaver village the sacred Nymet tree, a sturdy gnarly oak, glowed gently in the darkness.


The festival fire had long since collapsed into itself and in the dying light of the fire, the sculpted branches of the dwelling trees, with their hide and woven bark bowers, cast strange shadows which spread over the grove as if trying to tempt people to bed. In the highest treetops of the Nymet temple on the northern hill, the Draoi priestesses continued their soporific heart song in honour of the animal that had provided the feast.


The Nabinder ritual was an anxious time, when the world was vulnerable as time reset itself. The ceremony, always a sombre affair, had gone without incident, and the grove was lit by the warm glow of individual fires lit from the main festival fire.


Young and old still feasted and drank, finishing the last morsels of the great feast and chatting in the fading light. The air was thick with the smell of applewood hearts, roasted stuffed quinnarra roots and rheadak meat; the burnt fat from the remains infusing the night to feed the ancestors.


Gathering around each other’s hearths, they tried to outdo each other’s storytelling skills but Anya, bored of the same old tales, had suggested a traditional divination game instead. Both Mor’seka and Tar’sel had been keen to join in, curious to see what Anya had been learning in her priestess training.



Tar’sel’s body lurched and with incredible force of will, he drew his mind back into his body. He could feel the consciousness pouring back into the young male body sitting by a small fire. He became aware of the reassuring heaviness of the trees rooted behind him, the wet grass beside him where he had knocked over his beaker and followed at last by the fact that the male body was him.


‘I am Tar’sel Aderquaile, Child of the Nymet. I belong to the great forest of the Nellpa Barra, heart of Syluria " and that was not real!’ he muttered to himself for reassurance, while the heat of the orange flames crackling in the small stone circle brought him round.


Beads of sweat decorated his ashen face, his normally spiky blond hair pasted to his head, and the points of his green ears began to tingle. He began to realise that the buzzing noise in his ears was in fact voices, voices that belonged to real, physical people, people who were talking to him.


‘Tar’sel! Tar’sel? Are you OK?’


He could hear the tone of panic in his sister’s voice, even though she would have denied it was there, and managed to acknowledge that he was fine. However, the image of those long, dirt-encrusted nails that had gripped him, and the pain of that ruthless mind which had plunged like a thousand daggers into his own, still lingered. He felt nauseous from the memory of the smell of decay and blood; and that scream " where had it come from?


Exhausted, he slumped gratefully against the nearest supportive trunk and waved away the suggestion that they should take him to the medicine woman. He wasn’t ready for the questions that would inevitability result from such a visit. Away from the fire, the cool night air soothed him.


‘At least drink then,’ Anya insisted, thrusting a beaker of greenish fluid into his hand.


He downed the mixture in one, it was weird, but not unpleasant and almost immediately he felt better, more solid, more real.


‘What was that?’ He held the beaker up as Anya refilled it.


‘A simple concoction of nettles… amongst other things,’ Anya smiled, clearly relieved.


‘This what they teach you in your Draoi lessons?’


‘Don’t be stupid, I learnt this from Mother when I was four!’


‘Never mind the brew.’ Mor’seka nudged his friend. ‘You going to leave us in suspense all night, did you get through the Dreamtime?’


‘Give him a minute for goddess sake,’ Anya chided. She was very protective when she was in Draoi mode and Tar’sel was glad for it. He needed a minute to gather his thoughts.


Anya had explained the rules as Tar’sel gazed into the glowing embers. The molten flames had long since subsided and the remaining coals throbbed with orange heat which flowed through them like a river current, and it had swept him along too, into the Dreamtime.


He had never consciously entered this half world of shadows before, only the priestesses had the skills to do so, but curiosity had got the better of him. The journey had started with the silver cord.


He recalled how the golden dust had drifted around him in the dark and he began to wonder if he should be doing something as he stood there. Suddenly, a punch to the chest knocked him to the ground, the force of it all swirling the dust into a frenzy. As it cleared, Tar’sel noticed a silver cord attached to his chest, and it began to gently pull him forward.


The hairs on his arms and back of his neck stood up as he remembered the sense of foreboding that had coiled in his guts. Out of the corner of his eye, wispy mist curled into strange shapes he couldn’t quite make out and the silver cord led him round the deep craters that pock-marked this desolate, grey landscape. It was not at all how he had expected it to be.


Menacing images swirled in the deep black pools of the craters and Tar’sel averted his gaze as he passed. As his eyes began to adjust to the gloom, he could see that the light of the dust settled into a grid-like formation that floated at chest height.


‘The Wyrdweb,’ he muttered to himself. It should have been no surprise, they were all taught from a very young age about the web that connects all things, but he had never considered it would exist out here, in fact he had never really thought about the web at all, let alone seen it. The intricacy of the pattern was like lace and he marvelled at its beauty as the silver cord led him slowly on, pulling along a single thread, looping and twisting and spinning as they went.


Ahead of him was a vortex, very much like the one he had entered and it was obvious the silver cord was leading him there. Tar’sel took a few deep breaths, he knew how deadly panic could be, but he couldn’t help but worry that he was now getting out of his depth. He hoped and prayed that Anya knew what she was doing.


At the vortex, the silver cord stopped. An image of a world bloomed around him, so colourless and blank like a half drawn picture, it made the Dreamtime look real. He was standing on a hill with a large oak tree. Bryony curled through nearby bushes of wild rose and birch trees that swayed at the base of the hill. Despite its unfamiliar feel, Tar’sel knew where he was, the hill of the Nymet " only, this was not his Nymet.


A rustling noise behind him made him turn, alerting his hunter instinct and he made a grab for his knife only to realise there was nothing there. He walked away from the vortex feeling the silver cord tugging at his chest, it clearly didn’t want him going this way but eventually he felt it slacken.


There were a cluster of craters to his left, filled with the same black liquid he had seen in the others. Images began to fade in and out so quickly he caught only fragments " a glowing stone, a withered tree, a flame-haired girl… and the claw. Red lightning danced across the mouth of the crater before the claw erupted from the black water, the nails gripping his face, digging into his temples and dragging him down. There was a searing pain in his chest as the silver cord was stretched to breaking.


That had been the moment when Anya had used the nut to bring him back. Tar’sel suspected that it had brought something else back as well though he had no way to prove it.


Even now, as Tar’sel sat around the fire drinking Anya’s potion, the last image of the girl’s face was still burnt into his mind’s eye. Those pleading eyes set in an alabaster face and wild red hair as she began to fall away from him… screaming. Like everyone, he knew the story of the flame-haired girl from beyond the Dreamtime. The one who would come at a time of great tribulation. Had this been her? Was this the time? Tar’sel shuddered from an inner chill.


Tar’sel realised he had been sitting in silence for ages with Anya and Mor’seka staring at him expectantly. The tree canopy seemed to be drawing in around him and for the first time in his life he felt claustrophobic.


‘Where are you going?’ Mor’eska moaned.


‘I need to walk, eat… to do something, normal,’ Tar’sel shouted over his shoulder.


‘Wait, you can’t go. I need to know if it worked properly,’ his sister replied.


‘Forget it.’


‘But… ’


‘K’hul, Anya! That was dangerous and I wasn’t prepared… ’


‘I was always in control,’ Anya protested. ‘You… ’


‘No. I’m done.’ Tar’sel strode off to the central grove.


 

Tay’mor the Nymet guardian was settling down to perform his rendition of the ‘Vorla Lamp’ as Tar’sel entered the central grove and a large crowd was gathering around the embers of the festival fire waiting in anticipation. The stars shone brightly in the open sky above him. It was the perfect distraction.


The stories of the sinister Vorla had always been Tar’sel’s favourites and Tay’mor always told them best. More importantly they were comforting and familiar. Just what he needed right now he thought, as he took his place amongst the crowd, accepting the offer of a plate of spiced Rehadak meat and his favourite creamy quinnarra roots, perfectly smoked. The food warmed him, helping to clear the remnants of the terrifying vision.


The Nymet tree shone from its place on the hill, a familiar beacon that told him all was right with the world. However, Tar’sel couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. He was not sure what he had been expecting but he had always thought the Dreamtime was a place of light and wonder, instead he had found only darkness and he felt polluted by it. He didn’t know if it was him or the tree but it seemed to shine less brightly than normal.


‘The tale of the Vorla Lamp,’ Tay’mor announced loudly, allowing time for the crowd to cheer before he began.


Tar’sel decided to put his concerns to the back of his mind for the time being and settled down to enjoy his meal and the entertainment.


Long ago, before the beginning of time, the land known as Syluria existed only as the tiny island of Inish, surrounded in all directions by the primordial waters of the Dreamtime.


Inish was the bleeding heart of the Sleeping Mother, which oozed molten fire as she dreamed. Little by little, over aeons of time, the island grew, but it remained barren under the fierce gaze of the triple suns.


The only other forms of life in this empty universe were the Manush de Bar, creatures of living stone that had absorbed the pulsing life-force of the Sleeping Mother; and among them were the oldest of the Manush de Bar, the Vorla. They lived, locked outside of time, in their bed of crystal caves deep within the darkness.


Even to this day, the Vorla live within the original Isle of Inish, known now as the Mountain of Mourne, far to the north close to the Barra of Arkturus. These lovers of knowledge and learning would send their minds out into the Dreamtime, hoping to gain new experiences, yearning to connect with other sentient life, yet alas, they found only emptiness.


The Vorla, who had been observing the dreams of the Sleeping Mother, devised a plan to change the balance of power between her and the suns. They sent a terrible storm of flame shooting into the sky in order to dim the light and quench the heat of the surface, but the plan failed. However, as the molten rock hit the primordial waters, it hissed and spat and cooled, and as the largest ball of lava touched the water, it split open. A feeble black bird stumbled from the remains of the rock and, before the suns had time to burn it to ashes, it swooped into the sky and swallowed all but one of the balls of fire.


Instantly, the bird grew, its plumage turning from black to iridescent gold, red and orange tinged with blue, while its eyes shone like topaz, and its tail dripped flames. Its wings became long and graceful as it glided and danced through the air.


So pleased with its beautiful new form was the bird that it began to sing with joy. With each new sound, life blossomed on the island of Inish. Lush rainforest, plains of rippling grasses, vast forests and glistening lakes spread across the land, giving birth to all manner of creatures of earth, sea and sky; and still the Benu bird sang.


Soon this little universe was full to overflowing and the Sleeping Mother could feel the sadness in the heart of the Benu bird, for it wished to continue its song. As the Sleeping Mother exhaled, the universe expanded and a Great Tree formed in the wake of her breath. The Sleeping Mother exhaled twice more into the void, hanging two new universes from the   branches of the Great Tree and so the Triverse was formed. The Benu bird swooped and soared through these new worlds, filling the air with its beautiful song of creation and disgorging a sun into each.


In time, the fire within the Benu bird was spent and it returned, exhausted and feeble, to the island of Inish. Once again the Sleeping Mother felt the sadness in its heart. The Rani, Queen of the Vorla, sent her most trusted aide Durga to the surface to attend to the Benu bird on the orders of the Sleeping Mother. So pitiful was the Benu that Durga split the Sylurian sun in two and, extracting a little light from each half, she fed the Benu bird, restoring its beauty.


However, the Benu bird was not content and wished to continue to sing. Durga knew that this could not be allowed, the Benu’s song still echoed through the Triverse, even rippling into the Dreamtime, and a new melody would jar with the original song of the creation, bringing it collapsing in on itself. With the permission of the Rani, she trapped the Benu bird within a crystal jar and wrapped this in layer upon layer of stone.


In spite of its confinement, the Benu bird continued to sing and the stone glowed with its happiness. In this little world, the Benu was perpetually renewed by its own light and song.


The Vorla took the stone deep into the recesses of the crystal caves. Gilding it in a beautiful cage of silver, gold and precious jewels. The stone was hung in the chamber of the Rani where it infused her and her diamond veil with its dormant life-giving light. Bathed in the light of the Vorla Lamp, these creatures of living stone lived for millennia in peace and happiness.


 


Tay’mor paused for a moment, taking in the faces around him as they sat listening intently while passing round mead horns and the last scraps of the feast. A gentle ripple of applause wafted through the crowd, but most knew the story wasn’t over yet.


Since that time, the Vorla vowed never again to interfere with the evolution of any lifeform within the Triverse, but they still stalk the Dreamtime with an eternal, unquenchable thrist for knowledge. They have even been known to drive men insane in their quest. You would do well, dear friends, to ensure you never sleep on an argument or you may find yourself suffering nightmares, as the curious Vorla discover and unravel your darkened mind.


A proper cheer went up this time, as the storyteller took a bow and people began to retire to their bowers. Tar’sel however, was still stuck in the story.


Vorla still stalk the Dreamtime. The words echoed in Tar’sel’s head. Could this be what he had just encountered or was he just letting his imagination run away with him? Sinister as they were, the Vorla would not deliberately harm other Sylurians would they? After all, they had made a promise not to interfere? Was the scream from one of their victims?


This was perhaps the weirdest night he’d had in all his sixteen years; he needed to speak to someone, but who? Anya was only interested in experimenting with magic she should not be using and Mor’seka was looking for any bit of excitement he could find. There really was only one person he could trust with something this big, not just for sound advice but to be discrete.


Tar’sel could see the elders heading towards the hill and the sanctuary of the Nymet temple and his father nearby was preparing to head over and join them. It didn’t seem right to interrupt and Tar’sel wouldn’t see him for a few days once he has in the temple. He had hoped to speak to him before that but it could wait, couldn’t it?


 


Tar’sel watched the orange sparks coming off the festival fire, as they floated one by one into the night sky and winked out and allowed himself to drift off with them. A heavy hand on his shoulder made him jump.


‘Now is the time for rest not planning adventures, young one.’


Tar’sel quickly rose to his feet. ‘I was just thinking about the Vorla, Father. Are they real? Do they really send people mad?’


The leathery face of Tay’mor wrinkled into a smile, his green skin mottled with age, and the firelight dancing in his blue-grey eyes.


‘Now is probably not the best time to be discussing the attributes of the Vorla but yes, they are real.’


‘Have you ever seen one? Are they really evil and dangerous?’


‘So many questions.’ Tar’sel’s father laughed. ‘I doubt anyone has seen them, they are older than time and they keep to themselves. As for evil, that would do them an injustice, it’s too simplistic. Do the animals think us evil because we hunt them?’


‘But that’s survival.’


‘It’s nature.’ Tay’Mor corrected. ‘Everything has its place in the Triverse and a right to exist, including the Vorla. Let’s just say though, when it comes to the Vorla, I wouldn’t go out of my way to find one but perhaps I’m too full of fear " they can take your negative emotions and use them against you. Besides, many of the old creatures have faded out of existence, there’s not as much magic in the world as there used to be.’ He sighed. ‘Not since the Fey Nation retreated into the Dreamtime.’


‘Shouldn’t they be here, looking after the Nymet tree?’


Tar’sel stopped short of telling his father his fears. Tay’mor was the guardian of the Nymet after all, if there was anything wrong, he would surely know about it.


‘Don’t worry yourself son, we have the skills we need to ensure the Nymet remains strong,’ Tay’more replied, but Tar’sel could swear he heard doubt in his father’s voice.


In the distance another elder signalled to Tay’mor that his presence was required up at the temple.


‘I have to leave you now, there is still work for me to do son. Fine dreaming,’ Tay’mor said, then turned and hobbled off towards the Nymet temple.




CORNPADS, CRYSTALS AND DENTAL FLOSS


Charlotte had been right about the slow pace of life in Brackenheath but she was surprised to find it wasn’t as painful as she had thought. The nearest neighbour was a nosey old woman called Mrs Bunratty but Charlotte wasn’t in need of company and she didn’t miss the noise and bustle of Oxford Street or the numerous museums and shows all that much. Her new suite of rooms now housed her own personal collection, every surface covered with artefacts discovered by her own family, and even a whole wall of Edessa’s artwork.


It was Edessa she pined for most and Charlotte tried to cling to her last words as she busied herself with unpacking and exploring. Knowing there may be a way to talk to her was not the same as having her near.


I wonder how long the novelty of this place will last? She wondered as she walked into the morning room, stopping in her tracks at the sight of Clarissa cross-legged on the floor, incense smoke weaving around her. Yep, no need to worry, there was plenty of novelty factor left.


‘It’s OK, you can come in dear.’


‘I didn’t mean to disturb you,’ Charlotte whispered.


Clarissa smiled. ‘Being able to meditate isn’t much good if you can only do it in complete silence surrounded by incense and candles dear, nice as that may be. I’m of a mind that you can only truly meditate if you are able to do it on a crowded, noisy train, and there are many Taoist monks who agree with me.’


‘Fancy putting that to the test some time?’ Charlotte replied.


Clarissa extinguished the candle flames between her fingers.


‘We can go visit Edessa any time you want dear, you name the day,’ Clarissa got to her feet gracefully and stretched. ‘I have no desire to keep you from your sister, I know you must miss her terribly.’


Quintillian, the portly, long-haired tabby Charlotte had met on her first day at Rosemary Heights, purred softly as he weaved around Charlotte’s legs.


‘But for now, I don’t know about you but I’m famished; shall we do breakfast?’ She picked up Quintillian who now had a look of indignation on his face ‘I know someone else who wants food!’


‘He looks like he always wants food,’ Charlotte laughed.


‘Too true,’ Clarissa nodded sagely and addressed the cat in sombre tones, ‘time to put you on a diet old moggy.’ Quintillian snorted and wriggled out of her grip. Landing clumsily on his feet, he straightened his fluffy coat for a moment before shooting off into the garden. If his owner wasn’t going to feed him, he’d just need to look after himself, and a juicy mouse would make a tasty hors d’oeuvre.


Clarissa was laying the table for three in the kitchen just as there was a knock on the back door. ‘How did you know?’ Charlotte asked as she went to open the door, she wasn’t really expecting an answer and Clarissa just smiled enigmatically. This one is very astute, the woman thought to herself.


‘Heellooo my lovelies, what a fabulous day, how are we all? I’ve bought pastries.’


A woman in Doc Martins, garish summer dress and orange shirt waved a large, oily brown bag and the various crystal and shell bangles she wore jiggled with her every move.


‘Oh, Clarissa sweetie, you must remind me to tell you all about the Earth Goddess camp I went to last weekend, it was amazing; I feel so alive!’ The woman sing-songed her way through the sentence before bursting into a gush of laughter and kissed the air around Clarissa’s face.


The whirlwind in front of Charlotte made Clarissa look tame and it was a struggle to keep her mouth shut. The woman’s most striking feature was her hair and Charlotte couldn’t help staring at the multicoloured Mohican. It looked like a parrot was perched on the woman’s head.


‘Charlotte, this is my oldest and dearest friend,’ Clarissa announced aloud, while her face made a silent but emphatic request for Charlotte to be polite.


‘Ahhh, you are the infamous Charlotte, such a pleasure to meet you. Clarissa was soo excited to hear you were coming to stay. It was Charlotte this, Charlotte that.’


Charlotte couldn’t suppress laughter. That just didn’t fit her picture of Clarissa at all, but she was amused to finally catch a look of shock fleet across Clarissa’s face before it returned to its normal composed self.


‘Nice to meet you… ?’


‘Jude.’ The parrot-haired woman declared like an actress greeting her adoring public. ‘You can call me Auntie Jude if you like.’ She chuckled, ignoring Charlotte’s outstretched hand and giving her a bear hug.


Why not, Charlotte thought, it’s what I seem to be calling everyone else these days.



‘Pastries’ consisted of almond croissants, seeded brown rolls with creamy French butter and pan-au-chocolat, Clarissa had even made them hot chocolate and sweet, milky coffee to accompany them. They reminded Charlotte of the bakery below Morag’s apartment and the many lazy Sunday mornings in the Place de Tetre cafés taking in the views of the city while Edessa bartered with the portrait artists to teach her their techniques. Charlotte found herself fighting tears again at the memories.


‘What do you think then?’

 

Charlotte was brought out of her daydreams by the question. ‘They’re really good, just like the real thing,’ she replied and Jude looked visibly pleased.


‘I ordered them especially from the bakers in Wykenhall, they are so helpful you know.’ Jude gesticulated to emphasise her point. ‘I heard you are a well travelled soul and I thought it would… well, make you feel more at home if that makes sense?’


Strangely, it did.


‘That’s really kind of you.’ Charlotte was genuinely touched.


‘My Adam sends all sorts of interesting stuff home from his travels in Afghanistan, tree barks and frankincense pearls as big as your finger, he knows how his mother likes her incenses. It’s always nice to get gifts isn’t it.’


‘He did, my dear,’ Clarissa said gently, touching Jude’s hand.


‘Oh well yes, in this dimension perhaps.’ Jude waved away Clarissa’s hand. ‘But I know my sweet boy still looks out for his mother.’


‘Of course,’ Clarissa replied.


For hours Jude grilled Charlotte on her life and they swapped travel stories. Jude had been up and down the Nile twice, chanting in the king’s chamber of the great pyramid and had even attended a few digs as a volunteer at Karnak. She compared the light shows of Giza and Philae, showed Charlotte a piece of rock she had picked up from outside the temple of Hatshepsut and discussed the merits of various hotels and day trips she had been on.


You couldn’t help but like Jude; her enthusiasm was infectious and Charlotte was thrilled to have someone who didn’t look at her blankly when she talked them through her 18th dynasty pottery collection. Best of all, Jude ‘ooohed’ and ‘aaahed’ at all the right places. Clarissa however, had long since bored of talk of deserts and archaeology and retreated to the garden to feed the chickens, Mildred and Maurice. It wasn’t till she came back in with fresh eggs, a pail of goat’s milk from Obadiah and a basket-load of fresh vegetables that Charlotte and Jude even looked up.


‘Oh my, is it that time already,’ Jude gasped. ‘Doesn’t time fly. Shall I start on dinner Clarissa sweetie?’ she asked, already rolling up the silk sleeves of her orange blouse.


‘That sounds like a wonderful plan dear. I still have a few things to finish off in the garden. I’m planning to make a batch of mint shaving cream this afternoon.’


‘Orders picking up then?’


‘Thankfully,’ Clarissa nodded, ‘between you and me I’m rather sick of making nothing but jam and biscuits.’ She laughed before heading back outside to make the most of the rare spring sunshine.



Charlotte had left Jude to cook and was watching Clarissa who, having just planted various crystals and sprinkled essential oils among the fruit trees, was now relocating a patch of nettles into the herb garden.


‘I know I don’t know anything about gardening,’ she said sarcastically, ‘but isn’t the goal to remove weeds not replant them?’


 Aunt Clarissa smiled. ‘You are quite right dear, you know nothing about gardening.’


Charlotte began to regret she had said anything as Clarissa went on to enthusiastically explain all about friendly plants, or something like that, as well as detailing the numerous uses for nettles " which, of course, included eating them.


‘Nettles, flowers, tree sap; have you never heard of Sainsbury’s?’ Charlotte said exasperatedly. Clarissa chuckled to herself as Charlotte stomped playfully towards the chapel ruins at the bottom of the garden.


From the chapel, Charlotte could see the river flowing past the end of Clarissa’s garden, weaving under the wooden bridge, flanked by two willow trees, and out into the fields of the shallow valley below. Charlotte lost sight of it as it entered the woodland of Brackenheath Park, but at that point something else caught her eye. The tree, her tree, stood alone atop a small hill to the far end of the park and it must have been a trick of the light but… it appeared to be glowing, just like the painting in Charlotte’s room.


‘Does that happen often?’ Charlotte called to her aunt. ‘The oak tree in the valley looks golden in the sun.’


‘That’ll be the famous Evergreen Oak,’ Aunt Clarissa said. ‘Seems there is going to be a fairy ball in Fargale tonight.’


This was not the answer Charlotte had hoped for but she suspected it was the best she was going to get. She decided she would Google ‘weather phenomena’ later for a more satisfying explanation.


‘I thought the Fey lived in the Dreamtime?’ Charlotte asked her aunt.


Clarissa gave her a strange look and Charlotte realised what she had said was clearly not common knowledge. Her aunt did not challenge her though and carried on as if they were having a normal conversation about the weather.


‘Sometimes they come home,’ Clarissa responded matter-of-factly and returned to her gardening. ‘In answer to your question, no, it doesn’t happen often. In fact, the last time was when that picture in your room was painted.’


‘How long ago was that?’


‘You don’t need me to tell you that now, do you?’ Clarissa smiled one of her knowing smiles.


Charlotte gazed at the tree again. The golden haze was gone but she couldn’t shake the feeling that it was happening now for a reason. Maybe the tree was trying to tell her something? Or Edessa?



Charlotte suddenly had an unnerving feeling they were being watched. A flash amongst the raspberry canes, like light on metal, followed by a fizzing sound took Charlotte by surprise. I’ve had too much sun, she thought to herself as she saw the shimmering outline of a tiny human figure for a split second before it popped out of sight.


‘You don’t happen to have CDs amongst those do you?’ she asked her aunt.


‘No need, the birds know full well which ones they are allowed to eat.’


There was a certain logic to that Charlotte guessed though she wondered, not for the first time, if Clarissa was just winding her up.


‘So what would happen if a human went along to one of these balls?’ Charlotte asked, trying to distract herself from what she had seen.


‘You would have to find it first.’


‘But let’s say I did? I do come from a family of explorers after all.’


Clarissa smiled as if to say she doubted it, but humoured her anyway.


‘Fairies don’t take kindly to human gatecrashers.’


‘I could wear a disguise?’


Clarissa laughed at this. ‘A false pair of wings and pointy ears do not a fairy make. They would smell you out in a heartbeat.’


Charlotte said nothing, but was still planning an expedition to the tree and busily devising ways she could pass herself off as a fairy; the flash and ghostly image forgotten.


Clarissa watched her out of the corner of her eye. She knew the girl wouldn’t admit it but in the short time she had been here she was already looking stronger, healthier and she had even lost some of her sharpness, yet without losing the fire in her soul. Clarissa was becoming very fond of the girl; she has a very special kind of magic, the old woman thought.



Charlotte was already used to finding the old woman sitting about in a trance so she just left her there. She would come out of it when she was ready. She was beginning to feel her skin prickling from the heat so decided to retreat to the coolness of the morning room where Jude was now sat.


‘There’s a vegetable stew bubbling away nicely on the Aga, should be ready soon,’ Jude said cheerily, as Charlotte strolled into the living room. ‘I’m just taking a moment to do my breathing exercises, helps me with my asthma.’


Jude reached two palm-sized clear crystals out of her oversized handbag. ‘Gives it a little boost.’ She smiled before settling down in front of Clarissa’s meditation altar and started taking deep, noisy breaths.


Charlotte dropped into the plump sofa, propping a sari silk cushion under her head. Cicero landed lightly on her chest and pawed her nose looking for attention.


‘More novelty factor,’ she whispered to the cat but he was totally absorbed in directing Charlotte’s hand to just the right place behind his ear to scratch.


A copy of the Wykenhall Free Press lay on the coffee table with the headline ‘SAVE OUR PARK’ and an image of the same tree on the hill " though it wasn’t glowing.


Charlotte read the article about a proposal for a new housing and industrial estate to be built where Brackenheath Park currently stood. The new site would include facilities such as a cinema, restaurants and bowling alley as well as new housing and community facilities.


Mr Julian Ransell, teacher at Wykenhall High School and resident, is in favour of the proposed development, saying it will be a boon for locals as well as improving the local economy and attracting tourism.


The article finished with a further picture of a bony, hook-nosed man with cold eyes smirking at the camera, his dark hair greased to one side of his head. Below was the mention of a public meeting about the proposed development as well as an online petition, encouraging people to sign it. Charlotte tossed the paper onto the coffee table.


‘This place could do with some livening up, Cicero,’ Charlotte whispered, smiling as the cat simply yawned and curled into a ball on her chest.


There was no contest, a run-down old park or an array of fun facilities but she couldn’t help wondering if the oak would escape such development. If it was as famous as Etienne said, it would be preserved surely? Doubt gnawed at her and there was one person she trusted over anyone. Edessa had told her she needed to protect the tree; that something bad was coming. Was this it? Charlotte’s instincts told her it wasn’t that simple " but it was a place to start. ‘It begins and ends with the tree,’ she whispered to herself.


Charlotte was dozing off when Cicero pressed himself tightly against her and mewed, staring intently into thin air. She heard the same fizzing noise she had heard in the garden and saw a shimmering outline forming at the other end of the room.  


A translucent figure appeared and started to slowly make its way across the room. It was a boy about three or four years older than herself with light green skin, wild blonde hair scraped roughly into a ponytail and swirling patterns on his arms and face. His nose was his most striking feature, elongated and wider than her own, while his ears were slightly pointed underneath his hair. But it was his eyes that Charlotte was drawn too most, piercing and brooding " and they were looking straight through her. 


He was not like the silhouette she had seen in the garden or at the train station she was sure. For a start he was much bigger. Could this be one of the Fey? He seemed more like a ghost.


The boy was focused on something in the corner by the television, completely oblivious of Charlotte and Jude. Soon, he began striding purposefully through the furniture, stopping about a foot from Jude’s shoulder. He slowly raised a spear to the side of his head before, quick as lightning, he launched it through the air. Charlotte watched as it disappeared through the wall. The boy darted after it before fading behind the TV.


Suddenly, Jude let out a loud moaning sound and a flash of light burst out of each of her palms. Cicero dug his claws into Charlotte’s chest in alarm before shooting across the coffee table, sending Jude’s bag flying.


Makeup, a tub of dental floss, crystals, corn pads and glass vials of flower remedies spilled across the pale rugs and Charlotte watched as a tin of pink blusher rolled across the wooden floor at speed before colliding with the skirting board and exploding in a puff of pink powder. Crystals bounced on the wooden floor and still more stuff poured out of the bag. A wind chime, dowsing rods, mala beads, keys, phone, a virtual avalanche of postcards and pictures, incense sticks and finally, a copy of The Little Book of Calm.


A bottle of tonic had smashed on landing and spilt over some of the pictures which Charlotte noticed seemed to be of a young man in army uniform, his nose sunburnt as he stood in various desert locations smiling, thumbs up at the camera. This must be Adam.


‘Oooh, my pictures!’ Jude howled as she hurriedly swept all her belongs into a single pile of clutter. She wiped the pictures dry but the liquid had already started to do its work and they were beginning to blister. Charlotte looked on helplessly as the older woman howled and blubbed.


‘Haven’t you got other pictures at home?’ she offered weakly, trying to comfort Jude, but it just made her howl even more.


‘My word, what is going on here?’ Aunt Clarissa announced from the main door. ‘Jude dear, what’s wrong?’ Jude was so beside herself she couldn’t speak and just offered the pictures as explanation.


‘Now now dear, we can fix these don’t fret, you sit here and I’ll sort those out in a jiffy, what a terrible fuss.’ Jude sniffed and blew her nose loudly. ‘Let me get you a cup of tea,’ Clarissa added before heading to the kitchen.


‘Your aunt is unbelievably kind you know.’ Jude dabbed her eyes, smearing her heavy kohl. ‘You really couldn’t ask for a better guardian to look after you while your parents are finding their way home.’


The comment was like an electric current down Charlotte’s spine. ‘You think they might still be out there somewhere?’ she said quietly.


‘I think you always know when someone close to you is gone, sweetheart, what does your heart tell you?’


Charlotte didn’t know what to say that wouldn’t sound harsh or cruel but she wasn’t so sure she believed that. She had no idea where her parents were or what had happened to them; she couldn’t help thinking she was responsible. Besides, Jude didn’t seem to be able to accept the death of her son. Did she think he was out there somewhere?


Jude was smiling gently at her through her tears.


‘I’m not a fool, Charlotte darling. I know he is not coming back but this is my way of coping, of keeping him close.’ Jude held Charlotte’s hands in her own.


‘What about my sister, you think she’ll get better?’


‘It’s happened plenty of times before, don’t give up on her.’


‘I would never… ’


‘I didn’t mean it like that… I just meant, it might take a while.’ They both sat for a while saying nothing.


Aunt Clarissa broke the silence with tea and steaming bowls of stew.


‘I’m so sorry, but I think your rugs have been stained,’ Jude said sheepishly, pointing to patches of the powder and a brown goo.


‘I’m sure it’ll come out, don’t worry your head.’ Clarissa handed her the photographs.


‘Oh my, they’re as good as new, I don’t know how you do it.’


‘Must be magic.’  Clarissa winked.




FARGALE


‘What on earth did you think you were doing, Luned?’ Malik roared, thumping his desk with such force, puffs of soil fell from the ceiling. Luned tried not to flinch at the reminder that she was deep, deep under the oak that was home to the Fey town of Fargale.


‘I’m an Undine, my instincts are rarely wrong, Sir.’


‘And you think that is sufficient evidence to stage an unauthorised covert op amongst the raspberry canes? A whim?’


‘With respect sir, it’s my job to protect Fargale… ’


‘From a nitwit human child?’


‘She was able to see the Weblight, Sir. She also seemed to know an awful lot about the Fey Nation for a mere human child and I heard her discussing gate-crashing the spring ball with her aunt.’


‘Clarissa was hardly about to tell her anything, Luned,’ Malik scoffed, ‘but now she’s seen Sylurians floating across her living room she’s even more likely to go sticking her nose into matters that don’t concern her.’


‘Her family is not her concern? I hardly think she’d see it that way, sir. Besides, don’t you think that maybe part of the reason the Nymet is sick, is due to the punishment we dealt out on one of her own? Readings suggest things were knocked out of balance…’


‘Remember who you’re talking to, Luned,’ Malik growled. ‘It’s our job to keep the Verses in their rightful places; something that is becoming increasingly difficult with the Dreamtime withering around us. It’s just not natural for them to be blending into each other willy-nilly like that. And may I remind you, letting humans meddle in Fey affairs never ends well, even if they are descendants of the Golden Root " I need not remind you of the ‘Tinkerbel Scandal’. I should post you to tap root duties for this. Your actions were simply reckless, do you hear me?’


Malik rose to his feet and waddled across his office, dipping into various files that lay about the room. Eventually it was clear he had found the one he was looking for and he handed it to Luned with a malicious flourish.


‘Well, as you are so curious, she is now your responsibility.’ Malik waved away her objections. ‘Your primary job now,’ he emphasised each word with a vicious jab from a podgy finger to her shoulder, ‘is to ensure she doesn’t cause any trouble.’


Luned sighed as Malik indicated he was done with her. Given the choice she would probably have gone with tap root duties. Her first day in Fargale was not going well.


 


The town of Fargale didn’t compare to the dazzling city of Agrimony, capital of the Fey Nation where she was born, but Fargale was the gateway between the three Verses. Not only was the place legendary, it was neither entirely underground nor in the Dreamtime. She really didn’t want to lose this post or the chance to live in the sun.


Back in her own office in the higher, flimsier branches of the oak tree, she took a deep breath of sweet dawn air and shuffled some of the case files on her desk. She had been posted to ‘Operation Sugar Plum’ and had a busy day ahead of her. There were eviction orders needing to be issued among the Lower Branch and Bole districts and she also had to investigate a report of a Neagle infestation by the river crossing as well as issue A.K.O.R.Ns to the Drakes and Pooka for environmental violations.


With the human domination of the traditional territories of the Fey in both Earth and Syluria, tensions had risen between the Fey species. The more their territories dwindled the more they were forced to live in each other’s pockets, and certain Fey were not natural neighbours. Now the Dreamtime was withering too, their options were getting more and more limited, and Luned’s job was getting harder.


Her afternoon would be taken up by the obligatory induction tour to the ‘Hanging Gardens of Fargale’, as the root system was known, where she would have to learn how to monitor the water levels and general health of the oak. She was not relishing being underground again but there was no getting out of it. At least she had the night shift to look forward to where she would be joining the ‘Standstomers’ unit (code name: Blue Fairy), facilitating ‘dream adjustment’ on the local human population. She certainly couldn’t say her work wasn’t varied.


The last thing Luned needed was more work but she couldn’t stop thinking about the girl living on the cliff. Luned couldn’t shake the feeling this human was going to have a huge, and not necessarily pleasant, impact on Fargale.


A dandiclock in the corner of the room released six puffs of downy seed " her instincts were going to have to wait. Luned picked up the files and a pocket version of the P.O.D charter before tucking a N.E.T.E.L stun gun into her belt and heading for the river to interrogate a few trolls.




Water dripped in fat splodges from the formal avenue of sycamores that lined the main path through Brackenheath Park, and steam rose from the meadow beyond as the sun warmed the air. Charlotte wasn’t a fan of wet weather, she took after her dad in that respect, and it seemed to rain a lot here. But she adored the freshness of the air after a storm, as well as the smell of green.


She was also grateful to be away from the adults too and being outside helped her to work through recent events with a sharp mind. Jude was a regular visitor, and while Charlotte knew she meant well trying to counsel her over recent tragedies the fact was Charlotte just wasn’t ready for sharing, not yet. Most of their conversations only ended up with Jude telling her another story about her dead son Adam anyway.


Clarissa still puzzled her too. She loved the fact she was so laid back and open, but she had an air of otherworldliness that was quite unsettling. Charlotte often expected her to appear on the living room carpet in a puff of smoke like a genie from a bottle. Clarissa was everywhere in Rosemary Heights, even in the oldest parts of the house. There was no trace of anyone else " another reason why Charlotte had to get outside.


In the valley ahead, Charlotte could see a couple of boys about her age, one with a wild shock of blond hair, the other a well-built bruser, enthusiastically kicking a ball between themselves. New classmates, she guessed looking for an escape route. Not only was she not ready to disclose her pain and guilt to an elderly woman with a pink and orange Mohican but she was in no mood to try and awkwardly build friendships from thin air, football or not. Besides, she needed to focus.


Above the bank to her left, she could see another footpath meandering away from the main open space of the park through a thicket of bushes and on to a small copse, which promised a bit of privacy. There was a cluster of beech trees perched at the top of the bank and their thick roots, further exposed by the rain, cascaded down the bank in intricate knots forming a strange staircase over the soft, water-sodden soil. Tugging on a drooping branch, Charlotte hoisted herself onto the nearest stout root and began to climb. The wood was slippery underfoot and she would need to be careful not to twist an ankle but she had done far more adventurous and dangerous climbs than this before now, so she made quick progress. She heard the chatter of the boys pass beneath her just as she ducked into the first bush.


The air was cooler among the trees and the silence hung thickly in the gloom. Charlotte breathed deeply, relishing the complex mix of aromas. Above her, the sky darkened and a peal of thunder rumbled in the clouds. From the relative dryness of the wood, and still able to see over the fields and meadows of Brakenheath-on-Sea, Charlotte watched the tell-tale vertical streaks on the horizon, beautiful in the ruby sunset, that showed the rain drifting her way. It was mesmerizing.


The vision was as vivid as ever, lurking in the recesses of her unconsciousness and waiting to pounce the minute she closed her eyes, replaying over and over again. At the base of a huge tree a rose bush glowed, releasing the most beautiful fragrance she had ever smelt. Then, in an instance, the rose bush withered and died before her vision went black and she heard that blood-curdling scream " the scream she was never ready for.


The blackness was like a portal to another world.


‘If only,’ Charlotte muttered bitterly to herself. Where would she go? Back to her old life? No, that was gone and there was only one way to get it back. What she wouldn’t do to find her parents, and she tried to imagine where they might be right this very minute.


‘Penny for ‘em’


Charlotte spun round, almost slipping in the wet leaves. She was half expecting to see the man with the top hat and gloves; instead there were only trees.


‘Down ‘ere human.’


Charlotte was startled to see a rather furry man, only slightly taller than her knees grinning up at her. He had a bushy beard and wild, bedraggled hair matted with all sorts of vegetation. He was wearing an old Hovis bread bag with holes poked out for his arms and head which was secured with a belt of platted strawberry shoelaces. His huge feet had long toes that seemed to have a mind of their own, digging around in the dirt. Perhaps it is the stress of everything that’s happened recently, she thought; what else could explain the fact that she seemed to be hallucinating.


‘You going to say anything then?’


Well this was new. Hallucinations didn’t talk, did they?


‘Er… Hello?’ she said, not quite sure what she was speaking to. It crossed her mind that Clarissa was pulling some sort of trick.


‘Salutations to you human fairy, I, am Boris.’ The little man bowed with much aplomb.


‘Hi, I…I’m Charlotte,’ Charlotte offered feebly.


‘You’s wondering what I am?’


‘Actually, I’m wondering if I’m going bonkers,’ Charlotte replied.


The fairy chuckled, ‘I’ms here all right. Is wood folk, Veshengo. We wood folk are an unassuming and noble folk and would live in peace and harmony with all the creatures of the trees. We protect that which you human’s often abandon.’


‘I…I’m sorry…’


‘Perfectly alright. We actually prefer it that way, not your job anyways and you lot do make a lot of chatter.’ The Veshengo eyed her up and down approvingly ‘I’m liking you though, Miss Charlotte.’ He nodded.


Charlotte, who was still trying to take in the man’s strange appearance, didn’t know how to respond to such a speech so she felt it was safer to say nothing.


‘You are a lady of few words, unlike the most of your sort, and you…’ Boris lowered his voice to a whisper,‘…you live in the house on the cliff?’


‘How do you know?’


‘Someone has been awaiting you, Miss Charlotte. I’ve been sent to collect you.’


Charlotte was taken aback, was that a good thing or not? She felt slightly uneasy but her sense of adventure won out. The Veshengo smiled as if he knew what was going on in her head.


‘Follow me, it’s not far,’ he announced, and before Charlotte could say anything, he shot off into the undergrowth.


‘Wait!’ Charlotte called dipping into the bushes and following him as best she could. ‘I’m not as little as you.’


‘Nice,’ said Boris appearing in a branch by her ear. ‘You discriminating on my size?’ He looked at her with daggers.


‘No, I just mean I can’t follow you into all the little nooks and crannies.’


‘Well, we simply can’t stick to the paths, won’t do, just won’t do! Look… just do the best you can.’ He patted her on the head like she was a defenceless baby and winked before disappearing. ‘Follow my voice!’ he shouted from a patch of brambles before breaking into a raucous song about nubile young sylphs.


Charlotte lost track of how long they played his strange game of cat and mouse but her cargo trousers were soon soaked through with a few rips and stains before Boris finally stopped.


‘Here we are then.’


‘Where?’


‘Dunno.’


‘We’re lost? But you’re a Veshengo.’


‘Yes!’ said the little man. ‘That’s what we’re good at.’


‘Well now I’ve heard it all, aren’t you supposed to know where you are in a wood?’


‘Listen human, you can’t be findings the heart of the forest till you’re good and lost… thought everyone knew that.’ He sniffed. ‘Anyways, that’s what I brought you to see, right there.’ Boris pointed at a tall, sturdy looking tree.


‘It’s the Brackenheath Oak!’ Charlotte whispered in awe and… was it… shimmering?


‘Yous can feel it, I can tell. That shimmer; it’s Weblight, from the Dreamtime. This tree is sitting in more than one place at the same time.’ Boris was eyeing the tree suspiciously. Clearly this was not normal even in the fairy world.


Charlotte approached the tree slowly, she wasn’t sure what she would find but she had the same strange feeling that she had experienced with the crystals at Rosemary Heights; the sensation that she belonged here, in this place. She noticed the air cool around her and it became almost electric with anticipation, surely she was imagining it?


‘Slow walkings human,’ whispered the Veshengo, ‘and don’t look directly, blur your vision to truly see,’ Boris encouraged her as he bounced along beside her.


She did as she was told, slowing her pace and feeling the ground with her feet. The shimmer became stronger as pin pricks of golden dust swirled in the air around the tree’s vast trunk. The whole tree appeared luminescent and Charlotte had to shield her eyes. She stopped about a foot from the trunk, pausing for a moment before reaching out to touch the rough bark. She was a little disappointed that it felt just like any other oak tree.


‘Hold, hold,’ Boris encouraged her again as she backed further away from the tree.


He seemed nervous to be there which didn’t instil Charlotte with confidence but she somehow knew she had to do this. Maybe the Veshengo could help her connect with Edessa.


‘Feel its heartbeat; touch its soul. Has been waiting for you.’


Charlotte placed both hands and her left ear to the tree bole and shut her eyes to listen. She could hear, yes, and feel, the sap flowing through what must, by the size of it, be an ancient tree. Was that singing? Chanting? It was different to what she had heard before. Charlotte turned to ask Boris but the little fairy had disappeared.


The sky had cleared and the final rays of sunlight broke through the wood canopy but Charlotte could hear thunder. She should think about getting home soon but she was determined to contact her sister first.


Suddenly, from nowhere, a streak of neon blue cut through the air and through the trunk of the tree. Everything after that was a mass of confusion as the ground shook and Charlotte felt herself falling into the sticky mud, broken wood ripping through her clothes and flesh. Something cracked her on the head and the world went blank.


 


It was already getting dark as Luned made her way into the underground. Despite being born in a subterranean spring near Agrimony, it always made her feel claustrophobic and she hoped the tour would be over quickly. A ruddy-faced dwarf greeted her with a hearty handshake and a pat to the back that nearly sent her flying.


‘Another newbie heh?’ he chortled. ‘I’m Davlin, welcome to the “engine room” of Fargale.’


‘That’s a good, traditional dwarf name. I’m Luned.’ She shook the dwarf’s hand.


Davlin beamed. ‘You must be the Undine from Hazelpool Academy, I’ve heard good things about you.’


He led her into a huge cave alive with noise and activity. Intricate knots of tree roots hung in bundles from the walls, some hung limply while others vibrated and pulsed with colour. Dozens of fairies weaved through the air like they were performing some sort of aerial ballet, plugging the root ends into each other, unplugging others, knitting certain bundles together, taking measurements before recording their findings and placing them into one of the numerous pools of coloured liquid that filled the floor.


‘What you are looking at here is the most sophisticated communication centre in the whole of the Fey Nation.’ The dwarf beamed proudly. ‘Here we have the Willow board and over there is the Ash  n’ Elm exchange. Not just about modern communication mind; Fey seers visit regularly too, they read the roots to determine the fate of families and nations; you’ll find them over there by the Norn Interface. Complicated science that is.’


They weaved through the pools, some steaming and bubbling gently, releasing pleasant aromas while others were being stirred to prevent them from freezing over. ‘The nutripools,’ Davlin offered by way of explanation and without slowing his pace.


‘This is the piece de résistance!’ he announced excitedly, coming to an abrupt stop outside a heavy door. Silence folded round Luned like a balm after the buzz of the cave as they entered the Tap Room. The air was heavy with the sweet smell of healthy soil, though a bitterness hung ghostly underneath. In the centre of the room the tap root pulsed with a soft green-blue glow.


‘That’s the sap rising,’ Davlin whispered reverently. ‘Though between you and me it’s not been flowing as well as it should for the time of year… of course it’ll be nothing for you to worry about, just seasonal change.’ The dwarf checked himself, clearly worried that he had revealed too much.


Despite the tons of earth above her head and the weakness of the pulse, Luned, who had been feeling somewhat nauseous, felt better to be in the presence of water.


‘It’s so beautiful,’  Luned murmured, mesmerised by the patterns that flowed in the sap stream.


‘It can be a real show for sure,’ Davlin nodded. ‘When you know what you’re looking at, you can decipher their meanings. These here show she’s sensing a storm coming.’


At that moment the walls of the tap room vibrated, causing a light fall of soil from the ceiling.


‘What was that?’ Luned was suddenly very aware of the rock and stone above her head. Before Davlin had a chance to answer, there was a second, more violent quake and they were both dragged into the sap stream.


 


Being an Undine, the ride was easier for Luned as she melted into the flow, but even she was glad it was mercifully short " the poor dwarf had not faired as well. Davlin was covered in gashes and bruises and his left arm was now at a sickeningly unnatural angle.


‘What in K’hul just happened?’ Luned gasped as they emerged into fresh air.


‘F… Fargale… screaming,’ Davlin gurgled in pain. A medic appeared at his side and called urgently to a colleague before they whisked him off on a stretcher.


Shell-shocked, Luned tried to make sense of the scene of chaos around her. The air had been fried and was filled with arid smoke, ozone and the moans of the injured residents of Fargale " the lucky ones. It took a while to register what had happened. Black, cracked charcoal replaced healthy bark and soot covered everything. The central trunk was a sickening mass of split and twisted wood and there were pockets of fire everywhere. Something had ripped the heart out of Fargale, and the very same sap Luned had been part of moments ago was evaporating in the heat that still sat in the wood.


From her vantage point in the upper branches, Luned could see something large lying at the foot of the tree. In the fussiness of her head it took some time to realise she recognised the shape; that she had seen it before " it was the human girl who lived on the cliff. This would need to be added to the file.




As Charlotte came too, pain flooded her senses. She ached everywhere and could feel something, she didn’t know if it was blood or water, trickling down her chin. Mist swirled across the ground and leaf mould crackled loudly in the silence as she moved. Tentatively, she stretched her neck. Not broken, that was a good start, clearly the spinal cord wasn’t severed as testified by the pain but Charlotte had to suppress the urge to vomit when she caught sight of her hand.


‘It’s not as bad as it looks,’ a voice said behind her. ‘I think we can remove the wood easily enough.’


Charlotte vaguely remembered before she had been knocked out cold, a stabbing pain in her right hand. One of the tree’s thick roots was frayed and a section of it was plunged into her flesh.


‘It hasn’t damaged the muscle too much and, more importantly, it has managed to avoid any veins or arteries.’


‘That’s all right then,’ Charlotte said with feeble sarcasm, she was feeling very faint.


‘You have been very lucky Charlotte of Stone. Drink this.’


Charlotte finally saw the woman; she was young and slim with almost deathly pale skin. She shared Charlotte’s own red hair and piercing green eyes but it was her clothes that were most striking. Purple silks and green robes in roman style finished with a mantle of gold encrusted with precious jewels over which she wore a feathered robe as black as night. A black bird swooped through the trees to land on her shoulder.


‘Caroc has alerted your kin, they will be here soon, now do as I tell you and drink. Do not put my hard work to waste.’ There was an authority in the stranger’s voice that could not be argued with.


The potion was warm and sweet and took effect immediately. To her right a disturbing sucking noise told her the woman was removing the jagged, torn root but surprisingly there was no pain. The woman chanted under her breath as she worked and with a few hand gestures a floating ball of light appeared in front of her. The ball glowed eerily in the moonlight and seemed to be awaiting her command. A moment later it sunk into the hole in Charlotte’s hand, knitting together broken skin and bone.


‘Just like new.’ The woman smiled as she reached into the heart of the still smouldering tree and pulled out some dark soot. ‘This tree has been lightning struck, and so have you little one.’ She sprinkled the soot into Charlotte’s skin. ‘You are now bound to each other.’


The lady urged Charlotte to sit up and she found, to her surprise, that all the pain in her body had gone.


‘I anoint you as a warrior of the order of the Nymet Draoi. You now bear The Mother’s Kiss.’


For the first time Charlotte noticed the spidery burn marks on her arm that strangely resembled a tree. Where the soot had touched her skin the marks pulsed as if the lightning was still flowing through her.


‘What does all this mean?’ Charlotte muttered through her shock, ‘What if I don’t want to be a… ’


‘It is done, destiny has chosen you and there is no denying her touch.’ The woman took Charlotte’s chin and looked into her eyes with such intensity, any argument Charlotte had formed in her head was forgotten.


‘We have but a very short time left, so listen well Charlotte of Stone. It is as much a mystery to me that wood should chose fire and stone but it is so and a gateway has been opened for you. It is your role from this moment to protect this tree.’ The woman waved at the oak which, in spite of the large hollow in its heart, still stood strong, shimmering even more in the dark.


‘In this state, it will have many enemies,’ the woman went on, ‘but it must not fall or we are all doomed.’


Suddenly from the undergrowth Cicero launched himself onto Charlotte’s chest and let out a plaintive howl before reverting to his usual gurgling purr as he started kneading Charlotte happily.


The woman stood and gathered her robes around her. ‘I am done here. Tell Lady Aherne, The Morrigan will be seeing her soon,’ she said before fading into the trees.


Lights bobbed below Charlotte. Aunt Clarissa and the local police officer, PC Taylor, came into view, worry etched on both their faces.


‘I’m here,’ Charlotte waved to them. ‘I’m… I’m alright,’ she shouted down to them, not quite able to believe it herself. Aunt Clarissa marched up the bank in half the time that someone of her age would normally manage.


‘Oh Charlotte, we were all so worried about you.’ She took Charlotte’s face in her hands and went to kiss her forehead when she noticed the soot. She gave Charlotte a quizzical look.


‘I’ve just met Mrs Morrigan, she healed me; and she sends you her regards.’


Clarissa blanched. It was the first time Charlotte had seen her afraid. In fact, she had never seen Clarissa even slightly panicked and she would have bet on it not being possible if she hadn’t seen her now.


‘The Morrigan,’ Clarissa corrected, ‘and she never gives without taking. What did she look like?’


Charlotte thought this an odd question. The woman had obviously known Clarissa.


‘Well; surely you know?’


‘She has different guises.’ Clarissa was impatient now.


‘Well, I… she was… youngish.’


‘Charlotte. This is important girl. You must tell me exactly what she looked like.’ Clarissa reminded her of Madame Cortes with the steel in her eyes.


‘Long red hair, pale skin, sort of… well, a crazy look in her eyes… and she had a bird on her shoulder.’


‘A raven?’


Charlotte considered this for a moment, comparing the bird to those she had seen on her visits to the tower of London.


‘Could be; yes, I think it was.’


‘Battle ready,’ Aunt Clarissa whispered.


Charlotte just about caught those odd last words and wondered if she had misheard.


‘Time to batten down the hatches my dear, trouble’s coming to Brackenheath.’



© 2014 Johari



Author's Note

Johari
For release March 2015 - available on Net Galley soon.

Buy soon at: http://www.troubador.co.uk/book_info.asp?bookid=2911

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While not exactly my cup of tea, I am in awe of your writing skills. You're a novelist, no doubt about it.

Posted 2 Years Ago


Johari

2 Years Ago

Thanks, Roland. That means a lot.
Because of this story's richness and scope, both as a work of art and as a cultural milestone, I'll certainly need to read it a second time to feel as though I can comment with complete candor and understanding; but in the meantime, let me say that I enjoyed it thoroughly because of the crisp narrative pacing, the interesting dialogue, the mysteriously foreign settings, and the artist's readily apparent love of philology and storytelling. Johari, you're really doing your share and then some to raise the standards on this website, and I have no doubt that your destiny lies on the fields of praise.

edit:

As promised, I reread the work with greater care to better grasp its gestalt. I was rewarded for my effort with a greater understanding of the work and a lingering fondness for its narrative landscape and characters. Each location was richly described, the characters were dimensional, and the variety of interesting cultural references was quite impressive. I'm sure I learned a new word or two, as well as some interesting facts about world culture. All in all, a feast for the senses! I also adored the story's take on fairy culture and I haven't been so amused by a fairy tale since Tolkien's Smith of Wootton Major.

I think all that's left to do here is a proofreading pass and some trimming on all the em-dashes that got munged when you pasted the story into the form field (they show up as quotes in odd places; it happened to me as well). You seem to have a pretty good handle on dialogue tags, though I'm sure I saw a couple that could use a review. As for the concision of the work, I found it sufficient to allow the narrative to flow well; but as with any work (my own included,) there is always something to polish off or consolidate in the name of readability. The quest is to find those opportunities!

Thanks again, you can count me as a fan.

Posted 2 Years Ago


Johari

2 Years Ago

Wow, how does one top a review like that? I think I might just print it off and frame it. :-)
.. read more
Cambion

2 Years Ago

I edited my review to reflect my revisitation of your work. It was a pleasure!
Johari

2 Years Ago

...and it's still awesome. Thank you.

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Added on December 21, 2014
Last Updated on December 21, 2014
Tags: children's, young adult, pagan, druidry, folklore, fairy tale, magic realism, trees, nature

Author

Johari
Johari

Norfolk, United Kingdom



About
East Anglian author Tasha O’Neill has been tinkering around with words since childhood and writes short stories, novels, non-fiction and poetry. She has an enduring love of folklore and fairy.. more..

Writing
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