Excerpt for Forging Amber by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Forging Amber


Copyright 2017 David Petrey

Published by David Petrey at Smashwords




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This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your enjoyment only, then please return to Smashwords.com or your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.





Table of Contents

Acknowledgements

Chapter One – The Sacrifice

Chapter Two – The Aurora Sisters

Chapter Three – Potions

Chapter Four – The Garden

Chapter Five – The Unbearable Beauty of Roisin

Chapter Six – Pomroy

Chapter Seven – Dinnertime

Chapter Eight – Mamma

Chapter Nine – One Key to Fit a Lock

Chapter Ten – The Library

Chapter Eleven – The TimeSunder

Chapter Twelve – The Storm

Chapter Thirteen – Hope

Chapter Fourteen – A Gamble for Freedom

Chapter Fifteen – Chestnut

Chapter Sixteen – The Witches’ True Magic

Chapter Seventeen – Hector

Chapter Eighteen – The Life and Times of the Aurora Sisters

Chapter Nineteen – Goodbye Gertrude

Chapter Twenty – Deirdrude

Chapter Twenty-One – Changes

Chapter Twenty-Two – The Sorcerer of the Golden Keep

Chapter Twenty-Three – A Warm Summer’s Evening

Chapter Twenty-Four – Beast-whispering

Chapter Twenty-Five – The TimeSunder Disappears

Chapter Twenty-Six – The Rescue

Chapter Twenty-Seven – The Queleon’s Return?

Chapter Twenty-Eight – The Awakening of Amber

Chapter Twenty-Nine – Feeding Time

Chapter Thirty – Amber Alone

Chapter Thirty-One – The Sacrifice

About David Petrey

Other books by David Petrey

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Acknowledgements

For Estelle and Violet.











Deep underground the beast doth sleep,

Then over our hearts a fear doth creep.

Bound by magic, wrapped up in slumber,

When enchantment fails it feels the hunger.

We send a Sacrifice to appease its appetite,

So young and old can sleep better at night….

…………………...….for a little while….

Chapter One – The Sacrifice

She could smell it before she could see it. It had by far the foulest, most vile reek ever to have assaulted her tiny, young nose; a nose which was now wrinkled in sheer disgust. So pungent did the stench prove to be that her tender young nostrils tingled with a slight burning sensation, which in turn caused her frightened green eyes to involuntarily begin watering.

In Amber’s short life she had come across the odd dead rat and bird, and there had even been a poor old dog this one time, with flies and maggots feasting away at the rich and rotten fleshy banquet; but even the smell of those paled in comparison to the hideousness of what she was now suffering through. She found that not even holding her breath helped. In fact in some ways that made the experience all the worse, because eventually she was forced to gulp another toxic mouthful, which meant actually being able to taste the sour air rather than just endure its rancid smell. Her stomach turned, ready to unload the delicious final banquet she had been presented with just hours beforehand. Had she known in advance she would have eaten nothing. At least then her stomach would be empty, rather than now being faced with the prospect of her last meal dancing around her insides threatening to escape upwards. She found herself having to fight the urge to breathe deeply in order to help settle her wild interior, as breathing only meant more noxious fumes.


#


Once a year, as the bleak winter concluded for yet another season, a different kind of chill would appear, creeping over the remote city of Glenkinver; it was a cold fear over the heart, particularly for those with children in the city. For it was every year at this time that the draw was undertaken and a child’s name was chosen as the Sacrifice. The Queleon’s appetite had to be appeased. So the selected unfortunate would be led off into the cold shadows deep within Blackstone Forest, never to be seen again. And it proved enough to keep the Queleon satisfied, whereby it would slink back to the depths of Blackstone Swamp, until next year. And the people of Glenkinver would express their deep sympathy for those who had lost, but inwardly they would breathe a sigh of relief at having escaped once again, and count the years till their children had matured past the point of selection.

It had been the way for as long as people could remember. Of course there had been attempts to put a stop to such terror; from fearless knights to the self-proclaimed mightiest of Sorcerers. All had failed. And the monster’s revenge always varied, as if it took extreme pleasure in conjuring up new ways to punish its unfaithful livestock. A particularly nasty year that stuck in the memories of those grey-haired enough to remember had occurred when the beast laid waste to the prime farmland skirting the west side of the city. It had been decided to abandon the Sacrifice for that year, with the city all prepared to fight. And then the Queleon had failed to make an appearance, making some think it had seen the resistance and had decided to give up and move on, or that it had even simply died of old age. But it wasn’t until the late summer that a sighting came of it plodding through the vast fields of wheat. And whilst the city rallied for an attack, with just a single ball of flames erupting from its body the monster caused crops to wither in mere seconds as a raging inferno engulfed everything in its path. It then casually ambled its way back to the swamp, knowing its revenge would come in the following months. And despite the city’s attempts to stockpile any remaining food, and venture beyond the encircling mountains to trade with other far-off cities, the following winter had been a struggle. Everyone had keenly felt the cold, not quite having the energy to maintain a comfortable level of warmth. But it was mainly the young and the old that had suffered the most from the lack of food. Remoteness was nearly the city’s downfall, but also its slight saviour. It was only thanks to the local knowledge of living off the wilderness that the city wasn’t starved completely. And that was the year ‘chew some bark to stave off hunger’ became a widespread saying.

The last time the city had dared to challenge the beast it had simply trudged through the streets. And behind each doorway it passed, any child within the household had dropped to the floor like a ragdoll, as if overcome by sudden sleep. Overall the Queleon claimed the lives of exactly one hundred children that day instead of its usual one. It was as if to send a message; ‘disobey me and things will be a hundred times worse.’ Many in the city had no doubt that next time it could be a thousand souls lost, therefore any further acts of defiance were quickly shouted down.

Amber hadn’t been present for the selection this year. Her mother had been on edge for weeks, convinced that so many silly little things, from the last of this week’s milk turning sour to the appearance of a dead bird on their doorstep, had been a sign that all wasn’t well for them. Amber’s father had been the voice of reason, but even behind the usual calm exterior gifted to a strong and steady-handed blacksmith Amber could see the increasing dread every time she gazed into his eyes.

Upon the day of the draw Amber’s mother had won the argument, and Amber was made to stay at home to look after her younger brother Alfred. So when their parents had returned home afterwards and were accompanied by the City Guard Amber had known instantly that either her own fate or that of her brother had been sealed. Knowing that the chosen weren’t even allowed to steal one last hug from the ones they held most dear she embraced her brother tightly. This rather cold-hearted ruling had been decreed because one previous year the father of a chosen individual had taken it upon himself to end the life of his son, rather than have him suffer at the hands of the Queleon. But then of course a replacement Sacrifice had to be selected, so yet another set of parents that year were subjected to heart-breaking grief. And the father simply disappeared that night. Rumour spread that he had fled in shame. But other whispers suggested a more sinister end as a consequence of his selfish deed.

So as the guards approached Amber and her brother they had to prise the tearful pair apart, and it was Amber who was marched away along the cobbled streets, serenaded by wails of anguish from her mother as onlookers of friends and neighbours bowed their heads in respect. However the greatest detail Amber had taken away with her of that moment had been the look on her father’s face. It was burned into her memory. When she had gazed up at him for that final time he had tried to remain his usual pillar of strength, despite his only cherished daughter being led away to her doom. But once again his eyes deceived him. It was as if he had died inside.

Amber found her thoughts had wandered. Maybe it was the intoxicating smell. She became aware of a taste of salt hit the edge of her tongue. Tears; they had rolled their down her face after having recalled those all too brief final moments with her family.

Raising her hands to rub at her burning, wet cheeks she winced at the pain in her wrists which hurt from the tight rope coiled round them, which in turn was wrapped around a sturdy oak tree behind her. Despite having the freedom to move everything except her hands, she hadn’t been able to unpick the expertly tied knots. Having tried everything from using her teeth to nearby stones to the tree’s roots that poked from the ground like wooden snakes, her efforts for freedom only seemed to make the ropes cut that bit deeper and eventually she put a stop to her futile attempts of escape. The gruesome thought had even crossed her mind of simply sacrificing her hands. One sacrifice instead of another. She had given a few tugs of the rope, using her own weight against that of the tree. But she was either inwardly too scared to give it all her strength and lose her hands, or she simply wasn’t physically strong enough.

Shifting her weight she stumbled at the ridiculously oversized ceremonial dress she had been adorned with. Mud clung to the frilled hem with damp rising slowly up from the cold and wet ground. It made the dress all the heavier to wear, adding to Amber’s misery. Still, as a bonus to the Queleon it would get a hearty fix of minerals as it chomped upon her.

Rolling her head round the clearing her vision caught sight of a flash of white in the trees above. Her heart leapt. It was a white squirrel. It stopped to regard her from afar and sniff the air. With a vain hope Amber lifted her bonds to as if expecting it to descend and nibble her to freedom.

Then the snapping of a twig drew her wide-eyes eyes into the darkness under the trees at the edge of the glade. She could see nothing. And when she returned her gaze back to the squirrel it had gone. A foolish, childish idea that it would actually help. So she looked back to the edge of the clearing where the noise had originated. Still nothing. Maybe it was a wolf and it would get to her before the Queleon did. But no, the pack wolves of Glenkinver weren’t normally deep-forest dwellers. If anything it would be a bear that saw her off instead. After consideration she’d probably prefer the Queleon. At least her misery would be over in one big gulp. Or maybe it was a fussy eater. Maybe it would select only the most tender meat and go for her liver, eyes, or heart, and just leave the rest of her body cold and alone under the forest canopy. She gave a shiver, starting to feel the cold. Soon darkness would set in. She didn’t want to be left alone in the dark to start imagining movements in the shadows.

The noise of splitting timber forced her gaze to the edge of the clearing. A large holly bush blocked the view of what was advancing, and the trees behind it quivered. The light dusting of snow upon their naked branches rained down. Slowly the trees began to part. What approached was neither bear nor wolf.

The glen darkened as a cloud passed over the winter sun and Amber felt an icy chill run through her veins. A gust of wind whipped strands of her dark red hair across her face but she remained motionless and unblinking, standing transfixed at the parting trees. Inch by inch they creaked and then all at once a huge figure fought its way through the tangle of branches and brambles. The holly bush, the only splash of colour in this otherwise depressing place, was crushed like paper, to be replaced by the monster which held Glenkinver in such terror.

The Queleon was the height of three men, and was almost equally as fat as it was tall. Black matted hair covered its entire body from head to toe, making it appear like some huge dirty hairball, with its head and limbs proving difficult to distinguish from the body. Amber could only just make out a pair of short, hairy stumps that must have been its legs, shuffling its rotund body forward. The only other distinguishing feature of the beast included a patch of dirty-white fur right around the location where its heart would be nestled behind, like a bullseye inviting some saviour with a trusty bow and arrow to come to her rescue. Even in her final moments of life Amber found this thought cruelly amusing, as there would be absolutely no saving her.

Once the monster had tumbled into the clearing it stopped dead, looking ahead in the direction it had rolled in rather than at Amber. But then it spun its head, its eyes darting her way causing her to jolt back with shock as if having been struck by the beast’s paw. Stumbling over a tree root her behind thumped to the hard, cold floor. The Queleon’s steely-grey, emotionless eyes remained fixed upon her. She involuntarily gave a cry which instantly choked in her throat as she foolishly gulped a mouthful of the acidic air, causing her to wretch instead.

With the beast eyeing her up she lifted her head to return its gaze trying her best not to appear afraid. She had read in a book once that wild animals could smell fear, so it would surely know anyway how scared she really was. It probably got some wicked sense of satisfaction from this whole performance. The thought made her ever so slightly angry.

Eventually she could stand it no more and screwed her eyes tightly shut, silently awaiting her fate with more dignity than most would. She heard the beast shuffle closer so that its slow, wheezy breath was audible. Then once again it came to a stop, its short legs no longer dragging through the occasional tangle of brambles. Silence reigned for some time. It was long enough for Amber to open her eyes out of curiosity. There the beast stood, looming up mere yards from her. Its ragged fur was thickly encrusted with clumps dirt. She boldly looked up into its hesitant and bloodshot eyes. There Amber read an expression she hadn’t expected to find. It was afraid.



Chapter Two – The Aurora Sisters

Amber awoke with a jolt. Her breathing came heavily and beads of perspiration glistened like jewels upon her forehead. She had been plagued by the same dream for two weeks now. But not even she could explain whether the lingering fear of the Queleon disturbed her more, or the broken memory of what had saved her life. Through gritted teeth she had thanked the three witches for their help. But now Amber's new life was to serve them. The worst part was knowing that nobody back home had any idea of her unexpected twist of fate. Her poor family had been left with the thought that she had suffered at the hands of the Queleon, when actually she was alive and well. And now she was expected to cook and clean for the Aurora sisters. Better than being sacrificed, she supposed.

Over the past two weeks she had relived that moment again and again in her sleep. However events always seemed to differ, to the absurd point where even her family were showing up to have a cosy little tea party with the Queleon, whilst she stood there struggling with her bonds to gain freedom, screaming at them for help. What she could most definitely recall was the light. It had started faintly at first, like a burst of sunlight poking through the clouds to light up the glen. But it had kept growing in intensity until it was too bright for comfort. Casting her squinted gaze around she hadn’t been able to identify the source of the sudden illumination. Eventually the radiance had become so bright even her skin had appeared translucent, showing her veins pulsing red rivers of blood around her body.

Amber knew it was the light, or the cause of it, that had frightened the Queleon so. But as the light display unfolded she had felt faint and her head had spun. Then there had been a cackle; one of the witches? Had they planned this all along? Tired of living in their own filth they had hungered for a servant. Saving the sacrifice from the Queleon was the best way to achieve such a goal as there would be nobody to care afterwards. However following the crooked laugh Amber’s world had gone blank and she remembered no more. Now she was at the beck and call of the Aurora Sisters. Already ideas of escape were filling her confused head. But it wasn’t going to be as easy as she had originally hoped. Such an opportunity had presented itself yesterday.

She had been stood in the misery of the cold and dusty main hallway. Within her hands were a tin bucket and a limp mop. Gertrude, the eldest Aurora sister, was departing and Amber’s eyes hatefully followed the witch as she made her way into the depths of the old house. Once gone, Amber stared at the silence and considered her task of cleaning the hallway floor with a heavy sigh. Before her the wooden front door groaned on its iron hinges as the wind picked up outside. Slowly it creaked open, wider and wider with each gust. Amber darted her eyes first one way around the room and then the other. Nobody was about. What was stopping her from making a dash for it? Gently lowering the bucket as quietly as she could, as if making any kind of noise would suddenly summon one of the witches before her, she then apprehensively crept to the door, mop still in hand. As she reached the open doorway she paused once again, listening out for movement in the house behind her. All was silent.

Before her lay a dirt track snaking to freedom through the gloom of Blackstone Forest which surrounded the house. As she stood there her mind rolled into action, hatching a plan for escape. She needed to ensure the witches wouldn’t find her, so it would be better to head off west, in the opposite direction to the path. However the big danger was getting lost. The forest was vast that way on. But she could use the sun to help keep her bearings and circle round when she had covered a reasonable distance. Though with winter having just passed it was still bitterly cold at night and the dark would descend all too soon. And what about beasts of the wild? Doubt crept over her and she cast her eyes to the mop, tightening her grip upon it. A mop wouldn’t help defend herself against something truly monstrous; something like the Queleon.

She decided it was worth the chance. Propping the mop against the wall, as it would only slow her down, Amber made a sprint for the open air. Waiting to feel the chill of early spring envelope her, it didn’t arrive and she hesitated and slowed as the air surrounding her still felt warm and smelt like the stale, old air from inside the witches’ house. At the same time the air even seemed to be growing thicker and heavier as if she was now running though honey. Some strange invisible force felt to be actually pulling her back rather than just slowing her down, as if attached to some unseen elastic leash. In fact, in just a few brief seconds all her energy was being focussed into just keeping herself from being drawn back to the house, rather than actually running any further forward. The harder she fought the more the force seemed to work against her. Very soon she was fighting against the air, straining with all her might even to stay upright. A sweat quickly broke out across her forehead from the exertion. She reached out a clawed hand as if grabbing the air would help pull her forward. Then finally, with all energy exhausted, her entire being was catapulted back through the entranceway of the house as if someone had given her invisible leash an almighty tug. She skidded across the hard, cold floor and came to a halt after rolling several times.

Startled by her sudden flight across the hallway she lifted her dazed head. With her vision refocussing a pair of large black boots came into view before her. Looking up, there stood Gertrude with a wicked smile fixed across her warty face. The witch looked even uglier than usual, if that was possible. A faint cackle of delight came from her cracked lips.

‘You wouldn’t be trying to leave us now, would you dear? The enchanted forest surrounding this house isn’t a place for little girls.’

Amber didn’t respond. It wasn’t necessary. Gertrude had left her alone on purpose with the door slightly ajar, knowing what the outcome would be. The house wasn’t going to let her leave.

‘For being so wilfully disobedient you can clean the whole of this room from top to bottom till it shines. Only then will you be allowed to go to bed.’ Gertrude told her this with a gleam of pleasure radiating from her wicked eyes.

Returning her thoughts back to the present, back within her bed, Amber exhaled as if trying to rid herself of the hatred she felt for her captors rather than let it poison her insides. Her breath fogged before her in the cold surroundings of her pokey, draught-ridden bedroom. She gave an uncontrollable shiver before pulling the covers tightly round herself, careful not to let the straw-like blanket scratch her soft chin. Then, not yet ready to greet the morning, she closed her eyes in an attempt to snatch a morsel of more sleep before her next hard day's work was due to begin.


Chapter Three – Potions

Amber had a continuous day of work dished out by the mean sisters; traversing the long and murky corridors of the old house whose shadows seemed to shift at the very corner of her vision. It gave Amber the creeps. Within every room she walked into something seemed to shift or scurry out of sight just before she could see what it was. It made her feel like there were others in the room, as if she was being watched. Worst of all doors would slowly open and then close again for no apparent reason. Amber kept telling herself that the place was old and draughty to help stop fear taking control of her mind. But she soon found herself muttering words of reassurance to herself. This place was truly going to drive her insane.

Her work primarily involved boring everyday tasks such as washing and cooking. Amber learned how to prepare what the sisters considered the finest of delicacies, from toad in the hole with a creamy frogspawn mash to a light snack of grilled caterpillar on toast, all washed down with a bat-blood brew. She was also taught unconventional skills, learning the ways of the witches’ magic in order to assist them. Each sister had her own speciality. Gertrude was the oldest of the three and her field of expertise was using magic through potions. Amber would assist her in the potion room, dashing from shelf to shelf to gather the ingredients that Gertrude snarled as the witch stood by the large cast-iron cauldron in the centre of the room.

'A lizard’s tail...no not those ones fool, the golden-speckled ones! Do I have to do everything myself?'

From the open window would also come the rasping caw of Gertrude’s pet raven, Vlox. In his ill temper he would sit at the window ledge and bark nonsensical orders at Amber as much as Gertrude did, always trying to peck at her if she came too close. Vlox seemed larger than most of his kind, though Amber wondered if it was just because she had never been so close to a raven before. If ever an animal had been born to serve all that was not good, then Vlox was it. Just his appearance alone suggested ill will. It was mainly his eyes, or rather his lack of one eye, that spooked Amber the most. His face had a scar across it from some violent encounter which had cost him his right eye. Because of this he always turned his head to the side, regarding Amber suspiciously with his remaining good eye.

On only her first day of helping Gertrude, the witch had quickly grown frustrated at how slow Amber was to rush across the room, pull a ladder into place and then scale the towering shelves laden with their curiosities.

'Stop!' the witch howled.

Amber halted and turned to see Gertrude with frown lines crossing her already wrinkled face. Was this the end? Amber wondered. Had the sister already had enough and was about to turn her into a newt and plop her into that large cauldron she constantly hovered over?

'This won't do at all,' the witch complained. 'I'll be here till next Midsummer waiting for your stumpy little trotters to gather what I need. Come here.'

Gertrude pointed in front of her cauldron. Amber hesitated.

'Well hurry up, scrawny runt! I don't have all day.'

Then before Amber could even begin to take a step her body whisked magically to the exact spot where the witch was pointing to, almost tipping her into the bubbling pot of purple sludge. Not being brave enough to return Gertrude’s mean stare she instead looked down at the bottles of multi-coloured potions littering Gertrude's side. Surely the green one would turn her into a frog.

Gertrude snatched up the green potion. Amber thought her suspicions had been confirmed. Carefully a small measure was poured into an empty cup.

'Drink this,' she was ordered.

Amber gingerly navigated her way round the grimy cauldron and timidly took the offered cup as if it would burn her hand. Gertrude kept her eyes fixed on the girl’s every action, impatiently rapping her dirty clawed nails on the edge of the cauldron.

Amber took a sniff of the green liquid. It didn't smell as bad as she had expected, and not wanting to prolong the inevitable any further she tipped her head back and downed the contents of the cup in one. It was surprisingly warm and thick, and she could feel it line her stomach like a woollen blanket. Then a slight fizzing sensation arrived, growing from her core and coursing through her limbs like wildfire. She suddenly felt alive with energy, like the rumbling of a coming thunderstorm before it unleashed its electrifying temper. Her body felt lighter as if made of fluffy cotton that would sail away on the laziest of summer breezes. Yet she felt superhuman, capable of doing anything.

‘Now bring me that bottle up there, the one with the purple potion,’ Gertrude ordered, and extended a crooked, bony finger. Amber turned her head and followed its direction to a shelf in the very top corner. She went to take a step across the room and her body sailed effortlessly into the air for several feet. Instinctively she flailed her arms for balance, flapping like an agitated chicken as her body flew out of control and her legs went from underneath her. She approached the ground with a gentle bump, slightly startled by the experience, but unhurt. Behind her the witch gave a small croaking chuckle from her throat, amused at her own handiwork.

Picking herself up, Amber dusted down her clothing. This time she eyed up her destination, braced herself, then cautiously bound across the room to the foot of the shelf. It happened swifter than expected. But coming to a halt with a wobble, a grin spread across her face. It was like being an infant and having to learn to walk all over again. But the fluid feeling of weightlessness was fantastic. It was almost like flying. Amber soon got the hang of bouncing round the potion room. It made her work for Gertrude much easier.

‘Drink just one small cupful each day before helping me in here. Guzzle down any more than that and you’ll be sailing off to the moons with no hope of return.’

Despite enjoying the lightness that the potion bestowed upon her, as the days went by Amber found she had to drink a few drops more just to achieve the desired effect. And afterwards, when the magic had worn off she felt hollow. The potion was like drinking a lie. It was only pretend power and when it was gone she felt that part of her soul had drained away that little bit. And inwardly she cried out for more of the potion just to hold onto that feeling of strength. Only the more she drank the worse she felt.

Amber often wondered that if she drank enough whether she would actually be able fly. Maybe she could sail right out of this prison? But she wasn’t bold enough to try more than needed, just in case Gertrude’s words about floating to a moon proved correct. But it didn’t stop her pondering of how else she could use the abilities she was temporarily bestowed with. And so it was that with the help of the potion Amber was beginning to form a plan of escape.

Chapter Four – The Garden

Accompanying the large house stretched an expansive walled garden. Unlike the enchanted front door, Amber was at least able to freely exit from the back door of the house to enjoy a little piece of outside as spring warmed the air, growing thicker with floral scent, cottony wisps of airborne seeds and the buzzing of insects. However any thoughts of escape from here were firmly quashed after seeing how high the mighty granite walls rose around her overgrown prison.

The garden was Deirdre’s domain. It was also thick with a tangle of weeds and grasses which grew well over Amber’s head. Dotted here and there were cleared patches used by Deirdre to grow the plants and flowers that Gertrude required for her potions. By herself Gertrude had no aptitude for knowing which flowers went in what potion, and used a collection of books within a small library adjoining the potion room for assistance. Deirdre however seemed to have an instinctive ability for this task, along with the nurturing talent to grow the required plants. However she was unable to produce a potion that had any magical ability, something Gertrude was able to do. It was as if the magical skill to create a viable potion was spread between both the sisters.

Deirdre was actually Gertrude’s twin, but having been born a day later she was considered the inferior child, and Gertrude made sure her marginally younger sister knew who was boss. Deirdre was as squat and round as Gertrude was tall and thin. The elder sister was always making snide comments and bullying her younger twin. Maybe Gertrude even considered her sister to be nothing but stolen magic that should rightfully be hers. And rather than standing up for herself Deirdre obeyed all of Gertrude’s demands.

Poor Deirdre was also inflicted with a disfiguration. Her right arm was shrunken and withered, like a once plump and juicy piece of fruit that had been left out in the scorching sun to shrivel up dry. Amber was reminded of her mother and how she used to tell her younger brother Alfred that if he sucked his thumb too much it would shrink away. Maybe Deirdre did the same as a little girl.

Despite such an impairment the curious limb seemed to contain Deirdre’s entire magical prowess, apart from her inner knowledge of potion ingredients. With a wave of her shrunken appendage she could command objects to move, encourage her plants to grow with more vigour, or ignite candles to illuminate a darkened room.

But to add to Deirdre’s woes she was also hard of hearing. She would often carry with her a large ear trumpet, holding it up to the side of her head like listening to the sea through a shell. Having only one useful arm however meant she often left it lying around, effectively leaving her deaf. Amber often found herself having to repeat words louder in the witch’s presence. Though this also meant she could mutter angry words under her breath that wouldn’t be heard by the witch.

During her short time in the house so far even Amber recognised Deirdre as being at the bottom of the sisters’ pecking order. She also had the feeling that before her arrival Deirdre had been the one expected to complete all the housework, even with her disability.

As if having to run around after the witches wasn’t bad enough Amber’s misery was heightened by a particularly warm spring. Had she been back home this would have been a joyous time to cool off by the riverside; or take the opportunity with the growing light of the evenings to sneak from her bedroom window to enjoy the buzz of the city with its exotic visitors and their tales of far off isles. Instead she toiled away under the blazing sunshine, receiving scratches by some particularly wicked shrub with barbed thorns as big as Gertrude’s angular nose, which when caught upon felt like they were trying to pull Amber’s flesh from her bones. And with the trees still not fully in leaf yet the only place of shade she had was the pig hut.

The first time Amber waded in there the filth was heaped layer upon layer and seemed to be multiplying as if it was alive. Rising wisps of steam drifted up from the mountainous piles of pig poo; and a cloud of midges waiting eagerly to feast on Amber’s tender skin. It made her wonder if she would depart with any blood left after being eaten alive. The hut was home to Scarlett, the one thing in the household which didn’t seem to want to bite, kick or order Amber around. Scarlett was a small pig with a fuzz of red hair covering the top of its head which then snaked its way down her spine. She was a playful animal who enjoyed Amber’s visits, delighting in the sudden attention. Amber knew all too well the pig was only there to grow fat for winter and tried not to grow too attached to the animal. But her endlessly snuffling snout, her short grunts and squeals, and her playful galloping bursts around the interior of the hut soon won Amber over.

It took her about a week to finally discover the floor of the hut under the piles of muck and then a further two weeks to clear it. Scarlett loved Amber being there as the girl toiled away lifting spadeful after heavy spadeful into a wheelbarrow to then spread onto the garden to help the plants grow. Amber found the going tough to begin with, as the mess pulled her down like it was trying to eat her. Her boots would squelch and slurp their way through the brown ooze, and on one occasion one of them got stuck in the gunk and came off as she walked. Amber was left hopping on one leg trying to keep her balance and replace her missing boot. Scarlett found this all a wonderful game and began danced happily around her. But the playful pig’s exuberance caused Amber to lose her balance and she fell forward with a splat, face-first into the filth. Poor Amber was left with Scarlett’s cold wet snout nuzzling at her mucky face, breathing rotten pig-breath all over her.

Today Amber was toiling away outside, digging up the hard ground for a new flowerbed. Hearing the door to the house creak open Amber took the opportunity to pause from her tiring work and raised up slowly, rubbing her poor, aching back. Resting her forearms on the spade in her grasp she watched Deirdre exit the house with Norman, her pet python. It was wrapped neatly around her plump torso and neck. The way the witch always waddled breathlessly, and the fact that her eyes naturally bulged, made her at this particular moment look like she was in a slow-motion life or death wrestle with her beloved snake.

Taking quite some time just to shuffle her rotund body over to Amber’s location, Deirdre spent yet more time with the trouble of unwinding Norman from round her neck. This was made all the more difficult by only having one good arm. Amber wondered if the snake had actually considered going in for the kill. It would surely be able to overpower the unfortunate witch. Amber decided it must be content with its life to remain loyal to its Mistress.

Deirdre scanned Amber’s handiwork.

‘I suppose that will be doing for a novice. But if you is not working to my liking you might just be waking up breathless as you finds Norman has silently slithered his way up to that room of yours and coiled himself round your skinny little frame. It would only take a little squeeze for him to be cracking every feeble bone in your body. Then he will be having the pleasure of unhooking his jaw and gulping you down in one.’

Deirdre studied Amber’s reaction with a crooked smile. The witch liked trying to belittle Amber in the same way Gertrude did to her. But she wasn’t very good at it and Amber remained unaffected by her words.

Then an angry voice barked from above, from an upper room of the house.

‘Have you finished hogging her yet, dear Dreary? My potions won’t make themselves you know!’

Deirdre scowled before looking up to see the fierce expression of Gertrude leaning from the potion room window. With her message received Gertrude disappeared from view. Deirdre lifted Norman’s head and gazed into its eyes.

Or maybe you could be a-creeping into her room instead.’ she muttered venomously under her breath about her sister. ‘Though we don’t wants to give you an upset tummy, does we my treasure?’

Amber left the downtrodden sister to her murderous fantasies. But it was later the same day, back in the garden helping Deirdre once again, that her ambitions for escape were furthered.

‘Finds me a plant with small blue flowers and bright yellow centres,’ the witch had told her. ‘It should be growing in the shade, so make your ways down to the south wall.’

Amber did as instructed. Following the wall, her hand trailing across its unusually smooth surface, she craned her head up. The wall was far too high for her to scale. But during her time in the garden helping Deirdre she had noticed a large tree near the south wall. She had kept eyeing it up. It appeared to be her best hope of offering any way over the wall. This was the first time she had been able to venture to the bottom of the garden for a better look without raising any suspicion.

Reaching the base of the tree and gazing up she could see that one of its branches grew out towards the wall a little; still not enough for her to escape however, even if she risked jumping. And it would be a long fall on the other side. But hope wasn’t lost yet. There was another idea stirring in her mind and it involved Gertrude’s potion. If she was quick enough after helping the witch one day, and Deirdre wasn’t about, there may be just enough magic left for her to float the distance from the branch to the wall and allow her to slowly drop down the other side safely. Amber gave a slight smile at her cunning plan. Best of all it was the witches’ own potion that was giving her the means of escape.

Returning to her task at hand she strolled beyond the tree to look for the blue flowers. It was a waiting game now. The right moment would come. Patience.

Chapter Five – The Unbearable Beauty of Roisin

‘Where are my gloves?’ she muttered to herself. Amber had been bestowed with several pairs, but they all seemed to have vanished. Lifting the threadbare blanket from her bed and giving it a gentle shake first one glove then another hit the floor with a slimy plop. They had been chewed.

‘I could kill that mutt!’

Bounding down the stairs she encountered the culprit guarding the hallway; Skarpie, the family dog; if a dog is what it really was. It was certainly the ugliest mongrel Amber had ever cast her eyes upon. Bald but with the occasional thick tuft of wiry black hair sprouting from its body, its upturned snout stuck out making it seem more like some elephant-pig hybrid rather than a dog. Every time it drew a breath it made a slight wheezing sound as if struggling for breath, like it was at least a thousand years old. Amber had seen larger rats than this dog, and with its diminutive size came an annoying yappy bark. When its mouth was closed several crooked teeth still poked out, causing it to constantly drool ever so slightly. And because of its variably sized teeth its face was crooked with misaligned eyes meaning it had to tilt its head so its eyes could see straight.

Whenever Amber passed it by Skarpie would often snarl at her, though now it was silently staring forward. Amber was unsure if the darn thing was watching her or not because of its uneven gaze; making up its mind whether or not to dart forward and nip at her ankles. This time it let her be as she cautiously tiptoed past. Sometimes Amber wondered if it was actually blind. She had seen it on several occasions rushing headlong into a wall with a startled bump. Maybe it relied upon its oversized snout and fox-like ears to sense the world around it. Yet despite all its shortcomings and unsurpassed ugliness even Roisin cooed over it. And in Roisin’s world beauty was everything. Maybe beauty really was in the eye of the beholder.

Rushing downstairs to the kitchen Amber discovered a washed pair of gloves still drying by the stove. She snatched them up and immediately hurried back the way she had come, then abruptly halted at the foot of the stairs and had to double-back having forgotten her satchel. She grabbed it from the kitchen table before finally disappearing upstairs once again. Her gloves were slightly damp between the fingers. She tugged at them in order to loosen their fit round her hands. Slightly soggy but clean gloves were better than Skarpie-slimed ones. Roisin would go berserk if anything got stained.

Flustered, she arrived at the third sister’s chamber and mildly tapped upon its door.

‘Don’t knock so loud,’ she had been ordered by Roisin. ‘It’s not good for my delicate ears.’

A pause followed. There was always a pause. Roisin liked to keep others waiting, even when there was no need.

‘Enter,’ came her soft, musical voice after some time.

Amber opened the door and a great waft of perfume tingled up her nose. Roisin was sat at her dresser, as always, brushing her hair. The long, satin-white curtain shimmered with each brushstroke like the reflection of a moon upon a lake on a calm summer’s night. She paused to observe Amber from her mirror. Could the witch actually even see herself in it? It seemed to be tilted at an angle on purpose in order to observe the door. Though a lack of mirrors wasn’t anything the room had to worry about. Reflective surfaces were all over the place allowing Roisin to cast a glance at her appearance at any time from an assortment of angles. And Amber was expected to stand or work from certain blind-spots in Roisin’s presence, just so the witch didn’t have to look at her all the time. ‘You’re in my eye-line, Sweetie. You know it’s bad for my eyesight,’ she would complain, as if the very sight of Amber might cause her to go blind. Surely the sight of her sisters or their ugly dog were far worse; or even the strange and tatty old dolly sat upon the shelf above Roisin’s head. It was the first thing Amber’s eyes always saw as she entered the room and she always wondered why Roisin kept the festering thing around. Amber was forbidden to touch it.

Roisin was the complete opposite of her sisters in appearance; pale skin, long silver hair and piercing blue eyes, like sapphires. She was the vainest person Amber had ever encountered; and there had been pretty girls in the city who had obsessed over their appearance. But their actions paled into insignificance compared to Roisin’s. Everything the witch did was all in consideration of its impact on her looks. She wouldn’t touch anything if it compromised the cleanliness of her meticulously manicured hands and nails. Therefore everything was moved with magic, even opening a door. Whilst on the move she would inspect the ground beneath her, deciding whether to float along rather than face a speck of dirt on her pale pink satin slippers or risk chipping the nails of her perfectly pedicured toes.

Roisin never smiled; never frowned; always wore a blank expression. Anything else would crease her perfect skin texture. It made her mood incredibly difficult to read. It was this unpredictability that made Amber more scared of her than the other two sisters.

‘Are you wearing gloves, Umber dear?’ Roisin asked, still staring at her through the mirror. She always asked this question, and she always got Amber’s name wrong.

‘Yes, Miss Roisin.’

‘Good. We need to keep your filth off my garments,’ Roisin explained for what seemed like the millionth time. ‘They’re made from the finest dragonworm silk. Wear gloves at all times or they’ll be ruined. Are they a clean pair? Just to make extra sure your grubby mitts don’t muddy everything. You can scowl all you like, Amanda dear; it will only wrinkle your complexion.’

Amber was required to do the laundry for the entire household but because Roisin changed so often and never even considered being clothed in the same garment again, Amber had scores of washing to keep on top of. Of course during washing she had dared to feel Roisin’s special dragonworm silk-spun garments without gloves. They were magnificently delicate. She had rubbed it against her cheek to get a feel for its true sensitivity. Almost too soft to be real. She imagined it was what clouds felt like to the touch.

‘Would you hurry up, Agatha?’

Amber was still standing at the entrance of Roisin’s room with the witch staring at her again through the mirror.

‘Now look what you’ve done; I almost frowned. It’s not easy to look this beautiful you know. The last thing I need are lines creasing my face like an old hag.’

A soft cry came from an adjoining room. Roisin moved her head at the sound then looked over to Amber, expecting her to go and attend to the noise. Reaching for the pre-prepared bottle of deer’s milk inside her satchel Amber made her way across Roisin’s bedroom. Creaking open the door to the adjoining room the baby gazed over, its large eyes waiting hungrily as it anticipated a feed.

Chapter Six – Pomroy

Pomroy was Roisin’s baby. As astounding as this idea seemed Amber was quickly made aware of what had been involved.

‘Babies are such darlings, I simply had to have one.’

She had grown him in a large bell-jar.

‘Well, I wouldn’t want to ruin my figure, would I?’

As Amber entered Pomroy’s room he stared over at her with his large blue eyes like a picture of pure innocence. With an adorable half-smile to his mouth and a curled tuft of golden hair above his forehead, it was enough to melt even an ice demon’s heart. But Amber was no ice demon, and she was no longer a fool; behind that sugary smile was a calculated menace. Amber wore the battle scars to prove it. Get too close and his thin little neck would shoot out to chomp a gummy mouth down upon anything within reach, with his singular tooth able to sink deep into flesh. Amber glanced down at the discoloured patch of skin between her thumb and forefinger and gave it a gentle rub; a nasty reminder of her first encounter with Pomroy. Once bitten, twice shy had never been more apt. It had happened the very first time she had picked him up. He had acted so innocently as well, biding his time for just the right moment. She had cradled the bundle of joy in her arms, thinking life in this horrid prison wasn’t going to be so bad after all. Gently caressing his cheek with her forefinger he finally took the opportunity and bit her. Amber had been so shocked she had dropped him. But he hung by his mouth onto her hand momentarily before opening his jaws and dropping to the floor. With a slight bounce he landed, dazed but unhurt, and simply scampered off with a grin, pleased with his handiwork as Amber cradled a bleeding hand.

Just to test her theory was still valid she slowly reached out her hand. Pomroy watched with his big blue eyes fixed on what was coming his way. Then with overeager zeal he shot his head forward, snapping his mouth at the air just a hair’s breadth in front of Amber’s fingertips. She quickly retracted her hand before he could take aim once again.

He gave Amber a hateful stare. She still needed to feed him and he wouldn’t allow her without a struggle, as usual. But Amber was adept at handling the little monster now. Her reach was longer than his neck so she would grab him by his foot and whisk him upside-down. At first he had squealed and squirmed, snapping his mouth in a desperate attempt to take another chunk from Amber. Upside-down was now how he would feed. There was no other alternative.

Before Amber endured the latest feed she took precautions. Reaching for her pockets she revealed a long pair of socks and donned them like gloves, after having taken off the pair she used to protect Roisin’s clothing. The last thing she wanted was to get baby-slime all over those. She rolled the socks up her arm as far as they would go. The brat’s little, scratchy hands were just as bad as his tooth at making marks. The protection allowed her to whisk Pomroy up from under his arms, keeping her own arms stretched out as far as she could. He would try and bite first of all, craning his neck down to get some flesh, his eyes bulging and his facial skin stretching in a comedic manner. Amber found it impossible not to laugh at the struggling infant. But he didn’t like being the focus of her amusement and would scream. Failing his attempt at biting his scratches would come next, but the socks on her hands and up her arms helped prevent any damage here.

Right now Amber needed to feed him. So moving her left hand she pretended to go and grab his leg. He fell for it and went in for a bite. Then with her right hand she grabbed his other leg, flipping him over and had him dangling upside-down. She rested his back against the side of the cot. He was too heavy to hold for long. Then before he could recover from the dizzying spin and scream the place down she planted the bottle of milk into his gaping mouth and he happily suckled away.

Roisin breezed into the room, riding on a cloud of perfume with her blue silken dress wafting to and fro. Amber hoped that would be her final dress choice for the day, but wasn’t holding her breath.

‘Hello my Little Pommy,’ Roisin cooed, wiggling her index finger at him, but still not changing her facial expression or attempting to touch her baby in the slightest.

Pomroy paused his relentless attack of the bottle and gave a smile and a half-giggle before continuing his feed with intent. The witch didn’t seem in the slightest way disturbed by the manner in which Amber was holding her child. In her eyes her job as a mother was done for the day, so she waltzed back out again.

Being a witch’s son Pomroy was no ordinary child. He had decided to remain looking like a one-and-a-half year old baby, with the ability to babble only a few words, knowing that was how his mother preferred him. When walking in his unbalanced way he would stumble occasionally, though Amber knew he could scamper around quite fast when he felt like it. He always scowled at Amber and his big blue eyes seemed to be forever searching for some kind of mischief, either something to bite down upon or for his hands to grab and squeeze. Skarpie knew to keep at a distance or face a pulled tail.

When the bottle was almost drained Pomroy’s eyes slid closed and he was soon fast asleep, even whilst dangling upside down. Amber lowered him gently into his cot and rubbed her aching arms. Retreating back into Roisin’s bedroom she noticed the witch wearing something new, with the previous blue dress now in a heap on the floor. Amber gave a sigh and went to pick it up, taking off the socks she used as protection against Pomroy’s scratches and replacing them with Roisin’s gloves. She had been hoping for a short morning and a bit of time to wander round the big old house. It was only when she noticed Roisin stifle a yawn that she decided it was time to use the witch’s weakness to her advantage.

‘I’ve cleaned your yellow dress, changed your towel and swept out Pomroy’s room,’ Amber lied. She hadn’t actually done some of these tasks for over three days now. But Roisin wouldn’t know. Because of her clinical obsession with cleanliness Roisin used a great deal of magic. It was almost constantly at her fingertips, on the end of her tongue, or in her icy stare. Amber had also observed the effects of such prolonged use of magic; Roisin was always tired. The exhaustion caused by using so much magic impacted both physically and mentally. Roisin would sleep for lengthy periods, not even keeping track of the days. This provided opportunities which Amber learned to rapidly jump upon. The witch was quick to confuse to the point where she simply just didn’t care anymore if Amber rambled on for long enough.

Roisin dismissed her. She turned and smiled slyly, before taking the castaway blue dress and heading off. First she dashed to Deirdre’s, then Gertrude’s bedroom to perform a quick clear up. Thankfully the older two sisters weren’t as particular about the state of their bedrooms as their younger sister so Amber was able to rush through these tasks, stuffing whatever was lying around into Deirdre’s closet and doing the same within Gertrude’s small library. Amber knew they were rarely used and she could always tidy up at a later date.

When Amber had first seen Gertrude’s library her attention had immediately been drawn to the fact that it was actually an adjoining room from the witch’s bedroom to her potion room. Amber’s heart had fluttered at the idea, thinking she would be able to lay her hands on the potion she needed to leap to freedom. But just like the main door to the potion room, Gertrude kept the side door securely locked. This didn’t prevent Amber from trying both doors each day as she cleaned, ready to pounce on the opportunity if ever Gertrude forgot. There was also one other door down Gertrude’s wing of the house that Amber had noticed was locked. There was a keyhole through which she had peered to nothing but darkness beyond. Walking by every day she wondered what lay beyond the mysterious door.

Chapter Seven – Dinnertime

The first time Amber was led down to the kitchen she wondered whether Deirdre was leading her into a dungeon to spend the rest of her days. And whilst Amber would indeed spend a good deal of her time down there, it wasn’t half as unpleasant as she first imagined.

Halfway down the narrow spiral of stairs Deirdre had to stop, exhausted from the physical effort. She stood bent over and wheezed heavily, sucking in vast lungfuls of air to catch her breath.

‘Go on ahead,’ she gasped between breaths, which only made Amber all the more paranoid at what lay in wait below.

Descending into the inky-black depths, using only the rough, cold stone wall on her right side as a guide, Amber eventually felt the stairs beneath her end. The ground and walls suddenly opened out before her. All at once she felt too exposed and hugged the wall all the more. The darkness was complete, but as if to compensate her other senses came into focus. A stale, mouldy smell flooded the room; and the occasional patter of tiny paws told her the place had a rat problem. Wasn’t it Skarpie’s job to keep the rats at bay?


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