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       Black Wood, p.5

           Jayde Scott
 
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  “Where have you been?” Emily asked.

  Sam chewed and swallowed before speaking. “Next door. Had to borrow a game to try out my PlayStation.”

  Emily blinked. PlayStation? So Sam got what he wanted. Why wasn’t Mum here, then? She walked to the cupboards and opened one in which her father usually stored the baked beans cans. They were gone.

  “By the way, Clifford wants to know whether you’ve had another try with the mirror yet,” Sam said, finishing the last of her cereal. “Hope you’re going to soon ‘cause I really want my own diary.”

  “Did he say what’s behind the portal?”

  Sam shrugged. “Who cares? He said there’s magic and I really want some of my own. I won’t stop bugging you until you get me a diary.”

  Emily opened her mouth to say that it could be dangerous and she didn’t trust Clifford, but the ringing telephone cut her off.

  “I’ll get it!” Sam bolted out of the kitchen, almost stomping on the cat. Solace hissed.

  Emily scooped him up. “Are you okay? Don’t mind him. Sam can be such a pain sometimes.” She scratched Solace behind his black ears, lost in thought. What went wrong? She had summoned Sam, so why hadn’t it worked with her mother too? She had used the same words in the same particular order, had even begged the diary to make her mother magically appear. Could it be that the diary only fulfilled three wishes like the genie in Aladdin? She counted on her fingers: make Sam appear and disappear and then appear again—that was one wish, wasn’t it? Then, a PlayStation for him and fish and chips instead of baked beans. That was three. Muttering, she slapped her forehead. She had used up all her wishes. Maybe she could send the fish and chips back for an exchange? Her mother took stuff back to the shops all the time.

  “Mum just called,” Sam said from the door, interrupting Emily’s thoughts.

  “What?”

  “I said, Mum just called. Apparently, she decided to pay us a visit last night, and now she’s snowed under at some Swiss airport. Seems like your plan’s not working, is it?”

  Emily scowled. “But I don’t understand. You just appeared.” She snapped her fingers. “Just like that. Why does she have to take the plane?”

  Sam shrugged and opened the balcony door to let Solace out. “How would I know? Listen, I’ll set up the PlayStation while Dad’s shopping. If he asks, Mum got it for me and it arrived with the morning post.”

  “But we don’t get any post on Sundays.”

  Sam winked. “Dad doesn’t know that. Busy as he is, most of the time, he doesn’t even remember our names anymore.”

  He had a point there. Emily sighed and went about tidying up the kitchen. When she finished putting away last night’s dishes, she climbed up to the attic, taking a small bucket of water and a cleaning cloth with her. Clifford said her magic diary drew its magic from the world behind the portal. Maybe it needed recharging or something, like a good scrub. If the diary couldn’t get Mum here fast enough, maybe she could open the portal and find herself a diary that worked better. At least she could try.

  The large, open space was dark and dingy. With jittery knees, Emily knelt in front of the mirror and began to scrub at years’ worth of dust and grime. It took her a while to get the ornaments sparkly clean. Eventually, she rose and brushed her hair out of her eyes, marvelling at the mirror’s beauty. Maybe now the words would work.

  “Porta, manifeste et fac quod vis!” she whispered.

  Nothing happened. Emily repeated the words. On the second attempt, the mirror creaked. She jumped up, startled by the sudden noise. Another creak, then a soft groan, and the attic grew darker. The floor shook.

  A thick, grey fog gathered at Emily’s feet, and the mirror’s shiny surface turned black. Gasping, Emily took several steps back until she bumped her back against the wall.

  The air smelled of damp wood and autumn leaves. Behind the blackness, something stirred moving closer until Emily recognized the shape of a tall, slim woman. A bejewelled hand emerged first, then a slender leg clad in a long, red brocade dress, followed by a beautiful face with pale skin, glossy black hair and the greenest eyes Emily had ever seen.

  “Goodness me, just look at this mess!” the woman said in a dulcet, high-pitched voice as she took in the room.

  Emily jumped up, barely able to speak. “Who are you?”

  The woman turned her emerald gaze toward her and smiled. “I’m Muriel. And you’re—” Muriel’s eyes turned in their sockets. She raised her hands, golden sparks flying from her palms. “Emily.”

  “How did you know?”

  Muriel laughed. “I’m a queen, my dear. I know everything.”

  “Clifford said the mirror could open a portal to another world.” Emily couldn’t avert her gaze from the beautiful woman. “My magic diary doesn’t want to bring my parents back together. You said you know everything. Do you know how to get my parents back together?”

  “I do, but, you see, dear, traveling weakens me. I’ll need a little rest.”

  Emily nodded. Now she understood why Clifford had told her and Sam about the portal. If the magic diary wasn’t strong enough to perform such a miracle, then the portal would get them someone who was. “You can stay in my room,” Emily said, quickly. If this woman would help, she could stay anywhere she wanted.

  “A child’s room shall suffice as a queen’s chamber. For now.” Muriel spun in a circle. “Ah, Ravencourt Manor. How long’s it been?” She stopped and gestured toward the door. “Chop, Chop, then! I need my strength back.”

  Emily jumped in front of her. “Wait! You can’t bark downstairs just like that. Dad would start asking questions. I’ll go first and you follow once the air’s clean, got it?”

  Muriel tilted her head to one side. “As you wish.”

  Holding her breath, Emily climbed down the stairs, listening for any sounds. The house was quiet. She turned and motioned Muriel to follow.

  As soon as they reached Emily’s room, Muriel plopped down on her bed. “Do get me a drink, dear. I haven’t had a good cup of tea in the last hundred years.”

  “Okay, but don’t let Dad see you.” Emily ran down to the kitchen to do as she was told. Anything for Mum and Dad. When she returned, Muriel was asleep on top of the covers, her open mouth and loud snoring carrying through the quietness of the room. Emily placed the cup on the bedside table and went in search of her brother, locking the door behind her.

  She found him in the living room, punching away on his PlayStation. “You’re not going to believe it! I summoned the mirror. And a woman stepped through it. And she’s the most beautiful person I’ve ever seen.” She paused, but Sam didn’t react. Emily frowned. “Hey, are you listening?”

  “What did you say?”

  Absorbed as he was in his videogames, nothing could bring him back from his stupor. He would have enough, eventually, but it could take hours.

  “Never mind.” Scowling, she opened the balcony door and walked out into the garden.

  The sun stood high on the horizon, partly hidden behind heavy clouds. A strong breeze, chilly and charged with the promise of an oncoming storm, blew a few stray hairs from her ponytail into her eyes.

  She walked along the ragged hedge toward the back of the garden, breathing in the clean scent of pine trees and lush greenery, her eyes fixed on Urquhart Castle on the hill. Dad had promised to take her there, but in the two weeks they’d been in Scotland, he buried himself in work and forgot all about her. Maybe Muriel could work her magic here too. Her grandmother had told her so much about Scotland’s beautiful, haunted castles. She was old enough to visit one and finally see her first ghost.

  As she reached the outer gate, Emily stopped dead. The ground beneath her foot was covered in countless hoofmarks, extending along the fence into Aurelie’s garden. Emily knelt beside the tracks and touched the stomped grass. They were as big as the palm of her hand. She stood and peered over the fence. The marks led in a criss-cross pattern toward Clifford’s house. Lifting her chin, she notice
d Clifford watching her through a window on the upper floor. She waved, but he didn’t wave back.

  Chapter 10

  “Emily! Lunch’s ready!” she heard her father shout, his voice faint in the December wind. Sighing, she threw a last glance at the tracks, and then returned to Ravencourt Manor.

  Emily opened the kitchen door, sudden dread gripping her. At her grandmother’s large kitchen table sat Sam, Muriel and her father, laughing at something Muriel whispered in his ear.

  “Hello, dear,” Muriel said, her green eyes sparkling with amusement. Solace bolted in through the open door and hissed at the queen. Muriel paled instantly. “Get that thing out,” she shrieked.

  Emily scooped up the cat and pressed him against her chest before pushing him out the door. She took a seat and inhaled the aroma of fish and chips. Her stomach rumbled, but she didn’t feel hungry. What was Muriel doing down here? And how could she explain the woman's presence to her father?

  “Muriel said you know each other already?” her father asked with raised eyebrows. Emily nodded, unsure where he was heading.

  “Emily was kind enough to let me wait here until you got home, weren’t you, dear?” Muriel said, taking a bite of her food and chewing slowly. Emily nodded, and Muriel continued. “Your grandmother let me stay at Ravencourt Manor every year during the festival.”

  “What festival?” Sam asked. His eyes gleamed as he stared at Muriel. When she returned his gaze, he turned bright red and looked away.

  “The supernatural festival at Urquhart Castle, of course.” Muriel gestured with a bejewelled finger and poured Emily’s father more tea from a teapot. When he took a sip she smiled and continued. “It’s said that for three days a year, the portal between the physical and the spiritual planes opens, and one can catch a glimpse of what lies beyond. Now, I don’t believe that.” Muriel winked at Emily. “But as one of the performing actors I have no other choice than to attend.”

  Emily breathed out, relieved, and took a bite of her battered fish. Good excuse, but she didn’t like Muriel lying to her father. In fact, she didn’t like beautiful Muriel talking to her father at all. She dropped her fork on the plate and turned toward him. “Muriel can stay in my room. I don’t mind.”

  Her father laughed. “I shouldn’t think that necessary. Ravencourt Manor has plenty of guestrooms. Muriel can have her pick.”

  Emily frowned. No, Muriel couldn’t because Emily needed to keep an eye on her. She pushed out her chin and regarded her father intently. “But Muriel said she used to stay in my room. I think it only fair nothing changes. Grandma would have liked it so.”

  “Okay, if that’s what Muriel wants and you don’t mind.” Her father stood, gulped down the rest of his tea, and pointed at Emily’s full plate. “Please finish your dinner. If you need me, I’ll be in my study.”

  ***

  “Who’s she? Not in a million years is she an actress,” Sam whispered after their father retreated to his study and Muriel to Emily’s bedroom to rest.

  Emily put down the kitchen towel and turned to him. “I was going to tell you, but you were too busy with your PlayStation.”

  “Well, tell me now.”

  “She jumped out after I summoned the mirror like Clifford told me. Apparently, she’s a queen,” Emily said.

  "A queen? Really? Sounds like bollocks me to me." Sam raised his eyebrows as he gazed at her. “Clifford said the mirror’s some sort of portal to another world. I wonder what she wants.”

  “Maybe she comes every year like she said.”

  Sam laughed. “I doubt that. Did you see what she’s wearing? No one dresses like that nowadays. And we had Halloween already.”

  “Do you think Clifford knew Muriel would turn up?” Emily moved closer to her brother.

  “Why would you think that?”

  Emily shrugged. “I don’t trust him. He’s strange. Remember how he kept prodding about the mirror?”

  “You can ask him when he comes back. He and Aurelie have gone to spend the day with his family.”

  “Are you sure?”

  Sam nodded. “Yep, saw them leave this morning after I borrowed a few videogames.”

  But that was impossible. She had just seen him half an hour ago, peeking out of the window. Had she just imagined it?

  ***

  The rain pounded against the windows. A strong wind rattled the loose panels on the roof. With Muriel visiting Urquhart Castle, Emily spent the day reading. It was evening when the rain stopped and she got the chance to return to the garden to inspect the tracks.

  She slipped into her heavy raincoat and opened the balcony door to let in the brisk air. The ground was damp, the marks almost invisible. She should have shown Sam straight away, because, now the imprints were gone, he may not believe her.

  Solace hissed somewhere behind her. Emily patted the cat’s head. “What’s wrong with you today?” The cat swished around Emily’s knees, meowing. “You can sleep in my room if you want.” The cat hissed again and disappeared into the bushes. “I guess that’s a no then.”

  With slumped shoulders, Emily returned to the house and knocked on the door to her bedroom. Muriel slept through the entire afternoon. Surely she was awake by now.

  “Come in," Muriel’s voice called.

  The first thing Emily noticed when she entered was the photograph on her bedside table turned upside down.

  “Did you do that?” she asked, her brows furrowed. No one was allowed to touch her grandparents' pictures.

  Muriel smiled, clasping her hands in her lap. “I’m sorry, dear. I thought you wouldn’t mind. You see, pictures give me the creeps.”

  Emily lowered herself on the bed. “Right. Well, now you’ve had your rest, can you make Mum appear?”

  Muriel blinked. “Your mother?” She laughed. “Why, dear, that takes quite a bit of strength. I’m not sure I can do that just yet. It may take a few days until I’ve gathered enough magic.”

  “Can you at least try?” Emily said. She didn’t have a few days. Muriel seemed to be getting a little too comfortable with her dad.

  “Oh, no! No! No!” Muriel shook her head. “I need to have enough magic because if I don’t, bad things might happen. Like your mother disappearing forever.”

  Emily groaned. “Okay, I get it. Tell me more about where you come from.”

  Muriel sat up, holding out her hand. “Come on. I’ll show you.”

  ***

  They stood in front of the mirror in the attic, Emily watching Muriel murmuring strange words she didn’t understand. As the woman’s eyes rolled in their sockets a thick, grey fog gathered at their feet and the mirror’s smooth surface turned black.

  “Why don’t you take a look?” Muriel asked, pointing at the blackness.

  Emily took a step back. “You want me to walk in there? No way!”

  “Well, you asked to know where I came from, dear. This is your chance. But hurry up. Keeping the portal open wastes a lot of magic.”

  “Why don’t you just tell me what it’s like in there?” Emily asked. She never liked dark rooms; she wasn’t going to walk into one now.

  Muriel looked at her, wide-eyed. “But you must! I haven’t wasted my strength for nothing.”

  “I don’t care ‘cause I don’t want to,” Emily said, taking another step back.

  “Just a tiny peek, dear.” Muriel grabbed Emily’s shoulder, shoving her forward. “It’s perfectly safe, you’ll see.”

  Emily pushed her hand aside, but Muriel’s grip tightened, pulling Emily closer to the mirror’s surface that now looked like a gaping black hole. “No, you can’t make me.” As Muriel gave her another shove, Emily felt the blackness suck her in. She shrieked, her fingers clasping the frame, her nails digging as deep as they could. “Stop it! I don’t want to!”

  Through the gloominess, she glimpsed a dark forest with thick, tall trees. No chirping of birds, but there were hundreds of wilting leaves on the damp ground. A cold breeze blew the scent of decay into her face. E
mily jerked back, falling to the wooden floor of the attic and bumping her head against the mirror’s border.

  “What’s going on here?” Sam called from the trapdoor.

  Emily stood on shaky legs, rubbing her aching head. “She tried to push me in.”

  Muriel’s eyes popped wide open. “I didn’t, dear. You must have misunderstood,” she hissed through tight lips.

  “She’s telling the truth,” Sam said. “When I arrived, she was pulling you out.”

  “What?” Emily glared at her brother throwing Muriel puppy eyes. Sam could say whatever he wanted; she knew Muriel had just tried to get rid of her. And she wouldn’t rest until she found out why.

  Chapter 11

  After dinner, Emily ran up to her room with a bowl of sausage scraps in her hand. Solace rubbed against her legs and meowed.

  “You don’t like Muriel much, do you?” Emily placed the bowl on the floor and waited until Solace licked it clean. “Muriel said she was here before. Let’s see what we can find out.”

  As she entered her grandmother’s bedroom, the heavy scent of sandalwood, candles and old paper drifted past. Countless gemstones, old books, trinkets and other clutter occupied every surface. From the cupboard hung the straw hat her grandmother used to wear for gardening. Even the fancy bedspread was the same as last time she remembered.

  Emily opened one drawer after another and pulled out a white summer dress and inhaled her grandmother’s scent. “I wish you were here. Miss you so much.” Solace meowed and Emily patted the cat’s head. “You miss her too.”

  She arranged the dress back in its place and continued searching through her grandmother’s things. Most of the drawers contained clothes, rusty pieces of jewellery and small bottles of lovely-smelling oils. In others she found more books and old photographs.

  Solace meowed from beneath her grandmother’s desk and rolled on his back.

 
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