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       Black Wood, p.7

           Jayde Scott
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  She had no clue what they said, but they were beautiful nonetheless. With her orange-dyed hair and long, flowing dresses, her grandmother had always been strange. But maybe she was more than that. Reading through the recipe to turn a young man into a lovesick pup, a thought popped into Emily’s head. Who boiled frog eggs, chicken heart, cinnamon powder, peppermint leaves, rose petals and strands of hair to a soup, if not a witch? Maybe her grandmother had been one?

  ***

  Muriel was back for dinner. “Edgar, don’t I look simply delicious today?”

  Munching on a vegetable stew with burned beef, Emily spun her head to catch her father’s reaction.

  He bobbed his head. “You do, Muriel. And very much so.”

  Emily pulled a face. Okay, she had to admit the wine-coloured dress accentuated the green in Muriel’s eyes, but still. How could her father look at any other woman than Mum? It wasn’t right.

  Her fingers gently holding an old, silver fork, Muriel took a bite of her stew. “This tastes like dung. I’ve seen better food in garbage bins.” She spit, and the half-chewed carrots landed on the floor next to Sam’s foot.

  Sam continued eating, his head hanging so low, one tiny shove and he’d be breathing down his dinner. Emily kicked his leg under the table, but he showed no reaction.

  Her father’s head hung almost as low as Sam’s. “I’m sorry, Muriel. You’re right, of course. I’ll try to improve my cooking skills.”

  Emily scowled. Now, that was definitely not the answer she expected. What was wrong with them all?

  Muriel smiled regally. “I’m sure you will, dear.” She brushed back her glossy black hair. “But this isn’t all that bothers me.”

  Emily rolled her eyes. What now? Was the mattress too hard? The pillows not soft enough? Her tea too cold? Her bath water too hot?

  “You mustn’t cross her,” Sam murmured, his gaze still lingering on his plate.

  Muriel shot him a displeased look, then turned her beautiful eyes toward Emily’s father. “Edgar, how long have you been a single parent now?”

  “Dad’s not a single parent!” Emily shouted. “Tell her you’re not, Dad!”

  Her father hesitated and Muriel continued, smiling. “It’s not right for a man to raise two children on his own. It’s not natural.”

  Muriel placed her hand on top of her father’s. Emily felt bile rising in her throat. She rose to her feet, knocking down her chair. “That’s enough! I called you, I can send you back!”

  Her father turned red as a lobster. “Emily! What’s wrong with you? If you don’t behave, I’ll send you to your room.”

  “But, Dad, how can you let her—” Emily’s lower lip quivered, but she was too mad to cry. “She doesn’t belong here. Tell her Mum’s coming over for Christmas and we’ll be a family again.”

  “Okay, Emily. I warned you not to be disrespectful to guests.” Her father put down his fork with such force that it clattered on the floor. “I won’t tolerate this behaviour. Take your dinner up to your room, and no TV for you for a week.”

  Emily snorted and turned toward the door. “I’m not hungry,” she said even though no one listened. As she headed for the stairs, her father's words crushed her heart.

  “I’m sorry, Muriel,” he said. “She’s been a little rude lately. Of course you can stay here as long as you wish.”

  Pressing her lips together, Emily slammed the door to the kitchen shut. Oh, how she hated that sneaky Muriel. She ran up to her grandmother’s room, tears streaming down her face. Her mother hadn’t called in two whole days and asking the diary to make Muriel disappear didn’t seem to work. She slumped down on the bed, pulled the covers over her head and sank into her grandmother’s pillowcase. Why wasn’t the diary helping? Maybe it wasn’t working on Muriel because she was from the same world?

  She only noticed Solace’s presence when she felt a warm, fluffy ball tickle her cheek. Sniffing, Emily crawled out from under the covers and shivered. The room was cold as ice. By the time she reached the heating panel on the other side of the room, her skin had turned into goosebumps. She pressed a palm on the pane. It scalded her hand and she pulled away quickly.

  A breeze ruffled the curtain.

  “Not again.” Puffing, Emily flicked it aside. The window stood ajar. “Why won’t it stay shut?”

  Solace meowed, jumped down from the bed and bolted for the door, then stopped in front of it and turned its head, her fluffy tail swishing about, as if waiting for her.

  “You’re right.” Emily closed the window. “I won’t be hiding in here like a coward. Someone needs to do something ‘cause she’s going way too far. I’m going to tell Dad she’s an evil witch.”

  With her chin raised and lips pressed tight, Emily crossed the hall to her father’s office and knocked on the door. “Can I come in?”

  When he didn't reply, she entered nonetheless. After all, this was a pressing matter.

  Her father wasn’t there. Maybe he was getting a glass of water or preparing a snack in the kitchen.

  In the hall, she bumped into Muriel. Was this woman everywhere?

  “What is it you're looking for, dear?” Muriel asked with raised eyebrows.

  Emily clenched her fists and glared at her. “Where’s my father?”

  “Let me think.” Muriel scrunched her face for a second. “No, I haven’t seen him. But I could help you look. You know how much I want us to be friends.”

  “Huh?” Emily’s jaw dropped. She narrowed her eyes. “Are you for real? First you try to get rid of me and now you want us to be friends?”

  “Well, it doesn’t seem you have any,” Muriel said as she walked past.

  “I do. I have plenty of them in London,” Emily shouted after her, but all she got as a response was Muriel’s ringing laughter.

  She balled her hands into fists. Her plan to get rid of this woman could wait. Right now, she had something else to do. Emily waited until Muriel’s steps retreated. Only then did she dart down the stairs to the kitchen.

  With the lights switched off, it was pitch-black. Emily pulled the switch and went about boiling water. She placed a teabag into a mug, poured the hot water over it and let it brew for a full five minutes. After stirring four teaspoons of chilli powder into the tea, she let it cool down a bit and then carried the mug upstairs.

  The door stood ajar. Taking a deep breath, Emily entered. “I’ve made you a cup of tea.”

  Muriel rose from the chair near the window and took the mug out of Emily’s hands. “You’re starting to see sense, dear.”

  Pointing to the tea, Emily smiled. “Why don’t you try it?”

  Muriel sat on the bed and lifted the mug to her lips. Emily watched as Muriel took a large gulp, the witch’s beautiful face turning into an ugly grimace. She coughed and spat, her face as red as a lobster.

  “Get out! Oh, you’ll regret this, you nasty, little turd!” Muriel shouted.

  Grimacing, Emily bolted out onto the corridor. When she reached her grandmother’s room, she bent over and burst into a fit of laughter. With the corners of her mouth curled up, even Solace seemed to smile.

  Muriel would tell her father, no doubt about that, and Emily would get into a lot of trouble. But trouble or not, it was so worth it.

  Chapter 14

  That night, before Emily climbed into her bed, she locked the door for the first time in her life. She didn’t like closed doors but she also didn’t trust Muriel one bit.

  As soon as her head hit the pillow, she fell into a dreamless slumber. She didn’t know how long she’d been asleep when she heard the first scratching sound. Thinking it was Solace, she opened her eyes to deep darkness. With no digital clock, she had no idea how late it was. The room felt so cold, her breath froze in her throat.

  “Oh, Solace. Go away. I’ll let you in tomorrow in the morning. How about that?” Emily mumbled, turning over and pulling the covers over her head.

  The scratching continued. Why wouldn’t the cat stop it? Emily pressed h
er pillow over her ears, but the air was getting a little too stuffy to breathe. The noise grew louder and the door began to rattle. Emily gasped. No way could a cat do that.

  Beads of sweat gathered above her brows as she sat up under the covers, holding in her breath to listen.

  The rattling stopped, and she heard a bang. Something dropped to the floor. Then she heard the echo of a whimper, like that of an injured animal. Emily pushed the covers aside and let her legs dangle over the edge of her grandmother’s bed.

  She frowned and tiptoed to the door, pressing her ear against the wood to listen. Whatever was on the other side kept scratching and whimpering.

  Surely, Muriel would just knock instead of trying any tricks. Emily counted to three, and then, taking a huge gulp of air, yanked the door open.

  Startled, she jumped a step back. Right in front of her eyes stood one of those hideous creatures from her dream. Except, this one wore her brother’s pyjamas, now torn and frayed at the bulging shoulders and stumpy legs. The creature’s skin was pale, in places covered by a thick, long fur as black as coal. Hunched, it reached almost her shoulder. It took a hesitant step forward, its eyes fixed on Emily’s face.

  “Sam?” Emily asked. The creature raised its chin and grunted. She held out her hand. “Is that really you?”

  Sam raised a knobbly hand with long, greyish nails and touched Emily’s wrist, then turned and, with one leg shorter than the other, hobbled along the corridor and down the stairs toward the ground floor.

  “Wait!” Emily bolted after him to the living room, where he stood waiting in front of the glass door. She frowned. “You want to get out?”

  Sam grunted, his knobbly fingers trying to grasp and turn the key. Emily gently pushed his scorching hand aside and opened the door. He stepped out into the night, motioning her to follow.

  “Sam, stop! Where are you going?” Emily called as she raced after him. Her brother reached the same spot at the back of the garden, where she had seen the tracks only a few days ago, and jumped over the fence.

  A chilly breeze swept through the bushes, rustling the few remaining leaves. Emily shivered in her flannel pyjamas as she looked up at the clouded sky littered with thousands of stars, marvelling at their beauty for a moment. In London, you could never see so many.

  Somewhere in the darkness, Sam growled, jolting Emily out of her thoughts. The fence reached up to her shoulder. She put her freezing hands on a panel and lifted herself off the ground, trying to find a level in the wood for her foot. When her slipper connected with a hole in the fence, she pushed herself up, draping the other leg over it. And now what? She peered at the ground on the other side, sweat pouring down her back in spite of the cold. From up here, earth seemed a long way down.

  “Hey, Sam!” she whispered. Her brother moved a few steps closer. His grunting sounded a lot like suppressed laughter. “Help me down, or I swear I’ll tell Dad how you sold his Star Trek DVD collection so you could buy part of the Milky Way on the internet, and then pretended a burglar stole it.”

  Sam snarled and retreated behind a bush. No help from him then. Emily shook her head and closed her eyes as she flung her other leg over the fence. “Well, you know it was a stupid idea. The aliens never came to buy their planets back.”

  She slid down when her pyjama sleeve got caught in a protruding nail. As her feet connected with the ground, the sound of ripping material carried through the night. Her brother snorted and took off through Aurelie’s garden toward the house.

  “What are you doing?” Emily called after him, but he didn’t stop. She followed at a distance when the living room lamp went on and a flaxen head peered out of a window. Aurelie opened the back door and stepped out, her blonde hair floating about her like a halo.

  Emily’s breath caught in her throat. She turned, ready to make a sprit for the fence, then stopped. Would she really be able to climb over it fast enough before Aurelie spotted her? From the corner of her eye she noticed a second huddled figure shuffle toward the bushes. Sam stepped out of the darkness onto the illuminated patch of grass underneath the floodlight. Emily covered her mouth with her palm to keep herself from calling out. What was he doing?

  “Sam? Is that you? I’m so sorry, dear,” she heard Aurelie say. Emily frowned. She had expected some serious screaming, maybe a few flowerpots hurled at her brother, or Aurelie chasing him with a broom, but not this reaction. Aurelie opened the door wider and stepped aside. “Come in.”

  Sam grunted and gawked in her direction. Raising his hand, he beckoned her to approach. Should she show herself? Emily bit her lower lip, thinking, when the second hunched shape appeared next to her, tugging at her torn sleeve. She jumped up and shrieked, her heart racing in her chest, as she gazed into a pair of red, glowing eyes.

  The creature took hold of her arm and pushed her, gently but firmly, toward the house.

  “You’re here too?” Aurelie said, but Emily paid her no attention. Her thoughts were swirling around the claw-like hand wrapped around her elbow. She was so scared, she could barely breathe as she stepped in.

  Aurelie switched on a lamp and closed the curtains. “Just in case someone’s watching. One can never be too careful.” She sat down on a sofa. “Would you like a cup of tea?”

  Emily’s throat felt dry and scratchy. She could do with a nice cuppa, but she remembered Aurelie’s dreadful brew. “No, thank you.” She brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes and lowered herself down on the far end of the sofa, relieved to see the cloaked figure dropping down on the rug beside Aurelie’s leg.

  “Clifford, you know you’re not supposed to sit on the floor,” Aurelie scolded. Clifford rose to his feet and removed his cloak, revealing a pale face with wrinkled skin like that of an old belt and hundreds of freckles. The mop of hair on his head was long and shaggy. He muttered something that sounded like ‘sorry’ and sat beside her with a groan. Aurelie turned toward her, smiling. “Now that you know you probably have plenty of questions.”

  Emily swallowed hard, trying to snap her attention away from Clifford’s laboured breathing. “What happened to them?”

  “Sam and Clifford have been cursed to walk earth as children by day and trolls by night.” Aurelie’s smile disappeared. “You’re lucky the queen hasn’t turned you into a troll, too.”

  Emily blinked, remembering her dream. “Did you say ‘trolls’? But why would Muriel do such an awful thing?”

  Aurelie took a deep breath. “Well, Muriel’s not who you think she is.”

  “She said she’s a queen,” Emily said.

  “That’s right.” Aurelie nodded. “She’s the Queen of Black Wood. But, you see, she’s also the most evil witch in this world.”

  “How come she hasn’t turned me into a troll, like them?” Emily pointed at her brother.

  Folding her hands, Aurelie sighed. “You probably didn’t eat or drink anything she prepared.”

  Emily gasped. Of course. The hot chocolate. Muriel had prepared it every day for a whole week, but she didn’t touch any of it. Sam always finished it to the last drop.

  “What’s she doing here?” Emily asked, peering at Clifford who tried to hold a cookie between his oversized fingers. It fell apart into tiny crumbles that dropped on the soft carpet.

  “She wants to build a huge empire, but for that she needs slaves. Several times, mighty, good witches like your grandma imprisoned her. Muriel gathered her powers and broke free. Now she’s trying to take control of Ravencourt Manor and its powers so she may never be imprisoned again,” Aurelie replied. “And it’s your calling to stop her.”

  Was she serious? Emily stared at her, wide-eyed. “But how could I possibly beat an evil witch queen? I don’t know anything about witches, and Dad just won’t kick her out of the house.”

  Aurelie shook her head. “Doesn’t matter. You carry your grandmother’s legacy and I’m here to help you.” She paused for a minute, regarding Emily with a wicked smile. “You’re a witch yourself, you only need to learn to use
those powers.”

  Chapter 15

  So she was a witch. Emily couldn’t believe it. Okay, she had always wanted to turn her Science teacher into a toad, but that didn’t make her a witch, did it?

  “I know you don’t believe me.” Aurelie rose from her seat. “Your grandma passed those powers on to you. You just need to learn to zap into them. She wanted to teach you herself but—”

  But she was gone now. Emily swallowed down the sudden lump in her throat. “Was Grandma really a witch?” she asked, remembering the clutter and weird books.

  “She was one of the most powerful ones. Years ago, Muriel befriended her to steal her powers and the magic diary.” Muriel stopped to shake her head with sadness in her deep blue eyes. “Your grandma banned her and put a spell on the magic diary, but something went wrong. Maybe Muriel bewitched her, because soon after, your grandma fell sick and never recovered.”

  “I wish she was here,” Emily said.

  Aurelie clapped her hands and smiled. “I promised her I’d take care of this. Let’s start with your first lecture. If an evil witch prepares you a cup of tea or offers you cookies, don’t eat or drink anything. If you do, you’ll most likely end up a troll, like those two.” She winked and pointed at the boys.

  Emily had forgotten all about Sam and Clifford. She glanced in their direction. “Muriel made me hot chocolate, but I didn’t touch it. She also tried to push me into the mirror.”

  Aurelie nodded. “That makes sense. She wanted to get rid of you. Most who enter Black Wood will get lost. Only a few find their way back, the rest are eaten by the silverfurs sooner or later.”

  “What are silverfurs?” Emily asked. She remembered her grandmother mentioning them in her leather-bound book.

 
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