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       Black Wood, p.8

           Jayde Scott
 
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  “They’re ancient wolves and the most vicious creatures living in Black Wood. And the place has plenty of evil beings like dragons, huge water snakes and wizards.”

  Emily turned to see Clifford scratching on the door to the backyard. Aurelie stood and opened the door. The boys shuffled out into the first rays of light.

  “They need to turn back,” Aurelie said. “They can only change in the sunlight. Without it, they’ll remain trolls.”

  “Why don’t you help them?” Emily asked. “You’re a witch too.”

  “I can’t.” Aurelie shook her head. “Muriel’s powers are much stronger than mine.”

  “But what will happen to Sam?”

  Aurelie hugged her tight. “I don’t know. But everything will be all right, you’ll see.” She opened a jar and offered Emily a chocolate-chip cookie.

  Emily pulled her nose and bit into her cookie, chewing slowly. It tasted moist, yet crunchy. She licked the crumbs off her fingertips and helped herself to another one.

  Aurelie raised her eyebrows. “What did I tell you about not eating and drinking anything from a witch?”

  How could she forget? With her mouth full, Emily put the half-eaten cookie down.

  Aurelie laughed. “You’re lucky I’m one of the few good ones out there. But you need to remember what I’m teaching you, Emily. Otherwise, our quest is lost before it has even begun.”

  Emily swallowed and, returning the smile, she picked up her cookie. It was one of the best she’d ever had. “I’ll try to remember.”

  “Good.” Aurelie walked to a drawer and retrieved a brown, leather-bound book. “I know your grandma had one of those.”

  Emily nodded.

  “You need to find it and start learning all about spells and potions every free minute of the day because there’s not much time. Luckily, your Christmas holidays are starting soon.”

  “I know where the book is,” Emily said. “Muriel tossed it on the floor, but I found it.”

  “Good,” Aurelie said. “She can’t hide or destroy it because it has a spell on it that burns her hands whenever she touches it. Now, you must use the magic diary to keep your father busy. Wish him plenty of work, so he won’t start asking questions.”

  Emily puffed. That shouldn’t be a hard task. Her father was working most of the time anyway, and her mother was still in Switzerland. “Got it.”

  “Okay, and now for the most important part.” Aurelie breathed in and clasped Emily’s hands, squeezing them as she looked deep into her eyes. “Tomorrow we shall start the preparations for your journey to Black Wood."

  Chapter 16

  Did Aurelie want to get rid of her too? Emily stared at the other woman when the doorbell rang.

  “That’s probably your father looking for you,” Aurelie said. “You should take the backdoor and I’ll see you after school.”

  Emily remained seated on the sofa. “I’m not leaving until you tell me more about Black Wood.”

  Aurelie sighed, her bony fingers switching off the lamp. “Okay, you wait here while I get rid of whoever’s out there. Pretend to be asleep.”

  As she walked out of the living room, leaving the door ajar, Emily lay down and wrapped a thin blanket around her body. She kept her eyes open, listening to the hushed voices in the hall.

  “Edgar, how lovely to see you,” Aurelie said. Her voice was slightly raised, maybe a little too jolly for an early Friday morning.

  “Sam said Emily’s with you.” Her father sounded a little hesitant. Emily could picture him avoiding Aurelie’s gaze as he looked around.

  “Poor thing had a nightmare and came to tell me. She’s sleeping on the sofa now. You wouldn’t want me to wake her now, would you?” Aurelie asked.

  Another pause before her father spoke. “Actually, I would, please, otherwise she might be late for school.”

  “As you wish, Edgar,” Aurelie said. “However, I think you should let her stay home. Now, I would never allow my Clifford to truant, but Emily seems a little unwell today. She’s had so much to deal with, the poor thing needs some rest.”

  Emily smiled. It wasn’t even a lie. She really didn’t feel that great. What with all the news about being a witch and having to save Ravencourt Manor, her stomach was in an upheaval. Or maybe she ate too many chocolate-chip cookies. When her father spoke, she tuned back in to the conversation.

  “I need to see she’s okay.”

  “Please follow me,” Aurelie said.

  As footsteps moved closer Emily pressed her eyes shut and held in her breath.

  “She’s asleep,” her father said.

  “And so she should be, Edgar. I told you she’s had a terrible nightmare. She needed someone to comfort her. Now let her sleep. Why don’t you just pick her up after work? I’ll inform the headmistress she’s poorly.”

  Emily peered from under her eyelashes as Aurelie escorted her father out of the room, slamming the entrance door shut with a little too much fervour.

  “He’s gone,” Aurelie whispered when she scurried back. “You really need to use the magic diary to make your father too busy to notice.”

  Emily sat up and helped herself to another cookie. “Okay, I’ll get it after he leaves.”

  Aurelie plopped down next to her, shaking her head. “I’ll retrieve it. You stay here. Muriel doesn’t know how advanced your witchcraft is, which is a good thing. It makes her hesitant to act, but also more conniving. Better avoid her.”

  “But if something happens to you, who’ll teach me then?” Emily asked.

  Aurelie patted her hand. “Don’t worry about me. Muriel has no idea who I am.”

  “I’m not going to Black Wood,” Emily said. “I’ve seen it in my dreams and it’s way too freaky.”

  “I wish I could go instead of you. But I can’t because your grandma chose you as the keeper of Ravencourt Manor’s powers.” Aurelie squeezed her hand as Emily sulked. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. Think of it as an honour rather than a burden. Your gran would be so proud of you.”

  Emily sat up straight and raised her chin. “I guess you’re right. But I don’t get any of this. What am I supposed to do in Black Wood?”

  Aurelie smiled. “You’ll have to enter Black Tower and destroy the Black Heart to ban Muriel forever.”

  ***

  It was almost eight when they heard tyres screeching on gravel.

  Aurelie took a deep breath and rose from her place on the sofa. “Time for me to go. You stay put. If someone knocks on the door, don’t open. If you hear your name, don’t respond. I’ll try to be back as soon as I can.”

  After Aurelie left, Emily tried to keep busy but her thoughts kept circling around her earlier conversation. Her brother turned into a troll and she was a witch. So Aurelie knew a lot about what was going on. But could Emily really trust her? What if Aurelie and Muriel worked together? And what if she didn’t find her way out of Black Wood?

  By the time she heard the front door open and close, Emily had prepared a pot of tea and her mind had cleared a little. With the bright rays of sun seeping through the white curtains, her distrust toward Aurelie evaporated. After all, Aurelie seemed to have known her grandmother quite well, and her grandmother wouldn’t trust just anybody.

  “Did you find it?” Emily stood from her seat as soon as the blonde woman bolted through the door.

  “I did. And look what else I brought.” Aurelie spilled the contents of her handbag onto the kitchen table: a pair of jeans and a shirt, three dusty books, the magic diary, a dagger encrusted with rubies and other gemstones, a silver goblet and a black shawl.

  Emily picked up the shawl and wrapped it around her shoulders. “What do we need this for?”

  “That’s to fool other witches into thinking you’re nothing but a little girl,” Aurelie said. “It’s how witches can live in towns and cities without people ever suspecting.”

  “And this?” Emily pointed at the dagger.

  “Don’t touch it! The tip’s poisoned.” A
urelie jumped up and pushed Emily’s hand aside. “If you come across a silverfur, you point the tip to its heart and whisper the magic words. “Argentus lupus, anihilo te!”

  Emily repeated the words, trying to memorize them. Aurelie prepared fish fingers and mash for lunch, and they ate together. By afternoon, she had learned three more spells: one to start a small flame in the palm of her hand, one to open locked doors, and a last one to make a star follow her so she’d never have to walk in complete darkness. Being a witch was so much fun. She smiled as she imagined the look on her brother’s face when he realised she could now open doors without a key. If only her head wasn’t hurting so much from trying to remember all those weird words.

  It was almost dark outside when her father rang the bell, his face flushed from the cold December wind. But there was something else in his eyes. A glimmer Emily had never seen before. Like a flame surrounded by a block of ice, it made him shimmer from the inside.

  Aurelie looked at Emily with a deep frown set between her brows, and whispered, “Oh, no. He’s been bewitched.”

  Chapter 17

  “Dad, are you okay?” Emily asked as she walked beside her father the short distance to Ravencourt Manor.

  “Sure. Why’re you asking?” He trudged along, slightly stooped to the side. His breathing came laboured as though he’d just spent an hour in the gym.

  Emily shrugged. “Just so.”

  They stopped in front of the door and her father hassled with the key, missing the lock.

  “Why don’t you let me try?” Emily asked. She covered her mouth and whispered, “Ianua, pateface!”

  The door bounced open and she smiled, pleased. She wasn’t just a witch, her spells were also working and useful.

  They stepped in and her father locked the door. “What did you say?”

  “Nothing.” Emily looked around. “Where’s Sam?”

  “He’s waiting for us.” Her father changed into his slippers and guided her toward the kitchen. “There’s something we need to tell you.”

  Emily frowned. “We?” Whatever it was, it didn’t sound good. And then her gaze fell on Muriel sitting next to her brother at the kitchen table.

  Her father put his arm around the witch’s shoulders and smiled. “Muriel and I have some great news to share with you.”

  “What?” Emily squinted. She had a feeling she wouldn’t like the news at all, especially with the sneaky look Muriel gave her. Muriel was mean and dangerous, and Emily didn’t trust her one bit.

  Her father beamed, the unnatural sparkle in his eyes twinkled like a flickering candle. “We’re going to get married.”

  Emily gasped. He didn’t just say that!

  Sam threw her a questioning look, the corners of his mouth curled down. “You’re married to Mum.”

  “Don’t you worry. I’ll take care of that tiny inconvenience,” Muriel said.

  “Em, do something,” Sam whispered.

  “You can’t be serious, Dad.” Emily breathed in. “She’s an evil witch.”

  Her father turned red. “Now you’re being rude. Apologize to Muriel this instant.”

  Emily planted her hands on her hips. “I won’t because she’s a witch. She’s a mean witch, and I’m going to send her back to where she belongs.”

  Her father opened his mouth to speak when Muriel raised her hand to stop him. “Emily, I know you’re upset and there’s nothing wrong with that. You’ll get over it. In time.”

  “You’ll be gone soon. Tell her,” Sam said, hiding behind Emily’s back.

  “Dad, all she wants is Ravencourt Manor and Grandma's magic,” Emily said. “That’s why she turned Sam into a troll.”

  Her father grabbed Muriel’s hand and turned to face them. “Trolls? That’s enough! I won’t put up with your nonsense. Go to your rooms now. I’ll have a word with you later.”

  ***

  “He doesn’t believe us,” Sam said as they climbed up the stairs.

  Emily shook her head. “She’s bewitched him and he doesn’t even know it.”

  “What should we do?”

  Above their heads, wood creaked. Emily lifted a finger. “Did you hear that?”

  Sam nodded. “Probably just your cat.”

  “There’s this window in Grandma’s room that keeps popping open.” Emily shuddered. “And the room turns cold as ice. Something’s not right. Probably Muriel weaving her evil magic.”

  The creaking moved nearer and stopped above their heads. They both looked up toward the attic, then turned to face each other. Emily spoke first. “Something’s up there.”

  Sam swallowed.

  The sound of hundreds of tiny wings broke the silence. And then cawing. Emily pressed her palms against her ears. “What is that?” she shouted on the top of her lungs so her brother would hear.

  His face paled. “The crows are back.”

  The sound stopped as abruptly as it had begun. Emily spun around, gasping for air. She didn’t trust this quietness. “This is too freaky. You stay here and take care of Dad while I go talk to Aurelie. Maybe she knows what’s going on.” Without waiting for her brother’s answer, she ran down the stairs, put on her winter coat and boots, and tip-toed to the living room and out the backdoor into the garden.

  The temperature had dropped over the last few days. Thick, dark clouds hung low in the sky, obscuring the rising moon. Emily hurled herself over the fence and bolted for the house.

  Aurelie opened on the second knock. “I didn’t expect you before tomorrow. What happened?”

  Emily entered the cosy living room and plopped down on the sofa, sinking into the soft cushions. “Dad said he and Muriel are getting married.” She looked at Aurelie, waiting for assurance that this wasn’t going to happen, but it never came.

  Aurelie pursed her lips. “Did you have dinner yet?”

  “Dad’s still married to Mum,” Emily said.

  “Your parents have lived apart for a long time. There are some things they never told you.”

  Emily jumped up, pouting. “Still, he can’t marry her just like that.”

  “Muriel’s a dangerous witch. She knows her magic well.” Aurelie tilted her head to the side. “We’ll have to act fast, for, once she becomes mistress of Ravencourt Manor, its powers will be hers. She’ll not only be able to open the portal through the mirror, but also summon Black Wood creatures to enter this world. I wouldn’t want human-devouring silverfurs roaming the streets of Inverness.”

  “That reminds me,” Emily said, tapping her chin with her finger, “did Grandma ever tell you anything about crows in our attic?”

  Muriel shot her a wary look. “Why’re you asking?”

  Emily shrugged. “They come every year. Sam and I heard flapping of wings ten minutes ago.”

  Aurelie rose to her feet. “Clifford, get down here this instant,” she shouted toward the staircase.

  A few moments later, Clifford emerged in the doorway. “What is it, Aunt Aurelie?” His glance fell upon Emily, and his cheeks turned bright red.

  “I want you to bring me the backpack,” Aurelie said.

  Clifford’s eyes popped wide open. “What? Now? But you said she needed more time.”

  “We don’t have more time,” Aurelie snapped. “Now, do as I told you.”

  What where they talking about? Emily looked from one to the other when Clifford ambled away, hesitation written on his freckled face.

  “What’s going on?” Emily asked.

  Aurelie turned to face her. “It’s a sign, dear. And not a good one. The crows return every year, multiplied in number. This year, they come particularly early. Muriel’s magic is growing by the minute. You must leave for Black Wood tonight, because, once Muriel’s magic reaches its peak, all is lost, and Ravencourt Manor will be hers forever.”

  Chapter 18

  Emily returned home a few minutes later, a black backpack thrown over her shoulder, her thoughts circling around Aurelie’s advice.

  Don’t stop to sleep or eat. Never
ever drink or waddle into Black Wood’s streams for there are water snakes and flesh-eating fish and the water spawns its own dark magic. If you see a silverfur, speak the magic words and then run because where there is one, other silverfurs aren’t far away. Don’t trust anyone, not even the beautiful elves and the nixes with their enchanting voices.

  The list went on and on, and Emily’s head throbbed with the effort to keep it all in. Hoping she would remember everything, she hid the heavy backpack under her grandmother’s bed and went in search of her brother. She knew shortly before midnight he’d turn into a troll, so there wasn’t much time to share her plan.

  Emily found him in his room, pacing up and down in front of the window. As soon as she entered, he grabbed her in a tight hug. “Did you talk to Aurelie? What did she say? Do you know how to get rid of Muriel? Dad was here to talk to us.”

  “Slow down.” She raised her hand to stop his rant. “What did you tell him?”

  “That you went over to Aurelie’s because you felt bad about what you said to Muriel. He was pleased but said he still wants you to apologize to her.”

  Emily pursed her lips. Maybe the magic diary could take care of that and make her father think she’d already apologized because she wasn’t sorry at all. “Did he say anything else?”

  Sam shook his head. “Can’t remember. Wasn’t really listening.”

  Emily pulled him onto the bed. “We can worry about Dad later. There’s so much I need to tell you.” Whispering, she informed him about Black Wood.

  “I don’t know. Doesn’t sound like a safe place to me,” Sam said.

  She crossed her arms over her chest. “Well, it probably isn’t, but I think we can trust Aurelie. Grandma did. It’s the only way to get rid of that awful woman.”

  “When will you be back?”

  Emily shrugged. “Dunno. In a few days, perhaps?”

  “There’s no way I’ll be able to keep this from Dad,” Sam said. “He’s worse than Mum. He always asks questions.”

 
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