Hold onto your hats, and your griffons and dive Into Brocéliande as Ruby, Pearl and their kickass, bumbling grandparents, all desperately fail to protect each other from the dangers lurking within.
Book two of the epic portal fairytale fantasy series, Blood of the Fae.
Thursday 21 August 1952
Lettie sighed. 82 days, 11 hours and 57 minutes to go until Ruby officially turns 21 and my exile is over.
Every moment I’m stuck in this world, I regret that I didn’t run from Queen Persephone long before I was exiled. My changeling, Nada, and I could have joined the elderfae in the deep, dark forest. We could have searched for the fairy godmothers. At a pinch, we could have explored Brocéliande. Even that would be better than Earth.
Here, I feel as if I’ll turn into an autumn leaf and blow away.
My heart aches. I want my changeling back. Ruby is no substitute. Although she was an adorable child, she is human. And humans not only sundered my world, but they peck away at it like magpies.
Every day I wonder how my changeling is…no I mustn’t think of Nada as a changeling—Nada is fae. And fae will have grown. Mastered elegant form and faery form, become someone amazing.
The fairy godmothers will have looked after Nada and spoilt faer with balls and dresses and parties.
And I am not there to see it.
I am here. Where the wind brings not the scent of leaves, but the stench of smoke, tarmac, and death.
Ruby wiped a cloth over the last expanse of library shelving and shoved the books into place. All the returns were shelved and standing at attention for tomorrow.
“All done,” Ruby said, trying to ignore her tiny fairy godmother, Lettie, fluttering around her head in one of her graceful blue ball gowns.
“Thank Chronos.” Lettie sighed dramatically. “It’s five thirty. Let’s go.”
“You okay?” Ruby asked, and stopped as the head librarian rushed from the office. The woman gave Ruby a sharp glance. “Just make sure the doors are locked when you leave.” She hitched her purse over her shoulder and sped out the door.
“Sure thing.” Ruby grabbed Agatha Christie’s newish book, They Came to Baghdad and settled in.
Lettie sighed. “Don’t tell me you’re going to sit around and read. I’ve been waiting for you for hours.”
“Might as well. Pearl’s been kept late to cover the afternoon shift. We’ll pick her up at seven.”
Lettie reached for a blue flower-shaped flask hidden in her dress. She tipped it back, then peered into the murky blue depths. “Worse luck,” Lettie muttered.
Pearl hurried out the hospital doors, thankful to be out in the fresh air and away from the funk of antiseptic and illness.
“Hey Pearl,” Arthur Faulkner said. The dark-haired athlete drew away from his brother and sister and strode up to Pearl. “You ready?” He flashed his magnetic smile. He looked rather dashing, as always, in his Teddy boy jacket.
She nodded. In truth, she wished she’d changed out of her nurse’s uniform for the Faulkner’s Literary Society meeting, but then Ruby would have twigged. It wasn’t worth the stress. Not when Gran and Grandad were always warning them away from the Faulkners. Gran would wag her finger and say, “You know that the Faulkners and their Society are the reason your parents went missing.”
And that was exactly why Pearl needed to go and see what The Literary Society was all about. Also, there was the fact that Arthur was gorgeous. Arthur’s dark eyes were the perfect complement to his chiseled features. And he was tall. At least 6 feet. Pearl’s chest tightened. I wasn’t swooning over him like Ruby said. But there’s no denying he has looks.
Pearl tried to think of something suitably witty to say to Arthur. Nothing. If I’m not careful, I’ll put my foot in my mouth. She tugged her nurse’s uniform. “It’s been a long day.” Damn, but his grin was infectious. She found herself smiling back.
Hazel and Tailor caught up, Hazel looking stunning in her green shirt-waist dress that brought out the green-gold in her eyes.
“We should get moving, or we’ll be late,” Tailor said. “It’s going to be so much fun having you along,” he continued, as if he was the one who’d asked her to the society meeting.
If he had, would I have accepted? Pearl smiled politely. “So, tell me more about this literary society,” she asked. “I thought Arthur was more into football and fencing, not books.”
“You’re about to find out,” Hazel said. “Though today is more of a lecture.”
Tailor nodded. “When you know what we really do, you can decide what to tell your grandparents.”
Pearl flinched. “Why do you think there’s a problem?” She scurried to keep up with their long strides.
“Ah, I guess they always seemed really strict,” Tailor replied, jumping up onto the low stone wall that ran along the outside of the university.
Arthur lengthened his stride. “Come on, we don’t want to be late.”
Hazel ran along the echoey corridor beside him. “Last one there’s a rotten egg.”
“How old are you?” Arthur asked, sprinting to catch up to her.
Pearl followed suit and Tailor grinned, matching Pearl step for step as they raced after the others.
Arthur stopped at a door and Hazel put her finger to her lips. Together, they all crept into the lecture theatre and founds seats at the back.
“The thing with fairy tales,” Prof Brian Faulkner was saying, “is it’s not so much the truths they hold. It’s the possibilities they unfold and the limits they create. Don’t think of…” he trailed off, glancing at Pearl with a slight nod. “…the world of fairy tales as static, but as a living, breathing place of interconnected mythology.”
“Look, Mum’s here,” Tailor whispered, pointing at Alice Faulkner. She was talking to an old gentleman leaning forward on a chair, a white cane planted in front of him. The old gentleman glanced back, his eyes shielded by dark glasses.
“That’s odd,” Hazel said. “Mum hates these meetings. Complains that Dad treats everyone like students at a lecture.”
“And who’s she with?” Tailor whispered.
“I don’t think it matters,” Hazel replied as the old man stood and made his way back down the corridor. “Looks like he’s off, anyway.”
Pearl’s skin crawled as he strode past with an unexpectedly fluid grace and slipped out the door without hesitating or using his cane once.
“He was odd,” she said.
Arthur nodded and placed an arm around Pearl’s shoulder. He smelled so good, like spice and sunlit apples.
“Now, where was I?” Prof continued. “The story of Snow White and Rose Red. Traditionally, it’s the story of two well-behaved girls who live happily ever after.” He opened a huge gold-bound book with the title Hidden Tales embossed on the cover and started reading the tale Pearl knew so well.
Pearl’s eyes slipped closed. It had been a long day.
Ruby raced up to the hospital carpark, late as usual. The only car here was a beat-up old Cadillac. She pulled in and parked three spaces over from it.
“Where’s Pearl?” Lettie asked, from her favourite spot on Ruby’s shoulder. “I need to get home and have a drink.
But there was no sign of Pearl. She should be waiting on the park bench, under the wrought metal electric lights. Or at least, making her way there. The gardens on the other side of the carpark were filled with long shadows, the heady scent of late summer roses and freshly cut grass. Whatever could be keeping her?
Ruby hopped out of the car. “Pearl!?”
Something rustled in the bushes.
“Pearl. It’s not funny.” Ruby peered into the darkness.
Lettie swiveled around on Ruby’s shoulder, her blue spider-silk dress shimmering in the lamplight. “Watch out!” she called.
“Where?” Ruby asked the fae, spinning around and squinting into the darkness.
“Here.” A silver-haired gentleman with a white walking cane and eyes like pools of midnight emerged from under a statue.
He moved fast, stepping rather than running, malice emanating from his wiry frame. A pair of dark glasses was perched on the top of his head.
Lettie fluttered up into the sky and Ruby stepped back.
She considered getting into the car—but not with Pearl out there. “Stay away!” She pulled the back door open and fumbled for the fencing swords on the car seat as he loped closer. She could hear his breath. Smell his aftershave.
The practice swords were right here.
The moment felt like an hour. He was a stride away, his hands reaching out to grab her when she found the blade and training took over. She gripped the pommel and whipped around, cracking the metal down on his hand with a force hard enough to break a finger, or at least leave a serious welt.
He didn’t even flinch. Pulling the sword from her grip with his left hand, his other hand wrapped around Ruby’s wrist.
His stone-like grip crushing her wrist, he drew her closer and let her épée clang to the ground.
“Wyrden! Skin demon, get away,” Lettie yelled, flying at the man.
He smiled, ignoring Lettie and flashing sharp white teeth. “It’s time you returned, Ruby.”
“Returned?” Ruby asked. Not that she cared what he meant. She only wanted to distract him. Where is Pearl?
Ruby kicked him hard. Her toe flamed with pain, but the man seemed more bothered by Lettie as the wee fae zipped back and forth, barely beyond his grasp. “You shouldn’t be Earthside. Do King Hades and Queen Persephone even know you’re here?”
“Pearl!” Ruby elbowed her attacker. It was like hitting steel. Electric pain zinged along the fragile bone, worse than pins and needles.
“I’m just doing your job for you.” The man whipped out a hand to catch Lettie.
She darted away. “My job?” she yelled. “My job was to raise a changeling, but faer was stolen away on a whim of Queen Persephone. Then, for my troubles, I was banished from FaerLand to mind this human. I’ll be sent to the Underworld before I lose Ruby. Leave. Her. Be!”
Ruby struggled, battering this Wyrden skin demon person with her free hand. It was like hitting stone.
“Come. Queen Persephone has been waiting for you.” He dragged Ruby along the gravel path through the park and toward the shadows of the forest behind.
Ruby dug her feet in, trying to wrench herself from his grip. Fiery pain coursed through her arm. She screamed.
“Foolish human,” he spat. He tossed Ruby over his shoulder. Stomach crushed, she gasped for breath.
Lettie threw a last punch at his head and disappeared into the night.
The demon moved fast. The dark forest loomed. Any second they’d be hidden under its branches, where no amount of screaming would bring help.
Where could Lettie have possibly gone? And where’s Pearl?
“Pearl!” Ruby yelled, battering the man’s back with her arms and kicking his rock-solid gut. “Help!” The forest soaked up the noise and the man, or skin walker, or whatever he was, strode on, slowly and steadily eating up the miles until they reached a tree with two trunks.
Through the gap in the trunks, and illuminated by a silvery moon, the deep velvet green of the woods of Brocéliande enticed Ruby. Brocéliande? How do I know this place? When?
The skin walker strode into the gap between the two trunks. Ruby almost willing him on past the barrier. There was something here she’d wanted to do. If only she could remember.
Red-hot pain lanced through Ruby along with old, long-forgotten memories, as she smashed into an invisible barrier with a force that rattled her bones.
Ask me no secrets, I’ll tell you no lies—anon
Monday 7 July 1947
Young Ruby darted back, sweating under her heavy padding. Focus. She wanted to wipe the sweat from her eyes, but the bulky wire-mesh mask was a pain to get off and on again.
Her sister, Pearl, closed in. Stronger and faster, Pearl used her strength to push Ruby’s defensive line.
Arm aching from wielding the heavy wooden sword, Ruby shoved back, trying to gain control, sword against sword. I’m older than her. The oldest person in every class. And also the youngest, with nearly three years lost in FaerLand. Years that went by with her not aging a day. As Gran would say, a twelve-year-old with a fifteen-year-old birth certificate.
Which made her too slow, too clumsy and too weak. I’m going to be stronger. Pushing as hard as she could, Ruby gritted her teeth, determined to gain control of Pearl’s sword.
Pearl disengaged and thwacked a blow against Ruby’s bulky padding, doubling Ruby over. “Ow! That really hurt.”
“Got you, again!” Pearl gloated, performing a pirouette on the grass, her heavy white padding and wire-mesh mask ruining the balletic effect of her swirling pinafore dress.
“Damn.” Ruby collapsed to the grass, cradling her bruised gut. She wished she was one of the birds flitting between the trees that edged the garden and the rose beds along the back of the house. Or Lettie, who was out here somewhere, flying free.
“Language,” Gran muttered.
“I’m done. I’m dead. And I’ve had enough,” Ruby moaned.
Pearl laughed, flicking back her ebony hair. “Quick, get up. There’s a spider.”
Ruby’s vision contracted. Her heart felt as if it would burst. “Where!?” She sat up, clutching her arms, terrified. Visions of giant spiders swam before her eyes.
“Just joking,” Pearl laughed.
“That will do,” Gran snapped, her face grey as she pushed her horn-rimmed glasses up her nose. “You are not to mention spiders, understand, Pearl?”
“No, buts.” She got up from her sturdy wooden outside table and chair set. Her safari outfit, stained faintly green and brown, scandalised the neighbours. According to them, grown women didn’t wear trousers. Or swords, even if they were really pretty, with soft silver and gold writing embedded into the blade.
According to Gran, people whose husbands worked for the Secret Service could do what they liked—so long as they kept their secrets close. “Now, Pearl, you know what I said about turning your back on the enemy?”
“And Pearl, watch,” Gran said. “I’m worried about that grip of yours. It’s a sword, not a club.”
She moved Pearl’s fingers.
Pearl scowled. “But it doesn’t work as well.”
“Mark my words.” Gran tutted. “You’ll regret this nonsense later. And Ruby.” Gran looked down at Ruby. “You really shouldn’t have fallen for that play. Strength against strength is not the clever move, unless you know you’re the strongest person. And even then it can be dangerous. Step back a bit more, or step forward and use your leverage better. Keep nimble and…”
Ruby lost focus as a flash of blue signalled the arrival of Lettie.
“Miss me?” The tiny fae asked as she lazily circled around Gran’s head, her bluebell-inspired dress flashing in the sun.
Lettie mimicked Gran, waving a finger and whirling a make-believe sword in the air. “Hold it like this.” Her fingers twisted up against each other in crazy knots.
Ruby stifled a laugh. The last thing she wanted to do was to explain to Gran that she was laughing at Lettie. That’d get the old girl’s knickers in a twist. Instead, she closed her eyes and listened to the birds chirping and Gran’s endless drone about attitude, language and giving everything your best shot. Always so serious. Like in the modern world, I’ll ever need to use a sword.
When she opened her eyes, Lettie had given up imitating Gran, and was waylaying bees and gathering nectar from the heady red-and-white roses.
“Are you listening to me?” Gran demanded.
Fortunately, the back door clanked open, so she didn’t have to answer. Grandad. He was carrying an enormous silver tray with a jug of lemonade and glasses on one side, and a tower of scones on the other. He, too, was wearing a safari suit, his sword hanging from a leather sword belt that he wore over his shoulder like a baldrick. A neatly cropped salt and pepper moustache, and hair combed in a side part, completed his crusty old-adventurer look. “Time for a break? So, how’s it been going, everyone?”
“I won. I won.” Pearl danced around, her mask off, her raven black hair swirling behind her.
Grandad’s chest puffed out. “Well done, Pearl. And Ruby, don’t give up. It’s not about winning or losing; it’s about staying alive. An Andersen must know how to use a sword.”
“I’m going to be better than Pearl,” Ruby said. “Just as soon as I’m stronger than her.”
“You’re older than me by two years,” Pearl sniped.
“Am not,” Ruby said. “Not really.”
“Well…” Gran started, then shook her head and sighed. “Pearl. Leave it be.” She took a sip of lemonade and bit into a buttery scone. “Delicious.”
Grandad grinned. “Don’t get used to it.”
He said that every time. He seemed to be embarrassed that he enjoyed cooking.
Shedding padding, Ruby stumbled to her feet and downed her glass in one gulp. The sun-sweet stickiness almost cutting through the perfume of Gran’s blousy roses. Ruby poured another glass and piled a rose-saucer high with scones.
“Hey, leave some for me,” Pearl said.
“Some,” Ruby said, falling into the wooden chair and pulling her feet under her. As always, when food was around, Lettie circled to land on Ruby’s shoulder.
“Hungry?” Ruby dipped a teaspoon into the drink and held it out for Lettie.
“What. Are. You. Doing?!” Gran said.
“Lettie’s hungry and I’m tired, and I’m sick of you all pretending you can’t see her. She’s right here on my shoulder.”
“Let’s not argue about it now.” Grandad nervously glanced about. “Just remember, you don’t want anyone that’s not in the family to see this.” He patted his moustache. “And especially not the Faulkners. It’s, er, dangerous.”
Ruby fed Lettie a crumb. “I’m going for a walk.”
“And don’t go into the forest,” Gran snapped. “If I’ve told you once…”
“I’ll keep her from getting into trouble,” Pearl said, cutting off Gran’s usual tirade about how the forest wasn’t safe. Like trees were dangerous or something. The way Gran went on, the local forest was filled with hoodlums, murderers, and wolves. It wasn’t. Ruby had checked. There’d been no wolves in Britain for hundreds of years. They were hardly going to start appearing now.
“I guess you’ve done enough practice for today. Put everything back neatly in the weapon cabinet. And put that padding through the wash. It stinks.”
Taking pains to ignore Pearl, Ruby rushed to the laundry, shoved the padding into the washing machine and splashed water over her face. Then, thinking about wolves, she decided a real sword would be her best protection.
She pulled Gran’s old, plain sword and scabbard down from the weapon cabinet. The scabbard was way too big to cinch around her waist, so she put it over her head, resting it on her shoulder in an imitation of Grandad’s shoulder strap holster. Then she adjusted the sword until it rested comfortably at her hip and she could pull it if necessary.
“Why are you stealing Gran’s sword?” Pearl whispered. “Or are you being weird because you’re a changeling like Hazel says?”
“Pearl’s right,” Lettie chimed in. “You shouldn’t take your gran’s sword. You should find your own sword. That’ll be much better.”
Ruby ignored the sting of the word, changeling, and Lettie’s nonsensical babbling. “What if I could bring Mum and Dad home?” Today, that dream seemed stronger than ever. Ruby crunched down the gravel driveway, past the hen house.
Pearl trailed after. “You’re going to the forest, aren’t you? You know you shouldn’t.”
Ruby ignored her and kept on going. She was tired of being the problem. If she could solve the problem of their missing parents, like the Famous Five solved their mysteries, everything would be alright.
“Don’t be like that. I was just excited.” Pearl pulled at Ruby’s top. “Come back home. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“It doesn’t matter. Not today. I’m going into the forest to get Mum and Dad back. Are you going to tell on me?” Ruby challenged.
“No, you can’t,” Lettie said.
Behind, Pearl’s footsteps slapped on the dirt path. “Of course not. Do I ever tattle on you when you talk to your imaginary friend in public?”
“Imaginary?” Ruby scoffed. “You’ve always been able to see her before. You said so. Look. She’s right there.” Ruby pointed at Lettie flitting through the grassy park toward the forest.
A bird swooped down.
Lettie squealed and darted back to hide in Ruby’s hair, peeking out behind the dark red curls.
“Tell me you didn’t see that?” Ruby demanded.
Pearl shrugged. “See what?”
Ruby sighed and strode into the forest. Dappled light fell through the tall oak trees and onto the mosses and ferns underneath. The track rolling out flat and easy for some time before the roots sprawled across the path and moss climbed up the dark side of the trunks.
It looked eerily familiar. Flashes of memory assailed her. Nightmares of giant fae dancing while she clutched enormous bones with chubby, almost three-year-old toddler hands. Ruby shook her head, determined to find the entrance to the place she dreamed of.
“Had enough yet?” Pearl demanded, hands on hips. She was standing next to a fallen log. And beyond the log was a track that wound its way into an ancient forest of oak and beech.
“Not yet.” Ruby climbed over the fallen log and strode down the narrow track.
“That’s not the way we usually go,” Pearl said.
“That’s because we always go the wrong way,” Ruby replied. “I really think this time I’ve found it.”
“Not this way,” Lettie tugged at Ruby’s ear. “Pearl’s right, you shouldn’t go this way.”
More determined than ever, Ruby barrelled down the path, with Pearl trailing behind.
“I’m tired,” Pearl mumbled.
“We’ve hardly started,” Ruby replied, loving the way the light filtered through the leaves, as if it had passed through the stained-glass windows of a church. The birds and insects squawked and chirruped and hummed. Ruby couldn’t decide if they were welcoming her in, or telling them to go away. Or both.
Then Ruby saw a multi-trunked tree draped in ferns and vines, the two trunks shooting skyward from a blanket of emerald-green moss.
“This is it!” she called excitedly, putting her hands on the trunk.
Lettie flew around Ruby’s head. “No! It’s too dangerous. Wait until you’re older. Wait until I can come with you.”
A soft hum emanated from the rough bark. Ruby closed her eyes. Concentrating, she could feel the force flowing up from deep underground, through the roots and up into the crown of the tree.
She pushed in with her mind to better hear the hum. To better feel the strength of the tree, smell the sap of the heartwood. And then she pulled those sensations closer, pushing through the tree until she could taste the untamed forest on the other side.
Ruby opened her eyes. The forest from her dreams shimmered through the gap in the tree trunks. Not the emerald velvet and twilit darkness of her nightmares, but the dreams of ferns and dappled sunlight. She felt like she could reach through the tree and touch her parents on the other side.
Stepping back, Pearl spluttered, “Are you a witch? Did you just conjure a jungle?”
“It’s not a jungle, it’s a forest,” Ruby replied, stepping through the two trunks and into the fresh green world. She marvelled at how the light was softer here, with tangled roots sprawling over the track. Deep blue flowers lined the forest path and ahead, and further down the track, flecks of sky peeked through the dense leaves.
Lettie remained on the other side, wings trembling. “Don’t go, I can’t follow you. I can’t keep you safe.”
“I don’t want to be safe, Lettie. I want to find Mum and Dad.”
Pearl frowned. “Mum and Dad are far away, or dead. Otherwise they’d have come back. That’s what my friends at school say.”
“Do you even remember them, Pearl?”
“Only their pictures,” Pearl said. “I remember you coming home through the mirror. But sometimes it feels like a dream.”
Ruby shuddered. Her dreams of Mum and Dad were nightmares of them hacking at an enormous cavern wall in a hot, underground hellscape and overseen by stony devils with whips. “Pearl, you should stay back. This could be dangerous.”
“If you’re going. I’m coming, too.” Pearl stepped through the trunks.
Her jaw dropped as she gazed around. “It’s not an illusion. What is this place? Is this fairyland?”
“No.” Ruby shook her head. “These trees are old, but FaerLand is greener than green velvet and lit by tiny lights and the shimmering glow of the moon, or the setting sun.” She broke off. The memories were fading. All jumbled in her head. But there was one thing she remembered. “The Fae there aren’t like Lettie, they’re taller than Gran and Grandad.” Ruby shivered at her recollection of their angry, perfectly beautiful faces and flawless skin that reflected every shade of the forest.
“Watch out!” Lettie yelled, flying toward the gap in the trunks. “Come back!” the little fae bounced off an invisible barrier. She whirled back, head over heels, calling, “Wait. It’s dangerous. There are wolves and bears and…at least stay on the path. Remember your fairy tale rules.”
“Don’t worry, we won’t go far,” Ruby reassured her, clutching the handle of Gran’s old sword, determined not to stop now.
Pearl reached out a hand, and together, they crept along the forest path, red-gold with leaves that hid gnarled old roots and slippery rocks.
After an age of walking, they reached a branch in the path.
“Which way?” Pearl asked.
Ruby glanced around, half-expecting to be accosted by green-capped gnomes demanding that they turn straw into gold. No such gnome appeared. There was a battered sign, hidden by a branch and half-covered in moss. Ruby brushed the moss aside. Market Town. Wóþbora cotif. Which Place. The Three Sisters.
“I’m not sure,” Ruby admitted, then laughed. “Wait a minute. Do you think we should be trailing breadcrumbs?”
“Not breadcrumbs.” Pearl grinned back. “But keep an eye out for bears. They could be handsome princes.”
“Oh yes, and watch out for gnomes,” Ruby joked. Grandad loved reading them fairy tales. He’d say they were educational and Pearl and Ruby could learn a lot if they listened. Which had always seemed odd as Ruby had never seen talking bears, princes, gnomes or half the characters involved. At least not that she could remember.
“So, which way?” Pearl asked.
“Hmm.” Ruby examined the sign from every angle. The stony soil it was stuck into. The rough planks of wood. The scrawled writing. Market Town. Wóþbora cotif. Nothing struck a chord.
A wolf howled in the distance.
“Wait.” Pearl clutched Ruby’s shoulder. “We should go back.”
Ruby shook her head and listened. Another howl, closer this time. As if the wolf was following them.
Ruby drew the sword from the scabbard over her shoulder, aware of the coldness of the steel and the dead weight of it in her hand. “Damn.”
Pearl’s eyes flashed wide. “You swore again.”
“And that worries you more than dying?” Not so far to her left, leaves rustled. Her neck prickled as if a thousand eyes were watching from the shadows.
“I wish I knew which way to go to rescue Mum and Dad. But I don’t know where we are, or anything.” Ruby wiped a tear from her eye.
“Oh, dear. Oh dear.” An old lady leaning heavily on a crooked walking stick hobbled around the corner. She blinked her milky-white eyes. “Has no one told you about the problem with wishes?”
Ruby nodded. “I’m sorry, I didn’t think.”
“It’s not your business, old lady,” Pearl snapped.
“Old lady.” The woman chortled stepping closer. She smelled of dogs and smoke, with a hint of thorns and broken hearts. “Been a long time since anyone called me a lady.”
“I’m sorry,” Ruby repeated. “Can we help you?”
“Yes, very helpful, aren’t you. Your parents chose your names well. Go that way.” She pointed a crooked finger to the left-hand path.
Ruby glanced down the track. Gnarled trees and impossibly tall ferns loomed over the rough path.
Suddenly the wind picked up. A howling storm swept down on them as if from nowhere—branches cracking and snapping overhead. Ruby ducked low, the wind catching her red hair and whipping it about her face. She reached back to help the old woman, but she was gone.
The wind died down as quickly as it had started. Pearl peered down the path. “That lady was strange. Do you think she was an actual witch?”
“Of course she was a witch,” a robin said, fluffing its feathers against the wind. “Blowing magic here and blowing magic there. Lucky my fledglings left the nest last week, or they’d have blown to their deaths.”
“You can speak!” Ruby said. “Pearl, did you hear the bird?”
“I’m not sure,” Pearl said. “Could it really be talking?”
“It?” The robin chirped. “Well I never. Rude.” The bird flew off down the trail. “Rude…squawk. Rude, indeed.”
Pearl and Ruby’s eyes met, and they burst into laughter. “I love it here,” Ruby said. “It feels like I’m home.”
“Really?” Pearl wrinkled her nose. “But it’s so strange. It even smells strange.”
Ruby breathed deeply. The air was heavy with woods and leaves and secrets. “I love it.”
The wolf howled again, a rising note that cut through the air.
Ruby’s stomach clenched as she dragged Pearl further along the path. Where’s the witch sent us? Into hell? Into a trap? Into some kind of terrible trial by fire? But nothing appeared. Just more track. They stumbled along, pushed by the wind. The birds silent or gone. The path ahead disappeared into blackberry brambles and ivy.
“I’m tired.” Pearl dragged behind. “Are you sure this is the right way?”
The howling closed in.
Ruby glanced back, nervously. “Come on.”
They clambered through the thicket, thorns tearing at Ruby’s arms. With thick brush along both sides of the track, there was no way they’d see the beast until it was upon them.
A tree poked out of the brambles. A huge apple tree. Ruby’s heart leapt. “This is it. I think this is it.” It was so familiar. The thorns were thinning, but the swathes of ivy were still too thick to see through.
Pearl pointed to a low gap. “This way.”
Ruby followed her, burrowing under the ivy, hoping that the lack of howling-wolf was a good sign. They finally dropped to their hands and knees to scrape under the metal links of an old fence, and emerged into tall grass. Grass, roses, and other wild plants, near swamped a village of tumble-down cottages and the burned shells of buildings.
“It’s utterly deserted,” Pearl whispered.
“Wait. Look.” Ruby pointed to a cottage with rampant red and white roses sprawling over a trellis that ran over the front steps. It appeared to have been freshly thatched and the roses near the door trimmed.
A flash of grey burst through the ivy and into the clearing. The stink of wet dog fur wafted toward them.
Ruby and Pearl raced to the front door, the huff of the wolf’s breath closing in. Enveloped in the honey-butter scent of roses, Ruby turned to held the sword out at arm’s length as the large grey wolf bounded up the stairs, teeth flashing and snapping.
Ruby swung the sword. The creature stopped just out of reach, its yellow eyes boring into her.
Pearl banged on the door. “Let us in!”
The wolf inched closer, its tongue lolling from grinning jaws. Its musky stench of strong spice, and wet fur, cut through the heady sweetness of the blousy roses.
Ruby jabbed at it awkwardly. The creature dodged. Eyes bright with cunning, it turned its head from side to side, seeking opportunity.
The wolf lunged. Ruby swung the blade at its jaw. Missed. The beast’s grin was wider now.
“Pearl! You got that door yet?”
“It won’t budge. Here, give me the sword.” Pearl ripped Gran’s blade from Ruby’s aching arms. “You figure out how to get in.”
Ruby pulled at the door knob. Nothing. “Open, dammit.”
Behind her, the wolf slavered, its paws scraping on the stone.
Wednesday 6 June 1945
Florence Andersen tip-toed past young Ruby’s door where the child’s alcoholic fairy godmother was passed out on the pillow next to her—her granddaughter’s curly red hair draped over her like a coverlet. Somehow, the little fae was immune to Ruby’s tossing and turning. Or she was used to it. Sleep had not come easily to Ruby since she’d come back from FaerLand with the wee fae. And without her parents.
Florence tightened her grip on the sword her daughter-in-law had made her, and slipped down the stairs. She vowed, for perhaps the millionth time, to bring her son and his wife home.
“You ready?” Her husband, John, gave the porridge pot one last stir and poured the sludge into their plates, sprinkling brown sugar on the top. “Get this down you.”
“Thanks.” She dumped another spoonful of sugar on top and tried to ignore the splodge of porridge stuck in John’s salt and pepper mustache. Two bites later, she threw down her spoon. “Dammit, you’ve got porridge on your moustache, and we’re no closer to rescuing Aiden and Keera than we were eleven years ago.”
And then, as he always did when she was low, he smiled and said, “maybe we’ll have a breakthrough today.” He strode to the hall mirror and swiped away the splodge with his handkerchief. “We are closer. We have to be.”
Florence nodded and followed him into their library. He reached for the switch on the top shelf with both hands.
The secret door rotated with a smooth, almost inaudible, whir.
Quickly, Florence snicked the library door locked to stop the girls sneaking in, then hurried to make it to the secret door before it swung shut.
Behind them, a thin wail rang out.
Ruby and her nightmares. Florence flinched, but kept going. Ruby should be safe here on Earth. And she had Lettie and Pearl if her nightmares woke her.
Then, not for the first time, Florence blessed the lawyer, Burcham. He’d told them how brave Aiden and Keera had been, and that they were alive. He’d even helped create a link between The Library of Alexandria and their home library.
As always, they entered the library with hope in their hearts, wondering at the amazing building filled with uncountable books and scrolls from all the worlds. The carrier pigeons flitting here and there with important messages. The goblins who, among their many jobs as librarians, kept the most fragile books safe from natural light. The floating clouds in the main reading rooms. The ornate metalwork decorating the shelves with animals and plants that reflected the room they were in. But, hours later, elbows buried in old books and scrolls, Florence felt defeated.
She pushed away a scroll written by a young witch dated and titled Eleven November, 1933, Witch’s Brew for Fae Market. It had a couple of spells, one to defeat fae glamours, the other to cast some kind of spell called stone skin. Florence couldn’t make head nor tail of either of them. Damn shame I’m not a witch, she thought idly. Not that it was much use if she couldn’t even get into FaerLand.
Florence sighed, feeling every one of her fifty-four years. In the eight years since Ruby had returned, there’d been no sightings, and all the usual fae paths were blocked—or they’d take between ten years and a century each way. The worst of it was they’d barely get started, and have to go home again to look after young Ruby and Pearl.
“Dammit! There has to be a way into FaerLand without losing years,” John growled, scaring a carrier pigeon that had flown too close, a scroll clutched in its feet. “There must be something here. Or someone must know. What if…?” he trailed off. Too late. Florence was already imagining scenarios where Aiden and Keera were too hurt to find their way home.
“We’ve asked, and put up posters,” Florence muttered, determined not to be sidetracked. “I’m not sure what else we can do? We can’t search an entire world by ourselves. We have to hope someone finds them or that they’re still in FaerLand and we’ve missed something in the less well-known lore.” However small a hope that was now, they’d torn apart half the library attempting to find some sensible way into FaerLand.
“I’m going for some air.” John shrugged on his safari jacket and stomped off down the corridor to climb the wooden stairs up to the roof. No doubt he’d regale everyone he saw in the hope they’d know something, anything, about their son and his wife, or about how to get into FaerLand without losing decades of time.
Maybe I should have gone with him.
Maybe when Ruby and Pearl are older, we’ll go…time passes slowly in FaerLand.
A knock rattled the library door.
Florence turned her head. Strange for someone to knock in a library. “What is it?”
The door opened. A greenish face with wide eyes and a snub nose peered through. The metalwork around the room lit up.
A goblin. She wrung her hands nervously. “I heard you were looking for something? Someone?”
Florence’s heart fluttered. “My son, Aiden, and his wife, Keera. Is there word?”
“Mmmm.” The goblin pulled a blue-glass vial sealed with red wax from her backpack. “I found this on the banks of the River Lethe. It smells like… I think it’s…”
Florence shook her head. “I don’t think it’s Aiden’s.”
The goblin girl rushed closer, waving the vial in front of Florence’s face. “Wait. It’s not the vial, it’s what’s inside.” Rough-made paper hung from string wrapped around the neck of the vial. The writing on it looked familiar.
Florence’s eyes flew wide. “If it’s from my son, I can reward you well. Goblins like gold, don’t they?”
She shook her head. “I mean money would be nice and all, but I what I really want is bragging rights. You see, I belong to this group, this game. Have you heard of Rune Finder?”
“Ah,” Florence said. “Is that the game where all the students belt around the library at top speed and annoy the librarians?”
“No, it’s about solving puzzles and finding things. So. Have I? Is it his?”
Florence held it at arm’s length so she could make out the words. “For Ruby when she’s 18.” It was Aiden’s writing.
“What’s inside?” she asked, noticing the wax seal was broken.
“I think it’s memories,” the goblin ventured. “People fill these bottles with memories before they lose them in the river Lethe. You know, in the hope someone will find them and give them back if they ever escape the Underworld.”
“The Underworld?” Florence said, thinking aloud. “How on earth did he get sent to the Underworld? And if he is in the Underworld, how will we ever get him out?”
The goblin shook her head. “I’m sure as I don’t know. This library is a demon-free zone, totally insulated from the Underworld. Maybe a hero could help you, or the witches. I don’t know…” She looked about nervously, as if someone else might be in the empty records room.
“It’s alright,” Florence murmured, trying not to be overwhelmed. “One thing at a time.” She opened the vial, breathless from the sadness crushing her chest.
There were no strange smells, only a bluish liquid. The liquid said nothing to her. The message isn’t meant for me.
A tear slid down her cheek.
“Is it his?” the goblin asked, so earnest. Her greenish face pressed close.
Florence forced a smile. “It’s his writing. You did well. Thank you.” Florence pushed a gold coin into the goblin’s hand.
She squealed with delight and ran off to tell her friends, bragging at the top of her voice. From the skitter of legs that swept past and down the stairs, a veritable hoard of the Rune Finder Questers in their chicken-legged chairs had joined her.
“I wish I could hear the message.” Florence closed her eyes and made the wish as strong as she could.
The memories stayed oblique. But there was something. A rustle. A susurration. More tears spilled down Florence’s cheeks as the impact of the words hit her.
“Once upon a time and happily ever after. That’s how the story is supposed to go. But mine ends here, on the banks of the river Lethe.
“Ruby. If you get this. Take my tears, hear my story.
The terrible truth washed over her. Queen Persephone had sentenced Aiden and Keera to the Underworld. The very definition of hell itself. Did Burcham know? He must have known. He was there, in FaerLand, when Aiden and Keera disappeared.
Florence’s mouth filled with the bitter taste of betrayal.
He knew. And he’s been letting us look in the wrong direction all this time.
Tuesday 8 July 1947
Young Ruby pulled at the cottage door, gasping in lungfuls of air tinged with musky wolf and sweet roses.
Behind her, snarling and slavering, the wolf had Pearl on the back foot. Sword-strokes desperate, Pearl whipped the sword from side to side, her breaths coming in gasps.
Ruby kicked the door. A dull thunk reverberated through her, and her toes blazed with pain. She needed to open the door and save Pearl. She twisted the handle and leaned against it, straining with every sinew. The door burst open.
Howling, the wolf surged forward.
“Quick!” Ruby held the door open.
Pearl swiped at the wolf and scrambled back. Crossing the threshold as the wolf leapt, jaws snapping.
Pearl screamed; her dress caught in its maw.
Ruby slammed the door shut.
The wolf smashed into the wood, shaking the house to its bones.
“Holy heck.” Pearl frowned. “Do you think it can get through?”
Another thud rocked the cottage, rattling Ruby. She glanced around the entrance, looking for furniture to stack against the door. There was only a side table. Faster, better, to use her body. She sat, back against the door, and braced her feet on the wooden floor.
Pearl sank down next to her, staring around the wood-panelled entrance. “I can’t believe we’re still alive. How did you even get in? The door wouldn’t open for me.”
Ruby shrugged. “Must have been stuck.” She tried to ignore the thud and shake as the wolf tried again. And again.
A vase of dried flowers and a picture of Mum and Dad and two babies adorned the entranceway table. Gran and Grandad had the same picture on their mantle. Father, his curly hair half-fallen over his eyes, held Ruby in one arm and Mum in the other. Mum was radiant, her dark braids flowing over muscular shoulders while she cradled baby Pearl in her arms. The smile on her face held a thousand secrets. Ruby only wished she could remember what some of them might be.
The wolf thudded against the door again, shaking Ruby out of her reverie. Its paws scrabbled at the crack in the door.
The two girls sat there on high alert, listening to every footstep and snuffle of the wolf outside. Finally, it padded back down the steps.
“Do you think it’s gone?” Pearl whispered.
“No,” Ruby said. She peered out the peephole. The wolf wasn’t on the porch, but it could be just beyond the thick roses, or ivy, or even hidden in the long grass. She propped Gran’s sword next to the door, in case she needed it in a hurry.
“Weird.” Pearl said. “What’s a picture of Mum and Dad doing here?”
“Hmmm.” Ruby stepped closer. Her eyes were drawn to a blue-glass vial, half-hidden behind the photograph. It had bright red wax over the top that had clearly been broken and resealed several times. Rough string wrapped around the bottle’s neck held a dirty, much-thumbed piece of paper. “For Ruby when she’s 18.”
Ruby reached out to slip the vial in her pocket. Before she could, Pearl grabbed her arm. “What do we do now?”
Ruby laughed. “I don’t know about you, but I’m knackered. Surely a quick lie down won’t hurt while we wait for that wolf to give up.”
“A wolf, Ruby. A goddamn wolf. Gran and Grandad were right all along.”
“You think they’ll find us and rescue us?”
“Gran and Grandad? I think facing the wolf might be safer,” Pearl muttered.
Ruby burst out laughing. “We’re in so much trouble.”
Banging rocked the house.
Ruby cracked open an eye and rolled off the couch. Her thoughts rushing to the shaggy wolf, she scrambled to her feet.
A gruff voice yelled. “Anyone there!”
Ruby shook Pearl. “Someone’s at the door and it’s not Grandpa.”
“I must have fallen asleep,” Pearl moaned, stretching. “How did that happen? Who’s at the door?”
Ruby sighed. She rushed to the hall and peered through the keyhole. On the other side of the door was a lank-haired academic wearing a patched blazer with three teens pulling at his sleeves. Prof Faulkner with Arthur, Hazel and Tailor.
“They’re only kids,” Arthur was saying. “They’d never make it this far alone.”
Pearl pushed the door open. “What do you mean we’d never have made it? Tailor’s younger than Ruby, and he’s here.”
Tailor grinned and turned to his older brother. “See, Arthur? Younger doesn’t mean anything. We don’t all walk into trouble like you.”
“That’s enough bickering, children,” Prof said. “Now, Ruby and Pearl, what do you think you’re doing here? Your grandparents have been beside themselves looking for you.”
All Ruby could think of was the wolf with his lolling tongue, smelling of strong spice and wet fur. How it banged on the door, and how she mustn’t say a word about it—not if she wanted to come back here.
“Ruby saw a witch, and the door was locked, but she opened it,” Pearl blurted.
“I what?” Ruby scowled at Pearl. “What are you talking about?”
“Ooo, Ruby’s a witch,” Hazel said, eyeing Ruby up and down disconcertingly.
“I didn’t say that.” Pearl scuffed her foot on the wooden floor. “Anyway, what if we don’t want to go home yet? I’m hungry.”
Ruby’s stomach rumbled in sympathy.
“Of course you’re hungry. Your Gran is worried sick.” Prof handed them each a limp lettuce sandwich. “Eat up. The quicker we get you home, the quicker you get a proper meal.”
“Anyway, you haven’t said what you’re doing in Brocéliande by yourselves?” Arthur asked. “Who even taught you how to get in?” As the eldest Faulkner child, and just turned sixteen, he thought he was the cat’s pyjamas.
“That’s enough of that.” Prof Faulkner shooed them ahead. “Out we go. Time to go home.” He waved a hand toward the door. “I can’t believe you made it all this way into Brocéliande without being eaten by wolves or waylaid by fae, demons, or bandits. You don’t know how lucky you are.”
“It wasn’t that bad,” Ruby objected. She was trailing behind. “I wanted to find…” Her throat clogged up. “I don’t know.”
But she did know. She glanced back at the table with the blue vial.
“So, how did you get in?” Hazel demanded. “It took me a week to find the path. And a month to open the way through the Three Sisters tree.”
None of what she was saying made any sense. The path had always been there. Pearl hadn’t done anything special. And neither had Ruby.
“Witch!” Hazel hissed.
“Am not!” Ruby yelled back.
Tailor screwed up his forehead. “But Hazel, this morning you said she was a changeling.”
Ruby scowled. “Am not! You’re the changelings.”
Prof let out a deep sigh. “Settle down, children, or we won’t get back before lunch. Move!”
“Wait, I forgot something.” Ruby ducked under his arm and deftly pocketed the vial before reaching for Gran’s sword and scabbard. She took her time, adjusting it over her shoulder—just in case they saw another wolf.
“Ready?” Prof asked.
Ruby clutched the sword defiantly. “Course.”
Arthur led the way, setting off at a punishing pace over the rough path, with Prof shooing them on from the back.
“Hey,” Tailor whispered to Ruby and Pearl. “Have to say, I’m impressed. I haven’t seen Dad so worked up for a while.”
Pearl’s eyes boggled. “Really? Oh.” She stifled a laugh.
Ruby grinned back. “It’s always the little things.”
“Get moving,” Prof snapped.
Lettie cried with joy as Ruby and Pearl stumbled out of Brocéliande and through the trunks of the Three Sisters tree. “Ruby, Ruby! You’re safe.” She swirled around Ruby’s head, half admonishing, half dancing with joy.
“I’m fine,” Ruby mumbled. “You’ve been waiting here all this time?”
Lettie dove for Ruby’s shoulder and burrowed into her red hair. “I was so worried.”
“I’m fine, Lettie,” Ruby reassured the shivering fae.
“What was that, witch?” Hazel asked. “Talking to your familiar?”
“Enough!” Prof snapped at Hazel. “Ruby’s not a witch. Stop that nonsense.”
“Does that mean Mum’s wrong?” Arthur said.
“That will do, Arthur.” Prof shook his head and walked even faster, taking the lead now so that they all trailed after him like ducklings. “Your mother was just having one of her turns.”
Ruby’s gut clenched. Gran talked about Mrs Faulkner in much the same way. “A bad turn” and “Not herself today.”
Lettie shook her head. “It’s not a turn. And it’s not going away. The demon’s too strong.”
Ruby didn’t want to think about it. The closer they got to Gran and Grandad’s house, the worse she felt. She gritted her teeth. Whatever they said, she’d done the right thing. She’d found the vial and the house. And she wasn’t going crazy—at least one of the strange worlds she remembered was real. She gritted her teeth. FaerLand is real too.
They’d almost made it to the kitchen door when a car tooted. Gran swerved into the driveway and jumped out of the dark-green Austin Twelve. “Where were you? What were you doing?” she shouted. “We’ve been looking for you for hours. Give me back my sword, you little thief.”
Lettie swirled above Ruby’s head. “I told you, you shouldn’t have taken it.” Gran wrenched the sword off Ruby and bit her lip as Gran examined the sharp edge.
“What are you two doing standing there like lemons? Go to your rooms. Both of you. Grandad will deal with you later.”
Pearl raced into the house and Ruby plodded off after her. By the time she got inside, Pearl was peering through the bannisters on the top landing of the stairs.
Ruby crept up and sat next to her.
“Where did you find them?” Gran’s voice floated from below.
“They were in your old cottage. In…” Prof’s voice trailed off. Maybe he was whispering. Ruby leaned closer, but still couldn’t hear.
“Don’t you dare!” Gran shouted. “She’s every bit as traumatised by what happened as your Alice—except Ruby was a toddler. Stop blaming her.”
“In any case, they should know better than going into Brocéliande alone,” Faulkner snapped.
Ruby gulped back tears.
Pearl was sniffling, too. But when Ruby threw an arm around her sister, Pearl shrugged it off.
“That will do.” Gran stomped toward the kitchen, Prof Faulkner and his children close on her heels.
“I’m sorry,” Prof Faulkner put a hand on Gran’s shoulder. “We’ve all had a fright. And you know, I can’t help but worry about what ideas that fae of hers is feeding her.”
“And?” Gran said in the voice even Grandad wouldn’t cross.
Prof Faulkner looked up, catching Ruby’s eye. “And I’m offering to help train them so they can protect themselves. They still have the gifts their mother left for them.”
“It’s my job to worry about them and train them,” Gran replied. “You have enough to worry about. Besides, those swords are my grandchildren’s legacy. You should have given them back already. I don’t know what Burcham or any of them were thinking.”
“I promised their mother I’d give them the swords,” Prof Faulkner answered. “And I do not take my promises lightly.” He let himself out, slamming the door behind him.
Ruby ran along the corridor to her bedroom window so she could watch them leave. Pearl and Lettie joined her, pressing their noses up against the glass to better see Prof shooing his children down the drive.
As soon as they were out of sight, Ruby turned to Pearl. “Pearl, tell me you really can’t see Lettie.
“I really can’t.”
Ruby scowled. “You used to say you could.”
“I imagined a flash of light. Sometimes a patch of blue in the corner of my eye—but only because you always talked about her blue dress. I’m sorry, but she’s not real.”
“She is too, real. What if I said Gran sees Lettie, and pretends not to?”
Pearl rolled her eyes. “Maybe you’re imagining that, too.”
Lettie laughed so that her wings shook. “People are so blind,” she said.
Gran knocked on the door and pushed it open, her hands trembling. “Ruby and Pearl, I’m so sorry I overreacted. You gave us such a fright.”
Grandad barrelled in behind her, salt and pepper eyebrows drawn into a worried frown. “You must promise not to go into the woods again.”
“But…” Ruby bit her lip. The picture of her parents swam into her mind. “They’re out there, and it’s my fault.” She brushed her tears from her face.
Gran took her hand. “No. No, it’s not. You didn’t do this. You don’t need to fix it.”
Grandad harrumphed. “But it will be your fault if we can’t find them because we’re too busy worrying about you two being eaten by wolves. Please, now you’re both older, Gran and I would like to spend more time looking for them. We’re so close now.”
“You’re looking?” Ruby blurted, glancing over to Pearl, whose wiry body was tense and her eyes were wide as saucers.
“Every moment we can,” Gran reassured them. “Now please, promise you won’t go back through the Three Sisters tree. Promise for us. We need to know you’re safe, or we can’t go out.”
“Don’t promise,” Lettie said. “You don’t know what a promise means.”
“But I could help you find them,” Ruby said.
“We could help,” Pearl insisted, hands on hips.
“You can both help by keeping each other safe.”
“Kay,” Pearl muttered.
Gran raised her eyebrows and pinned Pearl with one of her know-all glares.
“Fine. I promise I will.” Pearl fled the room.
Gran’s gaze turned to Ruby.
Ruby pressed her lips together.
Grandad turned his eagle-eyed gaze on Ruby. “Promise me you’ll never go through the Three Sisters tree into Brocéliande until we say you can.”
“Go on,” Gran prompted, her face so close to Ruby’s it was hard to see Lettie angrily flying around behind her. “I need you to promise.”
“I promise,” Ruby said, letting her tears fall.
“Good.” Gran glanced over to Lettie. “Note the promise.”
“That’s cruel,” Lettie said. “I thought you couldn’t see me.”
Gran smiled and left without responding. When she’d gone, Ruby pulled the blue vial she’d pocketed in the cottage.
Lettie gasped. “You know what that is, don’t you?”
Ruby shook her head and opened the vial.
“No! You’re not eighteen!” Lettie cried.
Ruby opened the vial. Image after image hit her like a hammer. Her head aching, she closed the vial and sank back into the pillows and let them wash through her.
Gran and Grandad, but younger, in the village they’d visited—but neater, the brambles confined to the fence. Demons. Strange people. The Faulkners. A badger in a tweed suit. Her parents laughing. Mum and Dad setting out to rescue her with impressions of swords and forests and spiders the size of people. Then being captured by the Fae and sent to the Underworld. No, worse, the demon mines in the Underworld. Her own nightmares of Mum and Dad toiling at the rocky-cliff faces in scorching heat, lit only by fires, intruded. The crack of whips echoing through the hellish landscape.
Suddenly, she felt her father’s brown eyes staring into hers.
“Once upon a time and happily ever after. That’s how the story is supposed to go. But mine ends here, on the banks of the river Lethe.
“Ruby. If you get this. Take my tears, hear my story.
Ruby wiped away her tears.
“What did you see?” Lettie asked, jumping around Ruby’s head, all aflutter.
“Dad,” Ruby said. “I’m going to bring him back his memories and rescue him.”
“What about your promise not to go through the Three Sisters tree?” Lettie asked. “You can’t break a promise.”
“Mum and Dad are more important than a promise,” Ruby replied.
“No.” Ruby stuck her hands in her ears. “I don’t care. I’m going in to save them. Determined, she waited until everyone was asleep. When she could hear Grandad’s snores travelling down the corridor, she crept from her room and down the stairs to the weapons cabinet. It was locked, so she took a knife from the kitchen.
“What are you doing?” Lettie demanded, appearing from Grandad’s drinks cabinet and swirling unsteadily.
“I’m going back to Brocéliande.” Ruby ran outside into the bright moonlit night.
Reeking of Grandad’s brandy, Lettie tumbled after her. “Ruby, you have to listen to me!” she demanded. “Even if your promise doesn’t hold and you make it through, it’s not safe.”
Ruby stuck her fingers in her ears and ran all the way back to the forest, the wee fae swirling behind. Above, the trees stretched their long branches, blocking the gibbous moon, and creating deep, dark shadows.
The deeper she went, the harder it was to see with only the tiniest slivers of night sky above. Ruby stumbled along, clutching the knife. Listening to the snap of twigs and stones crunching under her feet, the faint rustling of leaves. Soft hooting from somewhere in the trees behind made her jump.
Ruby swivelled toward the sound, knife out, breath catching in her throat. It’s nothing. Just an owl.
She turned back, making her way in the dim light until the two-trunked tree blocked her path, the moon shining on it like a beacon.
Lettie spiralled around Ruby’s head. “What are you thinking? Did you not hear your grandma? They’re going to find your mum and dad.”
“It’s been eight years since I returned, and eleven years since they disappeared. How long should I wait?”
“What makes you think you’ll succeed where they’ve failed?”
“Because it’s my fault. I have to help them. You don’t see my nightmares. You don’t understand.”
“I do. But you’re not eighteen yet. Not nearly ready…”
Ruby put her hand on the trunk. The world opened. She could feel the change. Smell the fresh tree-scent of Brocéliande wafting through.
“Don’t do it,” Lettie whispered.
“I’ve got to.” Ruby dove through the gap in the trunks toward the green world beyond. Red hot pain lanced through her as she bounced off an invisible barrier. Her bones ached, like she’d run into a wall.
“Why?” Ruby put her head in her hands.
“Because you promised,” Lettie answered. “And I…I.. You wouldn’t listen to me.”
“I’ll never save them now,” Ruby yelled, swiping at her streaming tears. “Why didn’t you say anything? Why did you let me promise?”
“I couldn’t stop you. And I didn’t know,” Lettie replied.
“You didn’t know what?” Ruby answered. “You didn’t know what?” she demanded until her throat was sore.
Ruby tried every way she could to make it through the barrier. Every time the pain hit her and she bounced off.
At last, she gave up. Thinking to try again tomorrow, she raced home and fell fast asleep.
In the morning, the vial was gone. Her memories foggy and indistinct, Ruby began to doubt she’d seen Brocéliande at all. The next night, she dreamed she could smell a wolf, and see his yellow eyes—but it was just another nightmare, and she’d already had plenty of those.
Thursday 21 August 1952
A loud snap woke Pearl. Professor Faulkner banged his enormous collection of Hidden Tales down onto the lectern andpushed his glasses back up his nose.
She lifted her head from Arthur’s shoulder and glanced at Hazel and Tailor. Fortunately, neither appeared to have noticed. Nor had the rest of the audience scattered through the rows of seats that sloped down to the front of the lecture theatre. Maybe she hadn’t slept for that long—the old gentleman with the white cane had not returned.
“And so,” Prof Faulkner said, “you see why this is one of the more obscure tales. The idea of freedom for women is often pushed aside here on Earth. But when you’ve passed through Merlin’s gateway and into the world of fairytale, it’s important that you don’t blunder into trouble by failing to see women as equals.”
The way Prof Faulkner talked about fairy tales, it was as if they were part of a world he could reach out and touch. A secret for the chosen few.
“Anyway, I think that’s enough for tonight. We should have tea and biscuits, and you can introduce yourselves to our new guest here this evening, Pearl Andersen.”
Pearl froze as people turned to stare. It was only for a moment, and then the eclectic bunch of around twenty academics, professionals and outdoorsy types stood and made their way down to the nibbles.
Pearl stood, debating whether to stay a moment, or rush back when a lady in a fashionable whirl-skirt and white gloves approached and stretched forth an elegant hand. “Hi, I’m Lysandra. I’m a forensics expert. But I often team up with Elizabeth here, for a different perspective on medicine.” Elizabeth’s piercing eyes held Pearl’s with a gaze sharp as gemstones. She nodded. “Lovely to meet you, Pearl. I’ve heard so much about you.”
Pearl swallowed. “Good things, I hope.”
“Of course. Now let’s see if there’s anyone else we can introduce you to before they disappear.” Lysandra glanced about, her dark curls bobbing on her shoulders.
“Margaret?” Hazel asked.
“No, she can’t be here today. She’s wrangling a jewellery expert for our next big mission.”
“Mission?” Pearl asked.
Lysandra raised an eyebrow. “Prof might go on about his fairy tales, but we do more than read stories.” She winked. “For a start, we find an awful lot of amazing historical artifacts.” A large gentleman coughed behind them, and Lysandra looked at her watch. “Oh, dear, look at the time. I’d better go. Catch you next week?”
“Definitely,” Pearl said. “I’d love to find out more about these historical artifacts.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Lysandra replied. “Anyway, I’m pleased you’ve decided to join us.” She clasped Pearl’s hand.
Pearl smiled back in momentary confusion. “Oh, you mean join the lecture today? Yes, I’m pleased, too. It’s been nice to meet you.”
Lysandra nodded and went to join the line for a cup of hot tea.
Pearl stayed back to observe things. But there was nothing more nefarious going on than sipping tea, nibbling on cookies and chatting about the hidden meaning in fairy tales. They certainly weren’t showing any signs of being kidnappers or hoodlums of any kind.
“I hear you’re almost a fully trained nurse.” Arthur put an arm around her shoulder.
“Oh no, I’ve got at least two years to go, if I make it that long. You know, nursing isn’t as much fun as it looks.” Pearl shuddered. It wasn’t the tough work, or the bedpans—bad as they were—it was the way the doctors acted. She was tired of having to deal with their malarky and duck out of the grasp of their overly handsy hands. She stepped away from Arthur, his arm suddenly confining.
“Oh, that’s no good,” Arthur said, easily letting her go. He raised his eyebrows and a momentary frown turned into a grin. “But to be honest, nursing’s never looked like much fun to me.”
Before Pearl felt obliged to laugh, Arthur continued, “If you don’t like it at the hospital, you should think about being our medic. We badly need one.”
Tailor nodded eagerly. “Yup, it would be fantastic.”
“The hospital is good pay,” Pearl said. “I might not like working there, and my tongue is nearly chewed off by the end of the day, but it’s a respectable profession, and I’m no academic. Besides, what do archaeologists and historians need medics for?”
“Can’t tell you that.” Arthur looked down at her, his eyes glinting with mirth. “It’s a commercial secret. But you’d get paid the rate of a doctor, and not a nurse.”
“Really?” Pearl bit her lip. Can I trust them? Gran and Grandad and the Faulkners must have fallen out for a reason? “What’s the catch?”
“There’s no catch. Unless you’re frightened of dogs, because Hunter, our Jack Russell Terrier, likes to come along.”
“Come on, Pearl,” Tailor said with a shy grin. “What do you say? We need you on the team. You know a little medicine, and you’re handy with a sword. You’re perfect.”
Pearl frowned. “Ruby’s a better swordswoman than I. Has been for years. So, why me and not Ruby?” And why do they need a swordswoman and a medic for an archaeological dig?
Arthur shook his head. “I’m not sure Ruby’s a good match. This is…”
“This is what? What exactly are you trying to say?”
He bit his lip. “We thought it would be best to leave Ruby out of this. She’s…distractible. And we can’t afford to lose focus.”
“Distractible? She’s been through…a lot, and she’s tougher than you think.”
“Of course she is, and if it were up to me…” he shrugged. “Her fae friend…you know…” he glanced up at her through his tousled blond hair. “I mean, her imaginary friend…is it, Lettie?”
Tailor rolled his eyes. “No point being coy, Arthur. Father thinks Ruby still sees faer folk.”
“Faer?” Pearl prompted.
“Fae, fairies, the faer folk. You know, like Ruby’s companion.” Hazel blurted, her cheeks quite the shade of pink.
Arthur flashed a dimpled smile, drawing her attention to his chiselled jaw. “I know they’re just, ah, superstition, but father believes what he believes. Besides, I like you. Isn’t that a good enough reason?”
“Please say yes.” He clasped Pearl’s hand and his intense gold-brown eyes gazed into hers.
Pearl’s heart fluttered and heat suffused her cheeks. “I, I don’t—”
“You know, it’s what your parents would have wanted,” Arthur said.
“My parents?” Pearl’s mind turned cartwheels. How could Arthur know what my parents would’ve wanted? To cover her confusion, she headed to the door. All three Faulkner siblings followed in her wake.
Prof and a tight-knit group of people were also leaving.
“I should be going, too,” Pearl said seeing that she, Arthur, Hazel and Tailor were the only ones left. It must be late. Ruby will be furious.
They hurried out of the university and down to the road.
“I don’t understand,” Pearl forced out at last; her tongue stumbling over the words. “There are better medics. Better swordspeople. If the money’s as good as you say, you could pick almost anyone.”
Arthur shrugged. “It’s just…we need people we can trust,” Arthur said. “And we trust you more than anyone.”
Pearl smiled back up at him. Even his eyelashes were perfect. “I really don’t think I can afford to take the risk. I mean…” She twisted the pearl on her naming necklace. “It’s um…”
Lysandra, the lady in the fashionable whirl-skirt and white gloves, put an elegant foot into her old three-wheeler car and waved goodbye to them. She turned and waved to Prof, who was heading for his flash silver Alvis TA 14 not so far away, before revving her engine and zooming off.
“How about you say yes, and if you’re accepted you’ll get a year’s wages in your bank account?” Arthur raised a knowing eyebrow. “You know you want to.”
“A whole year? You’re serious?”
“Does two thousand pounds sound good?”
“Two thousand pounds? This is a real offer?” Pearl’s heart thundered. Triple my current salary and I’d be working with Arthur, the boy of my dreams. Well, not literally my dreams. Ruby, on the other hand, did often dream about the Faulkners—waking up drenched in sweat and crying. But that’s Ruby. And she says nothing bad about the Faulkners themselves. Only the demons. And demons aren’t real.
Arthur glanced over to Prof, who flashed him a thumbs up and hopped into their flashy car.
With two thousand pounds paid in advance, Ruby and I will be able to find a flat. Be independent modern women. Gran won’t be able to stop me from going out to the pub, or rock and roll dancing, or anything I damn well please.
“I’ll have to give work notice.”
Arthur shrugged as if it was nothing. “Once you find out what we do, you’ll never want to go back.”
“And what’s that?” Pearl asked again.
He waggled his eyebrows and leaned in close. “You’d never believe me.”
Pearl tilted her head up to his bow-shaped lips.
“Hey,” Tailor interrupted. “Let’s talk while we walk you to your car.”
“Um,” Pearl checked her fob watch. It was quarter past seven already. Ruby will be livid.
“Great, then it’s sorted.” Arthur strode along beside her while Tailor bounced along, shuttling between them and Hazel. “You’ll love the forest. I can’t wait to show you all the amazing places.” Tailor blushed. “I mean…”
“We know what you mean,” Arthur replied.
Pearl ignored their rivalry. After all, she only had eyes for Arthur. She’d made that pretty clear. “How far are these trips?” she asked. “Do you get to go to Scotland or anything?”
“See you at fencing next week?” Arthur asked a few minutes later, when they reached the hospital carpark.
“We’ll do the paperwork then, too,” he continued.
“Paperwork,” she echoed, feeling like a fool. “I can’t believe this is real?”
“Of course it is.”
Pearl waved goodbye and floated back to the car, bursting with excitement.
Gran and Grandad will be furious.
The thought was like a blow.
Her mind spun. Yes, they were always saying not to trust the Faulkners, but when push came to shove, Gran and Grandad had trouble trusting anyone.
Still tossing up what to say to Ruby, and if to tell Ruby at all, Pearl spotted the grandparent’s dark green Austin Twelve had a door hanging open. Ruby was nowhere to be seen. Probably distracted by her imaginary friend, or something ridiculous.
Pearl sighed and reached over the wheel to toot the car horn.
Still no Ruby.
Tailor rushed up, closely followed by Arthur and Hazel. “What is it? Is something wrong?”
“It’s Ruby. She’s not here.”
“She’s going to be absolutely fine,” Hazel said, her voice a panicked squeak. She bolted over to the park bench, jumped up and peered over the garden. “You don’t think she’s gone into the forest?” she asked.
Pearl shook her head, swallowing her worry into a molten ball in the pit of her stomach. “The door was open. I’m sure it’s nothing. She can’t have gone far.”
“What’s this?” a familiar voice growled. Dammit, Matron was at the hospital doors waving her fist into the dark. “Keep it down. I have patients trying to sleep.”
Pearl ducked below the dashboard, hoping Matron wouldn’t storm into the carpark and demand to know what was going on.
“Should have known it would be you, Andersen,” Matron muttered and stomped back inside.
“Ouch,” Pearl said. “That’s not good.”
“You going to be in trouble?” Arthur asked.
Pearl licked her lips. Maybe Matron had recognised the car. Maybe not. With Ruby missing, Matron was the least of her problems.
She glanced around the car. Nothing.
“What’s that?” Tailor pointed to something metallic lying on the gravel path that led into the forest.
Ruby would never leave it lying there like that.
Pearl picked it up, the molten worry in her gut exploding into white-hot fear. I shouldn’t have been late. I should’ve been here. “Ruby!” she yelled, racing into the dark.
Tuesday 12 August 1945
The forest rustled merrily. Florence felt like it was smiling down on them the way it seemed to before her son and his wife disappeared. Even John was whistling. They’d spent too much time avoiding their old stomping grounds. And it wasn’t just their abiding fear the giant spiders might return, it was more that they were avoiding Burcham and the Faulkners.
Burcham’s betrayal still stung.
A rustle in the underbrush. Spiders? Florence jumped, and immediately relaxed as a rabbit jumped across the track.
“Not a spider, then?” John laughed, watching it bound into the forest on the other side. “I don’t think people were lying when they said the giant spiders no longer stray from FaerLand.”
Florence nodded. “Given the closure of the Fae border, it makes complete sense.” She nervously peered into the trees, then squared her jaw, determined not to dwell on the past. The world they’d lived in was gone. New Avalon was now nothing but a mausoleum to the souls who lost their lives there, and the expansionist dreams of The Society. A group that was hated by most people here. It was one reason this search for people who could help rescue Aiden and Keera had been so difficult. Maybe that’s about to change.
Florence’s heart fluttered as they made their way toward the market town. This was what hope felt like. Fresh and shiny, and dangerously close to fear. Although fear was sensible. If even half the stories were true, they’d turn you into a frog just for fun. Desperation had led them to follow the clues to the rumored hideaway of the secretive, but powerful witches. Imagine tracking them down here, in the market village they’d visited so often all those years ago.
After the vitality of the forest, Market Town was a false facade. Florence could see that now. The cobbled path filled with folk passing through. The stores nothing more than fronts for itinerant shopkeepers who would also disappear before nightfall. According to their source, there was one place that knitted this ephemeral town together—if only during the day: Brewers’ Bakery.
John and Florence strode inside, the bell dinging pleasantly as the door swung open.
The large lady behind the tea-shop counter had a welcoming grin and shrewd eyes. “Wonderful to see you here, this fine morning. And what’d you be after, today?”
“Just a little word to your, ah, chief cook.”
The lady frowned. “Sorry. No customers back of house. But if you want something cooked up special, let me know.”
Florence bit her lip, determined not to speak without thinking. “A protective charm? Against heat?”
The woman leaned over the desk, displaying her ample bosom. “I hope you’re not insinuating what I think you’re insinuating.”
“I…” Florence started. “We…ah…are going to need…um…”
The lady’s face transformed into a doughy-sunshiny smile. A remarkable feat to mirror her remarkable change of mind. “Come on in. Would you like a cup of tea? Hot chocolate?”
“Of course. This way.” She led them into a room with round tables covered in red and white check tablecloths. “Sit here.”
Florence hesitated. “Ah, this is quite the place you have. But, um, I’m not sure this is entirely what we expected.”
“Of course, it’s so much nicer,” John opined, flashing his winning smile.
“Well, aren’t you two charmers? Why don’t you tell me all about whatever treasure you’re after?” She glanced back to someone just behind her in the shadows.
“Oh, dear me, no.” Florence shook her head emphatically. “We’re not part of The Society, or any of the other treasure hunters. We’re…” She sighed and clutched the lady’s strong, supple hands. “It’s my boy. He was taken by the Fae, and now we think he may be in the Underworld.”
Again, the atmosphere lifted. The shadowy presence disappearing so fast Florence wondered if she’d imagined it.
“Well, well. Then, why didn’t you say? How old is this child?”
“He’s 39. An adult. He went there to rescue his daughter thirteen years ago.”
“I guess that makes sense.” The lady clicked her fingers.
Florence blinked, half expecting to be whisked away.
An elegant young lady in a green sun-dress appeared in the doorway.
“Two coffees for our two visitors.”
The elegant lady sighed. “Not tea drinkers, eh? Well, I guess coffee gives a better result. It’s just more time consuming.”
Two coffees appeared in her hand. Hot, rich and aromatic. Florence took a sip. Perfect.
The women waited and watched as they drank their hot beverages, as if they might turn into demons or something. Florence looked to John. John looked to Florence. Are we passing the test? Is this even a test? Florence shrugged and put her now empty cup down next to John’s. The instant it was on the table, the elegant woman scooped up both cups and disappeared into the back room.
“Ah,” John said, waving his fingers as if to call his cup back.
The elegant lady returned ten minutes later. “It seems you have talent, Mrs…?
She frowned. “Even so. We will teach Mrs Andersen. But it will not be easy.”
“Teach? I mean, um, how long will it take?” Florence asked.
Their stony expressions relaxed and Florence felt she could breathe again. The last thing she wanted was to be on the bad side of these powerful women.
“It is hard to say. When you can make yourself as tough as dragon bone and can walk through fire, when you can survive the DeadLands and its bonefish then maybe there’s a chance you’ll be able to rescue someone from the Demon Mines, or the outer regions of the Underworld.”
“Is there any way of saving them faster?” John pressed. “Someone who could help. A spell—?”
“If you want miracles, go somewhere else.” The elegant lady dropped her glamor to reveal a green-toothed old granny with a milky right eye. “I just have a few tricks. Nothing more.”
“No, no, that’s alright,” Florence said, wanting the miracles, but no longer daring to hope for them.
Thursday 21 August 1952
“What in all the worlds is going on here?” A voice shouted, waking Ruby. Her ribs were sore, and her stomach felt like it was being pressed into a balance beam.
That’s right. Ruby remembered she’d been kidnapped by some sort of maniac—a demon, if Lettie was to be believed. And she was dangling over his shoulder like a piece of meat.
She cracked an eye open. An old guy stuffed into a tweed suit was yelling, “Let the woman go!” He was also upside down, but he looked strangely familiar.
“Don’t interfere, Themis worshipper.” The voice grated through her aching skull.
Fat lot of good he was doing. She’d have to free herself before the demon tried to run her through the invisible barrier and into Brocéliande again. Ruby struggled against his vice like grip. Nothing.
She kicked him. “Let me go!” The words half a scream as she stubbed her plimsolled foot against his stone-like skin, and tried to writhe out of his grip.
The old guy was just managing to keep upPuffing hard, his breaths coming in wheezy gasps as he spoke. “Demon, you’re contravening Merlin’s Law. Get thee hence, Wyrden. Begone. Or the pact will be over and you’ll pay the consequences, like you should have last time.”
“The pact is over, fool. She must be punished in line with Amendment 20b.”
What in all heck? That didn’t sound good.
“I’m sorry, but laws cannot be enforced after the fact. Not on Earth, anyway,” the old man continued. “Go home.”
“You’ll regret this, Burcham,” the man, or demon, or whatever he was, growled.
Burcham, my parents’ lawyer? He does kind of look like a badger.
Burcham shrugged. “Hmmm. No doubt I will, demon. Now let her go, because I assure you, King Hades will be furious if the Earth agreements become nothing more than confetti.”
What’s he talking about Hades for? Ruby thought. She kicked a little harder for luck.
The demon tried to pull Ruby through the gap in the trees again. Once more, she slammed against an invisible barrier. But this time the demon didn’t linger. He dropped her and disappeared into the lush green forest on the other side of the tree.
“Ow!” Gingerly, Ruby sat up feeling her arms and legs for injuries. Bright lights, like fireworks, exploded behind her eyes. And every bone hurt from slamming into the portal, and her fall to the forest floor. Nothing seemed to be broken.
Burcham held out a hand and helped pull her up. “I do hope you’re alright.”
“I’m fine,” Ruby mumbled. Trying not to be overwhelmed by the images flickering through her mind. The strange forest, the old woman, being chased by a wolf, and seeing her father’s memories.
“Good. Good. Lovely to meet you, young lady, I’m Burcham. Here’s my card if you should need it.” He dug into his snug-fitting waistcoat and pulled out a card with an elaborate silver tree embossed on it and the words Burcham, Steadfast and Silvertongue tangled in its branches. “I knew your parents very well. If there’s ever anything I can do for you, let me know.”
“Don’t trust him,” Lettie said, appearing now the danger was over. “This lawyer may be safer than the demon, but less trustworthy. A betrayer of your parents, and of you.”
“Well, that is most interesting.” Ruby nodded along, trying to keep both conversations in her head at once. Fortunately, the lawyer smiled like a cat—as if waiting for Lettie to finish—before talking again. “I do hope you’ll come and visit. I have a book you may be interested in.”
A book? I have plenty of books at work.
Male voices echoed. Getting nearer. They sounded familiar. And was that Pearl?
“Here!” Ruby yelled. “I’m here.”
The footsteps sped up.
“Ruby!” Pearl called.
Shadows flitted through the moonlit trees and resolved into Pearl and the Faulkner boys.
“Arthur! Tailor!” Ruby yelled. “What are you doing here? Together? With Pearl, I mean.”
Burcham hesitated, as if he wanted to say something further to Ruby—then turned away, disappearing through the Three Sisters tree.
“You okay, Ruby?” Tailor asked. “You look a bit…I mean…”
“Yeah. I’m fine.” Now that it was over, it was hard not to think that she’d imagined the whole thing, except for her aching head and all the scrapes and bruises—not least of all the one circling her wrist.
What if Burcham hadn’t turned up? What if she’d made it through the invisible barrier into the world the demon slipped into? A world her memories were only just returning. She closed her eyes and saw childhood memories of going into Brocéliande. How could I have forgotten all of that?
She swallowed back nausea, her head whirling. If she stopped walking, she’d fall over, so she kept taking one determined stride after the other, determined not to let on that anything was wrong. Lettie shivering on her shoulder and muttering about demons, didn’t help. Ruby started shivering, too.
“Tailor,” Hazel said. “Maybe you could offer Ruby your jacket?”
“No, I’m fine,” Ruby replied, ignoring Lettie wagging her finger and proclaiming she was a liar. Then Lettie darted over to Hazel and back again. “Do you know Hazel likes you?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Ruby replied thinking of all the times Hazel had teased her for being a witch and having a fae friend. She’d even made school worse, somehow. And it had already been bad, given she was three years too young for her supposed peers.
“I was so worried about you,” Pearl said. “What were you thinking?”
I’m allowed to be, I just had a goddam demon attack me. “That’s rich.” Ruby snapped back. “You’re the one who was late.”
Pearl crossed her arms. “I asked first.”
“I thought I heard someone crying in the forest,” Ruby lied again. “It was probably just an owl.”
The Faulkners exchanged glances but didn’t say anything. Had they recognized Burcham?
Ruby turned to Lettie, still flitting in angry circles. “What in Hades just happened?”
“Stop it!” Pearl snapped. “Stop talking to yourself when we’re with people.”
“Not everyone, just the Faulkners. And it’s not my fault you’re swooning over Arthur. And I’m fine, by the way. Thank you for asking.”
“So, what did happen? Who was that old guy in the tweed suit? Where did he go? You weren’t with him, were you?”
Ruby’s jaw dropped. “Of course not.” No point saying a demon tried to kidnap her, especially not an old guy with silver hair and a cane. They’d laugh like drains. Ruby stalked back to the car.
When she glanced behind, Pearl was arm in arm with Arthur, whispering something in his ear, blind as a bat to Tailor who stared morosely after the pair. When they reached the carpark, Pearl turned to Arthur and raised her face to his, their lips almost touching. If she looked at him any more gooey-eyed Ruby would vomit. The nausea from delayed shock really wasn’t helping.
“Anyway, Pearl, when can I see you again,” Arthur was saying. “We thought you’d like to come to our meeting again next week. If you want to.”
“See, I told you,” Lettie whispered in her ear. “Pearl’s going to clandestine meetings now. They’re trying to suck her into The Society.”
“What meeting?” Ruby asked. “I mean, can I come along, too?”
“It’s…” Tailor stumbled. “It’s…”
Hazel twisted a strand of hair around her finger. “Ruby, I think what Tailor’s saying is…I mean we, ah—”
“Yeah, whatever. It’s fine,” Ruby replied, ignoring the intense stare Hazel was shooting in her direction.
“Pearl’s been invited,” Arthur said firmly. “I mean, Pearl, if you want to?” Arthur sent Pearl a dazzling smile.
“Maybe,” Pearl said, looking shyly up at him from under her lashes. If she was playing hard to get, not even Lettie was fooled. The wee fae clutched her stomach and pretended to throw up.
Ruby clenched her fists. At least they’re not calling me a witch.
“We’d better be off,” Arthur said loudly enough for Ruby to hear. The Faulkners ran back along the road past the hospital.
Pearl practically skipped to the car, which only made Ruby angrier. “So, why were you with the Faulkners? You were supposed to be working.”
“Sorry, sis, it just came up. And Arthur, Tailor and Hazel know things. Things about our parents that Gran and Grandad never tell us.”
“I don’t know. Hopefully something like what Gran and Grandad are up to right now.”
Wednesday 20 August 1952
“Earthsiders are all the same.” Granny Greentooth sighed. “So impetuous. We can’t all get involved in your problems. And we can’t all rush to your aid the moment everything goes wrong.”
Florence quashed an exasperated smile. “John and I have no choice if we’re to rescue Aiden and Keera.”
“You know, there’s still so much you don’t understand.”
“I’ve learned enough to keep us alive in the Underworld—if we can get the dragon-bone we need. There’s no time for more than that. Burcham says if we don’t free Aiden or Keera before or during the equinox, they’ll never be able to return to the land of the living.”
Granny Greentooth nodded, then shook her head. “Likely he’s right. Just, when you get near the Underworld, remember the demons are not all what you think. They’re incredibly law abiding, no matter how stupid the law is. I’m sure you can use that if you have Burcham onside. And despite expanding their range, most are happily living near the border of the Underworld, making a community around the hot-pools there.”
“That’s crazy! What if they start attacking people?”
“I told you, they’re incredibly law abiding and Hades has changed the law. It’s so much better than the old days when the demons would raid outlying houses and villages. Promise me. Don’t make it come to that again.”
“That’s okay, we understand.” Florence held out her hand. “Wish us luck. Or…is that…”
Granny Greentooth smiled. “Obviously, I can’t wish anything. But I would hate to see you kill yourselves. Good travels. And be careful. This mission into the DeadLands for dragon bone for your stone skin spell might not be as dangerous as the Underworld, but it’s not without peril. Do it right and you’ll get the magical protection you’re looking for. Get the skin spell wrong, and you’ll be eaten by bone fish, or give yourself stone sickness.”
“Thank you,” Florence left Brewers’ Bakery knowing she hadn’t learned enough, but determined anyway. Seven years of regular training sessions might not be a long time to learn magic, but for Aiden and Keera, stuck in the Underworld, it’d have been like an eternity.
Florence set her jaw, determined they would never have to find out, and that Aiden and Keera would be home before the fortnight was out.
John was waiting outside. He handed her a heavy pack filled with water bottles, a mini first aid kit and some snacks. “You ready?”
Florence leaned into his strong arms, breathed in the woodsy, lemony scent of his aftershave and sighed. “Ready as I’ll ever be.” She heaved the pack up and steadied herself against its weight.
They set off to the small trading post that hid the eyrie, trading a hike over the mountains for a two and a half-hour walk on the flat and a griffon ride.
The whole way there, John was bursting with excitement. He jingled the gold coins in his pocket. “Been a while since we had a griffon ride.”
“Has been that,” Florence agreed, remembering that the last time she rode she felt quite queasy. Deciding it was too late to go back for an air-sickness cure, she hurried to match John’s athletic stride.
When they reached the eyrie, it was a hive of activity. Several small buildings and a tent were being put up and the eyrie itself, and the building that had housed the griffons for many years was covered in scaffold.
Florence wrinkled her nose. The stink of fish guts permeated the air.
“No. that way’s closed.” A large man in a suit several sizes too small nearly bowled them over.
“I’m sorry?” John said. “We were looking to pay for a griffon ride.”
“Oh, hello. I’m the new owner. We’re just changing things around and getting ready for a new inhabitant. It’ll only be a day or two while the cave…ah…nests are reorganized.”
“I see.” Florence cut in.
“You could try the boat service to the library. It takes longer, but it’s cheaper. This way.”
“I’m afraid, that’s not where we’re going.” Florence stepped forward. The overpowering musk the man was wearing cut through the smell of fish guts. “I don’t suppose there’s another option.”
John began pulling gold coins from his pocket one at a time. At four he raised an eyebrow and stared hard at the florid man.
“I guess you could take off from the rocks, like riders did in the old days. How about you stop, have a cup of tea in the breakroom, and I’ll get the griffons.”
“Thank you. I could really do with a refill.” Florence said shaking her flask.
John grinned. “Great plan, my dear.”
The large man led them to a tiny shed and put a copper teapot on an old black stove to boil. “Tea’s on the bench.” He waved over at a glass jar filled with tea-leaves. “Back with you in a moment.”
True to his word, they’d barely made the pot and refilled their flasks with piping-hot tea when he returned. “They’re ready. Let’s go.” He beckoned them out and led them down to the beach. The cool sea wind rolling in, laden with seaweed and salt.
Two griffons were waiting at the top of a very steep cliff. “I’m too old for this,” Florence sighed, sizing up the century-old crumbling steps cut into the rocky cliff-face. John, ever the gentleman, waved his hand to let her go first, so if he fell, he wouldn’t land on her.
On the rocks above, the griffons squawked and flapped impatiently. The roughly hewn steps cut into Florence’s hands and her thighs ached from climbing up the near vertical surface, but the view was lovely: blue water rolling in over the rocky shore and churning into dappled foam. She held out a hand for John. “Not bad, eh?”
The griffons pawed at the rock.
“Thank you for being so patient,” John addressed the magnificent creature. “Are you ready? I’m not light.”
The largest griffon bowed her head. “I appreciate your candor, but I’ve carried you before. Shall we be on our way?”
Florence’s jaw nearly hit the floor. She and John had changed their behaviour a few years ago after one of Granny Greentooth’s friends had mentioned griffons considered Earthsiders beyond rude. She never really thought they’d thaw. “Indeed. Thank you.” She bowed politely and stepped up onto a rock beside the smaller griffon, careful not to tug at the griffon’s feathers as she climbed on.
“Ready?” John asked her, tightening the last buckle of his harness.
“Yes,” she replied, checking her straps and firmly grasping the saddle.
With no further warning, the griffons ran off the ledge and swooped over the water.
“We’re going to the DeadLands. Drop us off as close as you dare.”
In answer, the griffons swung toward the far shore and the mountains pass that ran near Dornröschenschloss castle. Such a sad story, holding little resemblance to the legends it had spawned. Just hundreds of people trapped in the embrace of Rosa somnus, the much-feared parasitic rose.
An hour later, they were soaring upwind from the dangerous scent, but close enough to see the broken turrets stabbing out from the mass of roses that sprawled over the ruined building.
And then they were over the pass, the brownish-yellow wasteland of the DeadLands ahead. Directly below them, hugging the edge of the mountains, was the last of the scrub clinging to the rocks. The griffons struggled to fly, caught in the hot, dry wind that swept the plain. Florence stomach protested as if she’d been on a roller coaster ride.
“It’s not that windy,” John was saying.
“It’s not just the wind. It’s…” John’s griffon roared in frustration. “Something about this place. We cannot enter.”
Unable to fly any further, the griffons alighted on a pile of boulders on the skirt of the mountains. And not a moment too soon. Florence’s stomach clenched.
“Thank you, kindly,” John said.
Florence grunted her agreement, her head spinning. Unable to hold back the acrid taste of vomit, she turned and deposited the acid, watery mess down the rocks.
The griffons gurgle-screeched—a sound Florence interpreted as a laugh—and took off in a hurricane of feathers. They flew back over the pass, leaving Florence and John to negotiate the rocky slope down to the cracked stone wasteland.
The hard, concrete-like mud continued for mile after mile, footstep after footstep until all they could see was the desolate landscape, the mountains hidden in a haze of dust behind them.
At last, dusty and exhausted, Florence looked up to see the hazy skeleton of an enormous dragon, reaching up out of the earth.
Almost there. Once they reached the skeleton, she could harvest the precious dragon bone needed for the stone skin spell. She sipped on a water bottle, her throat already parched from conserving water for the trek home.
As they trudged closer still, she estimated the dragon skull alone was the size of a horse. Its sharp teeth grinned at them.
Closer, Florence noticed some of the bones that littered the ground were perforated by hundreds of little holes. “Dammit. Careful, John.”
She nodded, pointing at a telltale hole in the stony ground. “They’re everywhere.”
He laughed. “Bone fish aren’t even fish, they’re only worms. How dangerous can they be? I just have to stand on one to kill it.”
A brownish worm jumped from a fissure in the stone, shiny pink ooze dripping, before it dived back in again.
“Pretty dangerous,” Florence said. “That ooze is worse than acid. They burn away your flesh and burrow into your bones. Let’s move slowly.”
They crept closer, the dragon only steps away.
Several entwined worms erupted from a fissure. The creatures missed Florence, but sprayed her safari suit trousers with burning mucus. Pain boiled up her leg.
John was not so lucky. He screamed and shook his now blood-and-slime-spattered leg. “Damn, the bugger’s landed on me.” Something white glistened amongst the red mess of his leg.
Is that bone? Florence, gritting her teeth from the pain of her own graze, flinched. Damn the little creatures to the Underworld. Have they burrowed their way to his shin-bone already?
Another boiling mass erupted.
Florence grabbed John’s arm. Together they dodged away from another school of the revolting beasts—but closer to the dragon bone she needed. Without dragon bone, the key ingredient for the stone skin spell, John’s bones would be eaten from the inside.
He staggered, sweating and pale, stumbling toward the looming skeleton.
“Stay up. Stay up.” Florence begged him as she held her hand out to the dragon skeleton and pulled a rib free. No time to be careful, or worry about stone sickness. Florence had to touch a dragon bone and say the words…or John would die….
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