The Secret Story by A.J. Ponder

The Secret Story

A horde of rats.
A coven of witches desperate to stay hidden.
A ball to die for, and a ball that must remain secret at any cost.

As a smithy’s daughter, Amarinda can only dream of going to the ball. She loves the fine gowns and imagines the feisty Princess Sylvalla falling in love with the visiting prince.

Amarinda’s daydreaming must end when her father is injured and she discovers her family is in debt to Lady Dragonheart. With her father becoming more and more ill, she must take extraordinary measures to pay back the debt. But first, to save her father, she must infiltrate castle Avondale and steal a ‘cookbook’ with secret recipes everyone wants to get their hands on.

The harder she tries, the more Amarinda is drawn into a hidden world of witches and power—and Lady Dragonheart’s schemes to infiltrate the Avondale ball and seize the kingdom.

Will Amarinda’s father survive the night? Will she get to dance with the prince? And who will be turned into a rat? Find out by reading this secret story of a not-quite Cinderella, whose closest thing to a Fairy godmother is, alas, old Granny Earwax.

For magical mayhem that flies off the page faster than a witch’s broomstick, get your copy of The Secret Story today!

But beware! If you are going to play with magic, you need to know the rules.

The Rules

There are nine rules every witch needs to know.

The first is:

Being a witch is dangerous; have you thought about taking up another, safer, career path? Careers that are not safe for witches: healer, apothecary, herbalist and midwife, which is ironic because they’re also the careers where you will be able to do the most good. We advise doing that good where no one can see, so when things go wrong you will not be standing in the way of blame.

The sixth is:

Watch out for wizards: they’re trouble.

Extract From The Secret Story.

(Read alone prequel of The Sylvalla Chronicles)

Defiance

Amarinda

FAMILIAR:   None

HEALING:    Trace

WISDOM:     Too young to know

OTHER MAGIC:      None

NOTES:          Tidy, vivacious, and only a little irritating. Not bad for a young thing.

§

Amarinda and her friends, Mac and Torri, squeezed through the open iron gates and into the castle courtyard, past vendors selling treats and the celebratory crowd all dressed in their finest. She brushed down her best dress, wishing she could afford a garment like her friend Torri’s—all made-to-measure from fine satin. Even Mac looked as if he’d put on his best work singlet—the one with the fewest coal stains from the forge. His freshly washed, tightly-curled dark hair glistened as radiantly as Torri’s.

Everything Amarinda could see was perfect. Soldiers lined the stone castle, handsome in their freshly-starched Avondale-blue uniforms. Children carried armfuls of flowers, the scent of roses and lavender carrying over the smell of horse manure. Food stalls also competed for her attention. The smell of rosemary as she passed a small stand was mouth-watering. There was nothing like the taste of meat or baked potatoes flavoured with rosemary. She wished she’d money to buy a treat. Still, with all the pickpockets sure to be here, her empty pockets were probably for the best. The guards on the walls might look on the alert, and with arrows at the ready, but they were ignoring people shouting, “Stop thief!” It was as if their only job was to look handsome in their impeccable Avondale-blue uniforms.

Together, Amarinda and her friends slipped closer—past hawkers, pickpockets, rich merchants’ families, guards and more—and squirmed their way to a good spot to see the royal balcony and the carriage that would be arriving just as soon as it pushed its way past all the crowds.

Amarinda’s heart swelled. Today was the day! In her heart of hearts, she was sure she’d be able to brag that she was here on the very day Princess Sylvalla met her match.

“Dirk, the Royal Protector,” Mac whispered, pointing to a slight but profoundly muscled man wearing a loincloth and lounging against the castle wall. He carried a massive sword that made a disconcerting humming noise as he swished it from side to side—cutting the air, and anything that got too close, including rose petals and grains of rice. Dirk wasn’t watching the carriage, or the balcony, but keeping an eagle eye on the crowd.

Was that a nod? Did he notice us earlier? Amarinda fought off the dread clutching at her stomach. She wasn’t the only person made uneasy by his presence; everyone was giving him a wide berth. His touchiness and reputation for removing heads from bodies was legendary. So much so, that anybody with half a thought- that they might wish to keep their head affixed to their body – avoided getting too close. He wasn’t like the other soldiers; he didn’t line up neatly or wear a spotless blue Avondale uniform.

Some children approached him. “Dirk the Quirk,” one yelled, and ran back into the crowd. Dirk’s sword hummed and crackled as he swept it in front of him in a complex arc that drew squeals of fear.

Mac puffed up his chest. Shaking back his hair and fixing Dirk with a penetrating stare, he whispered to Amarinda, “One day I’m going to be a good enough soldier to beat Dirk.”

Amarinda smiled and nodded. It was a brag Mac wasn’t foolish enough to make good on. He was going to work at Father’s forge, and not fight battles. Before Amarinda could say so, the crowd gasped.

Princess Sylvalla!

Her tiara askew, and a sword clutched in her hand, the princess tramped onto the royal balcony in a forget-me-not blue gown, a shade paler than Avondale-blue. She was closely followed by Tishke, in overly patterned lace, and King Rufus, in an Avondale-blue cloak edged with gold.

“Long live Avondale!” the crowd yelled.

“Long live Avondale!” Amarinda yelled with them, enthralled with Sylvalla’s dress and the way her sword shimmered against it.

“Do you think I could ever wear a dress like that?” she asked.

“Why not?” Mac said. “And why would you want a flash dress like that, anyway? Imagine washing it.”

It was so totally Mac. Amarinda wondered why Torri didn’t back her up, and then she noticed the crowd had hushed. The crunch of cartwheels on stone heralded the arrival of the prince’s carriage. Its two horses nickered nervously as they were driven through the crowded courtyard and up to the palace doors.

Her expression inscrutable, Princess Sylvalla watched the prince alight from his carriage. But what was not to like? Prince Wensley was beautifully turned out with shoulder-length walnut-brown locks, a gold-brocade jacket, and blue velvet breeches designed to show off his handsome figure.

He waved elegantly and Amarinda almost swooned.

Sylvalla brandished her sword.

The crowd gasped. Amarinda didn’t blame them; the sight was breathtaking. Watching Sylvalla was like seeing sunshine peeking through grey clouds—a glimpse of a world of defiance that she could only imagine.

Mac grinned and exchanged glances with Torri and Amarinda. “Time to go,” he said. “I don’t want to be late for the forge. Amarinda, you know how your father gets.”

“Not yet.” Amarinda hesitated. “He knows what a special day today is.” If only the moment would last forever.

But no, Princess Sylvalla turned and disappeared inside the castle. Her royal parents, King Rufus and Queen Tishke, stepped forward to wave.

“We’ve got to go soon,” Mac muttered.

Once again, the crowd hushed.

“My good citizens of Avondale…” the king said.

“By the fleas on a horse blanket, he’s a pompous bore,” Torri complained. “Let’s go.”

“But he’s so distinguished. So…royal,” Amarinda insisted, drinking in his regal figure, his magnificent royal cloak.

“Come on,” Mac whispered. “We can’t stay for all the talking.”

Amarinda nodded, still speechless. The handsome prince, who’d alighted so gracefully from the carriage, would surely be Princess Sylvalla’s eternal love. That he should have to work for her love would only make the romance all the sweeter. It was the most exciting thing she’d ever seen in her life.

“It is indeed an honour to greet Prince Wensley Wilfred of Wiverdale,” Rufus continued. “And I have the most fortunable, excitable news—in two days, Avondale will hold a ball in honour of this most pernicious visit.”

What? Amarinda thought, but the crowd cheered, so she cheered too. “A ball,” she whispered, slipping back through the crowd. “Imagine going to a ball?”

“I’d tread on all the girl’s toes.” Mac grinned. “Come on. We’ve got to hurry.”

He’s right, Amarinda thought, trying to push down the familiar butterflies. Father would have started the forge-fire by now.

Together, she and Mac raced out the gates with Torri trailing behind.

“Should we take the alleyway?” Mac asked, peering down the dirt path that was a shortcut to the smithy.

It was a dangerous track; the dark shadows within could hide an army of rogues. Amarinda was unsure; should she be more frightened of the most dangerous alley in Avondale, or the near certain wrath of her father? She shivered. “I have a bad feeling about the alleyway.”

“So do I,” Torri said. “I did want to ask your father about using the forge for my latest inventions, but maybe it can wait.”

Amarinda shook her head sadly. “I’ve told you; it’ll never happen. You know how he is.” And still, Torri insists on holding onto her impossible dream.

“But I just—”

“I don’t think we have a choice,” Mac said, cutting through their old argument. “I can’t be late.”

It was weird that Mac was being so panicky, but Amarinda shrugged and nodded. Together, she and Mac crept into the run-down passage.

“If we die, I’m blaming you,” Torri whispered, joining them. Within seconds of entering the alley, she clamped her hand over her nose. The alleyway stench was abysmal.

Cautiously, they followed Mac into the shadows.

Amarinda and Torri picked up their skirts and walked carefully; the night soil workers didn’t come through here nearly often enough.

“Listen,” Torri whispered.

Voices were coming from the right. A hissed argument, along with the tramp of horses and the clang of steel.

And someone else was coming up behind them, their sword humming… Dirk!