‘No more rides,’ said Humphrey the Unicorn, ‘especially not for that fat fairy.’ He was talking to himself, deep in the enchanted forest. His back ached and his horn was sore where the young fairies, pixies and elves had been touching it for luck. Much will that do them, he thought.
Humphrey sighed, ‘a noble beast like me, scratching a living as a side-show attraction at Friday’s Fantastical Fair. He wandered over to a patch of four-leaved clover and started munching.
‘Hey, Unicorn!’ said a voice. Humphrey looked up to see a strange little man leaning against a tree with a notebook in his hand and a pencil behind his ear.
‘You’re good at story-telling aren’t you?’ the little man said.
Humphrey nodded. He’d always been fond of telling stories, but the magical kids of today weren’t interested.
‘And you’re looking for a new career?’
Humphrey nodded again.
‘Okay, here’s the thing,’ the little man pulled the pencil from behind his ear and waved it with a flourish. ‘I’ll pay you double what you get from the Friday Fantastical Fair, if every week, without fail, you provide me with a 250 word story for my Friday Flash Fiction spot.’
Humphrey jumped at the chance. He and The Writer, for that was who the strange little man was, made a pact for life. But one year later, when Humphrey couldn’t squeeze his brain for even one more story, he found to his cost that he’d made a pact with the devil.
Inspired byThe Haunted Wordsmith’s Three Things Challenge– fairy, unicorn, devil These little prompts are coming to an end, but with Halloween approaching Teresa promises us new inspiration for tales of ghosties and ghoulies and long-legged beasties.
Sounds like fun!
I was sent to the Valley in my fourteenth year. I was given a little attic room and assigned as apprentice to the Herbalist beyond the Green.
She set me to work in the Storeroom, where I organised the shelves, made labels and lists. She was impressed with my lettering. Gradually I started to learn Herb-Craft: where to gather the freshest ingredients, what to plant and when to harvest, recipes for teas and tinctures, poultices and potions.
A year later, following the midsummer feast, she put me to work on the Book. I copied out new recipes, made illustrations, noted where and when certain plants could be found. I began to assist in the Dispensing Room. She was pleased with me and with my work.
I learned that certain things displeased her. If she found me chatting too long whilst I was dispensing remedies, she would stand at the door, arms folded, tapping her foot. My friends soon took the hint. Or if she saw me spending time at a particular market stall, she would take me firmly by the elbow telling me to ‘come, leave that now’.
I worked with my pen and brush in the Storeroom at a little desk among the wooden shelves on which the flasks and jars were kept neatly in rows. Even on the hottest of days the Storeroom doors remained shut. No prying eyes were tolerated; the work was secret. I was sworn to keep those secrets.
One afternoon, I’d made myself a cup of herbal tea using leftovers from a poultice. She came in and sniffed my teacup. “What is this?” she asked. I explained. “Is it in the Book?” “No, it but was only a handful of leaves.” Her eyes flashed, “There must be no omissions from the Book.” She stabbed at the cover with fingers clenched and walked out.
Two years passed. My knowledge grew. I followed her rules; made sure she had no cause to admonish me. She taught me a little rudimentary Spell-Craft and the Storeroom prospered as never before.
One morning in late summer, when the dew was still fresh on the ground, I took my basket up to the head of the Valley to the source of a little stream I knew. There I found newly growing belladonna and wolfsbane. I picked a sprig of each and hurried to back to the Storeroom.
Later that afternoon, I settled down at the little desk with my brush and pen and my new specimens. I opened the Book and turned to the poison plants section. But it was missing. I checked again, carefully, page by page, but it was as if the pages had never existed.
I hurried over to her little house and called her. She followed me slowly and sat down at the desk. I showed her where the missing pages should have been; how they seemed to have disappeared into thin air. I thought she’d be cross and give me that look, so I prepared myself. But she looked up at me and said “Never mind now.” She laid her wrinkled hand on my arm: “Go home; I’ll see you in the morning.”
The Storeroom was unusually busy the next day and my morning was spent making up and dispensing remedies. It was only in the afternoon that I took the Book down. The moment I opened it, I could see something was wrong. Strange symbols had been written in the margins and there were untidy blots and crossings out. I didn’t understand.
I heard the Storeroom door open. She appeared in the doorway and came over to the desk. “Something’s happened to the Book,”’ I said, showing her.
“Only you use the Book. No one else has touched it.” She brought her face close to mine and I saw pure hatred on her face. “Why have you done this?”
“I haven’t done anything.” I felt myself starting to shake. I knew I hadn’t done anything. I stared up at her. “It wasn’t like this yesterday.” My stomach churned under her gaze. “We looked at it together, remember? The missing pages?”
“I know you did it.” Her voice was like gravel.
I stood up, facing her across the little desk. I held her stare; not this time, I thought. There was a burning smell. I looked down. Smoke was rising from the edges of the Book. The paper began to curl and suddenly the pages ignited. She slammed the Book shut.
“Go!” She pointed to the door. “Just go!”
I grabbed my basket and cloak and fled towards the Green. I looked back just once. There she stood, framed by the doorway. She glared back at me for a moment; then she slammed the Storeroom door shut.
I never went back. I avoided that part of the village and only went to the market during dispensing hours when I knew she’d be occupied. I could never rid myself of the memory of the expression of loathing on her face, or the power I’d felt that moment when the Book had ignited. I had been changed forever.
She’d taken a dislike to me, made that doll-thing with the pins stuck in it. I stole it from her house while she was out, but she saw me on the way back. She knew.
I tried to make one of her, as a precaution; sure she’d make another one of me. But I couldn’t get the likeness. She didn’t though. Those pains never returned; the ones from the pins. Just that sick feeling whenever something reminded me of it.
Folk in the village cottoned on; others had suffered too. I never said much; smiled, nodded and moved on.
The following spring, I was visited by a crow. He sat on my washing line and looked at me, his head on one side. He came every day. I fed him titbits; told him my troubles.
Other people had crows visit too; the ones who’d fallen out with her.
One spring day more arrived. First a couple; one alighted on the church spire, the other on the maypole – mine, I thought. More came, settling on her roof, on window ledges and door frames, covering the house in a black shroud.
Folk gathered on the village green. Windows cracked, wood splintered. No-one went to her aid. We drifted back to our houses.
In the morning, they’d gone. The little house had been stripped bare. The small, stooped skeleton pecked clean inside.
Some called it a murder of crows. I called it revenge.
I’d been watching her secretly for quite a while. I knew that she routinely went out at this time and would be gone for a while; that she kept a spare key under the flower pot by her back door.
I crept into the house and listened. But where to look? Where would she keep such a thing?
It was a small house: kitchen, sitting room, an alcove for a bedroom. There it was. I picked it up and examined it: a kind of doll crudely made from sail cloth. Wool defined the features; brown for the eyes, black for the hair. Just like mine.
Two thick pins stuck out of the knees. Gently I pulled one out. My right knee relaxed. Then the left; my pain had gone.
There was a pin cushion on the shelf as well. I knew exactly where those pins had been. I saw the pin holes in the soles of its feet; a nick in the fabric of its dress over the stomach. And there was a burn mark on its left arm. Like the one on mine.
I put it in my pinafore pocket; left the house, locking the back door and replacing the key.
Then I saw her; coming towards me across the village green. Walking it that quick, determined way she had. ‘I know you took it,’ she said, as she drew level with me. Her eyes flashed. ‘I can easily make another.”
Ashley woke up. Her little sister, Bethany, had been calling out to her. As Ashley rolled over to check on her sister, she felt her body push up against something hard. As she looked across their bedroom, she saw that Bethany’s sleeping form had become entwined by the tendrils of some exotic plant which were growing from a giant seed pod which lay on the bed next to her. Ashley looked down; a similar seed pod rested next to her. As she moved her arm to pull back the covers, a thick, green tendril snaked out from the pod and wrapped itself around her wrist. She gasped and tried to pull herself free. Another tendril shot out and bound her left leg. Ashley screamed out as she heaved herself over the edge of the bed, knocking ‘The Big Book of Fairy Tales’ which she’d been reading to Bethany onto the floor, the cover ripping as the book fell. She groped her way across to Bethany’s bed, dragging the pod behind her.
Ashley was pulling herself up onto the edge of Bethany’s bed when, Hodge, the housekeeper, appeared at the door. Hodge rushed over to the bedside. Ashley had managed to free her arm and was desperately tugging at Bethany’s bonds.
“Help me, Hodge, get it off her,” Ashley cried. “Quickly, it’s choking her.”
Hodge grunted as she tried to loosen the tendrils which were tightening around the little girl. Her strong fingers drew back the growth around Bethany’s face and neck. Ashley kicked at her own seed pod, freeing her leg. The pod rolled under her bed, hitting the wall with a dull thud.
“Go and fetch Tom and get him to bring something to cut this off,” said Hodge, gesturing toward the door with her head, as she continued to pull on the vegetation. Her voice rose: “Hurry, Ashley!”
Ashley hurtled downstairs and out of the kitchen door. “Tom, Tom!” she yelled, running down the garden to the potting shed where Tom was usually to be found.
He emerged carrying a watering can. “What’s the rush, Miss Ashley? You’re not even dressed.”
Ashley explained the situation to the puzzled gardener, who nevertheless grabbed his shears and secateurs and hurried into the house after her.
Ashley watched as Tom carefully chopped away at the plant. Soon there was a pile of cut vegetation next to the bed and Bethany was free. All the time while Tom had worked, there had been no sound from the little girl. They could see she was breathing, but she was unconscious.
“What’s wrong with her,” cried Ashley. “Why won’t she wake up? And these things..?” she pointed to the cut tendrils.
Hodge and Tom exchanged glances. “Tis Faeries’ work,” said Tom shaking his head. “That’s a spell that is.”
Hodge nodded gravely. “Aye, so it is.”
“Surely fairies are only in stories?” said Ashley, picking up the book and smoothing the torn cover.
Hodge didn’t answer. She turned to Tom. “Get all of this out of here,” she gestured at the pile of foliage. “And burn it.”
Tom nodded. “Every last piece.” He started collecting up the debris. Ashley bent to help him. “No, Miss Ashley, leave this to me.” He turned to Hodge. “Will you go for Ceridwen?”
“Aye, I will.” She turned to Ashley. “You just sit here with your sister until I come back. She’ll come to no more harm just now. I won’t be long.”
Ashley climbed into bed beside her sleeping sister and stoked her golden curls. She must have fallen asleep as it seemed just a few minutes later when Hodge came bustling through the bedroom door followed by a tall, slim woman, dressed in long, flowing garments and carrying a large cloth bag.
“Hello child,” the woman said softly to Ashley. “I am Ceridwen,” she laid a pale hand over Bethany’s forehead and smiled.
Hodge cleared the table which stood between the sisters’ beds. Ashley watched as Ceridwen unpacked her cloth bag and carefully placed a long red candle in a star-shaped holder on the table. Next she took out an ornate silver chalice which she filled with a clear green liquid poured from a little glass bottle. Hodge left the room and closed the door quietly behind her. Ceridwen started to chant.
The following day, Ashley was awoken by her sister. “Wake up, Ashley,” Bethany said as she nudged her shoulder gently. “Come on, you’ve been asleep for hours.”
Ashley shook her head, trying to clear the fog of sleep from her mind.
“You must have had a very bad dream last night,” continued Bethany. “You were tossing and turning as if you were trying to fight something.”
Ashley frowned. Had it all been a dream? Like in their ‘Big Book of Fairy Tales’? She glanced at the cover of the book which lay on the bedside table. The cover was torn. She picked it up to examine it, noticing a blob of red candle wax on the table surface.
“Come on, Ashley, Tom’s making a bonfire. We can ask Hodge if we can toast some marshmallows later.” Bethany rushed from the room, the door slamming behind her. Ashley heard her clattering downstairs and calling out to Hodge. Under Ashley’s bed the forgotten seed pod rocked gently from side to side.
Ashley laid aside the book she was reading, slid off the bed and walked across to the window. She leant out. Her little sister was waving at her from the garden.
“It’s the little tree. It’s got flowers. Come and see!” Bethany cried, hopping from foot to foot.
Ashley slipped on her sandals and ran downstairs, through the open French windows and into the garden. Bethany grabbed her hand and hurried her towards the orchard, passing the pond where a fish was leaping to catch a fly. Normally Bethany would stop to admire the fish, but this morning she ran straight past, urging her older sister along.
Once inside the orchard, both sisters skidded to a halt. The little tree, which had mysteriously appeared a week ago, did indeed have flowers. From a smattering of foliage the day before, the tree had burst forth into flower. Huge, burgeoning blossoms with thick white petals and purple stamens covered the tree. More buds were unfurling as they watched. Hand in hand the two sisters approached the tree. Then Bethany cried out and pointed. A swelling was forming behind one of the flowers. As it grew they could see it was some kind of fruit. Then another appeared, and another. White petals were falling all around them like snowflakes, the scent, sweet and intoxicating, filled the air.
The sisters watched wide-eyed as the ripening fruit grew larger; long, smooth-skinned and a deep, rich purple. Then from behind the slender tree trunk, a small figure emerged. He was a little shorter than Bethany and wore a broad-brimmed hat and pointed shoes. He held out his hands to them, a luscious purple fruit in each one.
Much later in the day, the girls awoke. They couldn’t quite remember how they’d come to fall asleep in the orchard. Each recalled a delicious dream but neither girl could properly remember the details. They looked around at the little tree. It was just as it had been the day before, but when they looked at each other the front of their white pinafores were stained a delicate violet colour.
She looked innocent. Of course she did. My aunty often told me that once a woman is over 50 she becomes invisible. So how much more invisible is a little bent over old lady pulling one of those tartan shopping bags on wheels. Nobody ever thought anything of her. Nobody ever imagined what she might do.
So there we were that Thursday afternoon after school, Billy and me, just hanging out like outside the library. Not because we’re into reading or anything, just because it’s a nice shady spot in summer and there are steps and a wall to sit on, and nobody bothers you so long as you don’t make too much noise. And sometimes you can chat to some girl from another school…well, you know how it is.
Anyway, as I said, we were just hanging out and this old lady, all bent and bundled up, even though it was summer, came around the corner of the library building pulling this thing behind her. It looked kind of heavy and like something was pushing out the sides of the bag at the bottom.
She was struggling with the door while holding onto her bag, so Billy jumped up to help her. She sort of grunted and nodded at him but he said he couldn’t see her face because her head was so far back in the hood she was wearing. He said she had a funny smell too, but that’s not unusual with old people is it?
Anyway, a few minutes later there was like ‘boom’ and all the glass in the library windows shattered and the doors blew open. Then there was a huge sound like wings flapping and page after page from the library books flew out of the windows and through the doors. Strings of words slid off the pages and landed in the street where they shrivelled up. Others landed in the library garden and burrowed into the ground like so many worms. And then all the blank pages just took off like so many birds with white wings. Up and up they went into the sky which was so bright with the sun that you could hardly look.
And then there was another sound: ‘whoosh’ and would you believe it? The little old lady flew out of the doors on a something like a broomstick, although it looked more like one of those old-fashioned mops. She threw back her head and her hood blew down, long wild wispy hair went crazy around her head. ‘Free them, free the words!’ she screamed, cackling as she circled once around the library building then headed off over the cars and taxis down Victoria Street.
The library’s been closed for two months now. We still hang out there, but now we’re watching for the word worms to come up.
Moonlight shimmers on Jenny’s dress. It is the winter solstice and the night is clear, the bright white moon surrounded by velvet blackness. Jenny is the Chosen One. Her long golden hair crowned with a mistletoe and ivy garland cascades over her shoulders. Tall and slim, she holds the silver chalice aloft
She must be so cold, Cal thinks.
The villagers stand in a circle holding blazing torches, their faces reflected oddly in the flickering flames. The priest throws back his head and starts to chant. The gathering echoes his words of power. The spell reaches a climax and suddenly there is silence. Jenny puts the chalice to her lips and drinks. It falls to the floor and rolls away as the trance takes hold of her.
The chalice stops at the edge of the circle by Cal’s feet. He picks it up feeling the warmth where his sister had held it.
The priest lifts Jenny onto the stone table. A woman comes forward and takes the garland from her hair, replacing it with a delicate silver circlet. The priest starts to chant again and the woman returns to the circle. The transformation is about to begin.
As the villagers depart, Cal slips away and hides behind the old oak tree. He watches as the priest raises his arms and performs a final incantation before following the line of villagers back down to the valley.
Jenny is alone on the hilltop now. Cal shivers although he is dressed in his warmest clothes. How can Jenny stand this?
Something rustles in the undergrowth beside him. Cal looks down. A small furry creature looks up at him with bright black eyes. More rustling: a rabbit, now a fox and a fawn. Forest animals gather around the stone table. The smallest ones climb up and nuzzle up to Jenny. Soon she is covered by a living blanket of fur.
Out of nowhere, thunder; sounding like galloping horses. The noise reverberates around the hilltop. Clouds cover the moon. Cal cowers.
Then a column of the brightest light that Cal has ever seen strikes the hilltop. The creatures scatter leaving Jenny exposed on the stone table. The beam glows and throbs, alive with energy. Cal watches open-mouthed as Jenny’s body is lifted up.
The transformation, Cal thinks. No one has ever witnessed this.
* * *
The following morning the priest walks up the hill to bring back the Chosen One. As he looks around to check he is alone he notices something at the foot of the old oak tree. He hurries over. It is the boy, Cal, who picked up the chalice last night. The chalice is still clutched in his hand, but the body is lifeless. The priest shakes his head.
He walks over to the table. The girl is sleeping peacefully, covered in a shiny silver blanket. As he removes the strange material, she stirs and opens her eyes. Bright turquoise: the transformation is complete. She is truly the Chosen One.