This is the first chapter of a fantasy book I'm working on. Please let me know what you think! Thanks.
It was the year of the great storm when grandmother told me the truth about my parents. I was nineteen and had never suspected that the story of my life that I had been told was not the truth.
In the afternoon we had been gathering herbs together. It was nearly winter, the time for coughs and colds, so we needed to be prepared. Borage for bronchitis; feverfew for the hot sweats; sage for sore throats and lemon balm for comfort.
I looked at Gran. Age was creeping up on her, that was certain. Lines scored her face more deeply in reality than in my mental picture of her. She bent over slowly to pick the plants; so slowly I expected to hear her creak. As she straightened laboriously, I said “Let’s call it a day, Gran. We’ve got plenty and night’s drawing in.” She pulled her ragged cloak closer and nodded.
Wind started whipping about the trees. Their dead leaves were set rustling and rattling. My hair whipped about my face. Gran looked at me. “There’s bad weather coming,” she said.
Our baskets full, we walked back towards towards home. A lot of the herbs grew at the edge of the woods close to our house so it wasn’t far. I could see the roof of the house over the tops of the trees. It was swaying a little in the wind, and as we turned a corner I could see that it was hopping nervously from side to side, jittering on its long bony chicken legs. “She’s anxious,” said Gran.
That was a bit worrying; the house had a very good sense for meteorology. The air grew colder and the wind jabbed at us sharply. We hurried to the steps and climbed up, Gran wheezing a little as she clutched the knobbly wooden rail. As soon as we were inside, Gran called out “Settle down then,” and the house drew up its knees and pulled itself in, bracing itself for the coming storm.
The shutters began to rattle and wind weaselled in through the cracks in the slats. I lit a fire.
Gran settled herself in a chair. Over the course of the night she spoke to me of many things. She was worried she would not live much longer and she wanted to be sure I was ready to live alone. I heard thunder and pulled open one of the shutters a little to look out. The storm rose and lightning crackled round the woods. One of the oldest oak trees was hit and I saw the blue flame flared up and the tree fall. That tree had been a companion to me all my life and I couldn’t bear to see it. I let the shutter fall back shut.
“Grandfather oak has fallen,” said Gran, “It can only be an omen.” I wanted to tell her not to be so silly, not to be melodramatic, but how could I? She was the wise woman of the woods, the one whom everyone came to see for answers- and she was usually right – so how could I possibly say such a thing?
In the flickering flames, with an occasional bolt of lightning flashing through the shutters, the old woman suddenly looked strange to me. It seemed that I had stepped back, away from my life spent growing up with her, and I was seeing her as the villagers saw her- a craggy faced crone with glittering eyes. Then she spoke, and she was just Gran again.
“My dear, have you ever wondered about your parents?”
“Of course,” I replied. “I wish I could have known them.”
She sighed. “It’s time you knew the truth.”
“What do you mean?’
With a deep breath, she stated “I’m not really your grandmother, child. I have never had children. Your mother was a girl from the village who trusted me.”
“But… so… after she drowned in the river, you became my guardian?”
“She didn’t drown. For all I know, she is still alive. I expect she is.”
I just stared. My throat clenched in anxiety.
“I’m sorry, child. You know, I have loved you as if you were my own, if that’s any consolation.”
“I- I love you too, Gran. But, why did you lie to me? For so long? And my father- was he really a soldier who disappeared in the war?”
“I’m afraid not. You need to listen now, dear, and you need to believe me. You may find that difficult, even impossible, but I swear to you, on the life of this house, everything I am about to tell you is true. Everything.”
I nodded, dumbstruck.
Gran cleared her throat and began.
“Your mother was a young woman called Dalia. That much is true. But she was not my daughter. She lived in the village five miles from here, the other side of the woods. I knew her for many years. Dalia first came here when she was eight and had terrible earache. Her mother brought her to see me, and I gave her some medicine. Her ear infection cleared up in a few days, and Dalia came back on her own with a bottle of sloe gin for me. I showed her the house, and the cats, and we played cards. She loved it here and from that day, she used to come and visit whenever she could.
She was a charming little girl; quite demanding but so fun and affectionate. Her head was always full of daydreams and she would chatter on for hours about how she was going to marry a rich prince and escape the village and not grow up to be like her mother... You know, the usual kind of country girl fantasies.
As she grew older, she continued to come here, and I looked forward to her vists. My life has few regrets, but I have always been sad that I never had children. Dalia became a little like a daughter to me, and as I had nobody to pass my knowledge down to, I did start to share some of the craft with her. Nothing like I have done with you my dear; she only visited once or twice a week for a few hours here and there, but I was still able to teach her some of the basics.
Dalia was a pretty little girl and she was turning into a beautiful woman. At the same time, as she became aware of the effect she could have on people, she was also showing signs of turning into a vain woman. It saddened me to see her sneer about others, to toss her hair petulantly and complain about her life. But those moments came and went, and in between she was still the adoring little girl that I had grown to care for very deeply.
One summer morning, Dalia appeared at my door looking distraught. 'Oh Nan,' she wailed, her eyes puffy and red. 'You won't believe what they've done!'
'Who?' I asked, wondering what on earth could have upset her so much. 'Come in and tell me what's happened.'
'It, it, it's my parents!' she gulped. 'They, they've promised me to some OLD MAN!'
'Are you sure? How do you know?'
'Because they told me, of course! All pleased with themselves like they were doing me some wonderful favour!'
I let the sobbing girl into my house and led her to the comfiest armchair. She dropped into the cushions and curled up, sniffling, while I made some chamomile tea.
After a bit more sobbing and a few sips of tea, she started to doze off. Her red puffy eyes suggested she had been awake crying for most of the night. I watched her for a little while and then went out to gather some ingredients for lunch.
After collecting a few eggs and salad leaves, an omelette seemed an excellent idea. I had a strong fancy for wild garlic with that omelette and headed into the woods to find some.
Unusually, there was none about and I wandered deeper, whacking the bushes and undergrowth aside with my stick, hoping to uncover some. When I found at last a stinky clump of the delicious herb, I must have been gone for at least an hour. I dropped the garlic into my basket and turned round for home.
I had only gone a few steps when a low rumbling filled the air. The ground lurched beneath me and I stumbled, grabbing a tree for balance. The sky darkened as black clouds rolled across it. 'Dalia!' I cried and dropped my basket, running back to the house.
When I came out of the woods and into the clearing, I stopped for a moment to catch my breath. This was about twenty years ago so I was fitter than I am now, but still a bit old to be sprinting through the woods!
I leaned on my stick, panting, and looked up at the house. From out in the open, it became clear that the roiling clouds didn't cover the whole sky. Just half a mile or so away, I could see blue again. My house was the epicentre of the sudden darkness. Beneath the inky clouds, my poor house shivered in fear, crouching down on its bony legs as if trying to hide.
I stared upwards, not wanting to go any further, but knowing that I must. Just one step, I told myself, then another.
I reached the house and slowly climbed the external stairs. I could hear a low rumbling coming from inside, and as I reached the entrance, I realised it was a voice. A man's? Lower than any man's voice I had heard before.
Pausing before the door for a moment, I gathered my courage and pushed it open. The room was dark and my eyes slowly adjusted. Dalia was sitting on the floor with her back to me, her head bowed, trembling. One candle burnt before her and she had drawn symbols on the floorboards with a lump of coal. An ill-formed salt circle surrounded her- if it had been intended to offer protection, it would not have done so, as the line was uneven, too thin and broken in several places.
In my armchair, facing Dalia- and the doorway- sat a huge person. The sight of such a proud figure crammed into my shabby furniture might have been funny in other circumstances. It looked like a man but I knew that it was not one. He lifted his head towards me and the flickering candle lit his darkly handsome face. His features were strong and sharp; his eyes amused and his mouth almost smiling. When he spoke I caught a glimpse of his bright white, sharp teeth.
'Good afternoon,' he said pleasantly in that deep, deep voice that I almost felt inside me more than I heard it.'Is this your home?'
'Yes,' I replied. 'Might I ask whom I have the honour of addressing?'
His grin widened and Dalia's shoulders began to shake with silent sobs. 'You may call me Lord.'
'And- your Lord - may I ask- What brings you to my humble home?'
'You may. But why don't you ask this young lady? She summoned me, after all.' He smiled magnanimously.
I swallowed. 'Dalia?'
'I - I didn't want to marry that old man. So I thought... I thought if I could marry a Prince...'
I looked at the dark figure opposite. Prince he certainly was.
'So...' she sniffed, 'I looked through your books and...'
'But,' I said, 'Surely your abilities are not developed enough to summon such a mighty being...'
'I just meant a normal prince!' wailed Dalia.
'To, ah, answer your question,' interrupted the Prince, 'Your surprise is warranted. Her spell was clumsy. I was not obligated to come. However, I must confess- I have been hoping to find a wife. It does get lonely in the Darkness- and she is certainly beautiful. So- my dear- shall we go? We have a wedding to arrange.' His eyes glinted redly with amusement.
'You... you don't have to take her...' I cried.
The look of languorous humour fell from his face and he rose from the chair. Unfolding to his full height, the top of his head just grazed the ceiling. His eyes flashed again like rubies in a fire, this time with anger.
'You are right human. I do not have to do anything. But I am breaking no laws. This girl asked for a Prince to marry, and here I am. She has cast no protection worth the name and I could easily tear her to pieces just for her impertinence.'
Dalia whimpered and I shook my head in horror.
'But I will not,' he continued. 'I will simply marry her; which is all that she asked. Come, girl, we are going home. Don't look so sad- you are going to love the Underworld!' He reached down to the shaking young woman and pulled her to her feet. She stared at me in helpless terror.
'Wait,' I cried, 'Your Highness... Could I just ask for one small boon?'
He stared at me imperiously and then nodded, gesturing for me to continue.
'If... If there should be a child... A child should grow up in the open, play in the woods, enjoy the sun...'
He sighed. 'Very well. A squawking brat will not exactly improve the ambience of my palace in any case. Any offspring will be returned to your care. You have my word.'
And then, they simply disappeared. No flash, no puff of smoke, just a slight draught. I never saw your mother again, but about eighteen months later, you appeared on my steps wrapped in a square of black silk."