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Authors: Erika McGann

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BOOK: The Watching Wood
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‘No boats!’ Delilah exclaimed. ‘No boats, please. At least … let’s just walk for a bit.’

Grace couldn’t blame her. She and Adie were still sopping wet, and it wasn’t as if the gondolas would take them to the cosy warmth of a real fire and fluffy blankets. There wasn’t even a change of clothes in their cold Venetian Room.

‘We’ve got to find you guys some dry clothes. Come to think of it, none of us has a spare pair of anything. It was alright for one night, but pretty soon–’

‘We’re going to start ponging up the place.’ Jenny pulled back the collar of her jumper and sniffed under her arm. ‘Not quite there yet.’

‘Nice.’

‘And I’ve got no makeup, either,’ Rachel said, tapping her
cheeks as if to rouge them with her fingertips.

‘Why don’t you use a little glamour spell?’

‘I am!’

‘Oh. Then use a little more.’

Rachel shot her a look, but Grace was distracted by the
Library
sign above a pair of mahogany doors. It suddenly hit her – if they were going to find a way out of this supernatural world, they were going to need some supernatural information. She veered towards the doors, but was abruptly accosted by a boy who barely came up to her shoulder, with thick milk-bottle glasses and a slight overbite. His quivering hands held a well-used notebook and pencil, though his jittery demeanor seemed more like excitement than nervousness. By his right hand was a girl even shorter than him. Her round face was freckled and pleasant, and she looked up at Grace from under a halo of sandy ringlets with an expectant smile.

‘Eder Verzerrt,
The Lyceum Gazette
.’ The boy took Grace’s hand and shook it earnestly.

‘Uh, Grace Brennan–’

‘St John’s of Dunbridge,’ Eder interrupted. ‘And this is Una, Rachel, Jenny – the rebel without a cause – and, of course, the two stars of the Bubble-Running battle.’ He solemnly shook hands with Adie and Delilah.

‘I’m sorry,’ said Grace. ‘Have we met?’

‘We are meeting,’ Eder replied cheerfully. ‘And it is a pleasure.’

‘But you know our names already.’

‘Lyceum lists of registration.’ He tapped his head with the pencil. ‘Know it off by heart.’

‘Registration? I didn’t know we–’

‘Must stay ahead of the competition. Breaking news is only breaking news when it is breaking. After that, it’s broke.’

‘Uh-huh.’

‘So I’m looking for the inside scoop on the team that has set tongues wagging and ignited the fury of the defending champions; the ones who have defied convention and tried to cheat their way through the very first trial, risking disqualification and eternity in the dungeons.’

‘Eternal what?’ Una gulped.

‘You know,’ Eder whispered behind his hand, ‘no-one has ever come out. They go in, they don’t come out. But
you
! You laugh in the face of disqualification, and cheat anyway. Such defiance!’

‘That was an accident,’ Adie cut in. ‘We were just trying not to drown and–’

But Eder continued with his jittery zeal.

‘So I and my learned colleague, Peach,’ he indicated the round-faced girl, whose smile broadened, ‘will be following your exploits with ardent fervour. And may I say that not for many years has there been such exquisite disruption as–b-bee-beep, b-bee-bee-beep, beep-beep, b-bee-bee-beep.’

Grace stepped back with fright. Eder Verzerrt’s head was
twitching to one side and he was making disturbing sounds like Morse code.

‘Incoming,’ said Peach brightly.

‘What?’ said Grace.

‘Breaking news,’ the girl replied. ‘He gets it all.’

‘How do you mean? He … he’s getting messages?’

‘Conscientia spell, two years ago. To receive all breaking news. And so he does.’

‘All the time? He can’t switch it off?’

‘Wouldn’t want to if he could.’ Peach grinned. ‘One finger always on the pulse.’

‘B-bee-beep, b-b-bee-beep,’ said Eder.

Grace shifted her feet uncomfortably.

‘So, do we just ignore it?’ Jenny asked.

‘Speak to me in the meantime,’ replied Peach, still smiling. ‘He knows what I know.’

‘Beep.’ Eder suddenly stopped twitching. ‘– as your wonderful display this morning. May I congratulate you, and urge you to continue this newsworthy venture.’

He shook all of their hands again before turning and leaving, with Peach perfectly in step beside him.

‘So. Disqualification,’ Jenny said. ‘Let’s not do that then.’

‘Yeah,’ replied Grace. ‘That doesn’t sound good.’

‘I think we made a friend there,’ said Una, smiling.

‘How can you tell?’

‘Well, he didn’t point and laugh, call us idiots
or
try to
drown any of us. Peach. Is that a real name? Or Eder?’

‘Doesn’t matter. It’s library time.’

Grace marched towards the heavy double doors and pushed them hard. They opened straight into the young girl from the dining room, who had bumped into Adie at breakfast. She had been standing behind the doors, holding a huge pile of black slate pieces, each about the size of a book, which clattered to the ground.

‘Ooh, I’m so sorry,’ Grace said, stooping to pick them up. ‘It’s Aura, isn’t it?’

‘Yes,’ the girl smiled. ‘And don’t worry about these, they don’t break or anything.’

‘What are they for?’ Adie asked, picking up a black shard that had skidded across the polished floorboards.

‘They’re home slates.’

‘Sorry?’


Home
slates,’ Aura replied, as if it was obvious. ‘Here take some.’ She handed one to each of them. ‘I was bringing back some for the team, but I can get more. You can borrow a dozen if you’ve got a library card.’

‘What do they do?’ asked Rachel.

Aura giggled as if it was a silly question.

‘Home slates, for watching people back home. You know, when you’re homesick. Do you call them something else?’

‘Eh, I guess so,’ Grace said, wiping her hand over the dull, black stone.

Aura giggled again, and shook her head. ‘Bad luck today. It was very close.’

‘A little too close,’ said Adie.

‘And cold,’ Delilah said. ‘I wish we had some dry clothes.’

‘Why don’t you get some from the Closet?’ said Aura.

‘Can we?’ said Adie. ‘I mean … we were going to but, we weren’t sure where it was.’

‘Oh, I can show you, no problem. It’s on the way to my room anyway. Come with me.’

The girls followed as Aura skipped ahead of them, her bantu knots bobbing in the air as she trotted with a happy step.

‘You guys go ahead,’ Grace said, turning back to the open double doors. ‘I’m going to check out the library to see if we can– em, to look up … you know, something. I’ll catch up with you later.’

‘Will you be able to find your way back?’ Delilah asked.

‘If I get lost I’ll just hop on a gondola.’

* * *

Rachel smoothed the creases of the sky-blue dress, her eyes widening as the light caught the gold flecks in the deep blue stones embroidered into the material. It fit perfectly. She turned left and right, loving how tall the dress made her look, and bemoaning her lack of makeup. It was fine to use a bit of glamour when there was nothing else to hand, but she
had to be aware of it all the time. If she relaxed and forgot about it the glamour faded, leaving her eyes un-lined and smaller-looking with, she imagined, the hint of bags underneath. She had her grandmother’s eyes. She’d give them back if she could.

‘Can I take this?’

‘You can take anything you want!’ Aura chimed. ‘It’s the Closet. You just– Oh, you don’t want to take that though, do you? You couldn’t wear it.’

‘Holy moly, Rach,’ said Una, pulling up the brim of a scarlet sombrero to get a good look, ‘you look like a movie star.’

Rachel shrugged, but smiled.

‘You really do look pretty in blue,’ said Adie.

‘You can’t run in that get-up,’ Jenny snapped, hopping up and down as she pulled on a pair of buckled ankle boots. ‘Get something practical. There won’t be any need for cocktail dresses around here.’

‘How do you know?’ Rachel said, swinging the long flared skirts and watching them shimmer.

‘Knock it off and pick out some proper clothes or we’ll be here all day. You’ve gotta get some pjs as well, don’t forget.’

‘And your unmentionables,’ said Una.

‘Underwear, Una, just say underwear. And you can quit with the dressing up too. You don’t need a sombrero.’

Una removed the hat and flung it like a frisbee onto the giant revolving hatstand that took up one corner of the open
space that was the Closet.

Rachel was taking one last glance at herself in the mirror when she felt a tugging at the zip. Aura seemed in a hurry to return the dress to one of the many conveyor belts that moved like an army of millipedes stacked against the walls, their thousands of legs composed of hanging clothes of every description.

‘Do you think I could hang on to this?’ Rachel asked quietly, slipping the dress off and keeping one eye on Jenny to make sure she couldn’t hear.

‘You couldn’t wear it,’ Aura replied.

‘Oh, I know I probably wouldn’t have any parties to wear it to here, but I like it so much.’ She handed the dress over and pulled her boring old school jumper on over her head. ‘I’d just try it on in our room sometimes and, you never know, maybe there will be some party–’

‘You really couldn’t wear it!’ the girl replied in earnest as she stuffed the dress under a plastic cover on the hanger. ‘All that blue goldstone? It’s a faery magnet!’ The worried crease between Aura’s eyebrows disappeared once the dress was safely stowed on a crawling conveyor belt, and her bright eyes were cheery once more. ‘I can’t believe you even tried it on in here. You’re so brave! Those faeries…’

‘Faeries? You mean, like,
faeries
? With wings? They’re real?’

Aura rolled her eyes and swatted her hand gently, as if Rachel was playing dumb with her.

‘They’re
everywhere
here,’ she whispered conspiratorially. ‘Hy-Breasal is Faery Land, we’re surrounded by them. Not in the castle grounds though, they can’t come in here. Too afraid.’

‘Are they dangerous?’

‘The
most
dangerous.’ Aura hunched her shoulders, grinning, like someone about to tell the scariest ghost story around the camp fire. ‘Nowhere has faeries as wicked and gross as Hy-Breasal. If they find a witch-oag in a cradle, they’ll steal it and replace it with one of theirs that’s sickly. And if one catches you in the woods, it’ll take the form of a horse or bull and trample you to pieces. Or the really nasty ones will bewitch you with phantom lights and lead you off the edge of a cliff!’

‘That
is
scary.’

‘Someday,’ Aura went on, snatching a cape from a passing hanger and swinging it dramatically over her shoulders, ‘I’ll be a Hunter, and I’ll chase down the faeries and rid Hy-Breasal of Every. Last. One. Hah!’

She lashed out with an invisible sword, swinging again in triumph as she hit her target.

‘Oh, okay,’ Rachel said. ‘So, we should stay inside the castle grounds then?’

‘Inside the castle walls,’ Aura said solemnly, raising her sword, ‘where I can protect you.’

She swung again, and another imaginary faery was struck down.

‘You got your stuff picked out, Rach?’

Jenny stood by the door in the buckled ankle boots, ready to leave. Rachel quickly appraised her friend’s outfit and despaired a little. She admired Jenny’s rebellious flair, but the loose-fitting t-shirt and studded belt was drifting too far from deliberate-grunge into accidental-heavy-metal.

The trick to dressing like you don’t care what people think, is to really care what people think
, Rachel said to herself. Out loud, she said, ‘Haven’t got everything yet.’

‘Has anyone seen Delilah?’ Adie asked. ‘She ran in between those racks when we got here and I haven’t seen her since.’

‘I’ll find her,’ Rachel said, ‘and we’ll follow you out when we’re ready.’

‘Alright. Aura, you mind showing us back to the canal?’ said Jenny.

‘No problem!’ The young girl kept the cape on as she skipped to the door, making it billow out behind her like a superhero.

‘Don’t forget a couple of jumpers,’ Jenny said to Rachel over her shoulder. ‘You’ll need them.’

‘And your unmentionables,’ Una said primly as she disappeared into the corridor.


Underwear
, Una, jeez.’ Jenny’s voice drifted away and Rachel was left with just the harmonic hum of the conveyor belts and the swish of plastic-covered clothes.

She collected garments until she couldn’t carry any more. With a tall stack of neatly folded jeans, tops, and one truly
hideous Victorian-looking nightdress (the others had taken the only decent-looking pyjamas), she went looking for Delilah amongst the groaning racks.

She eventually found her gazing at her reflection in a mirror, and wearing grey shapeless trousers, a buttoned shirt and a maroon jumper.

‘Delilah, is that what you picked out?’ Rachel deposited her collection of clothes on the floor, and glanced at the pile of clothes at Delilah’s feet, seeing more shapeless trousers, jumpers and plain tops. ‘That’s pretty much our school uniform. Don’t you want to pick out some stuff you like?’

BOOK: The Watching Wood
6.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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