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Authors: Erika McGann

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BOOK: The Watching Wood
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‘Is it comfy?’ Grace asked. ‘And warm enough?’

Una’s head appeared over the edge of the bed and nodded. Her eyes were full of tears.

‘Thanks, you guys.’

‘You’re welcome. Sleep tight.’

Rachel lay curled on the silk covers of her yellow silk bed. She was exhausted, exhilarated – and embarrassed. It hadn’t occurred to her on the ride back to the mansion – she’d still been too awestruck by Aruj’s valiant rescue – but as she sat at dinner she realised she’d been absolutely useless on the boat. No-one else had slipped down the deck and nearly been eaten alive by a giant merman. As soon as she could, she had politely excused herself and gone to her room.

There was a gentle knock on the door and she heard Alinda’s voice.

‘May I come in?’

‘Sure.’ Rachel sat up quickly, smoothing her hair and straightening her corset.

Alinda sat gently on the edge of the bed and smiled.

‘I hope you weren’t hurt this afternoon.’

‘No, not at all. Thanks to Aruj. And, em … I wanted to thank you for letting me go on the scouting party. And for everything. It’s been amazing. But … I think I should go back to the castle.’

Alinda looked disappointed.

‘Oh, we had hoped you would stay on a little longer.’

‘I would, it’s just … I don’t know how the Trials are going, and I’m worried about my friends.’

Alinda’s face brightened and Rachel was struck again by the beauty of her pale eyes and silver hair.

‘Is that all? But they can visit.’

‘Really?’

‘Tomorrow, if you’d like.’

‘Brilliant! That would be great, thanks so much.’

‘So you’ll stay?’

Rachel felt the humiliation of the scouting boat melting away. She nodded.

‘I’m so glad,’ the woman said. She reached out and tucked a stray strand of hair behind Rachel’s ear. ‘Because I believe you have a gift, Rachel. And with the right guidance your future will be a bright one.’ She rose and did her glide-walk to the door. ‘Sleep well.’

‘Goodnight.’

Rachel changed into one of the light cotton nightdresses from her chest of drawers, and crawled under the covers.
But she was too excited to sleep. She was looking forward to seeing the girls the following day but, if she was honest, it was Alinda’s words that had her mind racing.
With the right guidance
. Did she mean her guidance? Did she intend to invite Rachel to stay and train with the Hunters? They clearly valued glamour spells above all else, and Rachel had a knack for them. Was she destined to be a Hunter? Would she get to live the incredible life she had been envying since she arrived at the mansion? She turned her face into her pillow, not sure who she was hiding her smile from. It was hours before her eyes finally felt heavy.

Scraaatch
.

Her tired eyes snapped open. She heard it again.

Scraaatch
.

It was coming from her bedroom door.

‘Alinda?’

Scraaatch
.

Rachel sat up, listening for a voice. But there was none.

Another minute passed and she eased out of bed and crept over to the door, pressing her ear against the wood. In the silence, she whispered,

‘Is someone there?’

SCRAAATCH
.

She stumbled backwards into the dresser, snatching a pointed figurine from beside the mirror as she steadied herself. Tiptoeing back to the door, she whispered again,

‘Is someone there? I have a weapon.’

Steeling herself, she clasped the doorknob and opened the door a crack. She couldn’t see anyone. Taking a deep breath, she wrenched the door open and jabbed the figurine into thin air. Nothing. The hall was dark and quiet.

Except for a little whimper.

It came from down the hall, to her right. It could have been a chair, scraped over a marble floor, but who would be moving about in the middle of the night? There. Again. It was fainter, further away, but this time it was longer and there was another sound behind it. A watery sound.

Rachel stepped out of her room, clenching the pointed figurine. She inched her way down the hall, her feet growing cold on the polished wood floor. She was almost to the gallery when her right foot slipped into something. She looked down to see a small puddle of water. Ahead of it she saw another, and another. They were like footprints, small footprints leading into the gallery and down the spiral staircase to the marble floor below. The marble felt like ice to her bare feet but, with its pale colour and the light of the moon creeping through the slatted windows beneath the curved ceiling, she could clearly make out the glint of the watery trail.

She had only seen this part of the mansion from the mezzanine and now, as she moved along the floor, she could see she was in a long room filled with ornate framed portraits on
the walls. But these portraits were different from the others in the mansion. They were much larger, and they were dark and grim. And all of them were of children.

In one, a blond boy, about three years old, held a toy in his hands. It was a wooden puzzle, painted bright colours, but his clothes were grey and black and his expression was full of woe. He was in a woodland setting, at night, and the branches of the trees were painted like creeping fingers, reaching out for him. In the dark leaves, fireflies glowed like eyes.

Another was of a pair of twins. One girl stood just outside the closed front door of a stone cottage, her palm flat against the wood, and a frightened, pleading look on her face. The second stood at the window, smiling from inside the house. Her eyes were smaller, and her chin and ears ever so slightly pointed. She looked self-satisfied, and appeared ignorant of the other girl’s beseeching expression.

‘Creepy,’ Rachel whispered to herself.

As she neared the end of the gallery, there was another whimper, this time very close. She tightened her grip on the figurine, and slid into the shadows of the pillars lining the walls. Peeking around the gold mouldings, her eyes followed the small footsteps to the far corner. There, in a shaft of moonlight, a little boy sat curled against the wall.

He was no more than six or seven years old, and he was soaking wet. He shivered in a light, woollen nightgown, his black hair was streaked across his forehead and his huge
green eyes were almost too big for his face. He was so cold his lips were turning purple. Rachel was sure he couldn’t see her hidden in the shadows behind a marble pillar, but his huge eyes were fixed on her.

‘Don’t let them get me,’ he whispered.

‘I don’t–’ Her voice caught in her throat.

‘Don’t follow the light. Don’t let them get me.’

She knew she should go to him – a little boy, cold and afraid – but she couldn’t. Something wasn’t right.

‘Ssssssss!’ The boy was sucking in a breath, reaching out his hands to her.

Suddenly he was on his feet, running towards her, hands outstretched, then whump!

He vanished. Dropped through the floor like he had just fallen off a cliff.

Rachel stood shaking. A puddle of water swelled where the boy had disappeared.

‘Don’t let them get me.’

The whisper echoed through the walls of the gallery, reverberating through the disquieting paintings of the children that all seemed to have turned their eyes to her. Then the sound faded to nothing, the children’s eyes averted, and she was left alone in the cold and the moonlight.

* * *

Unable to quench her own team spirit, Grace watched
Jenny gliding above her and silently urged her friend higher. They wouldn’t win the Trials but, with displays like Jenny’s today, they were putting on a good show. Hawk Falls sat on their right in the bleachers, making Jenny see red; Tempest Bridge, including Gaukroger, sat on their left, making Adie’s cheeks red. Jenny was the obvious choice for this Trial anyway but, when Victoria Meister stepped forward to once again compete for her team, the fight was on.

There were four layers of shining crystals, each level a different colour, with green the highest. The players had to collect one of each colour. The snag was that the number of crystals dwindled the higher the level. Five players had already missed snatching white ones from the bottom layer, and lost immediately. Not Jenny though. She had soared up there, the third to snatch a crystal and deposit it in a basket on the ground.

‘Your friend is doing great.’ Grace turned to a tap on the shoulder, and saw a familiar sweet smile.

‘Hey, Aura!’ She glanced at the players again. ‘You’re ahead of us, though. Isn’t that your team captain?’

The boy with long hair tied back was the second to grab a white crystal.

‘Yep, that’s Arick. He’s excellent at flying. We’re hoping to get a first on this one, we’ve only got a second and third so far.’

A boy beside Aura, who didn’t look much older than her,
elbowed her in the side. ‘No fraternising with the enemy!’

‘Oh, we’re not going to win the Trials, don’t worry,’ Grace told him cheerfully. ‘Too many penalties. We’re mainly just here to cause trouble.’

Aura giggled loudly and her team-mate scowled.

At a sudden
Oooooh
from the crowd, Grace turned back to find that the competitors were already up to the second-highest level. There was scrabbling for the crystals, the worst of it between Victoria and Arick. They both had a good grip on the large, blue crystal, and neither was willing to let go. They spun like a boomerang, faster and faster, until Victoria swung a knee into Arick’s ribs.

‘Oh no!’ said Aura.

The boy still clung fast to the crystal until two more vicious kicks from Victoria, one to the arm and one to the head, sent him spiralling to the ground. He slowed his descent a little, but it wasn’t enough, and he hit the ground with a crunch.

‘Arick!’ Aura leapt to her feet and ran to the arena, but the invisible barrier kept her out. ‘Arick! Someone help him.’

Grace raced to her side, watching the crumpled figure on the ground.

‘He’s moving,’ she said. ‘I think he’s okay.’

‘Broken leg!’ Madame Three’s tremulous voice called without feeling. ‘Balefire Warren, you may remove your competitor from the arena. The healer will chop off his leg, or arm, or any other bit necessary … perhaps his whiskers.’

Aura could step through the barrier then, closely followed by the rest of her team. Grace winced as they helped the tall boy to his feet and half-carried, half-dragged him into the castle.

‘Is there any way we can tell Jenny to let go if Victoria grabs a green crystal first?’ Adie said as Grace returned to her seat.

‘You know she won’t, no matter what we say.’

The four girls sat in silence, anxiously watching as the remaining competitors rose to dizzying heights, and the final level. Out of the corner of her eye, Grace saw Gaukroger take Adie’s hand.

Grace’s heart leapt and fell in one moment, as Jenny grabbed one of the three green crystals before Victoria caught her around the waist. They thrashed and twisted, quickly losing altitude, and Grace felt Una squeeze her arm before Jenny skilfully spun out of Victoria’s grip and sailed to a rough, but safe, landing.

‘Yes!’ The girls leapt to their feet, cheering boisterously, and giddy with relief.

‘We won,’ Una shouted in Grace’s ear. ‘We won another one.’

But their victory was short-lived. Grace didn’t see the stream of crackling energy that shot from Victoria’s fingers, but she saw it ricochet off the crystal, still clutched in Jenny’s hands, and fire straight into the struts that held the scaffolding
and the three Supremes. The platform collapsed in a creaking cacophony of snaps and screams, and all three Heads of the Lyceum toppled into the arena, showered in woody debris. The dust settled and there was absolute silence.

Madame Three undulated from beneath the wreckage like a caterpillar. Her blonde curls were dishevelled and spiked with bits of timber.

‘Dunbridge renegade,’ she screeched, one finger pointed furiously in Jenny’s direction. ‘Death to all!’

‘No,’ Jenny cried. ‘That wasn’t me, that was–’

‘SILENCE!’

Lady Hecate had pulled herself from beneath the remains of the platform, cracking her back and neck as she finally stood upright, her reddening face a clear indication of her mood.

‘St John’s of Dunbridge are denied this victory.’

‘But Jenny didn’t do anything–’ Una cried before a chilling glance from Lady Hecate silenced her.

‘This insolent child,’ the woman snarled at Jenny, ‘will be bound for her ineptitude.’

There was a gasp from the crowd, then a distant chime from inside the castle. The chiming got closer and closer until it became the unmistakable clanging of metal off stone. Something flew through the arena entrance, bouncing off bleachers and finally snapping around Jenny’s ankle.

‘Ow!’


That
,’ the woman snarled again, ‘will impose some much-needed control.’

Jenny looked up at her friends, apparently not in pain from the metal ring now closed around her ankle, and shrugged her shoulders. Behind her it took four students to help Lord Machlau to his feet. When all Supremes were standing, they walked grandly from the arena, leaving Grace and her friends perplexed as to what punishment Jenny had just suffered.

BOOK: The Watching Wood
10.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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