Authors: J.M. Sanford
Lamb & Castle
The Witch’s Daughter
Copyright © 2014 J.M. Sanford
All rights reserved.
who made this book possible in so many ways.
Two enormous snails, yoked side by side and drawing a heavy load, progressed down the rough chalky road at a considerably brisker pace than one would expect from snails. Each of them, from the bottom of its slimy foot to the top of its yellow and brown spiral shell, stood around seven feet high, and the load they pulled appeared to be a miniature castle, built of iron, mounted on caterpillar tracks, and with a line of washing fluttering from its tower in the early evening breeze. As the road wound through miles of green hills, from Whitecastle to the fishing village of Springhaven, the strange contraption gradually encroached on the mail coach rattling its way down towards the coast. Harold, the butcher’s son, had been half dozing on the bench beside the old mailman, but raised his head when he heard the rumble and crunch of the other vehicle coming up behind them and soon to overtake the mail coach’s plodding old mare. The mailman moved over obligingly without so much as a glance over his shoulder, but Harold leaned out to get a good look, shielding his eyes against the low sun. He gawped at the spectacle of the snails and their burden, utterly lost for words. Soon, the snails drew level with the mail coach, close enough for Harold to see the long spikes protruding from the heavy armour of the shells, and still he could only stare, open-mouthed and speechless. A knight in full armour held the snails’ reins. He didn’t even deign to look at the mail coach.
“Get away wi’ ye,” muttered the mailman, as the nearest snail’s enormous eye stalks waved gently towards the horse and coach. The mailman only came to Springhaven once every third Tuesday, so perhaps he was used to seeing stranger sights than giant snails, out there in the wider world. The snails and castle just barely scraped past the mail coach, and then steadily pulled ahead, towards the village. Harold watched them go, wondering what business such a strange thing might have in a little fishing village.
Not many people at all had cause to travel to Springhaven, and nothing lay beyond it but the sea. Once, two young dukes had made a brief fishing holiday there, and they’d been the talk of the town for months. The only possible point of interest in his village was a tall tower some quarter of a mile off shore, a grim grey remnant of some long ago war, standing amongst craggy rocks that could smash a fishing boat to splinters in a storm. In a small town where everybody knew everybody else’s name and business, and regarded privacy as some mythical luxury, only the inhabitants of the tower retained any air of mystery. The tower belonged to a reclusive scholar, Professor Lamb, and his second wife. Nobody had seen
in years, but
ventured in to shore from time to time when weather permitted, to shop and gossip. Apparently, she was quite well off, having retired very young. Quite what she had retired from, nobody knew, but in lieu of the true story, the wives and maids of Springhaven had invented at least two dozen spicy rumours. Personally, Harold found the Professor’s daughter a much more interesting figure. Again, the gap left by the lack of plain solid facts had been filled with gossip and rumour. Harold had never seen the girl himself, and quite possibly nobody from Springhaven ever had. Some said her name was Amelia. She might not even exist at all, but for Harold, the idea of a mysterious maiden locked away in the grey and dismal tower captured his imagination like nothing else. For years he’d daydreamed of rescuing the beautiful, lonely girl from her prison and making her his wife. Now he watched anxiously as the strange snailcastletank dwindled into the distance on the road ahead. On the horizon, the dark tower rose from the sea, and as the sun began to sink below the green hills, Harold saw the pinpricks of light come on in the tower’s windows.
“Once upon a time, a beautiful but lonely young maiden lived locked away in the highest room of the tower. Her wicked and vain stepmother set her menial tasks, like darning socks, and polishing silverware, and…”
Amelia picked up her mending basket, examining the piece on the top of the pile.
“…and putting buttons back on shirts. Oh, buttons; oh, joy. One day, the wicked stepmother gave her stepdaughter a shirt with a missing button, along with a poisoned needle. It would only take one prick of the needle for the unsuspecting girl to fall into an enchanted sleep from which nothing could awaken her, and there she would stay for a hundred years. The stepdaughter was a patient and conscientious seamstress, but nevertheless –
Amelia paused with her sewing and her idle hands in her lap. Somebody was making an awful lot of noise downstairs, thumping about. The tower’s resident fire sprite, perhaps, making a nuisance of himself again? She looked down at the grate, where the embers glowed an eerie greenish yellow. No, he was right there in his usual place – sleeping, if it can be said that fire sprites sleep. The strange little creature had been her companion in the heights of the tower all her life. Dramatic as his flames looked sometimes, they rarely burned very hot, and previous owners of the tower seemed to have house-trained him to the point where he didn’t do too much damage. It amused them both when Amelia fed him bits of scrap paper or odd ends of yarn, and she’d learned that his different colours often indicated his moods.
Back to the story of the seamstress and the wicked stepmother: should the conscientious heroine save herself by her own sure skill with the needle, never once pricking her finger? Or would it be better if she inevitably succumbed to the enchantment, only to be awoken from it by true love’s first kiss? All the best stories had a hero: a prince, for preference. Chores forgotten, Amelia dozed in her chair by the fireplace, dreaming of princes and knights on white horses.
It was past midnight that she was woken by her fire sprite companion frantically rattling at the handles of her dresser drawers. There was nothing unusual in
, but when she flung a cushion in the direction of the racket, it did nothing to subdue the restless sprite. He knocked over a footstool instead, sending her sewing basket flying.
!” Amelia hissed at him, as a ball of wool bounced off the wall inches from her head. The windows rattled, the curtains flew out, and the sprite howled like a sad little dog.
“Bad sprite!” Amelia hissed in a loud whisper. “Whatever’s gotten into you?” She cast around the room for a familiar glowing shape, but the sprite remained invisible. He did that sometimes – she’d eventually struggle to see the very faint glow of him in some corner or other. The last time she could remember him getting so upset, they’d had visitors. Amelia opened her bedroom window and leaned out as far as she could, the cold wind whipping her tangled tresses around her face. Moonlight sparkled on the restless sea. Leaning out as far as she dared, she could just about see the landing stage, and her stepmother’s boat. “There’s nobody there, Stupid!”
The fire spite continued to whine and moan, but during a brief lull in his complaints Amelia heard voices downstairs in the parlour. She glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece. Her father and stepmother never usually stayed up so late… Kneeling to put her ear to the floorboards, Amelia could distinguish her stepmother’s loud voice, her father’s faint thoughtful murmuring, and two or three unfamiliar voices. Still, from her room right at the top of the tower, she couldn’t make out the topic of conversation, no matter how hard she strained her ears. Footsteps sounded on the stairs. Three pairs? Four? One pair heavy enough to make the stairs groan in loud protest. Amelia jumped hurriedly into bed, and as the agitated fire sprite fell silent at last, she heard the click of her stepmother’s heels on the landing. The bedroom door opened. Amelia, feigning sleepiness, squinted exaggeratedly at the narrow slice of yellow lamplight, and the shadow of a head piled high with elaborate curls.
“Amelia?” her stepmother whispered in the dark, “Are you awake?”
What a stupid question. As if anybody could have slept through the fire sprite’s noisy antics… Amelia made a vague and hopefully sleepy noise.
“We have visitors staying tonight. Friends of your father’s. It might be best for you to stay in your room tomorrow, and I’ll bring you breakfast.” She continued with her instructions for the following day: warnings not to get underfoot (as if Amelia were some naughty child!), not to disturb Father and the visitors while they discussed Important Things. Amelia barely listened to her stepmother: with the door opened a crack she could almost hear tantalising snippets of conversation down the hallway, on the stairs. Her father, soft spoken as always, and one of the strangers: the one with the nasal, irritated, but aristocratic voice.
“…and her servant.” Amelia just caught the end of her stepmother’s directions. “Don’t stare, will you darling? If you
happen to meet them, that is.” And then she disappeared.
Amelia lay awake in the dark. Father’s friends? But he left the tower almost as infrequently as she did. In the past ten years, she didn’t think either of them had been ashore more than twice. She had no intention of staying in her room in the morning. She wouldn’t get under anybody’s feet, but if she happened to run into anybody, it would be only good manners for her to introduce herself…
Amelia had planned to be awake before dawn, hoping for more signs of her father’s mystery guests. As it happened, she only awoke when a shaft of late morning sunshine happened to pierce the curtains and fall across her pillow. She washed and dressed in a hurry, only stopping to rebraid her hair out of habit. She’d slept long past breakfast time. Hungry and irritated at having been forgotten, she headed straight down to the kitchen, but just as she approached the door, she caught a fragment of conversation: “…more dangerous for her to stay here, really.”
She opened the door a crack and peered into the kitchen. It looked crowded with four people in it. Her father and stepmother sat at the table with two strangers: a middle-aged woman with small round spectacles and frizzy hair the colour of straw, and a man completely anonymous inside a gleaming suit of armour.
“Ah, here she is at last,” said her stepmother, catching sight of Amelia.
Amelia smiled nervously as she took a seat at the table, next to her father. “Pleased to meet you,” she mumbled.
“Amelia,” said her father, gripping her hand reassuringly, “this is Meg Spinner. She’s, um… she’s a very dear friend of mine, from long ago.”
“No need to beat around the bush, Jonathan. We were married,” said the frizzy-haired woman, and then turned to Amelia. “Which I’m afraid to say makes me your mother. Sorry for being away so long – couldn’t be helped,” she added, as if she had been absent for days or weeks, instead of twenty-five years.
“And this is her companion, Sir Percival Wintergard,” said Father, weakly.
“You do make me feel old,” said Meg, studying Amelia closely over her cup of tea. Her pudgy hands and wrists were heavy with jewellery. “I remember the day I left you here, like it was yesterday, and you were just a baby then. You must be getting on for thirty now, and still cooped up here in this tower.” She shook her head sadly.
Amelia said nothing. All her life, her real mother had been as mythical a figure as a unicorn. She looked from the dumpy, frizzy-haired woman across the table, to her tall and elegant stepmother, and back again. She searched for any resemblance to herself in Meg’s features, but couldn’t find anything. They both had fair hair, but that was as far as it went. She tried to summon up an emotional response to the news, but again she found nothing.
“Oh dear, Miss Spinner, I think you’ve rather shocked her,” said Amelia’s stepmother. “And she’s not the most eloquent young lady at the best of times.”
Meg didn’t even glance at her successor. “Well that’s something, at least. I can’t stand air-headed chatterboxes. You look pale, Amelia: are you really shocked? Didn’t you get my letter?”
Father cleared his throat. “She’s a very sensitive young lady, Meg. I didn’t want you upsetting her with all that talk of fate and destiny and dragons.”
Meg gave him such a look as to make him wilt into the seat of his chair. “That letter wasn’t meant for
. The poor girl is old enough now to know the facts and make up her own mind about these things.”
“Dragons?” Nobody seemed to hear Amelia’s small voice. She looked again at the figure in plate armour. So far he had neither spoken nor stirred. Amelia had read a lot about knights in shining armour, and despite evidence of a few small dents, this one had been polished to gleam almost as bright as the ones in her daydreams. And in case of dragons, a girl needs a brave knight… She half hoped he would remove his helmet so she could see if he was handsome or not, but at the same time it made her nervous to think that here at the kitchen table sat an
knight, who might wield an
sword, and at some point might have
“Don’t stare, Amelia,” her stepmother chided her in a whisper. “It’s not polite. You’ll have to excuse Amelia’s manners, Miss Spinner,” she said, loudly. “It
do her good to get out and see the world, after all this time.”
Amelia giggled nervously at that ludicrous suggestion. She quietened and blushed when she realised that nobody else seemed to find the idea funny.
“Better than keeping her locked up here like a mouse in a cage,” said Meg.
“No,” said Father, and squeezed Amelia’s hand again. “No, I’m really not sure about that, Meg.”