The Witch and the Commander
The clouds rolled above, gray and magnificent, like the dirty bow of a great ship sailing overhead. The huge shadows they cast ran across the port and shaded the solid beams of wood a dark brown. Ships swayed in the circling waters of the dock, the lap of water against their hulls like a wet knock at the door.
The slap of boots against the sodden wooden beams mixed with shouts and the growing whistle of the wind. Men with broad shoulders and stiff necks sprinted between the docked ships, tying down ropes and tightening knots.
“Get up there!”
“You! Get over to the Pembrake!”
“Where’s the Dock Master?”
The inhabitants of Bridgestock were calling it the storm of the century, seeing in those tumbling clouds such a foreboding menace that windows were being taped shut and doors propped closed. The deep ominous color of the clouds was not the only cause for worry: along the headland, rattling through the streets and up the hill of the city, rushed a chaotic wind. It shook signs, brought branches crashing from trees, and sent buckets, plant pots, and anything not tied down tumbling through the streets.
With ferocity like that, this storm had to be bad.
From across the street, adjacent to the port, shoppers stopped to stare at the frantic work of the wharfies. Old ladies, their baskets laden with bread and fruit, arched their necks toward the swaying ships, casting their wizened eyes toward the sprinting clouds. Two old men packed away their card table and, with shakes of their heads, hurried indoors. A greengrocer recruited a passing friend to help him pack away his glistening vegetables, offering a free pumpkin for a quick hand.
Windows and doors were being closed, and lights were flickering on. The greengrocer handed over the pumpkin and stared at the sky. He whistled and, tucking his cap further over his head, retreated inside.
Though the city of Bridgestock no longer accepted witches, its inhabitants could not help but be reminded of an old witch’s proverb. Storms change things, and the bigger the storm, the more it changes – whatever you don’t hold on to, you will lose to the wind and rain. Of course, the Bridgestockians took this to mean that their windows would be broken and their frontages dented from hail. The proverb had a much deeper meaning. A storm could break a window, but it could also break a destiny, especially one that was not tied down.
It was midday in the city of Bridgestock, but the town was already growing dark.
Abigail Gail, Abby for short, bucked the trend. As people ducked their heads against the wind and hurried up the avenues leading away from the port, she walked toward it. In a billowing patchwork skirt and a thick black top, she dodged the people by walking half in the gutter, a broomstick held in one hand and a basket of cloths, soaps, and sponges in the other. Beside her, up on the pavement, trotted a black cat. The cat had an imperious look glinting in its golden eyes.
“You don’t have to look at me like that, Charlie,” Abby said under her breath, not turning around. “A job is a job.”
The cat flicked its tail twice.
“Do you want to eat tonight, or what?” Abby ducked to the side as a large man rushed past offering her an odd look, which she ignored.
Charlie kept trotting forward but turned his head toward her and twitched his whiskers.
She laughed. “Well, at least we can eat tonight, which is a relief.”
Abby was a slim girl, some would say painfully thin – and on that, she would agree. It was not a fashion choice, but a result of her even slimmer money purse. Her eyes were gray, her hair a tousled sandy-blond mess. Her body was always swamped under the clothes she wore. She never bothered to take them in, hoping that someday she might be able to fill them out again.
She had a young face, though it was always set with a melancholic frown that added years to her. She would aim for a severe, perhaps strict grimace, but she could never make her eyes glare right – so she’d end up with a nervous, somewhat sad look. That was the same with anything Abby did – she would try for something and end up getting something else. She would want something but always receive the opposite. It was almost as if Lady Luck was scowling so hard at Abby that she would be doomed to misfortune for the rest of her life.
Abby’s destiny was not a fortunate one.
Abby and Charlie walked past a grand old building set into the wall and dodged past the people milling around the doorway watching the ships sway under the swathe of gray clouds looming overhead.
“Excuse me.” She tried to duck around a group of men who had chosen that moment to pour out of the two swinging doors. They were all dressed in Royal Navy uniforms and were thin-lipped with worry.
“Sorry, love,” a large man apologized as he bumped into her, knocking her backward.
“Oh.” She somehow righted herself and tried to dodge around him, but soon found herself in a sea of men all pouring out of the doors. She ground to a halt, Charlie tucking in behind her legs to prevent himself being trampled.
“Coming off the headland – did you hear the guy in the bar? Said he’d never ever heard wind like that before.”
“Flattened several fishing ships out in the deeps this morning, and it’s only getting worse.”
“God, look at those clouds!”
“You hear what the old sea dog was saying in there? Said a storm like this changes destinies, what do you reckon he meant by that?”
“I reckon he meant he wanted another beer.”
Abby had no choice but to listen. She was stuck right in the middle of what felt like an entire ship full of sailors. Their worried, wavering words were bouncing around like the roiling clouds above.
“Okay, okay,” a deeper, more officious tone boomed from somewhere near the doors, “save your doomsday talk.” The owner of the voice pushed forward.
He must be an ogre, Abby thought, or a troll to make headway through this throng of huge men. For her, it was like being packed into a tin full of muscle-bound, stripy-uniform-clad sardines. It didn’t help that Abby stood a full two heads shorter than most of the men, though they did provide an excellent windbreak.
The sailors either couldn’t see her or thought she was some kind of peculiar patchwork growth on the sidewalk. She could feel Charlie start to fret behind her and half wanted to grab her broomstick and rise up above the throng like a feather caught in an updraft.
That would not be smart.
Someone pushed through the men in front of her and came to a sudden stop, as Abby had her face to the sky, shooting a longing look at the mob-free air above her.
“Do I know you?”
She snapped her gaze down and blinked. Everyone turned to look at her. If she had been invisible before, she was now a giant black dot on pure white paper.
“Abby,” she squeaked.
The man in front of her, dressed in a crisp white uniform, looked sideways, rumpling his brow with confused curiosity. She guessed he was from the South Islands with his dark tanned skin and muscular build. He had green eyes, so somewhere in there he must have Westland or Northland heritage. She deduced he was the one in charge, what with the three brass bands shining on his collar and the way he passed through the packed crowd with ease. She also guessed, with a gulp, that “Abby” wasn’t the answer he was looking for.
The skin on the back of Abby’s neck prickled the way it always did before she expected something. It was a witchy sense she could count on, for Abby’s neck always knew what would happen next. Whoever this man was, her neck appeared to be telling her he was important.
“Excuse me?” He cocked his head to the side, his pale green eyes thin slits of bewilderment.
“I’m stuck.” She pointed to herself. “I can’t get past….” She tried to look anywhere but at the man in front of her. Her mind raced through the set of possibilities as to why this man, who she had never met before, could be making her neck itch like a thousand ants dancing over the skin.
“Oh.” The confusion lifted from his face, replaced with a kind, broad smile. “Please excuse us, Abby.” He stepped back and turned around to address the men surrounding them. “Alright, get off the pavement, guys; you’re blocking it up.”
His words were like a magic icebreaker, tearing the throng of sailors asunder. Abby turned to walk away, and she made full eye contact with the man. He was looking at her with narrowed, but friendly eyes, almost as if he had seen her somewhere before. He looked away – distracted by something or bored by her appearance – and the tingle on her neck passed as if it had never been at all.
She hurried forward. It was like coming out into the light after being stuck in the deepest of caves. Men parted before her like curtains furling back from a window.
A touch of embarrassment warmed her cheeks as she walked through the last of the crowd.
“Sorry, Abby,” several sailors called as she passed.
“Yeah, sorry about that.”
“Why are you carrying a broom?” One of the last sailors said to her. “Anyone would think you were a witch.”
It was always the same. Always the same. A stab of panic raced across her chest, and she snapped her shoulders in as if making herself a smaller target. She gripped onto her broom until her fingers threatened to shatter the wood into a thousand splinters. “I’m a window cleaner,” she muttered without looking back.
“Pearson,” she heard the man in charge snap. “You’re out of line.”
“I’m just saying what we’re all thinking, sir. The Colonel tells us to be alert.”
“Well, the Colonel isn’t your commander – I am.”
“But he’ll be King soon.”
“And I’ll still be your commander,” the man said one final time.
Within moments she had left the group behind, though she did turn one last time to catch a glimpse of the man who was a commander and the cause of her itching neck. He met her gaze, and his gaze was no longer friendly. Whether he thought her to be a witch or not, it was plain that even the idea of it disgusted him. That was the standard reaction of any Bridgestockian.
Abby felt disappointed at his reaction. She couldn’t tell why, but now her neck was tingling like a fire was crackling under the skin. Something felt wrong about this situation….
She glanced down at Charlie when they were far enough away. His tail was still a shock of erect fur. “That was close.” He bared his teeth. “Home. Now.”
Abby breathed into a smile. It was always that way, but, no, it hadn’t been close. There were no pitchforks for one, no burning torches. No one had tried to tie her up and throw her off a cliff or lock her in a cave with a monster. They hadn’t threatened to call the Palace authorities and have her dragged before the Queen. They hadn’t even tried to break her broom.
That had not been close…. It had been unnerving, though. Witches in Bridgestock were banned, and its citizens brought it upon themselves to enforce that ban and shun all who even looked witch-like.
Such was Abby’s life.
She had moved to this city with the kind of innocence only a new witch can draw on. She’d been 18. Sure, she’d heard the stories, heard the rumors that, in some parts, witches had become unpopular – something to do with an assassination that had led to a royal decree. She hadn’t believed the stories. No one could hate witches, because they were so darn useful! In her own village, high amongst the mountains of the Eastland, witches were revered. Baskets of bread, fruit, and honey had been left at her door the day she’d lifted her first curse, not a burning bottle of alcohol.
Witches cured, healed, blessed, and protected. What wasn’t to like? How could a witch have anything to do with an assassination? Who would even believe that?
Abby did not remember her decision fondly to come to Bridgestock. It had been on her first day as a fully-fledged witch. She’d been brimming with enthusiasm – for that was the day she would be given her territory. She’d thought she’d get somewhere nice and close, somewhere local, perhaps within an easy broom flight of her parents.
No, the Crone had something special for her.
Once a witch was given her territory, she was supposed to be bound to it for life. It would become her lifeblood, her reason for living. It was a witch’s duty to care for her hamlet, town, vale, or city, to ensure its history would be great and yet good. Unfortunately, as she was going to find out, her area would have a festering wound in its side. One that had changed its history and usurped its people, turning them bigoted, aggressive isolationists.
That wound was the Witch Ban.
If it was a witch’s duty to ensure her city remained on a path of good, then how in the pleck was she supposed to change the Witch Ban? How in the world could she care for a town that shunned her existence?
Abby had not known then how impossible her task would be.
If she’d had a choice in the matter, or knowledge of the Ban and its effects, she would never have come. She hadn’t had a choice, though – a witch’s territory was decided for her by the senior witch of the coven – the Crone.
In Abby’s case, it was Ms. Crowthy.
Ms. Crowthy had pulled her aside at the clan meeting and peered at her for a good minute through the moonlight. “Something special for you, Miss Gail. Yes, I think you need something different, something challenging.”
Abby had stared back, stared right into the railroading gaze of the Crone. A stupid thing to do; you don’t meet the eyes of a crone without the protection of a half-meter of frosted glass. She’d had a headache for at least a week afterward.
“You got a problem, young Abby: your destiny ain’t in these hills, and it ain’t an easy one. I consulted the waters this morning when I was drawing up the assignments… I saw something interesting about you, very interesting. There was a storm in my teacup, child, and I’d say there’s a storm in your future, too. One of them big ones. I saw my tea-leaves beating around in that cup all wild and loose, and I said to myself this has something to do with young Abby. You’re all loose, child, you need to be tied down to something concrete, something hard. You’re destined even, I think.”
Abby had nodded. A skilled witch didn’t need to look at the way tea leaves settled in the bottom of an empty cup to read the future. If she knew her trade – and the Crone was the best witch in all the mountains – then she could look at the way the leaves floated to open her second sight. It was in the way they moved. You can’t predict the movement of time by staring at a stationary object. The gushing waters of a stream, the whipping clouds above, the way a scarf floats to the ground – these were far more effective. Telling the future isn’t so much about what happens, but how it will happen.
So Abby had sucked in her lips and directed her frightened gaze over the Crone’s shoulder.
“You are going away, Miss Gail.”
“Away?” Abby had shot a hesitant look at the other young witches still milling about the fire and chatting. “Where?” Away sounded like it would be at least a day’s broom flight, she’d thought.
“Bridgestock City, on the north coast of the Westlands.”
“Ha?” That had been the best thing Abby could think of at the time. She had a vague idea of geography. There was her mountain village, then the several villages around her, then a couple more that were really far away. Westlands, she’d heard from the baker’s daughter, was at least as far as the ends of the Earth, if not further.
“I’ll give you a map, child, to help you find it.”
Gosh, it sounded like it would be at least two day’s solid flying, Abby had thought.
“Now I’d only fly at night and keep yourself high so as to avoid unwanted attention from rambling villagers.”
Three day’s flight then?
“You take that Charlie with you; you’ll need a good head up around your shoulders, even if it isn’t your own.”
“Now as soon as you get down from the Mountains, I suggest you book yourself a ticket on the train, dear. It’s quite a penny, but you’ll be too tired to fly all that way. I’ve left the money at your mother’s – don’t go spending it on herbs and charms, you hear?”
Abby had nodded, her brain giving up on measuring her impending journey in broom-flight days.
“Now, when you get to Bridgestock, you’ll have to make your own way setting up your business and all. The last witch there… well… ain’t there no longer. They haven’t had one in those parts for a good long year. Don’t let that put you off. Persist, child; they’ll need you soon enough. You’ll have something very important to do in that city, something big. You’ll be stopping something, I shouldn’t wonder, and fixing something, and making some things never be. And that should be a lot of hard work.”
Abby had listened in a daze as the Crone had filled her in on various other details of what to do in Bridgestock. Abby’s brain had closed down for the most of it, and even now, with the benefit of living in Bridgestock, she still couldn’t remember half the advice. Most of it had been along the lines of stay away from boys: boys in taverns, boys on the ports, boys on the streets, and, above all, boys in competition for your affection.
One tiny snippet of the conversation, however, was as clear as when the Crone had uttered it with a sideways glance at the full moon. “One other thing, young Abby. Witches… well, they… what I mean to say is, you won’t be popular. You see, witches are banned in Westlands, especially in Bridgestock.”
Now, with both her feet on the tessellated streets of Bridgestock, Abby lived the Witch Ban.
Unpopular. Unpopular? Witches were hated. Her entire train carriage had emptied when she’d told them she was a witch and had offered to fix an old gentleman’s snore. The man in question had growled at her as he’d left. Then there had been the incident in the port town of Halit when she’d rescued that cat from the tree. The child who’d owned the cat had burst into tears, and the mother had chased Abby down the street taking swipes at her with a broom.
Perhaps the scariest incident had been with the guards on the ferry that had taken her to Bridgestock. A contingent of Royal Guards from the Palace had boarded on official Royal duty and had checked each passenger for contraband. When the Captain of the Guard had reached her, he’d leaned down – eyes taking in her outfit, cat, and broom – and had brought his face in 20 centimeters from her own.
“Are you a witch, young’n?”
“Cause if you is a witch, we’ll throw you overboard.”
That had been her first experience of the Guards, but not her last. The Guards were vicious, mindless bullies who received direct orders, not from the Queen, but from the biggest bully of all – the Colonel. Abby didn’t know much about him, just that his hate for witches ran so deep it infected even the walls of the city.
When she’d made it to Bridgestock, for one reason or another, she’d found herself in the roughest looking area she’d ever seen. Granted, she only had a mean section of pine forest back home to compare it to, but this section of Bridgestock trumped the wolf dens and pine-needle covered cliffs she could conjure in her memory.
It was dark and damp like the back of Ms. Crowthy’s laundry, and it smelt of sea air, disturbed dirt, and animal fat. The houses were all packed together with a fingers width between them. Some of them were built into the great stone walls that were cut into the hill of Bridgestock, which mounted, layer by layer, up to the palace beyond.
It was cramped and stifling. There were no plants to speak of, save for a suspect green mold that covered the gutters. No animals either, despite that terrible smell, except the occasional harsh call of the gulls.
She hadn’t planned on staying. Ms. Crowthy had warned her about “the slumps.” She said they were terrible places, and that if Abby were to find herself in one, she should hit anyone who spoke to her over the head with her broom, especially boys. Abby had pondered this advice as she’d huddled next to a wall watching some of the largest, most menacing men and women she had ever seen walk past, and concluded that if she even tapped somebody with her broom around these parts, they’d reply in kind with a sledgehammer.
She would later find out, or learn by experience rather, that the people of Bridgestock were a confused lot. It wasn’t that they were not nice to each other; she had witnessed remarkable generosity between them. However they were quick to hate, quicker to judge, and quickest to shun. The license to despise witches had enabled other derogatory views to take root. South Islanders, Eastlanders, roamers, desert people, Elogians – each day the list would grow.
The Witch Ban had started it all. It allowed the hate to settle and disseminate.
Though it was her job as resident witch to fix it, she couldn’t. She was one witch in a city of people who, if they found out she was among them, would eliminate her.
So, for the most part, six years after her arrival, Abby Gail had settled into Bridgestock in the only way she could – by pretending she was not a witch at all. It continued to be hard. Every time a child whispered that word to its mother as they passed her on the street, every time an old lady or a passing fisherman looked sideways at her broomstick and black cat, and every time a Royal Guard gave her a narrow-eyed stare. She could feel the hate, and it hurt.
“I thought you said we could go home!” Charlie glared at her from the base of a tree.
“I never said anything of the sort. I have to work, Charlie – that’s how we eat, in case you’ve forgotten.” Abby squeezed out a sponge and glanced up at the mottled-gray and navy-blue sky.
“But, Abby, it’s blowing a gale, and just look at the sky! It’s going to split in two any moment and drown us all.”
“It’s only mid-afternoon.” She looked around to check no one was watching, and she drew a quick protective charm in the suds on the pane of glass she was working on. Just a bonus the residents who employed her to wash their windows received… not that they knew it. “Trust me, this storm won’t hit ‘til at least quarter-past-seven. Once I finish up with Mrs. Hunter’s windows, we can head home with plenty of time to spare.”
“Mrs. Hunter? How can her windows be dirty again?”
“They were never really dirty to start with,” Abby said. Mrs. Hunter was her most regular client, and if it weren’t for the old dear, Abby would have starved years ago.
“You know, I think that lady is onto something.” Charlie crossed in front of the tree, trying to find a spot out of the wind. “She’s always got you over, and you always manage to do a really good job, even reaching the top windows on your broom – what if she suspects you’re a witch?”
Abby scratched at a patch of stubborn dirt. “Of course she doesn’t. Mrs. Hunter is simply a sweet old dear who needs a friend. What with her son in the Navy and her husband dead, I think she just wants company in that huge old house. And I just happen to be company who also washes the windows. And I’m always careful to use the broom only when I know no one is watching. Give me some credit, Charlie.”
Charlie tilted his head to the side and shook. “And what about that bracelet you fixed, you said it was magic? Strong magic. What do you think an old dear is doing with something like that? Don’t you think it might be a trap?”
Abby paused and took a hurried breath. Charlie sure was making her irritable today. What with this wind and her constant niggling sense that something was on the horizon – she didn’t need to be distracted by Charlie’s conspiracy theories. Not that she hadn’t thought them herself. “I don’t think it’s a trick… I think she just thought it was a trinket…. Look I don’t know, Charlie, sometimes I do think she knows I’m a witch, and she doesn’t care….” Abby stared into the sparkling glass.
“Oh right, of course she doesn’t care – she’s only a rich old lady living on Esquire Street with all the other rich fascists who ruined our lives! And what about all those teas you take her – that’s suicide, Abby; she’s bound to be onto us.”
“She asked for them, Charlie…. And it felt good to do something vaguely witchy for once.”
“Pleck that, Abby!” Charlie twitched his ears flat and swooshed his tail.
“Don’t swear.” She stood back from the glistening window and checked it from several angles. “To be honest, I don’t think it matters. Mrs. Hunter… well, I’ve always suspected she was a little different… she told me about those dreams she’s been having, and they sounded almost like second sight. I couldn’t just leave her without a cup of sweet basil tea, could I? They’d consume her every waking moment. I am a witch, and I have to look after my people even if they don’t know I’m doing it.”
“You could look after yourself first, Abby – that sounds like a much safer policy. Leave Mrs. Hunter to her dreams and windows.”
“No,” Abby was surprised by the far-off quality of her voice, “something has always told me it’s important for me to know Mrs. Hunter….”
Charlie rolled his eyes. “Oh great, there’s that faulty second sight of yours again. Do you know why it’s important, or when, or what you should do?”
“No.” Abby bit her lips and sighed at Charlie. “Don’t tease me like that; of course I don’t. If I did, I’d save myself a whole lot of trouble.”
“That’s your problem, Abby – all you know is how to find trouble. For instance, why aren’t we going home? Would you just look at those clouds?”
“It will only be a storm, trust me – it won’t be important at all.” Abby looked away. She hadn’t wanted to worry Charlie, but she had felt something off about this storm. Something was gathering in those clouds, something big.
A gull cried as it circled overhead, making Charlie prick up his ears and sniff the air. “You should hear what the birds are saying, Abby! Storm of the century that one just squawked – the century!”
She wasn’t about to buy into that. She was a witch, after all; she knew what happened when you called a storm “the storm of the century” – it would start getting ideas. If people kept on talking about the storm of the century – then that’s what they’d get. They’d convince the clouds and rain that they could do something horrible. If everyone called it the storm of the century, then everyone would prepare for it to be huge and life changing – and the storm would do just that, it would change lives. So if everyone in Bridgestock went around saying they were in for trouble, then the whole city would be in for trouble.
Witches are wary of storms; storms can change destinies. If the storm was big enough, it could rewrite history in a clap of thunder – for good or worse.
Abby shook her head one final time, her mousy-blond tangled tresses brushing against her face. “Everything will be fine. This is not the storm of the century.” She straightened her skirt with a firm hand. “I’m the witch of Bridgestock, and nothing will go wrong on my watch.”
Abby looked up at the clouds one final time. She wished something would go right for once, though.
Bridgestock, earlier that day
“A career in the Navy is something to be proud of, son.” Captain Jefferson stared at Pembrake, his eyes gray and steady like a windless ocean.
Pembrake nodded. A career that promised him a lifetime away from Bridgestock was worth all the gold in the world.
“I want you to know you’ve earned this. It’s been a hard journey for you, I can appreciate that. But I want you to know that you have become a fine sailor and an even finer officer.”
Pembrake’s chest puffed out as far as he could push it. It wasn’t every day the Captain pulled you into his office to compliment you.
The Captain paused and picked at a stain on the edge of his desk. “I received a dispatch from Base this morning. It seems they received your application to the Academy.” He fixed his eyes on Pembrake and kept his gaze keen and unwavering. “The Admiral there is a friend of mine.”
Pembrake sat straight, his back as stiff as a ship’s mast. His gut may have been churning with excitement, but he wasn’t about to let it show.
“Your application was successful,” the Captain said. “You will take up your position at the Royal Naval Academy when this current mission is complete.”
Pembrake couldn’t control his mouth any longer, and a huge grin spread across his face. He felt like jumping for joy; finally he’d be free. Finally, he could leave Bridgestock for good.
The Captain joined in with a more measured smile. “You have earned this. Though I fear perhaps you are not doing this for the right reasons, it is still a valuable career move on your part.”
A touch of cold spread across Pembrake’s back. “Sorry, sir,” he said before he could contain himself, “what do you mean, sir, when you say that I’m not doing this for the right reasons?”
“I fear that – and do not take this as an insult – you are running away from Bridgestock.”
Pembrake tried to maintain an even, unaffected look, but the Captain’s comment riled him. “Permission to speak freely, sir?”
The Captain nodded.
“I am not running away, I am simply running toward something more challenging. There’s nothing Bridgestock can offer me anymore.”
The Captain gave a stiff smile. “The Academy will be good for you, son, I’m sure of it. But I still fear that you have given up on your home – on this city. Just because this place has spiraled into a dark depression, doesn’t mean you should turn your back on your homeland.”
Pembrake fought the desire to raise his voice. “Forgive me, sir, but Bridgestock is a death trap. It speeds faster and faster toward destruction every year. Its people are more and more vicious, bile-filled, and hateful each time I return. Soon the Colonel will assume control, and then we will reach the point of no return.” His cheeks flushed, and he found his fingers digging hard into his palms.
The Captain, always unflappable, didn’t seem to mind the energy crackling through his First Officer’s tone. “Is not the racist the one who shows hatred to a group he considers irredeemable and beyond help? You speak of the bile of Bridgestock, yet speak of it yourself with bile-filled words. You speak of them as hating others, yet you hate them in return. And worst of all you think that they can never change.”
Pembrake recoiled, not at the Captain’s delivery, which was soft and eloquent, but at the realization his words brought.
“You’ve given up on them,” the Captain said clearly, “and you have no right to. You figure, perhaps rightly, that there is no way that you can change this situation, that you alone cannot heal the wound that poisons your city. But, Pembrake, unless you try, then you will only be right.”
Pembrake straightened his back, pulled himself up as tall as he could, but did not say a word.
“Take your position. But remember, don’t turn your back on Bridgestock. Don’t become bitter, don’t become twisted, and if you see an opportunity to fix your city – then take it.”
Pembrake climbed the stairs, his feet pounding against the rough stone. It was disconcerting being on solid land, not feeling the slightest sway of the ocean beneath him. The unnerving solidity couldn’t distract his mind too long. Noticing the change of a familiar shop front, or how a street had been renamed to celebrate the Colonel – these things weren’t enough to pull his mind from his problems.
As he climbed the final step, he pinched the bridge of his nose. At least the end was in sight. If he played his cards right, he would never have to come back to this place again.
He always felt uneasy when he visited Bridgestock. It wasn’t the buildings, the unique layout of the city built into the hill, or even the way it smelt of fish and salt spray – it was the way it felt. Oppressive, like the sky was going to fall on him.
He always wore his uniform in Bridgestock. It had a dual purpose – it would serve to impress, and it would serve to protect. The women of Bridgestock were the finest in all the lands, except for the leggy wonders of the South Islands or the long-lashed dark-eyed beauties of Elogia. Nevertheless, Bridgestockian women weren’t bad, and they always fell for a man in uniform.
There was also a much less roguish need to keep the stiff white jacket of the Royal Navy visible at all times – to stop the stares, the snide comments, and the barely concealed hostility. It was the color of his skin. And coming back to Bridgestock, his hometown, was the only place it ever mattered.
He had sailed the world with the Navy and nowhere did his appearance matter as much as it did in Bridgestock. Even in Elogia, they didn’t care so much about the color of his skin as his allegiance to the Westlands. He was their enemy, not because of what he looked like, because of something he had no power to change, but because of the simple fact they were soon to be at war. Grievances that begin conflict – border disputes, assassinations, resource grabs – are all matters that can be resolved. It is impossible to resolve appearance because it cannot be changed.
So coming back to Bridgestock always made his stomach ache.
It was crippling to even step foot in this town. More and more, he grew to hate this place, to hate its people, its history, its very existence.
He flicked his gaze along the street for the tenth time and receded further into the protection of his stiff, white cap until its shadow covered his face.
It was time to move on with his own destiny and leave this place to rot.
For all Pembrake Hunter cared, Bridgestock could go to hell.
It was strange, strange indeed. Abby felt guilty, and she wasn’t sure why. She felt like she’d done something, something terrible, but she had no idea what, where, or when she might have committed the fell deed. All she knew was that something was amiss.
She walked to Mrs. Hunter’s with her head held high, trying not to admit to herself that her overwhelming sense of guilt had anything at all to do with the storm. She knew this wasn’t the storm of the century gathering over her town. She knew it wouldn’t be so powerful that it would snap the destiny of Bridgestock like a piece of rotten driftwood. Everything would be fine….
Still, her witchy senses were buzzing so hard it felt like a horde of winged insects were surrounding her face, shadowing her every move with an ominous, prickling hum. What if she was wrong – she could admit that in the privacy of her own head – what if she was wrong about the storm? What if it was going to be as terrible as everyone proclaimed?
She should have stayed in bed today, like the cards had told her to. She had done several readings over breakfast, and all had read the same: the Tower, Death, and the Fool. If that was not a portent of a dangerous new journey (and a reason to stay in bed with the covers pulled over her head), then she had learned nothing from Ms. Crowthy. The Tower, shrouded in thunder and set ablaze, told Abby that today something destructive would occur.
Then there was Death, covered in black, standing on a battlefield, a glinting scythe in one bony hand. Change, big change. It didn’t always mean death, but something would die. Not a good card to have alongside The Tower – she couldn’t ignore it now. Something big was going to happen.
Worst of all there was the Fool. A new journey, a new beginning – a merry youth striking out into the distance with their belongings on their shoulder and a foolish glint in their eyes. A Fool going off to seek their fortune. This card, alongside the Tower and Death, would make this journey both dangerous and transformative. The Fool would never be the same again.
Abby had sipped with deep dissatisfaction at her tea when she’d drawn the same cards for the third time. Life changing, perilous adventures were not her cup of tea, no pun intended. The thought of being whisked away on some dangerous voyage was enough to make a witch curl her toes and die on the spot. Witches liked to read other people’s destiny – they didn’t need to be reminded of their own. Gadding about and changing history, preventing wars, saving royals, and even falling in love – these were all un-witchy things to do. Witches preferred to stay at home and stare at their tea and go, “hmm,” a lot. So drawing the Tower, Death, and the Fool was a terrible portent for a witch. Some kind of adventure was afoot….
Nonetheless, Abby had forced herself out of the house. She would ignore them, ignore the cards with every inch of her being. She had to earn a living; staying one day in bed would mean several days without food, which was not a happy trade off. Plus, she was confident that, as a witch, she could head off adventure at the pass. If she saw a hero trot past on a glistening white horse, she’d whack him over the head with her broom, and leg it.
That didn’t explain the guilt, the overwhelming sense that she’d done something she shouldn’t have. That she’d gone and met a future that should never have been. All she’d done was walk out the front door – but somehow that had sealed her fate.
Abby felt pulled toward something huge, life changing, and terrifying.
“Are you going to sit there and hover all day, or are you going to hurry up and finish with Mrs. Hunter’s windows so we can go home already?” Charlie’s voice cut through the air like a whining motor.
Abby startled and had to grip the broom with both hands or fall off. She’d slipped into her thoughts and hadn’t noticed as she’d polished the same pane of glass over and over again.
“You were thinking about this storm, weren’t you? Don’t you shake your head at me – you were.” Charlie twitched his tail and stared up at her with narrowed golden eyes. “I know you too well, Abby. You can’t hide this kind of thing from me – this storm has got you wired and fitful, it’s a surprise you haven’t thundered off home to hide under the covers,” Charlie finished with a flick of his whiskers.
Abby paused to look around the garden. The wind was still howling, chasing errant leaves across the patio stones, pushing the branches of the birch together until they grated like fire sticks. The laden heads of the lavender crashed against each other as it whipped around the small, enclosed garden, but the ivy, flush with the old red brick wall of the house, hardly noticed as it howled on by.
This didn’t look like the prelude to the greatest storm of the century or, Abby swallowed, the first cracks in the foundation of her Tower. “Look, everything is fine. Everything is going to be fine I mean. This isn’t going to be such a big storm really….”
Charlie shook his head in big, wide, obvious sweeps – left right, left right. “You are the worst liar who ever lived, Abby Gail. Now stop playing games, and let’s get the hell home already.”
“Not until I’ve finished these windows…” she let her voice trail off as she sighed. Why was she letting this feeling get to her? Why couldn’t she stop thinking about those cards? Why couldn’t she put this storm out of her head? Why wasn’t she heading off adventure at the pass like she’d told herself she would? All these ill feelings and ominous signs were portents of some fantastic danger, and she should be running away from it, not toward it. Never toward.
“Abby! Snap out of it, girl!”
She swerved her broom and crashed into the brick wall, not hard enough to fall off, but hard enough to curse at the unyielding stone.
“Oh, Abby, get down from there before you do yourself an injury. Sheesh, girl, give me some credit. I saw the way you were looking at those cards this morning – I know something big is afoot. I am a witch’s cat. I’m attuned to you, I know what you’re feeling, and I can sense you are scared silly. So can’t we just go home already?”
“I am not scared silly.” Abby tried to be defiant as she landed the broom and straightened up.
“Ha! You’re a witch, why wouldn’t you be scared? Three identical readings all predicting a perilous journey and the storm of the century brewing overhead – I can’t think of a more ominous set of circumstances, can you?”
Abby looked sideways at him but didn’t answer.
“I know you, Abby, you hate adventure. You hate stories with heroes and heroines, danger and intrigue, romance and true love. So please, in the name of all that is witchy – please can we go home?”
She opened her mouth to protest, to tell Charlie that everything would be fine and that she wasn’t afraid of a thing, thank you. The sound of the front gate grinding open cut through her thought.
Within moments Mrs. Hunter shuffled around the side of the house. Dressed in an embroidered white cloak and a thick cream, woolen dress, the old lady smiled at Abby as she approached. Mrs. Hunter held a woven basket in her hand, its goodies concealed by a bright flowery tea towel.
“Oh, have you finished already, dear?” Mrs. Hunter asked, her tone rich and sweet.
Abby shrugged her shoulders. “I’m afraid the wind is a bit of a bother, Mrs. Hunter—”
“Oh my, of course! You must be chilled through and through!” The old lady exclaimed. “Come in for a cup of tea. I’ll get your money, too.”
“Oh no, Mrs. Hunter, I couldn’t – I haven’t finished the job!” Abby pointed out. She may need that money to buy food, but she couldn’t charge an old lady for a job half done.
“Nonsense.” Mrs. Hunter turned toward the patio doors. “Now come in out of the cold.”
Abby paused and tried hard to think. Charlie was right: she was best to go home, ignore this storm, and bury her head in the sand until it had whistled on by. She could do that after a cup of tea and biscuits, right…?
So, ignoring Charlie’s hissed warnings that if they stopped to have tea with the old dear they would never get home before the storm hit, Abby followed Mrs. Hunter into her immaculate kitchen.
“You don’t say?” The man took a long draft from his glass and returned it to the table with a clang. “Run aground she has?”
“Aye – about a half-hour up the coast. It was those winds coming from the south.”
“Someone’s stirred up the devil and no mistake.” The man shook his head. “She’s going to get decimated on those rocks if that storm comes to pass.”
Both men turned to glance out the window at the racing clouds.
The Royal Blue was one of the flagships of the fleet. Huge, powerful, and fast. She had been known to outrun even the fastest of the Samarian pirates. She was proven against the Elogian fleet too, even in battle with their most powerful gunships. Yet power and speed could not help her now. She had run aground on the Knife Rocks along the winding coast of Bridgestock.
Every sailor aboard would try their hardest to pull her free of the rocks, but it wouldn’t be enough. Something different, something dark was stirring in those clouds, and that something had the Royal Blue in its sights.
The Captain bellowed orders over the swirling wind. His Commander picked them up, standing at the base of the bridge stairs, relaying them to the awaiting crew. His thundering, deep voice cracked through the howl of the gale.
The energy of the men was frenetic. Drenched, striving against the constant list of the ship, they hurled themselves across the deck to their tasks, loyalty for their captain and country driving them on despite the odds.
“Captain!” The Commander pointed at the topmast.
A massive fracture line ran deep through the wood.
It could withstand no more.
Soon it would break.
“Abby get away from the window, please!” Charlie peeked out from underneath the blankets. “The glass could blow in!”
Abby reached out and placed a flat hand on the wobbling pane. It calmed under her touch. She was sure it wouldn’t break. This was not the storm of the century, and if it weren't the storm of the century, then it wouldn’t go around breaking attic windows that belonged to witches.
“I’m worried.” She crossed the room to stand before the lantern burning on the table, the only source of light in the attic.
“I’m terrified,” Charlie’s muffled voice came from under the covers.
“No….” She stared at the flame, watching it flicker back and forth in the case as if a draft had somehow squeezed between the glass. “Not about the storm….”
They’d managed to make it back from Mrs. Hunter’s with time to spare before the storm hit. Charlie had been productive and had at once set about grabbing his favorite blanket and pulling it to a space on Abby’s bed that was furthest from the draft. Abby had sat down at the table and stared at her hands, lost in thought.
The lines of destiny on her palms seemed different from what she remembered….
Thoughts kept flitting through her mind, not tangible and formed, but loose like wisps of smoke. Her feelings of unease grew and grew. She felt that by getting out of bed this morning she’d set in motion a terrible set of events that she could never hope to mend. The feeling anchored her to the spot like a sack full of potatoes pinning an ant.
As darkness encroached from outside, clouds claiming the remaining light of dusk, she lit her candles and waited.
There was an important lesson she’d once learned from Ms. Crowthy about reading the future. For some reason, Abby wanted to know what lay in her future, now more than ever. She wanted to look ahead and see that, regardless of the storm, regardless of the cards, everything would turn out right. The storm would blow over, and the cards would be proven wrong – she wanted to see her future safe and steady.
According to Ms. Crowthy, telling the future wasn’t that hard – all you had to do was watch to see how things moved. The movement of the smallest thing, to the trained eye of a witch, could be used to predict anything in her environment.
There was often too much going on in people’s heads to pay attention to the world. Plus, the more you watched, the less you could do. You had to strike a balance – find a way to let your second sight run along in the background of your mind so you could still bake a loaf of bread or see to the hens before nightfall. Second sight was a gift, but there was a reason it was called second. If you allowed it to run all the time – if you paid absolute attention to the fall of an autumn leaf while on a walk in the forest, you wouldn’t see the cliff until you were dead at the bottom of it.
Taking all this into account, it was unsurprising Abby could make something out in the dance of the flame. It was wild and erratic like the fevered pitch of a wasp.
She leaned closer until she could feel the heat on her face.
“Abby?” Charlie pulled himself out from the covers.
Shapes danced to and fro in the heart of the flame, like shadows on a white wall.
“Abby?” Charlie jumped to the floor. “You okay?”
There was a dark sky above and a dark sky below.
Rising through the air – something rising up into a new sky.
“Abby!” Charlie bit her bare foot.
She jumped, and the vision of rising popped like a soap bubble. “Ow!”
“You looked like you needed some help there. I don’t know if you noticed, but those were your eyebrows singeing.”
“Oh.” Abby rubbed her face, now aware of the latent heat prickling across her skin. “Thanks.”
“Sure, kid. Your foot tastes pretty bad by the way. You might want to take a bath sometime soon.”
“Well, now that you mention it – I was planning an impromptu shower.” She remarked as she stared off into space and rubbed her cheek.
“Aha.” Charlie padded over to his water bowl, ignoring her. “Don’t forget to use soap.”
“I don’t think I’ll have time.” She walked over to the door and grabbed her broom. As an afterthought, she grabbed her jacket, too. “But I’m sure the rain will soak me through.”
Charlie spun on the spot. “What? You can’t be serious, Abby! Listen to the wind!”
“I am, and you’re coming, too.” She lurched for the door, the remnants of the long ascent she’d envisaged making her dizzy.
“You are serious. Abby!”
“Look, I have to do this, Charlie. Something is going to happen, someone is in danger… I have to save someone, I think. I think it is very important I save someone.” Her voice came in sharp bursts.
“No, you don’t. That’s what the doctors and guards are for, Abby. You’re just a—”
“Come on, Charlie; we have to do this.”
Charlie rolled his eyes but bounded after her, jumping into her arms with an annoyed meow.
She raced down the stairs of the old building, avoiding the cracks and holes in the wood, allowing her broom to lift her until her feet barely grazed them.
She didn’t know where she was going, only that she had to be somewhere. Images of a body tossing through the waves filled her mind. Then – and this had come to her the millisecond before Charlie had bitten her – a man lying sodden on the edge of a cliff while she stood above him.
That’s how she knew she had to be somewhere. Who she would save, where, and from what, she would have to find out.
She hit the howling streets with Charlie in her arms, looking for the one person the future knew needed her.
It didn’t take long for Charlie to point out that this was a terrible plan. She’d had some horrible vision, fair enough, but going out during the storm of the century was suicide. It went against the witchy code of sitting on the sidelines and watching destiny whiz on by with a cup of tea in your hands and a thoughtful look in your eyes. This was getting involved, Charlie had assured her, and getting involved was wrong.
Getting involved led to adventures, and adventures were terrible uncontrollable things that contained far too much action and romance for a witch.
Soon she found herself on the familiar wide boulevard of Esquire Street. Half way along the avenue, she came across a sodden figure standing propped against a wall.
She approached the figure carefully, but within meters realized it was Mrs. Hunter. The old lady was standing against the stone wall outside her house, looking up into the swirling clouds, her clothes and hair drenched.
“Mrs. Hunter?” Water dribbled off Abby’s lips as she spoke. “What are you doing out in the rain?” She had to shout against a sudden powerful blast of wind.
Mrs. Hunter shifted her eyes to Abby. “Pembrake,” she breathed, “he’s in trouble… I can hear him.”
Abby reeled back as if she’d been burnt, and she could feel the prickle of Charlie’s fur as it stood on end. Magic was crackling around Mrs. Hunter and hissing as the rain slammed down.
Without stopping to think, Abby guided Mrs. Hunter back up her garden path and through the wide open door. She had to get off the street before someone saw them, before someone raised the alarm and called the Guards.
It wasn’t until she’d locked the door behind them that Abby let the surprise shake through to her bones. Her mouth was so dry from the shock that it felt like her tongue was grating past sandpaper.
She looked at Mrs. Hunter square on. The old lady was standing still, staring up at the ceiling as if she could see straight through it and out at the rolling clouds above. Her eyes were darting from left to right, as if she were watching a theatrical scene, or trying to keep a vast panorama in her sights all at once.
Abby looked down at Mrs. Hunter’s hands and saw they were gripped over some object with white-knuckled pressure.
“Abby.” Charlie’s ears flattened, and his eyes opened wide. “What’s happening to her?”
“Get down, Charlie. She’s holding some kind of magical talisman.” She released him from her grip.
“Abby, you can’t pull it out of her hands; it’s too dangerous!”
She ignored his warning and closed her hands over Mrs. Hunter’s. She pried them open to reveal a bracelet with stone beads.
She grabbed it.
A crack in the mast so deep it would break! The winds, so terrible and quick, so biting and powerful that the waves were thrashing with murderous ferocity. They could never survive; they would all die. The Captain, the crew – all of them were done for.
The wood beneath his feet was cracking up around him like a giant clawed hand clutching up from the depths. If he didn’t impale on the shards of wood, then the icy sea would drown him for sure—
“Abby!” Charlie launched himself at her, clamping his mouth so hard over her wrist that his teeth drew blood.
She dropped the bracelet and gasped, reeling backward toward the wall until she slammed against it.
“Abby, what is that thing?” Charlie was low to the ground and sniffing the stone bracelet in the middle of the hallway.
She’d been in another person’s mind, she realized with a shiver. She’d seen through the eyes of a man: watched the terrible and unrelenting storm as he stood on the deck of a great ship while it broke up underneath his feet. She had heard his thoughts, felt his fear….
Her gaze flicked to Mrs. Hunter. She was standing in the hallway pressing her hand to her head as she blinked as if she had been woken from a deep sleep.
Mrs. Hunter shook her head several times and took a strong breath before leveling her gaze on Abby. “I was wondering when you’d arrive,” she muttered through a small breath. “I saw you coming through the front door this afternoon, but when I looked up, I realized that it must have been much later.”
Abby locked her gaze onto Charlie, and he shared her wide-eyed shock. Mrs. Hunter was using second sight.
“All afternoon, ever since you left – I’ve not been able to get you off my mind,” Mrs. Hunter continued in a pressured voice. “I kept on seeing you coming through that door and taking the bracelet off me – over and over and over again.”
It wasn’t only witches who had second sight; it was a common gift. Traders, merchants, and bankers all had it to some degree.
“My Pembrake is in trouble.” Mrs. Hunter walked up to Abby, ignoring the bracelet at her feet, and staring into Abby’s eyes. “You saw it too, he’s going to—” she broke off and shook her head.
There was so much energy in the room. Mrs. Hunter was still crackling from the effects of the bracelet, and the bracelet itself seemed to be drawing the rest of the room into it like a giant hole swallowing space.
“Abby, I knew you would come. I know you can fix this,” Mrs. Hunter’s voice broke with emotion, her watery eyes dancing with fear and uncertainty.
“My son. He’s in trouble, Abby, he’s…. You have to go and save him now! You have to take that broom of yours and fly like the wind! Abby.” Mrs. Hunter grabbed Abby by the shoulders. “You have to save my son!”
It was too much information to process. Abby nodded, her skin slick and prickling with sweat. The confrontation, the proximity – she was not used to such unbridled emotion. “How did you know I was… a witch?” Her cheeks burnt with shame from the admission.
“Don’t worry about you being a witch, child; I’ve known since the first time I met you. I’ve seen you flying on the broom trying to reach my top windows several times, and I’ve heard Charlie chiding you, too. It doesn’t matter. All that matters now is that you save my son!”
Abby tried to back away, but there was nowhere to go. She tried to make her limbs move, but there was nowhere to run. She realized, with cold regret, that she had walked into the burning tower.
Her adventure was about to begin.
Mrs. Hunter knew Abby was a witch, and now she was charging Abby with rescuing her son from certain death.
“Abby!” Mrs. Hunter and Charlie both snapped at once.
Abby startled. “Okay.”
She knelt down and picked up the bracelet, covering her hand with her sleeve, so her skin did not touch it.
She had no choice now, right? She had to do this. She had to jump off the top of the burning tower and meet death and the fool on her way down.
Adventure doesn’t pick you, Ms. Crowthy would say, it shanghais you – punching you in the gut and dragging you away by your collar.
Abigail Gail, the Witch of Bridgestock, was being swept up in an adventure.
What a bother.
The storm – rabid like a wolf – finally claimed the Royal Blue.
She sunk into the thundering swell.
Commander Pembrake Hunter stared up into the storm above. It was as if time had slowed down. He could see the clouds circling above as he clutched hold of a floating section of the mast.
He was about to drown. He knew that.
Yet the edge of death, they say, is a strange place.
As he tipped his head back to stare at the clouds, he felt something. Something intangible. Time itself. The minutes, the seconds, they all melded together.
As they did, the clouds above broke – a circle of sky like an eye in a hurricane visible beyond the roiling gray storm.
He was mesmerized by what he saw. He was barely able to think as his cold, stiff body held onto the mast. Still, the break in the circling clouds above was the most wondrous thing he had ever seen.
During a storm so violent and chaotic that it had snapped one of the sturdiest vessels ever made, how could there be such a calm and perfect break in the clouds?
Perhaps it was God, Pembrake thought hazily, beckoning toward heaven, showing a path clear and true to whatever lay beyond.
The moonlight lit up the rim of that eye in the storm, giving it a bright gray glow set against the dark cloud-bank beyond, adding to its mystical lure.
He could feel the waves beat against him with unrelenting anger, feel his frigid fingers lose their grip.
He shouldn’t be able to see the moon during a storm. There shouldn’t be a break in the clouds.
There was no strength left in his body. All that fixed him to the sinking mast was his unconscious desperation, but that was slipping, too.
He stared at that serene break in the clouds for one last second.
Then Pembrake Hunter let go.
Abby flew against the storm, pushed herself until her frigid body was so bent it felt like the stiffness would shatter her limbs like glass. Charlie had tucked himself against her stomach, so she had no fear that he would fall. He was a witch’s cat, and although this was the worst flight they had ever taken, she had every confidence in his ability to remain attached, claws and all, to her racing broom.
All she had to do was fly.
As she’d left Mrs. Hunter’s, and then stared with desperation into the storm, she’d heard the shouts from below. A ship had sunk on the Knife Rocks up the coast.
Thrusting her broom into the storm, the rain pounding her frozen flesh as the wind sliced into her, she headed up the coast.
Then she’d spotted it, seen the broken shards of wood and tattered scraps of canvas mast strewn over the knife-edge rocks. People flocked past the rocks, she could make out the dark shapes moving against the gray sand.
She scanned the water, searching the shattered debris tossing about in the massive swell.
She saw it now, or rather, felt it. A break in the storm, a break in the chaotic, turbulent energy.
A hole in the clouds, like a stairway to heaven.
She was drawn to it, flying further and further into the storm at its behest.
She could feel Charlie freeze on her lap. He was probably shouting, probably pleading with her not to venture near the strange break in the storm, but she couldn’t hear him and didn’t want to.
Now she was upon it, the break in the clouds stretching out above her.
A strange calm enveloped them. Moonlight filtered in from that perfectly circular rift in the clouds.
She’d never seen anything like it.
Something white caught her eye, and she looked down through her rain-soaked lashes to see something sink below the waves.
She brought her broom down, her legs plunging into the swell as she shoved her hands into the seething surf. They grabbed onto something, and she pulled with all her might.
Her broom spun as she tried to lift the man from the clutches of the ocean. Just as she did, a wave struck her.
Clutching at the body with both arms, trying to hurl it across her broom while keeping Charlie tucked next to her chest, she closed her eyes against the wall of water.
The ocean roared.
With only her legs to steer, she shot out of the water, securing the man in front of her with one last ditch tug.
She angled her broom up, trying to escape the slap of the waves. Up and up until she had flown through the break in the clouds.
There was a weird moment. The world seemed to tip: to slant like a framed picture tilting against a wall.
It felt like something hit her. More than the gale and the waves and the rain – something intangible.
With a gush of raw power, something broke. It sounded like glass shattering all around her. Then the break in the clouds disappeared, and the storm rolled back in even more ferocious than before.
Back came the drenching rain, the roar of the wind, and the slam of the surf.
She held on with all her might, willing the man not to be dead, or not to die before she could get him ashore. She begged her hands not to lose their grip as she headed for the cliffs, rising higher as the waves began to burst up from the ocean like hungry hands.
The ocean wanted the man back.
Witches did not get along with the sea.
Just as a huge wave descended from behind, Abby swung toward the cliffs. She forced the broom into a vertical rise to climb quicker. The considerable weight of the man, and poor Charlie squeezed between them, knocked into her, and she almost let go of the broom.
With one arm around his middle, the broom locked in her free white-knuckled hand, she somehow managed to reach the top of the cliff.
Bone-weary, numb, and close to falling, she crashed into the soaked ground, letting the man roll off beside her.
Abby had managed, to get the man ashore. The storm had not been able to rob her of that.
It would steal something else, though. Something far more important.
As she regained consciousness every bone in her body tingled.
From the tips of her toes to the last frizzy hair on her head – she knew something was wrong.
Sure enough, when she opened her eyes, she was greeted with an unfamiliar ceiling. It was wooden with huge supporting struts the size of tree trunks running across the breadth of the ceiling.
The smell of honey and milk warming over a fire filled the air.
She fluttered her eyes closed again, trying to concentrate with all her might on her jittery witchy senses. Where was she? What had happened to her?
Her reverie was interrupted by a shuffling sound, and she opened her eyes as a kind voice said, “hello there, dear, you’ve finally woken up then!”
Abby didn’t jump, though her heart felt like it had popped out of her rib cage with fright. She swiveled her head until a warm ruddy face came into view.
A woman with graying black hair and watery brown eyes was peering down at her, a motherly twist to her broad smile. “I’m glad to see you’re awake – you’ve been sleeping nearly all the morning. That boy of yours got up hours ago, but you just kept on sleeping. You must have got quite a chill from that storm last night, I’d say. So here.” the woman whipped a steaming mug of honey and milk in front of Abby. “You have a drink of this.”
It was an information overload. Storm, boy, night – every word set off a huge explosion of gut-wrenching recognition until Abby snapped up, her brow slick with sweat. “Where’s Pembrake? Is he alright? The storm! What happened? And where’s my cat?” She realized with a desperate sweep of her head that Charlie was nowhere to be seen.
“Now, now, now.” The woman sat on the side of Abby’s bed, her smile morphing into a strict frown. “You just take it easy there, dear; everything’s alright. That cat of yours is curled up by the fire purring like a putting engine.” The woman crammed the mug into Abby’s hand and steered it up until she was forced to take a sip.
“But.” Abby swallowed the liquid quickly, glad for the warmth against her parched throat. “Where—”
“Oh, that boy of yours is fine enough, too. He’s a strong one, I wouldn’t wonder. He’d hardly woken up, and he was out of bed quizzing us about some ship. But likes we said, we’ve never heard of no Royal Blue.”
“What? But…. But it often docks in the bay – everybody knows that.”
The old lady peered down at Abby with crinkle-nosed confusion. “Well, I didn’t know, nor did me husband, Alfred, nor did any of the other fishermen around these parts – and you’d think we would, dear. What with us practically living on the bay and all.”
Abby opened her mouth to protest further but stopped. The feeling was still there curling around her body like a strangling jungle vine – something was very, very wrong. She stared down into the swirling, eddying milk in her mug, willing the movement to help her understand what on Earth was going on.
“He was like you, dear, couldn’t believe that we hadn’t heard of her, kept on asking if she’s sunk and if the Captain had made it ashore. Why, Alfred could see the boy wasn’t going to get anywhere with us just telling him there wasn’t no Royal Blue around – so he’s taken the boy to the bay so he can see for himself. Left me here to look after you, he did.”
“So Pembrake’s okay?”
“Oh yes, good strong lad you’ve got there, miss.” The woman winked.
Except Abby wasn’t sure what it was the woman thought she knew. Then it dawned on her. “Oh no… we aren’t…” she felt a hot blush take to the corner of her cheeks.
“Oh really?” The woman gave a compressed smile. “When Alfred found the two of you, you was practically stretched on top of him you were. Alfred said it looked as if you’d fought off the sea to protect him then fainted right there on the cliff. I said it was the sweetest thing I’d ever heard. Young love is just so beautiful, me dear.” She was speaking with such passion, she’d clutched a hand to her heaving bosom.
Abby shook her head, every warning from Ms. Crowthy about being with boys going off in her mind, her blush only growing deeper with every breath.
“No need to be embarrassed, child – I was young once, too.” The woman sighed and fixed her eyes on a patch of stone wall before coming back to herself and patting Abby’s leg through the blanket. “Anyhow, I’m sure they’ll be back soon. You just rest here.” She stood up and pulled the covers taut from where she’d been sitting. “And I’ll go and fix you some soup and bread.”
With the woman gone, Abby cast her gaze around the unfamiliar room, looking for some clue to where she was. It was strange. It looked like other houses in Bridgestock, yet from the quaint furnishings, it appeared old, almost as if the room was decorated to remind the occupants of the past.
She pulled her still warm mug closer to her chest until she could feel the warmth through her clothes. The simple move was not enough to ward off the chill that had spread through her heart at the mention there’d been no sighting of the Royal Blue.
For the first time in her life, Abby felt the urge to look at a clock. Most witches go from birth to grave without ever wondering what the time is. Ms. Crowthy had often pointed out that witches have the most accurate of internal clocks and shouldn’t be bothering with nonsense watches. Watches break and witches rarely do.
Yet Abby felt this overpowering urge to look at a timepiece. A sundial, a watch, a grandfather clock – it wouldn’t matter, she just needed to know the time.
Time was not a topic Ms. Crowthy was fond of. The only lessons Abby had ever had on it, had been hushed warnings delivered in front of a blazing fire as if the Crone had been worried time would creep in on a cold night and kill them all.
It wasn’t that she was afraid of it, it was that other people didn’t fear it enough and that’s what frightened the socks off the old Crone. The most powerful stuff in the universe, as she’d put it, and people thought they could catch it in a clock and be done with it. Except you can’t capture it, not in a diary or a watch or a calendar, because while you are sitting there and admiring the tiny amount of time you’ve trapped, the rest of time is passing you by. You lose “perspective,” Ms. Crowthy had said, proud she’d found a use for such a large word.
When she couldn’t spy a clock, Abby swallowed hard and looked down at her hands.
Something was terribly wrong. And that something was time.
“But,” Pembrake looked at the calm, empty bay and felt a shudder run across his shoulder blades, “where could she be?”
Alfred shook his head, biting down on his pipe with a comforting smile. “It’ll be alright, son. Be sure, if a ship had sunk here last night – we’d know about it. We’d have all been out of our houses running into that surf looking for survivors, you be sure of that. But just look at the bay, look at them rocks – nothing sank last night.”
Cold, aching weight stretched through his limbs, threatening to pull his body right through the wet sand like a meteor plunging from the heavens. Where was his ship?
How could a ship disappear? Where was the crew? Where was the Captain?
He caught the old man looking at him with a wary side-glance, and Pembrake tried for a thin-lipped smile. “I don’t understand.” He gestured to the barren beach with a dejected swipe of his hand.
“You did, ah,” the old man paused to scratch his long gray beard, “get knocked out, son. Mind can do funny things—”
“I’m the Commander of the Royal Blue,” Pembrake said coldly, “and I know she sank here last night.”
“Alright, but you can sees for yourself, she ain’t here now. What more do you want?”
I want my ship back, Pembrake thought as he scanned the small strip of sand that separated the cliff from the Knife Rocks. He knew this section of beach; he used to walk along here with his mother when he was a boy. He knew that funny-shaped rock that looked like a lion’s head and the other perfectly level one where he’d once had a picnic with Miss Patridge – he knew this beach and yet he didn’t know it. It should have had some sign of the Royal Blue.
“Well…” Alfred put a gnarled hand on Pembrake’s shoulder, “we best be getting back, son. That girl of yours is probably awake by now.”
Pembrake nodded. ‘That girl of his,’ was the only person he could think of who would know what was happening here. She was the only reason he hadn’t marched down into town and demanded why the citizens and Guards of Bridgestock weren’t out looking for survivors.
He needed her to fill in the gaps in his memory. What had he been doing on that cliff? More to the point, how had he got there? Last he remembered he was letting go of the sinking mast, all grip in his frozen hands lost to the churning sea. So where did she come in?
“Yes,” Pembrake took one last long look at the calm waters of the bay, “I suppose we had better get back.”
“We’re both men of the sea, son. I understand the storm in your mind.” Alfred patted him once more. Keeping his hand on Pembrake’s back, he turned him away from the cliff.
Abby stood at the window staring at the sea below, the thick woolen blanket from the bed wrapped around her shoulders.
She chewed on her lip, waiting for a solution to present itself.
Nothing would come.
Sighing, she walked around the small room ending up in front of a tapestry. Up close she could see the seal of the Royal Family and the familiar crown of the Queen. Except it wasn’t the current Queen, which was strange. Even staunch Royalists rarely bothered to display pictures of past Queens and Kings.
She turned from the tapestry, confusion setting in.
There was a rustling as the heavy fabric curtain that concealed her room from the rest of the house was pushed aside.
An old, wizened man with a stupendous gray beard pushed through. He blinked two small eyes at her then nodded. “Awake then, young lass? Well, that’s good, isn’t it? What say I leave you two alone to catch up for a bit while I go and check on the missus?” The old man retreated behind the curtain again just as someone else stepped through.
Her mouth opened as she recognized those broad shoulders, the smooth light brown skin, and piercing green eyes. It was the man from yesterday – the naval officer who’d rescued her from the mob of sailors outside of that tavern. “You!” she tried to keep the accusatory tone from her voice, but her mind raced and spun like a whirlpool. “You’re Pembrake?”
“Do you know me?” His eyes locked on hers. “Do you know where we are?” He took a sharp step forward as she recoiled from the urgency in his voice. “Look, I don’t mean to upset you, I know you’ve only just woken up, but please, do you know what happened last night?” His expression was a palpable mix of confusion and desperation.
“I,” she clutched at the blanket around her and found her eyes slipping toward the tapestry, “don’t really know….”
“They said they found us on Knife Cliff. What were you doing there?” Pembrake interrupted, dissatisfied with her hesitation. “Please, this is really important.”
She stiffened. The tension rippling off Pembrake made her head hurt and lighting a fire under her own latent sense of dread. “I…” she trailed off.
She had to lie.
She couldn’t tell him she was a witch, and she’d saved him from the storm.
So she shook her head. “I don’t really know.”
His eyes searched hers with a keen ferocity that saw her blush. “Are you sure?”
“Then you can’t help me.” He turned away to stare out the small window.
There were a few seconds of strained silence before she broke it by asking, “I… do… do you know what the time is?”
He shot her a confused glance. “What? Oh. I woke up around dawn, and you must have woken up several hours after that.”
She shook her head. “No, what’s the actual time?”
Pembrake shrugged his broad shoulders, his rough woolen shirt stretching with a creak. “I’m not sure, around midday?”
No, it wasn’t, her internal witchy clock assured her.
She took a sharp breath and patted the sweat from her brow. “Are you sure?”
His eyes fixed on her face, and he uncrossed his arms. “Maybe you should lie down; you look a little unwell.”
“No, I don’t want to lie down,” she was surprised by her frustration; she sounded like a petulant child rebelling against her bedtime. “Something is very wrong here.” She turned back to the tapestry on the wall. “Nothing about this house fits. That woman said she’d never even heard of the Royal Blue. Where’s the ship? Where are the crew? Where are all the Guards and officers? When that naval vessel went down last year, the whole of Bridgestock was teeming with Guards for weeks, searching up and down the coast for wreckage and survivors – but when I look out that window I can’t see a thing! I don’t recognize the view at all.” She stopped and took a deep breath. “Something’s wrong, can’t you see that?”
A shot of anger flared in his eyes, and he glared at her. “Of course I can see it. I’ve lost my ship, my crew, my Captain, everything.” His voice was bitter and sharp.
“Look, Abby, that’s your name, isn’t it?”
She nodded, and he continued. “I understand what you’re saying, I really do. I grew up in Bridgestock, this should be home, but I’ve walked through this house, and I’ve walked along the cliff, and I have no idea what’s going on.” He rested a hand on the old warped window pane. “Everything is familiar, except it isn’t….”
“This house…” his voice took on a distant quality as he looked around at the dated furnishings. “The cliff outside – I swear there were more houses set along the path to it… now it seems practically undeveloped. It’s almost as if we’ve traveled back in time, everything seems so….”
She couldn’t make out the rest of his words; a loud buzzing filled her mind.
“Are you okay? Abby?” Somehow, he had crossed the room and was standing before her, face creased with concern. “Abby?”
Traveled back in time. They couldn’t possibly have… but that storm had been powerful, so chaotic.
“Hey, Abby?” He shook her shoulders gently.
She blinked at him, a cold sensation stretching through her chest as she stared up at his face. “You’re right; I think we’ve traveled back in time.”
Oh god, that’s why everything felt so strange – she’d traveled back in time.
“What?” His face blanched. “Don’t be stupid—”
The curtains parted behind them, and the woman poked her head in, smiling when she saw Pembrake’s hands on Abby’s shoulders. “Oh, you two must have had such a fright, I thought you’d like some time alone. And I wasn’t wrong, was I?”
Pembrake caught the old woman’s meaning quicker than Abby and took a discreet step backward. “No, we’re not—”
“Now then, Alfred’s gone to get old Mr. Pinkeye from the harbor – knows all the ships that comes and goes does Mr. Pinkeye. If your Royal Blue docked like you said, they’ll soon have it found. Now, why don’t you two come and have a spot of soup? I’ve been dying to hear your story.”
Abby looked at Pembrake, but he refused to meet her eye.
The woman motioned for the two of them to follow her then led them into the large open kitchen. A fire was burning in the hearth, and a large solid table was set in front of it.
With every step, Abby knew with growing certainty that this was not her time. Somehow, through the break in that terrible storm, she’d traveled back in history.
If Ms. Crowthy existed in this time, Abby could be sure of one thing – she would be traveling here right now to clap Abby around the ears for being a bad witch. Not only had Abby landed herself in an adventure, but she’d gone and found a strapping male companion to boot. Worse than both of those, Abby had taken on the most powerful force in the universe – Time.
Abby was a very, very bad witch.
They sat down at the table, the woman insisting on Abby sitting as close to the fire as possible. Which of course meant Abby was roasting. She wasn’t sick; she was strung-out at the prospect she’d somehow saved Mrs. Hunter’s son only to drag him back through time to heaven knows when.
She was relieved to note that Charlie was curled up by the fire. He looked up as she sat down and gave her a knowing look. It said, “we’ve traveled back in time, but hey, here’s a fire, so I guess everything’s okay for now.”
She smiled at him and fought the urge to scoop him up and hug him tighter than she’d ever done before.
“Alright you two, you can start by telling me what you were doing up on that cliff in that terrible storm? Weren’t eloping, were you?” Their host asked as she cut the bread into hearty slices.
Abby blushed into her bowl of soup as Pembrake gave a soft laugh and answered, “no ma’am.”
“May I ask what your name is?” Abby half-whispered before the woman could make any more insinuations.
“Oh, you’re so polite!” The woman reached over and pinched Abby’s cheek. “It’s Martha, dear. You’ve been lucky with this one,” she winked at Pembrake, “right little sweetheart and no mistake.”
Pembrake nodded, his expression neutral apart from the small curl at the side of his eyes. “Indeed.”
“So, what’s your story then?” Martha passed around the bread and then ripped off a chunk of her own and dunked it into her soup. “Bet it’s a good one.”
Abby forced herself to smile. “Well—”
“I rescued her off the ship.” Pembrake didn’t pause. “She was traveling with us when the storm hit.”
Martha’s eyes lit up. “My word! What a lucky girl you are!” She turned to Abby and nodded, a wild smile curling her lips. “Being rescued by such a handsome man!”
Abby blinked, looked at Pembrake, then nodded. It wasn’t exactly the version of events she remembered.
“Maybe you can help us with a discussion we were having earlier,” Pembrake interrupted, “do you mind if I ask you a question?”
Martha nodded, probably sure that if she went along with Pembrake’s question, he’d fill her in on more details of his heroic rescue. “Of course, ask away!”
“What’s the date?”
Abby shot him a look, but he didn’t shift his attention from Martha.
“The date?” Martha’s gray eyebrows flattened in surprise.
“It’s a Tuesday.”
“Tuesday the what?” Pembrake pressed.
“Tuesday the 1st of April, the Year of the Pearl.”
“The Year of the Pearl?”
“28 years before the Year of the Rose?”
Martha regarded Pembrake’s observation with a confused sideways glance at Abby. “Well, yes.”
Pembrake placed his spoon down on the table beside his steaming bowl and met Abby’s gaze. “Oh.”
Abby waited for Pembrake to speak again, a stream of witchy wisdom running through her head. He couldn’t leave it at “oh.” Traveling back in time was worth more than a muted exclamation.
Sure enough Pembrake’s face appeared to be cracking under the effort of keeping his cool. His brow was glistening, visible even under the pale light of the crackling fire, and if he clutched that spoon any tighter, it would turn into a puddle of molten metal.
“I—” She began.
“If you could just excuse us, Martha.” Pembrake stood up, a mask of false calm spread across his handsome features. “There’s something I need to discuss with Abby, something important.”
She shivered at his pointed tone.
He stood and held out his arm, motioning her to stand. The movement was delivered with the practiced ease of a very proper gentleman, except she’d bet her life that wasn’t charm twinkling in his eyes.
She swallowed and stood, bowing to Martha before following Pembrake from the house.
He was all but dragging her along with his stiff-shouldered strut. He didn’t have her by the wrist, but the implication was there.
When they’d reached the outside world, the sea breeze racing up off the ocean and chilling the afternoon air, he turned to her. “You knew about this? You knew we’d traveled into the past?”
She could see he was angry; it would be impossible not to notice the fierce crease running across his brow. But he didn’t have any right to be angry with her. This wasn’t her fault. “No! Of course not! I only guessed!”
He grunted with disdain and took off down the well-trodden path that led from the house and up to the grassy cliffs beyond.
She started off after him, amazed that the charming, caring Pembrake who had urged her to lie down when she’d appeared ill, was now storming off across the cliff, accusing her of having plotted some strange temporal trap. The exasperation brought tingling heat to her cheeks as she ran after the marching figure.
It took her a good few minutes of scrambling after him to realize where he was headed. The cliff – he was taking her to the cliff she’d crash landed on last night. “Wait, hold on.”
“I don’t trust you.” He glared at her. “There’s something about you, Abby.”
She felt sick. She’d heard that kind of tone before, that sharp accusation stabbing away at her like a knife. He couldn’t suspect that she was a witch… could he?
They reached the base of the cliff, and he climbed it with a quick, powerful stride that left her huffing meters behind.
“There’s something I remembered from last night.” He cast his eyes around the still damp grass.
She slowed, her limbs freezing with the terrible thought that ran through her mind: he knows.
“It wasn’t until you had that turn in your bedroom…” Pembrake walked over to a low twisted bush and peered amongst the tangled twigs, “that I remembered something about you.”
She was standing dead still, watching him with heart-pounding interest.
“Something was missing, I told myself.” His face took on a satisfied smile, and he plunged his hand into the bush, retrieving something. “The last time I saw you, you were holding this,” he brandished her broom, “you witch.”
She gasped, instinctively putting her hands up as if he’d struck her. “N-no,” the drumbeat of her heart almost drowned out his words, and she could feel the panic threaten to engulf her, “I-I c-can explain.”
“Explain? Explain? Why don’t you explain why you did this? Why you took us back in time? Or is this all a game? Have you cast some curse on my mind?” Pembrake seemed to grow bigger, until his large form, dressed in the ill-fitting clothes of Arthur, filled the horizon.
Without her broom, she had nowhere to run – no hope of escape. She was sure she couldn’t will her numb legs to move, anyway. Pembrake’s turn had shocked her; for some reason, she had grown to trust him. Now she felt the venom in his voice like a dagger in the back.
His expression changed, and his eyes lit up as if an illuminating thought had flashed across his mind. “Of course this is some illusion, some charade. You’re trying to keep me here – trying to trick me into thinking that this is real, trying to keep me from my ship. Well, I’m not going to fall for it, witch.”
“N-no, I…” the words wouldn’t come. Abby couldn’t break herself free of the net that Pembrake had cast. She’d lost all her years of experience and had morphed back into the 18-year-old naïve child flitting through the streets, hatred at her heels.
He flung the broom behind him, sending it flying over the top of the cliff.
She yelped, clutching her hands to her mouth.
He walked past without a word, face set with anger.
“It’s not like that. Please, I’m not like that.”
By now, he’d disappeared down the path, headed, she was sure, for town and a big surprise.
She considered sinking into the grass, to wallow alone in her fear and self-loathing. But with one look at the calm, empty ocean below, a spark of defiance rekindled itself. She was stuck back in time – so she didn’t have the time to feel sorry for herself. Feeling self-pity was a luxury for people inhabiting the present, where they had all the time in the world to devote to such negative thoughts. All the time in the past, on the other hand, had already been swallowed up by history.
Whatever history – whatever destiny had in store for her, she was sure it didn’t end with her sulking on a cliff top.
They were in the past. Unlike Pembrake, she knew that. She also knew that without her, he wouldn’t be able to get back. They’d have to work together or be lost in the pages of a history book forever.
Determined, Abby set out to follow him.
He was mad, madder than he’d ever been. Though as Pembrake negotiated the beaten track, he knew that was a lie. His childhood tantrums were legendary.
What made his current gut-wrenching fury all the worse was his lack of control. He’d traveled years now in the Navy, and had years of training, years of discipline. And what had it amounted to? A rash outburst on some sodden cliff top.
He should have handled it better; he should have maintained control. Shouting at her and throwing her broom off the cliff was the stuff of his childhood – not the mark of his manhood, or so he hoped.
He should blame her for casting this spell on him, for robbing him of his ship, crew, and captain – but he could only blame himself for losing control. An officer had once told him that a sailor’s control and discipline were all that kept him afloat on the treacherous oceans of the world. Which would explain the sinking feeling in his stomach now that he had lost it.
Within minutes Pembrake had walked the familiar path that led along the beachside to Bridgestock Port. He told himself that the minute differences in the track – the changes in the foliage by the wayside – were imagined rather than real.
This was Bridgestock, this was the present – nothing had changed. He’d throw off her spell, and he’d be able to find his crew and Captain soon enough.
With the shifting feeling of unease growing as he neared the city, he held onto that thought with all his might.
Abby ran to the cottage, mumbled a hasty excuse about Pembrake wanting to head off to the city, and offered to come back as soon as she could to pay for the board and clothes.
Martha’s eyes glinted with enthusiastic interest. It was as if Martha was watching a play unfold around her and was amused at the actors’ proficiency.
Abby mumbled her apologies, grabbed Charlie, and ran off, determined to catch Pembrake before he did anything stupid.
As the witch of Bridgestock, she had a duty to the city and its people. So what if Pembrake was perhaps one of the most irrational, insane, frustrating people she’d ever met? She still had to help him where she could, especially considering their current historical situation. She’d never forgive herself if she allowed him to run amuck in town and do something stupid. Ms. Crowthy would roast her alive if she ever found out Abby had let Pembrake threaten the future. So what if Ms. Crowthy thought time was stronger than one person’s efforts to change it; Abby could guess that didn’t extend to petulant Pembrake.
She might have just met the man, but she could tell he was a frustrating, ill-tempered cad.
Abby flew over the rocky path that led into Bridgestock, her hands balled tightly into fists, her mind pumping with anger. Charlie had stayed quiet apart from the occasional, “who does that guy think he is?”
It was the arrogance more than anything. The way he held himself, the way he tilted his head to the side to look at you. Regardless of whether he was being angry or charming, his pale green eyes still had the same piercing, searching quality. You couldn’t relax in the same room with him, because you knew those eyes were a flick away from staring right into your soul.
As Abby marched along the path, she couldn’t help but notice the differences. The huge tree to her left, the one that had been struck by lightning the year Abby had come to Bridgestock, was still standing tall and strong, its massive limbs shading the beige gravel of the road. Then there was the road itself. It was wider in the future, having been surfaced to allow more traffic than the wandering fisherman going for a walk over the cliffs. It was a popular walk in the present day, with signposts and the occasional bench.
Pembrake, she was sure, would not have noticed a thing. Even with that piercing gaze, he would only see what he wanted. He was the kind of person who judged first and asked questions later.
Abby continued along the path until she reached the section where it split in two, the well-trodden track on the left leading down to the docks while the one to the right led to a cobbled road that led into the city.
There were people milling about the crossroads.
She tucked her arms around her middle in an officious ‘I’m busy – go away’ way and walked with Charlie trotting behind. If you looked busy, then people avoided you. Busy people have a horrible habit of making other people around them busy, too. It’s ingrained into every child’s mind to avoid a bustling parent – cross their path, and you will be roped into some task. People never forget this lesson, Ms. Crowthy had said, so if you wanted to get somewhere – look busy.
It worked, of course. The crowd parted before Abby. Within minutes she found herself negotiating the cobbled streets that led to the market strip in the center of town. They were worn smooth from so many years of traffic. In her own time, the markets were busy but orderly things. Most of the traditional tents and ramshackle stalls had given way to buildings and store fronts. Though it could get busy on a Saturday morning, it wasn’t a touch on the utter chaos that surrounded her now.
A thick cloud of concentrated odors filled the air as people bustled against each other in their effort to push a path through the crammed market. Incense, frying food, spices, perfumes, and flowers – it was a heady, intoxicating mix that threatened to burn the insides of her nostrils if she stayed around too long. A witch’s sense of smell is supposed to be an asset, but around such a powerful concoction, she needed two corks and a good deal of tape.
Charlie leaped into her arms at one point, rather than be trampled by a mob of pot-bellied merchants arguing over the price of exotic spiced tea. She clutched onto Charlie, feeling his little heart beating rapidly in his chest.
As they continued, a man pushed into her, the heavy crate in his arms jabbing her hard in the side. Then from the other direction a large woman, her arms full of dress fabrics in wonderful shades of blue and gold, swept past her face, knocking Abby in the nose.
Both assailants mumbled their apologies and pushed on through the crowd. Abby glared after them and tried to pick a less treacherous path through the pressing bodies. But it proved impossible, and she was soon swallowed up by the crowd, one tiny angry witch and a flustered cat in a sea of crushing shoppers.
How in the name of all that is holy, was she to find Pembrake now? If he were somewhere in this seething mass, then she’d need a week and a stepladder to find him. He could be off somewhere, changing the timeline, and she was powerless to stop him.
A huge, needling headache was filling her brain and addling her thoughts. What with her pent-up frustration and the overpowering odor of the market, Abby needed a good lie down.
Through a tiny break in the crowd, she spied the town square. She remembered it from her own time as an oasis of calm. A large statue dedicated to the slain Prince Sebastian set on a pedestal with a serene water fountain at its feet.
Pushing through with all her witchy importance gathered around her like a ram, she made it past a wall of muscle-bound men who had gathered before a fishmonger and were haggling over the price of one the ugliest fish Abby had ever seen.
Her cheeks flushed with the effort and her forehead sticky with sweat, she reached the statue, or rather where the statue should have been.
What there was instead was a bell set between two huge iron polls. Standing next to it, staring up at the structure, the corners of his mouth pulled thin, was Pembrake.
Abby marched right up to him, her headache making her head swim, but her anger at Pembrake’s sheer irrationality pushing her forward like a sprinting lioness. Charlie gave an encouraging hiss, too.
He’d thrown away her broom, lied to Martha about saving her, run off into the past looking for a ship that wouldn’t be built for another 20 years, and let’s face it, he was rude to his mother. Abby had every reason to be annoyed with Pembrake Hunter.
“So,” she came up behind him and fell short of jabbing him hard in the ribs as Ms. Crowthy would have done, “do you believe me now, or what?”
Pembrake reached out a large hand and touched the tarnished surface of the bell, ignoring her.
“Do you honestly think I have the power to send us back in time? Or control people like Martha and Alfred – to make them trick you? I mean, what would be the point?”
He turned to her, and she could see her words were registering. There was an annoyed curl to his lips. “What are you doing here?”
“What am I doing here?” she paused for effect, or rather to allow her addled brain to catch up to her whip-crack tongue. “I’m here to stop you from making a huge mistake—”
“I told you to leave me alone, witch,” Pembrake raised his voice, his eyes dark with warning.
She flinched, expecting his words to echo through the crowd like the ring of the giant bell beside them… except nothing happened. No one turned around and called for the Guards, and there was no hastily assembled mob to chase her from town.
“How dare you? I save your life, and this is the thanks I get?”
Pembrake stood silently watching her with his head cocked to the side, arms folded across his middle. “You saved me?”
“Yes, I saved you. I found your tearful mother, frantic with fear that something might happen to you. Then I flew through that godforsaken storm until I found you sinking into the ocean like a lump of coal. I plucked you from the sea and got you to that cliff – that was me, Pembrake. And this is the thanks I get. Useless, baseless prejudice, you—” she cast around for the correct word, “hypocrite.”
He was pale, either from the mention of his mother or from her accusation that he of all people should understand the hypocrisy of prejudice. “You’re a witch,” he repeated the words, his voice unsure, but his face still locked with dark menace.
“Yes, I’m a witch,” she forced herself to look at him, her chin held as high as her trembling neck could manage, “and you’re an idiot. I think we’re even.”
An old woman who had paused by the bell to sort out her purchases looked up with interest. “A new witch in the city! Oh well, isn’t that good news!” She nodded at Abby. “You’ll be going to go and see the Crone, I’m sure. I’ve heard she’s been seeking out new recruits ever since that business with the Colonel. And you look as if you know your trade sure enough.” The old woman nodded again then twisted her head into a shake when she looked at Pembrake. “And you, young man, should learn to show proper respect around witches.”
“I—” the edge of Pembrake’s anger dissipated, and he looked at the meddling old woman with confusion.
“You should be learning your place. You don’t go harassing witches around these parts, my lad, not if you know your proper place.” The woman glared at him from under her thick woolen hat and then walked off.
Pembrake turned back to Abby and shook his head. “Don’t think this changes anything.”
“No, of course not, why should a little thing like public opinion influence someone like you.”
“And what does that mean?”
“It means that before this morning you’d never met me, Pembrake – well, not properly anyway. Then, when you found out I was a witch, you had sufficient reason to blame all your problems on me and treat me like some kind of wasp. Just because you have seen other people do it, just because to the rest of society, I am a convenient scapegoat. I bet I’m the only witch you’ve ever met.”
Pembrake narrowed his eyes but didn’t interrupt her.
“Now we’re in the past, suddenly it’s okay to like witches again. Suddenly, it’s okay to treat us like actual people. So if you allowed yourself to be so swayed by public opinion in the future, what the hell is stopping you now?”
He faced her but did not look at her fully, instead allowing his eyes to settle on the bell beside them. “So what if you’re right?” his voice was quiet. “And we are back in the past… what does that even mean?”
“It means we have to try to get home before we get stuck here for good,” she scaled back her anger, not wanting to scare off the flicker of reason she saw in his eyes.
“How did we even get here, though?”
“The storm… there was something different about it, the way those clouds were circling above you – I’ve never seen anything like that before.”
Pembrake frowned at a memory, his eyes moving around as if tracking some mental ghost. “I see.”
She was pretty sure he didn’t see but wasn’t about to tell him during this random break in his irrational petulance. “Okay.”
The small muscles around his forehead moved as if he were trying not to frown. “So what do we do now?”
Abby was surprised at his sudden change. So was this him trusting her now? Or was this some kind of prelude to another fight? She decided to play it safe. “I guess we find out…” she found herself staring at the bell, not sure, when pressed, what it was that you did when you were stuck back in time. Try to get home again was an easy one to figure out, but how exactly was she supposed to do that? “I guess we look for… information?”
Though it was clear he still hadn’t forgiven her, he gave a flat-lipped, wan smile. “Great plan.”
“Well, what’s your plan then?”
“We could…” he tugged on his tight tunic, trying to make it stretch further over his shoulders, “go and ask someone.”
“That’s your plan?” She chuckled and rolled her eyes. “That’s fantastically clever. Let’s go and ask someone in the past how it is that you get back into the future. Do you know what the inside of a prison cell looks like, Pembrake? Because I’m pretty sure that’s where they’ll stick us if we go around spreading crazy stories.”
“They don’t take you to prison for being insane, they take you to an asylum. And yes, it is a good plan, because what other option do we have? You said yourself that the storm was strange, that the break in the clouds was the likely cause of our current temporal displacement—”
Abby frowned at his easy transition into scientific language, another reason to hate him she was sure.
“So why don’t we go and ask if it’s ever happened before? If something as benign as a tempest with unusual meteorological phenomena can alter your temporal alignment, then it’s logical to assume we aren’t its only victims?”
She tried to follow his words through the dull thump of her headache. He was more arrogant than a prince, how on Earth was he Mrs. Hunter’s son?
“I mean, because it doesn’t seem to be so hard to go back in time, don’t you think it’s happened before? And if it has happened before, there may well be someone in this city who knows something about it, and they can help us out.”
Was he using small words so her small mind could catch up? Gah! Who did he think she was? “Yes, Pembrake, I understood you the first time,” she lied, “but we can’t very well just go around asking people if they’ve ever gone back in time, and if they have, could they possibly give us some pointers on how you get back home again. They’ll think we’re crazy!”
He gave her a look that said people would already think she was crazy, then rolled his eyes in exasperation. “I wasn’t suggesting we go up and ask the fishmonger for his theories on temporal displacement. I was thinking more along the lines of a witch, actually.”
She stared at him. He always said that word with dripping resentment, and it made her want to pull his eyes out. She didn’t go around saying Naval Commander like it was the scummiest, dirtiest insult to ever reach the back streets of Bridgestock.
She glowered at him.
“Are you dumbstruck with the brilliance of my suggestion?” He raised a scornful eyebrow and shook his head at her silence.
“Okay, okay,” she couldn’t take any more of his smug face, “we will go and see a witch. Good suggestion, Pembrake!” She faked a smile.
“You witches sure are stupid creatures,” his voice wasn’t pumped full of anger like before, but his words were still delivered with the same scorn. “I hope whoever we find is more helpful than you.” He pulled on his shirt one final time and brushed past her.
Was that a smile on his lips? Because he wouldn’t be smiling when she was through with him.
She marched off after him, sure that the past and the future would not mind too much if the side of his head had an accident with the palm of her hand.
They walked through the market until they reached the quiet side streets, Abby several steps behind Pembrake so she didn’t have to run into the back of him every time he stopped to let some lady walk in front of them. She’d caught the end of a couple of the dazzling smiles he flicked the young girls, and it made her sick to her stomach. Was Pembrake really that stupid to charm the women of 28 years ago? Fast forward to the present, she felt like shouting to the back of his head, and they’d be old enough to be his mother.
By the time the crowd thinned to the occasional sailor marching toward the port, she was sure she knew the kind of man Pembrake Hunter was. She was also sure that if Ms. Crowthy were present to see the rakish wink he offered a passing portly, middle-aged woman, the old Crone would whack him over the head with her broom.
Boys like Pembrake kept the rest of the world blushing when it should be busy going about its daily business. Fortunately, Abby was immune; she could see through the handsome, strong sailor to the total fool underneath.
“If you frown anymore, you’re going to give yourself wrinkles.”
She looked up to see him walking beside her, green eyes centered on her mouth.
“And trust me, a girl like you doesn’t need wrinkles.”
What a total and complete pleck. “And if you keep smiling at all the young girls, the next thing you know you’ll be your own father.” She turned her face to the side, trying to stop him from staring with those piercing green eyes.
“You think I don’t know what my mother looked like 28 years ago? Plus, there’s no harm done in making friends.”
“Making friends? You call winking at every woman you see in the street making friends? How do you think their husbands feel, ha? How do you think your mother would feel?”
“Firstly, stop bringing my mother into this, and secondly, it doesn’t matter, Abby; it’s only a harmless wink,” he said her name with the kind of off-the-cuff officious tone a teacher would use on a student. It was obvious he felt like he had to teach the naïve Abby a thing or two about the workings of life.
She was livid. What a complete and total plecking idiot he was! “Oh really? Is that how it works, Mr. Commander?”
He smiled into a laugh, his face twisted with humor. “It’s Mr. or Commander; they’re both titles. For a witch, you really are kind of stupid.”
A blush was creeping up her cheeks, and it made her blood boil. She shouldn’t be blushing in front of this pathetic excuse for a sailor; she should tip her head up and brush him aside into the gutter where he belonged.
“Are you,” he tipped his head down toward her, his eyes flickering to and fro as if he were looking for a ring lost in the sand, “blushing, Abby?”
She pushed past him and headed down the street, angling her head high.
“You witches are confusing creatures,” he called after her, “no wonder we banned you in the future.”
She set her teeth and almost snorted with rage. She should turn and face him, wheel around on her feet and chastise him for using a revealing word like future when they were stuck in the past. If he wanted to walk down the street sounding like a crazy fool, then let him. She wasn’t here to pick up after him.
They walked on in silence for several minutes, this time with Abby at the lead. It had taken her several minutes of red-faced anger to calm down enough to think of where they were going. She couldn’t turn to Pembrake and ask him if he had any ideas; he’d laugh and shoot her one of those triumphant looks he was so darn good at. Instead, she walked toward the one place she could think of – her own tiny attic home. Who knew what it would be in these times – a den of vile intrigue or the source of a hideous plague, knowing her luck. Still, it would be a familiar landmark, and right now she needed to remind herself of home.
Charlie had been maintaining a suspicious silence, no doubt irked by Pembrake’s dominating presence. She’d told him of how Pembrake had thrown her broom off the cliff, and poor little Charlie was probably wondering if he’d be next.
In a way, it was better for both of them if Charlie stayed quiet. She wouldn’t have to put up with a constant barrage of “do you call this a plan? Gadding through town with a puffed-up fool while you poke giant holes in the timeline?”
It wasn’t until they’d left the wide, well-kept streets of inner Bridgestock for the dark and damp alleyways of the slumps that Pembrake quickened his pace to match hers. She was almost amused at the glimmer of concern in his eyes.
Of course it had taken time to get used to the slumps, but with nowhere else to go the young Abby had come to call it home. She knew all the back alleyways and shady street fronts selling ‘wares’ and ‘goods.’ She knew which streets to avoid and which hunched over, ambling figures to cross the street from. It may not have been the safest of places to live, but it was the only place where she could feel a bond with people in Bridgestock. The people in the slumps may not have been witches, but they were all considered second-class citizens to the rest of the city.
Now she had something over the powerful, self-assured Commander. The boy from upper Esquire Street would only ever have heard of the slumps in wretched tales.
She could see he wanted to pull her aside and whisper a warning into her ear, anything to see them walking back the other way into the ‘better’ half of the city. But in doing so, he would have to concede two things: one, that he cared what happened to her, and two, that the strong Commander was scared of getting dirt on his collar.
“Abby,” he managed with a low even voice as if he expected the residents to pounce on him like wild animals should he talk like a normal human.
“Yes,” she said quite loudly.
“What are we doing here, this place is… dangerous.”
He finally said it, and she had to bite hard on her lip not to smile. “No, it’s not.”
“Abby,” he took a step closer to her, his face setting with a determination that made her swallow, “yes, it is.”
She was faltering; there was something in his tone, but she wasn’t about to give in yet. “I happen to live here, thank you, and it’s perfectly pleasant. Just because you grew up on Esquire Street doesn’t mean you have to buy into the stereotypes.”
He stopped her with a firm hand on her shoulder. “28 years ago this place was full of Turn Abouts, not little witches like you.”
She was speechless. Turn Abouts was a name given to a group of mercenaries who fought in the Elogian wars. They were killing machines, possessed of no morals or allegiances beyond that which money could buy. They had fought for both sides, neither side wishing to be without their skill. The stories she’d heard of them were enough to make even the strongest of armies falter.
Turn Abouts were about the most horrible thing she could imagine.
“We need to go. And you need to brush up on your history before you march us into any more firing squads.”
He latched onto her arm and began to pull her away, but she snapped free soon enough. Ms. Crowthy would go throw the oven at Abby if she allowed herself to be dragged along by a man. Not only did it go against the golden rule of avoiding boys, but it went against the natural independence of a witch. Witches don’t get led anywhere they weren’t already walking toward, thank you.
He didn’t try to grab her wrist again, which she was thankful for. What with fear curdling her stomach, she would have let him have it.
Charlie shifted in her arms and looked at her with twitching whiskers.
Great, it seemed everybody thought she was a fool. But she couldn’t blame them – she was a total idiot.
Turn Abouts – why hadn’t she remembered that? She had read it in the history books, and she should have remembered that her beloved slumps were home to some of the seediest and most dangerous of criminals in this time. She hadn’t been thinking straight, and now what was supposed to be her big coup d’état against the arrogant Pembrake had turned into a massive embarrassment.
Her face hot and flustered, she rushed after him, keeping her head low. At one point they passed a man leaning against a wall, glowing cigarette in hand. He stared at them both but allowed his eyes to linger over Abby with a cold mix of indifference yet malevolent interest. The man, tall and thin with shoulder-length oily black hair and a pointed sallow face, took a mouthful of smoke from his cigarette then blew it at her.
She was surprised when Pembrake slowed, inserting himself between her and the man with what looked like a casual move. She coughed into her hand, more thankful than she could ever let him know, and followed Pembrake as they jogged away.
“Thank you for almost getting us killed.” He turned to her when the street had widened, and the shop fronts had changed from dirty gray to clean beige and white.
She didn’t want to admit it, but she was scared. That man had deeply unsettled her. That lingering look he’d shot her made her back itch.
“So what do you have to say for yourself?” Pembrake crossed his arms. “I hope you appreciate how stupid that was.”
She pressed her lips together and looked at her feet.
“We went looking for a witch and all we found was a cold-blooded mercenary – remind me never to let you help me look for anything again.”
His constant, pointed nagging was pushing her fear to the corners of her mind. “Look, I’m really very sorry that scared you, Commander, but we did not lose time. I’m not sure what you were looking at, but I was looking for a witch’s shop. And I didn’t see one,” she sniffed, hoping that sheer haughtiness would carry her lie, “so no time has been wasted; we’ve just narrowed down our search.”
It was the most sarcastic concession she’d ever heard.
“So now I suggest we look elsewhere.”
“Another good plan, Abby; let’s see where this one takes us.”
After what felt like hours of searching, they found themselves in front of a small building set into one of the tessellated walls above the port. It was tucked in between a bookstore and a dressmakers. They’d walked past it several times before Abby had guessed what it was. There were no clues, no signs reading “witch here” or pictures of a broom and a black cat. It was only after a surge of magic trickled along her back that Abby had suggested they try it out.
When they walked in to find a group of middle-aged women, all dressed in flowing black skirts and all sitting down to tea with purring black cats on their laps, Abby turned to Pembrake and grinned.
Instead of returning her smile, he stared at the witches, his cheeks sallow and limp.
It must be confronting for such a bigoted man to come face-to-face with a room full of witches.
The largest lady with the lightest gray hair sniffed like a bull and rattled her teacup. Abby took this to be a greeting and bowed, pulling her skirts out with both hands.
“What are you doing here, witch?” the woman sniffed again. “You set that cat of yours down so he can have a drink and take a step closer.”
Abby let Charlie bound out of her arms, and he settled beside another black cat who was lapping milk out of a saucer.
It was a blessing to be in the company of witches again.
For six years, she had been on her own except for Charlie, and that had weighed on her heart.
“Come to seek our advice, she has,” another witch piped up, “that boy on her arm, too.”
Pembrake looked sideways at Abby. He was obviously not used to the company of witches.
“Oh, there’s something odd here, there is,” said one witch as she scratched her purring cat under the chin, “these folks aren’t from around here.”
“My word indeed.” A wiry-looking witch pushed up her glasses. “Not even from this time.”
All the witches clucked like a group of hens searching for worms, and there was a good deal of rattling of teacups.
Abby stood there, hands clasped in front of her like a good trainee witch. Pembrake, on the other hand, kept moving his gaze from witch to witch, like a captain contemplating the choppy sea.
“Some kind of storm,” one witch grabbed her tea cup and stuck in a gnarled finger, agitating the liquid with a flick of her wrist, “a chaotic one.”
The other witches gasped and started whirling their own cups.
Abby supplied her own sniff to show that she was following affairs.
“A witch and a sailor – this wasn’t supposed to happen.”
“No, no, no, something’s gone wrong here, something isn’t as it should be.”
The head witch put up a quick hand and silenced the others. “You come here, child.”
Abby obeyed and took the cup of tea that was offered her, taking a polite sip and handing it back to the waiting witch.
The other witches held their breath, waiting for the prognostication. It was clear from their eager silence that they all thought it would be something horrible. Abby tried to remain stoic, but she knew from experience that silent witches were a bad omen.
“Hmmm,” the head witch had her face set over the tea, watching it with bespectacled yellow-tinged eyes. “Well, I ain’t seen this for a while, not for a long while indeed. This is wrong.”
Pembrake cleared his throat and appeared to be about to speak until Abby shot him a look dripping with warning. This was not the time for Mr. Arrogant Commander to take charge; these witches would eat him alive.
“You shouldn’t be here, child,” the witch looked up, “and you shouldn’t be with him.” She pointed a crooked finger at Pembrake. “You shouldn’t be anywhere near him.”
Silence broke after her words, and Abby thought it best to ignore the strange look of panic that had clouded Pembrake’s face. What was he thinking? Abby wondered as she tried to remain tall and strong, accepting her reading with the dignity of a Ms.-Crowthy-trained witch.
“Oh you’ve gone and broken something you have. Somewhere along the line this storm has ruined things – ruined future things.”
Abby bit her lip to stop it from trembling. She couldn’t have ruined the timeline already, surely?
“You, boy,” the head witch pointed at Pembrake, “come drink from this cup.”
For a moment Abby wasn’t certain Pembrake would comply; he wasn’t the type to be ordered around. But whether it was the present company or something else, he walked forward and accepted the cup, sipping with stiff white lips and returning it to the old witch’s hand.
The head witch shook her head as she stared at the contents. “Well, well, well – things have changed, haven’t they?”
“Destinies?” another witch piped up, leaning forward in her chair.
A chill shot down Abby’s back. You can’t change destinies.
“Hmmm, yes,” a different witch leaned forward in her chair, “I can see it now, these two children were supposed to lead different lives.”
The head witch nodded. “They were never meant to meet, and now look at them; they’ll likely never be apart again.”
Abby blinked in quick succession. What on Earth did that mean? She glanced at Pembrake, and he was staring at her, eyes full of alarm, one eyebrow raised.
“Oh, yes, I can see it now, too. He was supposed to be a captain of a ship somewhere.”
“Had a wife named Pearl, three children too,” one witch took the teacup from the head witch, “dies at sea, he does, age of 45.”
“Shark attack.” A witch grinned at Pembrake, baring her yellowed teeth.
“And you,” another witch pointed at Abby, “you were supposed to live in Bridgestock, never leaving, never abandoning your duty.”
“But you’re hunted, running out of work and money, starving and homeless, nowhere to run for help.”
Abby felt slow, her breathing shuddering to a shallow hush. She was aware she was blinking too much, but couldn’t stop it.
“You die on the streets, you and that cat of yours. And you’re all of 26.”
All the witches sat back and nodded.
She had two years to live… or rather, she’d had had two years to live. Dying on the streets, starving and alone – that had been her destiny.
That’s all this little witch was good for in the future.
She was aware the witches were looking at her, Pembrake, too. But she couldn’t turn to him. What a future he’d had. She half expected he’d be happy to go in a shark attack; he didn’t seem to be the kind to want to die in his bed.
“It’s broken now,” the head witch nodded low, “can’t happen at all. Because everything’s changed. Your destinies are like loose strings flapping in the wind, no longer attached to the ends of your lives, but lost out in space with nothing to anchor to.”
“They have to be tied down,” another witch nodded from over her cup of tea, “they have to be tied to something, or you’ll be lost in space forever, not knowing where you’re going, and not getting anywhere at all.”
If the story of her once-destined death had been horrible, then the implication of their warnings was on a par. Their allusion to strings flapping free in the wind was more than a metaphor. Destiny was like a tie, like an anchor fixing you to history. Without destiny, she would become a lost soul drifting through the universe with no hope and no future.
“They have to be tied to something,” a different witch repeated, “something so as they don’t get lost.”
Tied to what, Abby wondered. What on Earth could you tie the broken destinies of two people to? A tree, a rock, a house? It was all very well for the witches to warn her, but what was she meant to do? She couldn’t fix her broken destiny as sure as she couldn’t snap her fingers and return home again. She wasn’t that powerful.
“Don’t you lose heart, dear,” the head witch peered at her, “you have to find it on your own, but trust me, dear, there’s something you can tie your heart to.”
“But she’s got to find it on her own,” another witch finished.
They weren’t about to tell her what it was, though she was sure they knew.
“Once you figure it out, should be easy to go back home, dear,” the head witch smiled, “once your time is right again, you’ll return to the right time, you mark my words.”
“But if you don’t figure it out, you’ll be stuck here as wandering souls…” the witch that had grinned at Pembrake drifted off, letting her eyes go unfocused as she stared at the two of them.
With a large sniff that signaled the end of their session, the head witch stood. “I don’t envy you, child, but at least your future is now in your hands,” she briefly looked at Pembrake, “in both of your hands. Now,” she walked over to Abby and took up her hands, squeezing them firmly but warmly, “don’t go splitting up till it’s all over and don’t go getting yourself into extra trouble.”
“You won’t be needing extra trouble,” interrupted another witch.
“No, you won’t,” the head witch nodded again, “but if you keep your head on your shoulders, it should be fine.”
Abby couldn’t even sniff, so she sucked in a breath, trying to calm her nerves enough to speak. “Is there… anything else that you can see?”
“Ohh, I sees a ball with lots of fancy dresses.”
“And I sees a prince and a princess!”
“Yes I sees the palace,” the head witch had a far-off look, “and it’s very important. You have to go get yourself into the palace, children.”
“Most of their story lies there,” another witch mumbled.
“That’s where they’ll find the key,” confirmed the head witch with a sharp nod.
“The key?” Abby’s voice had a distinct waver.
“The Key of Time.”
Abby shared a look with Pembrake. The Key of Time sounded like a pretty useful tool in figuring out how to get home again – why were the witches only mentioning it now?
“It’s not what you think, though.” The head witch looked unblinking at Abby.
“Oh,” Abby lost her nerve, and she could feel a slick of sweat beading on her brow. Broken destinies, keys of time, the palace? This was insane. This was insane!
The witches then grew silent, several of them turning back to their teacups and mumbling to each other. With a happy flick of his tail, Charlie trotted back to Abby and leaped into her arms, signaling that the session was over.
She turned to leave, barely able to flick her eyes toward the door to tell Pembrake that their time was up.
“One last thing, child,” the head crone looked up, “where’s that bracelet of yours? You’ll be needing that, you will.”
The bracelet, the bracelet! She’d forgotten all about it!
Abby patted a hand to her pocket but realized with a heavy swallow that she was not in her original clothes; she was dressed in the large dress and smock Martha had loaned her.
Abby could feel the eyes of everyone turn to her again.
“You’ll find it again,” the head witch assured her, “but you be careful with it, child. Now off you go to find the rest of your story; you’ve stayed here long enough.”
Abby stammered a, “yes,” and with that left the witches, feeling such a strange mix of cold dread and… possibility. The bracelet, her destiny, their omens… was there a way back home after all?
The witches assured them that they needed to keep moving, needed to keep searching the city for clues and leads, whatever that meant. The head witch had told Abby to return, should they need assistance, and had smiled at her with the strict firmness of a boarding school matron, before sending her out the door with a pat on the shoulder and a reminder that their story wouldn’t progress until they found themselves in the palace.
They were to search the city for some clue, some way to tie down their destinies, to rebuild broken futures, and to find a way into the palace to boot. Abby had no idea where to start, but Pembrake, she was sure, had even less.
They walked from the witch’s shop in silence, sharing each other’s company in presence alone. She was sure he was mulling over the words of the witches, imagining himself in the life they had seen. Happily married with a beautiful wife and three children, dying at sea doing the job he loved. What a life he’d lost….
For her part, she tried to keep the color in her cheeks, but her mind kept flirting with the terrible destiny she’d once held. Dying alone and starving….
She shivered and drew her arms around herself.
“You know,” Pembrake broke the silence, “I’ve always hated sharks.”
Abby, despite herself, smiled.
Though Pembrake had tried to lighten the mood, there was no dragging Abby up from her miserable lull. It was sweet of him in a way, but she was sure it wasn’t genuine, what with Pembrake Hunter the boy he was, he was likely to have some kind of rotten agenda.
“Three kids? I hate kids, what kind of a future is that?” he commented as they walked the streets looking for whatever it was the witches said was out there.
She didn’t smile, not wanting to encourage him further.
As they mounted the steps that led to the more well-to-do areas of Bridgestock, he didn’t even wink as a particularly attractive lady walked past.
“Shark attack, I mean really – what a rubbish life I would have had.”
A beautiful wife, three adoring children, and a successful career? Oh yes, what a bother.
“I mean at least you get to go out with your man, Charlie – I’m eaten alive by sharks, presumably while my crew watch and cheer.”
Abby rubbed her eyes but didn’t say anything as they climbed the last step to upper Bridgestock.
Pembrake was persistent, she’d give him that. But she didn’t want cheering up; she deserved to be miserable. He’d gone and lost s perfect life because of her, and where had she been headed? Death, misery, and starvation – that’s all Abby of the future was worth. And as far as she could tell, she hadn’t changed any, so the same future was still lurking on the horizon.
“I mean at least you aren’t alone, right? At least you get to go out with the man you love. I’m eaten by sharks far, far away from my family, all of whom I probably hadn’t seen for years.” Pembrake wouldn’t let up.
For someone who wanted to throw her off a cliff this morning, he was being almost kind. Or was this how he operated? Pull people up when they are down and bash them to the floor again once they’re up?
She set her jaw hard. “Charlie is my cat. So yes, I get to die alone. Because that’s all a witch is good for.” She turned from him and spoke her bitter words to the cobbles, patting Charlie with a warning hand lest he took this opportunity to introduce Pembrake to his voice.
“Cat, ha… okay well, you’re still not alone,” he ended weakly, trying a smile on Charlie, which died in the fierce cat-scowl Charlie offered in return.
She turned on him, face mottled by the filtered light streaming in through giant leaves of an oak above. “Why are you laughing this off? You had the perfect life, the perfect wife, perfect children, perfect job – why aren’t you angry that you lost it? Ha? Why aren’t you threatening to throw me off a cliff?” Anger and sadness mixed in her tone until it pitched high. “Why aren’t you happy I go out alone and starving? I ruined your future. And all I am to you is a horrible worthless witch.”
He looked shocked.
“Seriously, why don’t you care?” She shook her head, her hair cracking about like a whip. “You were prepared to hate me because I’m a witch – and now you’re perfectly fine with me ruining your future. I don’t understand you!” She pressed a hand hard into her forehead and turned to storm off.
“Because it’s just a story,” he called after her, “it’s just a story, Abby.”
“Pearl, the kids, you dying in the street – it’s all just a story. Nobody can tell you your destiny by looking in your cup of tea, no one. What those witches said was only a story – it wasn’t real.”
She pressed her hand even harder into her forehead. “It is not a story. It’s where we were headed before this whole thing happened. If I hadn’t meddled, if I hadn’t saved you – then you wouldn’t be stuck here in the past with me, you’d be off marrying Pearl and living happily ever after.”
His light brown cheeks started to flush with anger; finally it seemed she was getting through to him.
“Listen to yourself – that doesn’t make any sense! If you hadn’t saved me, I would have drowned. There would be no wife, no children, and no job. I was going to die on that mast – end of story.”
Abby slowed, taking this in. It had seemed quite final the way the ocean had swallowed him. He’d been unconscious, and there was no one else around to claim his limp body from the waves… but did that mean anything? Couldn’t something else have happened, couldn’t some other miracle have occurred?
She shook her head again, determined not to lose this one. “That doesn’t mean anything. I changed things when I decided to intervene. If I’d just left you, someone else could have saved you. Pearl could have rowed up in a plecking dingy and saved you herself.”
“You don’t seem the type to swear, little witch, nor do you actually seem that stupid.”
“Stop calling me that!”
“Then stop saying that I would have been fine. Listen to yourself, I would have died – there’s no point in pretending that I wouldn’t have.”
“Yes, I would. And unless you made that storm yourself, then how exactly were you responsible for this?”
“Can’t be. In fact, if anyone is – it’s me. I was the one who had to go and drown, if you hadn’t had to rescue me, then neither of us would be here.”
She opened her mouth, annoyance constricting her throat.
“Look, just stop arguing for once. What exactly do you have to be angry about? If you believe those witches, then you have lost nothing by coming back in time. Starving to death on the streets isn’t exactly what I call a fortunate life. So what have you lost in coming back here, ha?”
“Nothing!” She snapped, more at his sanctimonious face than at his words.
“Precisely, so why the pleck are you so angry?”
“I’m angry for you,” she conceded weakly, “for all the things that you’ve lost. For us being stuck here with no destinies and no hope of returning home.”
“Well, thanks, but I can be pretty angry on my own – I don’t need your help.” He crossed his arms, Alfred’s small shirt creaking.
Defensive, argumentative, irrational Pembrake was back.
“Of course you can,” she huffed, “you can be angry enough for all of Bridgestock. And I am so sorry for feeling sorry for you. Trust me, I won’t do it again.” All her misery and self-pity had dried up as the licking flames of anger heated her cheeks bright red.
“Good. Now we know it’s my fault, we can all move on.”
“Okay fine, it’s all your fault, then.”
They both paused and looked at each other with mutual loathing.
“So we’re going out to find some way of tying down our destinies.” He shot her a sarcastic but defiant look.
The two of them walked the streets of Bridgestock for the rest of the afternoon, Pembrake trying to breathe in his tiny shirt and Abby trying not to trip over the huge clothes Martha had loaned her. If Abby had thought Pembrake was rotten company before, then she had underestimated him. Once he’d convinced her that she shouldn’t hang herself from guilt, he had returned to the aloof, indifferent man she’d grown to hate.
As the afternoon had drawn on, it had become clear their efforts were fruitless. What were they looking for? The witches had been so vague. Abby half expected, what with her years of experience with Ms. Crowthy, the old girls were setting them up. If Ms. Crowthy had ever wanted Abby to do something that she might not agree to, she’d construct a scenario that would ensure Abby was at the right place at the right time and would have no option but to carry out the Crone’s wishes.
This task was thankless. Impossible even.
Pembrake displayed his frustration by walking several steps ahead, staring at his shoes, rolling his eyes whenever Abby came up with another place to check. It was hard thinking of places to look for their destinies, so she didn’t appreciate his mood. And yet his ire was justified; they had absolutely no idea what they were looking for.
As night settled in, so did the clouds and wind, and soon a gentle but steady drizzle covered the streets, forcing them to walk along faster, searching for whatever shelter they could find.
“I can’t believe you hadn’t thought of this before.” Pembrake narrowed his eyes and groaned, a dribble of rain cascading off his lips. “Where are we supposed to stay tonight?”
“I don’t know, Pembrake,” Abby took a leaf out of his book and rolled her eyes, “and why exactly is this my fault?”
“You’re the one who’s dragging us along on this witchy mission of finding our rotten destinies. You’re the one who didn’t bother to ask for the forecast before you set off. You’re the one—”
“And you’re the one who threw away my broom, Pembrake. If you hadn’t done that, I could have flown us to one of the sea caves. But oh no, you had to have a tantrum.”
His face went dark at the mention of a tantrum, and she shivered at the concentrated loathing behind his eyes. She wasn’t sure what he would do, until a cascade of water flew off the top of the wall above and drenched her. He laughed into the back of his throat and stepped out of her dribbling path.
“Ahh!” The water saturated every last dry inch of her clothes and was trickling down her back, making her skin tight and tingly.
Charlie scattered, running behind Pembrake’s legs.
“I have a plan, little witch: why don’t we get out of the rain? Your little cat here is getting cold and wet.” He did not bend down and pet Charlie, but he did share a look with him that set Abby on edge. He wasn’t supposed to be looking at her cat, and certainly not exchanging meaningful glances with him.
If looks could kill, she would have melted him on the spot.
Getting out of the rain was easy, but finding a dry, free, safe place to spend the night was another matter. As usual, Pembrake felt the need to leave it up to her first so he could delight when she failed. She suggested they go back to the witches, but he refused. She suggested they find an empty warehouse in the slumps, and he laughed so hard his wet shirt, which Abby had tried hard not to notice, stretched with a twang. She opted for walking all the way to the sea caves, and Pembrake had rolled his eyes again like a petulant toddler.
Neither of them wanted to impose on Martha and Albert again, which showed Pembrake did have a decent side somewhere under his trash heap of a personality. Plus, the walk back to their house along the cliffs was unrealistic in this weather.
With Abby running out of sanity and starting to shake like a leaf in a hurricane, her back and middle cold and wet, Pembrake finished his game. With a charming wink that made her stomach twitch, he took the lead. He led them back through the deserted streets to the port, and as she was about to ask what on Earth he was planning, he led her to the back of several large storage sheds, behind a fence, and to a rusted iron door.
With a heave of his shoulder, which of course Abby had looked to the side to avoid seeing, Pembrake busted open the door to reveal a large barn-like shed inside. With one whiff, she was reminded of the pastures and barns of home – the damp, grassy smell of hay. There were mountains and mountains of it, all piled in sections, waiting to be fed to the livestock that came through the port.
For want of a dry, safe, free place – Abby would have opted for a house, but this would do perfectly. She wouldn’t admit it, of course, and tried to keep her expression disdainful.
Pembrake threw himself onto a low pile of hay and kicked out his legs, tucking his hands behind his head. “Aren’t you going to thank me?”
She made a horrible face, sure that he couldn’t see her. “Why?”
“Because once again I’ve saved the day. You are horrendously rude, little witch. You should be thankful you can rely on someone like me.”
She kept on pulling faces. “And you should be thankful this plan of yours actually worked. We are in the past remember, this shed could have been anything.” It was a weak argument, but Abby was cold, wet, and hungry.
“A giant cake maybe?” Pembrake shifted about on the hay until he found a comfortable place to rest.
She replied with pointed silence.
“You know, Abby, if you were any other girl.”
She flinched. “And what’s that supposed to mean?” She could tell, whatever it was, Pembrake was saying it to annoy her. Still… what did he mean?
He shifted his head so she could no longer see his smile. “I see you have a lot to learn, little witch.” With that, he rolled over and did not speak again until morning.
Abby fussed about for a while, trying to find a private place to hang up her sopping clothes, a place she was sure Pembrake would not come upon and cause her to blush like a spewing volcano. She would have to be careful around him, she could tell.
She came to rest on a suitable patch of hay. It was scratchy, but she couldn’t do anything about that. She was glad that her whirlwind day was slowing down, coming to rest in this peaceful hay shed.
Charlie settled in beside her and began to purr. “One of these days, we are going to have to have a good long chat about going back in time and courting strange naval men.”
Abby tisked and flicked his ear before settling further into her impromptu bed.
Pembrake could go hang for all she cared.
The next day brought with it the bustling sound of the port with men shouting off in the distance and the blast of a fog horn whistling through the air. Abby awoke to the sight of Pembrake leaning over her, face quizzical but eyes alight with interest.
At the moment it took her brain to catch up with the situation, Ms. Crowthy’s disembodied-self shouted at Abby to cover up at once. She threw her arms around herself as best she could, causing Charlie to fly off the hay and land dazzled at Pembrake’s feet.
“What are you wearing?” Pembrake didn’t look away like a polite gentleman should but kept on staring.
She was wearing, apart from the blush that was searing her cheeks, a pair of Martha’s spare drawers and a singlet large enough for four Abbys.
“You look like you’re from the pantomime.” He still hadn’t looked away.
“Go away!” She tried to struggle up out of the hay but found it eating her like quick sand.
He shook his head with laughter, either at the sight of her struggling like tissue on the wind or the impossible plum-red color of her cheeks. “Oh I don’t think so, this is quite funny really.”
“You’re so rude!” She continued to struggle, certain she couldn’t accept a hand from him now. “Don’t you know how to act around ladies?”
A self-assured grin settled on his face, his white teeth sneaking out from behind his lips. “Oh yes.”
She’d had enough. What a horrible man he was. As Ms. Crowthy had assured her on many occasions, the best way to deal with people that wouldn’t go away was to throw things at them until they did, especially if they were boys.
Abby bunched her hands around several loose tufts of hay and threw them at him.
He stood there stalwart as the hay fell against him, her aim true but her chosen weapon weak. “You are very easy to scare, Abby, it’s a wonder you’ve made it to the age you have without holing yourself up in a cave and blocking the entrance. It’s no wonder you get on so well with my mother.”
With a heave, Abby struggled free of the hay, having to burrow through it until her feet reached the firm floor. “And you, Pembrake—” she went to grab her clothes, but he didn’t move from her path.
“Yes?” His eyes were still flickering with that same amused interest.
Standing closer to him, without the barrier of hay in her way, was far more confronting, and she tried to sniff back some self-respect. “You are a horrible rogue,” she ended weakly.
“You’re not very good at winning arguments, are you?” he was laughing through his words, but still those green eyes would not move from her. “In fact, there doesn’t seem to be anything you can do to surprise me – you’re very predictable, if not a little peculiar and a great deal naïve.”
She hated herself for the way her eyes flicked with confusion.
“You want predictable, buddy?” Charlie suddenly said as he reared onto two feet and stood like a little cat man, “how about I jump up there and scratch your face off.”
Pembrake jerked back like a man on fire. He jerked back with rigid surprise. “Wh-what the hell?”
She put a hand to her mouth and giggled; the look on Pembrake’s face was worth more than all the gold in the world.
“You finding this funny, Pembrake?” Charlie was putting on a tough voice which sounded as though he’d modeled it on a drunken sailor. “Because these claws are sharp.” He swiped them through the air.
Pembrake shifted back once more before he tried to straighten up. “That cat’s talking!” he pointed out to the empty room.
“Surprised, ha?” She crossed her arms.
He shot her a wary look, then straightened his back and lifted his chin. “I suppose witches have talking cats, I’ve heard the stories.” He clamped his massive hands on his equally large forearms and shrugged.
“Now you’ve seen the real thing.” Charlie squared up to him. “And how does it make you feel?”
Abby couldn’t help but chuckle at Charlie’s adorable routine, something he would bite her for later.
Pembrake took a second to swallow. “Well, think of it this way,” he knelt down a little, though not far enough to bring his perfect face within scratching distance, “I could pick you up and throw you in a hay bale – how would that feel?” His voice was menacing but retained a note of surprise.
It was a moment that she wished could go on and on indefinitely, but she had to intervene for the sake of her beloved little Charlie. If he were 20-times larger, then she’d let him sort out Pembrake for good.
“Okay,” she ticked her head to the side and glared at Pembrake, “game’s over.” She leaned down and picked up Charlie. “I’m going to get dressed now.”
That morning was spent back on the streets of Bridgestock, its cobbles washed clean from the night’s rain. Abby spent most of the time drifting behind Pembrake, picking strands of straw out of her hair and making mutinous faces at the back of his head.
If Pembrake thought he was better at finding a way of getting into the palace and fixing their destinies, then so be it.
“Why,” he stopped and drew up beside her as they passed a bakery, “do you always make such horrible faces?”
“I find the back of your head to be very inspiring.”
He looked shocked but amused. “Plucky this morning aren’t we.”
Her stomach gave a rumble before she could think of a cutting reply.
He frowned before he caught himself and turned it into a sneer. “Good point, Abby’s stomach, perhaps we should find some food.”
After that, she swore she saw a bit of the Commander shining through. It had occurred to her that whoever Pembrake was around her, he couldn’t assume the same roguish arrogance around his crew. As he went marching off down the street, Abby dashing to keep up, she felt like she was following a different man.
They found a tree, laden with ripe apples sprawling over a wall on Esquire Street. According to Pembrake, he’d often come here as a child.
He began handing her apples, insisting that she eat them on the spot and stash more in her skirts. For his own part, he placed only a single apple in his pocket.
He had the face of a worried mother, begging their child to eat. Though he couldn’t come right out and say that he was concerned about her. “You stock up, I don’t want you fainting and losing us valuable time.” He scaled the wall and threw her down another apple.
After Pembrake had grabbed all the apples on hand, he vaulted back off the wall, landing beside her. “Eat,” he commanded.
With her apron full of apples, they continued down Esquire Street, a comfortable silence spreading among them.
It was almost pleasant with the mid-morning sun shining on their backs. Almost pleasant, that was, until Abby rounded a corner and was knocked flat into what felt like a brick wall. She fell back against the pavement, losing her apples with a yelp.
“Oh no!” A man with the dark skin of a South Islander dropped to his knees and helped her up.
She found herself staring at his face, open mouthed and confused. It wasn’t the shock of falling on the street or the terrible prospect of her breakfast tumbling along the pavement brown and bruised – it was the man’s face.
The way his lips were set with a natural, friendly curl. The way his jaw tapered to a firm square jut. The way his eyes twinkled like search lights…. The man reminded her of Pembrake.
“I really am sorry.” The man stood her up but fell short of brushing her off. Instead, he nodded, a look of genuine concern on his all-too-familiar face.
She wanted to shift her shocked gaze to Pembrake and switch between them, comparing and noting the obvious, distinctive similarities. It was uncanny. All but for the lighter shade of his skin and pale green eyes, Pembrake was the spitting image of the man before her.
“You really must excuse me, ma’am, it was very rude of me to come around the corner so fast.”
She looked past his face to the crisp white, navy suit he wore and the rumpled bouquet of red roses held in his hand. Her apples lay dejected around them both, and the man leaned down to pick one up. “Bruised I’m afraid. I’m so sorry.”
“Of course.” She tried to force her shock into a polite smile. “Don’t worry about it.”
The man let his eyes drift down her dirty, ill-fitting clothes and settled on her thin arms poking from under the fabric. He looked back at the apple and gave a small smile. “I don’t think it would be decent of me to leave like this. I owe you recompense, ma’am.”
“You don’t have to do that.” Pembrake took a jerked step close to her side.
She’d almost forgotten all about him. She turned to see his face set with a peculiar look of recognition. His brow was crinkled and his nose flared, his eyes scanning his lookalike with cold confusion.
Had he noticed that they looked so much alike?
“Of course I do.” He reached out a large hand to Pembrake. “Ensign Karing.”
Pembrake hesitated then shook it, his face growing paler by the second.
“I really insist on paying for the apples,” he said with a firmness that reminded Abby of Pembrake demanding that she eat moments before. “In fact, if you would just wait a moment while I deliver these flowers, I insist on taking you to breakfast.”
Pembrake put a hand on her shoulder. “I’m afraid we don’t have the time, we are quite busy.”
“Oh.” Ensign Karing looked disappointed, then his determination returned. “No problem, then. My fiancée is just around the corner, and she has an apple tree laden with fruit. I absolutely insist on replacing them.”
He appeared accustomed to giving orders, Abby thought as she let her gaze drift over his face again.
“These apples are fine.” Pembrake picked one up, hiding a large brown bruise by twisting it around.
“I absolutely insist,” Karing said with finality.
She could see it was going to be up to her to intervene here. Both Pembrake and Karing were the kinds of men who did not back down. “Okay then, that sounds fair. But are you sure your fiancée won’t mind?”
“Not at all.” Karing nodded, marching on ahead before Pembrake could counter again.
Pembrake didn’t dig his feet in and refuse to move, which was a relief, but he did catch up to Abby and lean down to whisper in her ear. “You fool, Abby, you have no idea who that is.”
“What? He’s just some random guy.” She tisked, not appreciating Pembrake’s tone.
“That,” she had never heard Pembrake speak with so much gravitas, “is my biological father.”
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Though she wasn’t sure on the correct protocol regarding time travel, it seemed like the rottenest of ideas to run into your father in the past.
Who knows what could happen.
Abby and Pembrake followed Karing up the street, her mind ablaze. She wasn’t sure what to do, but she was sure she had to do something.
She could not sit down to tea with Pembrake’s parents.
Whatever she did, though, she would have to ensure it wasn’t memorable.
If they dashed off now, and Karing turned to see them running across the street in their ill-fitting clothes looking like characters out of a pantomime, he’d always remember their encounter.
She had to drift away without piquing Karing’s curiosity.
Pembrake kept on turning to her and shifting his head toward the other end of the street. “Let’s go.” His lips were thin with anger.
She didn’t want to look conspicuous. And turning tail and running like loons was pretty darn conspicuous.
Karing stopped before a beautiful sandstone wall and smiled at them.
With one look at the wall, she almost fell over. Karing had led them to none other than Mrs. Hunter’s front gate.
As far as not stuffing up the timeline went, taking a future son to meet his mother in the past as well as his father was an appalling turn of events.
She returned Karing a manic, wide-eyed grin. “Oh my, look at the time, we really have to go.”
Pembrake was staring at the wall with a look like, well, a son might share with his long-lost mother.
Karing blinked at her sudden excuse. “The tree is just in the courtyard—”
“No!” she hiccupped with nervous laughter, “I mean I just realized that we really don’t have the time. I am so sorry.” She bowed her head once and turned to flee, Pembrake falling into step behind her.
“Sorry then,” Karing called out from behind them.
Not as sorry as she was.
They were going to leave, they were going to get the pleck out of here before the timeline shattered like a prized vase thrown against the wall.
Well, that had been the plan.
“Pembrake!” a woman’s voice, light and trilling, rang out from the garden path.
Pembrake froze next to Abby as if all the heat had been sucked out of him, leaving him a lifeless, static husk.
A woman ran down the path, her white dress with lace trim streaming out behind her as her bare feet padded against the clean cobbles.
“Darling.” Karing threw his arms wide and smiling with an open-faced warmth that would reveal to anyone that he was the happiest man alive.
The woman leaped into his open arms, and he closed them around her, strong enough to lift her full weight without stumbling.
To say that Pembrake was blanching, would be an understatement. His cheeks were growing grayer with every second. Any more of this display, and there would be so little blood left in his head that he would collapse into a coma.
Abby watched, shifting her gaze from the lovers to Pembrake, not knowing what it was she should do. Their opportunity to run away had passed.
It was clear, even to Abby, who this woman was. She had the same dazzling green eyes, the high cheekbones, and delicate hands of Mrs. Hunter. Even under the vibrant mask of youth, it was clear this was Pembrake’s mother.
But why had she shouted his name?
“Pembrake, darling,” the young Mrs. Hunter clapped her hands together, “who are these people?”
Karing gave them a pressed-lipped grin. “Friends of mine, Lilly.”
Abby replied with a small smile of her own, then turned to her Pembrake and gave him the kind of look that said “what kind of a person names their son after their father?” It wasn’t even as if Pembrake was that fantastic a name to bother repeating across a generation.
Her Pembrake was oblivious to Abby’s pointed look; he appeared to be preoccupied with dying slowly. His whole face was now so slack, it was a wonder his features hadn’t slipped off into a puddle on the ground.
“Friends?” Lilly said with an almost infectious joviality. “They should come in for breakfast!”
Lilly, AKA Mrs. Hunter, didn’t have a thing on candy floss – the woman spoke with the kind of sweet hiccupy words that sent self-respecting witches everywhere for a pamphlet on feminism and a swig of brandy.
How could this bright-eyed, bubbling woman be the same sober, gentle Mrs. Hunter Abby knew from the future?
Karing looked back at them, a perceptible glint of satisfaction in his eyes. He’d achieved what he’d set out to do – get them breakfast.
“Oh, you simply must come inside!” Lilly clapped her hands together and made a noise not unlike a horse whinnying.
Sweet voice, animal noises, a white-lace dress – what would be next, puppies?
“Yes, you simply must come inside,” Lilly continued the conversation on her own, “and you are just in time! I’ve just made a batch of cookies!”
Dear plecking lord, thought Abby. This girl was insane. How in the world could she grow up to be the beloved Mrs. Hunter?
Without waiting for a reply, Lilly bounced up to Abby and hooked her arm underneath Abby’s, and began to pull her up the path.
What should she do? It was the worst of ideas to allow herself to sit down for breakfast with Pembrake’s parents – the possible damage to the timeline could be irreparable. But what choice did she have?
Pembrake watched his mother latch an arm around Abby and pull her playfully up the garden path. The look of wide-eyed shock on Abby’s face was beyond amusing. But overall, the present situation was not actually full of mirth.
He cast his eyes back to his father. Karing was smiling, his whole face getting in on the act: his forehead disappearing underneath his crisp white cap.
He’d only ever seen him in photos.
“So,” Karing cleared his throat, “I am sorry for this. But when Lilly wants something,” he tapped the red roses he still held against an open palm, “she often gets it. You do have the time, don’t you? Though if you don’t, you may have some time extricating your wife there – I’m afraid Lilly just got a puppy, and she’s awfully proud of it.”
“Larry,” Pembrake said all of a sudden, unable to stop the word coming out. Larry had been his dog as a child. He’d been so loyal and kind, always following Pembrake around on his adventures. Whether it would be running away from the Esquire gang or trying to sneak into the slums – Larry had always been there to bark and bite the young Pembrake out of trouble. He hadn’t thought about Larry in years….
Karing looked confused, but then his grin returned. “Gosh, yes I forgot to ask you what your name was – very rude of me.” Karing extended a hand. “Nice to meet you, Larry.”
Pembrake took a stiff breath and accepted the hand.
Karing’s handshake was quick and strong, like a dog shaking a slipper.
Pembrake could feel the tingle trace its way across his back and up to the base of his neck. It was eerie seeing his parents like this.
“You best come inside then, Larry.” Karing ticked his head toward the great sandstone house behind them. “Lord knows how many cookies my fiancée has force fed your wife by now.”
Pembrake was lost in thought, and gave a jarred nod, following Karing up the path.
“Oh, and by the way – is that your cat?” Karing pointed to Charlie who had jumped up onto the wall and was looking for all the world like a normal cat – no death glares and no macho threats.
“No, I’ve never seen it before.” Pembrake made eye contact with Charlie. “I imagine it simply likes to wait for people and follow them.” He would hope Charlie could pick up on the implied command.
Charlie nodded and padded along the wall for a moment before settling down in a patch of sun.
“Oh. Well, you’ll love this house – it’s been in her family for centuries!”
“Hmmm.” Pembrake went back to his thoughts.
He’d grab Abby, and they’d run. They’d get the pleck out of here and never return.
Each step along the path, the clean cobbles tapping beneath his footfall, saw the haze of nostalgia further engulf him.
The white roses to his left were smaller, their branches not yet intertwined and knotted as they were in the future.
The old apple tree he’d once climbed as a boy of five to try to get a better view of the ocean, only to fall out and break his arm, had more branches and looked like a gnarled many-fingered hand. It had lost most of its branches… it would lose most of its branches in a storm 15 years from now.
“It’s a fantastic old tree,” Karing pointed toward it, “and it is full of apples.”
“Hmm.” Pembrake massaged his right arm.
“So tell me,” they arrived at the door, and Karing stamped his shoes on the mat outside, “what brings you to Bridgestock?”
Pembrake found himself staring at the detail in the cast-iron door knocker. When he’d been ten, and mad at his mother for making him go along to some stupid party, he’d slammed the door so hard that the knocker had come off, chipping the front step.
“It’s only, you don’t seem to be from around here, and your wife has the slate-gray eyes of the Mountain people.”
“I was born in Bridgestock,” Pembrake said automatically.
“Oh, yes,” Karing ushered him inside, “and what do you do?”
“I’m in the nav- I’m in the ni… ght watch,” Pembrake recovered, and made a mental note to start paying more attention. If he kept on allowing himself to be distracted by every tree and rock from childhood, he’d inadvertently tell his father that he was, in fact, his son from the future. And that would factor quite high on the list of temporal stuff ups.
“Really? You can’t be too happy about the changes that that William Franklin man is trying to make. I’ve heard he wants to wrestle control of the Guards from the Captain.” Karing looked at Pembrake with obvious interest creasing his brow.
“William… you mean the Colonel?” Pembrake went through a list of royal advisers and dignitaries that he knew were important during this period in history. The Colonel was the only man who would have had enough gumption to suggest to the King that he should change the whole organizational structure of the Royal Guards.
“Oh yes, I’ve heard him called that. But I find it curious considering he’s never served in the military.”
Pembrake tried to concentrate on the conversation, not on the all-too-familiar furnishings of the hallway. “Yes. Colonel is titular; it was conferred on him by the King when Franklin was successful in advising for a preemptive strike against Elogia.”
“That was him?” Karing’s brow stretched with surprise, and he opened his mouth to say something else but was interrupted by a bang from the kitchen.
“Oh, you caught the vase! How marvelously fast you are!”
Both Pembrake and Karing rounded the door to the kitchen to find Abby with her arms clutched around a large ornate vase, her face twitching with polite shock.
Karing strolled up to Abby and took the vase from her, resting it back on the dresser. “Don’t worry, she’s been trying to destroy that vase ever since we met.”
“I have not been trying to destroy it!” Lilly brandished a teacup at Karing playfully, “I’m just a little clumsy.”
By the look on Abby’s face, clumsy didn’t even come close.
Pembrake looked at the vase: he would break it himself in one of his more memorable tantrums, this one over Mr. Hunter trying to send him to boarding school.
“Why don’t you,” Karing took the cup that Lilly was still brandishing, “go and grab a loaf of bread and some cheese, and I’ll fix the tea before you break it.” There was no malice behind his words. It was not an aggressive command, just a playful suggestion.
He didn’t know how much more he could take of this. Without thinking, he pulled out a chair with one of his legs and sat heavily. It was his kitchen, after all.
“Oh,” Abby’s voice was by far the most fraught, leveling in far beyond even Lilly’s sweet yelp. “I really don’t think we can stay for breakfast!”
Pembrake tapped a fist against his jaw, all get up and go had gotten up and gone from him. Somehow meeting his parents in the past, meeting the father he had never known, was stirring up memories of his childhood and crushing him underneath their weight.
Abby looked at him with those stormy gray eyes. Had little Abby run out of plans, or was she waiting for him to get up and run?
Pembrake rested back in his chair, feeling a headache twist around his temples.
Abby set her jaw and managed to put her hands on her hips, negotiating through the folds of excess fabric that hung over her slight frame.
“Your husband appears to have sat down, perhaps you can stay?” Karing set about pulling an extra two cups from the cupboard.
“Husband? He’s not my husband!” Abby spoke with indignation as if Karing’s statement had been dirty.
“We’re to be married just as soon as Penny here accepts my proposal,” Pembrake supplied quickly, Abby’s tone had irked him. It was as if the mere suggestion of marrying him had brought up her bile. Was he that repulsive? Well, then he wasn’t about to let her get away with that. He leaned forward and brought his hands together, “plus, I don’t have the money at the moment.”
“Oh, but you two look wonderful together!” Lilly placed two large loaves of bread on the table.
“Yes, I could see the moment I met you – just made for each other.” Karing nodded in firm agreement.
Abby was now looking at him with lips drawn thinner than paper, and he couldn’t help but smile back.
“You know, I’ve rarely seen a couple that looked so perfect for each other in fact!” Lilly couldn’t stop herself.
“You’ll find that a very valuable compliment,” Karing set a cup of tea in front of Pembrake, “Lilly is very good at reading people.”
Abby frowned at this, her gaze growing distant and thoughtful.
“One of the old witches even said I had latent second sight!” Lilly trumpeted as she sat down. “So I just know you two will never be apart again.”
Latent second sight? His mother? Pembrake thought.
“But you,” Lilly motioned for Abby to take a seat, “you almost look like a witch yourself! You aren’t, are you?” There was no accusation behind her words, she had simply grown even more excited.
Abby sat and appeared to think. “No.”
“Oh,” Lilly settled down, disappointed, her green eyes drooping like daisies devoid of sunshine.
They stayed for the course of the breakfast, talking and sitting with his parents, 28 years in the past.
They were pleasant, even fun at times. At one point, Lilly showed Abby her puppy, and Abby gave such a silly laugh, he wondered if there was a young woman under that old-witch mask.
It was now time to leave, and Karing and Lilly walked them to the door. He walked down his garden path, closing his gate and taking one final look at his house from the past.
When they were out on the street, and Charlie leaped down to meet them, Pembrake turned to Abby, and they had a little chat. He let Abby know this was all her fault. If the timeline was ruined, if his father would no longer be his father, or if his mother would run off and join a pantomime troupe – Pembrake knew who to blame.
Something inside him, something from his past, may have made him trust Abby… for now. But trust and approval were two different things.
They had walked on from Esquire Street, continuing their mission to find some way of fixing their destinies and of getting into the Palace without being chased out immediately.
Walking the streets waiting for clues that wouldn’t appear was getting stupid now. Though it was not half as bad as the monumental dressing-down Pembrake had given her once they were out of earshot. She’d felt like a new recruit facing up to her commander after doing something awful like chopping down the mast. His face had set with fierce anger, and he’d shouted with the frightening force of a hurricane.
The prospect of meeting his mother in the past had spooked him, though Abby half wondered if there was something else to it. Pembrake had looked at Karing with such pale wariness, like he had seen a ghost or something. Just how was Karing his father anyway, and who was Mr. Hunter then?
Before Abby could settle down and think hard about the matter, she found Pembrake had paused by the small glass windows of a shop. Not wanting to incur his wrath again by speaking or breathing too loudly, she’d walked up beside him with all the care of a woman walking on glass.
Too much time had passed, and Pembrake, she realized, was looking not through the window, but at his reflection in it. “Oh you can’t be that vain, can you?” she snapped before realizing what she’d said.
Pembrake ran a finger along his jawline as if tracing the shape. He did not shout at her to shut up or point out that she was an innocent little witch with no real understanding of life.
She blinked at him. “Pembrake, could we move on? You look fine, as usual. Not that I care, of course.” She gulped.
“I wouldn’t expect you to understand, Abby.” He tilted his head back, his eyes focusing on the horizon, a muddled expression drawing his lips thin.
She bristled. “And I wouldn’t expect a Commander in the Royal Navy to be so very disagreeable – but I guess I am wrong.”
“All these years,” he turned from the window, his eyes closing, “the bastard.”
He wasn’t angry at the dirt on his face, was he, or the straw in his hair? She pressed her lips together and tried to avoid his gaze.
“I can’t believe he left. For what? The Navy, the high seas, the better life!”
Oh, deary dear. She was used to hearing people’s troubles. More so since she’d become a window cleaner. But it usually wasn’t this confrontational – it often wasn’t this raw.
She swallowed hard. “Pembrake, I… look I understand what you’re going through, but I’m sure Karing had a good reason for…” she didn’t want to say it, but couldn’t think of any other way around it, “abandoning you.”
Pembrake didn’t snap like a dry twig, but he did sniff at the mention of abandon. “Don’t try to analyze me, Abby; I’m not in the mood. If you hadn’t agreed to go and get their plecking apples, we would never have been in that situation.”
Yes, she thought to herself, but he still would have abandoned you in the future. Though, she guessed there was more to the story than Pembrake was letting on, or perhaps more than he knew himself.
Pembrake put a hand up to his face and breathed into it and then swiped his hand down as if he were wiping away his frustration.
“Well… your mother was different – not at all like she is in the future,” she tried to change the subject, “she was so bubbly and vague that I doubt she would remember us in the future from the past.” She ticked her fingers, trying to follow through the thought in case she got confused. “Really,” she tried to rally against the pained look on Pembrake’s face, “she was just so… young… I’m sure she won’t remember.”
He turned on her. “Young? I’m surprised you could notice a thing like youth, Abby. The reason you found her so confusing is that she’s your polar opposite. I’m surprised you couldn’t see it. The reason,” he drew his face closer, the stress of the morning playing across the creases around his eyes, “you found mother – Lilly – so confounding, is that she is everything you aren’t.” His tone dipped and bobbed with an edge of stress and exasperation. “She’s young. All that bubbling and giggling, the playfulness, the open emotion – you are supposed to do all that stuff when you’re young. And you’ve never done any of that, I’m sure.”
She receded, like a broken wave tracing back across the sand. She should never have provoked him. She wasn’t old, he was wrong about that: she was sensible, proper and grown up – just like a witch, just like Ms. Crowthy. Still, she conceded, a proper witch wouldn’t feel so alienated by his statement, wouldn’t let his cold words push through her like a blizzard. “That’s not fair. You’re just angry….”
“And you are a lot younger than you think.”
Charlie, who had remained silent, tucked himself in front of her legs as if he wanted to prevent her from throwing herself at Pembrake in anger. He was wrong, though; she felt like curling up like a dead leaf, not launching herself in a death strike. “Well, then if you hate me so much and think I’m such a child, why did you propose to me, ha? And tell me, did you get down on both knees, or could you never bring yourself to do that for a witch?” At least the hot anger was pushing away her fear and sadness, even if her voice did still waver with uncertainty.
“Ha. That really annoyed you, didn’t it? The prospect of marrying me is the worst thing you could think of, isn’t it? Or is it, maybe, that the prospect of marrying anyone makes those little-ol’-lady toes of yours curl up in fear?”
Abby stood back from him, ready to leave, ready to run away from the pleck and never come back. What a rogue, what a cad what a—
Just as Pembrake opened his mouth to serve her a fiery dose of scorn, she saw something. Across Pembrake’s reflection in the glass, like a bird flying through a thick mist, a vision clouded the window. She felt herself being drawn toward it, all attention fading from her feelings and onto the glass before her.
It was a woman on a broomstick, falling through the air, her body limp and unconscious.
Abby’s face was so close to the glass, the scene had filled her whole vision, yet it drew her closer and closer.
The woman kept falling, soon she would hit the ground that rushed up beneath her, and then she would die.
It was like being sucked, drawn, pulled into a cold cloud. Abby’s skin prickled with an encompassing chill as if she had jumped into the ocean during a storm.
Closer and closer.
A hand on her shoulder yanked her back. “What the pleck are you doing?” Pembrake’s mood hadn’t improved any, but there was a touch of concern in his stormy green eyes.
“I-I—” She was still trying to process the vision, trying to wipe the image of falling through the air from her eyes, so she could see what was before her in real time. “I think someone’s in trouble,” she chanced upon the correct words and clutched a hand to her pounding chest, “someone’s in trouble!”
She’d seen a wall in her vision, one of the walls of the city. There had been a vine growing up the side and words etched into the stone. She knew that wall, and she had to get there quickly.
Without turning to him, without bothering to explain where she was going or what was happening, Abby took off in a flustered flight, hands drawing up her skirt so she could dash unencumbered.
“Abby?” Pembrake barked from behind her. “What are you doing?”
Too late to explain.
It was vital, she repeated to herself as she rushed across the streets, that she got there in time. She may not be sure what it is that she was supposed to do, but Abby had to get there before that girl fell out of the sky. Every witchy sense in her body was telling her legs and arms to pump harder, her lungs to draw in more air, and her heart to continue beating like a great big drum.
She was aware of Pembrake as he pelted up beside her and ducked under his arm when he tried to pull her to rest.
“Pembrake this is important!”
She reached the place where she knew she had to be. She could see the wall with the vines, and it matched the one seared into her second sight like an ember pressed against skin. Pembrake, who had followed her the whole way, ran right up to her and grabbed her arms.
“What the pleck are you doing?” His face was flushed with the effort of the chase.
She kept her eyes on the wall. He wouldn’t understand.
“To save someone.”
She needed to save someone; her second sight had told her so.
“I have to save someone.” Her voice pitched as she twitched her head to the left and right.
“Abby.” It was clear from his expression and his desperate tone that he thought her irrational.
He didn’t believe in destiny, so why would he believe in second sight?
“You’ve had a stressful couple of days,” he tightened his hands around her bony wrists as if searching for flesh that wasn’t there, “you shouldn’t exhaust yourself.”
She tried not to listen to him, but the concern on his too-close face was distracting her. He shouldn’t be concerned for her, he shouldn’t care.
In her effort to avoid eye contact, she directed her gaze to the wall behind him. There, along the top high above, she saw several figures. Then a cheer and two figures on a broom began to rise above the rest.
Pembrake turned to follow her gaze.
The broom began to fly, the figure at the back waving their arms, laughing as they enjoyed the flight. Then the broom began to descend in choppy motions, and the figure behind had to reapply their grip with a jerk.
There were several shouts from above.
“What the pleck?” Pembrake was staring up transfixed.
As both figures descended, the shouts grew louder. Now that the broom had flown out of sight as it hugged the wall, Abby could make out the figures on it. The one at the front, who she had assumed to be the witch, had a long black scarf over her head, obscuring her face. She felt cold just looking at her. The girl at the back looked terrified. She was wearing a large fluffy pink and white dress, her loose brown locks jumping around her face with the ever choppy twist of the broom.
As the broom descended yet further, drawing level with the rooftops, something unimaginable occurred: the witch flying it jumped off, rolling onto a sloping roof and disappearing. Her agility was catlike, her movements so quick and strong, so very unwitch-like.
The broom hung there, suspended in the air for as long as it took for the wood and bristles to realize they were no longer under the command of a witch. This was enough time for Abby to run underneath it and will them to last longer. Though she could not command the broom to levitate again without touching the wood, by focusing her mind hard enough, she could will the magic that was fast leaving it to hold on that little bit longer.
It worked to a fashion, the broom tilting, but not plummeting toward the earth. Abby reached her arms up to catch the girl, but the girl chose that moment to faint.
She landed on Abby and knocked her flat.
When she woke, it was not to find Pembrake hovering over her, his oft-angry face transformed with concern. In fact, it wasn’t until she had raised herself on her elbows, ignoring the pounding pain in her head, that she caught a glimpse of him. He was standing in a small crowd of Guards and official-looking people.
“You’re awake then, ma’am.”
Abby looked up to see a man behind her, leaning against the wall, apparently set there to watch over her. He had the red jacket of a Guard, though it was unbuttoned and the sleeves were rolled high.
She felt the old sense of dread rekindle at the sight of that red jacket, but it was clear from the Guard’s friendly face he offered her no ill will.
“Your man was worried you’d got conked right hard from that broom.”
She nodded and pressed her lips closed, not following anything.
“The Gov said you’d be alright in a while, he knows a hit to the head our Gov. Said you’d be out for five minutes, and he’s right on the dot.”
“Oh.” Her head was swimming, and she felt like she was standing on the prow of a swaying ship navigating a violent sea.
Rubbing her eyes, she looked over at the crowd of people, Pembrake in the middle. Beside him, looking up into his face with obvious admiration, was the girl from the broom. The look on her face would have drawn a firm whack across the shins from Ms. Crowthy; she didn’t believe any man deserved that much veneration.
The flush to Pembrake’s cheeks and the kink to his lips suggested he didn’t mind it all that much.
Beside him was a tall, heavy figure with a bushy mustache and a hardened face. He looked like the kind of man who would appear on recruitment posters. He looked like the kind of man who would always get his way.
Pembrake glanced over at her, and his eyes grew wide.
Then a surprising thing happened. He pushed through the crowd and knelt down beside her, placing a warm and steadying hand on her back.
“Abby.” Now he was closer she could smell the guilt on him.
The firm hand on her back pushed her up until she was sitting upright, blinking hard at the sudden attention from everybody else.
“What an honorable man.” A woman in a silk court dress waved a hand at her face.
“So lucky to have him here when she fell.”
Was Pembrake shuddering at their words?
“Saved the Princess and now he’s off to save another damsel, what a knightly man indeed.”
The words “saved the Princess” were like a quick slap across Pembrake’s cheeks, and he winced like he’d been slapped.
“Abby, I’m so sorry,” he whispered, “really—”
“Alright, let’s have a look, then.” A huge Guard with a massive pot belly marched up to her.
She knew from his crooked nose that this man must be the Gov. By the looks of his nose and his dented face, he must have been in fights since birth.
With one powerful hand, the Gov latched onto Abby and pulled her to her feet. The sudden move sent a wave of nausea spinning through her head, and the whole world tipped.
Pembrake shot up stuttering like a mother hen.
The Gov grabbed a hip flask from his belt, flicked the lid off with one hand, and forced it into her mouth, tipping it back until she had no choice but to swallow.
She spluttered as the alcohol seared her throat. She could taste the herbs and soon her balance returned to normal.
That was a witch’s brew. A very effective one.
“It’s powerful stuff.” The Gov tipped his head down. “Got it off the Crones up in Pickard Street.”
The man with the mustache hissed at this. “You would think, with the horrendous crime that has just been committed, you would not talk of witches with such pride.”
The Gov, who it seemed had nothing left to fear judging by the significant brutal effort that would have gone into making his face so misshapen, shrugged. “Crones are nice ladies – make a fantastic pick me up. And you should taste old Waterby’s tea – it’s finer than what they serve up at the castle, I have my men running on it, Franklin, and it does them a treat.”
“Haven’t been sick in years,” said the man who had watched over Abby.
Franklin looked like a man on the verge of ordering the firing squad. Fortunately, he backed down, giving such a stiff smile his mustache shot out at right angles. He did not withdraw his comment but did not push it further either.
“Plus,” the Gov sniffed, “it was your idea to have the Princess go for a broom ride.”
“It was not my idea!” Franklin looked like the kind of man who switched like a pendulum between apoplectic rage and withering disdain.
“Well, you agreed to it, then.” The Gov crossed his barrel-like arms.
With Abby on her feet, she could see the scene for what it was – a play. It looked like all the actors were assembled and playing their parts with aplomb. There was the dirty old witch who had escaped over the rooftops, the handsome, brave young man who had saved the day, the fawning beautiful Princess, and the ruddy Franklin. Abby wondered where she fitted in.
“It must have been a surprise,” the Gov sniffed, and she noted it was the kind of hearty sniff Ms. Crowthy would approve of, “when that broom came out of the sky like that and struck you on the head.”
What with the powerful herbs pumping through her system and the usual brilliant memory of a witch, Abby held her tongue. She remembered what happened, thank you, right up to the moment when she’d reached up and caught the unconscious Princess and had been squished for her effort.
“Gosh,” was all she could think of.
Pembrake was squirming beside her, and she dearly desired to pull him aside and ask him how he’d found the gumption to take credit for this save as well. Was he going to make a habit of this?
The Princess, who appeared to be in her late teens, fluttered over, her face still locked into an adoring sweet smile. “You’re so brave!” She clapped her hands together. “How amazing.”
Abby had to stop herself from shooting the Princess a withering look. No one should be that ditsy.
Pembrake gave a fat, pleased smile at the Princess’ compliment, though it died on his lips when Abby cleared her throat.
The Princess looked ready to jump into her brave savior’s arms. She wouldn’t care a bit, Abby was sure, if the Princess found out Pembrake had stood by as useful as a brick as she’d fallen from the sky. Pembrake looked the part with his muscles bulging from his shirt like that and that dazzling smile. Abby looked like a scrawny scarecrow with her wild unwashed hair and baggy clothes.
“So brave,” Abby decided to play along, tilting her head toward Pembrake and blinking sweetly, “my hero!”
No one, save for Pembrake, noticed the sarcasm in her voice.
Pembrake sucked in his lips and looked away.
If Abby were more forthright, she would milk this for all it was worth. She would throw herself into Pembrake’s arms like the fawning Princess and proclaim her undying adoration of his heroics. Though she couldn’t quite bring herself to do it, she realized with a frown that if she stayed with Pembrake much longer, she’d lose such qualms. He was putting strange thoughts into her head.
“We simply must reward him!” the Princess declared with another clap. “He must come to the Palace to meet my father!”
This time Pembrake did bother to look at Abby, and he looked triumphant. The word palace had been enough to push away any latent fear he might have felt for lying about his heroics. They were trying to get into the palace, after all: this was perfect.
Part of Abby wanted to agree. Part of her wanted to celebrate the fact they were finally moving in the right direction. The rest of Abby had a jaw-splitting headache and wanted to bash Pembrake over the head with that broom over there.
The Princess latched one arm around Pembrake’s and blinked from under her eyelashes.
Abby felt cold watching them.
Franklin cleared his throat and looked like he was drowning in the honey dripping from the Princess’ voice. A sentiment Abby could understand, though she felt uncomfortable comparing herself to him. There was a sharp edge to his presence, like his entire personality was directed toward slicing through anything that opposed him.
“Oh, yes,” Franklin blinked, “yes we should.” He flicked his gaze over to her and looked Abby up and down. It was clear he was concerned that Pembrake might insist his ugly, dirty friend come along.
Pembrake hadn’t answered yet, and he appeared to be giving Franklin the strangest of sideways glances. Abby hadn’t known Pembrake long, but she was starting to consider herself a bit of a Pembrake expert. She knew what it meant when those green eyes were pulled thin, and he pushed his shoulders out as if he were trying to break his shirt – it meant he was thinking of something dangerous.
Whoever this Franklin man was, he was in trouble. What he’d done to irk Pembrake, Abby didn’t know; all she could be certain of was the undercurrent of suppressed anger Pembrake was shooting his way. Pembrake looked for all the world like a man who was looking for an opportunity, any opportunity to strike.
The moment Pembrake’s features had stiffened with recognition and anger, the look passed. The Princess bounded into view again and blocked Franklin from Pembrake’s death stare.
“You simply have to come,” the Princess pulled on his arm, “you have to meet my father and brother!”
Abby waited and, sure enough, Pembrake nodded. He cleared his voice and looked away from Abby, settling his gaze somewhere around her feet. “Of course.”
Can’t say no to women, ha? Or rather, can’t say no to a pretty face. She needed to get Pembrake back to his own time before he did something awful to the past.
“You can come too,” the Princess nodded toward Abby, though it was more of a repetitious bob than an actual nod. She blinked as she took in Abby’s clothes and bedraggled appearance. “You are traveling together, aren’t you?”
Abby felt like crossing her arms to conserve what little dignity she had left. First, she saved the Princess then lost her accomplishment to the more dashing Pembrake, then she was left on the wayside to recover while Pembrake was fawned over by half the Royal Court, and now the Princess was double checking that her man was, in fact, traveling with such a bedraggled looking woman.
Pembrake nodded. Though Abby did note in her little black book of reasons to hate him that he didn’t come out and say, “yes, of course I am traveling with this woman, how rude of you to imply that I am too good to be seen with her.”
“Okay then, please make arrangements, Colonel.” The Princess didn’t bother to look at him.
Abby shared another moment of similarity with the Colonel. Both of them, it seemed, were not worthy of the Princess’ attention.
Then it hit Abby. Colonel, Colonel. He couldn’t be that Colonel, could he? He couldn’t be the Colonel who was responsible for the Witch Ban – for all the terrible things that had happened to her since she’d come to Bridgestock? He couldn’t be the Colonel who ruined the history of her city, made it into a lifeless, bigoted, war-mongering machine?
She didn’t know the Colonel’s name in the future. Could it be Franklin? Did that seem like the last name of a walking curse?
She felt a strange itch start at her wrists and snake up her arms. It couldn’t be him.
The Colonel gave a rigid smile and walked off, muttering some orders to the Guards before disappearing behind a house and out of sight.
It was the house that the witch had also disappeared behind, she noted with interest.
Now she thought about it, none of the Guards had bothered to go out and look for the witch who had tried to kill the Princess.
What was going on here?
Why had the Princess been allowed to fly on a broom in the first place? And why had that particular witch been allocated to fly it? She had looked, even to Abby from quite some distance away, to be suspicious, creepy, and unsavory. Why weren’t the Guards streaming through the city, locking down the slumps and whatnot, searching for the incompetent witch?
Soon she found herself being pulled to the side by the Gov and the Guard who had looked over her. Though she had just met them, she was already comfortable in their company. Her witchy senses told her they were good people, even for Guards.
“Looks like you’ll be coming with us then, ma’am.” The Gov gestured forward with one of his large, scarred hands.
“Abby,” she supplied as she looked at Pembrake over her shoulder.
“Abby, then, don’t you worry about him – you’ll see him soon enough.”
“As soon as the Princess is done with him.” The other Guard laughed.
The Gov shook his head. “You grow up, Stan.”
“Just saying what we’re all thinking, sir. Sorry, ma’am.” Stan dipped his head low.
Abby found herself smiling at their banter and had forgotten they were Guards far before they’d delivered her to the back of the Palace.
She had caught several glimpses of Charlie along the way, following behind them at a safe distance. She was quite embarrassed to realize that she had forgotten all about him, what with one thing and another. In fact, since they’d been thrown back in time, she’d hardly had a chance to chat with him, something she was sure he would point out to her the first chance he got.
It was a bad idea for a witch to ignore her cat – witch’s cats are smart, talkative, and cunning. If she went on ignoring Charlie or busying herself with the strange happenings of the past, he’d conjure up some way to make her pay.
Cats aren’t used to being ignored.
As they approached the Palace, Stan stared up, whistling through his teeth. “How the other half live.” He nodded at her, apparently sure that she would be able to appreciate the stark difference between poverty and wealth.
The Gov sniffed. Ms. Crowthy would certainly get along with him, Abby thought as she stared up at the huge red and white palace herself. It was named the Cherry on the Cake in her time. A play on the tessellated view of Bridgestock, mounting, as it did, up the hill like a layer cake.
“The Princess said we was to hand you over to the kitchen maids – said they’d give you a good bath and a feed.”
She bowed and smiled when they left her at the door.
The kitchen ladies weren’t going to scrub her clean in the sink as Abby had feared. Instead, they took her to a bathroom in the servants’ quarters where there was a steaming bath waiting for her.
A large woman who reminded Abby of Martha, except with a permanent scowl that could have curdled milk, took over from the two maids who’d led Abby in.
The scowling woman stripped Abby and dumped her in the bath then produced a huge scrubbing brush that looked as if it were more suitable for elephants.
By the end of the bath, Abby was sure there couldn’t be a particle of dirt left on her anywhere as it felt as if her skin had been rubbed clean off.
The woman then started on Abby’s hair, and her approach was similar to a farmer clearing his fields of blackberries. She dunked Abby’s head under water and pulled and parted and brushed until Abby’s hair draped even and straight over her shoulders.
The woman did not leave it there. Abby’s years of living in the slumps had offered the woman a challenge she could not back down from. She cleaned under Abby’s fingernails, trimmed the split ends from her hair, and cut her toenails. Then she pulled Abby from the bath like a cook claiming a crayfish from the pot and toweled her dry.
“You’re ready for your clothes now, child,” the woman nodded at her handy work, “I’ll just get them.”
There was a mirror in the room, and Abby found herself staring at her towel-clad reflection. There was something familiar about this scenario, something story-like – something fairy tale. This would be where the ugly duckling would bloom into a swan, or the dowdy stepsister would transform into a beauty with the help of a well-engineered dress.
Abby laughed at her reflection, her mirth only half-sarcastic. The kitchen lady would return with a beautiful sky-blue dress that would bring out Abby’s eyes and dress her up, twisting her hair into a bun and fixing it with a pretty clip. Then she’d climb the stairs to the court, and Pembrake would—
Abby almost swore. What was she thinking? Pembrake was a terrible rogue, and if the Princess wanted him, then she deserved the devil.
She turned from the mirror as the kitchen lady returned.
“Ha, I can see the Princess really wants you to stand out.”
Abby looked down at the gray dress in the woman’s hands, and her heart dropped, not that she would like to admit that it had been flying.
“You could blend in with the rooftops with this,” the woman lifted it up, “you’ll look just like a chimney.”
It was true, there was never a straighter cut, more sack-like dress. The color wouldn’t so much bring out her eyes as turn her skin to the pale gray of the recently deceased.
“Chin up, dear, at least it will fit better. And clothes are just clothes, after all.”
“Yes.” Abby had to agree, she had no choice but to lift her chin. Ms. Crowthy would be worried indeed if she found out Abby had half-entertained the idea of a sky-blue dress that would bring out her eyes. If you wanted to match your eyes to the sky, Ms. Crowthy would say, then go for a broom-ride. Dresses are for girls and broomsticks are for witches.
Abby would do well to remember that.
At least they’d made it into the Palace. Finally, it seemed their journey into the past was getting somewhere.
Abby clad herself in the chimney dress and did not even bother turning to glance in the mirror again, to do so would invite more pessimism. Whatever she looked like, the kitchen lady was right, at least it would be an improvement on her bedraggled, swimming-in-skirts look.
Plus, as Ms. Crowthy would be apt to remind Abby, a witch like her would do well to think less of her appearance and more of her demeanor. It is one’s attitude and the way they hold themselves that is what people notice most. Whether your skirt was flame red or obsidian black did not matter a touch on what you got up to while wearing it. If you scale a building and jump through a window, technically a certain type of attire would be more suited to the task, but beyond that, it is the astounding bravado that people will remember, and of course to lock their windows in future.
Abby sighed and smiled at the kitchen lady as she came in to check on her.
“Good and clean, me love.”
“Now you’d be wanting to see that meal you were promised, I’m sure.”
Abby’s stomach, at the mention of food, gave a terrifying rumble, and she slammed a hand over it to damp down its cry.
The woman laughed. “This way, me lass.”
She led Abby into the huge kitchen and through several side doors until they came into a small room set with a plain table and a chair looking out through a small glass window onto the gravel out the back of the kitchen.
“It’s not much, dear,” the woman pulled the lid off to reveal a full plate of sandwiches with a side of nuts and dried fruit, “but I don’t think that will bother you, pet.”
Abby thanked her and set about eating her second proper meal in a very long time.
It was such a peaceful room, far enough away from the kitchens to be free from their clangs, bangs, and shouts. She found herself munching on a handful of nuts as she stared out the window. It gave her time to think. A nice lull to analyze the peculiar turn her life had taken.
She was back in the past with a man she barely knew but knew enough to hate, with only a vague, hazy idea about how to return home again. If ever there was a need for second sight, it was certainly now.
What was to happen next? Was she supposed to present herself to the King looking like the thin trunk of a birch tree? And what of Pembrake? How was she to find him again? Was he off gadding with the Princess, not to be seen until he had ruined the timeline? What vagaries was he up to without Abby around to watch over him?
She sat back in the simple wooden chair and frowned at the world, crossing her arms in the coarse dress until the rough fabric scratched against her skin. What a pickle this was. Stuck back in time with the world’s greatest rogue and with the slimmest chance of returning home again. If only Charlie were here, he would have something motivational to say about the situation. But he was probably out catching mice along the perimeter wall, making a list of things to tell Abby off about when they met up again.
There was a soft knock on the door, and Abby looked up from staring at the wall.
“Well, hello, dear! Look at you all cleaned up.”
Abby blinked with surprise. Martha was standing in the doorway grinning from ear to ear.
“What a surprise I had when I saws you walking through the kitchens like that. With you all brushed and your hair all clean I had a bit of a time recognizing you.”
“It’s good to see you,” Abby interrupted before Martha could squeeze in another barrage.
“Then I heard from old Sue, what gave you a good scrub, that you’d been brought in on the Princess’ request! She told me all about what that boy of yours did. Oh, what a hero,” Martha clutched a pink hand to her bosom and fluttered her eyelashes, “I hear the Princess is smitten!”
Abby didn’t respond to this, though Martha had paused to heave in a breath. Instead, Abby found herself grinding her teeth though she couldn’t think why.
“And you should have heard the maids talking when they had to prepare a bath for him – I’ve never heard those girls giggle so much in me life.”
Abby didn’t want to blush or even show the least bit of interest in Martha’s tattle, so she shifted her eyes to the table and sniffed.
“Captain of the Guard is a bit jealous I hear, we all thought he fancied her – I mean she is such a belle!”
Abby trod a fine line between pretending to be uninterested and appearing mutinously indifferent. She couldn’t keep the scowl from her face as Martha continued. She didn’t care, she reminded herself, she didn’t care at all what Pembrake was doing, not one little bit.
“The Colonel is up in a stink about the whole thing, can’t think why. But it really was so brave of Pembrake and so lucky that he was there at the right time!”
“Oh, very lucky,” Abby’s voice was so sarcastic, she was sure Martha would pick up on it, but the woman’s enthusiastic grin never faded.
“I reckon she’s going to ask him to the ball, that’s what all the girls have been saying. Show her brave hero to the whole kingdom, have him hanging off her arm looking fantastic in one of the Prince’s suits…” Martha looked guilty and fixed Abby with a sympathetic look, “not that he’ll go straying, I’m sure. A good boy like him wouldn’t leave his girl—”
“We aren’t together, Martha.” Abby fumbled with her hands as she dropped her gaze to the table. The conversation was starting to wear on her already frazzled nerves. “We barely know each other.”
“Oh!” Firecrackers were going off behind Martha’s eyes. It was clear she was imagining the fairy tale wedding with white dresses and a giant layered cake with a big old cherry on top. “Well, in that case, I think that Pembrake has met his match,” Martha paused and gave Abby an odd look.
Abby glumly agreed. “I guess so.”
“You really are a clever girl.” Martha cocked her head to the side.
“Thank you.” She couldn’t see why; she hadn’t done anything clever at all since getting here, quite the opposite in fact.
“Well, anyway, now that we’ve run into each other like this, it’s a good opportunity for me to return your things.”
“Oh yes, your clothes!”
“No, no, don’t you worry – I’ve sorted all that out myself. I saved what I could, but unfortunately, most of your clothes were damaged.”
Abby could believe that judging from what they’d been through. Though damaged seemed like a generous term – tatters was likely more accurate.
Martha thrust her hand into one of the big pockets of her white apron and placed the contents on the table before Abby. One broken South Island charm bracelet and two brass buttons.
“I think the rest of the buttons were eaten up by the ocean, dear.”
Abby nodded in agreement.
“So did you ever find that ship of yours?”
Abby barely heard Martha, her eyes fixing on the broken bracelet.
The Crones had said this bracelet was important somehow.
When she’d first plucked the trinket from Mrs. Hunter’s hands, it had been crackling with magic. Now there was barely a spark.
Abby ran her teeth over her bottom lip and brushed her fingers over the carved beads, searching for imperfections, searching for clues. Between the beads, the thread that held the bracelet together was almost worn through. Whatever the string was made from, strands of it had plucked loose, curling back on themselves like frazzled human hair.
It was broken. She may not know much about a talisman as powerful as this, but she could tell that it was broken… so how could she fix it?
“Dear, you’ve gone all thoughtful looking – you thinking about that Pembrake?” Martha tapped her on the shoulder.
Abby looked up. “Mmm.”
“I could see it when I met you, I could,” Martha wasn’t flapping about with enthusiasm, just smiling as she tapped a hand to her chest fondly, “you’ll see it soon enough, I’m sure. Right well, I best be off. You’re to go up to the court, I think, get a good seat to watch Pembrake while he’s presented to the King.”
Abby was still busy frowning at Martha’s previous statement to process what she’d just said. “Sorry? Presented to the King?”
“Of course, he saved the Princess and all, what do you expect? I imagine the King will want to reward him and all.”
Abby made a face that she hoped said she thought this was a bad idea. “I really don’t think—”
“Don’t you worry, dear; you won’t have to do anything. You’ll get a good seat in the court with all them dignitaries.”
“But I don’t imagine they’ll do that until tonight. So I think you’ll have a good time to wander if you’ve got the energy. There’s a lot to see.”
“And I imagine you’ll be wanting to see your Pembrake again.”
Abby nodded, her hair bouncing around her shoulders.
That subtle smile was back on Martha’s face. “If you’re quick, you should be able to make it to him before the Princess does.”
Abby nodded again.
“And I’m sure he’ll be wanting to see you. It could be just the two of you, if you like.”
Abby stopped nodding and thought about what it was she was agreeing to. “Oh no, I don’t think that will do,” she backtracked with a gulp, “I’m sure he needs his rest.” She rose from the table, stowing a handful of nuts in her pocket. “I think I’ll just go for a quick walk around the grounds, if that is permitted.”
“Oh well, suit yourself.”
There was not much to be said about walking around the grounds. Abby wasn’t quite sure whether she was indeed welcome to meander around the gardens or whether a team of Guards would be dragging her off before the next leaves of golden ash fluttered to the ground.
She couldn’t shake her memories of being hunted in the future. Who cared what the time was? Abby had a whole lifetime of memories to fill her with tingling fear. Perhaps it was because she didn’t have Pembrake’s annoying presence to distract her, but walking along in the mid-afternoon sunshine was sending a chill down her spine.
The grounds were, of course, beautiful. Yet not in the same way as you might appreciate a dazzling sunset or a storm-filled sky – they were austere and manicured with miniature rows of hedges and ornamental plants. Here and there along the wide field that surrounded the castle were large old trees. Abby found herself drawn to these over the exposed gardens. Trees meant shade, not just from the sun, but from prying eyes, too.
She looked up at the dimpled bark of the tree she sat beneath and ran her eyes up into the golden and green leaves. If she could stay under this tree until everything went back to normal, then she would. Unfortunately, by her calculations, that would take a little under 28 years.
At least she would enjoy some peace and quiet until stupid Pembrake had to be presented to the King. A little sunshine and some birdsong would calm her nerves enough to be able to withstand his irritating nature for a few more hours.
After 15 minutes of resting under the tree, a call issued out from somewhere behind her. It was deep and rumbling like the blast of a fog horn, and it sent a bolt of shock through her. She clutched the trunk of the tree with fright and stood up.
A muffled cry sounded out in answer to the first. She peered around the side of the tree to see a Guard marching toward her and a hunting dog snuffling at his side.
She panicked. Without stopping at all to think about what she was doing, she climbed the tree in a scramble.
“What do you mean there’s no sign of her?” the booming voice of a Guard grew more menacing as it approached.
“We’ve looked everywhere, sir; no one is sure where she went.”
“Well, go and look again!”
Abby was terrified. They were after her, they had to be. Why had she trusted them? Why had she let herself be taken to the palace?
In another moment the first Guard was upon her, or more accurately, underneath. The dog began scrabbling at the tree and whining. Abby stood in the fork of the tree, clutching onto the trunk with one arm and willing the full canopy of leaves to protect her from sight, but the dog did not let up its whine.
“And what are you doing up that tree?” the Guard had an officious tone that reminded Abby of Pembrake in full arrogant swing.
She swallowed hard, forcing back the tidal wave of fear until she could make room for her tiny voice. “Climbing it.”
The man moved around the tree until the large branches that had obscured Abby no longer impeded his view. “I see.”
Abby forced herself to look at him, her heart catapulting in her chest like a blast from a cannon.
The guard was older than she was, though not by all that much. He had long enough hair that a thick wisp of fringe hung over his dark blue eyes. He was handsome in a fancy, hoity-toity way Ms. Crowthy would not approve of.
“Are you going to come down from there, madam? I am quite busy and don’t have time to rescue damsels from trees.”
… Why wasn’t he setting his dog on her or calling for backup?
“Well?” The man flicked his hair from his eyes. “Here, you can jump into my arms, if you’d like.”
Abby’s face felt like it had stretched all the way to the back of her head from shock. Oh yes, Ms. Crowthy wouldn’t like this man. “I—”
“Oh I can see you are shocked, little mouse, but I really must be going,” he put his arms up, “come on.”
Her heart pounding fear turned to wretched embarrassment, and she quickly patted down her skirt.
“You do that, little mouse, and you’ll fall right down,” he didn’t move his arms, “now don’t hold me up all day long.”
She stared at him in mute shock.
“Come now, little mouse, stop wasting my time. I’m engaged in a very important search for the Princess’ attacker.” He looked at her like a parent might look at a misbehaving child.
“… I can get down on my own.”
“Oh really?” He cocked one eyebrow condescendingly.
She wanted to stay in the tree, but she couldn’t. Not now she’d found out this Guard wasn’t looking for her.
Abby sniffed and leaped down from the tree, landing beside the Guard. Though he hadn’t seen it, the whole tree had bent with her, making her jump so much easier.
Trees and witches have a natural affinity for one another.
“My word.” Both the Guard’s eyebrows kinked up, and he looked impressed under that great tuft of fringe. “Agile, little mouse.”
She tried not to shoot him a sour look, but this man was unbelievable. How rude to call a woman he’d just met a mouse.
The man opened his mouth after a long pause. He looked Abby up and down slowly and parted his lips to say something – something cheeky no doubt.
Before he could, a voice rang out from behind them both. She recognized it and looked up to see Pembrake walking across the grass toward them, the Princess in an amazing sky-blue dress walking behind him and an entourage of ladies-in-waiting giggling in their wake.
The Guard narrowed his eyes, and his lips drew thin.
Pembrake saw her and gave a brief wave. She wasn’t sure what the look on his face was supposed to mean – it was half-surprised and half school-boy-I’ve-eaten-a-worm. This would be Pembrake in his element, surrounded by adoring women and frolicking across the grass. What a total—
Before she could finish that thought, something unexpected occurred. The Guard sidestepped toward her and swept her off her feet, hefting her like a hero might carry a swooning maiden. Except Abby was fine.
She spluttered with surprise and made a strange whining noise which set the dog yapping around at the Guard’s feet.
“Down,” the Guard ordered.
“Then put me down!”
“I was talking to the dog.”
By the time Pembrake made it up to them, his face had crossed the gap between pleasure and shock until there was something peculiar flickering in his eyes. “What? Is she okay?”
She stopped spluttering momentarily to stare at Pembrake aghast. He hadn’t bothered to ask Abby how she was, no it wasn’t as if she could give an honest assessment – she was only a witch, right?
“The little mouse sprained her ankle, I’m afraid.” The Guard hefted Abby, almost like he was lifting weights.
“I am fine!” she roared.
“And delusional. Perhaps a little shocked from falling out of a tree, I’m afraid.”
“She fell out of a tree? What was she doing up a tree?”
She felt like waving her hands about and pointing at herself to remind Pembrake that she still existed, thank you. The whole time Pembrake hadn’t looked at her. This was insane.
“What was she doing up a tree?” Pembrake questioned again when no one answered him.
“Sir, do you think it wise to berate the girl when she is in such a fragile condition?”
Pembrake stiffened at the tone, his jaw setting and his lips curling in.
“Look I’m fine – I was fine before, in fact – and I did not fall out of the tree.”
Both men ignored her; it was like shouting at a wall, except a whole lot more frustrating because you expect a wall to ignore you.
She toyed with the idea of struggling, but it was always a bad idea to incite a Guard, especially one as loony as this guy. She settled for glaring at everyone instead.
“Then perhaps I should take her inside?” Pembrake’s tone hinted that this was not a suggestion.
“You? I’m the Captain of the Guard; I think that falls under my duties.”
“Captain of the Guard, do you even know her name?” Pembrake’s voice was icy.
The entourage, with the Princess standing close by Pembrake, looked on with Martha-like interest. The Princess was red in the face as she gazed fitfully at both men.
The Captain looked murderous. “Do I have to?”
“Just put me down! I’m fine!” She tried to make her voice boom like she imagined Ms. Crowthy’s might, but disappointingly it came out as a keening squeak.
“I think not, madam, I will take you to safety.” The Captain hefted her again then bowed at the Princess. “Please forgive me, Princess, duty calls.” He gave the Princess a devilish smile that left her pressing a hand to her chest, then marched off with Abby in his arms.
This was starting to be a habit, Abby thought as she ground her teeth: men were pretending to save her and using it to impress girls. She would have to start taking Ms. Crowthy’s advice and start hitting boys over the head with brooms.
When they were far enough away from the entourage, the Captain began to chuckle. “See, mouse, that wasn’t so hard, was it?”
“Can you just put me down!”
“Not until we are out of view, mouse.”
“Stop calling me that!”
He could go to hell. Who cared if he was a Guard – Abby couldn’t put up with this any longer.
“Feisty, aren’t you? First, jumps out a tree then harasses the Captain of the Guard. Who are you, mouse?” He flicked his lingering gaze toward her as he continued across the grass.
“Why did you pick me up like that? I was fine!” She wasn’t about to give any information until she received a little herself.
“I think we both know that, mouse.”
She stared at him angrily.
“Because you had hurt your ankle,” he finished for her. “Now answer my question – who are you, mouse?”
It wasn’t a wise idea to toy with him further; he was the Captain of the Guard. “I was brought in with Pembrake when he saved the Princess. We’re… just traveling together.”
The Captain raised an eyebrow again; he seemed to find a lot of things curious. “Indeed. I have been informed of the incident involving the Princess and her guest – I was looking for your name.”
He’d said guest with as much poison as possible.
“Abby.” Why did she always find herself in such foolish situations? Okay, so she’d never been in a situation quite like this – stuck between a love triangle, being repeatedly saved for no reason – but she felt like this was going to happen more often these days. There was something about Pembrake that screamed trouble. And this Captain was the icing on the cake.
“Well, Abby the mouse, I’m sure you’ll understand if I put you down now, my arms are beginning to hurt.” He let go of her and stepped away, flicking his arms to release the tension.
She tried not to smile at his honesty, but it was hard. Pembrake wouldn’t have done that – his arms could have been ready to drop off, and the idiot would have lied about it all the way home.
“I’m sorry for my display, but I could just tell that your ankle was hurting you.”
“My ankles are quite strong, actually.”
“Well, isn’t that interesting? Now if you excuse me, I have to be elsewhere.”
Momentarily forgetting the peculiarity of the last several minutes, Abby recalled the Captain’s angry shouts when she’d been in the tree. He’d been looking for someone, the witch to be precise. “You’re looking for someone, aren’t you? That witch from this morning.”
“Ah yes, her,” he intoned her with as much sarcasm as he could – which was a significant amount considering his personality.
Abby frowned at his intonation. “Was it not a woman?”
The Captain paused and looked impressed. “You are very quick, mouse.”
“You can call me Abby now.”
“I prefer mouse actually.”
She swallowed her frustration. She felt like the information she was squeezing out of this annoying man was important somehow, and she wasn’t about to stop. “But I thought it had something to do with the attack on the Princess? Was the witch working with someone else? A man perhaps?”
He lifted an eyebrow at her suggestion but didn’t say anything.
“Why was the Princess taking a ride on a witch’s broom, anyway? Not many witches would agree to take a passenger on a frivolous ride – they reduce stability and speed.”
If he’d looked impressed before, it was nothing on the school-teacher beam he now wore. He was almost like a proud father. “My word you know a lot about witches, mouse. You might just be the smartest mouse I’ve ever met.”
Abby bit into her smile, but it grew regardless. She hated it when he called her mouse, but his charm was infectious. “I know a little.”
“Indeed. Well, I too am not sure why the Princess was on a broom. She’s long been fascinated by witches, but as you say, none would agree to take her up.”
“So where did this one come from then?” Abby conjured up the image of the witch in her mind and remembered how odd and wrong she’d looked. “There was something very off about her.”
Was that all he was going to give her? “In fact, as I remember, she was the least witchy looking witch I’ve ever seen.”
“As you say.”
He wasn’t going to say more, was he? She was on the cusp of finding out something important, and he was closing off all avenues of information. “But why would you look for her here?” Abby cocked her head to the side, trying for maximum innocent curiosity.
The Captain of the Guard had slowed down some, and from the look on his face, he was regretting having told her so much. “If you will excuse me, Abby.”
“Ha! You called me Abby!” She was desperate to keep him in the conversation by any means.
“Well, even little mice need to rest sometimes.”
“Yes, well I must be off. Investigations never cease.”
“And you never tire?” Her attempts to make him stay and keep him telling her more were getting pathetic, and she was starting to wince at her own words.
“Ha! You are quite a delightful mouse. I will be sure to stand right next to you tonight.” He winked, turned on his foot, and walked off.
She was left with a fast pulse and a warm face. What a strange man the Captain of the Guard was, very strange indeed.
Abby needed to see Pembrake. There was so much to discuss.
All her new information aside, at some point she was going to have to broach the subject of Pembrake stealing her saves. Maybe if he’d only taken the glory once she would have understood, but twice was infuriating. Who did he think he was? Or, more importantly, who did he think she was? Did she come across as the kind of dippy mild-mannered girl that would be happy to surrender her achievements to a muscle-bound pleck?
Once she’d berated him for long enough, she would move on to telling him what she’d learned from the Captain of the Guard, not that it was much. But there was the bracelet, and that was definitely important.
There was also the matter of the Key of Time. The witches had said it was in the palace somewhere.
Despite the fact there was so much to discuss, she wasn’t quite sure she had the patience to face Pembrake now. Not after the way he’d treated her when the Captain of the Guard had snatched her up. He had hardly looked at her, barely acknowledged she was there. So why should she go out and seek his company?
Still, there wasn’t much to do around the castle. There were so many people she didn’t want to run into, that she barely made it through one of the back entrances without stopping behind a door to check for Captains, Commanders, Princesses, and Colonels.
She soon made it to the servants’ quarters where Martha had mentioned they’d put a room aside for her. With nothing at all to do, and with a great desire to hit her pillow for some reason, Abby headed for it.
She did hit her pillow, but it didn’t improve her mood. So she collapsed into it, waiting for sleep to come. It didn’t have a chance as there was a soft knock on the door. She didn’t respond, pretending she was asleep – not that anyone was in the room to be fooled by her act.
The door opened a creak, and someone stepped in before closing the door carefully.
She sat up, alarmed at the intrusion.
Then she saw him.
“Me.” Pembrake took an apologetic step into the room, if it was possible to walk with guilt, that was. He had his head tilted to the floor and was looking up at her from under his eyebrows. Perhaps he was trying to look like a loveable puppy, but it wasn’t working.
“So,” she crossed her arms, “I think you have a lot to tell me.”
“Are you okay? Did the guy… did he… are you… how’s your ankle?” Pembrake took a long time to find his words. She wasn’t sure what that slight waver to his voice meant either – was he worried the Captain of the Guard would stand in the way of the Princess?
“Fine. It was always fine. I really don’t know why that man—”
“It’s just that man was holding you very tightly, so I figured you must have really hurt yourself,” Pembrake didn’t appear to be listening to her at all.
She pushed out her bottom lip and tried again. “Like I said, fine. That man was very strange—”
“When he took you away like that I figured you must really have hurt yourself.” He repeated. “Where did he—”
“Pembrake,” she wanted to pull the pillow out from behind her and throw it at him, “why won’t you listen? I told you I’m fine!”
“Oh.” He looked sheepish. “Only the Captain of the Guard was… well, I’m not sure I liked him.”
“Oh really,” it was all she could come up with, because for some reason she no longer felt like explaining the situation to Pembrake. There was something wrong with him, maybe too much sun and excitement.
An itchy, uncomfortable silence spread between them where she wanted to climb under the covers and pull them over her head and tell Pembrake to go away at once.
“I had to lie to get away from the Princess; I don’t think she would be happy if she knew I was off to see you.”
Abby found herself glaring. “Congratulations.”
For some reason, Pembrake wasn’t picking up on her usual bait and biting back with equal anger. He still looked sheepish and unsure of himself, or maybe she was making it all up; she couldn’t tell in her current mood. She sure wanted him to look that way, she sure wanted him to be sorry for what he’d done, but would the arrogant Commander ever regret anything?
“Look, Abby, I’m sorry for what happened,” he took a further step into the small room, cutting in half the distance that separated them, “I really am. Once the Guards had arrived, and they’d found me standing over the Princess, well they’d just assumed that I was the one who’d saved her. I could hardly tell them that you’d run halfway across the city in some kind of trance and snapped her out of the air, could I?”
She bunched up the covers in her fists. She wanted to escape underneath them, all the more now that Pembrake was closer. “You didn’t bother setting them straight, did you, though?”
“Abby, I couldn’t; I didn’t want you to get in trouble. You heard how the Colonel spoke about witches – I didn’t want you to get hurt. Plus, you know what that man does!”
So it was the same Colonel then… but that wasn’t the point right now. The point was Pembrake wasn’t about to get off that easily.
“Hurt? Hurt? Haven’t you changed your tune! One minute you want to throw me off a cliff, and the next you want to save me from prison!”
“We talked about this, we decided that we both need to work together,” he swallowed as his eyes searched hers, “Abby, please.”
“Why? Why should I? You’ve been nothing but trouble ever since I met you. I’m never sure where I stand. You spend half your time ignoring me and the other half berating me. I’m sorry I’m a witch, but do I really deserve this kind of treatment?” Her face was getting hot, but she didn’t care right now.
“I said I’m sorry—”
“Sorry? Before, in the garden, you hardly noticed me! You didn’t care so much that I may have been in trouble, you just cared that the Captain was stealing your save. Well, I’m sorry,” she sniffed so loudly her nostrils rattled, “but I don’t want to be the damsel to your hero. You’ll have to find some other way to impress the Princess.”
Pembrake’s face went the full gamut of emotions between guilt, sadness, and humor. He gave an exasperated chuckle and rolled his eyes. “Oh, Abby, you have no idea, do you?”
If she’d been red in the cheeks before, it was nothing on the molten heat that now took them. “Why do you always treat me like some child? I may not know the world of Pembrake Hunter, but rest assured, Commander – I know Abby Gail better than you ever will.”
“You are unfathomable, I agree. And you are unreasonable and selfish and wild,” his cheeks were starting to color too, “have you forgotten that only this morning you made me have breakfast with the father I never knew?”
“You… never knew?” she said weakly, uncomfortable with where she’d pushed Pembrake. She had no one else to blame for the cold surrender in his eyes.
“Do you think it was easy for me?”
“Well… I’m sure he loved you… he seemed like a nice man….” She wasn’t sure which route to take – whether to console Pembrake or agree with him. Just what had happened to Karing? How did Mr. Hunter fit into this? Mrs. Hunter never spoke fondly of the late Mr. Hunter, but never bitterly either, just without passion. Whatever had happened between now and then had changed Mrs. Hunter into the kind but sober dame that she was in the future. Abby was quite sure there was no trace left in her old friend of the bubbly youth that had hung on the words of Karing.
“Love? Do you think I care? Him not being there wasn’t what made it difficult growing up….” Pembrake appeared to be on the verge of saying something important, something hidden. “My father was a Northlander, my mother is a Westlander, and yet I’m….” He looked down at his hands. “I’m not—” he took another exasperated breath, “like them.”
She could see the pain and confusion behind his eyes, his proud head bowed to the side. He looked different when he was sad – real, a lot less like the Pembrake monster in her mind. “You’re what?” she encouraged, not wanting to say the words for him.
“I’m a South Islander.” He winced as if he expected Abby to hit him for his admission.
“And I’m a witch, what’s your point?”
He stared at her from under his brow again, this time with a stiff wariness. She knew that look; she’d given it many times before. It was the look you gave when you were waiting for someone to change their mind, to suddenly realize that the secret you have told them is worth your life. “Growing up I could never admit that, I could only ever have a tan. I knew my real father must have been a South Islander, but for everyone else… they had to believe it was just a tan. Bridgestock… my friends – they all had to believe….” He looked up at her, eyes narrowed by the crushing weight of his furrowed brow.
“They’ll hate you for anything in Bridgestock, Pembrake, anything,” she maintained the keenest gaze she could, “who cares where your parents were from? You have your mother’s eyes and, apparently, your father’s determination. It doesn’t change who you are now, and it doesn’t change in the least your future unless you let it.”
Pembrake laughed. “It’s easy for you to say that. People don’t look at you and see who you are—”
“Excuse me? People don’t look at the broom and the cat and the massive skirt and conclude dirty witch? That’s funny, because I’ve been chased by the Guards for less. You think whatever you look like is a problem, Pembrake? Are you telling me that if you could change your perfect skin and build you would?” She looked away from the flicker of interest in his eyes. “Of course you wouldn’t. I don’t know you well enough to be certain, but I’m sure you would not trade who you are.”
“I don’t exactly have the option.”
“Neither do I. I can’t change the fact I’m a witch, and I don’t want to. It isn’t my fault that society hates me, but I can’t change that by hating myself.”
Changes were going on behind Pembrake’s eyes. He appeared to be thinking hard, perhaps not at her words; she doubted she could affect him that much. “I don’t hate myself. It was just a shock to see my father, that’s all.”
She forced herself not to become defensive as he tried to wipe away the last several minutes of their conversation, pretending he’d never been distressed in the first place. That was his prerogative, however annoying and childish it was. “Oh.”
“But it doesn’t matter, does it? We’re stuck in the past.”
“Yes, I guess.”
“So are you any closer to taking us back?” His voice had returned to normal, and he was back to ordering her around like a little ship hand.
“Maybe,” She could elaborate but didn’t feel like it. This always happened when she had a conversation with Pembrake: he’d end up irritating her so much she’d no longer want to speak at all.
“Well, what is it?”
“I ran into Martha, and she returned the bracelet.” Abby sighed as she produced it from the only pocket in her dress. “I think it might be the clue we were looking for.”
“Bracelet? You mean the one the witches were talking about?” He looked down at the broken remains of the charm bracelet in Abby’s hand. “That thing? Isn’t that my mother’s?”
Abby pressed her lips together. It suddenly occurred to her that she hadn’t explained to Pembrake the mysterious happenings surrounding this charm bracelet – how it had crackled with magic when she’d taken it from Mrs. Hunter, allowing her the briefest glimpse into Pembrake’s mind. The thing was powerful, too powerful to be kept as a simple family heirloom.
“How did you get your hands on it?” His voice had an undercurrent of accusation as if he believed that Abby, the treacherous little window cleaner, had snuck into the fine home of Mrs. Hunter and stolen it.
What sympathy she had for him was slipping. He couldn’t honestly believe she was capable of theft, could he?
“I found your mother on the night of the storm, and she was… well, she was having a vision. I think she was connected to your mind somehow, and I think this,” she hefted the bracelet, “is what was doing it,” her words were sharp and defensive. She wasn’t a thief. How could he even think that?
He regarded the bracelet and sighed. “There’s no need to get defensive, Abby; I’m not accusing you of anything. Plus, that little thing is just a trinket. It looks like nothing more than a child’s bracelet sitting in your hand like that. Do you really think it was capable of creating the storm?”
She clicked her tongue as she thought. “Not the storm… but something. Do you know anything about it?”
He shrugged his broad shoulders, which shifted comfortably in the smart suit he was wearing. His new clothes suited him far more than the tight outfit he had borrowed from Alfred. The line of the sleeves sat just right on the tips of his shoulders, the collar of the shirt sitting smartly against his trim neck.
“It’s an heirloom from my mother’s side. Apparently, it’s given to the eldest child when they marry, not that I’ll be wanting a bracelet of course.”
She tried to sit on her conflicting emotions: her anger at his implied accusation, her pity at the memories of discrimination. Being with Pembrake was never a simple emotional journey for her; she always had to find ways of hiding uncomfortable sides of her personality that rose unbidden from uncharted depths.
Right now this seemed like a clue, so Abby needed to roll up her sleeves and act like a professional, objective witch. “Do you know where it came from?”
He shrugged his shoulders again. “No. To be honest, I never really paid much attention to it; it’s just a bracelet, after all.”
“Well, that’s not very helpful; it could be the key that we are looking for.”
“And it might just be a bracelet.”
“Why do you always have to second guess me? Do you think, as a witch, I don’t know what a magical talisman looks like?”
He momentarily withdrew, as if thinking about something. “Look, I’m sorry. I’ll concede this one. If you think it’s important, then it’s a good idea to study it. I’ll try to see what I can remember.”
He’d conceded a point to her.
“Oh… thank you.”
“So what do we do now?” Abby tried, biting her lip for some annoying reason. “Only there’s a lot of stuff we need to do. We have to search for the Key for one and find out why the Palace is so important in all of this—”
“It will all have to wait, I’m afraid; I have to prepare to go and be presented to the King,” Pembrake was back to smiling that roguish grin, “then I shall spend the evening being introduced to the Princess’ friends,” as he spoke he stared at Abby, waiting for her reaction.
“Very well then, Pembrake. I shall spend the evening with the Captain of the Guard—”
Now his smile froze.
“He said he found me quite clever.” She couldn’t stop the smile from tugging at her lips.
He looked alarmed as if clever was the worst possible thing the Captain of the Guard could think of Abby. “I see. But I think, in the interests of our keeping a low profile in this time, you should have as little to do with the Guards as possible.”
“Okay, this coming from the man who’s off to meet the King and gad with the Princess. If anyone should be getting the ‘don’t go destroying the timeline speech,’ it’s you, Pembrake.”
“Just stay away from him,” once again the Commander was giving orders.
She was so flabbergasted at his tone she stared at him. What was he going to do next, order her to always walk one step behind him? Who the pleck did he think he was? “What? You can’t be serious?”
“Abby, I’m taking us stuck 28 years in the past very seriously, I think maybe it’s time you do, too. I’ll talk to you after the reception,” and with that, he turned for the door, “and go and get some food from the kitchens.”
“I’ve already eaten.”
“Then eat some more. I have to go; the Princess will probably have sent out a search party by now.” Pembrake left without another word.
She picked up her pillow and threw it at the door just as it closed.
She opened her mouth and screamed silently. She had no idea what to think about that man. Pembrake Hunter was driving her crazy.
Hot, cold, wise, and immature – couldn’t he be anywhere in between?
After she had calmed down, Abby did indeed get some rest. But not before long Martha came in to get her, fussing over the preparations for Pembrake’s reception. She ran another brush through Abby’s hair, which had frizzed to its usual state as soon as her head had hit the pillow. Martha was determined, though, and she kept on tutting which probably helped somehow.
After Martha had finished with Abby, she’d led her to the hall where dignitaries bedecked in a variety of different costumes were already milling about. Abby was surprised to find that it was already six o’clock; she must have slept through the afternoon. Pembrake was to be presented at seven and then retire to the dining hall to have dinner with the Royal Family. Abby wasn’t invited, which was fine by her because the prospect of sitting within knife-throwing distance of Pembrake was not a healthy one.
She was led to a seat right at the back of the Great Hall, directly behind a huge white marble pillar. Her view of the pillar was fantastic, and she had a pretty good view of the toupee of the man to the left and in front of her. Apart from that, she couldn’t see a thing. Not that she wanted to, she reminded herself over and over again. She didn’t want to see Pembrake, especially together with the Princess; the whole sight would rot her teeth.
So Abby sat by herself, behind a pillar, grumpy at the world in general until she felt a soft tap on her shoulder.
“What’s my mouse doing back here?” The Captain shifted forward until his face was in line with Abby’s shoulder as if to see whatever it was she could be looking at. “Are you all that fascinated by the pillar? Because I can assure you that they are all alike.”
She didn’t laugh, but she did bite her lips. “I’m sitting exactly where I was seated.”
The Captain flicked his fringe and twitched his right eyebrow high. “Then you must be a very lucky mouse to have such a good view of that man’s toupee. It’s quite extraordinary.”
This time she did giggle, though she quickly stifled it into a sniff. “You shouldn’t make fun of those with less hair.”
The Captain patted his hair. “I think I should. It made my mouse laugh, after all.”
“I’m not your mouse.” She found herself looking sideways at him while trying to tip her head up.
“Perhaps. Though if you were my mouse, I would be sure not to dress you in gray; it doesn’t suit your eyes. Maybe sky-blue or black.”
A shiver crossed over her spine at the look in his eyes. It wasn’t an unpleasant shiver, just a shiver.
“Are you cold, little mouse? This hall is terribly drafty. Perhaps I should lend you my coat?”
“Oh, wouldn’t people confuse me for you then?”
“Good point. Perhaps I should take you somewhere warmer, then.”
She swallowed as her skin flushed bright red. “Oh no, I’m really not that cold.”
The Captain of the Guard looked over his shoulder and smiled again. “You look cold.”
“Really,” a voice said from behind them, and she turned to see Pembrake, “because she looks flushed to me.”
If she had been flushed before, now she was incandescent. Pembrake must have snuck up behind them.
The Captain of the Guard cleared his throat so harshly it almost sounded like a growl. “Shouldn’t you be waiting to be presented to the King, sir? I wouldn’t think a busy man like you would have time to lurk around the back of the hall.”
“I could say the same for you.” Pembrake glared, his neck straight and stiff.
“I’m entertaining forgotten guests.”
She brought her hands up and brushed them down her arms distractedly as she watched the two of them glare at each other.
“You are cold, my mouse.” The Captain tapped her on the shoulder, the move so slow and gentle it was almost a caress.
His hand didn’t linger long, but long enough for Pembrake to clear his throat and take a stiff step closer.
“I simply insist that you come with me for a cup of coffee,” the Captain continued.
Pembrake looked angrier than she’d ever seen. He looked ready to skin the Captain alive. The words “come with me for a cup of coffee” had been like a whack across the head with a steel pipe. The duel was on.
“I don’t really drink coffee.” She shifted back in her chair, trapped between the enmity radiating out from both men.
“Really? Well, I could always teach—”
“Don’t say it,” Pembrake hissed like a snake readying to attack.
The Captain chuckled and stood up straight, tugging down on his jacket. “Your tone is quite defensive, sir, nay, aggressive. Is there something I can help you with?”
Pembrake paused, clearly torn. He couldn’t order the Captain to get the pleck away from her – he wouldn’t dare. The Captain was a Guard, and in this time Pembrake was a nobody. A momentarily famous nobody, but a nobody nonetheless. If Pembrake did risk inciting the Captain, then he could wind up in a great big pile of temporal trouble. “Actually, yes. The Princess wants you.”
The Captain of the Guard gave a rigid smile. “Really? Cannot some other Guard fulfill—”
“No, she specifically asked for you,” Pembrake was looking pleased with himself, though the threat was still present in his ramrod back and wide squared stance and rigid jaw.
“She sent you to find me? How peculiar.”
“Aren’t we all loyal subjects to the Royal Family?”
“Indeed,” the Captain said.
Abby was shifting her gaze between both men as their verbal tit-for-tat drew on. If she were Ms. Crowthy, she would have separated both of them with a bucket of ice-cold water. But as she was Abby, all she could do was fidget with the hem of her dress and smile nervously.
“Well, you really best be getting ready, sir; your reception will begin soon enough. Then, of course, there is the dinner,” the Captain shifted his eyes to Abby and then back to Pembrake, “and that will last well into the night.”
All sense of triumph gone, Pembrake’s shoulders deflated. “The Princess is waiting,” he shot one last time.
“Well, I shall be going, for now. I will see you again, little mouse.” The Captain winked then sauntered off, leaving her alone with Pembrake, alone in a hall full of people, that was.
“I thought I told you to stay away from him, Abby?”
“No, you ordered me. But he found me. I can’t very well run away from him. He’s a Guard; he’ll just give chase.”
“Oh he’s already doing that,” Pembrake mumbled with a shake of his head, “so for god’s sake, Abby, stay out of his way.”
She wasn’t about to let Pembrake railroad her into a corner. Who was he to dictate who she could spend her time with? Some man she’d saved from a storm and had traveled 28 years into the past with? Precisely, and she wasn’t about to let him advise her like a wise and trusted friend. Who was he to give advice on such matters, anyway?
Pembrake watched her expression, and he took a step closer, ducking his head in, his face serious but not angry. “Trust me, Abby; I know what this guy is doing.”
“Oh really? Are you clairvoyant, Pembrake? Do you have second sight? Are you a witch?”
He laughed through an exasperated breath. “I don’t need second sight to know what he wants.”
Abby crossed her arms, something she was finding she did a lot around Pembrake. “Well, forgive me if I don’t trust your judgment.”
“Abby,” all anger was gone from his voice, “please,” he wiped a hand down his mouth, “just trust me on this.”
If it weren’t for his genuine tone, she would have continued her charade. She had no intention of meeting up with the Captain unless she had to. Ms. Crowthy hadn’t raised a foolish witch. Though Abby wasn’t sure what the Captain was up to, she could sense that she shouldn’t approve. Martha had said he very much liked the Princess, and Abby was quite sure this whole charade had something to do with that. Still, Pembrake did look concerned, and just this once he deserved the truth. “I have no intention of going anywhere with the Captain of the Guard, Pembrake; he is a total rogue.”
Pembrake stood and laughed, the tension lifting from his shoulders. “He was right about one thing, little mouse.”
Abby made a face. “Please don’t call me that; it’s very disturbing.”
“It is, isn’t it?” He laughed again.
“Well, what was he right about then?” She was curious as to what, if anything, Pembrake could find to agree on with the Captain of the Guard.
“You are clever, Abby.”
A butler dressed in fine clothes rushed up to Pembrake waving his hands, and with an almost friendly smile and a glitter to his eye, Pembrake left her alone behind her pillar.
The sounds of the other guests taking their seats subsided to be replaced by the loud fanfare of several trumpets.
In the ensuing scene, which she listened to while staring at her pillar, she couldn’t help but wonder something. If Pembrake was worried that when the Captain thought she was clever, he really meant something else, then did Pembrake now think she was that kind of clever, too? Though the thought was complex and tiring, Abby couldn’t stop it from whirling about in her mind.
Want to keep reading? You can buy the conclusion of this series, The Witch and the Commander Book Two, from the following retailers: