With a scream Jem awoke. It was daylight. He was lying in a clean white bed. Searing fire was coursing up his left arm. It was this pain that had caused him to scream.
The door to the room opened and Urquhart’s sister came rushing in.
“How are you feeling?” she asked as she placed a cold damp cloth across his forehead. “We’ve been anxious about you.”
“I don’t know,” sighed the prince, the coolness of the cloth on his fevered brow feeling divine. Before he could say anything else another bolt of feverish pain shot through him and he lost consciousness again.
“Was he awake?” asked Urquhart from the doorway.
“Briefly,” replied his sister. “Then the fever took him again. I think you should send for his father, Artie.”
Nodding in silent agreement the wizard said, “I’ll take a message to the castle.”
For three long days and nights Urquhart and his sister had watched the prince fight the fever triggered by the reversal of the curse. His screams had echoed round the house as his battered body battled with the magic coursing through his veins. Without a word of complaint, Urquhart’s sister had sat with him, trying to break the fever by bathing him down with cool water every few hours. The magic had badly burned his left hand and arm. Taking great care, she had dressed the burns regularly, fearful of infection setting in. Now, while he was unconscious again, she began to remove the soiled bandages, knowing that the slightest touch must be excruciatingly painful for him.
With a folded sheet of paper clutched in his hand, the page burst into the king’s private chamber. From his seat at the fireplace, the king looked up, one eyebrow raised.
“This better be urgent, boy!”
“It is, your majesty,” promised the boy breathlessly. “It’s a message from Master Urquhart.”
“Urquhart? You’re sure?” quizzed the king, his tone sharp, as he took the note.
“Yes. A young boy delivered it a moment ago. Said it came straight from Urquhart.”
The note was short and straight to the point; typically Urquhart-ish.
“Sire, I am at my sister’s house. It is the last house in the village. I have news of Jermain for your ears and eyes only. Urquhart.”
“And you are sure this isn’t a hoax or a trap, boy?” asked the king, folding the note over.
“I’ve seen the boy before, your majesty. He hangs about the stables. I think Martha, one of the kitchen maids, slips him leftovers from the workers’ lunch,” replied the page.
“Fine. Go to the stable. Tell them to ready my horse. I want two guards to ride out with me. I’ll be down in an hour,” instructed the king.
After the page had left the room, the king got to his feet and walked over to his desk. He lay the note down next to the black feather. Try as he might he couldn’t make sense of it all. After the events of the other night with the Lady Karina he hadn’t breathed a word to a soul. In truth he was embarrassed at having slept with his son’s fiancée; he was terrified by the transformation he had witnessed. If the note truly came from Urquhart, he hoped the wizard had some answers for him.
Handing the reins to one of the guards, the king walked up the path to the front door of the last house in the village. Casting his eyes over the flaking paintwork and poor state of repair, he knocked sharply on the door. It was opened a few minutes later by a middle aged woman. When she saw the king standing on her doorstep she fell into a deep curtsey.
“Your majesty,” she said warmly. “We’ve been expecting you.”
“Rise, madam,” he said curtly. “Is Urquhart here?”
“Yes, sire,” she replied, stepping aside. “Please, follow me.”
Silently the king followed her down the narrow hallway to the warm welcoming kitchen at the back of the house. A small boy sat by the fire.
“Artie,” prompted his sister.
At the sound of her voice, the wizard looked up. Seeing the king standing behind her, he leapt to his feet.
“You came, your majesty! Praise be!”
“And who might you be?” asked the king with a frown. “What’s this all about? Where’s Urquhart?”
“I am Urquhart!” snapped the wizard rudely.
“Yes and I’m trapped like this thanks to that witch Karina,” grumbled Urquhart. “Treacherous witch nearly killed us all.”
“The Lady Karina? My son’s betrothed?”
“Yes, the very same!” shouted Urquhart angrily then, realising that the king hadn’t the faintest idea about what was going on, added, “Please take a seat and I’ll try to explain this mess to you.”
With eyes wide open, the king stared at the wizard as he listened to the tale. He wept with relief when he heard that his son was alive in the bedroom upstairs. Once the wizard had finished his tale, the king explained what had happened in his private chambers on the night of the full moon.
“Damn and blast!” growled the wizard. “She’s escaped.”
“For now,” agreed the king. “But there can’t be many black crows with white flashes on their wings.”
“True,” admitted Urquhart. “And she left a feather behind?”
“That might be enough,” mused the wizard almost to himself. “But that will have to wait. We need to focus on Jem for now.”
“Can I see my son?” asked the king softly.
“Of course,” said Urquhart’s sister from behind them. “I’ll take you up. He’s feverish and lapsing in and out of consciousness. I don’t think he’ll know you’re here, sire.”
“I just need to see him,” whispered the king. “He’s my only son.”
A rosy sunset glow filled the room when Jem next opened his eyes. Despite having just wakened he felt exhausted and weak. His eyes adjusting to the light, he glanced down at his injured arm. It was resting in a clean white sling and he could see the edges of a bandage at the base of his fingers. Gently he tried to move them and was rewarded with a fresh assault of fiery pain. Sinking back into the pillows, he attempted to make sense of the fragments of memories filling his head.
The door opened a few minutes later as Urquhart’s sister came in to check on him. Finding him awake she smiled and asked if her felt better.
“I feel weak as a kitten,” he confessed, his voice sounding like his own “real” voice and not his hoarse “imp” voice.
“That’s to be expected,” she said softly, pouring him a cup of water from the jug on the night stand beside the bed. “Here, sip this slowly.2
With her assistance Jem managed to sit up and take the cup. As he reached out his hand, he noticed it was “his” hand – his real hand.
“What happened?” he asked between sips. “Where’s Amber?”
“I’ll let Artie explain,” she replied evasively. “He’s better at these things than me.”
“Where’s Amber?” repeated the prince.
“The elves took her home,” answered Urquhart’s sister. “It was her time.”
Jem sank back onto the pillows. She was gone.
He was still staring up at the ceiling when Urquhart entered the room.
“Welcome back, boy,” said the wizard coming to sit on the edge of the bed.
“But you’re…” began Jem looking confused.
“I know,” said Urquhart keeping his eyes lowered. “There never was going to be enough magic to transform both of us back.”
“Urquhart, what happened?” the prince asked simply.
“The witch. A backlash of magic,” began the wizard calmly. “As soon as she felt the magic enter her, she cast a counter spell. She transformed herself and fled.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Is that what happened to my arm?
The wizard nodded then, climbing down from the bed, added, “You’d best see the rest for yourself.”
The boy wizard went over to the wooden chest that sat beneath the window on the far side of the room and lifted a looking glass. With a heavy heart, he took it over to the prince, passing it to him mirror side down. He watched as Jem turned it over and looked at his reflection.
Laying the looking glass down on the bedcover, Jem reached up and touched the left hand side of his face with his good hand. From the inner corner of his left eyes and at an angle down to his jawline the skin was still that of the aged imp. Once again a milky white cataract covered his left eye. The skin on his neck too was that of the imp. An everlasting mark of the magic curse.
“It could be worse,” he said finally.
“True,” agreed the wizard with a smile. “The magic struck back through the bundle you held in your hand. The brooch protected the rest of you.”
“And my arm?” asked Jem calmly.
“Will heal in time,” promised Urquhart quietly. “The magic has burned it up beyond your elbow. It’s too soon to tell if you will regain full use of it. I’ll not lie to you, Jem. You were lucky to survive at all. Her magic is strong and a deep evil runs through it. I’m unsure how much has passed into you but you’ve fought it for five days.”
“Yes. It’s five days since the night of the full moon,” replied the wizard. “Let me tell you what happened and has happened since.”
Settling back on the pillows Jem listened as his wizard friend explained that after the spell had backfired everything had spun out of control. When he heard that Amber had collapsed as he had fallen, tears welled up in his eyes. While they had both lain on the floor, the two elves had arrived. Without a word to anyone, one of them had scooped the fairy/elf up into his arms and they had both left as quickly as they had arrived. The backlash of the spell had thrown Urquhart off his feet but he had crawled over to where Jem lay and dragged him clear of the magic circle to protect him, fearful of an attack by the witch. When the fluid from Amber’s waters had seeped across the floor to touch the edge of the magic circle there had been a small crackle of fire along the lines of the pattern then an air of calm had descended on the room.
“And there’s been no word from Amber?” asked the prince hopefully when the wizard finished recounting the tale.
“Nothing,” he replied. “There is one more thing.”
Jem looked at him, dreading to hear what else the wizard had to say.
“Your father is downstairs,” said Urquhart softly. “He’s been here for two days. He’s been sitting with you while you fought off the last of the fever.”
“Yes,” nodded the wizard. “And it’s time I let him see you. I’ll be back shortly.”
Alone again in the attic room Jem struggled to take in all that the wizard had told him. In his fever weakened state, he couldn’t think straight; all he could think about was the fact that Amber had been gone for five days. Had she survived? Had their baby been born safely? Where were they?
The sound of his father’s voice brought him back to the present. Ignoring the pain from his arm, Jem reached out and embraced his father. Standing in the doorway Urquhart watched their emotional reunion then left them to talk in private.
When the wizard re-entered the kitchen, his sister insisted that he sit down and eat. She fetched him a bowl of stew and some bread then sat beside him at the table.
“What happens now, Artie?” she asked as he broke his bread into the bowl.
“That depends on Jermain and his majesty,” replied the wizard, taking a mouthful of the hot meaty stew. “If I’m to track the witch I need to return to my tower. The prince shouldn’t be moved until he’s stronger and that arm has healed but then he will want to get some answers about Amber.”
“Can you get him some news?” asked his sister hopefully, anxious to hear from the girl herself.
“I’ve already tried,” he sighed. “When the elves took her back, the fairies closed the gateway for good. The portal connecting both worlds is gone and I don’t know of any other.”
High up in the shady branches of the tree next to the bothy, the crow sat silently watching the landscape. Since the night of the full moon, now almost two weeks hence, she had been unable to transform herself back to human form. The backlash she had felt from the cursed magic had almost killed her. Gradually, hidden high up in the mountains, her strength was returning but if she attempted the transformation spell what form would be left? A hag? And what if she couldn’t transform herself back? She had a long journey ahead and needed to be able to fly.
A movement in the long grass of the meadow beside the hut caught her eye. In the early morning sun she struggled to see clearly but she could just make out the cloaked shape of someone disappearing towards the path that led down the mountain. From the brief glimpse she caught, it looked like a fairy creature and it was carrying a large basket.
Spreading her wings the witch set out to follow the newcomer, curious to see where they were headed in such a hurry.
In the small rear garden of the last house in the village, Jem sat napping in the later afternoon sunshine. Over the last few days, thanks to the care and attention he was receiving from the wizard’s sister, his strength was beginning to return. Wanting to get the bedroom cleaned and aired, she had suggested he sit in the garden for a while. He had started to protest but his hostess had overruled him, telling him that the fresh air would be good for him.
As he slept, reclined on the chair, with a blanket spread across his lap, Jem never saw the crow land in the tree at the end of the garden; as he slept, he never saw the fairy visitor who left the basket at his feet.
Having seen enough and sensing the danger of being so close to the castle, the crow spread her wings again and headed away from the village, heading far to the east.
A soft whimpering sound roused Jem from sleep. Glancing about for the source of the sound, he spotted the round wicker basket beside his chair. A thin muslin cloth was covering it. He reached out and pulled back the cloth. At the sight of the contents his heart almost stopped. Throwing aside the blanket that was covering his lap, he leapt from the chair and knelt on the damp grass beside the basket. Inside, nestled amongst some soft animal furs, lay a baby, wrapped tightly in a swaddling cloth. Gingerly Jem slid his injured arm from its sling and, favouring his right hand as much as he could, he lifted the whimpering baby into his arms. The swaddling cloth loosened as he rested the baby on his knee. A tight lump of emotion threatened to choke him as he peeled back the cloth. The baby looked up at him with bright blue eyes- undeniably his bright blue eyes. Soft auburn down covered the baby’s head – undeniably Amber’s hair colouring.
It was a baby girl.
His hand felt something at the baby’s back, below her tiny shoulder blades. When he looked, what he saw made him smile. It was the buds of two tiny fairy wings.
Holding his tiny daughter close, Jem wept. Through his tears, he spotted something else in the basket. With his precious daughter tucked in the crook of his arm, he reached into the basket and withdrew the worn leather cord with the two amulets hanging from it. Amber was alive!
From the upstairs window Urquhart and his sister watched as the prince cradled the baby girl and smiled.