CHAPTER ONE

 

The Secret of an Old Mulberry Tree

 

Merrymead, 1990

 

 

 

Those who lived in Merrymead, a small sleepy town in the heart of Cornwall, at that time would most likely agree that the summer of 1990 was an ominous one – and not in a good way. There were annoying, disturbing and even worrying events happening throughout the town that changed the lives of some of the residents completely.

      It all started with Mr Mole’s bees, which had – collectively – decided, on a quiet and uneventful Tuesday afternoon in mid-May, to leave Mr Mole’s garden and fragrant flowers behind and fly to the town hall, interrupting an important meeting of the town clerk and causing several painful stings for the members of the meeting. Mr Mole was definitely in trouble. It took him two days to collect his adventurous bees and the cost of a big bunch of flowers and a few boxes of the finest chocolates for the victims of the attack.

      Only a week after the bee incident, another unexpected thing happened, although at that time it was known only to a handful of people who lived on Finch Street. Mrs Milton’s cat, Max, a big black and white tomcat, disappeared. Mrs Milton was devastated and could not get the thought out of her mind that Max might have been hit by a car or had fallen into a deep hole somewhere. She asked her neighbours and the other residents of Finch Street, but none of them had seen Max. She put some posters on the lamp posts around the neighbourhood, but again, nobody seemed to know anything about Max. After two weeks, the mystery was still unsolved.

      However, Max was not the only one who went missing from Merrymead that summer. There was somebody else whose disappearance provided much more excitement and worry for the residents of the town. His name was Samuel Lucas. Samuel was a twelve-year-old boy and the nephew of Mr Julius McMillan, who worked at Merrymead Library. He vanished from Mr McMillan’s house, Mistletoe Cottage, on the sixth of June after a stormy night, and despite the search for him by the police, the family and the local residents, his whereabouts remained unknown. Nobody, not even Mrs Milton, had connected the disappearances of Max and Samuel; two mysteries, neither of which had been solved over the years.

      ‘How did the whole thing happen? What did Samuel do before he vanished from Mistletoe Cottage?’

      Mr McMillan tried to remember. He felt that it was somehow his fault. He was the only person in Merrymead who had an idea about Samuel’s whereabouts; an idea so fantastic that he did not dare to share it with either the police or anyone else.

 

* * *

 

The summer of 1990 had arrived with thunderstorms and hail. The sky was dark blue and grey, and there were muddy puddles everywhere. Mr McMillan was standing in his living room, looking through the window into the darkness. The night had wrapped itself around the garden. An old mulberry tree stood stooping but still proudly in the middle of the garden, lit up occasionally by lightning strikes, and the gentle monotone knocking of ice could be heard on the glass. Mr McMillan turned away from the window, leaving the poor mulberry tree struggling with the elements on its own, and turned his attention to his nephew, who was comfortably settled in a big red armchair drawing something in his notebook. He was the only child of Elena Lucas, Mr McMillan’s sister, and had lived with his uncle for five years.

      Mr McMillan felt these last five years had passed very quickly. He still remembered the day when Elena and Samuel moved into his house. He had never seen his nephew before and hadn’t seen his sister for many years. He’d known that she had got married and lived with her husband somewhere in rural Scotland, but had no idea that she had a child. He had never met her husband, Sean Lucas, either. All he knew about him was that he was a thin man with ginger hair and a matching beard, based on a photo Elena showed him, and that he was a geologist. He left his family one day, leaving only a strange note behind that nobody seemed to understand.

      When Mr McMillan received Elena’s letter asking if she and her young son could stay in his house, he hesitated. He was a bachelor with a quiet, somewhat boring life, but he considered it a rather pleasant one. He wasn’t sure he was prepared to take care of a young mother and a schoolboy. After a day of thinking and considering, he finally made up his mind and said yes. A week later, Elena and Samuel arrived. He still clearly remembered the first night when he and his sister were sitting in the kitchen after they had unpacked the few boxes she had brought and she had put Samuel to bed. Elena told him everything about their life in Scotland and her decision to move to England. She was tired and sad but full of plans for the future. Plans that had never been fulfilled. A year later, he was left alone with Samuel.

      Mr McMillan was very fond of his nephew, so he felt extremely guilty for leaving him for a few days just before his birthday. He hadn’t told him yet because he was a man who considered everything carefully first. He had secretly hoped that his trip could be postponed, but unfortunately that had not been the case.

      ‘I have to travel to London tomorrow,’ he began slowly. ‘Sir James Monroe – you may remember him as we met him once or twice in the British Library – asked me to examine some books he recently bought at an auction.’

      ‘For how long?’ Samuel asked without looking up from his drawing.

      ‘Maybe three or four days. No longer than that, but it means I will miss your birthday.’ Mr McMillan paused and then added, ‘I’m sorry. We will celebrate it when I am back, promise.’

      Samuel looked up at him. ‘May I go with you?’

      ‘Not this time I’m afraid,’ replied Mr McMillan uneasily. Then he continued, ‘I asked your Aunt Lidia to collect you tomorrow morning. You will spend the weekend with the Moles.’

      Mrs Mole was not a real aunt to Samuel but had been his mother’s best friend.

      ‘Great,’ said Samuel – not very enthusiastically, but his uncle did not notice Samuel’s lack of enthusiasm.

      ‘Very well,’ Mr McMillan said, relieved. ‘And now it’s time for bed, Samuel. We’ll have an early start tomorrow.’

      After his nephew left him alone, Mr McMillan walked up and down the living room, lost in his thoughts for a while. He finally came to a decision and went to the hall, put his coat on and went to the back door, which led to the garden. He opened it and vanished into the darkness.

 

* * *

 

The following morning was dry and sunny as if the previous night’s storm had never happened. Samuel was woken by the sound of knocking on his door. It was his uncle. He was holding something in his hand that he gave to Samuel.

      ‘Here you are, something for you,’ he said.

      ‘What is it?’ Samuel asked with curiosity.

      The something was a black canvas bag that smelled of rain and leaves.

      ‘Open it!’ his uncle urged without answering his question.

      Samuel opened the bag carefully, as he was afraid that a mouse or a lizard would run out of it, and put his hand into the black hole. His fingers touched something soft and velvety. It had a rectangular shape. He quickly pulled out his hand, clutching the object.

      ‘A book!’ he looked at his uncle, surprised.

      ‘A book indeed,’ Mr McMillan replied with a smile. ‘I won’t be here to celebrate your birthday with you so I wanted to give this to you beforehand.’

      ‘What is it about?’

      ‘Adventures, knights, magic. You have to read it to find out.’

      Samuel opened the book. ‘Tales from Talendia’, he read the title aloud then noticed something else. ‘It’s dedicated to me!’

      ‘Really?’ his uncle asked with a mysterious smile. He did not seem to be surprised.

      ‘Yes, look, it says “to Samuel Lucas from A. F. B.”’

      ‘You’re right. How strange!’

      ‘Didn’t you know that?’ asked Samuel.

      Mr McMillan did not reply. He glanced at his watch. ‘I must go, I have to catch the train to London. Lidia will be here any minute. Please get dressed and pack your rucksack.’

      ‘Do I really have to go with her?’

      ‘Why, of course! I thought you got on with Matthew and Sybill.’

      ‘They are all right, just a bit boring,’ Samuel said, sighing.

      ‘They are good kids so please be nice to them.’

      After saying goodbye Mr McMillan left the room and five minutes later, Samuel heard the front door closing.

      He was alone in the house.

      After finishing his breakfast – a slice of toast with marmite and a cup of milk – Samuel waited in the living room for the sound of the doorbell warning him of the arrival of Mrs Lidia Mole. His rucksack was lying at the bottom of the staircase, containing all the important things a twelve-year-old boy might need for a long weekend.

One minute passed after the other, but Mrs Mole was nowhere to be seen. Samuel settled himself in the red armchair with his new book. He enjoyed reading it more than any other book he’d ever had in his hands before, and only stopped when his belly growled. It was twenty minutes past twelve. He went to the kitchen, searching for something to eat. While he was making a sandwich, the phone in the living room rang. Before he could pick it up, the answering machine switched on, recording Mrs Mole’s endless apologies for running late. Matthew and Sybill had caught a nasty tummy bug and she was on the way to the pharmacy to get some medicine for them and for Samuel, in case he caught it as well. 

      ‘Great,’ Samuel said aloud. 

      He was not looking forward to the weekend with the Moles, especially not with sick ones. It was not that he did not like them, he just found the whole family a bit dull. The parents were tedious and the children were their perfect mini­-mes.

      Samuel was standing in front of the window eating his sandwich when he saw a big black and white cat jumping from the fence into their garden. He was somehow familiar, but Samuel could not recall where he had met the cat before. The animal strolled leisurely through the garden towards the mulberry tree. As the cat stopped to scratch his ear, Samuel spotted his blue collar.

      ‘You’re the missing cat!’ he exclaimed.

      He remembered seeing Mrs Milton’s poster, including the photo of Max, and also remembered there was a reward for the finder. He went to the garden as quietly as possible, because he did not want to scare the cat away. Max was sitting in the grass, watching the boy with his green eyes.

      ‘Come here, Max!’ Samuel called, but the cat did not move. ‘Max, come on, be a good cat!’ he called again.

      The tomcat closed his eyes and was sitting motionless like a sculpture. Samuel was so close to him that he thought he could touch him if he reached his arm out. Max was ignoring him and was enjoying the sunshine. Samuel reached out his hand. The tops of his fingers touched the soft fur of the cat, but he was not close enough to be able to catch him. Max opened his eyes and, quicker than Samuel would have expected from a big, fat cat, ran to the mulberry tree. Samuel followed him but Max quickly disappeared among the branches.

      Samuel searched for him but had no luck. However, although he could not find the cat, he found something else – a big split in the trunk of the tree. Maybe the thunder had caused it the previous night, because he did not remember seeing it before. The hole was long and wide enough that Samuel could step into it if he wanted to. And he wanted to. To his surprise, the opening was very deep. As he took a step, and then another, it became darker and darker around him until he could not see anything any more. He reached his hand out for something to hold onto. He touched the tree trunk and took another step, then almost cried out as he felt something strange under his foot. It was the top of a staircase.

      He heard the noise of a car from behind him. Somebody, most likely Lidia Mole, had parked their car in front of Mistletoe Cottage. He looked back. Max was sitting at the entrance to the hole, looking at him. Samuel heard the car door shut and the steps of somebody walking to their door. The doorbell rang. Discovering where the staircase might lead seemed far more exciting than visiting the Moles, decided Samuel. So he put his foot onto the first step and walked down to the unknown. 

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

The Bookseller’s Cube

 

London, 2015

 

 

 

The small figure of a young girl with chestnut-brown eyes and black hair was sitting on the only chair in the long, empty corridor of Eden Park School. It was five o’clock and most of the students and teachers were gone. There were only a few doors embedded in the plain green wall of the corridor. The rooms behind the glass were wrapped in darkness, except one of them, which was next to the chair where the young girl sat. Yellow light shone through its glass. It opened and a middle-aged woman with a friendly but tired face appeared in the doorway.

      ‘Frida? Come in, please,’ she said.

      The girl got up from the chair, picked up her bag, which was lying at her feet, and walked into the room.

      The room was not big and its furnishing was simple, including a desk, two chairs and a bookshelf, all of which had the same ugly brown colour. There was a plant in a big pot at the corner of the room, which, with its drooping and dust-covered leaves, looked as tired as the woman herself.

      ‘Please sit down,’ the woman asked her and then continued, ‘I heard from Ms Girkin that you had a problem with Lucy Evans and Clara Bolton again.’

      The girl, Frida, did not reply immediately. There was a minute of silence before she said quietly, ‘They bullied Katie.’

      ‘Katie Nichols?’ asked the woman, reading the name from a piece of paper that was lying in front of her on the desk.

      Frida nodded.

      ‘What did they do?’

      ‘They took her sandwich and threw it in the bin.’

      ‘Did they say anything to her?’

      Frida nodded.

      ‘What did they say?’

      The girl hesitated but finally said, ‘They called her “piggy”. Which was very cruel of them!’

      ‘And what happened then?’

      ‘I think you know. It’s written on your paper,’ Frida pointed at the white sheet.

      The woman sighed. ‘You are right, but it’s important that I hear it from you as well. Did you have a fight with Lucy and Clara?’

      Frida nodded.

      ‘And who started it?’

      ‘They did when they took Katie’s lunch!’ cried Frida passionately. ‘They shouldn’t do things like that!’

      The teacher noticed there were some tears in Frida’s eyes and she was shivering.

      ‘Frida, I know you wanted to protect your friend, but a fight is not the right way to do that. You should have told Ms Girkin what happened instead. Please do that next time and leave it for her to do… ’ She did not know what exactly Ms Girkin would do, so she quickly added, ‘What she needs to do.’

      ‘She’s hopeless,’ murmured Frida.

      ‘What did you say?’ asked the teacher, frowning.

      ‘Yes, Mrs Adams,’ said Frida more loudly and even tried to smile. She could not wait to be out of the school.

      ‘Very well,’ said Mrs Adams, relieved and pleased with herself that she could end the meeting so quickly and successfully. ‘Now go, your mother must be waiting for you.’

      Frida left the room and ran through the empty corridor towards the school’s exit. It was Friday afternoon and light rain was drizzling from the grey sky. She pushed the heavy door handle and crossed the school garden to the gate. Walking among the bushes of yellow and white roses, Frida Doyle looked like most eleven-year-old girls. Her mother, Shanti, was indeed waiting for her at the gate. Her face looked worried as she looked at her daughter, and her fingers touched the tiny scratches on Frida’s face.

      ‘What happened?’ she asked, putting her arms around Frida, but her daughter did not reply.

      She didn’t look into her mother’s eyes and hardly spoke to her while they were walking home, but Shanti managed to find out what had happened from the few short sentences her daughter shared with her.

      ‘Oh Frida, what you did was very brave and with the best intentions, I know, but Mrs Adams was right. You should leave it for Ms Girkin or another teacher to keep the peace.’

      ‘But it never works!’ cried Frida. ‘Ms Girkin talks to them but the next day everything is the same.’

      They continued the discussion until they turned into Ermine Street. The narrow, cobbled street was lined on both sides by old Victorian houses. Number five was a big red and white brick building, standing decadently in the middle of the street. That was where Frida and Shanti had lived ever since Frida could remember. It was her grandmother’s flat, and they moved in when the old Mrs Doyle decided to leave London behind and spend her quiet days of retirement in a picturesque village in Kent. Frida was just one then, and it was soon after her father, Jack, died. She did not remember her father, but she did recall the stories her mother had told her about him and the photos she had seen of him. He was a tall man, full of life and always ready for an adventure.

      As they got closer to number five, they noticed something unusual in front of their house. A tall skinny figure, wearing an old coat and strange old-fashioned boots with spurs, was standing there reading the names of the residents at the entrance. His back was slightly hunched under a huge, peculiar, wooden cube-like object. They walked over to him.

      ‘Good afternoon. Are you looking for someone?’ Shanti asked him in a friendly voice.

      The man glanced from the names to her. His face was unshaven. ‘Good afternoon,’ he replied with a strong Scottish accent. ‘I’m looking for a gentleman called Mr Julius McMillan. I believe he lives here, but I cannot find his name on here.’ He pointed at the list of names.

‘He used to live here, but moved house a few months ago,’ said Shanti.

The stranger looked disappointed. ‘That is really unfortunate,’ he murmured. ‘You don’t happen to know his new address by any chance, do you?’ Then, seeing Shanti’s caution, he added quickly, ‘I’m a bookseller. I met this gentleman in my bookshop in Edinburgh a year ago. He was looking for a very special old book. When I finally found it for him, we agreed over the phone that I would deliver it to him the next time I came to London.’

      ‘Unfortunately, I don’t have his new address,’ Shanti said.

      ‘What a pity.’ The man sighed.

      There passed an awkward silence for a few moments.

      ‘Well, I hope you find him. Goodbye,’ said Shanti as she and her daughter walked to the entrance.

      ‘Wait!’ the bookseller’s voice stopped them.

      Shanti and Frida turned back with curiosity.

      ‘I am travelling back to the north tonight. Maybe you and the young lady would like to see the book.’

      Shanti felt sorry for the bookseller, who looked desperate. ‘What kind of book is it?’

      ‘A storybook.’ The man’s eyes lit up. ‘It’s old so a little battered on the cover, but I assure you that it’s a true rarity.’

      Shanti looked questioningly at Frida, who nodded.

      ‘Well, ok, please show us your book.’

      The bookseller took the wooden cube off his back and put it in front of them. Frida and Shanti now had the chance to take a better look at it. They could not see a door or a drawer on the cube, not even a single keyhole. It looked as if it was carved from one piece of wood. The bookseller bent over on one side, but in a way that Frida and her mother could not see exactly what he was doing. The cube then tipped onto one of its corners without anyone touching it and started spinning, faster and faster, until its outlines were blurred in a dark mass. Then it stopped suddenly. For a moment, nothing happened. The cube looked the same as before. But after a minute or two, a little click could be heard and a large green book fell out of the cube, as if it had been pushed out by a spring.

      ‘Clever thing, isn’t it?’ said the bookseller proudly. ‘It was made in Scotland. Very handy for a peddler like myself to store a library of books in.’

      He wiped the dust off the book with his jacket and held it out to Frida. The book was covered with green velvet. There were old-fashioned letters in the middle of it – Tales from Talendia – and the name of the author – A. F. Blackwood. The corners of the book were worn and grey. Frida carefully opened it and began to search for pictures, but could not find any on the big, stiff pages.

      ‘Are there any pictures in it?’ she asked the bookseller.

      ‘Unfortunately, there are none. But it won’t disappoint you,’ he said with a confident smile.

      ‘What is it about?’

      ‘I don’t think you really want me to tell you the whole story.’ The bookseller smiled mysteriously. ‘But I can tell you that you will never forget these stories. Stories of kings and queens, dragons and wizards, witches and other creatures that you have never heard of.’

      ‘Would you like it?’ Shanti asked Frida.

      Frida nodded, and the man’s face brightened.

      ‘You will not regret it!’ he assured her.

      Shanti enquired about the price, and while Frida engrossed herself in the book, the deal was done.

 

* * *

 

That evening, Frida could not wait to get into bed and discover her new treasure. Her fingers touched the velvet cover of the book and then opened it. At the top of the slightly yellowed pages appeared the title of the book again and the author’s name in quirky letters. On the next page, a short hand-written dedication: To Samuel Lucas from A. F. B.

      ‘Samuel Lucas,’ Frida whispered. ‘He must have been the first owner of the book.’

      She turned the page and read the black letters on the top. ‘Chapter One. The Road to Nowhere.’

       An hour later, she finished the chapter. The black letters seemed to dance in front of her eyes, moving slowly towards each other and merging with their shadows on the paper. She closed the book and put it onto her nightstand. As she turned off her light, the room fell into darkness. Only the round-faced moon was shining through the window, painting the toys next to the bed silver.

      Somewhere a car honked.

      A dog barked in a park.

      Frida could not sleep. Her thoughts were wandering about the book and everything she had learned about the Road to Nowhere. She wanted to know more about Samuel Lucas too. Where was he now, and why had he not kept the book?

      Finally, she yawned and closed her eyes. A few moments later, she was fast asleep. She did not see the book fall from the nightstand to the floor and open.

 

* * *

 

It was dark and quiet when Frida woke up. She’d had a nightmare that she could not remember clearly but felt relieved that it was not real. She was very thirsty, so she got up from her bed, accidentally kicking the book that was lying on the floor. She opened the door. The flat was pitch-black. She went to the kitchen and was standing in front of the open cupboard with a glass of water in her hand when she heard noises from the living room. As quietly as she could, she slipped into the hall. There was a pale blue light looming in the living room. She hid in the shadow of the door and watched, with eyes wide, at the stranger standing in the middle of the room. He was around Frida’s height and was wearing a black cloak covered by feathers. He was holding a tiny lantern in his hand, which was the only part of his body that Frida could see in the pale light; his face was hidden by the hood and his body by the strange cloak. His hand was white and warty.

      He turned to the open window where a crow had just landed. The bird had amber eyes, and Frida thought it noticed her. The crow flow into the room and, to Frida’s amazement, turned into a creature similar to the other one in the cloak. The two of them were whispering. Frida could not hear what they were saying, but she would not have understood them even if she could. When another crow appeared in the window, Frida left and ran back to her room. The best place for hiding was under the bed, she thought, so she quickly slipped under hers. She felt her heart beating fast while she was lying there motionless.

      The book, lying on the floor in front of her, opened. She saw the blue light sliding under her door. She suppressed her breath and crawled towards the wall where she noticed something strange – something she had not seen before. It was a small, rectangular door, which looked big enough for her to get through. It should lead to her mother’s room on the other side of the wall, she thought. She quietly opened it. Bright white light dazzled her for a second, so she quickly closed it. She heard whispers from her bedroom door, which slowly opened, and the three strangers sneaked in. The pale blue light illuminated Frida’s room. She knew she had no time to waste. She took a deep breath and opened the door again. She screamed as she felt cold fingers around her ankle. Yanking her foot out of the creature’s hand, she crept through the hole.

      It was not Shanti’s room on the other side of the tiny door. There was nothing there apart from the blue sky and clouds. Frida started screaming again.

 

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

The Dragon and the Witch

 

 

 

Frida woke to a gentle breeze rubbing her face. She opened her eyes and almost cried out in surprise. She was sitting on a huge book that was flying high in the sky. The quirky letters lining the white sheets were as big as Frida’s palm. She carefully stood up, but a sudden gust of wind pushed her to the edge of the book. Her feet slipped on the paper and she fell down with a scream. Fortunately, a large grey paw grabbed her foot and pulled her back just in time. As she looked into the green eyes of her saviour, she screamed again and fled to a remote part of the book. To her surprise, the monster did the same.

      ‘You frightened my dragon!’ said somebody behind her in a sharp voice.

      Frida turned around. A woman stood in front of her, dressed in a purple cloak. She had long curly brown hair and purple eyes. There was something about her that Frida could not explain – something strange and mysterious. She felt embarrassed.

      ‘My name is Frida Doyle and I did not want to scare your… err dragon. On the contrary, he scared me,’ she said shyly.

      The woman looked at her, surprised, and then started laughing. ‘Flin? Well, you must be very shy if even a dragon hatchling could scare you.’

      Frida had only now taken a look at the monster. Indeed, it was more amusing than scary as he huddled at the end of the book, obscuring his body with his small wings.

      ‘Is he real?’ she asked the woman.

      ‘Of course he is!’ the other replied.

      ‘I’ve never seen a dragon before,’ Frida said and, mesmerised, took a step closer to the animal.

      ‘Very few people get to see them nowadays. Not many of them left in the Glass Mountains,’ said the woman and then continued, ‘my name is Sidonia. I’m one of the White Witches.’

      Frida could not believe her ears. ‘Are you a witch? Really?’

      The woman nodded. ‘Why are you surprised?’

      ‘Well, I haven’t met a witch before either,’ admitted Frida.

      ‘Where are you from?’ Sidonia asked, suspiciously.

      ‘I’m from London.’

      ‘From where?’

      The witch clearly had not heard of such place. Frida looked around, but apart from the blue sky and the white clouds she couldn’t see anything.

      ‘How did I get here?’ she turned to her companion again.

Sidonia shrugged vaguely. ‘I thought you would tell me. Suddenly you fell onto the book from above.’

      Frida looked up as if she were seeking the answer in the air and suddenly she remembered. ‘There was a small door under my bed. I was hiding there from the… creatures.’

      ‘What creatures?’

      ‘Strange ones dressed in black cloaks covered by feathers. I didn’t see them clearly except their hands. They were white and warty, and I think they could turn into real birds.’

      ‘Wait a minute,’ said the witch and looked into Frida’s eyes with her purple ones. ‘Are you telling me that you got here through a door under your bed while hiding from some creatures that could turn into birds?’

      Frida nodded. She had the feeling that the witch did not believe her. ‘I know it sounds crazy, but I’m telling you the truth…’

      ‘What did they want from you?’ the witch’s voice was serious.

      ‘I don’t know!’ That was true; Frida had no idea what the strangers wanted from her.

      ‘Are you sure?’ The purple eyes were observing Frida’s face.

      ‘Yes. Do you know who they were?’

      Sidonia nodded slowly. ‘I think so. Based on your description they must have been sweaguls.’

      ‘Sweaguls? What are they?’ Frida had not heard that name before.

      ‘They are white goblins, the only goblins that know some magic and can turn into birds, lizards or bugs, usually black ones.’

      ‘How did they get into our flat and what did they want from me?’ Frida wanted answers, but the witch did not have any.

      ‘You are the only one who knows or can find out the answers to these questions.’

      But Frida had no idea how. There were many questions she did not know the answers to. What did the goblins want from her? How did they find out where she lived? How did she get here? She moved to the edge of the book and looked down, but she saw only the blue sky everywhere.

      ‘Where are we flying to?’ she asked the witch.

      ‘To Andalun.’

      ‘Is it in England?’

      ‘In England? No, it is the capital city of Talendia. I have a message for the king,’ Sidonia replied and pointed her long index finger at the horizon.

      Frida noticed that the witch’s fingertips were painted purple.

      ‘Look at the lights. Those are Andalun’s. We will be there soon.’

      Sidonia was right. It did not take long until the buildings of a city emerged from the clouds in front of their eyes. They landed in a pleasant park full of flowers and lush foliage. They left the flying book at a white marble fountain and followed a path to a small gate that led them to the city. It seemed Sidonia knew Andalun very well. She led them confidently through the alleyways and cobbled squares. The houses were built of grey stone and strange, never-seen-before plants grew in the small gardens. The next minute, Frida could not believe her eyes when she saw two centaurs – half-man, half-horse creatures – walking peacefully down the street, chatting and laughing. On their right, a two-headed lady was in deep conversation with a well-dressed otter at a dwarf’s fruit stand. Frida could hardly take her eyes off them. Sidonia suddenly stopped and observed Frida’s pyjamas.

      ‘Why are you looking at me like that?’ Frida asked.

      ‘We have to find you something… more appropriate to wear. You cannot visit the king in your nightwear.’

      Frida admitted that Sidonia was right. Her striped pyjamas did not seem to be appropriate for meeting the King of Talendia.

      ‘But where?’

      Sidonia pointed to one of the houses. ‘There.’

      The house itself was just like any other on the street, but it had a tiny bright-yellow door. Frida could not imagine how the tall and slender Sidonia would get through it, but the witch did not hesitate and confidently pushed down the door handle. The girl followed her – only the dragon hatchling stayed outside. They found themselves in a shop that was just big enough for Sidonia to stand up straight. It was stuffed with an amazing amount of objects: bottles, boxes, clothes, musical instruments, dolls and other useless things or, at least, Frida thought so. There was a very small and old woman sitting on a high chair on the other side of the counter. She had white hair and a friendly face in which her almond-shaped black eyes were shining like two diamonds. She was busy sewing the tail of a toy leopard back to its body, but when she noticed the visitors, she got up from her chair and greeted them with a smile.

      ‘Sidonia, my dear, what a nice surprise! I haven’t seen you for a long time,’ she said kindly.

      ‘Good afternoon, Neini. I haven’t been to Andalun for a couple of months otherwise I wouldn’t miss visiting you.’

      ‘I am sure you were on one of those secret missions of yours. Be careful, my dear, the world is not as safe around us as we think. But tell me, are you and your friend looking for something special?’

      ‘We need an appropriate garment for my friend. She is going to meet the king,’ Sidonia explained.

      The black eyes of the tiny old lady brightened up. ‘Oh, how wonderful! What a lucky girl you are,’ she said.

      She bypassed the counter and started searching for clothes in the piles of various things. Frida noticed that the old lady had four arms, four legs and a spider’s abdomen. As she rushed from one pile to the other, she murmured to herself. After few minutes, she finally held something up like a flag, satisfied.

      ‘These will do,’ she said, and before Frida could say anything, the four hands dressed her in a green silk robe with silver embroidery and a pair of matching trousers.

      ‘What do you think?’ the spider lady asked the witch.

      ‘Very good,’ said Sidonia. ‘How much are they?’

      ‘Twenty mankas. But she will need shoes as well,’ Neini added and pointed to Frida’s feet.

      That was true; Frida had no shoes on her tiny feet. Luckily, Neini had a solution for that as well. After another few minutes of searching, she found two pairs of red shoes.

      ‘What a pity that you have only two feet,’ she said, sighing. ‘Try these on, they should fit.’

      Frida did as the spider lady commanded. She was right, the shoes fitted her feet perfectly well.

      ‘Thirty mankas in total,’ said Neini.

      Sidonia counted the coins into one of Neini’s hands and after saying goodbye to her the witch and Frida left the shop. They turned into another street and walked up to the hill. Soon they reached an enormous gate.

      ‘Where are we?’ Frida asked.

      ‘At the gate of Orcy Castle, the residence of the King of Talendia.’

      Frida looked up at the building far above their heads. The royal palace stood proudly on a hill which rose above the city. Its massive walls and slender towers were gleaming white in the sunshine, the rays reflected on its shiny green roof. Two burly guards were watching at the gate. One of them was a centaur, the other a dwarf. Their beards were painted red and they were playing with some dice. The dwarf rolled them and exclaimed in satisfaction – he was clearly winning. The centaur growled, disappointed. They noticed the new arrivals and the dwarf got up, picked his spear up from the ground and pointed it at Sidonia.

      ‘Stop in the name of Boniface the Great!’

      The witch took a folded and sealed letter from an invisible pocket in her garment. She handed it to the dwarf, who broke the seal and ran his eyes over the lines and then passed it to his companion. He looked at the three visitors sternly.

       ’You may enter the castle,’ he said.

      ‘Open the gate!’ the centaur shouted to another guard on the other side of the gate but nothing happened. ‘Bolof, you lazy dwarf! Did you fall asleep again? Open the gate!’ he shouted and this time the chunky oak door trembled and opened for the group.

      They walked to a small octagonal square, which had coloured iron arrows in each corner, pointing towards further doors of the castle.

      ‘And now?’ Frida asked.

      Sidonia looked around. ‘I’m not sure. I haven’t used this entrance before. But there must be a sign somewhere.’

      However, they could not see any that could give them a clue to the right direction. In the middle of the square, roses, daffodils, lilies and lavenders bloomed.

      ‘Follow the pink arrow! Follow the pink one!’

      ‘What did you say?’ Sidonia asked.

      ‘Nothing,’ said Frida.

      ‘Yes, you did. You said that we should follow the pink arrow. Why is that?’

      ‘The yellow one! The yellow arrow is the right one!’

      Frida and Sidonia looked at each other. The sound definitely did not come from either of them. The girl and the witch looked around but did not see anyone apart from the dragon hatchling chasing a blue butterfly.

      ‘Shh! Shh, you there! You with the long nose!’

      ‘Me?’ Sidonia squinted at Frida suspiciously, but her mouth was closed.

      ‘Don’t worry about it, ma’am. The daffodils are notoriously rude… ’ said a voice, sighing.

      ‘The daffodils?’ Frida and Sidonia asked at the same time.

      They turned their attention to the flowers. The daffodils suddenly looked in one direction, staring with hostility towards the rose bush.

      ‘Who did you call rude? You arrogant…’ whispered the daffodils.

      The rose bush moved its branches, revealing its sharp thorns. ‘Don’t think you can scare me.’

      One rose leaned closer to Sidonia, as if it wanted to tell her a secret. ‘Choose the pink arrow. The daffodils are…unreliable.’

      ‘The purple, choose the purple one!’ sang the choir of lavenders.

      Another rose bush branch glided towards the lavenders.

      ‘What do you know, little ones?’ the rose asked them and then turned to Frida and Sidonia. ‘Don’t listen to them, they’re newcomers, planted yesterday.’

      ‘Follow the yellow arrow! Don’t listen to the roses, they can’t bear it if they’re not right.’

      ‘Come on, everyone knows that you can’t trust the daffodils… ’ replied the roses. ‘I already told you: follow the pink arrow.’

      Frida put her hands over her ears. The witch tried – unsuccessfully – to understand what the flowers were saying until a deep, rich voice ended the cacophony.

      ‘Enough of this! You are giving me a headache.’

      The voice came from the lilies. To Frida’s astonishment, the others fell silent. The small lavenders seemed to hang their heads in shame.

      ‘Ah, that’s better.’ The lilies turned to Frida. ‘Where are you going?’

      ‘To the throne room,’ replied Frida.

      ‘It’s easy then. The red arrow shows the way there.’

      ‘Ooooh,’ sang the choir of lavenders.

      The daffodils shook their heads and the roses pretended to turn all their attention to the bees that were flying around them. 

      They said thank you to the lilies and followed the red arrow to a door. When they entered, they found themselves standing in the middle of a long corridor.

      ‘I remember this corridor leads to the throne room,’ Sidonia said, but then, to Frida’s surprise, headed in the opposite direction.

      ‘Aren’t we going there?’ Frida asked, confused.

      Sidonia shook her head while looking for something among the paintings of long-bearded kings and beautifully dressed queens on the wall.

      ‘No. I need to talk to the king alone,’ she replied. ‘It would be impossible to do so in the throne room where he’s surrounded by a horde of courtiers.’

      She placed her hands on the wall and whispered, ‘Meremis forcaster dur!’ Her eyes searched the wall until she exclaimed, satisfied, ‘Here it is!’

      The outlines of a door loomed in green a few steps away from them.

      ‘Where does it lead?’ asked Frida.

      ‘To the chamber of the king,’ said Sidonia with a smile and gently pushed the stones in the doorway to reveal a dark hole in front of them.

      ‘Are you ready?’ the White Witch asked Frida and put her foot in the hole.

                Flin was behind her. Frida nodded and took a deep breath before she followed them.

© 2016 by A. E. Colmer. 

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