By Kevin McFarlane
“We can’t go back there, Missy. They’ll kill us.”
“Then we’ve got to find somewhere to hide. I can’t run any more.”
“It’s just a little further. You can make it, girl.”
Missy tried. She really did. For Charlie’s sake, she urged herself forward and managed to convince her legs to keep pumping despite the stabbing throb biting into her calves.
From around the corner, the sounds of pounding feet and angry voices. Oh no, the mob had followed them into the darkened alleyway.
Charlie was suddenly next to her, panting, his stale breath blowing against her face.
“C’mon, we have to move.”
“No, Charlie. I’m not running anymore.”
Taking her by the shoulders, Charlie tried to pull her forward. Stubbornly, Missy sank to the ground, unwilling to be moved.
“I don’t care anymore, Charlie. They can have me. I’m so sick of running.” Tears blurred the thick darkness of the alley but she quickly wiped them away with the ragged material of her sweater before Charlie could see.
“Don’t do this, Missy. Not now.” Charlie bent down to try and get her back on her feet.
Focusing herself, Missy let her energy seep into the damp cobblestone beneath her, refusing to budge against Charlie’s frantic tugging. No matter how hard he pulled, she was firmly anchored and couldn’t be moved, not unless he came up with a counter spell which he wouldn’t have time to think of. The mob was almost upon them, would probably stampede right over them in the darkness.
Missy didn’t care. She was content to stay right where she was.
“We’ll find you another doll,” Charlie begged her. “There’s got to be another one around.”
“It’s not about the stupid doll,” Missy screamed back. She let the tears come now, hoping their presence would hurt Charlie and send him running. She’d decided her own fate, she wouldn’t be held responsible for condemning Charlie to his.
The mob heard her scream and rushed forward in a terrible charge of insults and curses. A snarling pack of wolves having cornered their prey, Missy was sickened by their frenzied grunts and brutish shrieks. She was also saddened this was the way she’d chosen to die.
Swarming over them, the mob pulled Charlie from her side, leaving her vulnerable to the flailing fists, stinging sticks, and anything else they could use to strike her down. Missy was knocked flat and then finally, thankfully, she was hit solidly across the back of her head and the pain instantly vanished. Drifting down into the blackness, Missy hoped against hope that Charlie had somehow managed to get away.
Missy awoke with a terrible throbbing in her head. Rattling metal echoed hollowly as she reached up to check the sore spot. Her hair was matted and tangled near the back.
Reaching up further, she discovered a cold steel plate covering her face. Chains buckled her feet, she realized when she tried to get up, bolting her to the ground tightly by the ankles. The chains at her arms were a little more slack. Beneath her, hard concrete.
A prison then.
They hadn’t killed her.
Getting her eyes open proved a difficult task. They were puffy and caked with a pus-y goo beneath the heavy metal plate covering her face, but with a patient, determined effort she managed to work one eyelid free.
Missy screamed against the bubbling pit of panic when she realized she couldn’t see. She clawed at the blinding mask, desperately pulled and tugged with shaking fingers that couldn’t locate the latches holding it in place. She couldn’t find where it was attached, knew only that it seemed perfectly molded to her face. A shivering fit of claustrophobic fear gripped her as she tried banging her head off the floor to smash it but only succeeded in deepening the throb in her head before finally falling in an exhausted, blubbering heap.
She was to be an animal. Caged. Chained. Left to suffer.
“Charlie,” she called out. The sound was muffled by the mask. “Charlie?”
No answer. The only thing she could hear was the ringing of her own voice off the metal mask. She would never get to see her brother again. Missy’s misery ran deep knowing that he too was locked away where he would never be found. That it was her fault.
They would have escaped. Charlie had almost found their way out but she had given up and now because of her, King Reginald’s men would have locked him in a dark, lonely room, leaving Charlie with his worry.
Oh, how Charlie would fret and stew. Not for himself, her brother would bravely face whatever the King decreed to be his punishment without a moment of concern, instead saving his worry for what was in store for Missy.
She did her best to calm herself. Closing her eyes, she pushed her fear and anxiety into the darkness of the mask, using its force to find the bolted clasps. She let her anger at the men who’d chased them fester and simmer, and then used its power to snap the metal. The mask clattered to the floor in a smoldering heap. Missy opened her eyes.
Fear was no stranger to Missy. She hated spiders, frogs and snakes. A bird of any kind would send her screeching hysterically but there had never been a point in her life when she’d come up against anything to prepare her for the terror which met her eyes as they adjusted to the gloomy cell.
What little light there was, drifted in from the torches on the walls outside. Each corner was filled with shadows and ill-defined, the ceiling seemed to expand all the way to the sky. The cell was dark but enough light filtered in for her to see the two beds, set side by side just inside the door.
Missy bit back on a terrified cry. On each bed, a corpse. No longer human in form, the brittle bones caked with grime and dust, Missy understood who they were and why they had locked her up here.
A once proud couple, bred strongly in the Arts, King Reginald had singled them out and caged them away as an example for any who might dare denounce his claim to the throne and follow them instead.
Her parents. Missy hadn’t even known them. She and Charlie had been sent to live with their uncle in the country and they’d grown up on his farm. When they’d become too much for him to handle, Charlie had brought her to the city and looked after her ever since.
She had no memory of them and yet was sure it must be her parents, left as the final insult what she and Charlie represented. A dying breed.
Had Charlie known this was where they were being kept? Missy wondered. They had been working at various street jobs since their arrival, always finding something closer to the palace.
Ignoring the rotted bodies on the bed, Missy called on the spirits of her parents to help guide her to safety. A rustling wind blew through the dark prison, prickling the hairs on her arms. Missy stilled her fear as the air grew heavy around her, concentrated so hard little black spots exploded across her vision as the corpse nearest her began to rattle.
Re-animated by powers too complex for Missy’s young mind to comprehend, the skeleton sat up with a creaky grating that echoed off the walls and sent a shiver running down her back. Loose strings of petrified sinew and muscle ripped off and splattered to the ground as bone legs swung over the side of the bed, pointy-tipped toes scratched across the stone floor as Missy’s long dead mother pulled herself upright and came for her.
Missy’s breath came in a rapid gasping pant that stretched out the black spots and threatened to unbuckle her legs. She couldn’t restrain the helpless whimper when pitch-forked arms reached out. This was her mother, the rattling pile of bones still held her spirit and Missy knew it wouldn’t harm her, but still she wished for Charlie to protect her. He always had, no matter his own sacrifice.
Icy cold fingers reached out to brush her cheek. If Missy hadn’t been chained, she would have swatted the hand away. But, she was stuck, helpless to do anything but squeeze her eyes shut against the horrible touch. She could feel death behind the fingers, an empty space she wasn’t sure she could tame.
Missy believed she was ready for death. To finally give up her struggle and join her mother and father in the great beyond. Charlie would eventually adjust, would probably be better off without her tagging along and slowing him down.
A single touch from her mother proved how wrong Missy was. She wasn’t ready, not even remotely prepared. Her brother needed her, but more importantly, Missy understood with that single touch that the world beyond this one was a vast and wondrous place and she hadn’t yet spent enough time in this world to be able to understand the next.
Not yet, but one day, her mother promised without having to speak, her vocal chords long ago eroded away. They were still able to communicate. All Missy had to do was close her eyes and the message was clear.
The air around her sizzled with an electric charge. Blue sparks, like neon fireflies, flitted about in a crazy dance. The cell filled with the energy as the blue sparks whipped around her faster and faster until it seemed as though she were complete encircled in the brilliant blue light.
Her mother’s sightless sockets watched her intently as one by one the spiraling lights began to burn out. She offered Missy her strength and a life times worth of courage to hold still. If she flinched now she could be badly burned. A single movement and the spell would be broken.
Missy held perfectly still until the last flicker burned out. Her mother reached out to her. Missy took the bony hand and ignored the frigid vibrations that covered her arms in gooseflesh. As their hands clamped together, the chains fell to the floor with an angry clatter. Missy embraced the spirit of her mother and gave a brief prayer of thanks. The last of it fell on deaf ears as the corpse collapsed into her arms before crumbling into a dusty heap. Her spirit was gone.
Time slowed, despite her heart pounding a double-time beat that threatened to push it through her chest. She was sure she would be discovered, sentenced to death on the spot. If they couldn’t contain her, they would certainly find a more permanent means of dealing with her. Public contamination was at stake, if she was allowed to get out and infect more people, there might not be any stop to the spread of the disease.
No lock secured the door to her prison, the guards had obviously been assured the magic bindings would hold her. The old hinges screeched as she swung the metal bars open. Quickly, she darted into a corner, behind a statue of King Reginald. Holding her breath, listening, she waited for the footsteps to come rushing in and discovery her gone.
None of them understood that the magic she possessed was a birth-rite, imprinted into her by her parents. She couldn’t give her gift to anyone else, even if she wanted to.
Many times she’d wished she could. All Missy really wanted was to be like the other kids. To enjoy a normal life and not be forced to hide from the ignorance that hunted her.
She and Charlie had managed to hide their differences for awhile, would have been able to continue to live peacefully within the city if not for the incident.
Stupid. There were hundreds of dolls in the city for sale, why had she clung so stubbornly to that particular one?
Because, it was the only memory she had left of her parents. Missy’s mother had made the doll for her just before they’d gone to the farm. Ragged and dirty, the stitching frayed at the neck, loose stuffing falling out, Missy didn’t figure anyone else could want it but her.
Still, she’d guarded it with diligent care, protectively carrying wherever they went despite
Charlie’s constant scolding. Eventually he would give in and let her bring it if she pouted long enough.
When she was sure no one was coming, Missy peeked around the statue, and seeing the coast was clear, bolted down the long tunnel and past the other cells with a quick glance for Charlie. He wasn’t in this wing of the prison.
At the end of the tunnel, a short set of stairs led to a thick wooden door. The door was barred by a wooden plank from the other side. A long staircase wound back above ground just beyond.
The bully who grabbed the doll had been pestering them for a couple of weeks, following along behind and showing up at each new job. When he’d snatched the doll right out of her hands, she was so surprised she’d responded in anger.
Charlie had been right there at the sound of her shouts, ready to protect her. The bully wouldn’t give the doll back. A fight ensued.
The boy was much bigger than Charlie but her brother refused to back away, even when he was clearly beaten.
Instead, he’d unleashed a nasty confusion spell that sent the boy howling down the street, loudly yelling about the witchcraft afoot in their streets. A mob quickly assembled and before she’d known what was happening, they were chased through the streets. They might even have gotten away if Missy hadn’t given up.
Getting the door open proved an easy task. Beside the door, coiled over a wooden peg was a leather whip. Beside this, a metal hook Missy figured must be the guard’s spare for his missing hand. Using them together, she was able to pull the board free.
Out the door and up the steps, quickly and quietly. At the top, just around the final bend, Missy stopped short at the sound of approaching voices. Hastily, she went back down to the bottom of the stairs and quickly replaced the board. Sliding around against the wall, out of sight, daring not even to blink, Missy pushed herself up against the stone, wishing it would swallow her up, absorb her, make her disappear. She squeezed her eyes tight at the sound of descending footsteps and prayed.
Once more, dear Lord, find it in your will to delivery me safely.
“That was a nice touch, putting her in the same cell as her parents. Pity she won’t get a chance to appreciate it.”
“The sooner we get rid of her the better I’ll feel. Imagine having a couple witches right under our noses.”
“The captain of the guard won’t see daylight for at least...” and then the board was pulled away and they were through the door.
Missy sprang from her hiding spot, grabbed the board and put it back in place. She would have to hurry, it would only be moments now until they were at her cell and realized she was gone. She raced back up the steps and into a richly decorated corridor. She sprinted the length without a glance back at the surprised guests and couriers of the King she passed, through another set of doors and then to a staircase.
The King’s priests would have warned against the dangers of imprisoning the two siblings too close together and so it made sense they were keeping him at the farthest possible point. That had to mean Charlie was in the tower.
The entire palace was a continual maze of staircases and hallways. One led to the next in a dizzying array of familiarity that had Missy convinced she wasn’t making any progress. She’d been down this hall before, taken a wrong turn, always certain the palace guard was only a step behind. They were undoubtedly searching for her now, probably amassing at the tower’s entrance awaiting her arrival.
A terrace presented itself, a long stretch of molded stone leading to the tower. The guards she’d expected to be waiting weren’t to be found and she made it across undetected. That King Reginald hadn’t even bothered to post guards to prevent a chance to escape proved his total disdain toward their kind and his arrogance in thinking he could control them.
The door wouldn’t budge against her weight. Looking down, Missy was horrified to discover a lock barring the door tight.
A key would be needed to get inside. Only, Charlie was the lock-pick. In fact, he’d become quite proficient in the skill. It came in handy when in search of a dry spot to sleep.
On the other hand, Missy knew nothing of how to get the bolt unlatched. Using her magic again so soon would be dangerous. Summoning her parents had almost drained her completely, and she knew she’d need to save at least a little bit for when she found Charlie.
A quick glance back over her shoulder showed a commotion from within the palace. Through the long, high-cut windows of one of the front halls she could see the troops assembling. She struggled with the lock, tried to force it open. The metal was so thick not even a frustrated boot could pry it open.
“Charlie!” she screamed. “Charlie, can you hear me?”
The answer was immediate but faint. “Missy? Is it really you?” Charlie’s voice was weak, beaten.
“There’s a lock on the door and I can’t get it open.”
“Use your magic. You can do it, I know you can.” The words were strained, as if he were biting back on an incredible amount of pain with each word.
The rush of boots from the end of the terrace alerted her to the approaching guard. A full battalion, carrying gleaming swords, rushed out to cut off their escape path.
Looking up, she saw a midnight-black raven hop onto the barred windowsill. The bird let out a mighty squawk as it launched itself into the air. A massive wingspan fanned out, caught the current, and descended to the railing. Penetrating black eyes urged her to hurry up with her transformation.
Morphing into a bird had been Charlie’s most logical choice. On the verge of panic, she tried to tame the paralysing fear of her feathered sibling. Charlie was beneath all those feathers. Her brother. Harmless, faithful Charlie.
The guards advance was slow and calculated. They realized there was no where else to run. The balcony was too high to even consider jumping. If she couldn’t make the change, and do it quickly, Missy would end up being the cause of their capture once again.
Her problem was she hadn’t quite mastered the art of morphing. It took patience and a strength that usually took a couple of days to prepare. Expecting her to switch right here on the spot was asking a little much.
“Go on,” she said. “You can come back for me later.”
The raven’s head bobbed from side to side and screeched in disapproval. It ran half way up the railing, toward the guards. The heavily armed battalion pulled up short and warily eyed the bird. The first in line broke away from the group and rushed the raven, sword swung high in the air and with a warrior’s cry. The heavy steel blade cut through the air, sending the bird to flight with an angry squawk.
“Don’t hurt him! Just leave him alone. Please!” Missy was about to run to her brother’s aide when she heard the metal clink of the lock hitting the stone. The door opened a crack. Charlie reached around and pulled her inside.
A bolt on the inside of the door provided little security. They were now trapped inside the tower.
“I thought it was you out there,” Missy cried, hugging her brother.
Charlie cringed against the embrace and clutched at his side. “I barely had enough left to conjure the bird. Quickly, up the stairs.”
“But where we will go, Charlie?”
“There’s no time. Our decoy won’t hold their attention much longer.”
At the top of the stairs Missy had a chance to get a better look at her brother. Downstairs, she’d been too frantic to notice how badly he’d been beaten. Long, nasty slashes covered both his arms and ran along his back. A cut above his eyebrow oozed blood over his swollen eye. His entire face was puffy, blue and black. Each step caused him to wince.
“Charlie, what are we going to do?”
Looking through the window, Missy could see the guards had advanced to the doorway. They were still busy with the bird, trying to swat it down as it continually swooped down to pester their heads. A blade sliced through the air, just missing the raven’s wing.
Hammering against the door echoed up the stairwell. Frantically, they searched the room for a place to hide. There was nothing, just chains bolted to the wall, a wooden cot with no mattress, two barred windows overlooking the courtyard, and a pile of hay. Charlie went to the hay and shoved his hand inside.
A doll appeared. Her doll.
“Charlie! Where did you find it?”
“The boy who stole it gave it to the guard. King Reginald thought it would be fitting for you to have it when we went up against the Commission. Guess we won’t have to worry about that now.”
She took her treasured doll close to her chest and held it tightly. The pounding at the door seemed to vanish, the angry voices of the soldiers still chasing the bird washed away in a moment of pure joy. Missy hugged the doll and then her brother, too tightly, for he backed off with a groan.
“We’ll have to hurry. The door won’t hold them much longer. There will only be one chance so you have to concentrate, Missy.”
“The doll, Missy. You can hide inside the doll.”
“What about you? Where will you hide?”
“I haven’t enough strength left. Please don’t argue, Missy. Just get that look off your face and help me.”
Missy helped Charlie to his knees and then sat opposite him. Their eyes locked. A simmering energy filled the room, an ancient power running so deep it was the very fabric from which all life emerged. A dangerous source, taking many lifetimes to master, and yet the two had been through so much together, seen so many terrible and wonderful things, they shared a bond almost as strong. Together, they shaped the flow of energy to their will. As one, they prayed for deliverance from the dangers. Missy felt herself being summoned from her body. A brilliantly cascading, ever-flowing light drew her into its depths, accepting her spirit into the stream of life. Missy was floating, falling, totally free.
The sensation didn’t last as long as she would have liked. She closed her eyes, letting the energy consume her and when she opened them again she was staring up from the floor and unable to move. Charlie collapsed, his final breath saved for a triumphant smile.
And then he was gone. Missy was saddened for the loss of her brother but knew he would be well looked over. He’d been ready to join their parents, had learned what he needed to advance to the next stage of his being. Missy would follow. When the time was right.
The guards finally broke down the door and rushed the room. All they found were Charlie’s body and a doll. The boy had obviously used his witchcraft to help his sister escape as his final act.
The doll was taken by one of the guards as they went to report to King Reginald. He, of course, was disappointed his public execution was to be spoiled but more and more of these witches were turning up all over the countryside. It wouldn’t be long before another was caught. After a thorough inspection by the High Priest, the doll was deemed harmless and returned to the guard, who brought it home for his little girl.
Missy was given a grand spot amongst many other stuffed animals and dolls. Her new owner had tea parties and sleep-overs, and it was almost like Missy had been granted her wish of a normal childhood. Well, almost.
And one day she might even figure out a way to return to human form.
For now she had all the time in the world to learn the patience it would take.
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