*For the previous chapters, please go here. These are posted first draft, as the brain dictates to the fingers which are remarkably stupid. Also there will be inconsistencies because until September or so, the timing on these is wonky, and I’ll forget stuff between posts. Eventually it will be cleaned up and fixed just before page is made secret/taken down and the book is published. At that time I will take lists of typos or volunteers to proof read. For now, it’s written in a hurry, usually an hour before it goes up. And, let me remind you, it’s free – SAH*
The Morning After
Al woke up grumpy. Before she left her room in the morning, she looked inn the packet Geoffrey had given her, which was supposed to protect her virtue, and found five seeds. She couldn’t sense any magic from them and wondered if they were the kind of joke that Geoffrey used to play on her when they were both much younger.
But he had seemed so serious–
Shaking her head, she dressed in the gown she’d been given at the Darkwater townhouse and then, on a whim, rummaged at the bottom of the wardrobe till she found a sack, into which she put a male suit of clothing which was hanging in the wardrobe, plus two additional pairs of trousers.
She had no idea what a magical road of challenges would entail, but her time with Michael had taught her that she was as likely as not to end up soaked or in torn clothes. And besides, Michael wasn’t any better at staying clean and dry shod. And one of the few things mama had said that rang true to Al’s experience was that one always felt better for having her feet dry and clean clothes on. Besides, there was just so much more freedom of movement to male clothing.
The thought that perhaps Geoffrey would object to her carrying the bag worried her, until she realized that likely Father would want to be in human form to give them instructions, and therefore Geoffrey would of necessity be a swan.
She would never have wished such a curse on her brothers — only perhaps when they were tossing her dolly above the height she could reach, once or twice, but they weren’t wont to do it to often — but since it had happened, Al had to admit it was rather more convenient to have her brother only capable of trumpeting and not of speaking. Trumpeting was much easier to ignore.
But all the same, and though she was right about Papa being the one in human form, it was a very strange breakfast.
Having left the room, shortly after daybreak, fully prepared to throw a fire ball at Papa’s nose — she must be a most unnatural daughter, for the idea didn’t disturb her at all — she was comforted by finding Michael waiting for her in the hallway. All else being the same she was far more likely to be able to fend off a werewolf with his help, and she could tell by his smile that he was similarly relieved. But neither mentioned the possibility of this cloudless morning offering an incidence of werewolves.
At any rate, they heard Papa call out almost immediately, “Good morning,” and they came down the stairs at a trot, and sat at the dining table, which was set with all the essentials of an elaborate breakfast, from kidneys to stewed fish.
Al, who woke slowly and was never enthusiastic about breakfast, had poured herself tea, and observed that Michael took only toast, butter, and tea.
Not sure about the protocol of this whole quest, she wondered if they’d regret not having food later. They should perhaps ask for a picnic basket.
“I presume,” Papa said, in the sort of voice older men used when they were sure they were stating the obvious, even though it might only be obvious to them, “that you know the rules of a magical path, Lord Michael.”
Michael had to his credit, taken a moment to answer, and then answered with perfect equanimity, “Not as such, no.”
Albinia could have sank. Where had Papa come by the idea that such arcane knowledge was common. And yet he looked surprised at the response.
He opened his mouth, closed it, then looked about to speak, when he instead hiccuped in a most appalling way.
Lord Michael raised his eyebrows. “Voles?”
“No… a…. a chicken.”
And if at that moment Geoffrey hadn’t come down the stairs trumpeting indignantly, Albinia would have run screaming out the door. But Geoffrey didn’t seem to be what Papa was referring to as a chicken. However, well, she had other brothers who were missing, so she asked, in a demanding voice, “Are chickens part of the design of this world?”
At this point papa had frowned, then shaken his head. “No. I have wondered if it was an intrusion by your mama.”
Albinia didn’t know if he meant her mama was the chicken — why would she be? but then hadn’t the boys turned to swans here? — of if he meant mama had sent a chicken, which was probably no more insane than the other thought. Instead of asking, she took advantage of dad pouring himself a large cup of tea, while Geoffrey trumpeted insistently at him, to take five slices of cake onto her plate. And then, while Lord Michael watched her with fascinated gazed, and Papa and Geoffrey held an argument that presupposed papa could understand the trumpeting as words, Albinia wrapped the cake in a napkin and dropped it into her sack. She was amazed, but gratified by seeing Michael’s lips curl up in a smile.
Papa and Geoff kept arguing.
“Of course I will give them all the instructions.”
“I don’t know what you mean by that, I am not either a head in the clouds academician with no understanding for other people’s limited knowledge.”
“Honestly, it’s like someone else taught you magic. I mean, if I didn’t teach you, who did?”
Al saw Michael raise his eyebrows, just before he pushed a small bundle towards her. It was a napkin, and from the feel of it it was filled with some boiled eggs and apples. She grinned back and secreted the food in her bag.
She didn’t know why not ask for a picnic basket, except of course, she had a feeling she shouldn’t. And having lived with mother a long time, she was somewhat respectful of her own feelings in this.
And then Papa answered one of Geoff’s protests with, “But he has spent time in fairyland.”
“I remember nothing of it,” Michael said, definitely.
“Oh. Well, then,” Papa said. “The truth of the magical path is this: we don’t know what this particular one will be, nor what it will consist of. We cannot, since the challenge was set by my lady wife, and presumably altered, consciously or not by each of my sons as they walked it, but I do know that everything you do on the magical path has a reward or a punishment.”
Geoff made an annoyed sound.
“So, much like real life sir?” Michael asked.
Papa glared. “Well, I suppose so, except that….” He paused. “Except that everything you do will be returned to you a hundred fold.”
“I see, sir,” Michael said. And getting up went to the buffet where some additional dishes were laid out. Since Al hadn’t seen him eat much, she wondered what he was doing until, on passing casually by her sack on his way to his seat with a different kind of cake on his plate, he dropped five candles in her bag. Looking at the sideboard she realized the silver chandeliers were now bare. She also realized they’d never get away with this if Geoff weren’t distracting Papa, and wondered if he were doing it on purpose.
“So, don’t kill anyone or anything unless you absolutely have to,” Papa said. “And try to help anyone you meet.”
“Very well, sir.”
Albinia had no idea what Michael passed her during the next round of squabbling between her brother and father, except that it was very large and wrapped in two napkins.
“And stay alert for intrusions. That chicken means my lady wife is up to something.”
Which Al would take to mean that the chicken wasn’t mama. Maybe.
Lord Michael stood up, “I believe we must go now, sir,” he said. “The sooner we go, the sooner we’ll return.
They headed out the back door, and there was a gate at the end of the garden and a clear path through the woods.
At the gate Papa wished them the best of luck, and Geoff trumpeted something that Albinia wished she could understand. She bent down and kissed the swan’s head, “You take good care of Papa, and thank you. We’ll come back soon and restore you.”
His trumpeting was the sort of half-embarrassed thank you of an older brother who did not wish to be beholden.
And then they opened the gate and stepped through. All of a sudden they were in the middle of an impenetrable forest. There were trees in every direction save for a path that led into the deeper darkness ahead.
Somewhere nearby a baby was crying.