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|A wizard is cursed to remain locked in his tower forever unless someone can correctly pronounce his name.||
Three small figures huddled against the west wall, where the warm morning sun had dried the stone. The sound of carefree young voices and a faint skritching noise wafted across the empty courtyard, the only sound in the morning stillness. A door creaked suddenly and instantly the chatter stopped. Three pale, anxious faces turned to look in the direction of the noise, but it was only Elina. She had obviously seen them from one of the upstairs windows, because she carried a wooden bucket sloshing with soapy water in one hand and a bundle of dirty rags in the other. The young girl scurried towards them, skipping deftly around the puddles which were scattered like pieces of a broken mirror across the courtyard.
“Oh, Telly, what are you doing?!” Elina gasped in horror as she reached them; plunging one of the rags into the bucket, she started scrubbing furiously at the black marks on the wall in front of them. “I- I were only teachin’ them to write,” the one called Telly stammered, frightened by the look of near panic on the older girl’s face. Elina looked down at the two smallest children, who were aged five and three and staring up at her with wide, clear eyes. She sighed in exasperation. She felt sorry for them, and for Telly who was trying to do something good, but she didn’t want them to get into trouble.
“I know,” she said, more sympathetically this time, “but you know we’re not allowed to write. And especially not on the walls! If Ma’am Mem sees this....”
At the mention of this name, Telly’s bottom lip began to quiver, and she started wringing the sleeve of her filthy, ragged dress. “What will she do, ‘Lina?” Her voice sounded frightened and slightly breathless, as if she was hardly daring to imagine what terrible fate would await them. “Will we be in trouble?”
“No, it’s all right, you’re not going to get into trouble.” Elina pressed a rag into the girl’s grubby hand. “If we clean this up before she gets back, she’ll never know.”
The girls took to the wall; scrubbing at the offensive black marks industriously. The two younger ones had gone silent. Sensing that something was wrong, they tried to help by brushing at the marks with their hands. They had barely removed half the graffiti, however, when a faint sound came to them, echoing through the early morning mist. Both of them froze at the same time, listening. They stood crouched against the beaming wall, motionless, like mice huddled behind the kitchen cabinet as they sense a cat approaching.
The sound became clearer. It was now unmistakable. The sound of steady hoofbeats on the hard-packed road beyond the courtyard wall.
Elina and Telly looked at each other with wide eyes. “It’s Ma’am Mem!” Elina whispered. “She’s returned! Hurry!” They scrubbed at the wall frantically, desperately trying to erase the graffiti before the hoofbeats entered the courtyard. Elina could hear the jingle of the harness and the rattle of the wheels now. She looked helplessly at the wall before her. Their efforts seemed only to have smeared the black further around. A horrible, heavy feeling settled in the pit of her stomach. They were never going to clean this up in time.
She grabbed the sodden rag out of Telly’s hands. “Take Meg and Tyne and go inside, quickly!”
Telly just stared at her, her face flushed and her eyes gleaming with the beginning of tears. “Quickly!” Elina pleaded, feeling like crying herself. “She’ll be here any minute!”
Telly did as she was told. Taking the little ones by the hand, she started to move away, then stopped and looked back at her friend. “Go! I’ll be right behind you!” Telly bit her lip and then the three of them hurried barefoot across the courtyard.
Elina watched them until they had disappeared inside the doors. The sound of the approaching carriage was ominously loud now. She turned back to the wall and began rubbing at it again, albeit half-heartedly this time. She knew it was far too late.
The clattering hoofbeats slowed and then stopped. Elina heard the clunking of a heavy chain and a metallic squeal as the huge, black, wrought iron gates were unlocked and opened. Then the hoofbeats started again and the carriage rolled into the courtyard.
Elina stared at her own shadow on the wall. Her heart felt as though it was stuck in the back of her throat. The east sun blazing over the far wall stung the back of her head as if someone was holding a red hot poker against it. Maybe she won’t notice, Elina prayed, listening to the horses splash through the puddles. She squeezed the rag in her hands until black, chilly water trickled down her arm. Madam Mem notices everything.
A loud shout suddenly pierced the stillness, and it was all Elina could do to keep from cringing. Behind her, the carriage rattled to a halt.
Elina’s heart was beating very fast. She started scrubbing at the wall again. She had been caught. The only thing to do was hope that Madam Mem was in a good mood, so that perhaps her punishment might be slightly more lenient.
She tried to concentrate on cleaning the wall, tried to block out the sounds of the carriage door opening; the flop of a carpet being rolled out.
“You there, girl!” The sharp voice sliced through the morning air like a sliver of icicle falling from a tree branch. Elina jumped despite herself. “What are you doing?”
“Scrubbing the wall, Ma’am.” Elina replied, not daring to look up.
She could hear shuffling footsteps behind her now. “I can see that, girl!” Mem snapped, her voice bouncing off the courtyard walls. Elina felt herself pushed roughly aside. Madam Mem stood there. The black smears on the wall looked even more defined in her huge shadow. Elina looked down at the rag in her small, pale hands, and bit her lip, and waited.
“What have I told you about writing?” Madam Mem sounded as though she was speaking through clenched teeth.
“We’re not to write, Ma’am,” Elina replied in a small voice.
“What have I told you about drawing on the walls?”
“We’re not to draw on the walls, Ma’am.”
“Then WHAT, you little WRETCH, is THIS?!” Mem shouted, gesturing at the graffiti.
Elina bit her lip harder to stop the tears from spilling out of her eyes. For a moment she couldn’t seem to speak. The words got stuck halfway up her throat. “I, I’m sorry, Ma’am,” she stammered finally.
“SORRY?!” Mem grabbed Elina’s chin with one pudgy, ring-choked hand and forced the girl to look at her. The mass of heavily jewelled bracelets dangling from her wrist jangled with the movement. “SORRY?!” she repeated. Her black, heavily mascared eyes bored into Elina’s amber ones. Her fat fingers gouged painfully into Elina’s cheek. Terror was the only thing keeping Elina from crying. “Well,” Mem spat, her voice lowered but no less venomous. “Since you seem to have taken a favour to cleaning, you will continue to clean up this abomination, and you will clean the entire wall. And when you have finished-” she pointed at the adjacent wall “-you will clean THIS wall. And when you have finished, you will clean THAT wall. And THAT wall.” She looked back down at Elina. “Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Elina whispered.
Madam Mem continued to glare at Elina for a few seconds, then pushed her cruelly away and shuffled back off along the red carpet which had been laid down over the wet ground. As she went, the edge of her fur-lined cloak brushed a puddle. Madam Mem made a noise that sounded remarkably like an angry pig, and slapped the footman across the face. The footman, seeming not to have noticed the slap at all, rolled up the carpet and leapt onto the back of the carriage as it clattered across the courtyard to the stables.
When she was sure the carriage was out of sight, Elina paused from her scrubbing and looked around the huge, empty courtyard with a heavy heart. Never had those dreary grey walls looked so large, nor so grimy, as they did that day.
Elina’s punishment took her the rest of the day to complete, and well into the night. It rained again, around dinner time, but Elina did not dare stop, knowing that Madam Mem would be watching her from the golden square on the top story. Even when the last lamp had long since flickered out, and Elina could barely see - or feel - her own hands in the damp, freezing gloom - still she scrubbed, fearing that Madam Mem would be standing up there in the darkness, watching her.
In the deep, early hours of the morning Elina finished at last, and made her way, drenched and shivering and very hungry, up to her dormitory. She dressed for bed with fingers that refused to work, crawled under the scratchy covers, and fell instantly asleep.
That night, Elina had the same dream she had had every night, for as long as she could remember. A handsome prince would slip into the orphanage in the dead of night, creep up to her dormitory, and steal her away. They would ride together on a horse the colour of moonlight to a wondrous, beautiful tower in the middle of the forest, and she would never see the hated orphanage again for as long as she lived.
But always, always, she opened her eyes in the morning not to the dazzling prismatic colours of sunlight streaming through a stained glass window; but to three hard, black horizontal shadows stretched across her bed.
The orphanage was run by Madam Mem and Count Geryl. Elina had never known her parents. These grey, cracking walls were the only walls she had ever known, and Madam Mem and Count Geryl and their footmen the only adults she had ever seen. No-one ever came to the orphanage. The children were never allowed outside its walls except to forage for food, and strict rules applied to this activity. When children reached the age of twelve, Madam Mem would take them out in her black carriage, but none of them ever came back.
The children did not often see Count Geryl. He was a tall, gaunt man, with impeccably neat silver hair and an impeccably neat black moustache. Grey skin covered a skeletal face, into which was set two cold, grey eyes like icy stones. The mere sight of him struck terror into their hearts. He detested children even more than Madam Mem did. All of the older children did whatever they possibly could to avoid having to pass him in the corridors. His favourite pastime was tripping up the serving maids, and thwacking children across the hands or the backs of their legs with his cane, for no reason other than to see them cry.
A week after the incident with the wall, Elina was scrubbing the third-story corridor outside Madam Mem’s chambers, when she heard shouting from within. The girl who was on serving-duty had entered only moments earlier. It seemed that Madam Mem was dissatisfied with her meal yet again. The shouting went on for some time. Then suddenly there was a loud crash; the shouting increased to a scream, and a few seconds later the door burst open and the serving girl rushed out, past a startled Elina and away down the corridor, sobbing and clutching the side of her face.
Through the open door, Elina could see a tray and pieces of broken crockery and food scattered across the floor. She could also see Madam Mem, her chubby face crimson with rage. Elina hastily turned her attention back to the floor, not wishing to share the same fate as the poor serving girl.
“Why is it that these miserable little creatures are unable to put together a simple meal?” Mem bellowed. Elina kept her eyes firmly downwards.
“They do it just to defy you, I am certain,” came the cold voice of Count Geryl, who was obviously in the room with her.
“We shall see about that,” said Mem angrily. “Punishment for incompetent cooks has been raised to five lashings. Find whoever was on foraging duty today and give them ten.”
“With pleasure, Madam.”
There was a brief, yet deep pause in which the only sound was the faint scuffing of Elina’s cloth on the floorboards.
Elina’s heart almost jumped out of her chest. She looked up very nervously. Madam Mem swept forward to stand in the doorway. “Ma’am?”
“You are now on foraging duty, starting from tomorrow.”
Elina did her utmost to look as horrified and disappointed as she possibly could. “Y-yes Ma’am,” she replied, purposefully stuttering her words.
Mem’s lips curled into a contemptuous sneer, and she turned with a swish of expensive velvet back into her chamber.
Elina turned back to her scrubbing, being careful not to let any emotion creep onto her face. Yet inside she could not believe her luck. Foraging in the forest was by far the best chore out of any the children had to endure. However, the children were extremely careful to hide the fact that they enjoyed it from Madam Mem. If Mem ever found out they took pleasure in going into the forest, she would ban foraging so quickly they would not know what had happened. Not only that, the punishment for deceiving her would be unthinkable.
So instead, the children pretended they were petrified of wolves and bears in the forest, all the while secretly hoping that Mem would send them there as a punishment.
Not even Count Geryl coming out of the chamber a little while later and kicking the bucket of dirty water in her face could dissipate the excitement she felt at the opportunity to break free of these confining walls, if only for a little while.
“The rules are quite simple,” Count Geryl said. It was the following morning, and he and Elina were standing in the muddy stableyard behind the orphanage. “I am sure even a worthless little insect like yourself could understand them. Be back by sundown, or we shall be forced to come and fetch you.” He yanked the chains of the two enormous black dogs by his side, which were growling and straining at their leashes, drool dangling from their snarling, fang-filled jaws.
Elina might not have feared the forest, but she certainly feared those dogs. “Yes, Sir,” she replied, swallowing.
Geryl took a large key from his belt and unlocked the back gate. Elina started through, trying not to look too eager. “Oh, and....” Geryl bent unpleasantly close to Elina and lowered his voice to a whisper. “Be sure to bring back lots of rotten mushrooms and green berries, won’t you?” He shifted his hand meaningfully to the long, nasty-looking whip at his side. “My little friend here is hungry again!”
He laughed as he slammed the gate in Elina’s face and locked it.
Elina turned from the gate and looked out across the sunlit meadow, sparkling with dew, to the shadowy, emerald depths of the forest beyond. Count Geryl’s taunts faded from her mind like dissipating mist. It was hard to feel trepidation on such a stunning day. Excitement and exhilaration sprung up inside her as she began to walk across the grass. She began to smile, then remembered that Mem was watching and slowed her pace, staring at the forest as if it intended to eat her.
The closer she got to the forest, the harder it was not to break into a run, but she managed to keep up the act until she was well inside the shelter of the trees and the looming bulk of the orphanage was finally lost to view.
Elina had never imagined anything could be so beautiful. Colour! There was so much colour! Everything was green and fresh and alive. Sunlight glanced down through the leaves like the golden spears of angels. Wildflowers blossomed brightly amongst the undergrowth. And there were sounds. Not the usual, depressing sounds of sweeping and scrubbing and yells echoing down hallways and sobbing muffled by dark walls - these were gentle and soothing; the soft rustle of leaves in the breeze; the humming of insects; the chattering of tiny birds.
Elina wandered along the trail for an hour, enraptured, before she remembered she was supposed to be foraging.
It was the best morning of Elina’s life. She couldn’t remember ever being so happy before. After a while, she began to sing softly to herself, although tunelessly, for no-one had ever taught her any songs. She was having such a good time hunting for berries and fruits and mushrooms and herbs that she forgot about the path altogether and wandered far into the leafy embrace of the forest.
Around midday, Elina paused to rest in a bright, grassy clearing. She took an apple from her basket and sat down happily on the grass, admiring the lacy shadows cast by the forest canopy. She had taken only two bites when suddenly a voice from out of the stillness said: “Hello.”
Elina started, nearly choking on her apple, and looked around anxiously.
There was no-one there. Her heart pounding, she scanned the trees around the clearing. There was nothing but the sunlight streaming through the branches and the odd butterfly flapping silently among the wildflowers. No-one there but her.
“Beautiful day, isn’t it?” the voice said cheerfully. Elina scrambled to her feet, snatched up her basket and whirled around. Still she could see no-one. She began to wonder nervously if her ears were playing tricks on her when she caught sight of movement on the opposite side of the clearing.
A man walked into the clearing. He was wearing long, silky, dark blue and gold robes. On his head he wore a strange triangular hat which was bristling with birds’ feathers, beneath which golden syrup coloured hair spilled to his shoulders. His face was young and friendly, with blue eyes. He was also smiling brightly, although his smile faded when he saw the look of terror on Elina’s face.
He was as transparent as a reflection on a pane of glass.
A puzzled look crossed the young man’s face. He looked down at himself and then said “Oh!” as if it had only just occurred to him that she could see right through him into the forest beyond. “Oh, dear me, no!” he said, waving his arms in the air. “I’m not a ghost, if that’s what you think!”
Elina backed away slowly and stared accusingly at the apple in her hand.
“I can assure you, I am very much alive!” he said, sounding desperate to try and explain. He took a few steps towards her and laughed nervously, trying to sound reassuring, but failing. “This is just, uh... a mental image of myself. You see, my real body....”
“Go away!” Elina yelled defiantly, clutching her basket to her chest and wondering just what was in that apple.
When the man took another step towards her, she drew back her arm and hurled the apple at him as hard as she could. It soared straight through his body as if he wasn’t even there and shattered on a fallen log.
The strange man stopped where he was and a hurt expression crossed his face. “Now look here, miss,” he said, “that’s not very nice. If I’d have been solid, that would have hit me right in the belly-button!”
Elina stared at the transparent man and despite herself, a smile flickered across her mouth. She held a hand to her face to hide it.
The man crossed his arms and sniffed indignantly. “Oh, yes, very funny I’m sure.” There was a long silence as they both stared at each other. “What is your name, young miss?” the man said softly. “And do your parents know you’re alone in the forest throwing apples at strangers?”
Elina did not respond straight away. She was frightened, but whatever this strange apparition was, it didn’t seem to be threatening her. The man was waiting patiently for her to respond. She chewed her bottom lip nervously, then said at last: “My name is Elina. I don’t have any parents.”
The man looked at her and said sincerely, “I’m sorry. In that case, may I ask where you came from?”
Elina cast her eyes to the ground, unsure how much she should tell this strange, transparent man. She could hardly believe she was even talking to him in the first place. But some of the initial fear had dissipated and she found she was starting to like him. For some strange reason, she felt instinctively that she could trust him. And if it turned out he was just a figment of her imagination, what did it matter what she told him?
After a moment, she pointed back the way she had come through the forest and said: “The orphanage. It’s run by Ma’am Mem and Count Geryl, and they’re horrible.”
The man cocked his head on one side. “Why do you say that?”
Elina sighed. “I don’t know,” she said. A feeling of sadness and dread suddenly came over her at the thought of leaving this lovely forest and going back to that cold, dark orphanage. “They just are. They beat us and yell at us and don’t care if we’re hurt or miserable, and I wish I never had to go back there ever again but if I’m not back by sundown, Count Geryl will come looking for me with his dogs.”
A long silence fell. Then at last the man said softly, “I’m sorry Elina. I wish there was something I could do to help you.”
Elina looked up and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand before the tears could escape. “It’s all right,” she sniffed. “Who are you, anyway?”
“What? Oh, I.... I’m a wizard.”
Elina blinked at him. “No you’re not. There’s no such thing as wizards.”
The man looked at her, completely aghast. “There’s no such... What? Whoever told you a thing like that?”
The girl gave him a quizzical look. “What do you mean? Everyone knows that wizards and monsters and dragons and things are just fairy-tales.”
The stranger looked devastated. “No... monsters.... or dragons.... either....? My gracious....”
Elina watched him curiously for a moment, and then asked: “So do you, um, have a name?”
The man stared at Elina, and a deep sadness seemed to come into his blue eyes. He crouched slowly down onto his haunches and was silent for a long time before speaking. “Oh. Yes,” he murmured finally. “I have a name.”
Elina stared at him, wondering at his strange behaviour. “What is it?” she asked.
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you,” the man replied.
“Why not? I told you mine.”
A small smile crept back onto his face. “Yes. I know you did. And a lovely name it is.” He shook his head and gave her an apologetic look. “I wish most dearly that I could tell you my name, but I can’t.”
“Why?” Elina insisted.
The strange man sighed deeply. “Never mind. You wouldn’t believe me anyway.”
Elina put down her basket. Curiosity about this odd stranger had finally overcome her fear. “Yes I would. Please tell me.”
The man hesitated. He seemed uncertain. Finally he sighed again. “Very well,” he said, and lowered himself onto the grass. Elina came forward a few steps, and sat on the grass opposite him.
“A long time ago,” he began softly, “long before your orphanage was built, before even the first tree in this forest had budded from a seed, there was a magnificent sorceress. She was a great and powerful sorceress, admired and respected by everyone who knew her. She built a tower on this very land, not too far from where we are sitting now.
“This sorceress was my aunt. When my parents died, when I was only a very young boy, I was sent to live with her, as she was my only remaining family.
“My aunt took great care of me. She taught me many things about the world, and she taught me magic, so that I might grow up in her footsteps, and perhaps one day be as great and powerful as she.
“I loved magic. I listened intently to everything my aunt taught me, and I practised very hard. However, as I grew older, I became better and better at using magic, until eventually I equalled my aunt. Perhaps I became even greater than she.
“At first my aunt was delighted at my progress; she and I became very close friends, and she was like a second mother to me. But as I grew stronger, she grew older; and that was when our relationship began to change. Though still very powerful, she was not quite as fit as she once was, nor as sharp-minded, and her ways of doing things were becoming old-fashioned. As the people in the neighbouring villages and cities learned of my increasing abilities, more and more they would call upon me to give them aid rather than her.
“As you can probably imagine, she began to become jealous of me. She tried to convince people that she had wisdom, and experience as well as power. This was perfectly true, but still I remained the popular one. Disturbed by this change in affairs, she began to limit what she taught me, for I was yet still learning. She would try to hide her most powerful and important spell-books from me, which caused many arguments between us. At last, when this did not work either, she turned to sabotage; interfering with my spell-casting and trying to make me look incompetent. But of course, the villagers caught on to her devious tricks, and she only succeeded in distancing herself even further from them.
“After that, she appeared to give up. She locked herself in her chamber for weeks on end, seeing and talking to no-one, not even her nephew. Especially not her nephew. Alone in her room, her jealousy increased to bitterness, and her bitterness eventually increased to hatred and anger.
“Then one day I came home to find that her chamber door had been flung wide open, and her room ransacked, as if in a fit of rage. A sudden fear took hold of me and I hurried downstairs, breathless - only to find that a great block of stone had been placed in the doorway and sealed with magic. I tried to shift it with my own spells, but to no avail.
“Disbelieving, I ran to the first-story window: and there below stood my aunt, her black silken dress blowing in the breeze; her sable hair flowing behind her like oil. She stood and looked up at me and laughed, and I could see a terrible madness in her face. She told me that she had put a curse on me; a powerful curse, one that not even I could break. And the curse was this: I was to live alone, forever in this tower, unless someone could pronounce my name.”
The wizard finally fell silent. Elina blinked at him in surprise. “But.... but if you were so popular.... surely there were dozens of people who knew your name?”
The wizard nodded. “Yes. But my aunt told them all that I was dead, that I had been killed in a terrible accident. Not one soul who knew me ever realised that I was locked away in her tower.”
He paused for a moment, then went on. “Slowly, as time went on, everyone who knew me passed away from the land, and with them, all memory that I ever existed.”
There was a long, subdued silence. Even the bees in the bushes seemed to have ceased their monotonous droning. Elina sat with one elbow resting on her knee, and her chin in her hand, staring at nothing in particular, thinking about all that the man had said.
“You still don’t quite believe me, do you?” he said after awhile. Elina stared at the ground and said nothing.
The wizard leapt to his feet suddenly. “Come with me then,” he offered, “and see for yourself!”
Elina got to her feet uncertainly. A little of the anxiety she had felt earlier began to creep back into her stomach. The wizard noticed her reluctance and assured her she had nothing to fear from him. “Please?” he added.
Elina glanced around the quiet, sunny clearing, and then back at the wizard. He certainly didn’t look like he could do much to hurt her in his present state, and she could always run at the first sign of a trick or a trap....
Finally, Elina nodded her assent, and gathering up her basket, she followed the mysterious ghostly man into the trees.
They walked for a long time through the forest. Sometimes Elina found it hard to keep up with the wizard, for as he could glide effortlessly through the trees and tangled undergrowth, she was forced to struggle. Whenever he noticed that she was falling too far behind, however, he would stop and wait for her; then they would move quickly on again. He seemed eager to get to their destination, excited about what he was about to show her.
After awhile, Elina noticed that the forest was becoming older: the trees were taller and wider and more gnarled, the leaves a darker green, and the wildflowers were gradually replaced with vines and brambles. The air seemed also colder - the sunlight no longer penetrated the canopy as fiercely.
Elina continued with growing apprehension.
She was beginning to think seriously about telling the man she wanted to go back - she was getting more anxious by the minute, and was afraid of becoming lost in this dark forest - when she pushed through a final clump of ferns and instantly, all thoughts of turning back scattered from her mind like windblown sand.
She was standing at the edge of a large, circular clearing, which was filled from edge to edge with flower bushes - every single one of them overflowing with vibrant colour. It was if a rainbow had shattered and fallen to earth. In the very centre of the clearing, rising out of the mass of flowers, was a magnificent tower. It was constructed of pristine white stone, veined with silver. Tall, elegant windows of blue and pink and purple stained glass were embedded in its sides. Above the clearing, afternoon sunlight streamed down thick and golden through the broken canopy, glimmering on the windows and the cobalt tiles of the roof.
Elina gaped in awe. It reminded her of the tower in her dreams, only this was far more exquisite than any tower she had ever imagined.
“Beautiful, yes. But a prison nonetheless,” she heard the wizard murmur from somewhere off to one side.
“It’s all true,” Elina whispered, unable to take her eyes from the marvellous tower. “Everything you said....”
“Yes,” the wizard replied quietly.
Elina turned to look at him. He was gazing up at the sunlit tower with such a despondent look in his face that Elina felt like crying.
“She sealed this tower up so tightly that no-one could ever enter and no-one could ever leave,” the wizard said, still staring up at the tower, “and the last thing she said to me was that the only friends I would ever have again were the birds.” He reached up and took down one of the ghostly feathers from his hat. “She was right.”
But Elina shook her head firmly and said: “No, she was wrong. I am your friend.”
The wizard looked down at her and smiled gratefully, but a sadness remained in his eyes.
“How can I break the curse?” Elina asked. “If you can’t tell me your name, can you give me any clues?”
The wizard shook his head helplessly. “The only thing I can tell you is that it is written on the tower.”
Elina looked back at the tower. A pathway of white crushed stone led up to the entrance. She started along it cautiously.
At first she could not see any signs of writing at all. The tower seemed white and smooth and seamless. It was only when she reached the front step that she saw the doorway had been blocked by a huge, stone slab. And in the middle of the slab was imprinted a single word in block letters:
Elina studied the word with her head on one side. She opened her mouth and was about to try and sound out the syllables when the wizard cried: “Be careful!” He had followed her up the path. “There is more to the curse! To anyone who can pronounce my name correctly, I would give up my tower and grant one wish. But those who pronounce it incorrectly... shall be instantly turned to dust!”
Elina stared at the wizard, speechless with horror.
“Elina,” the wizard pleaded, and he slowly crouched down so he could look her in the face. Though his cerulean eyes were just a gossamer image on the air before her, Elina could clearly see faint glimmerings within them that were surely the beginnings of tears. “Elina,” he repeated. “Promise me you will not try to break the curse. Others have come before you; so many others, wanderers in these lands. Upon learning of my sad plight, all of them tried to break the curse. All of them failed.”
He reached up to place a hand on Elina’s shoulder, but it simply melted through her body as if made of no more than a dream. He looked down at his hands, and Elina could see the pain and resentment he felt at not being able to touch another human being.
“You are so young,” he whispered. “You have your whole life ahead of you. There are so many wonders in the world that you have never seen, so many beautiful things....”
He sighed. “You don’t want to waste your life on a sad old wizard.” He looked up at her again. “Please, Elina. Promise me.”
A long silence fell as the ghostly wizard and the little girl looked at each other. She stared into his eyes. They looked so sad and tired and lonely.
Elina opened her mouth to reply, and then seemed to reconsider and closed it again. Finally, she opened it once more. “I promise you,” she said, “that I will not try to say your name until I know for certain how it is spoken.”
The wizard was clearly disappointed by her reply, but he said nothing more. He seemed to realise that there was nothing further he could say to convince her to reconsider.
A sudden smile crossed Elina’s young face. “Don’t worry, wizard sir,” she said reassuringly. “I’m just a little girl. I don’t know many long words.”
Despite himself, the wizard smiled in response.
Elina turned back to the name on the tower. It was indeed a very strange, and very complicated word. She chewed her bottom lip and frowned at it thoughtfully.
It was while she was staring at the inscription that a dusky orange band of light fell across the pale stone, outlining the word in black shadow and making it appear even more mystical and strange. Elina blinked out of her contemplation and glanced up at the sky.
It was then she remembered.
An icy bolt of panic stabbed her as she stared disbelieving at the sky above her, which had turned a pale shade of gold. The tops of the trees around her were all painted orange.
She was supposed to be back at the orphanage before sundown!
“Oh no. I have to go!” she gasped, and turned and fled from the tower, running straight through the wizard who was standing right behind her. She snatched up her basket where she had set it down on the path, but when she reached the edge of the forest, she stopped dead.
The trees beyond were crowded with shadow. There was no sign of a path anywhere. Elina remembered then how far she had wandered from the trail; how long she had walked with the wizard. An overwhelming sense of panic arose in her chest. She would never find her way back!
Suddenly a sharp whistle rang through the clearing from behind her, and Elina jumped. She turned to see something blue flash across her vision and flutter into the branches of a nearby tree. She looked up in surprise.
It was a blue jay, its bright blue feathers almost luminescent in the waning afternoon light. “This is Blue,” the wizard said, materialising into the space beside her. “Follow her and she will lead you safely home.”
Elina gave the wizard a look of relief and gratitude. “Thank you,” she said.
The wizard simply smiled.
The blue jay took off with a feathery rustle, and Elina started into the forest after it. Then paused suddenly and looked back. “How will I find you again?” she asked.
The wizard lifted his ghostly hand and pointed at the blue jay. “My Blue bird knows the way.”
Elina nodded. “Goodbye, then,” she said sadly. With a final wave Elina hurried off into the forest after the bird.
The wizard waved back and stood in the quiet clearing staring after her, long after she had disappeared into the trees.
The last glint of gold was fading from the meadow-grass as Elina burst from the shadowy forest and raced for the gate in the orphanage wall. She reached it just as the gate flung open, and stumbled backwards with a small cry of terror as the two hunting dogs leaped out at her, snapping and snarling.
But the dogs were brought up short by their chains. Elina looked up to see Count Geryl standing tall, sharp and cruel in the gateway. He regarded her for a long moment with his stony eyes, and Elina’s heart pounded in her chest as she wondered whether he would set the dogs on her, even though she had made it back to the orphanage just in time.
At last he jerked the dogs back inside the yard, just enough so that she could edge past. “Almost,” he hissed at her as she slipped past the rumbling canines and scurried for the kitchen door. “Almost, girl!”
That night Elina waited in the kitchen with the other girls in anxious silence, but to everyone’s immense relief there were no complaints regarding that evening’s dinner. Madam must be preoccupied with other things, Elina thought.
As she went up the stairs to her dormitory, Elina’s heart was light. Madam Mem had not been displeased with her foraging efforts, which meant that Elina could go on foraging duty again tomorrow. That meant another chance to see the beautiful forest, with all its wonder and mysteries.
The tower in her dreams that night was tall and white, with windows of blue and pink and purple stained glass, and was surrounded by a wonderful garden in all the colours of a fallen rainbow.
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|Mercury III: part two||Neon Fairies|
|The Sad Prince||The Water Maid|
|When||Mercury III: part three|