Sunday, 20 January 2013

The Princess Visits A Haunted House

 It took Princess Anabyl approximately ten minutes to achieve the largest, and sootiest explosion of her young life with the aid of the alchemist's lab. She sat in the centre of the room, ears ringing, flashing lights before her eyes, and grinned from ear to ear.
Generally speaking the land of Spireshine is an average enough kingdom far from the crossways with the world of man. For many generations Spireshine has been completely unremarkable in about every important respect. It may have remained as such, were it not for the occupational choice of a prince from the neighbouring land of Weatherstrong.

Avan Weatherstrong, being the youngest of a large number of male children, had to carve out a niche to occupy in the small world of his court. Carve it he did when he founded the only library in the whole of Faerie in the faraway land of Sommerslip. The Faerie Archive, as the library is known, is a strange and wonderful building. One that most right-thinking residents of Faerie could only imagine existing in a land near by the strange world of mortal men.

The kingdoms containing roads to the world of mortal men have a reputation for troublesome times. There is a lot of what the folk refer to as 'fluctuation' at the crossways. Those who dwell away from such unreliable lands enjoy great periods of stability and happiness. This is generally how all things are expected to be.

So Avan Weatherstrong became the first Lord Sommerslip and opened a library. The people of both Weatherstrong and Spireshine heard the news and muttered in corners. They knew that it was only a matter of time before this strange career choice would have an upsetting effect upon their own lives.

For three generations, however, nothing untoward happened in Spireshine. Weatherstrong fell to civil war over a new design for the kingdom's coat of arms, but even this was not a great surprise. War is a part of Faerie life much as it is a terrible waste, inconvenience and evil in all other realms belonging to all other species.

The wisest, or perhaps most stubborn, heads in Spireshine insisted still. Before long, they declared, Sommerslip would affect the lives of the ordinary folk of Spireshine. The youthful exuberance of Lord Spireshine's youngest daughter, Anabyl was well known. Her antics were seen by most as the sign that things were starting to become much more interesting, and not in a good way.

There were tomboys, of course, throughout the Hundred Kingdoms and beyond. Girls who acted like boys were not an uncommon thing and, for some people, they formed the basis of some of their favourite romances. After all, at some point a tomboy met her match in the world of men. Tthe two of them settled down and he became a husband and she hung up her dungarees, grew her hair out and became a wife.

Some people are just suckers for that part where everyone realises she was beautiful all along.

It was possible there would be a day when everyone realised that Anabyl Spireshine had been beautiful all along. If that day was coming it is not due yet. Anabyl Spireshine wore steel toe-capped boots because they were comfortable. She wore pink, frilly dresses because they kept her mother from complaining. She put her hair in pig-tail plaits because it was easy to tie up. She completed her ensemble with boy's short breeches for the pocket space that she required.

There were other princess tomboys in the Faerie realms but none of them were willing to dress in frills and boots together. In fact, if you really thought about it, a tomboy of a certain age began to devote quite a lot of thought to their boyish ensemble. Far more thought than actual boys did.

Princess Anabyl didn't give any thought to what she was wearing, she had too much else to think about. Such as how to make a 'stealth' turnip catapult, or whether a pig could be used in a jousting tournament. Or which combination of cleaning chemicals could be used to produce the biggest explosion.

It was, in fact, this last question that was occupying the Princess's mind as we join her. On a golden day in the autumn not so long ago  she was pouring various bottles of chemicals into an alembic. The small glass flask belonged to the court's head alchemist, Gimbal Dweezlepuff.

Dr Dweezlepuff was exceptionally house proud. It was probably for this reason that he did not like Anabyl one little bit. These factors had not affected Anabyl's decision to make use of the fully equipped laboratory in his quarters that day.

That morning the unfortunate doctor had left the castle. He was attending an alchemical conference in Spireshine City. Anabyl had waited three hours, just to be sure he wouldn't come back, before gaining access to his room. She had accomplished this with the aid of a couple of hairpins and some kitchen grease. She was pleased to note that lessons from the cutpurse father had once kept in the dungeons had been well worth the time invested.

Anabyl had never been into Dr Dweezlepuff's study before. She had to admit to admiration for the variety of magical artifacts that the head alchemist had collected. The princess had always been of the opinion that Dweezlepuff was 'as boring as cook's sprouts'. The evidence of her eyes on this occasion lead her to the belief that the old fuddy duddy had been holding back.

Amongst Dweezlepuff's belongings were an Apple of Discord, a Compass of Desire and an Arrow of Chronos. Each had been displayed nestled in the stone hands of a statue. The Apple of Discord held aloft by a beautiful young woman with the sly grin of a fox. The Compass of Desire clutched close to the breast of a young man of court. The young man presented himself to the world bedecked in a stupid outfit. One that some people would have regarded as fashionable five years ago. The Arrow of Chronos mounted into a bow, the string permanently drawn by a bearded hunter, an hourglass strapped to his thigh.

Each statue bore a small metal plate. Engraved into each was some information about the magical effects of the artifact. Anabyl, like most folk, had no time for words, so she declined to read them. Instead she started pulling the bottles of cleaning fluid from her breeches. She assembled them into a small collection at the edge of the lab bench.

It took Princess Anabyl about ten minutes to achieve the largest, and sootiest, explosion of her young life. She sat in the centre of the room, ears ringing, flashing lights before her eyes, and grinned from ear to ear.

It took her two further minutes to regain use of her eyes and ears, enjoying, as she did, the vigour of youth and the luck of the mischievious. She picked herself off the floor and made for the door. Her luck would not hold if she was caught in Dweezlepuff's room after the explosion. She had to believe the noise of the blast would have brought castle guards running and she had been still far too long already.

She opened Dweezlepuff's study door and hurried down the steps of the magician's tower. She hoped to get to the water butt where they let the horses drink. Once there she was planning to use the lace trim on her dress to wipe some of the soot from her face. When she stepped out from the tower she began to suspecy that her explosion had caused some problems. Problems more pressing than the irreversible soot damage done to Dweezlepuff's levitating rug.

The courtyard of Caer Spireshine was silent, it was as if all the people had disappeared from her home. It was mid-afternoon three weeks after harvest. The castle yard should throng with bustle and noise. Instead it was as silent as the grave.

The people had not disappeared, however, they had just frozen, like statues, all in the middle of their business. For a few moments Anabyl wondered if she had turned everyone to stone. Then she realised that there were a couple of the other palace children skipping near the gatehouse.

Lynsey Crowbeak, the midwife's daughter, was frozen mid skip, both feet at least four inches above the ground. Two of her friends, Jessica and Jemima Needleeye, twin daughters of the seamstress, held either end of a skipping rope. The rope was frozen in mid-turn, a solid wave of rope curving through mid air.

Anabyl was a bright girl and she realised that these people were not petrified.

"They're frozen in time," she mused examining the stupid look on the face of Theodore Gorp, the stable boy. The gormless fellow was caught right in the middle of spitting. A small gob of saliva was leaving his mouth, a gleaming icicle of sputum.

"I'm never ever going to spit in my entire life if it makes you look that much of an idiot," Anabyl decided.

Which was all very well, but the question remained: how had she frozen the castle, and its inhabitants, in time? She had escaped this fate, how had she managed that?

She had no doubt that she was the one who was responsible, after all, she could move, unlike everyone else. Besides, when stuff like this happened there were only two people she knew could possibly be responsible. One of them was her and the other one wasn't. He lived far away in the human world, unless, that was, he was here right now and watching her.

"You!" a voice came from the battlements over the castle. "This is your doing!" That voice didn't sound like Anabyl's friend Morton. Morton didn't shout and he didn't ever sound cross about anything other than a shortage of cake.

Anabyl realised she had been sprung, but that wasn't unusual. She didn't recognise the voice so she couldn't guess at the consequences. The princess's policy for dealing with accusations from people she didn't know was strictly 'wait and see'. After all, what was the point of worrying unnecessarily?

She turned to look at her accuser. At first she couldn't make out anything against the blue sky over the battlements. Then a small figure with little insect wings came into view. A sprite in a pinstripe suit, carrying an hourglass and a clipboard.

This did not look like a fun sprite, not like her friend from Levercastle. It looked like a sprite from the Office, the administrative organisation that regulated the use of magic in Faerie. This one looked like a proper bureaucrat. From his horn-rimmed specatacles to his brightly polished shoes he radiated officious tedium.

"You are responsible for this anomaly!" the sprite said.

"Might be," Anabyl replied with a shrug. "What's it to you?"

"What's it to me?" the sprite asked, taking offense. "I am Wesley Smoothcog, a representative of the Chronological Services Division of the Bureau of Time. That's what it is to me, young lady. So what do you think of that?"

"There's a Bureau of Time?" Anabyl asked.

Wesley tutted.

"Indeed there is," he said. "And a very important place it is too. Can you imagine what would happen if there were no Chronological Services Division? Chaos! That's what. Effect could cease to follow cause. Day could decide not to follow night. Things need not be all well even if they end well. What went up might not necessarily come down."

"You mean we could fly?" Anabyl asked.

"Yes, I suppose, I mean I already can, but... what I mean is... that's not the point!" Wesley replied. "The point is that you have endangered causality. Endagered it in an area with a diameter of..." he consulted his clipboard, "...thirteen miles. Such a massive anomaly could cause a timephoon, a timequake or even a time-al wave. The consequences of your irresponsible actions could be wide reaching and extremely serious."

"Wow," Anabyl said. "I was only trying to make a better cherry bomb. This is much better."

"Better?" Wesley made the question into a statement. One  that left no doubt that he could not have heard anything more outrageous or upsetting. "Better? Young lady this is the kind of thing that leads to innocent young men becoming their own grandfathers. The kind of thing that ends up with innocent young women giving birth to themselves! That doesn't happen! Not on my watch!"

"Okay," Anabyl said. "So what do you want me to do about it?"

"Stop it, of course!" Wesley replied. "Let time go back to normal and do so before the sands in this hourglass run all the way through." He held the small device up for inspection. A thin sparkling stream of sand trickled through the pinch at the center. "So get to it."

"I don't even know what I did," Anabyl said. "I was just messing around in the alchemist's lab."

"Well, you'd better work it out," Wesley replied. "Because this is serious trouble young lady. You fix this or you could find yourself in Terminus. You want to go to the prison at the end of forever, hey?"

Intriguing as a tour of Terminus might be Anabyl had no desire to be an inmate there. She thought over her time in the alchemist's lab as she studied Wesley's hourglass. The hourglass tipped off a memory in her head, the statue of the bearded hunter, the one holding the bow on which was mounted...

"What's an Arrow of Chronos?" Anabyl asked. "Could that have done this?"

"An Arrow of Chronos," Wesley sounded appalled. "Who would let a child mess around with an Arrow of Chronos?"

"No one let me," Anabyl replied. "I just did it anyway. I do that kind of thing."

"Well we'd better undo it. The Arrow of Chronos is a powerful artifact, freezing time is just one of its many powers, the most basic. It's not intended for wide scale or long term use. When it runs out of power the pent up time in its field will spill out in a massive circle with this as the epicenter. It will be a catastrophe."

Mess was something Anabyl was comfortable with. Chaos, disorder, muddle all these things were her bread and butter. Catastrophe was, however, a little beyond her ambitions. She had no desire to claim responsibility for hurting anyone beyond an injury to pride.

"Come on then, Wesley," she said. "We'd better see what happened to the arrow."

The two of them went into the magician's tower and climbed up to Dweezlepuff's study. The problem became clear immediately. The statue of the bearded hunter was in place but the arrow no longer sat in the bow. The string had sprung forward, the arrow loosed through a nearby window.

"People should not be allowed to display a Chronos Arrow loaded into a bow," Wesley complained. "That's far too dangerous, a clear breach of health and safety."

"You can tell Dweezlepuff about that later," Anabyl said. "For now I imagine we have to find the arrow and return it, am I right?"

Wesley nodded.

"Well," Anabyl said. "The statue was pointing the arrow out of this window," she pointed to the smashed pane of a window in the far wall. "Let's see where it could have gone."

Anabyl peered out through the hole to see that there was  only one destination that the arrow could have found. On the top of a nearby hill was the dark and forbidding presence of the old Spireshine Hunting Lodge. Nobody used the old lodge since Grandfather Roland Spireshine had built a new lodge by the lake to the south. He had done so, it was understood, because the old lodge had a dark and mysterious reputation.

"I think the arrow went to the haunted lodge," Anabyl said. "That's where we'll have to go."

"Did you say... haunted?" Wesley asked.

"Yes," Anabyl said. "Everyone knows, the Old Hunting Lodge is riddled with ghosts. I bet some of them are headless."

This news seemed to be the source of some upset for Wesley. Anabyl had to endure him fussing and fretting as they picked their way along the dark and forbidding path leading to the lodge. You, dear reader, have not caused a fundamental breakdown in the chain of cause and effect near to your family home. For this reason I will spare you a full catalogue of Wesley's complaints. Suffice to say that after a short walk they arrived at the doors of the Old Spireshine Lodge.

"Well, I'm not going in there," Wesley said. "I'm an administrator of time. Ghosts are not my department."

"Fine," Anabyl said. "I could do with a break from your whingeing anyway. I'll go in and see how the professionals wail and moan. I'll be back shortly, if they don't drink my blood or freeze me into stone."

Anabyl walked over the threshold of the lodge and set about searching for the arrow. She wasn't frightened because she'd never met a ghost. Besides, back at the castle she was what most people were afraid of when it got dark.

As it turned out the arrow was not that hard to find, due to the fact that it glowed with a soft green light. Anabyl found a freshly broken window upstairs in the lodge and the arrow was stuck in the wall opposite. The only problem was that it was far too high up for her to reach it.

As she stood pondering this predicament there was the sound of clanking chains and ghastly screaming. A ghost emerged, floating out of a nearby wall.

The spirit had the look of an older man, with some resemblance to Lord Spireshine, probably a deceased relative then. He had the shafts of several arrows protruding from his torso. When he saw the Arrow of Chronos protruding from the wall above the stairs he appeared to flinch back in horror. Anabyl spotted her opportunity.

"Not keen on arrows then, Mister Ghost?" she asked.

"I was accidentally shot to death after my cousin left me in the woods with antlers on my head after my stag party," the ghost moaned. "Do you think I should be happy to see an arrow?"

"Well I'd be happy to take it away," Anabyl said. "But I can't reach it."

"Oh, well," the ghost replied. "I will get it but you must promise to take it away with you."

"Of course," Anabyl replied. "I need to take it back to the castle anyway."

"You live at the castle?" the ghost asked.

"I am Princess Anabyl Spireshine," Anabyl told the ghost. "My daddy is Lord Spireshine the Fourth."

"The Fourth, eh?" the ghost said. "That would make me your great cousin Cedric Spireshine, the third son of Lord Spireshine the Second. How come nobody visits anymore?"

"Grandfather Roland built a new lodge by the lake," Anabyl said. "I think you make people uncomfortable. It's probably not personal just, well, you're dead and all."

Cedric nodded. "I know, I was a bit grumpy when I was first dead but now it would be nice just to have someone to talk to upon occasion. It's not much fun haunting alone."

"Well, you get me that arrow," Anabyl said. "And I promise I'll come back and visit from time to time."

"Very well, great cousin Anabyl," Cedric replied. He floated up to where the arrow protruded from the wall. He gripped the offending item and began wiggling it free. The arrow was stuck fast and Cedric ended up cursing in an old but still crude vernacular. Eventually with some grunting, and a few oaths, the arrow came free and fell to the floor.

"There we go," he said. "Sorry for the delay, I'm not really much of a poltergeist."

"That's fine Great Cousin Cedric," Anabyl said. "I'll get this back and then, I promise, I'll come back and visit soon. Maybe tomorrow."

Anabyl definitely considered the haunted lodge a possible destination for the near future. nNot least because it would be a great place to hide from Dr Dweezlepuff when he returned to find his lab in pieces.

All in all, Anabyl considered, today had turned out more interesting than she could possibly imagine. Once she returned the arrow, she could do something else with her second afternoon. When fortune could provide such riches  for the mischevious, why would Anabyl Spireshine be any other way?

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