3 Learning about Style
Priscilla awoke to the smell of fresh coffee and bacon. She yawned and stretched her legs, only to find that they reached over the edge of the blanket she was sleeping on. As she sat up her back cracked loudly and she glowered at the uneven ground.
At least I wasn't eaten by a snallygaster, she told herself as she rubbed her eyes and looked around. She was still outside the old farmhouse ruins and not magically transported to her fairytale castle. Of course, her castle would be from the dark, haunted kind of fairytale.
"Oh, Priscilla dear, you're up," Onóra said without looking up from the frying pan she held above the fire. "Fresh bacon will wake the dead, I say," she laughed. "Luckily, none of them have come here for a taste."
"It smells wonderful," the girl said while pressing on her stomach to keep it from rumbling. The thought of the heavy bread and dried fruit she bought the day before did nothing to take her mind off the smell of bacon. "I'd best—"
"You're breakfasting with us of course!" the witch interjected.
Now that Priscilla was mostly awake she noticed Isra wasn't in sight. She was about to ask when Onóra looked up from frying the bacon and turned to shout over her shoulder.
"Have you gotten Billy to come down from that tree yet?" she bellowed and Priscilla cringed back from the noise.
The first thing Priscilla thought of was Bill, the stable boy, but she couldn't imagine him in a tree and it made no sense that he would be there.
"Almost!" the answer echoed back, weirdly distorted and hardly sounding like Isra at all.
"We're on hexed ground here," Onóra said as she took the bacon off the fire. "It's not too bad, so it isn't dangerous, but there's enough magic left over to make this place stand out like a city at night. We always stop over but it drives Billy wild. Certain animals are just so much more sensitive to magic than we are."
"What happened here?" Somehow this question managed to beat "what's Billy?" in the race to get out of Priscilla's mouth first.
"Oh, as far as I can tell it was some old feud. You hex my cow, I'll curse your land. You jinx my kids, I burn down your house."
"I felt something when I went in the house."
"That's all the bad feelings left over. They're just lingering because they have nothing better to do and the magic hanging around keeps them here. Most people would notice that it was an unpleasant spot but that's about it. You're pretty perceptive."
"I'm a witch too," Priscilla blurted out. "Only, not a very good one. I don't know any good spells."
"It's not the spells you know, it's what you do with them."
Priscilla sat on her log, wondering exactly what that meant when the sound of feet tromping across the grass let her know Isra was approaching.
"I can't get him to come down," the taller witch said as she strode around the house. "He's pouting."
"Oh no," Onóra groaned. "He'll make us late!"
"I told him that, but he won't listen," Isra said. "I don't know what to do with the silly creature, I can't hex him down."
"Maybe breakfast will lure him back," Onóra said and heaved herself to her feet.
She began walking off and Priscilla thought she might as well follow the witches. They had the food after all, and she wanted to know what Billy was. They walked around behind the house and down an overgrown path into what had once been an orchard. Plants had grown up between the rows trees and vines covered some of them so completely the bark wasn't even visible. A flash of blue between branches ahead caught Priscilla's eye and she hurried to catch up to the women.
"There he is!" Isra pointed ahead and Onóra walked forward, holding up the frying pan and wafting the smell towards the trees.
Something blue moved through the branches toward them. Priscilla's mouth dropped open as she caught sight of it. Billy was a jubjub, a flying, feathered serpent. Priscilla stared as it slithered through the trees. It was about as wide around as an old tree trunk, covered in bright blue feathers, and had a pair of long white horns above it's dark eyes. Jubjubs were normally found in rainy forests and Priscilla knew their magic had to do with water, but she also knew that they could fly. Without wings.
"Billy, this is Queen Priscilla," Isra said to the serpent while pointing at Priscilla. "Priscilla, this is Billy."
"Hello," Priscilla said, not really sure if it was expected or not, and the jubjub bobbed its head in her direction while its forked tongue shot out from between its fangs. But it didn't come down from the trees.
"Billy," Onóra called, "you can have the best bacon if you come down here."
The jubjub shook its head and slithered higher up the tree.
A hero would have been able to climb the tree and talk the jubjub down with their hero-y goodness magic. As an Evil Queen Priscilla was more likely to get bitten if she tried that. But she wanted to see the jubjub up close, and she wanted breakfast, neither of which would happen while the creature was up in the tree tops. She would have to be clever.
"Maybe I can help," Priscilla said and the witches glanced back at her.
"Well go ahead, dear. You may as well try."
Priscilla walked over to the tree next to the one Billy was currently curled in and untied her shoes. It was always better climbing barefoot, it was easier to balance and to feel the branches moving. Priscilla slipped off her shoes and socks and wiggled her toes in the grass. Her feet had gone soft from always being in shoes at finishing school, but when she jumped up and grabbed the first branch it was like she had never stopped climbing. It took a minute or two to work her way up, but soon enough Priscilla was perched in the upper branches, a few feet away from the jubjub. He looked at her curiously; he had snake eyes, the pupils long slits and the area around them all blue without any whites.
"You know, it's not safe up here," Priscilla said to the jubjub. He tilted his head to the side, blue feathers ruffling in the breeze. "There's snallygasters around and even you wouldn't want to meet one of them. They're huge birds with these great big sharp teeth and they dive out of the sky to bite people."
The jubjub's tongue flicked out. Priscilla hoped it meant he was worried.
"But then, sometimes they get together in groups. That's when they attack bigger animals. My cousin's friend saw a pack of them carry off a horse."
The jubjub was definitely looking alarmed now. It glanced towards the sky, its tongue hanging out.
"I'd stick close to the ground around here if I were you," Priscilla told it. "You really stand out in the trees, and you're much closer to them this way. It's better to stick close together too, they don't like attacking groups."
Billy gave an alarmed hiss and slid toward the ground, looping over the branches and leaving a feather or two behind in his rush to get down. Priscilla couldn't help smirking to herself before swinging down from her branch and shimmying down the the tree.
"What did you say?" Isra asked in a whisper as Priscilla dropped from the lowest branch and nearly fell into some brambles. A few yards away Billy looped himself around Onóra and gulped down slices of bacon.
"I told him about snallygasters, and how it isn't safe to be up in a tree alone."
Isra only chuckled and shook her head.
After breakfast, the witches and Priscilla prepared to get back on the road. The witches packed in about a minute, with everything fitting neatly back into Onóra's little sack, including their table and tent. Priscilla took a little longer, struggling with her blankets and getting Sugar saddled again. Isra took pity on her and held the bridle so that the pony couldn't keep sidestepping whenever Priscilla approached her. Finally, they were ready and Priscilla took a long look at the jubjub.
"Are you really going to ride it—him?"
"It's perfectly safe," Isra said while rubbing the jubjub's head. Its forked tongue shot out and licked her face. Meanwhile, Onóra rummaged through her bag one last time. She gave a loud 'ah-ha!' and hurried over to Priscilla and Sugar.
"We thought we'd give you a little present, to thank you for your help with Billy."
"Why thank you," Priscilla said, quite taken aback. She wasn't used to being helpful; more often she was told she was in the way.
Onóra passed her a small bottle filled with a thick, purple liquid that seemed to cling to the sides of the jar when she turned it in the light.
"Put three drops of this in your pony's water each time she drinks and she won't ever get tired or worn out. She'll be as fit a colt."
"Oh, that's amazing!" Priscilla stared at the bottle and the purple liquid. "Thank you!"
"It's not every day that you get to help a queen." Onóra winked again.
Priscilla waved to the witches as they climbed onto Billy's back and he took off, flying almost like he was slithering a few feet above the ground. In seconds they were out of sight down the dirt track, moving faster than a trotting horse.
Add to The List, she thought quickly, one jubjub for traveling fast. Then, after she had given Sugar the potion, it was her turn to leave. She climbed onto her pony, took one last look at the strange clearing and continued her plod towards the mountains.
After a while it occurred to Priscilla that the witches said Sugar wouldn't get tired or worn out and she wondered just how fast the pony could go under the spell. She sat forward a little bit and dug in her heels. Three hours later she was still trotting, though Priscilla was the one tired from all the posting she had to do, standing in the stirrups and then sitting in time with the horse's jolting motion. Sugar could canter for little bits, but that never lasted, so it was either walk or trot for the whole day.
When she finally stopped to rest in a little clearing by the side of the road, Priscilla could barely feel her legs and what she could feel wasn't good. She'd rubbed a spot on the inside of either knee raw and they stung as she wobbled around. She didn't think she could walk far and the idea of getting back on the pony anytime soon made her slightly sick to her stomach.
"I have plenty of food and time," she said to Sugar as she rummaged through her box and pulled out two apples, one for her and one for the pony. "Maybe we'll take tomorrow off?"
The pony looked thoughtful and munched on the apple while Priscilla plopped down on the nearest log. She wasn't worried about robbers or bandits; there weren't many in Amalthea, and the few there were rarely bothered with anything smaller than a knight's carriage. It would have been nice to find a real farmhouse to stay in, but as Priscilla looked around at the thick moss growing in parts of the clearing, she thought another night outside during the warm spring wouldn't be bad.
Priscilla had finished the apple and was half-way through a piece of ham when the sound of hoofbeats caught her attention. There'd been plenty of traffic on the road, but mostly carts and carriages. Even from a distance she could tell that somebody was riding hard and not in a carriage. Slowly, Priscilla got to her feet and made sure her trunk was still tied to her pony. She'd already given Sugar her water with its three drops of potion and she was ready to go in case she was wrong about bandits.
The hoofbeats were rapidly approaching and Priscilla pulled herself into her saddle, her legs aching the whole time. She landed harder than she meant to and her whole body felt achy and sore while her legs burned. The sound of the horses changed and Priscilla heard them slowing down as they got closer. She clutched the reins and sat still and straight in the saddle, just waiting.
Two black horses trotted into view and turned off the road towards her. The riders wore black as well, with hoods pulled up over their heads like the servants of some dark king. Priscilla recognized the uniform of members of the Trackers' Guild even as she dug her heels into Sugar' sides and the pony started forward. People hired the Tracker's Guild when they'd lost something, or someone, because no matter what, the trackers found it and brought it back.
"That's her!" one of the figures called as she trotted between them.
"Stop!" the second one shouted.
Instead, Priscilla urged Sugar onto the road and into a canter. She sat up straight in her seat even though her whole body felt like jelly and all she wanted to do was slide from the saddle and lay in a puddle on the ground. For a second she thought she might be outrunning them. There weren't any hoofbeats behind her. She glanced back only to find that the two figures were having a quick shout at each other as they turned their horses. Then came the sound of hoofbeats and they were closing quickly, far more quickly than Priscilla had expected.
In hardly any time at all they pulled along either side of her, their black cloaks billowing out over their black horses. It wasn't the cool kind of black that had maybe a hint of danger lurking behind sleek lines and tinted glasses. It was the scary kind that told you right up front they meant business and they picked the color not because everyone looked good in it, but because it wouldn't show stains.
"Priscilla Martin!" the figure on her left called in a deep, authoritative voice.
Priscilla ignored him and kept her eyes on the road. A hill loomed in front of them and she knew Sugar wouldn't canter up it. If these people got ahead of her they could block the road and stop her.
"Miss Martin!" the man called again.
Priscilla slowed Sugar to a trot and glanced over at him as if he were not worth her time. Or, she meant to, but something went a bit wrong when she got a good look at the huge, dark hood that completely hid the man's face from view. What he saw was a frightened girl with wide, hazel eyes clutching at her reins.
"What do you want?" she yelled back as the two riders slowed to match her pace.
"Your headmistress sent us to escort you back to school," the man's voice continued to boom along the empty road.
"I'm not going back there," Priscilla said, returning her eyes to the road so she wouldn't have to look at him.
She couldn't bear to look at them. They were a nightmare coming true, a prison reaching out to grab her and pull her back. She'd thought all she had to do was get out of Whut; now she knew it wouldn't be that easy. They were on the hill and the riders weren't passing her. Priscilla had a chance if she could just keep them in time with her. The trackers' horses were already straining beneath their saddles, their coats sleek with sweat from a long ride. And there weren't any more chances to change horses ahead. They were over sixty miles west of Whut and the last coaching inn had been five miles back.
"Miss Martin," the tracker said as they reached the top of the hill, "we have been instructed to bring you back whether you are willing or not."
Priscilla pursed her lips and stared ahead for a minute. How long could they keep going like this? Would they do something to Sugar to stop her? She wasn't about to let them hurt her pony.
"Look," she said, glancing at the man and trying to keep calm. "Even if you do bring me back, I'll run away again."
"That is not our concern."
"And how do you plan to make me go with you?"
"It's simple enough," he replied and she could almost hear him smiling. "The contract does not say you need to be uninjured."
Priscilla looked over in time to see him flip back the side of his cloak to reveal the hilt of a dagger. The breath caught in Priscilla's throat and she shuddered. The tracker on her other side let out a hiss that made Priscilla think of sharp teeth and forked tongues.
"Harun," the second tracker said in a voice barely above a hoarse whisper. "Don't spook her."
"There's a reason I'm in charge," the first tracker shouted back.
They glared at each other over Priscilla's head and she dug her heels into Sugar' sides, urging the pony into a canter. She was still amazed by how much energy Sugar had after drinking the witches' potion. They kept on cantering at the bottom and Priscilla sunk into her saddle with a smug grin. The trackers kept up with her for half an hour, telling her she would tire first and reminding her that she had to sleep. Eventually, their horses refused to be pushed anymore and slowed to a walk. Priscilla waited until the trackers were a long way behind her before she let Sugar slow down. Then, she added a drop of the purple potion to her own water and drank greedily. She'd decided to ride all night and hide the next day. After the potion, she felt like she could go on forever. She also thought the trees looked blue and the sky was suddenly yellow, but that didn't matter because she'd outsmarted her first good guys.