A chapter from the upcoming Witch Hollow and the Spider Mistress. Please keep in mind that the sample is not edited. I borrowed the title of the chapter from one of Blind Guardian's songs (as I often do). Here's the video to enjoy (the song has nothing to do with my book, I just love BG very much):
Since morning Eric had been trudging by the West Bank of the Sirtalion. The first hour was spent in the field, where he watched the boys train, but soon he became bored of just sitting on the grass and witnessing how all three young men were simultaneously teaching Martin to ride, and how their constant advice, tips, and commands, instead of helping the young wizard, confused and flummoxed him. Martin asked a few times to be spared horsemanship sessions, claiming that driving a flying vehicle would do more good than riding a horse, but Jack was insistent. Eric shook his head over Jack’s behavior. He had lost the count of how many times he had told Jack to stop picking on Martin and be less harsh with him. In the end, Eric became tired of both the training and Jack, and left the field. Immersed in thoughts, he didn’t care where he was going, unless he stayed on the West Bank. Some time ago, during one of their meetings, the young people came to the conclusion that the East Bank was a place too dangerous for Eric, and he went to live in the blue castle. It wasn’t an unwanted move: both he and Electra were the most contented, as now they needed to take just a few steps to see each other. Eric’s bedroom was on the same floor with the girls’ chamber, just three doors away. It meant that Electra stayed in his bedroom till late at night and left Eric’s side only for the sake of sleeping, not forgetting to give him the potion for his broken arm. Andromeda had promised that the plaster would be taken off in two-three days, and Eric was waiting eagerly for the day to come.
Eric reached a meadow at the edge of the forest and had an immediate feeling of déjà vu. The place looked familiar, yet he couldn’t remember when exactly he had been on the green meadow overgrown with daisies and bluebells that appeared and disappeared inside the soft grass with every breath of the cool breeze. Eric looked into the distance, where a stream of the river was passing across the field. The river at that spot wasn’t the mighty force with the boats and their passengers skimming across its flowing bosom, but a quiet stream with mossy banks, reflecting the hanging branches of the weeping willows.
Eric walked to the rivulet, turned around, and smiled, as he was now standing on the same spot where for the first time he had seen the witch girls ride the brooms. Now he remembered the place: the field, the scenery, the shallow stream. For a long while he just stood there and looked at the forest trees, lining the field, contrasting the meadow’s calmness with their disturbing gloominess. Then he turned around and looked at the East Bank. It had been decided that he wouldn’t go to the other side alone, but Eric remembered about the Enchanted Garden, which was a few steps away from the hill, and his legs took him there on their own. He reached the back of the garden and had to force his way through the withered, leafless bushes with dried branches. Crawling through the shrubs, Eric at last stepped into the garden, although it was hard to call the place a garden anymore. The café had been closed down, because the garden had withered till the last leaf. It wasn’t appealing anymore. Instead of the blooming flowers and green grass, there were dry, gnarled branches and trampled, dead foliage. The once thick grass— soft like a royal velvet—wasn’t stretching across the garden, nor were the flowers encircling the feet of the aspens; the shades of the Siberian shrubs were missing, and the willows didn’t cast their shadows over the beds of the yellow roses. Neither were the larks and rose finches hopping in the grass or perching on the branches, whistling to each other or warbling for their guests.
Eric hadn’t made a few steps when he saw something sparkle on the ground inside the grey soil. He bent down and squinted his eyes. Those were wings shining. Small, almost transparent wings that could belong to a bug or a butterfly. But it was neither a bug nor any other insect. It was a small creature, with head and legs, in a tiny yellow dress wrapped around that tiny body. Eric carefully picked up the fairy and brought the body closer to his eyes. It was dead, no doubt about it. And yet, Eric carefully touched the creature with his finger, hoping it would show signs of life. Eric looked around the garden, and only now noticed a lonely figure in black, sitting by the rocks where once a pond used to be. It was Dinah, sitting motionless and staring at the withered bush in front of her. Eric couldn’t tell if she had fallen into reveries, or if she had seen him. He slowly moved to the broken pond, passing in-between the abandoned chairs and tables, which had been moved to a side and left in the garden, probably in hopes that it might bloom again, or maybe because the café owners didn’t care about the short-lived business that had turned unsuccessful due to the Enchanted Garden ultimately dying and withering away.
Eric stopped some feet away from Dinah. He was thinking whether to start a conversation and what to say. She seemed so sad, so broken and miserable that he wished to hug and console her. But Eric didn’t stir and just looked around, then at the center, where the white arbor used to stand, at the cracked ground, covered with yellowed leaves, and at the dead fairy in his hand.
“I cancelled the wedding,” Dinah said without looking up. Eric said nothing, and after seconds of silence, Dinah continued: “I thought my father would burst out in fury and punish me, but he didn’t even reprimand me. My mother did most of the talking, and crying, and whining. She kept telling me how silly I was to reject Thomas, but I would be silly if I did not.” At last she deigned to raise her eyes to Eric’s face. She looked unhealthy, lips were pale, eyes weary. “I have become so miserable. I don’t even know why I live. What’s the point? My world is breaking down. I have no one in my life, no one who cares for me. My father has estranged himself from us. He almost never talks. Walks silently up and down his study, has abandoned his craft and students, and drinks all day long. My mother continues her same old habits: worries about the most nonsensical things, and doesn’t see that her family is sinking deeper into the swamp. And my brother. He’s De Roy’s right hand now. Put a mask on his face, and he’ll be a perfect sheriff. How did we come to this? And how will this whole story end?”
“Much of its ending depends on us. And our choices,” Eric said without even thinking.
“If we meet during the Hunt, will you kill me?” she suddenly asked.
“Then you will let me kill you?”
“You will not kill me.”
“How do you know?”
Eric went closer to Dinah, knelt before her, opened her palm, and put the dead fairy in her hand.
“I didn’t want this to happen,” she said, fighting back the tears. “But I hate them. And I am glad for what will happen to them soon.”
“Why do you let the hate rule you?”
“It’s your fault. You put so much hate inside my heart. You made me so hateful and vengeful.”
The baffled fellow silently looked at her. He knew well Dinah’s capricious demeanor and impulsive character. If she had put an idea inside her head, no one could convince her otherwise.
“You crashed my dreams, broke my heart, filled it with hate, and you dare ask me why?” she said with offense.
“They killed my parents,” Eric muttered. “But not the hate I feel toward them leads me. I am led by hope. Why won’t you do the same? The moment you put aside all your childhood offenses, you’ll see that hate really has no substance. You don’t have to become a pawn in their war. They use you like they use the rest. It is their war, Dinah, not yours or mine; it’s a war of dark creatures who poison your mind to reach their goal. It’s not about giving you a better life as they have promised, it’s about destroying. Or do you think the Dark Master cares for you? Or for your family? He has come to destroy Hollow. Why can’t you see that?”
“And why can’t you see what you have done?”
“Dinah, I am sorry if I have caused you pain. That was never my intention.”
“Why can’t you see how unhappy I am? I told you everything, but my words again fell on the deaf ears.” She went down on her knees to face him and put her hands on Eric’s neck, gripping the collar and dragging him closer. “You could make me happy. I cancelled the wedding just for you. I gave you another chance.”
“You did it for your own sake. Because marrying someone whom you don’t love is wrong.”
“Thomas has sworn to kill you,” she said unexpectedly. “What are you going to do about that?”
“Defend myself, as always.”
“Come with me, and we shall outplay him.”
“What do you mean?”
“They have planned something. But if you decided to join me, we could make our own plan.”
“What have they planned?”
Dinah grinned. “You won’t get anything from me unless you join me.”
“You’ll never change, will you?” Eric said, angered by her selfishness. “Always thinking only about yourself.”
“That’s not true. I think about you all the time. Why are you so cruel? Why won’t you join me and make my life less miserable.”
“Because I have made my choice. And you should make yours.”
“I have made it.” She pulled him closer, reaching out to his lips. Softer than she had thought. So different from Thomas. So much sweeter, longed-for, and desirable.
Eric gently pushed her back. “I am sorry.”
He was so close that his whisper tipped her lips and made them quiver. Dinah looked at him for a second, then slapped him with the whole strength of her hand, and got up. The slap was so strong that the skin felt burning. Eric pressed his lips together and took his palm to his reddened cheek.
“Too many people are after you, Eric O’Brian. You’re not long for this world. I don’t care who it will be—Thomas, Dickens, De Roy, or Morhaug himself, I want you dead!” she burst out, and clenched her fingers. Dinah felt something inside her fist. She looked at the tiny breathless body, then tossed the fairy into the bushes, and stormed away from the garden.
Eric dashed to the withered shrub of lavender, searching for the little creature. It was there, among the faded leaves and grass. Carefully picking up the fairy, Eric put her on the naked branch to be picked up by her friends. Dinah was right, too many people were after him. He should remember about caution and not stay alone on the East Bank. Eric thought he heard footsteps in the garden. He hastily looked around, but there was no one. He strained his ears and waited for the voices and whispers to sound again, but the garden was silent. Just once the metallic gate creaked, when the wind blew through the iron bars. Then silence again. No sound, no soft whispers. The garden had been abandoned by those who could revive the reveries and lead him back into the long-forgotten dreams. Now it was only a dried soil, gnarled branches, and dusty tables and chairs grouped into a pile and left to rust. Not even the constant rains helped the garden. Drenched in gushing water, it would become muddy, but nothing would grow in the slush, and the soil would soon become dry, until the next torrent would plunge the place into a deeper mire.
A loud thunderbolt informed that it was time to leave. Taking the same route, Eric carefully crawled out of the garden, and descended to the meadow. Moving hastily, so as not to be left under the rain, he soon reached the field where his friends had been training, and which was now abandoned by everyone except Jack, who was lying on the grass, hugging Orion’s soft body. Eric looked at the dog and his master. Their eyes were closed, both seemed to be dozing and even when the thunder growled again, none of them showed signs of awakening. Orion yawned once, his white head pressed against his master’s chest, then wagged his tail, and returned to dozing. But when the first drop landed on the dog’s snout, Orion opened his eyes, raised the beautiful head, and whined.
“Alright, boy, I heard you,” Jack muttered, yawning. Orion rose to his paws, approached Eric, and licked his hand. Eric answered the dog’s caress, itching him behind the ear, just what Orion loved.
“You seem upset,” Jack said, getting up grudgingly and yawning again. Another drop hit him on the head; he looked up into the murky sky. “I hate these rains.”“Let’s go home,” said Eric, and the friends hurried to the blue castle, with the white Setter by their side.