© Chloe Mesanges
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1. A Stranger in the House
When Cosmo landed on the school field, Elena knew something was wrong.
She looked up from her maths worksheet as his shadow swooped past the classroom window, all thoughts of multiplication draining from her mind. He landed gracefully on the empty field, his golden feathers glinting under the hot summer sun like treasure.
What was Cosmo doing here? He'd never come to school before.
Miss Briggs didn’t notice the stir rippling through the classroom as students near the window stared at the strange bird.
“Look,” whispered a boy on the other side of the table. “There’s a hawk on the field. See its hooked beak?”
“Don’t be stupid,” his neighbour replied. “Hawks don’t have long tails.”
“Elena,” hissed the girl next to them. “Isn’t that your bird?”
On the field, Cosmo sang out a high note that carried clearly through the open windows like a signal. Then he paced in a circle, the crest on top of his head bristling impatiently.
Elena pushed away her maths sheet and raised her hand.
"Miss Briggs? I feel sick. Can I go and see the Nurse?"
She lied easily, knowing her solemn face and white blond hair in a neat plait gave teachers the impression of a serious, trustworthy student. Sure enough, Miss Briggs released her with a sympathetic smile.
Elena packed her things away with slow, queasy care. As soon as she was outside the classroom, however, she turned briskly in the opposite direction from the Nurse's office.
She hurried down a deserted staircase to a side door near the field and stepped cautiously outside, looking up to check she was hidden from the classroom windows.
A soft whistle brought Cosmo gliding low over the grass to land at her feet.
"What’s up, Cosmo?" she asked him, scratching the top of his head.
He clacked his beak gently. In the shade of the school, goose bumps pricked her arm despite the heat of the day and she shivered.
Everything looked quietly normal. The sun baked the bald patches on the school field, the tarmac on the basketball pitch glistened. A gentle hum of students’ voices and the scrape of classroom chairs drifted through open windows.
But there was a strange tingle in the air.
Mum always told her to be careful and trust her instinct. The safest place, Mum said, was home.
Elena glanced at her watch; there were only twenty minutes before the home time bell and she figured no-one would notice if she sneaked out now.
"Okay," she decided. "Let's get out of here."
Cosmo took off at once, wheeling up into the blue sky until he was just a speck over the rooftops of Brere Village. As she slipped out of the gates, a police car drove into the school and her heart thumped, but she kept walking with her head down.
At twelve-almost-thirteen years old, she considered herself too old to run for no reason but on this day she jogged through the village. Her shoes clapped against the cobbles and her book bag beat on her back to the anxious rhythm of her heart.
At the end of her street she stopped, breathing hard, distrusting the afternoon calm. The line of terraced houses dozed, windows sleepy-eyed with curtains drawn against the bright sun. There was no sign of life except for the neighbour’s tabby cat, snoozing on a low wall.
In front of the house at the far end was a gap between the cars where her mother’s little red mini should be parked.
Feeling conspicuous, Elena cut down an alley between the houses, plunging into the smell of damp cardboard and cat pee. The alley opened into fields behind the village but Elena pushed under the grasping talons of some brambles to follow a hidden track along a fence following the back of the houses.
Cosmo was waiting for her, perched in the bushes.
Elena smiled. “You knew I’d come this way, didn’t you? Safer than the front door.”
Tall grass disguised the rusty-hinged gates in the fence until the end of the row where the undergrowth had been cut back. She opened the last gate and slipped into her own back garden where stepping stones crossed a flowerbed bright with summer blooms she had planted with Mum earlier in the year.
At the back of the house she hooked her fingers under the old wooden frame of the kitchen window, sending flecks of white paint floating to the ground like snowflakes. The window opened smoothly: the latch had been broken for as long as she could remember.
She stopped and listened. The house was cold and empty. Tossing her book bag over the sink and onto the kitchen floor, she jumped up and wriggled in on her stomach, knocking pots of basil and mint into the sink where they released aromas that made her stomach rumble.
Usually, Mum would have hot buttered toast ready for her when she got home from school but today the kitchen was empty.
Her voice fell into the quiet house like a stone swallowed by a deep pool.
A soft rush of air announced Cosmo's arrival as he landed on the kitchen window-sill and Elena was relieved that she wasn't alone. A quick examination of the cupboard yielded a few biscuits which she pushed into her pocket.
"Come, Cosmo," she said and he glided onto her shoulder where his weight reassured her as she climbed the stairs to her bedroom.
The house was tall and narrow as if it had to hold its breath to squeeze into its allotted space in the row. The rooms were cramped and low-ceilinged and, although Elena had the largest bedroom, there was still limited floor space.
Her bed was pulled away from the walls so that it sat in the centre of a fat, yellow sun painted on the floor. The headboard had been replaced by a horizontal pole where Cosmo perched while Elena changed into faded jeans and a Minecraft T-shirt that swamped her slim figure. She shook her pale hair free, the normally dead-straight strands left crinkled by her school-time plait.
Then she went to the window as usual.
On the sill were four glass bowls in a neat row. The first was empty. The second was half full of water which Elena blew on gently. Then she ran her finger through rock salts in the third bowl, whispering under her breath. Finally she took a match and lit a candle stub in the fourth bowl, the wick almost lost in a congealed mess of red wax.
Occasionally, Elena wondered why none of her friends' mothers made them invoke the power of the Four Elements - Air, Water, Earth and Fire - every time they arrived home. Other mums didn’t seem worried about unseen dangers. Mum seemed to get more anxious every year: her frequent check-up texts were getting embarrassing.
But mostly Elena performed the ritual without question. She didn’t mind, so long as Mum was happy. She didn’t hang out with friends all that often anyway, content to spend her time with Cosmo for company.
Mum said the painted sun and the Four Elements kept Elena safe when she was in bed. Elena got under the duvet and felt better. But she wished Mum was home.
She got out her phone and texted, “Where r u?” Staring at the silent screen didn’t help.
Putting the phone back in her pocket she remembered the biscuits and ate one slowly then gobbled the rest in a rush of hunger and picked the crumbs off the sheet. Still hungry and scared, she hugged herself.
Every night, her mother cuddled her in bed and told wonderful stories. By now, Elena knew them all off by heart. To comfort herself she began her favourite tale: The SpellMakers’ Revenge.
Once upon a time, she whispered aloud.
But she got no further because a muffled thump downstairs silenced her. Cosmo shuffled anxiously on his perch. She lay motionless, breathing shallowly and listening, hearing nothing but the dripping tap in the kitchen.
Just as she thought she must have been mistaken, the boards on the stairs began to creak, one after the other. A heavy tread: not her mother's familiar step.
There was a stranger in the house.
2 The Accident
Elena froze, her breath tight in her chest. The heavy tread on the stairs climbed higher, the squeaky third stair from the top protesting loudly, then a moment later the stranger reached the upstairs landing.
A man's voice, mispronouncing her name. Her door began to open and the candle on the windowsill flickered.
She had an instant's impression of a broad shouldered silhouette in the doorway before she and Cosmo charged together.
"What the -?" The man gasped as Cosmo rushed at his face in a flurry of wings and Elena slammed into his legs. He staggered and almost fell and Elena scooted past and down the stairs, panic sending her feet flying back towards the escape route of the kitchen window.
The stranger thumped after her, shouting something, but she was far fleeter on her bare feet and was already shooting into the kitchen, the bright square of the open window tantalisingly close.
She didn't see the second stranger until strong arms closed around her waist and lifted her off the ground.
"Hey, there," said a woman's voice. "Slow down, Eleanor. It's okay."
Elena struggled like a wild thing but the arms held her firmly even when she kicked back and her attacker let out an oooph of pain. Then the other stranger clattered into the kitchen, red-cheeked and breathless.
She saw a blue uniform, a walkie-talkie, a helmet. A policeman!
She went limp as Cosmo landed quietly on the windowsill and hung his head. The woman’s arms released her and, as soon as her bare feet touched the cold stone of the kitchen floor, she whipped round to look at her assailant.
A young policewoman gave her a reassuring smile.
"Blooming bird!" grumbled the policeman.
"I'm sorry if we gave you a fright, Eleanor," said the policewoman. "There was no answer when we rang the doorbell so your neighbour gave us the key."
"Doorbell’s broken. And my name's Elena."
Everyone said her name wrong. Her mum always said she'd never thought it would be so complicated.
“Why were you trying to get in anyway?” she asked suspiciously. Then her breath caught in her throat. “Is it Mum?”
The officers exchanged a look.
"Elena. Come and sit down."
Elena almost refused. She had one eye on the door and wondered if she could make a run for it. But she needed to know what had happened to Mum. Besides, she reasoned, as the red-haze of panic receded, she probably wasn’t meant to run away from proper police wearing uniform with official badges and helmets and everything. So she perched warily on the edge of a kitchen chair.
“Is this your Mum?”
The policewoman sat opposite and showed Elena a driving licence with a photo of a pretty, fair haired woman.
Elena nodded. “Where is she?” she blurted, frightened.
The policewoman leant forwards and explained gently that there had been a car accident and Elena’s mother was going to have to spend some time in hospital.
"I want to see her," said Elena.
"Of course. We'll take you to the hospital now. But she's in a coma, do you understand what that means? It's as if she's in a deep sleep. She won't be able to talk to you."
Elena nodded, her throat too thick to allow her to say anything.
"We've been in touch with your father," said the policewoman. "But it seems he's out of the country and won't be able to get back for another week."
That sounded about right. Her father was an archaeologist and always off on a dig somewhere remote, out of communication for months at a time. He'd been around even less often since her parents' divorce several years ago but she'd barely noticed the difference.
"In the meantime," the policewoman carried on, "your grandmother has agreed to take you."
"I don't have a grandmother," she said.
The policewoman hesitated and glanced at the other officer who shrugged.
"Um... your father gave us the address and we've been in touch," the policewoman said uncertainly. She consulted a piece of paper. "Mrs Edith Allen. She lives near Witherham, a town a few hours north of here. "
"That’s not right. My dad’s parents both died before I was born.”
"Ah." The policewoman's brow cleared. "Mrs Allen is your mother's mother. Your maternal grandmother."
This was even more puzzling.
"I had a granddad," she said. "He died last year. I never had a grandmother."
Elena remembered clinging to her mother and sobbing when she'd heard about her grandfather's heart attack. He'd been a gentle man with fabulous shaggy eyebrows who had visited two or three times a year and always brought a pile of sweets for his granddaughter. Looking back, Elena wondered why they had never gone to visit him. Even for his funeral, Elena's mother had gone alone.
No matter how much she racked her brains, Elena couldn't remember her mother ever mentioning a grandmother.
"Well," said the policewoman. "You definitely have one and she's agreed that you can go and stay with her for a week or so until your father gets back. We'll take you to see your mother and then we're to put you on a train and you'll be met the other end."
"No thank you," said Elena.
"That's very kind of her. But I'll stay here, thank you."
"I’m afraid you can't do that," said the policewoman. "Your mother will have to spend quite a while in hospital. You can't stay here all alone, can you?"
"Why not? Mum’ll want me to stay here. She’ll tell you when she wakes up,” she said confidently, thinking about her bed in the yellow sun and the Four Elements on the windowsill. She was sure her mother wouldn't want her to leave the protection of home.
The policewoman smiled. “Sorry. I’m sure you’d look after yourself just fine but we’re not allowed to leave you on your own at your age. Now, have you got a friend who can look after your bird while you’re away?"
"Don't be silly," said Elena. "Cosmo comes everywhere with me."
The policewoman eyed the big bird on the windowsill.
"I'm not sure you can take him on the train with you."
Elena crossed her arms. "Then I'm not going."
She hadn't spent a night away from Cosmo since she first saw him a fortnight before her tenth birthday. She'd always had an uncanny knack with animals and had been begging for another pet ever since her elderly gerbils had died. This time, she’d wanted a cat.
She’d gone to the pet shop with her mother to look for cat food and a litter tray for the kitten they'd planned to collect on her birthday. While her mother talked to the assistant about cat flaps, she'd wandered to the cages at the back of the shop where the parrots and love birds squawked and cooed in a jungle soundtrack.
In the middle was a large bird with amber eyes which shone with stories of far-distant places. His golden feathers had a hint of red like the sun as it dips towards the horizon at the end of a balmy day and his beak curved gracefully. Without thinking, she put her finger through the bars of the cage.
"Look out," called the shop assistant. "That one bites!"
But the bird quietly dipped its head so Elena could scratch the crest on his head, shuffling closer on claw-tipped talons so that she could reach more easily.
"Well, look at that!" said the assistant. "We've given up trying to sell that one, he's usually so bad tempered. But he likes you."
Elena could feel the bird vibrating under her fingers like a cat purring.
"What kind of bird is he?"
"We don't exactly know," the assistant admitted. "Some kind of parrot apparently."
He wasn't a parrot. Even Elena could see that. But she didn't want a cat for her birthday any more.
Half an hour later, they'd left the pet shop with the bird in a cage and he'd slept in her room ever since.
She wasn't going anywhere without him.
"Alright," said the policewoman, realising she had a fight on her hands if she tried to take the bird away. "He can go with you if you've got a cage he can travel in. You'd better go and pack some things to take with you.
Elena wondered if she could escape if she made a dash for it. Probably not.
"Okay," she said.
She wouldn’t stay with this mysterious grandmother long anyway, she thought. Mum would wake up soon.
Elena stared at the black night through the train window. She tried to stop the sadness leaking out and trickling down her cheeks but her chest was puffed full of misery and she couldn't stop thinking about her mother in the hospital, still and silent, attached to beeping machines by mysterious tubes.
The lady doctor had been very kind but no-one seemed to know when Mum might wake up.
And now she was travelling through the night on her way to a grandmother who had popped into existence as startlingly as Cinderella's Fairy Godmother - or Hansel and Gretel's witch in the gingerbread cottage.
Caught up in her own misery, she didn’t pay much attention when a woman joined the train and sat in the aisle seat on the opposite side of the table.
Until she noticed the humming.
A sneak peek revealed a woman with wild ringlets of black hair spilling out of an untidy bun. She wore a tie-died T shirt and baggy cardigan over leggings and seemed to be in a world of her own, staring into the distance with headphones over her ears as she hummed tuneful snatches of All About the Bass. Just below her ear she had a small tattoo: a silhouette of a cat sitting with its tail tucked around its paws.
A more careful study revealed sagging skin and a thickset waist. The new arrival was surprisingly old. Not ancient-granny-old but definitely wrinkly-mum-old.
Elena turned her face back to the window, sinking back into dark thoughts. But this time the humming kept getting in the way, as warm and comforting as hot chocolate, pushing out the cold, empty feeling. She wanted to wallow in gloom but she couldn’t help feeling better.
The door at the end of the carriages banged and the conductor swayed down the aisle. The woman took off her headphones but he wasn’t looking at tickets, just checking on Elena as he had after each stop along the journey.
"Next stop's yours, pet," he said.
"What about Cosmo?" said Elena anxiously.
"What? Oh, the bird. Don't worry, we won't forget ‘im. We'll bring ‘im to you on the platform."
When Elena had arrived at the station with Cosmo perched on her shoulder as usual, the man at the ticket desk had insisted they would only transport a bird in a cage and then almost refused to allow Cosmo's sizeable cage through at all. But the conductor had taken one look at Elena's tearstained face and agreed to let Cosmo's cage travel in the bike carriage.
Glad that they would soon be reunited, Elena relaxed. She listened to the humming and the rhythmic rattle of the train and almost drifted into sleep.
She woke when the woman yawned, put her headphones away into a fluffy bag and got up. There were no town lights, just blackness stretching out on either side but others in the carriage were also packing away and the train was steadily losing speed. With a stab of panic, Elena looked for the conductor but there was no sign of him. He had said this stop, hadn’t he? She looked up at her case in the rack above her head and wondered doubtfully if she could get it down by herself.
“Like a hand?” The woman with the cat tattoo had a melodious voice and was surprisingly strong, easily lifting Elena’s case down. Elena mumbled her thanks, her eyes downcast, still anxious about getting off at the wrong stop. Why hadn’t the conductor come back?
The woman collected her own luggage from the end of the carriage: a case shaped like a violin but much larger, the tapered top reaching up to her chest when she rested the round end on the floor. They stood together by the door in silence until finally a dimly lit, apparently deserted platform rolled slowly into view like a station for ghosts.
Elena trembled as if she had arrived at the end of the world.
As they waited for the train to stop, the woman hummed a light, playful tune and a warmer glow seemed to brighten the station and Elena realised that there was someone waiting for her after all.
A man with black hair and a curly beard was waving. He made Elena think of a wild bear but his broad smile suggested that he was more cuddly than dangerous. He wore green wellies and a quilted jacket with leather patches on the shoulders and his trousers were streaked with mud.
“Welcome, welcome,” he cried as soon as the doors opened, dashing forward to lift down her case with exuberant energy.
He frowned when the woman with the cat tattoo followed with her cumbersome case. “Good evening, Mrs Dill. Need a lift home?”
“No, no,” said the woman. “Just been to orchestra. Got my own wheels,” she added with a chuckle and wished them goodnight before striding off to the middle of the train where the conductor passed down a multi-geared mountain bike. She strapped the bulky instrument on her back, balanced herself carefully on the bike, and sailed off the platform without a backward glance.
Elena watched her go, only half listening to the bearded man.
"Glad to meet you, Elena,” he was saying. “I’m Peter Miller. Did they tell you I’d come and collect you and take you to your grandmother’s house? I’m her estate manager and I rent the top floor of the house so I expect I'll see quite a bit of you while you're staying with us."
“Cosmo!” she cried.
The conductor was lifting down Cosmo’s cage and Elena ran to thread her fingers through the bars and stroke his feathers.
"Now, what do we have here?" The big man went down on his haunches to peer into Cosmo's cage.
"Be careful, Mr Miller," said Elena quickly. "Sometimes he bites."
"Call me Peter, won't you?" Despite his size, the man moved with the slow, sure ease of someone used to being around animals. "What kind of bird is he?"
"A parrot, the pet shop said."
"Really? He's certainly a beauty. My son will love him." Peter looked at Elena with the same appraising gaze he'd given Cosmo. "You must be around the same age as Aidan."
"I'm nearly thirteen."
"He's a few months older then. It’ll be good for him to have you around," he said as if his son might be a problem otherwise.
"I'm not staying long." She replied too quickly and his careful inspection seemed to take in the trace of tears on her face and the weight of exhaustion around her eyes.
"I'm sorry to hear about your mother," he said. "I have very fond memories of her as a child."
"You knew her?"
"Oh yes. We were at school together. We were all good friends: me, your mother and your...." He paused as if uncertain what to say and then asked, "What exactly did your mother tell you about her life here?"
Elena shrugged, unable to think of anything at all. "My granddad used to visit sometimes. But I didn't even know I had a grandmother."
"No, it's all been rather a shock for her too. It seems your mother and your grandfather agreed not to tell her anything about you."
"Why?" she asked.
But he was already picking up her case and Cosmo's cage and seemed not to hear her question.
"Come on, let's get you back to the house," he said. "She wants to meet her long lost granddaughter."
It was a short drive in Peter's car and Elena sat in the back, clinging to Cosmo's cage as they bounced over bumps and unable to see anything outside, the night obscuring the scenery as effectively as if there were blinds over the windows.
After a while they turned off the rough road and the tires crunched over gravel and now Elena could see the dark hulk of a house up ahead, chequered with a few pale squares of light where the curtains had not yet been drawn.
"It's huge," said Elena.
Peter laughed. "It's a good sized house, for sure. Your Grandmother has a large estate too."
"A lot of land around the house."
"Like a garden?"
"Well , there is a garden but mostly it’s farmland, woodland, that sort of thing."
He stopped outside an imposing door, flanked by pillars woven into the fabric of the house by ropes of ivy. A cobwebbed bulb cast a pool of light on the doorstep, the pale stone worn away by countless feet passing over the threshold. Elena got out cautiously, breathing in a desolate smell of wind over bare grass, cow dung, damp moss and old stones.
She slammed the car door which instantly set off a volley of barks and a moment later four dogs rushed round the corner of the house, ears up, tails rigid, furiously warning off the intruder.
Before Peter could call them off, Elena stepped forward calmly and held out her hand, palm outwards.
"It's all right, guys," she said in a gentle singsong voice. "I'm not doing any harm."
Instantly the dogs stopped and fell silent, putting their heads to one side quizzically. Then the first dog put its tail down, wagging it submissively as if to apologise for the misunderstanding. He wriggled forward to be stroked and the others followed, whining for her attention.
Peter gave a low whistle of admiration.
"I've only ever seen one other person do anything like that," he said. "And that was long ago."
The front door opened and an old woman stepped out, her hair shining white under the porch light. One brisk word from her and the dogs scattered.
"Come in," she said to Elena. "Come where I can see you."
Elena was drawn forward, up the step and into a hallway. She had the impression of a sweeping staircase, glittering chandeliers and marble floors. But her attention was captured by her first look at her grandmother.
She was not as old as Elena had first supposed. Her hair was scraped back in a bun and her face had sagged, giving her a disapproving expression. But only a few of her white hairs were grizzled with age, she was simply a natural platinum blond just like Elena with eyebrows so fair as to be almost invisible. Her eyes were deep-sea cold.
"You look so like your mother," she said. "So like them both."
She reached out as if she was about to hug her granddaughter but instead her hand gripped Elena's chin and lifted her face up.
"Let me see your eyes, child."
Elena's eyes had often been the subject of some curiosity among her school friends. Both were an unusual greenish blue - or a bluish green - but one was more green while the other was more blue. The result was disconcerting, though often those caught in Elena's gaze could not put their finger on quite what was disturbing them.
"Green for the Elves, Blue for the Spells," said Grandmother. "Just like hers."
She sighed and released Elena who stumbled back, rubbing her chin.
"When is your thirteenth birthday?"
"Next Monday." Elena's lip trembled when she remembered how she had planned her birthday celebrations with her mother. Her birthday fell on the first day of the summer holidays and her mother had been oddly keen for them to celebrate by staying up late the night before, just the two of them, watching movies in Elena’s bed in the middle of the five pointed star and eating popcorn and sweets until after midnight. What would she do for her birthday now? What if her mother hadn't woken up by then?
"Just four days away then," said Grandmother as if this was a problem rather than a celebration. "Let's hope your father arrives first."
Peter came through the doorway carrying Elena's case - bulging with things she had thrown in mindlessly while the policewoman waited to take her to the hospital - and Cosmo’s cage. Cosmo ruffled his feathers, suddenly agitated.
"What’s this bird doing here?" said Grandmother sharply.
"He's Cosmo," said Elena. "He's my pet."
"This is a working farm. We don't have animals in the house. We'll put it in the aviary outside while you are staying here."
"Outside?" cried Elena. "No! You can't take Cosmo away, you can't. He'll stay in my room and you won't even know he's there, he's so well trained, honestly. He'll stay in his own cage if you like. Just let him stay with me. Please."
"Don't argue with me, Elena," said Grandmother. "Peter, will you show Elena to her room and put the bird away? It has been a very long day and I am going to bed."
Dumbstruck, Elena watched her grandmother climb the stairs. She clung to the bars of Cosmo's cage as if it was the only thing keeping her from being swept away.
"You can't take him away," she said. “You can’t.”
But her grandmother had gone.
4 The Upside Down Tree
Elena lay rigid in bed, fists clenched, staring at the ceiling.
How could they take Cosmo away, how dare they? She could hardly bear to think of Cosmo all alone in the aviary outside.
Peter had carried Cosmo's cage out through the back door and she'd trailed along behind, protesting vigorously, even though she could see that he wasn't going to defy her grandmother's orders.
"He'll be fine," he had said apologetically. "There's plenty of space. There used to be a whole flock of lovebirds in there but it's empty now."
It was, indeed, a huge cage, taller than Elena, with perches at different heights and birdboxes with small entrance holes. Once it must have been beautiful, alive with song and bright colours, but now it was abandoned to rust and weeds. She'd taken Cosmo out of his travel cage and stroked his feathers, explaining earnestly that it was just for tonight.
"I'll figure something out, Cosmo," she'd whispered in his ear. "You see if I don't."
Cosmo had dipped his head and let her scratch his crest for a moment before he'd hopped into the aviary of his own accord, seeming to understand that Elena didn't have any choice. But he'd stalked across the concrete floor with a disdainful air, clearly disapproving of his new sleeping arrangements.
Furiously wakeful in the dark bedroom, Elena wondered if he'd managed to roost on one of those small perches or if he'd had to settle on the cold floor. Her grandmother was awful, Elena decided. Definitely Wicked Witch not Fairy Godmother. No wonder her mum had wanted nothing to do with her.
Strange, she thought, that her grandmother hadn't even known about Elena until yesterday. Grandad must have been good at keeping secrets. Something odd occurred to her: both Grandmother and Peter had pronounced her name correctly. They'd even put the stress in the right place.
She remembered her grandmother's grip on her chin and shivered even though the night was thick with summer heat. What had the old bag meant when she said Elena's eyes were like 'hers'? Elena had always thought she must be the only person in the world with such mismatched eyes. Mum’s eyes were clear blue just like Grandmothers’. Only kinder.
She couldn't stay here, she decided. It had been a mistake agreeing to come. Somehow she had to get back to her mother.
The car journey from the train station had been short so it should be easy enough to walk back there. She had a bank card and money in her account: she could buy a ticket home, sneak in through the kitchen window and hide in the secret attic space at the top of the house. But first she’d have to get Cosmo out of the aviary without anyone noticing. She yawned. She’d figure it out in the morning.
The thought of home brought a wave of loneliness and she longed to be back in her bed inside the five pointed star with Cosmo sleeping on his perch next to her and the sound of the TV drifting up the stairs, knowing Mum was safely sitting on the sofa with a glass of wine. What would Mum say if she knew that Elena was sleeping in a strange place without even the protection of the Four Elements?
The room she had been given wasn't bad though, she had to admit. It looked as if had been designed by a young girl and she wondered if it had once been her mother's room.
The walls were pale lilac, the curtains were covered with pink flowers and pretty cushions were scattered on the bed. A desk stood next to a full length mirror and a line of dusty animal ornaments processed along a shelf. An old fashioned digital alarm clock gave out a green glow beside the bed.
Hung on the wall, a drawing of a tree picked out careful details of squirrels scurrying up the trunk and birds roosting along the branches.
Weirdly the picture had been hung upside down when Elena arrived, the birds and animals looking as if they were about to tumble to the ground. Peter had laughed and turned it the right way up for her.
She propped herself up on the cushions so that she could see it better, wondering if her mother had stared wakefully at this same picture as a child.
She remembered her mother sleeping under bright hospital lights and tears flooded her eyes again. She blinked them away angrily. It was all her grandmother's fault that she was so far from her mother in hospital and separated even from Cosmo. Tomorrow she would escape from the Wicked Witch.
Trying to sooth herself to sleep, Elena closed her eyes and imagined her mother sat next to the bed, stroking her hair and quietly telling her a story.
Think of all the fairy tales you ever heard, she would say. Dark tales. Once Upon a time there was Hansel and Gretel fattened up for a witch's diner and Little Red Riding Hood gobbled up by the wolf. Where did all these stories come from?
Is it coincidence that all around the world there are similar tales? Silver coated unicorns dancing through sun speckled clearings. Trolls lurking in the marshes, thick headed and hungry. Mermaids laughing, tails bright.
Of course not. Fairy tales are echoes of the past, whispered in the ears of the young.
Once upon a time, Mum would tell her, magic lay thickly on every leaf and flower and sparkled in the diamond drops of waterfalls.
In the woods the teasing Elves gathered magic to play tricks and games. Exasperated by their nonsense, Witches and Wizards studied and made spells to control the Elementals.
Mankind lived quietly herding and fishing and not paying much attention to the silver sheen of magic on things.
Everything was balanced.
But have you ever tried to balance on top of a ball? For a moment you stay, perfectly steady, arms spread like the wings of a bird. But it can't last. The ball rolls, the wind shifts, the earth turns.
And what then? Why, you fall of course.
This is the story of the fall of the Elves and the Spellmakers, Elena's mother would say. Of Hansel and Gretel and the Black Woran and how everything came tumbling down. And you'd better listen carefully, she'd say, because one day you'll need to know...
“Why will I need to know?” Elena had asked once.
Her mother had hesitated then said, “If you ever find yourself in danger and I’m far away, knowing this story could make all the difference.”
“But why would you be far away?”
“Not from choice, my love. Sometimes things just happen.”
Elena remembered the expression on her mother’s face. Had Mum known then that something was going to happen to her?
Wearily, Elena gave up trying to sleep. Her eyes opened and focused on the drawing of the tree on the opposite wall.
Suddenly shocked out of her tiredness, she sat bolt upright and stared.
The picture was hanging upside down again.