The Sugar Quill
Author: Aristyar  Story: Fairytale  Chapter: Default
The distribution of this story is for personal use only. Any other form of distribution is prohibited without the consent of the author.

SUMMARY: A lonely little girl, taking a holiday to the Scottish highlands, hopes to find fairytales come true, but finds inste

SUMMARY: A lonely little girl, taking a holiday to the Scottish highlands, hopes to find fairytales come true, but finds instead a secret world long gone and a key to her own past.

 

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Arianrhod for the official beta, and lots and lots of thanks to Halcyon. This story wouldn’t have been the same without her.

 

            “Come along, Alfred, Alan,” called Kathy Dempsey, picking her way through the wet grass of the Scottish highlands. “Alfred! Alan!”

            Her twin sons poked something in the grass one last time before bounding over the hill after their mother, their brown hair whipped by the wind. Kathy Dempsey lifted a hand to keep her unruly hair at bay as she surveyed the landscape.

            “Carnelia?” she called. “Carnelia Dempsey! Hurry up!”

            The little girl walked slowly over the brow of the hill, cradling something tiny in her freckled arms. She looked up at Kathy sadly, presenting the dead bird for inspection.

            Kathy’s eyes widened. “Carnelia, drop that—put that down! It might have germs! You don’t know where it’s been and what’s touched it.”

            “Oh yes I do,” the little girl replied and shot a baleful glance at her two older brothers, who were making faces at her out of their mother’s vision. “Alan and Alfred poked it to death. It was alive before they came, I’m sure of it.”

            Alfred bounded forward, injured innocence all over his face. “Mother, Carnelia is lying!”

            Alan followed suit. “We’d never kill anything! And we never saw that bird.”

            “Oh, all right,” Kathy smiled fondly, “I know you didn’t.” She turned and took her stepdaughter’s hand, shaking her hard. “I told you—drop that at once! You could get contaminated. Now don’t lag.” She set off at a brisk pace, but Carnelia stared up dumbly. How could she believe the twins so easily?

            “But I saw them kill it! I did, honest!” Carnelia squirmed in her stepmother’s iron grip. “Let go of me, woman!”

            “I’m your mother now, Carnelia,” Kathy snapped. “Show some respect.”

            “You’re not my mother!” Carnelia shouted hotly. “You’ll never be!”

            “Your real mother’s dead.”

            “No she’s not! She’s not! She’s on a holiday!”

            Kathy stopped and turned angrily to face her stepdaughter. “I don’t want to hear another word from you. Now shut up.”

            Carnelia opened her mouth to protest, but closed it and began glowering as Alfred and Alan danced teasingly out of reach.

 

            Carnelia Dempsey had been looking forward to the ‘magical enchantment of the Scottish highlands’. She wasn’t sure about the last two words, but she was sure of what the first two entailed—magic. She half-expected to see Cinderella in her pumpkin carriage sweeping over the rolling hills at any moment, or at least some sign of the seven funny dwarves. But all she found was an injured bird that got poked to death by Alfred and Alan while she was trying to find worms for it to eat.

            She glared at her two stepbrothers again with venom. How she hated them. At times they were funny, but most of the time, they teased her dreadfully, about her fuzzy red hair that made her look like a tomato, and her freckles that looked like a disgusting case of chickenpox. And now, on top of it all, the promise of magic had melted into an ugly puddle of teasing and taunting.

And how could she, that vile woman, saying her mother was dead? It wasn’t true! It wasn’t true at all. Her mother was on a holiday, a very long holiday, but she’d be back someday, someday. Her father had said that Mum was in heaven, and Mum might have visited heaven on her holiday, but if she did, she wouldn’t stay there for very long, not with all those dead people.

            By the time they stopped for lunch, Alfred and Alan had completely forgotten about the bird and about Carnelia; the promise of food was enough to wipe their minds clean. But for Carnelia, the disappointment still hovered above her like a storm cloud. Surely—surely there would be some kind of magic here? It certainly felt magical: air that was never still, hills that were as fresh and rich as spring and summer combined, the sky that shifted with silver clouds that never completely veiled the sun.

            So when her stepmother began dozing off, and Alfred and Alan found another critter to torture, Carnelia slipped away.

 

            The day had begun to warm up, though the sun never made a full appearance from behind the ghostly clouds. Carnelia found her legs aching slightly. She had started off in the direction of where her stepmother had forced her to drop the dead bird, intent on giving it a proper funeral. But when she scoured the ground thoroughly for what she was sure was miles around, she decided that maybe a cat had gotten it, after all.

            She started her way back idly, but when she saw no sign of Alfred or Alan or her stepmother, she began to get worried. No, I won’t scream or shout for help, she thought firmly. In her mind, she could see herself, sauntering up to her stepmother, who would be sick with worry. And after that, she’d make her stepmother see everything from her perspective. She narrowed her eyes at the thought of Alfred and Alan finally getting the tongue-lashing they deserved. She might even convince Father to disconnect the telly.

            A strange screeching noise startled her out of her reverie. She glanced up sharply, expecting to see Alfred of Alan trying to scare her, but she only saw… an owl? She gasped. In the owl’s claws was the dead birdie she had been looking for!

            She stopped. Wait, she thought distantly before picking up her pace and following the bird again, aren’t owls supposed to be asleep in daylight? She banished the thought. Maybe those books were wrong, she concluded as she ran after the receding bird, white against the silver sky.

            Carnelia felt exhaustion well up in her, turning her legs to lead and spinning the world dizzily around her. She must’ve been running for hours! The owl was too fast. By now, it had disappeared over the next hill. It’s probably gone now, she thought, taking a few steps up the hill. Oh well, I’ll just watch if fly away

            Her mind went blank when she stood on the summit of the hill and gazed at the apparition before her eyes. It was a castle, enormous and fantastically built, with turrets and walls and skyscraping towers. The owl flew to one of the towers and vanished into one darkened window.

            Carnelia stood disbelievingly on the hill. She rubbed her eyes. Then smiled.

            “Alfred and Alan are twits,” she shouted aloud, happily, and raced down to the enormous doors of the magnificent castle. This is magic, I know this is—this has to be! she thought joyfully. And she wouldn’t ever tell Alan or Alfred—they’ll never know! This was going to be her treasured secret, hers.

            She reached the enormous doors and studied them thoughtfully. She took a deep breath, stood on the tips of her toes, and grabbed the rusty, black doorknob. Then she pulled.

 

            Carnelia poked her head in, looking around cautiously, before stepping in. She knew there might be villains here, like evil fairies or wicked stepmothers, ones that were even worse than Kathy. But once she stepped inside, the castle seemed so… lonely.

            She passed through a great passageway that was like the throat of a gigantic monster, and paused in the vast, cavernous room. The ceiling was so high she was sure it bumped a hole in the sky. In front of her stretched four great tables, one of them cracked and broken in half. Scattered throughout were the dark, tangled skeletons of chandeliers, looking like spiders, reading to spring, their broken chains lying listlessly on the floor. She glanced up and noticed a great crack that ran all the way from the ceiling down to the ground on which she stood, snaking around shattered chairs and scattered books. She imagined she was in a monstrous whale’s giant stomach, its ceiling the roof of the world, and she was a tiny dandelion seed, floating in between its teeth and down its gullet.

            She took another step, picking her way delicately through the rubble. She was an adventuress, off to find stolen booty, or lost treasure. This was her dominion, a castle full of hidden minions. Her heart thumped with a pleasantly quick pace: after all, what was an adventure without danger? Maybe she’d find Rapunzel, and they’d be great friends while waiting for the Prince to find them. Or maybe she’d meet the Beast, and free him with her love, and she’d be a Princess, and she’d be able to lock Alfred and Alan and their mother into a deep, dark, dank dungeon with lots and lots of rats and spiders—

            She stopped suddenly, put her hands behind her back, and looked down at her left. She fixed her face in an indulgent grin, and said: “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.” It was a line she had longed to say, and now, having said it, she set off with satisfaction.

            She reached a staircase and began to climb, looking around furtively for any sign of villains. On the walls were ornate gold frames, but the canvases inside were blank. She stopped in front of one of them and gently touched the portrait frame, and the vacant canvas in the frame seemed to shift very subtly into a picture of a… But the image was gone, and the picture was blank once more.

            Carnelia backed away from the portraits, her heart pounding suddenly. Maybe this is the spell of an evil witch, she told herself firmly. Or maybe I just blinked to slowly. She took another step, and stopped suddenly. What if there were snakes here? She looked around carefully, but all was unmoving and silent. Too silent. She could hear her heart hammering as clearly as a blacksmith’s anvil. What if—what if she was in the castle east of the sun and west of the moon, surrounded by terrible trolls, each with noses longer than the other? Or what if there were snakes?

            A good-sized leg of a chair lay conveniently nearby, and she picked it up. After wrenching off a stray bit of wood, she began tapping, remembering that snakes disliked vibrations, whatever those were. Her father once said they dealt with sound, and tapping a stick on the hard floor seemed like a good idea, and someone, or something, might hear her, and find her. Maybe… she reminded herself how maybe she’d meet Rapunzel with her long, long cascades of gold-spun hair, or maybe she’d meet the scary Beast, who was really just a prince in disguise—just for her. Or maybe she’d be kidnapped by the mean old witch who had trapped Rapunzel in her lonely tower, waiting to trap her, too…

            Tap. Tap. She rounded a corner and began creeping down an enormous hallway, tapping as she went, listening to the echoes bounce around the cold stone corridor. Tap. Tap. Tap. She frowned as she continued: there were altogether too many taps for her one stick. She paused and strained her ears. Nothing.

            Tap. Tap. She began again, gulping and glancing around for evil stepmothers, who, by far, seemed to be the most dangerous villains she had read about. But she slowly realized that the echoes of the tapping sound weren’t echoes—they sounded like… like footsteps, the stomping of many feet, accompanied by the soft whisper of distant voices.

            She stopped again and strained her ears. Perhaps it was an evil sorcerer, or just— or just—

            She looked around furtively. She tried to think about enchantresses and fairies and knights in shining armor, but they now seemed like shimmering soap bubbles that went pop! and were gone forever. The walls… how did they become so wide, or the ceiling so tall? She didn’t remember the silence being so quiet! She didn’t remember being so—so afraid—

            Don’t be silly, she told herself firmly. This is just an old moldy castle with nobody in it. Kathy was probably annoyed now, and would punish her for being gone for so long. Perhaps she should leave?

            No. She frowned at her own silliness. Being scared of an old castle! That was just ridiculous. And she was sure that if she was gone for long enough, Kathy and the others would be sick with worry—and let them be frightened and worried! They deserved it. She rallied her courage. There’s nothing at all to be scared of. I’ll bet there are just a few silly old owls that decided to make their smelly nest here—

            Something caught her eye. When she turned to look, she saw it was a cracked mirror—and behind her wide-eyed and pale mirror self, she saw hundreds of students, all wearing strange black robes. She heard their footsteps and laughter, the cacophony of their voices echoing down the halls, so real that if she turned around fast enough…

            But nothing was there.

            I’m—oh help me, I’m so scared, she thought shakily as she turned around slowly and looked at the mirror again, and saw only her reflection staring back. I wish, oh how I wish Mother were here! Mother, who was never too busy for her, who stayed by her bed when she was sick with fever or in tears with a nightmare, but was far away, on a holiday and leaving her here, alone. Alone! She felt tears running down her face. I wish, oh how I wish—

            Something was beating the air above her head! She ducked, both hands covering her head as she screamed with all her might. She looked up, trembling, and saw that it was only a tiny owl that disappeared into the darkened doorway at the end of the hall.

            She felt ready to scramble down the staircase and out the door, but she frowned, feeling both sulky and stubborn. I screamed because of an owl, she thought angrily. I screamed because a little owl flew over my head. This was only an old moldy castle, after all. There was nothing to be scared of. She lifted her chin defiantly and folded her arms, glaring ahead at the dark doorway. This is just a crumbling castle, that’s all. She could just see her stepbrothers’ ugly faces, jeering and taunting her for being scared of an old, crumbling pile of stones. Their voices pounded in her ears—“Has little Carnelia got the scary, scary spooks?” She marched ahead resolutely, convincing herself that the castle was perfectly harmless and she was being a silly coward. Really, that was all there was, nothing more.

            She took a breath and tiptoed inside the dark room. All around her she heard soft flurrying noises, like the rustling of the sea, and she lingered in the doorway, feeling sick and rooted with fear, thinking it was a very good idea to run… But her eyes adjusted, and she saw that the rustling noise came from hundreds of owls perched everywhere.

            She forced out a laugh. “Hah!” It was only owls! She wrinkled her nose slightly. What was this place, an owl zoo? Furry pellets and layers of white covered the floor, and the stink rose like a cloud. Whoever lived here must’ve been insane, if anyone lived here at all…

            The owls were all staring at her. She stared back, but their eyes remained eerily open, never blinking. Well, they were only owls, what could they do? Looking down, she saw was a funny looking bulge in the middle of the room, and she prodded it with her foot disdainfully.

            But the moment she touched it, the air stirred like a giant awaking…

            She gasped and faltered a step—had all the owls taken flight at once? But no—the sound wasn’t of feathers, but like echoing screams from long ago. She looked down and saw it. Her throat tightened with terror, and no scream came.

            It was a skeleton. The layers of owl pellets were gone, and the skull was grinning at her. She’d seen skeletons before, even touched them in a museum, but this skeleton—its skull didn’t look human. The more she looked at it, the surer she was. Was it a snake? No—it was something worse. She tried to look away and run, but she couldn’t. The dark holes of its eye sockets transfixed her. It wasn’t a skull, or a skeleton anymore—it was a monster, with gleaming red eyes and voice like the sibilant hissing of snake. It raised a strange black stick in the air, which exploded with green light. She ducked, screaming, but it rolled over her, and she watched it as it rolled over the world, like an enormous tidal wave as it passed through some—like Kathy and the twins, whose eyes were like dull glass marbles—but engulfed and killed others—

            Like Mother! Oh, Mother! The wave caught her and swept her away like a paper boat on a giant wave, far, far away. Carnelia screamed, reaching forward, but her mother was lost in a sea of people—hundreds, thousands! A flash of faces appeared before her, a boy with a scar on his head, a man with a long beard green in the strange light, a girl with bushy hair and a tall, lanky boy clinging desperately to each other—all of them, swept away. She clamped her hands over her ears. Nothing she’d ever heard before was as bad as this—the screaming of countless people, all dying in a single moment…

            And then the scream became the rustling of feathers, and the green light vanished. Carnelia sprang to her feet, her knees wobbly. Oh Mum, Dad, Kathy, anyone! Oh please, please help—help— Her eyes strayed to the doorway, and she stumbled towards it. But something was wrong. She felt it like the waiting in the air before a thunderstorm, and when she looked up, she saw it: words, etched into the stone. In mortis vici. Suddenly, she was terrified again, fear striking her like a spell, and her muscles froze as she tried to will herself through the doorway. They were only carvings! And that skeleton was just that—a skeleton! But it did no good. Fear swallowed her thoughts, and left her as terrified as before.

            Please—anyone, help me—anyone! Oh Mum, please come help me—please, oh please, Mummy, please! Why did you leave me? Please come back Mummy and save me, oh please—

            Hoot!

            She whirled around, her terror breaking from the sudden noise. Other owls began to hoot, ruffling their feathers, their wide eyes fixed on her as they shifted aside. How strange. There wasn’t a window there before…

            It was rather small, barely enough to allow her shoulders through. Hoot. Maybe that was what the owls were trying to say. She peered out, feeling the fresh breeze on her face, calming her. The ground looked as far away as the sky, and she felt as though she were leaning over the edge of a huge cliff, but somehow, she wasn’t scared.

            What was that? Squinting, she could barely see leafless branches, and suddenly she realized it was a forest. What a dark forest! The trees swayed, creaking, whispering, but in the moaning wind, she heard desolation. Maybe the forest wasn’t terrible and dark. Maybe… maybe it was just lonely. Like her. But there was something else on the wind—beyond the carol of the trees; it sounded like someone calling, calling…

            Could it be? She strained forward, trying to see through the haze of red sunlight. Was it…?

            It was! Mother, standing on a hill, wreathed by the red sun—oh, Mother! Carnelia felt her heart break from joy. Mum was there, standing on the hill. She had been there all along; she had never really left…

            “Oh, Mother!” She leaned forward out the window, stretching out her arms, and her mother opened her arms in warm welcome, but what was she saying?

            “Goodbye, dearest, goodbye! Carnelia, my dear, goodbye!

            Carnelia frowned. She didn’t understand. But Mother, Mother was there—and an icy fear gripped her. What if Mother was going to go away again, on another holiday? No—she couldn’t let that happen!

            Carnelia jerked back from the window, and the owls scattered from around her. She whirled around and fled, the spell that had trapped her inside bursting like glass, the inscriptions above the doorway mere carvings in the stone, weathered by age and meaningless. She ran down the halls, past the blank frames and broken furniture, her heart pounding as she followed her mother’s echoing voice—

            “Goodbye Carnelia, my dearest! I’ll remember you forever

            “I’m coming, Mum! Wait for me! I’m coming—”

I’ll miss you forever, Carnelia, dearest, dearest…”

            She burst out the old oak doors—

            “Goodbye, dearest! I’ll love you forever. Goodbye, goodbye…”

            She was almost there! “Mum!” she shouted, feeling already her mother’s arms around her, her mother’s lips planting a kiss on her forehead. Flying up the last hill, she flung herself wildly into——

 

            Kathy Dempsey gasped, surprised, trying to recover her breath. “Carnelia! Where did you go? What would your father say if I lost you?”

            Carnelia froze and leapt back, horrified.

            Kathy frowned. “What’s the matter?”

            “You’re—you’re not my mother!” Where was Mother? Where was she? Carnelia clambered over the hills, now red with the flame of the setting sun. She felt so… so tired and confused. She had seen Mother standing here, ready to swoop her into an embrace. But had Mother gone again? Had she? Oh, no—she couldn’t have! She couldn’t, couldn’t have, not after having been away for so, so long…

            And then her stepmother’s annoyed, exasperated voice broke into her thoughts. “Your mother’s dead, Carnelia.”

            “No!” Carnelia wept. Her mother was not dead, she was just… just… She bowed her head, trying to curb her outpour of tears. Mother had come back and Mother had left, her only words, words of goodbye. Carnelia blinked and saw that casket again, but this was the first time she remembered it with a clear mind, a mind blank of confused crying. She saw it lowering slowly into a gaping hole amidst swirls of white petals, and with it went Rapunzel, with her coils of golden hair, and the Beast that was still waiting for his Beauty, and all the faraway lands set once upon a time. She couldn’t believe in them anymore. She felt them wash away like sea foam, leaving her on this distant shore.

            And Mother. She had come back and… and saved her, Carnelia realized, from that room soaked in horrible green light. Maybe… maybe Mother had come back to say goodbye.

            The mood was broken when Alfred and Alan bounding up over the hill to them. They smacked into their stepsister like cannonballs, demanding to know if she had met some ugly beast with enormous fangs and a voracious appetite.

            “We’d better get back now,” said Kathy Dempsey, standing up and straightening her clothes and her sons’. “We’re already late, and if we miss the tour coach, we’ll be stuck here overnight. Carnelia? Hurry up, Carnelia.”

            Carnelia gazed out over the hills, afraid to turn around and to see if the castle was gone. If the safe haven where Rapunzel might still wait for her prince and the Beast for his beauty and every damsel for her knight and every princess for her love—was gone. If the proof that Mother, dear Mother, had come back to say goodbye—was gone…

            She felt her stepmother tug her arm impatiently and she let herself get pulled away. She half-expected herself to jerk back in revulsion, but she didn’t. She wouldn’t. But neither would she ever acknowledge this woman as her mother. Never. Because she knew that her mother was there, would always be there, waiting for her with warm, open arms. And Carnelia knew she would never have to fly up another hill to reach those arms; she only had to close her eyes and turn her mind to her heart with the smallest of smiles. Down the slope she went and never once turned around.

 

            That night, Carnelia had a dream. She was in the castle again, but it wasn’t empty; it was brimming with people, laughing and milling about. This was what it must’ve been long ago, she thought. Strangethey seem more to be like memories than dreams… She wove her way out of the castle and onto the grounds, next the forest—no longer achingly empty, but dark and wild. She smiled at it, absolutely sure that it could feel her.

            There. Standing at the eaves of the Forbidden Forest was a man. Where had she seen him? It must’ve been in another dream, a dream of a poor boy alone in a cupboard. But the man before her wasn’t alone. His smile was happy, glowing, full of hope, like the smiles of everyone around her. And she knew, if she looked hard enough, she’d find her mother, smiling at her, arms ready to encircle her.

            It was a beautiful dream, a dream that slipped out of her memory the moment she turned over in her sleep to smile.

 

 

 

~finis~

 

//
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