Enjoy a few chapters of The Witches of Castle Crabapple!
The girl stood in the bottom of the frozen pit. She was small but sturdy. Still, she looked as if she weighed less than the hammer she was wielding. All the long winter she had worked, chipping the grave from the solid, frozen mountainside. Now it was almost ready.
Pushing a strand of mouse-colored hair from her eyes, Miggin laid the chisel against the wall of the grave one last time. She raised the hammer and struck. The familiar sound of the hammer striking the chisel rang through the air, but instead of the ‘ker-chunk’ of the chisel chipping away a shard of the frozen ground, the chisel said, ‘Splorch!’
Miggin looked up. The spring sun was shining down into the grave, thawing the earth at last. Life was completely unfair.
She climbed out, hauling the hammer and chisel up with her. At the foot of the grave, her grandmother sat on a boulder, leaning against a tree and smiling serenely. Miggin’s grandmother had worn that smile since the bitter end of November, when she had sat down for a little rest and never moved again.
Now, when they were about to be parted forever, tears seemed to stream down the old woman’s face. Miggin knew it was only the ice melting, but her own tears flowed in response. “Goodbye, Grandmother,” she whispered softly, and kissed the frosty old cheek.
The slight pressure was enough to break the remaining ice that held the old woman to the tree, and the body dove headfirst into the grave.
Miggin stood silently for a few minutes, trying to think of something to say. Then she picked up a shovel and started putting the half-frozen chunks of earth back into the hole, all the while singing the lullaby her Grandmother had taught her. It seemed the best farewell.
The firewood was almost gone, and little food remained in the cottage. Soon Miggin would have to forage for herself.
Tough Times at Castle Crabapple
"Don't do it, Alberton!" begged Mrs. Twiddle, the housekeeper and assistant chef.
"Let me go!" the cook screamed, brandishing a meat cleaver. "I told you what would happen if that little pest-pot tried to take over my kitchen again!"
Alberton tore himself loose and leaped onto the windowsill, his spiky moustache quivering with rage. "I will chop every disgusting, filthy vegetable in that stinking magical garden of his to SHREDS! CHOP! SLICE! MINCE! DICE!”
"But Alberton!" It was no good. With a crazed gleam in his eyes, Alberton hurled himself out the window of the tallest tower...and fell.
Don't get too upset. That SPLAT was not the sound of loony old Alberton hitting the courtyard and turning into an ill-tempered pancake. It was the sound of Alberton landing in the moat. Thanks to an engineering error, the moat at Castle Crabapple was not filled with clear, fresh water and healthy moat monsters. Instead, it was clogged with soft, slimy, stinky, stagnant sewage, which smelled like a rotting tooth and stuck to the ribs like good old oatmeal.
Mrs. Twiddle sighed with relief and exasperation as she looked down to see Alberton pry himself out of the muck and stagger, brown and blobbish, back toward the castle.
“He isn’t going to cook dinner like that, is he?” asked a disapproving voice. “It ain’t hygienic.”
Mrs. Twiddle turned to the two members of the Castle Ward on tower guard duty. “No need to worry,” she said. “The wizard is cooking.”
She had the satisfaction of seeing the guardsmen turn pale green, as a small balding man stepped in at the window. He carried an armload of stalks, bulges, bends and other vaguely vegetable protuberances. “Was that Alberton?” he asked, jumping down from the windowsill. “What the blazes is he doing?”
“He thought as how he’d go for a walk, Your Wizardship,” said Mrs. Twiddle stiffly.
“More like a swim,” said the wizard, peering down at the malodorous moat. “No…more like a wallow. No, more like—oh, I don’t want to think about it. Here, you—carry these to the kitchen.” He thrust the odd plants into the arms of the larger Ward.
“What’s all this then?” Ward Fick asked, it being a question he was comfortable with.
“Well, that one’s Pungent Pickleweed,” said the wizard happily. “There’s a bit of Bogslump, some Snailgrass, a couple of Squish Squashes, Wartmallow, and a poke of Deadly Doomberries. Did you know some fools believe they are too poisonous to be eaten? It’s all in the preparation, though.” He snapped his fingers and Ward Fick (greener by far than any of the vegetables he carried) followed him down the stairs of the Wizard Tower.
“I’m complaining to the king and queen about this,” whined remaining guard.
“You most certainly are not!” barked Mrs. Twiddle. “Occasional cooking is in his contract--he insisted on it. If he’s stopped, he’ll leave, and Crabapple Valley will go back to being the ONLY kingdom in existence without a proper witch or wizard.”
“If it meant we didn’t get our noses turned blue, and our beer cursed, and have to eat Wizard Gourmet every other month, I could live with it,” Ward Stedley muttered.
“Some people have NO national pride,” Mrs. Twiddle sniffed as she swept out to dust the more elderly courtiers.
Hume Bruumfetz enjoyed his position as the Wizard of Castle Crabapple. When he was in a bad mood (almost all of the time) the castle offered him plenty of opportunities to share it. He would gleefully turn peoples' shoes into slimy eels, curse the sheep to float above the battlements, and cast a thousand small hexes designed to annoy, irritate, anger and inconvenience.
Most people didn't mind this. Odd as it sounds, they were actually proud of it. When they visited their friends and family in other kingdoms, they would tell stories of the horrid things Hume had done, and people would be really impressed. "That there's a REAL wizard you got there," Mrs. Twiddle's nephew would say, openmouthed with awe. "Our old Gorfalf, all 'E ever does is set off a few fireworks and cure the cows of splinkins."
The trouble was that doing all sorts of little, horrible things to people eventually put Hume in a good mood. And when Hume was in a good mood, he liked to cook.
When Hume had pottered into the kitchen that afternoon, humming happily to himself, and had begun making lists of ingredients, Alberton the cook had fumed silently. When Hume had started giving orders about the evening menu, Alberton had ground his teeth. And when Hume disappeared and returned with the first armful of strange, hideous, and obviously inedible vegetables, poor old Alberton had snapped, resulting in the ugly little scene at the beginning of the chapter.
Hume grew his strange vegetables in his own floating garden, which was the one great love of his life. Nobody but Hume had been in the garden because it was completely invisible, unless you had a little magic. And (unfortunately for Alberton) only people with magic could walk in it. Anyone else fell right through. But whenever Hume needed some foul, disgusting plant for a potion (or dinner) he merely stepped out the highest window of the tallest tower, where he kept it tethered. (Oh, and Hume's witch-cat, Twinkle, also roamed the garden, hunting beetles. Don't ask why the beetles didn't fall through. Centuries of investigation have provided no answer to that enigma.)
So, anyway, where were we? Oh, yes, Alberton was off having a much-needed shower, Hume was chopping vegetables, and the rest of the kitchen staff was resigning themselves to the hideous meal ahead and the foul smell that would linger in the castle for weeks.
There was a flash of fire and a puff of smoke, and something small and blue darted in at the kitchen window.
"Fairy attack!" cried Bowles, the third assistant cook, as he swung a flyswatter at the intruder. The tiny creature looked at him disdainfully and blew a gout of flame which burned the flyswatter to ash. (Forty-seven flies immediately and joyously came out of hiding.)
"That's no fairy, it's a dragonet!" said Hume. Darting a quick glance at the soup pot, he ordered, "Catch it for me!"
The staff was so appalled by the thought of dragonet soup that they froze, and the little dragon had time to fly directly toward Hume, stopping short just in front of the wizard's nose. The creature looked a bit like a blue seahorse with four paws and dragonfly's wings. It unrolled a small, golden scroll, and Hume read the message on it as the dragonet hovered.
The dragonet rolled up the scroll, which vanished with a pop. Then, mission complete, the dragonet relieved its insulted feelings by scorching off half of Hume's moustache before humming away through the window again.
Hume barely seemed to notice his burning moustache, except to absently put up a hand to beat out the flames, completely absorbed in his dark thoughts. Then he turned and stalked out of the kitchen, muttering grimly to himself. The staff waited for several minutes. When Hume did not return, they slowly let out a sigh of relief.
The wizard was no longer in a cooking mood.
At dinner that evening, King Timothy and Queen Alice (who had heard distressing rumors) were relieved to see perfectly recognizable roast pork, mustard greens, and applesauce on the serving platters.
"Dear me, Hume," said Queen Alice (who was really a VERY nice person.) "You were in such a good mood at lunch today, and now you seem...rather depressed." (There, you see, she was far too nice to say "grumpy as a constipated wolverine.")
"Yes," said King Timothy. "I hope there is nothing wrong?"
"Everything's wrong!" snarled Hume. "I hate this food, and I hate this castle, and I hate this piddling little kingdom, and I hate the world, and I hate the universe, and I HATE EVERYTHING IN GENERAL AND EVERYBODY IN PARTICULAR!"
There was a long silence as King Timothy considered how to answer this. "Er...well," he began.
"My sister and niece are coming to visit," Hume added, glowering silently through the rest of the meal.
Chapter Two: Witches in the Castle
The day had arrived. The entire court, intensely curious and dressed in their best, waited in the throne room for the arrival of the wizard's sister and niece. Hume himself was dressed neatly, and wore a very high, starched collar, which he had tugged at so often that it now looked worse than the ragged one he usually had on. King Timothy and Queen Alice, seated on the thrones, clutched each other's hands tightly and exchanged excited, secretive glances.
Do they seem to be overreacting a bit to the imminent arrival of anybody related to Hume? You bet they are.
You see, the queen had been preparing rooms for the visitors, and had said to Hume, "How lovely it will be to have a child in the castle! Would your niece prefer her own room, or would she be happier sharing with her mother?"
To which Hume had replied balefully, "Not her mother, her aunt. Druzilla is an orphan. And you can put them both in the pigsty, for all I care."
It was the tragedy of the royal couple's lives that they had no children of their own to inherit the kingdom. They had often considered adopting a child. Unfortunately, though the children of Crabapple Valley were healthy, hearty, robust, and could knock a squirrel out of a tree with a crabapple at fifty paces, they seemed to lack that certain something which defined royalty.
More importantly, they all had mothers and fathers of their own. While King Timothy could come to terms with the thought of welcoming neighboring kings with the words, "Meet Ruffles Muckchucker, my son," he could not quite bring himself to think of adding, "And these are his parents."
The king and queen had stayed awake late into the night, eagerly discussing the current, wonderful opportunity.
"An orphan, a genuine orphan, in our very castle!" cried King Timothy. "Shall we adopt this Druzilla on sight, or get to know her better, first?" In the end they couldn't decide, and resolved to make up their minds when they met her.
"Are they coming?" There was a buzz from the hallway, and the courtiers craned their necks to see. Old Sir Alfred hastily rubbed at a smudge on his armor. The king and queen clutched at one another and felt faint.
With a swish and a screech, two figures in black swooped into the throne room. Over the heads of the screaming courtiers they flew, making a complete circuit of the throne room before the larger one landed with an ungainly plop in front of Hume.
Hume was a short, plump, balding man, with carefully trimmed black hair and a small, pointed beard.
The woman who had just alighted from her broomstick was tall, scraggly and unkempt, with ragged hair down to her waist, and long, wiry whiskers protruding from her chin and various moles.
Despite their very different appearances, the court could tell at once that they were related. They both had the family sneer.
"Welcome to the court, Miss...er...Mrs....." began King Timothy
"Fume!" said Hume, with a face like spoiled milk.
"Hume!" said his sister, with an expression like rotting fish.
They stood, snarling at each other in the center of the throne room's red carpet.
"What do YOU want?" Hume barked.
"It's what I DON'T want!" screeched Fume. "Fafnirella's daughter! For two years I've put up with her, now it's YOUR turn!"
"You're mad!" Hume roared. "I'm a bachelor at forty for a REASON, you know! It's because I HATE CHILDREN!"
"IT'S BECAUSE NO WOMAN WOULD BE SEEN DEAD IN A DITCH WITH YOU!!" Fume screamed back.
The second, smaller figure landed gracefully behind Fume. It was a slim, pale girl with a pointed chin. She had long black hair, long black robes, and long, silvery earrings in the shape of spider webs, which came down past her shoulder blades and ended in tiny bells.
She stood, self-possessed and haughty, gazing at the gathered court with an air of regal self-assurance.
"Is someone going to come and take my bag," she asked, "Or am I going to start turning people into chipmunks?"
King Timothy looked at Queen Alice. Queen Alice smiled and nodded. King Timothy gave her hand a slight squeeze and a pat.
The decision had been made.
Rising from his throne, King Timothy bowed deeply and spoke.
"Welcome, Druzilla, to Castle Crabapple. The queen and I look forward to getting to know you better!"