Having escaped Gathin’s clutches, Roberta is on the run with the child she stole from her nemesis. In this case, the best way to avoid a war is to run, hide and never look back. But it soon becomes apparent that leaving Ridgewood behind may have not been in Roberta and her friends’ best interests, for things are happening in the tiny town that, once again, cannot be explained.
It glistened in front of her, the edges finding the light on their own accord and creating a silvery glow. It had been this way for months now, the thin veil between worlds shimmering like a moth’s wing under the moon. The size of the portal between worlds hadn’t changed since Roberta, Barry and the girl had walked back into her cellar during the past winter, but the scene on the other side shifted. There were days when the gap was almost opaque and mirror-like so that nothing could be seen but one’s own faded and distorted reflection. At other times translucency returned, and they could see that construction on the other side of the rift had grown. The tiny crevasse through which Roberta and the others had squeezed had been blown apart, leaving a huge cavern leading from the catacombs to the other side of the portal. One of the gatekeepers would descend on the creaking metal ladder and catch movement out of the corner of their eye, only to peer into the darkness and find that it was devoid of life.
They called themselves that now; gatekeepers. Even though Martha was the only legitimate one amongst them, all those who quite literally guarded the gate carried the name now. And after having once glimpsed the Queen, they felt the dread of her survival. Her plans were covered quickly with a cloth or barrier closing off vision into her world, and now the group of gatekeepers feared the worst.
Susan’s tired eyes sparkled with the reflection of the hole’s silvery edging, tiny fireworks dancing in her eyes. It was 8.36am Susan noted as she twisted her wrist and looked down to the small silver watch. Soon the next shift would arrive, the hatch would drop and the customers for the bookstore above would start to filter in, bringing with them the summer warmth.
As if on cue, Susan heard the turn of a latch upstairs, the soft tinkle of a bell and large footsteps stomping over the floor towards where she stood.
Susan looked up and saw Martha’s perfectly preened head poke through the hatch in the floor. She responded with a small shake of her head, causing Martha to call out for coffee and scuttle off for the morning’s vital necessity. Feet appeared on the creaky ladder and Barry descended into the room. He too looked tired, strained, as if he got very little sleep these days.
“Guess I got the long haul day shift again,” he said, scratching his forehead and throwing a bag down towards a small camp bed that was pushed to one corner. “Keep your customers quiet would you? Let me get some sleep?”
“Not likely,” Susan replied, too tired to raise her eyebrow like normal. “It’s been six months now, don’t you think we can give this up? Mrs Peacock didn’t deal with anything like this.”
“Mrs Peacock didn’t have a rift between two worlds in her cellar which a horde of giant wolves and vengeful doppelgänger might burst through at any moment.”
“But nothing’s happening,” Susan moaned, gazing back to where she could see an old table and several candles still standing in the half moon shape they’d been left in. Whilst the table was very much in Susan’s cellar, the translucent gap fluttered around it, making it seem as if the decrepit piece of furniture was a bridge between worlds.
“I’m not convinced of that.”
“You’re still on about the open hatch? I must’ve forgotten to shut it. It’s been six months, and the hatch has been left open on numerous occasions.”
“Still, it’s worth remaining vigilant,” Barry replied gruffly as he sank down onto the camp bed with a bounce, resulting in the middle of the frame bending so much that it grazed the floor. He pulled an alarm clock out of the small bag, before retrieving a long dagger and placing it on the rickety table next to the bed.
“You know that’s an offensive weapon, right? If you’re caught on the street with that….”
“Susan, it’s the same dagger I always bring.”
“Right, but you’re not exactly going to be able to hold off an army if they come through are you?”
“How would you know? Have you ever been to Gathin?” Barry snapped.
“Martha?” Susan asked carefully, taking Barry’s irritation with a pinch of salt.
He nodded, picking up the dagger and peering towards the shining blade.
“I spent a decade trying to get back to her, and now I’m being ousted by that bloody tome. She’s pouring through it at every available second. Calling up Galdur whenever there’s something she doesn’t understand, it’s endless.”
Susan smiled briefly as she walked across to where Barry sat and the ladder descended into the room.
“Don’t worry, you’ll get her back. You should know the way to her heart by now, Barry. Gin.”
“Aye,” he returned with a nod, “and don’t I know it.”
The pair received smiles from one another, before Susan clambered her way out of the cellar, loosened the knot around a thick wrought iron hook in the wall and dropped the hatch into place. In the past, climbing through the smashed fireplace had been rather ungraceful, and so, having taken down the old false walls on either side of the chimney breast, a small hatch had been installed. The chimney had been bricked up so that it looked as good as new, and they now had access to the cellar directly through the floor, instead of having to clamber about the building as if they were rats caught in the walls.
With the back of her heel she drew the fireside rug over the hinges on the floor, not to obliterate all markings of the doorway to the cellar, but to camouflage its presence. How Barry survived the day in there, Susan would never know. But he was happy to do it, and was adamant that he’d prefer to be near Susan and Martha rather than at home just in case something should occur. Of course, it seemed quite alright to Barry that Susan should be left to spend her nights alone there with little protection and no one near enough to hear her cry.
“Coffee’s on the boil,” Martha smiled as she wafted by with her arms full of books.
“Don’t you want one?” Susan asked as Martha busied herself with straightening the rows of novels that were lined upon floor to ceiling shelves.
“I’m already wired,” Martha beamed back. “Been up since 2am. I know Ridgewood isn’t exactly the warmest place in the world, but this heat wave’s helping me no end in reading the pages of my bible.”
The bible that Martha referred to, was the large and ancient tome that she’d been left by Mrs Peacock, the former gatekeeper who had helped both Barry and Roberta escape the Ammokra’s clutches. Its faded pages were worn, disintegrating and blank to the unknowing eye. Until heat was applied, that was, at which point the pale pink pages would ripple with life as blue ink appeared on the surface as if by magic. Susan couldn’t fathom how it worked, but she was thankful of the summer heat, for though she loved Martha dearly, having to sit in a sweating mess next to an open fire every night just to read the tome was torturous. It didn’t help that every time Martha made notes on her own paper, they somehow disappeared. Susan thought that they’d just got caught up in everyday rubbish and thrown out, but Martha swore that she’d actually seen her own writing fade from the notebook that she’d been attempting to fill.
“Have you found out anything useful yet?” Susan called out as she poured thick black coffee into a small cup and perched herself carefully against the table. Martha’s head appeared around the end of a bookcase, her blonde hair pushed carefully behind each ear so as to show off her shimmering earrings.
“If you’re asking whether I’ve found a way for you to get into Gathin and find Vanessa, then no.”
Susan sighed sadly, causing Martha to stop her frantic organising and shove the remaining few books in her hand onto a small table at the end of one of the bookshelves. Walking slowly over, Martha placed a hand on each of Susan’s shoulders.
“We will find her, if we can,” Martha said with a smile. “You mustn’t give up. But you know….she is gone.”
“I know that,” Susan said slowly, using the opportunity of sipping her coffee to take a pause. “It’s just….if we have the stone that was to bear her to Gathin, then where has she gone? How can we free her if she’s not already trapped in that tower?”
Susan glanced towards the back of the room where she knew that a small wooden and locked box held a treasure. A small stone upon which her dead daughter’s face flickered back and forth; one minute smiling, the second caught in an evil scowl.
“Perhaps she’s already free,” Martha said softly as she let go of Susan’s shoulders and perched herself against the back of the fireside sofa. “Perhaps Gathin’s Susan placed the stone in the portal for that very reason, to stop Vanessa getting trapped, to allow her soul to slip away.”
“But Galdur said that Vanessa’s in limbo, that she’s no longer in Ridgewood but that she can’t enter Gathin either because I have her stone.”
It made sense to Susan, as much sense as any of the previous winter’s proceedings did. The Ammokra’s silvery mist caught a soul and the stones, when placed in their jars in the Gathin tower, drew the mist like a magnet. It created a grounding point, somewhere for the mist to gather and the soul to be trapped. But, surely, if people were trapped in a bottle, then the bottle could be smashed and a soul could be set free? Without a stone, where was her daughter? Was she free? Or split into a million mist molecules floating around in the vast darkness? Susan wasn’t sure which option was better; having her beloved and only child floating through time as a collection of silvery molecules, or knowing that Vanessa was trapped in a tower beyond Susan’s reach. Before her daughter’s murder, Susan hadn’t even believed that souls existed, and now they plagued her daily thoughts.
“Galdur has as much knowledge about the subject as I do,” Martha said as she interrupted Susan’s train of thought. “He hasn’t been to Gathin, he hasn’t even ventured into the Middlelands….”
“And you have?” Susan said sharply, looking up to stare at Martha’s face with disbelief. “Martha!”
“I know what I’m doing,” Martha replied briskly, obviously not wanting to talk about the subject. “The only people that can shed any light on the tower of souls are Barry and Roberta, and I can get a better conversation with Montgomery, than I can with my husband.”
Only Martha could have named a fat large and purple spider Montgomery. Like Mrs Peacock’s own spider, Elrick, Montgomery was a vital piece of the puzzle for entering the Middlelands. He would spin an intricate web upon a large mirror before releasing a purple dye, allowing the glass to become strange and elastic. It was through this glass that gatekeepers and victims could step into the place between worlds, a place where Ammokra victims collected their riddles.
“You really mustn’t go there alone,” Susan urged again, wishing that she’d squashed a few more of the purple insects when they’d begun arriving at her friend’s house.
“What other option do I have? Tell me that. If you want answers, then you have to let me look for them.”
“What about Roberta? She must know something.”
“You know as well as I do that we cannot contact Roberta,” Martha said, looking towards the cellar where Barry was guarding the shimmering hole. “She has her own treasure to guard.”
Martha pushed herself off the sofa and looked towards the clock above the doorway.
“8.51am, Susan. Almost time to open up.”
With that she was off, rustling through further shelves of books and avoiding any attempt to reignite the conversation.
“Stop right there!” Roberta called as the small girl tottered dangerously towards the edge of the pavement. She swivelled and smiled in Roberta’s direction, managing to take a few steps closer to the road as she did so. Roberta leapt forward a couple of paces and grabbed the girl by her arm as a red double decker bus soared by, the gust of wind that came with the speeding vehicle rustling the mousy brown hair of the little girl in Roberta’s grasp.
“I won’t tell you again,” Roberta said with irritation as she pushed the grocery bag back onto her shoulder and pulled the child towards increased safety. Roberta was aware of the stares that a few passers by threw towards her, her cheeks blushing momentarily despite trying to appear unaware of their dissecting glances. She smiled down at the small face in front of her, brushing away a strand of hair that had drifted over the girl’s brow and taking a hand carefully in her own. “You mustn’t go running off too far.”
Turning onto the main road, Roberta sniffed again, attempting to clear the blockage that the vast amount of plane tree pollen had caused. She wasn’t normally afflicted by hay fever, but the tree lined avenue in the London park always made her eyes water and her nose block, however many allergy tablets she pumped into her system.
The day about them was a beautiful early summer’s morning, the blue sky above them only blotted by the sporadic puff of white cloud. Beneath the exotic looking heavens, London buzzed and whirred, black cabs tooting, double decker buses rushing by, a throng of pedestrians scurrying about their business like ants hyped up on too much coffee. Upon Roberta’s shoulder hung a fabric bag filled with fruit from the local farmers market and a packet of organic coffee which she’d bought from the local café; a place where cream coloured parasols offered a place for vivacious young professionals to retreat from the midday sun and watch the world from behind their designer sunglasses.
It was only a short walk from the park to the flat that Roberta and Sam had rented upon leaving Ridgewood. It had been cheap and hidden away; the ideal place to lurk after kidnapping a child from another realm. Within a minute, Roberta had turned off the main high street and back onto a side residential street which was much quieter. It took only a few steps for the cacophony of London’s noise to die away and be replaced with the more comforting hum of people’s conversations, television sets and the ambient sounds of every day family life. Here, the cherry blossom trees had cheered Roberta in early spring when they’d burst into vibrant pink bloom. There was no aggravating pollen involved either, for which Roberta was eternally grateful, and she took a deep breath as she looked up at the vibrant green and allowed London’s city air to filter into her bunged up face.
Hand in hand with the young girl, Roberta wandered along the pavement, glancing up at people’s open windows and feeling the soft breeze wash warm air over her skin. It was serene, she thought. Something that Roberta had not imagined she’d be able to feel again. The pair reached a tall and thin townhouse with iron railings distinguishing the front of the house which towered into the sky. A large glossy black door with a ceramic cream knob awaited at the top of a small flight of stairs, but instead of taking the path upwards, Roberta turned and descended a few steps to the basement level. Another black door loomed in front of her, not as glossy or nearly as chic as the other, but welcoming nonetheless. The paint was cracked and faded, and the outside looked more like a hovel than a home. But it had become their home, and the continuously mounting pile of leaves, the slightly tilted door numbers and the rusting letterbox were now theirs.
Roberta allowed the girl’s fingers to slide from her own, rustled around in the bag filled with fruits and pushed the key into the lock with a snap. Dropping the bag onto the doormat as she hung the key on the small hoop in the hallway, Roberta watched as the child of Gathin traipsed towards the back of the house.
“Where’s my monster?” Sam asked as he appeared from the living room, and Roberta was once again taken aback by the lack of floppy hair that she’d known for so long. He was slightly burlier too, having used his doppelgänger’s toned and muscular body as motivation to attend the gym occasionally. Occasionally was the word to be emphasised, however, and Sam remained relatively scrawny compared to many of London’s gym freaks.
“I’m here, Daddy!” the girl shrieked with excitement, launching herself towards Sam with enthusiasm. “We saw squirrels!”
“You saw squirrels did you?” Sam replied as the girl reached his legs and hugged his waist. “Did they look like this?” Sam asked, dropping to his knees and pulling his best squirrel impression. He didn’t look much like a squirrel, Roberta thought, more like a rabid Chihuahua, but it made her smile nonetheless.
“No, silly. They looked like this!” The small girl responded to Sam’s imitation by pulling off her shoes, rolling onto the floor and creating her own squirrel impression, before crying out with laughter as Sam reached across and tickled her.
“Time for lunch, me thinks,” he smiled, standing back up and helping the girl to her feet. His eyes flicked towards Roberta briefly with a questioning look. It was such a short glance that the youngster missed it completely. Roberta shook her head in response, a response which signalled everything’s fine, I wasn’t followed, I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. What she was supposed to be looking for eluded her.
Sam disappeared through the doors at the end of the hallway into the kitchen, his youngster in tow, and Roberta turned into the living room and sank down upon the slightly lumpy sofa.
“Fun at the park?”
“We fed the pigeons so it was a success,” Roberta replied to her sister. Natasha smiled as she continued to pack toys away into an old cardboard box that stood in the corner of the room. Her long brown hair flowed over her shoulders like a river of chocolate, and the South African sun had tanned her skin a permanent bronze. She turned her slightly freckled face towards Roberta with a smile.
“Those pigeons are gonna have trouble lifting off the ground soon with everything you give them. Talking of birds, that bloody cat brought in another one…you’re going to have to keep him locked in your room or there’ll be nothing left to feed.”
Roberta thought of the fluffy black cat who’d been the sole feline that had accompanied her from Ridgewood. She wasn’t even supposed to have one cat in the flat, let alone the four from her previous life, but nothing was quite the same without a feline companion. Roberta had dearly wished to have brought Faithful with her to London, but as much as he’d been a limpet at her side throughout her previous battle, at the first signs of leaving Ridgewood, he had disappeared. He later reappeared at Martha’s and had been unwilling to leave, yowling and caterwauling as they’d attempted to put him into a basket. Hence, Martha had ended up with trusty Faithful, Karl had been bestowed the tabby and ginger felines, whilst the long haired black moggy had made its escape to the British capital.
“I miss the others,” Roberta mused, thinking fondly of her fluffy friends.
“I missed half of your life,” Natasha replied, making a dig once again at the fact that she’d flown home to see her sister only to discover that Roberta was in a long term relationship with her college friend and that they had a daughter together. Of course, it was a complete lie. But Roberta couldn’t well tell people that she was on the run with a child from another world. They had all promised to keep the girl safe, hidden and away from harm. That was her end of the bargain; they would protect the gate, if she and Sam escaped with the Queen of the North Realm’s only child and heir. A child that, seemingly, had no difficulty crossing worlds even though it shouldn’t be possible. Even though her very presence on Earth upset the balance of nature. Everyone had said it; she shouldn’t be able to cross. Yet here she was; a daily reminder to Roberta of the events that had happened during the past year.
“Why are you here?” Roberta asked from the comfort of the sofa as she felt herself sink deeper into the seat. She and Natasha had never been close, so her sister turning up out of the blue had been rather unexpected.
“Does a girl need a reason to reconnect with her sister?” Natasha asked with a smile, retiring from organising the toys and leaning against the windowsill which overlooked the tiny paved backyard.
“I’d say so. We’re not exactly close,” Roberta said bluntly.
Natasha’s smile dropped, and Roberta could see the irritation rising on her face.
“Look, if I’m not wanted, then I’ll just leave. You’re the only family I have. I wanted to reconnect. But if you’re going to continue feuding as if we were teenagers again, then I’ll just jump on a plane and head back to Steve.”
“Wait,” Roberta called as Natasha strode across the room in an obvious huff. “Stay, I’m sure I can bear you a little longer.”
“Bear me?” Natasha said as she turned her head and scowled.
“Bear you,” Roberta repeated, too tired to even attempt a fully blown argument.
Natasha sighed with dismay and rolled her eyes, before leaving the room and heading towards the kitchen.
It was suspicious how Natasha had arrived, in London of all places, out of the blue. Her story tallied; that she had been to Ridgewood, spent several hours talking to locals before finally discovering that her sister had moved to London. Indeed, Susan Lingly had confirmed the story to Sam via a phone call. But, something wasn’t right and didn’t sit well with Roberta. The previous glance with Sam flicked into Roberta’s mind. Perhaps she wasn’t being followed at all; perhaps the danger was already here in her home.