Emma and the Elixir of Madness | Chapter One

Druid’s Curse

Comfortable on her new bed, Emma lay on her side watching the rat nibble on bread squares. Kimber sat cross-legged near the foot end, setting the three rag dolls Da got for her in tiny wooden chairs. Two beds flanked the window at the back end of the room—one for Emma and one for Kimber—but in the days since the work finished, they’d been sharing one. Tam’s bed occupied the other corner along the north wall, opposite the door in. The boy sprawled on the floor, his attention absorbed by a book of knights. While he didn’t yet read, the illustrations of armored men in various poses with swords enthralled him.

Beneath the window between the girls’ beds, a small trunk had become the rat’s home. Inside, Emma had decorated three floor levels connected by tiny ladders with ‘rat furniture.’ Another, longer, ladder connected up to the windowsill so he could enjoy the breeze whenever he wanted. His bed sat nestled at the bottom left corner, under the first raised floor, safe and dark.

Emma glanced from her sister’s small doll table to the window, which offered a view north over the meadow behind the house. Seeing the sun so far from setting annoyed her for once. Having spent most of the past few days helping rearrange the house had left her exhausted. For the first time in her ten years, Emma wanted bedtime to hurry up and get there.

The family bed had become a memory. No longer sleeping with her parents close by in case of nightmares—Mama and Da’s bedroom sat behind the wall at her back—made falling asleep difficult. For years, she’d spent the night on her side, pressed face-first against the wall with Tam at her back. Bedtime had only become more cramped with the addition of Kimber to the family.

Emma couldn’t figure out if not being squished against the wall bothered her or if she missed having her family close. Tam hadn’t seemed to mind the change. He rather enjoyed having an entire bed to himself. Kimber had decided to share Emma’s bed every night despite having a separate one. Whether she sensed Emma had trouble adjusting, or if the girl also feared being alone at night, she didn’t know. Tonight, however, Emma doubted she’d have any difficulty falling asleep.

For his part, the rat adored his new house, finding it a vast improvement over the little box they’d given him at first. Even Da had gotten used to having him around and no longer sent disdainful looks his way. After all, had the rat not chewed the girls free, Emma couldn’t have asked the raven to go find Nan. If not for his teeth, the Shadows’ Eyes thieves’ guild would’ve done who-knows-what with her and Kimber.

Emma reached out and scratched the rat’s head with one finger. Seeing him reminded her how terrified she’d been in that cellar, but it also made her think about the look on Nan’s face when her roots ripped the doors away. Knowing Nan had gotten that angry over people trying to hurt them filled her with warmth.

“I’as ’fink you’as hair’s pretty,” said Kimber, speaking for one of her dolls. “’Morrow ae shall pick some flowers fer you’as tae wear innit.”

Kimber made the other doll nod. “Oh, ’at would b’lovely, wouldn’t it, Anna?”

The rat picked up his last bread square, stretched to lick Emma’s finger, and resumed nibbling on his dinner.

“Psst,” whispered Kimber. “Em, you’as Anna.”

“Oops.” Emma grasped the third doll and made it scratch its head. “Flowers make me sneeze.” She wagged the doll’s head while emitting a fake sneeze.

Kimber giggled.

A banging knock sounded from the front door.

Tam jumped up.

“Hold on, hold on,” called Nan. “Don’t let your pants catch on fire.”

Emma shifted to the edge of the bed and got up. The rat leapt onto her back, crawled up to her shoulder, and peeked out from under her hair as she walked to the doorway and stuck her head out into the hall. A little ways left, a door led to her parents’ new bedroom. A nearer distance to the right, past an obvious change in the color of the floorboards, the door to Nan’s room hung open. The thuds of Nan crossing the front room preceded the clatter of the door opening. Emma crept out and made her way to the main room, curious to see who’d come calling so late in the day and knock so hard.

Kimber and Tam followed close behind.

“What has your granddaughter done to my son?” asked a woman.

A strange gurgle in a boy’s voice followed. Water sloshed.

Emma blinked in confusion and walked faster. At the end of the hall, she hid against the corner and peered around.

A brown-haired woman a few years older than Mama filled the doorway with her arms folded, an angry frown upon her face. She had a plain commoner’s dress on, in basic green, with brown cloth shoes. At her side, a creature resembling a thin teal-skinned boy stood with his head dunked in a wooden bucket held against his chest. His beige tunic had soaked to his skin, and wetness darkened most of his brown leggings. The boy’s bare feet sported stubby black claws instead of nails, and he had sharper, longer talons in place of his fingernails. Thin membranes spanned between his fingers and toes. Bright yellow-green fins flapped lazily along his forearms. When he pulled his head out of the bucket, Emma had to clamp a hand over her mouth to stop herself from emitting a yelp of surprise.

The boy’s eyes had become giant black spheres. His face looked more fishy than human. Water dribbled out of slits on the sides of his neck, and he kept gulping at the air like he couldn’t breathe. Despite the drastic transformation, Emma caught a sense of familiarity in his features. As soon as she recognized Alan, the boy who’d mocked her at Rydh’s farm and thrown her against a wall, she giggled.

The woman, no doubt his mother, glared in her direction. “I don’t know what it is you’ve done to my son, but please… fix him.”

Alan pointed a clawed finger at Emma and made a gargling noise. Seconds later, he gawped and plunged his head back into the bucket of water.

Giggles overtook Emma and spread to Kimber. Tam cocked his head with a repulsed expression, neither laughing nor backing away.

“How curious,” said Nan.

Alan’s mother quivered with rage. She shot Emma a look that promised consequences. “I’m well aware, and very grateful, of the good your family does for our town, but you simply cannot let your granddaughter get away with such horrible things! I expect you’ll punish her?” The woman shifted her gaze to Nan.

“Blargl!” Alan jabbed his finger at Emma. “Glargglglgl.”

Tears streamed out of Emma’s eyes from laughing so hard.

“Look at her!” yelled Alan’s mother. “She’s proud of herself.”

“Oh, calm yourself Meredith.” Nan grasped Alan’s arm and led him inside. “Emma did not do this.”

Alan’s mother shuffled in behind him, her venomous stare at Emma weakening. “You’re so sure of that? The girl is laughing at him.”

Her son attempted to gurgle something, but rushed to dunk his head underwater again.

“Look at him! He can’t breathe. She could’ve killed him.” Meredith sniffled and fought back tears.

Emma stopped laughing. “I didn’t do anything to Alan. I laughed because he looked funny and made funny noises. I’m sorry. I didn’t know it could hurt him.”

Nan guided the boy to a chair by the kitchen table. Emma stared with longing at the end of the room that used to hold the family bed. A group of comfortable, cushioned chairs sat atop a rug there by a small table, and a Da set up his desk full of logbooks against the wall where the shelf of clothes used to be.

Alan lifted his head from the bucket and glared at Emma. He gasped, sending another pulse of water down the sides of his neck. “Glrgl?”

“Well.” Nan placed her hand atop his head and examined him. “Whatever magic did this to him is far beyond anything Emma could’ve produced. She is nowhere learned enough. It is beyond imagination that she could’ve done this to him.”

Emma padded over to stand by her grandmother. “What happened to him?”

Kimber and Tam remained in the hallway, peering around the corner.

Nan leaned back while the boy stuck his head in the water to take another breath. “A transformation like this… at least for one of our kind to inflict, is no simple spell. This would require a Druid’s Curse.”

Mama entered from the back door, carrying the kettle she’d filled with water. At the sight of Alan, she almost dropped it. “By Mythandriel…”

“Beth! Oh, something’s happened to Alan.” The boy’s mother looked from Mama to Nan. “How does one do this curse?”

Nan flared her eyebrows with a smile. “Get far enough on my bad side.”

“Meredith?” Mama hurried to put the kettle on the stove and approached the boy. “What’s he gotten into?”

His mother, no longer furious, shot pleading stares at Nan and Mama. “I’ve no idea. I… thought your daughter did this. They got into a fight at the Cooper farm. Other boys had been teasing him over it.” She hugged Mama. “Oh, Beth… please help him!”

“We’ll figure it out.” Mama patted her arm, but didn’t appear confident.

Alan gurgled. His accusing stare had also lost its strength. He shivered in the chair, looking small and frightened. After a lamenting moan, he dunked his head again. His mother bit her knuckle and paced back and forth.

“It appears to be an incomplete polymorph,” mumbled Nan.

Mama nodded. “Oh. Yes, perhaps.”

“Beth, you never did pay attention about wizards.” Nan clucked.

Emma shivered and mumbled, “I don’t like wizards.”

“A what?” His mother stopped pacing, staring at them.

Nan patted the boy’s shoulder. “Sit here a moment, lad.” She ambled around the table over to the cabinet. “Polymorph is a magical term that means to change shape from one form into another. Such as from a person into a dog or cat. Your son appears to be part way between boy and fish.”

Mama pulled a chair around next to Alan for his mother, excused herself, and swooped in beside Nan.

Alan lifted his head out of the water and stared at Emma. “Glrgl.”

She shook her head, shrugged, and tried to look as innocent as possible. “Really. I didn’t do this to you. I promise.”

“Would you like tea or some bread?” asked Kimber, appearing beside the boy’s mother.

“No… Thank you.” Meredith took her son’s hand and squeezed.

Mama glanced back. “Em, fetch a bucket of fresh water. He’ll have breathed that one out by now.”

“Yes, Mama.” She plucked the rat from her shoulder and set him on the floor.

The rat scurried into the hallway, heading for his den. Emma jogged out back to the water pump, set a wooden bucket under it, and worked the handle. Kimber trailed outside with her, watching the water slosh and churn. When Emma stopped pumping, her sister grabbed the rope handle.

“Tae much fer you’as tae lif’ ’lone.” Kimber smiled.

Emma looked at the bucket, easily twice the size of the one Alan carried in. “Thanks.”

Together, they lugged it back in and set it on the floor near Alan. He put his bucket on the table, slid from the chair to kneel by the bigger one, and stuck his head in. Emma held Kimber’s hand, mesmerized at the sight of what had happened to the boy. She couldn’t claim to like him much, in fact she cared for Alan less than Rydh at his worst, though she had changed her mind about him.

Mama and Nan muttered amongst themselves while deciding on various things from the cabinet, returning some to the shelves, adding a few others to the crucible. At the weight of his mother’s stare, Emma made eye contact.

“I promise I didn’t do anything to him.”

The woman didn’t seem convinced, though she also appeared frightened that showing anger could make Nan think twice about helping. Whenever Alan didn’t have his head underwater, he scowled at Emma. Tam had evidently lost interest and returned to their room, and his book.

Mama and Nan chanted together, and a white-green light appeared over their worktable. It faded in seconds. Mama headed for the stove while Nan carried a small wooden cup over to the boy.

“Alan?”

He raised his head from the bucket.

Nan offered him the cup. “This should put you back to rights. You’ll need to drink all of it.”

“Glrb!” He took the cup in both hands and chugged it, shaking it to chase two more drops onto his tongue.

Nan took the cup back, and smiled.

“He’s still half fish,” muttered his mother.

Alan stared at her.

“Give it a moment,” said Nan, still smiling.

The fish-boy looked around the room, blinking in confusion for a little while. Emma balanced on one leg, scratching her shin with her foot, not wanting to take her gaze off him lest she miss anything.

“Glrp!” yelled Alan.

He grasped the front of his neck and squeezed. His eyes shot open wide. The all-black orbs shrank and turned green. Gagging, he collapsed on all fours, convulsing and vomiting up water. Talon-like fingernails receded as the scaly, teal coloration to his arms gave way to a light, even tan. Fins along the backs of his arms and calves shrank away to nothing. With a great, gasping breath, Alan sat back on his heels, looking fully human and as exhausted as if he’d run around Widowswood Town six times.

His mother pounced on him, squeezing and crying. He reached up to grasp her arms where they circled his chest, and fixed Emma with a glare.

“It’s Emma’s fault,” wheezed Alan. “I saw her.”

“Oh did you now?” asked Nan, raising an eyebrow.

Alan nodded. “We were swimming in the river and it just happened to me. I looked and saw her running away laughing.”

Emma put her hands on her hips. “I’ve been home all day. I haven’t even gone outside. We’ve been moving things around the house.”

“Aye,” said Mama. “Em’s been in sight of my mother or I all day.”

“Past few days even,” said Nan. “And, need I remind you again, that no matter how angry Emma may have gotten with you, a Druid’s Curse is quite well beyond her.”

“That also wasn’t a Druid’s Curse.” Mama carried cups to the table. “It’s wizard’s magic and no one in our family has that gift.”

“Well, I saw someone running away.” Alan looked down. “But she’s a witch and can’t be trusted.”

His mother squeezed his shoulders and looked up with an apologetic expression. “Forgive me… I don’t understand these things. I know the kids had a spat and… I don’t think your daughter did this.”

“Think no more of it.” Mama smiled. “I understand your need to protect your son. Tea?”

“Oh…” The woman stood and pulled Alan to his feet. “I fear we’ve imposed quite enough already.”

Alan pointed at Emma. “But—”

“Do you honestly believe she did it or are you accusing her out of spite?” His mother gave him a stern look.

“Ma, no one else would wanna do that to me.”

His mother hardened her voice. “Did you see Emma?”

“No.” He hung his head. “Just a shadow running away.”

“I’m sorry for barging in on you like this.” Meredith offered apologetic bows to Mama and Nan before pulling Alan close. “Tell them you’re sorry for accusing her.”

Alan muttered something.

She gave his ear a squeeze.

He cringed, twisting up on tiptoe. “I’m sorry for saying it was Emma.”

“I forgive you,” said Emma.

Meredith walked him to the door. Before going outside, Alan glanced back at Emma with narrowed eyes. Mama followed, bid them a safe walk home, and closed the door.

With the danger to his life gone, Emma giggled at the way he’d looked.

“Em, you… didn’t have anything at all to do with that, did you?” asked Nan, smiling.

“No, Nan. He’s mean, so I thought it was funny. He looked silly.”

Nan grinned. “That wasn’t druidic magic.”

“Obviously,” said Mama, pouring tea. “Azurevine wouldn’t have worked if it was.”

“What’s a Druid’s Curse?” asked Emma, pushing the chair Alan’s mother had used back where it belonged.

“Well now…” Nan carried her tea into the new sitting area, and eased herself into a cushioned chair she’d taken a fancy to. “They’re a bit of old magic.”

Emma followed and curled up on the nearest chair. Kimber sat with her.

“There are people who hear the term druids and they think of pretty girls hugging fluffy rabbits or petting giant cats. Others think of forest nymphs dancing around in the woods wearing little more than flowers in their hair.” Nan winked.

Emma grinned and Kimber giggled.

“Your mother went through a phase—”

Mama flared her eyes. “Mother…”

Nan winked. “What many don’t understand is that druids can also be cruel. Some circles are quite mean-spirited and vindictive.”

“Vin doc…” Kimber scrunched her face. “Wha?”

“It means to take pleasure in seeking revenge. A druid’s curse is never the same twice. It is powerful ritual magic, which can last for years depending on the circumstance. A long time ago, far to the west, the elders of a town sought the assistance of a circle of druids to help their farms. A price was agreed upon for this help, a trade of grain, lamp oil, fabrics, and such. Alas, when the time came to pay, the town elders went back on their word. Some even accused the druids of doing nothing at all. They claimed the bounty in their harvest would have occurred anyway.”

Emma gasped. “That’s stealing!”

“Uh oh.” Kimber shook her head. “They’as gonnae ’gret that.”

“Indeed they did, child.” Nan sipped her tea. “Oh, that’s still too hot.” She set the cup on a small table beside her chair. “The circle placed a Druid’s Curse upon the town. Nothing would grow there. The wells dried up, the cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens died, and people had nothing to eat.”

Emma stared in horror. “They… killed the animals? But… they’re druids!”

Nan let off a sad chuckle. “Druids are not required to be ‘nice,’ Emma. Within the world of animals, there is much death and suffering. Your wolves must kill in order to eat, for example.”

“Yes.” Emma looked down.

“Do not be sad for their prey, child. All spirit energy returns from whence it came, and shall stride upon the land again. No life is truly ever lost.”

Mama glanced over, eyebrow raised.

Nan sighed. “Don’t bother the child with netherworld creatures yet. She’s too young.”

Emma gulped.

“Well, fine.” Nan fluffed herself up. “In the natural order of things, no life is truly ever lost.”

Mama, seeming satisfied, sat in a nearby chair with her tea.

“Other Druid’s Curses have turned men into horses, or caused people to no longer be able to become drunk no matter how much wine they consume… as I said, it is different every time, and quite powerful magic. No druid would use it lightly.” Nan winked. “If only out of laziness at having to do all the work necessary to throw one.”

Emma smiled.

“’Ave ye ever done a’ druid curse?” asked Kimber.

Nan pursed her lips. “Oh, perhaps a wee one.”

Mama gave Nan the side-eye. “You did then?”

“I may have taken offense to a particular old busybody who may have said a few things that ruffled this old raven’s feathers. Particular things rather cruelly insulting my daughter.”

Mama’s face gained some color. She couldn’t seem to decide between being angry or wanting to laugh. “You did not curse Liam’s mother…”

Nan sipped her tea. “Ahh. Perfect temperature.” She sipped again.

“Mother…” Mama stared at Nan.

“What? She lost her voice for a month. Pff. Big deal. It was a mild one.” Nan sipped tea.

“Lost her voice?” Mama blinked. “The woman clucked like a chicken every time she tried to talk! She stayed silent on purpose.”

Emma and Kimber laughed.

Nan appeared pleased with herself and sipped tea again.

“Can I go to bed now?” asked Emma.

“Are you feeling all right?” Mama raised both eyebrows.

“Yes. I’m tired from carrying stuff all day.” Emma yawned as she stood.

“Nae alla way dark yet,” muttered Kimber, right before yawning.

Mama kissed Emma on the head. “If you’re tired, go to bed.”

Emma smiled. “Night, Mama. Night, Nan.” She plodded down the hall to the bedroom, stepped over Tam who’d flopped on the floor right inside the doorway, and approached the shelf at the end of her bed. She stared at the nightgown hanging on the peg, not sure if she had enough energy left to change. After a long yawn, she traded the dress Nan made her for the nightgown, and crawled into bed. A hazy minute or two later, Kimber cuddled up behind her. Emma smiled into the pillow, and faded off to sleep.


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