Uninvited Guests

(Originally written for a fiction blog hop, January 2016)

We hadn’t been invited to the feast. Aunt Mallory insisted that as representatives of the Hedge and Forest witches of the Kingdom we had a right to be there. As witnesses and giftbearers.
They weren’t happy about it, but the rules of hospitality wouldn’t allow them to turn us away. Someone dug out some pewter tableware, conspicuously different to the gold and silver laid out for the other guests, and made a space for us at the end table.
There was food I’d never imagined; pies and pastries, a roasted peacock with the tail feathers artfully fanned around it, and even the apple in the mouth of the roast boar was candied.
Normally I’d have piled my plate high like the other guests, but today I couldn’t choke down a crumb. Aunt Mallory too, only made a pretence of eating, sitting ramrod straight with her eyes fixed on the dais where the infant princess’s cradle rested. She’d been like this ever since the day I’d come home with the royal news.

“The Princess is to be named Allegra,” I’d told her, “and there’s to be a huge celebratory naming feast.”
“What did you say?” Mallory grabbed me by the shoulders, “The name, Eleanor, what name did you say?”
“Allegra. They announced it before the ceremony so that it could be worked into the gifts.” Everyone knows the power of names and this way gifts could be personalised or strengthened with the name woven into it. There’s danger too of course and she probably had other, secret names.
Mallory paled. She’d been increasingly haggard of late and I’d hoped the good news might improve things. She took out her oldest rune stones and cast them, frowning at the result and throwing them again as she gave me instructions.
“Mrs Smith needs that potion, and I fixed that spell wreath you messed up so you can take it to Annie Baggott. Make sure they give you full price.”
I’d rather not have. Annie was bound to insist on a reduced fee because she knew the almighty bosh I’d made of it the first time.
“Face up to things Eleanor. If you studied harder you wouldn’t make these mistakes in the first place.”
Of course Aunt Mallory was right, she was the teacher after all. I tended to rely on natural talent a bit too much. But when it failed me, it did it in style.
She was still frowning at the stones as I left, but I swear I saw a single tear slip down her cheek.
When I returned, two hours later, she’d started half a dozen tasks and left them unfinished as she sat in morbid study over her crystal ball.
“I’ll finish these shall I?” I stirred the potion she’d left simmering on the stove but she gave no sign that she’d heard me.

That potion now hung in a vial at her neck although I still had no idea what she intended with it.
The other guests at the table were more interested in soaking up the sights around them and gorging on the rich foods than paying any attention to the two awkward diners in their midst.
After what felt like an eternity the toasts began and then, finally, the gifts.
We sat there hemmed in on either side as each offering was made; tithing gifts, carvings, weaves and silks and of course the magical ones; beauty, wit and the voice of a lark. I could feel Mallory, taut as a wire beside me.
“Please,” I whispered, “Don’t. Whatever it is… Don’t.”
She didn’t even look at me. “When you begin to pay attention to your training rather than trusting to blind luck, then I may ask your opinion.” And she rose, stalking up the hall to that beautifully carved cradle, leaving me to sidle along behind wondering miserably what had turned my aunt into this stranger.
Mallory uncapped the vial from the chain about her neck and I recognised the scent of the potion I’d finished for her. I hung my head, knowing that whatever happened next, I was culpable.
She swished the tiny bottle, muttering an incantation and the distilled potion arose from the bottle, transforming into a misty blue circle which hovered over the cradle before settling on the child and dissipating silently.
Fools, I thought looking at the doting King and Queen only feet away. Were they so trusting they’d let anyone near their daughter? But of course, they thought all the guests had been vetted.
“Allegra, newborn daughter of Vincente and Katterina, I have consulted the oracles and cast the runes.” Mallory’s cracked voice echoed through the hall.
The parents leaned forward expectantly, complacent and bloated on the diet of goodwill they’d received all day.
“Your seventeenth year foretells doom beyond measure for the kingdom. As one of the Guardians of Glade and Mountain I cannot allow this.”
There was a shocked intake of breath around us, but bound by the spell, they could only listen as Mallory continued.
“I am not heartless. Live your first sixteen years in joy and wring every ounce of beauty from each day because on your sixteenth birthday, the dawn of your seventeenth year, for the sake of the kingdom you must prick your finger on a spindle and die.”
Uproar broke out in the great hall. I expected to be seized and thrown in the dungeons but the space around us actually widened as if they were all loath to risk any contact.
Despite the furore, there remained a bubble of stunned silence in the small circle around the cradle, and it was into that silence that I spoke.
“The nightshade. That’s why the nightshade was with the ingredients.”
Mallory gave a weary nod. Now that her task was complete she looked ready to collapse.
“I didn’t put the nightshade in,” I confessed in a small voice. “I thought you were testing me and I didn’t want to mess up again.”
Mallory raised haunted eyes to mine and a deep anger began to burn in them. “Idiot girl! You may have doomed us all.”
“But what does this mean?” blustered the King.
“Mean?” snapped Mallory. “It means that when your kingdom lies in ruins you have this imbecile child of my sister to thank.” With that she stormed from the hall, leaving me to the judgement of everyone there. Everyone except the child who burbled happily up at me, ignorant of the turmoil her existence had caused.
“Time to face up to things Eleanor,” I whispered to myself. Maybe Mallory was my teacher, but perhaps she wasn’t always right. Maybe there was a place for blind luck, I hoped so as I took a deep breath and faced the King.
“It means Sire, that she will not die. In accordance with Mallory’s spell she must prick her finger on a spindle but instead shall fall into an enchanted sleep. If my Aunt’s prediction is right then we have sixteen years to find a solution.”

© Angela Wooldridge January 2016