"Wheeeeee!" The small bat did a double backip, then a twist, and landed neatly on the branch below.
"Did you see me, Uncle Marlon? Did you SEE me?" Alf squeaked.
"Shh!" The older bat apped a warning wing. "Button up, kiddo. We’ve got company." He stared into the night.
"Hmph. It’s those dames from Wadingburn."
The small bat’s eyes widened.
"The witches? Oh, Uncle Marlon! Can we stay ’n’ watch? Will they do
"They’re no big deal, kiddo."
The older bat settled
back on his branch.
"Deep Magic’s not allowed in the Five Kingdoms. This lot are Shallow, through and through. Couldn’t magic a bird off a branch. But keep mum, all the same. You don’t want to end up in a pot. Your ma’ll kill me if I bring you back half-boiled."
The small bat shivered, half in fear, half with plea
"Okeydokey, Uncle M."
And he froze into stillness as he watched the line of women, varying in shape and size but all dressed in black, making their way into the clearing at the top of Wadingburn Hill. Limping at the end of the line was the small, skinny fgure of a girl, her head bent tenderly over the bundle in her arms. As the witches hurried here and there, collecting frewood and setting up the old and dented black cauldron, she slipped away and settled herself at the foot of the tree where the two bats hung motionless. Softly she began to croon to the bundled-up object she was holding, rocking it gently to and fro.
"Loobly Higgins!" said a terrible voice. "What on
EARTH do you think you’re doing?"
Loobly jumped. "N-n-n-nothing, Auntie," she
The Grand High Witch of Wadingburn took a step closer. "Did my eyes deceive me, or were you KISSING that rat?"
Loobly shook her head so hard that her long, stringy hair broke loose from its ribbon and fell over her thin little face. "Wasn’t kissing it," she whispered.
"Not kissing. Just telling sorry. Sorry it be picklifed."
The Grand High Witch sighed in exasperation. "It’ll be no use now. No use at all. How many times do I have to tell you to leave my ingredients alone?"
"Sorry, Auntie Levangeline. Loobly hear you. Loobly very sorry." Loobly pushed the hair out of her eyes and looked up hopefully. "If no use, can Loobly keep he?"
"Certainly NOT!" The witch was on the point of snatching the rat away when she was distracted by the sound of cackling laughter. Instantly forgetting Loobly, she turned to see her fie fellow witches gathering around the cauldron that was now bubbling gently in the center of the clearing. At once the Grand High Witch drew herself to her full height and strode forward to greet them.
"Dear Mrs. Cringe! I’m so glad you’re with us tonight! And Mrs. Vibble and Mrs. Prag as well. Fabulous! And darling Ms. Scurrilous is here too! And Mrs. . . ."
The Grand High Witch faltered for a moment. What was the name of the hunched old witch on the far side of the fire? Even with the flames now burning brightly under the cauldron, it was too dark to see her face. It certainly wasn’t Mrs. Gabbage, and Ms. Pettigroan had sent a bat earlier that evening with polite apologies. Mrs. Cringe shufed up, looking distinctly guilty, and the Grand High Witch’s heart sank. Even worse, her little toe had begun to throb, which was a far more reliable warning of impending trouble. She had always been wary of Mrs. Cringe, not least because she was known to have relations outside the Five Kingdoms who were suspected of indulging in Deep Magic of the nastiest kind.
"Ahem," Mrs. Cringe addressed the Grand High Witch, whose toe was becaming increasingly painful. "That there’s my grandmother, Truda Hangnail. She’s come visiting from the other side of the More Enchanted Forest. Asked if I could invite her in for a week or two. Things got troublesome for her over there, she said. Too many two-headed cows and sheep with fve legs appearing all over the place."
She stepped closer and dropped her voice to a whisper. "Best to be polite. She’s in a bit of a temper. Fell in a ditch on the other side of the border gate."
She nudged the Grand High Witch. "Shouldn’t even be here in the Five Kingdoms. Deep, she is. Very Deep. But we won’t tell, will we?"
Evangeline Droop, Grand High Witch of Wadingburn, froze. It was a serious offense to invite a Deep Witch to cross the border of the Five Kingdoms. They had been banished many years before, together with werewolves and sorcerers. On the other hand, she had absolutely no idea how to confront a Deep Witch, let alone how to tell her to go home. Evangeline’s little toe was now excruciating. All the same, she extended an unwilling hand and said as gracefully as she was able, "Delighted to meet you, Mrs. Hangnail!"
The visitor stared at her with beady little eyes, and the strangely sinuous animal draped around her neck lifted its head and stared too. "Deep or Shallow?" the witch croaked.
Mrs. Cringe took her elderly relation by the arm. "I told you, Grandma. There aren’t any Deep Witches in the Five Kingdoms."
Truda Hangnail gave a laugh like knives scraping steel. "There’s no fun in that," she sneered. "You can’t turn princes into toads with Shallow Magic. How d’you put red-hot nails in a milkmaid’s shoes? And how d’you scare folk into giving you plump young chickens and apple pies and bowls of eggs and dishes of cream?"
"Actually, Mrs. Hangnail," the Grand High Witch said haughtily, "we are respected members of our community."
Mrs. Prag looked smug. "We’ve all been invited to Queen Bluebell’s eightieth-birthday party to hear the Declarati
Copyright © 2009 by Vivian French. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.