Ages 8 - 12
Monster Land – Dark Wolf
No sensible person believes in fairies. Or elf kings, witches, pookahs (whatever they are) or trolls. So Germany can’t be a sensible place, because we just drove past a sign that said:
Willkommen im Schwarzwald – der Heimat von Feen und Elfen.
In English, this means:
Welcome to the Black Forest – home of fairies and elves.
‘Huxley?’ says Mum. ‘Stop flicking through that German dictionary while I’m driving. It’s irritating.’
My mum is a nurse. I think she uses up all her patience on patients, because she has very little left for me or my sister. To be fair, she has driven us over 300 miles today. I know this because she has told us many, many times.
‘I have to learn German, Mum,’ I say. ‘Poppy and I start school next week.’
‘You can’t learn a whole language in one car journey,’ says Mum. ‘You’re setting your standards too high. Just learn a few useful sayings. Like, excuse me, where is the ice cream shop.’
‘Or the toilet.’ Nana Jocelyn turns around in the passenger seat. ‘It’s always good to know where the toilet is.’
Beside me, my little sister Poppy watches fir trees through the car window. She’s describing the what she sees in poetic language … elegant, tall Christmas tree, ragged, blue mountain … which means she’s nervous. I don’t blame her.
Moving to a new country is a big deal for a seven-year-old. It’s a big deal for me too, age twelve.
‘You’ll pick up German in no time, Huxley,’ says Nana, patting my hand. ‘I learnt English in three weeks flat. Of course, your granddad was worth learning for.’
My grandmother’s face is warm and brown, like a piece of cinnamon toast. She has dimples when she smiles, and she smiles a lot.
No one ever believes that Nana Jocelyn is Mum’s mother because Mum is skinny, wears serious glasses and bosses everyone around.
I’m tall and skinny like Mum, with Nana’s helmet of black curls. My hair looks like a short mop with an unusual patch of blond above my left ear. The blond patch is called poliosis, and it appeared when I was three.
‘The Brothers Grimm lived near here,’ says Mum, as we drive around twisty, mountain roads. ‘They collected fairy tales from the Black Forest and towns like Merchenheft. Imagine living in a town, kids. No more city stress.’
It’s true – we were all stressed in London. Things got really bad when Dad died.
‘Nearly there,’ says Mum. ‘Merchenheft should be just around this corner.’ She glances in the rear-view mirror. ‘Huxley, didn’t I tell you to put down that dictionary?’
‘This isn’t a dictionary.’ I hold up the book to show her. ‘It’s Dad’s book.’
When Dad died, I was given an old leather book with blank pages. I have no idea why I ended up with it, but I remember Dad keeping the book in a locked drawer. He shouted at me once for touching it.
‘How come it’s not in your rucksack?’ Mum asks.
‘I just wanted to look at it and –’
The book feels cold. Freezing, in fact, even though it’s sunny outside. I’m about to open the book, when a long, low howl echoes around the mountain. It makes the whole road shake and our car too.
‘Earthquake!’ I shout, leaping to protect my little sister. ‘Everyone get down!’
Sadly, my seatbelt stops my heroics by throwing me back against my seat.
‘Worry not, big sibling.’ Poppy pats my hand. ‘It’s just weather. Look. Snow.’
‘Oh, my goodness!’ Nana laughs.
White specks appear on the window screen.
I look down at my book, then blink hard and look again. There’s frost on the cover – a light dusting of the stuff, alive and swirling over the leather. I blink five times, but it doesn’t go away.
‘What’s with this weather?’ Mum asks. ‘Have you ever known a snowstorm to come on so quickly? And in spring?’
The snow gets thicker and heavier, and Mum puts the windscreen wipers on.
‘I can’t see a thing,’ says Mum. ‘Maybe we’d better –’
Silver light explodes overhead.
The windscreen wipers stop dead in the middle of the windscreen, and the car engine falls quiet.
‘Uh oh,’ says Mum, as the car comes to a gentle stop.
‘Is the car broken?’ asks Poppy.
‘The car is fine,’ I tell her. ‘Mum had it checked at the garage before our trip.’
‘Yes, about the garage,’ says Mum. ‘I … um. Well, I didn’t take the car in the end.’
‘How could you forget?’ I ask. ‘I left you three reminder notes.’
‘I didn’t exactly forget,’ Mum admits. ‘We more sort of … couldn’t afford it. Not if we were going to eat breakfast on the ferry. The car has never broken down before. And I know how you kids love croissants and pancakes and those little boxes of Cocoa Pops –’
‘It’s stopped snowing,’ says Poppy.
‘You’re right,’ says Mum, looking out the windscreen. ‘Crazy. Look – blue sky again. Have you ever known a storm to come and go like that?’
‘Never in my long life,’ says Nana Jocelyn.
I look down at Dad’s book.
The dancing frost has gone. I have the weirdest feeling that it came and went with the storm. But most probably, I’m tired and seeing things. We hardly slept on the ferry last night.
‘The sun’s shining,’ says Mum, opening the car door. ‘It’s the first day of spring today. A time for new beginnings.’
Even though it’s sunny outside, I’m cold in my green-and-black-striped jumper and old jeans. For some reason, I feel like the storm was telling us to turn back. Mum seems cheerful, though.
‘We can’t be more than a mile from Merchenheft,’ she says. ‘Let’s walk into town and find someone to fix the car.’
‘Well, this is an adventure,’ says Mum, as we walk down the mountain path.
‘The air is fresh and fragrant,’ says Poppy. ‘Like it’s been in the washing machine.’
‘My feet hurt,’ says Nana. ‘How much further?’
It’s no surprise that Nana is uncomfortable. She’s wearing a sequinned party dress and high heels on a mountain path. Nana says big women should celebrate their bodies with lots of sparkle, but sometimes there’s a time and place.
Dad’s book jogs up and down in my rucksack.
‘We’ll get something to eat in town and phone a garage,’ says Mum. ‘It’ll all be fine.’
But nothing has been fine since Dad died. Come to think of it, things weren’t especially fine when he was alive.
We walk over a bridge and a babbling, clear stream. Dad’s book sort of tugs in my bag, like it’s trying to jump in the water.
Get some sleep, Huxley, I think. You’re imagining things.
Once we’re over the bridge, I find myself looking back.
‘Onward, big brother.’ Poppy pulls me forward. ‘I’m famished.’
We reach houses that look like gingerbread and cobbled streets. There are little bridges and streams everywhere, with colourful sweets, bread and cake glittering behind latticed windows.
‘What a pretty little place,’ says Nana as we walk into the town square. ‘It looks like a fairy tale.’
‘It does, doesn’t it?’ says Mum. ‘No surprise, really. Most fairy tales came from this part of Germany. And they’re nothing like Disney cartoons. In the original Snow White, the evil queen had to dance in red-hot shoes until she fell down dead.’
‘They should have just made her write a sorry letter,’ says Poppy. ‘That would have been the kind thing to do.’
My little sister has a very gentle sense of justice. I hope she doesn’t become a judge when she’s older. She’d let all the criminals go.
‘Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future,’ says Nana. ‘Look at all these chocolate shops. I think we’re going to be very happy here.’
‘It certainly looks interesting,’ I say, eyeing a giant cuckoo clock tick-tocking over the town square. ‘And old.’
‘Mum,’ says Poppy. ‘Why is everything written in English?’
‘Merchenheft gets a lot of English-speaking visitors,’ says Mum. ‘The town is supposed to be … well a little magical. Something to do with the mountain.’
We all look at the vast, grey mountain looming over the town.
‘What’s that vibrant, orange glow?’ Poppy points to the mountain peak.
‘Oh, I’ve read about this,’ says Mum. ‘It’s called the Eleven Flamme. In English, it means –’
‘Elf flame,’ I say.
‘Very good, Huxley,’ says Mum. ‘They think it’s to do with the way sunlight hits the mountain, but no one is quite sure. And sometimes, it’s very big, like a giant circle glowing around the peak. A sort of … halo. Some say there are elves up there, changing the light.’
Mum notices my expression and adds: ‘I know you don’t believe in that sort of thing, Hux, but plenty of people do.’ She frowns. ‘Maybe that’s why your dad never spoke about this place. He hated stories about elves and fairies.’
‘Well, I like elves and fairies,’ says Nana Jocelyn. ‘What a beautiful little town. And look! Pretzels!’
‘Yes, you must all be starving,’ says Mum. ‘Let’s grab a pretzel from that bakery –’
‘Hello there!’ A tall, smiley girl comes rollerblading up to us. ‘Are you the Sparks family?’
Actually, the girl stumbles rather than rollerblades, because of the cobblestones. She’s about my age, with brown hair, golden skin and a plait woven around her head like a crown. There are small plastic daisies stuck into the plait.
‘We’ll meet you in the bakery, Huxley,’ says Mum. ‘You talk to your new friend.’
I’m about to say that this girl looks far too active to be my friend. But too late – Mum, Nana and Poppy are walking away.
‘Welcome to magical Merchenheft,’ says the girl, shaking my hand. ‘I’m Clementine. Here’s my business card.’
She hands me a blue card that says:
Fairy and elf specialist.
Hot chocolate barista.
The girl carries a Robin-hood-style bow over her shoulder made from a stick, string and lots of Sellotape. Which is strange. But then again, I’m wearing a lumpy green-and-black striped jumper knitted by my grandma and jeans a size too small.
‘You speak English?’ I ask.
‘Yes,’ says Clementine. ‘Almost everyone here does. Most people in Merchenheft are from somewhere else. England, France, America. All over.’
‘Are you English?’ I ask. ‘You sound very English.’
‘Well, I was born in America,’ says the girl. ‘But I grew up in Hong Kong. My dad is half Bangladeshi, half American. My mother is half German, half British. Which makes me a little bit of everything, but isn’t everyone?’
‘I suppose so,’ I say. ‘Isn’t it difficult to rollerblade on cobblestones?’
‘That’s exactly why I’m doing it,’ Clementine explains. ‘Difficulty strengthens the mind. What’s your first name?’
‘Oh, I see,’ says Clementine. ‘Like the science fiction writer. So, you’re staying at the castle, right?’
‘Castle?’ I say. ‘No, we’re staying in some run-down old house. It’s been in my dad’s family for hundreds of years. We’re going to fix it up.’
‘Oh.’ Clementine looks at me strangely. ‘Okay. Well, when do you start school?’
‘Next week,’ I say. ‘I’m going to King Ludwig School.’
Clementine smiles. ‘I’ll see you there. Call me if anything dangerous happens in the meantime. My number is on the card.’
I look at the business card. There’s a pencil drawing of a bee in the corner.
‘Take care, okay?’ says Clementine. ‘You really are in terrible danger.’ She clumps away on her rollerblades.
I put the card in my pocket because I can’t see any recycling bins.
I don’t mind people being a bit crazy, but this girl is too much, even for me. And the idea of my family living in a castle is ridiculous. We’ve lived in a two-bedroom flat for as long as I can remember.
As I wander towards the pretzel bakery, Poppy sprints towards me.
‘Huxley, Huxley, I chose you a pretzel.’ She stuffs fluffy bread into my mouth, then grabs my hand. ‘I got you a cheese pretzel,’ Poppy explains. ‘Because you like pizza. Let’s look around the town. Mum said we could.’
‘Wo kay,’ I say, chewing bread. ‘Leff wook round.’
The Well of Screams
The town square looks just like a game I played once called Knights of the Zombie Apocalypse. In the game, I played a knight in armour, ridding a medieval town of zombies.
Truthfully, the zombies were a little out of place in olden times. And real knights didn’t have machine guns. But I forgave all that because it was a fun game.
‘What’s that grey, stone object over there?’ asks Poppy.
‘It looks like a well,’ I say. ‘They used wells years ago to pull up water.’
‘I know,’ says Poppy. ‘Like in Jack and Jill.’
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Interestingly, the Chinese were the first to use wells –’
My rucksack gives an almighty tug. Enough to make me stumble. It feels like I’m being pulled towards the stone well.
‘Whoa.’ I catch myself.
‘What?’ Poppy asks.
‘My rucksack moved,’ I say. ‘Either that or I’m hallucinating.’
Poppy takes her writer’s notebook from her pocket. ‘What does halloo-sinating mean?’ she asks, pencil poised.
‘It’s when you see things that aren’t real,’ I explain. ‘Like that time you had a fever and saw toy cars racing around the toilet seat.’
‘Yes, those imaginary vehicles were fun.’ Poppy nods, scribbling a note.
‘They weren’t for me,’ I say. ‘I had to sit with you all night while you threw up pink sick and –’
Let’s look at the well.’ Poppy pockets her notepad.
‘Okay,’ I say. ‘But we should be careful.’
‘Be careful of what?’ Poppy asks.
I don’t answer. I don’t know why, but I feel like the well is dangerous.
‘The Well of Screams.’ Poppy reads from a silvery plaque. ‘This well leads to the underworld and the watery prison of the Erlkonig. Do not look down the well at full moon, lest you be bewitched by evil.’ She takes out her notepad again. ‘What’s an Erlkonig?’
My rucksack isn’t moving anymore. I’m beginning to wonder if it ever really did.
‘I suppose, some German fairy tale we didn’t get back in the UK.’ I look down the well. It’s made from rough, grey rocks piled in a circle. There’s a grill over the top and a sign on the circular rim:
ELECTRICAL DANGER – DO NOT THROW ANYTHING DOWN THE WELL
It would be impossible to throw things down the well with the grill in place. But the grill has been prised up on one side.
‘I wonder how deep it is?’ I hear my voice echo inside the well. ‘I can’t even see the bottom.’
The well seems to go on forever.
Poppy and I stare down, down into blackness.
‘I will tear him to shreds.’
I pull Poppy back.
‘Huxley.’ Poppy sounds annoyed. ‘I wanted to try an echo.’
‘Someone’s down there,’ I say.
‘Down the well?’ Poppy looks at me like I’m a total idiot. ‘How could someone be down the well? We can’t even see the bottom.’
‘… feel the bite of everlasting winter.’
It’s a deep, angry voice, not unlike my old, overweight PE teacher.
My mouth turns dry. ‘Did you hear that?’
‘What?’ Poppy looks confused.
‘What voice?’ demands Poppy. ‘I think you are …’ She checks her notepad. ‘Hallucinating.’
I look into the well again, listening. But the talking seems to have stopped.
‘I swear I heard someone in the well,’ I insist.
‘If anyone fell down that well, they’d die,’ Poppy reasons. ‘It’s a very long way down.’
She’s right, of course.
I pull my rucksack straps tight and have a stern word with myself.
Huxley Sparks, you are tired. Your bag isn’t moving. There is no tugging or pulling. No one is speaking to you. Get some sleep and get a hold of yourself.
‘Come on.’ I take Poppy’s hand. ‘Let’s find Mum and Nana. And find out where we’re staying.’
‘I already know where we’re staying,’ says Poppy. ‘Mum checked the map. We’re staying at Merchenheft castle.’
‘We’re … what?’ I stare at her. ‘Did you say castle?’
‘Yes,’ says Poppy. ‘Isn’t that splendid?’
‘It can’t be a real castle,’ I say. ‘Maybe it’s an old castle that’s been turned into apartments. We won’t be living in an actual, entire castle, Poppy. This isn’t a fairy tale.’
‘So, we’re staying in a castle,’ says Mum. ‘A real, actual castle.’
We look up and up at tall, fairy tale turrets.
This is quite incredible. The castle isn’t a set of apartments or a run-down old house. It really, truly is a castle.
‘We’re living here?’ I say. ‘This must be a mistake.’
‘Maybe there’s some sort of servants’ quarters for us,’ says Mum. ‘But even so, this is very beautiful.’
‘And HUGE,’ I say, staring at the courtyard and stables.
‘Let’s live in that bit.’ Poppy points to a golden-yellow tower in the middle of the courtyard. Flags fly from its four turrets – a sun, a wolf, a bee and a scorpion.
‘I’m in shock,’ says Nana Jocelyn. ‘We’ve moved from a mouldy two-bedroom flat to this.’
‘Well, we’d better find out for certain,’ says Mum, walking into the courtyard. ‘It could be a mistake. Hello? HELLO?’
A door opens in the battlement wall, and a white-haired gentleman strides out. He has the biggest moustache I’ve ever seen and stands bolt upright, like an army sergeant.
‘Hello to you too,’ the man barks. ‘You must be the Sparks family. Welcome to Merchenheft Castle. We are very pleased to have you living here.’
‘Right,’ says Mum. ‘Not a mistake then.’
‘I am Colonel Horn,’ says the man, shaking our hands. ‘Caretaker at the castle. I will send Mrs Snell for your luggage. She will be keeping house for you.’
‘Keeping house?’ asks Mum. ‘Like housekeeping?’
‘Yes, exactly,’ says Colonel Horn. ‘Cooking. Making beds. She will take care of everything.’
‘A housekeeper,’ says Mum. ‘Oh, my goodness.’
‘Your English is excellent, Mr Horn,’ says Nana, flashing a bright-white smile.
‘Thank you,’ says Colonel Horn. ‘I went to British military school and can sing God Save the Queen backwards. And often did, as a young man. Whilst doing press-ups.’
‘I might have guessed you were a military man.’ Nana flutters her eyelashes. ‘You look in very good shape.’
Colonel Horn blushes. ‘Why, thank you. Would you like lunch after your long trip? Mrs Snell has many English meals planned. I have told her that fried fish and chips are popular in England.’
‘Thank you,’ says Mum. ‘But actually, we just had lunch.’
‘Then we will serve you very milky tea,’ says Colonel Horn. ‘And stale, toasted bread. Just as you English like. After you’ve seen your rooms, of course.’
‘Our rooms?’ says Poppy. ‘We have our own rooms?’
‘Of course,’ says Colonel Horn. ‘There are many bedrooms at the castle. Now, where is your car? I will send Mrs Snell for your luggage.’
‘Actually, this is all our luggage,’ says Mum, taking off her rucksack. ‘The car broke down on the mountain road. In the weirdest storm I’ve ever seen.’
‘Ah,’ says Colonel Horn. ‘Yes. The storm was … quite unusual. Come. I’ll show you inside.’
‘So my father lived here?’ I ask as Colonel Horn leads us through the castle courtyard.
‘Yes,’ says Colonel Horn. ‘He grew up in Sparks Tower. He and my son were best friends.’
‘Best friends?’ I stare at him. ‘Dad never talked about friends.’
Colonel Horn nods. ‘Yes, he and Michael were very good friends. But sadly, my son died.’
‘Oh,’ I say. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘It’s okay.’ Colonel Horn leads us across the courtyard. ‘The accident happened a long time ago.’
I look around, feeling awkward. ‘This looks like something I’d build on Minecraft. The courtyard is big enough to drive a car around.’
‘Yes, the castle used to be home to many people,’ says Colonel Horn. ‘But now, there is only the university staff and my family.’
‘Why didn’t Dad tell us about this place?’ I ask.
‘I don’t know,’ says Mum. ‘He got angry if I asked about Germany, so I stopped asking. It was only when I got that weird letter … hang on a minute. Colonel Horn, did you say the housekeeper is called Mrs Snell?’
‘Yes,’ says Colonel Horn. ‘Mrs Snell.’
‘She was the one who wrote to us,’ says Mum. ‘After Wilhelm died. She told us we had an old house that would cost a lot of money and we must come to Germany and take care of it.’
Colonel Horn gives a short laugh. ‘I’m afraid Mrs Snell’s English is not very good. She meant to say your house is worth a lot of money. I am surprised you came here if you thought you would be caring for an old house.’
‘We didn’t have much choice,’ says Mum. ‘Things were difficult in London. An old house is better than no house.’
There are lots of buildings in the courtyard. A chapel. Stables. And many silver signs pointing to university classrooms and offices.
‘Here are the Merchenheft University buildings,’ says Colonel Horn. ‘The Sparks family gifted them to the town many years ago. So now, they are a place of study.’
‘Do you remember my dad?’ I ask Colonel Horn.
‘Yes,’ says Colonel Horn. ‘He was very fearsome, very frightened young man.’
‘Frightened?’ I say. ‘I can’t imagine that. Dad was always so angry.’
‘An angry man is always frightened, deep down,’ says Colonel Horn, pointing to the golden castle-thing in the middle of the courtyard. ‘This is Sparks Tower. Where you will be staying.’
‘Here?’ says Mum. ‘You’re kidding. It looks like a home for kings and queens.’
‘Indeed, it was,’ says Colonel Horn. ‘For many years. King Ludwig lived here. And if you believe Merchenheft fairy tales, so did the Erlkonig.’
I flinch, thinking of the well in town. ‘What is an Erlkonig exactly?’
‘In English, it means Elf King,’ says Colonel Horn. ‘The Erlkonig was a man who ruled the town a long time ago.’
‘This place looks like a wedding cake.’ Nana takes Colonel Horn’s arm. ‘How can somewhere so big be for the four of us? We’ll get lost. And covered in marzipan. You’ll look after us, won’t you Colonel Horn?’
‘Of course,’ says Colonel Horn, patting Nana’s hand. ‘Everyone gets lost at first. Mrs Snell still loses her way. It’s better now we have mobile phones. She can call and ask for directions.’
‘My father grew up in this tower?’ I ask.
‘Yes, he did,’ says Colonel Horn. ‘And now you have returned, young Sparks, it is a very great thing. There should always be a spark in the tower, the light that leads the way.’ He gives me a sad look. ‘I’m sorry your father could never quite find the light. Come. I will show you inside.’