Charlotte Stone and the Children of the Nymet

Charlotte Stone and the Children of the Nymet

Tasha O'Neill

Copyright © 2015 Tasha O'Neill

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

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This book is dedicated with love and gratitude to Mum and Dad. Thank you for all your commitment, support and belief.

Thank you also to my other Beta readers Kevin and Sally.

Hans Christian Andersen:

That ancient tree, don't let it fall,

until old age is knelling;

so many things it can recall,

what tales it could be telling.

Hans Christian Andersen

Prologue

Quite spontaneously and in a matter of seconds, a rose bush bloomed, withered and died in the snows of an English winter. This was the only sign that anything was amiss, and it went unnoticed by all but one – unless you included the Echo. Deep below the surface, worms turned and wriggled away from the desiccated body that had, till now, lain dormant and harmless – held fast by the Golden Root.

The Echo had known what it was to be human once; but that was now a faint memory. However, it still felt ‘the bond' to its kind and instinctively reached out to the mortal thoughts that drifted in the air far above.

Earth pressed down hard yet it felt the stagnant blood in its veins start to flow again, cold limbs warming back into life as the root slowly loosened its grip. In the mouldering dirt below the Great Tree it waited for each part of this body to awaken. Synapses started to fire in the brain while the heart jerked into motion.

The foreign lips twisted into a grimace as the Echo reviewed once again the moment of terror in these eyes. The terror of the original owner as they had drifted off into the abyss, light dying, ripped unceremoniously from the fragile threads of the life-giving Wyrdweb. The Echo liked to relive the firework display of raw light as the silver cord was severed and a new shadow was born, condemned to drift forever in the darkness of the Dreamtime.

A familiar pain started in the stolen body but he ignored the sensation. Well used to the process now, he knew the pain would soon fade. To kill time, he tested a few names and languages over his new tongue, trying to decide what this body's new identity should be.

He had no idea how the Great Tree had loosened its grip but there would be time for that later. Plenty of time. All that mattered was he was no longer trapped in this crack in the Dreamtime. The whole Triverse spread out before him; oh such freedoms to savour – and scores to settle. For now though the Shriven could wait.

Transition complete, he simply extended long nails; and began to dig.

The Family Stone
PINAR, CADIZ

Remote mountains in the heart of Andalusia may not be a normal classroom for a thirteen-year-old girl, but Charlotte Stone was no normal thirteen-year-old girl. Being the daughter of explorers meant curiosity was in her genes (an argument she would often use whenever she wanted to do something her parents were against), and it was curiosity that had led her here.

In fact, it was more than that, because Charlotte had a gift. She was very good at finding things – and unlocking their deepest secrets simply by touch. Her parents' research student Neva often joked she was more reliable than carbon dating.

Charlotte sat in the dark, cool cave halfway up a mountain in the Sierra Del Pinar, grateful to be out of the relentless Spanish sun. She looked at the large, lozenge-shaped stone, rolling it around in her hands as she tucked a stray lock of red hair behind her ear. Her strange visions had started when her family had discovered this cave. A withering rose, the symbol, a fireball and perhaps most disturbing of all, the blood-curdling scream in the darkness. Charlotte had hoped this stone might provide some answers.

It was smooth to the touch and seemingly undamaged with no obvious markings, yet she had no idea what it was. Charlotte would normally be able to at least identify the basics: location of origin, date and use. But this unusual object was totally silent to her – and it felt wrong. A shadow fell over the mouth of the cave.

‘You going to sit there with that thing all day, sweetheart?' Ella Stone smiled at her daughter. ‘Pop it away now and let's go.'

Charlotte placed the stone and its cloth wrappings warily into a padded box.

*

Strings of fairy lights twinkled on the bandstand that evening as both locals and foreigners alike enjoyed the balmy warmth in the numerous café bars of the main square in Pinar. The Stone family and their crew had been in town for just over a month and it was their last night. Richard and Ella were taking the opportunity to relax before their gruelling journey across the Sahara sands, and were currently taking in the fiesta atmosphere from a table at their regular haunt, Casa Vargas.

‘Unusual find by Charlotte today, love, any ideas?' Richard said, swigging an ice cold Moritz.

‘I have some theories…'

‘No idea then.' He winked at his wife but Ella didn't rise to the bait.

‘There's certainly something intriguing about it. Neva is still studying it now. Never stops working that girl.'

‘Perhaps it's the elusive Benu egg?' Richard was wide-eyed and made a mock gasp. Ella jovially punched her husband's arm.

‘Don't be daft. Anyway, you know she is the best research student we have ever had. OK, perhaps some of her ideas are a bit… wacky, but I'll bet she'll have some exceptional reports for us by the time we get back.'

Ella took a sip of wine as she tried to phrase her next thoughts.

‘I did see something weird today, as we were removing that stone.'

‘You sure it wasn't a mirage, or lack of sleep? We have been overdoing it a bit out here what with the time restrictions and all.'

‘No, I know I'm not going mad,' Ella said more harshly than she meant. Perhaps the heat was getting to her.

‘I didn't mean it like that, love. Go on, tell me what you saw.'

‘You've got to promise you won't mock.'

‘Promise.'

‘There was this plant, like a cyclamen I think, just above the cave where we found that thing. While you were busy digging it out… well…' Richard was staring intently, urging her to go on.

‘… well… it sort of bloomed and withered right in front of my eyes.' Richard raised his eyebrows.

‘I'm not joking, darling. And that's not all… once we had the artefact boxed up and halfway down the mountain, this plant… it returned to normal, like nothing had happened.' There was silence.

‘I believe you, love,' Richard finally said, before adding, ‘not sure what to make of it though.' He took another swig of his beer.

‘Where are the twins?' Ella changed the subject.

‘You really have to ask?' Richard laughed. ‘Edessa will be trying to find some way to get on the stage and Charlotte will be with Jairo doing what she does best – interrogation.'

‘Debating,' Ella corrected with a smile. ‘I guess we can relax then.' She sighed.

In the bandstand of the little town square a guitarist ordered them all into silence with a few bars of a flamenco folk song while a singer solemnly walked onto the stage. Richard and Ella looked at each other and a silent agreement was made to discuss the strange incident later. For now, they simply held hands and enjoyed the show.

*

‘
Mishto… hom me… di… dikava tute
.' Charlotte stumbled over the words while her new Gitanos friends exploded with laughter. Charlotte blushed; Romani was proving to be her Achilles heel and she wasn't used to failing at things. Jairo shook his head and waved his hands dramatically.

‘You are like timid rabbit, you will never learn this way. You have to be without fear, own the words.
Mishto hom me dikava tute,
' he chanted in a sing-song voice, conducting as he went. ‘It means you are glad to meet, so fill your voice with gladness.' Charlotte smiled in spite of her frustration.

‘
Mishto hom me dikava tute
,' the others chorused before bursting into a fresh bout of laughter.

‘You must not be so hard on yourself,
miri kushti
,' Jairo smiled as he boldly swept an unruly strand of hair out of her eyes.

‘Bet Edessa isn't struggling like this,' Charlotte smiled, trying not to feel so defeated.

*

Charlotte's twin, Edessa was at the other end of the square loitering around the colourful vardos parked behind the bandstand. She marvelled at the polka-dot dresses as the dancers twisted and reeled through their final warm-up dance. Edessa loved to dance and flamenco was fast becoming her favourite – but it was the singers that fascinated her the most.

Edessa, like Charlotte, had a gift. Whereas Charlotte could read information locked in solid objects, Edessa could read information locked in people. Though she didn't understand the words, she could still feel the stories and emotions in the Gypsy songs.

‘Flamenco is not just sound, not mindless entertainment, little one,' said one of the older singers who had taken Edessa under her wing. ‘The song is always there, woven through all of creation, like a thread in a tapestry. We do not create the song, we simply carry it within us for a short while.'

Satisfied that Edessa understood, the woman smiled before continuing. ‘A true singer weaves the energy of that song into their own voice. They remind us of our place in the web of life, our interconnectedness. Gypsies call it
Duende
– that indefinable ability to communicate through emotions.'

The woman sang a string of notes and Edessa could feel the emotion pouring out of her, giving the simple tune a life of its own. Edessa could feel it vibrating her whole body, awaking shadowy memories that didn't belong to her. Taking a deep breath, Edessa echoed the tune back and the memories flowed away.

The woman was clearly shocked.

‘There are few outsiders who can do that.' She nodded approvingly. ‘It seems you might just have a little Gitanos blood in you,
me chavi
.'

Edessa beamed with pride. ‘I've been listening.'

*

The old Roma woman sat in the archway of her courtyard garden, smoking a pipe and watching the girl with the red hair and curious green eyes as she tried to learn their language. She had a feeling about this one. She was without the grace of the other, but she had the soul of an adventurer. Though not Gitanos, her family was another kind of nomad and she had a touch of destiny about her. Was it her own? the woman wondered.

‘Madame Cortes,' Jairo said, bowing respectfully, the rest of the group following his lead.

‘You, child,' Madame Cortes waved at Charlotte. ‘I have words for you, but not here in this…
Jaleo
.' She emphasised the last word to make her disapproval of their raucous behaviour clear. ‘Come, come.'

Jairo pushed Charlotte to her feet and she followed the woman through the archway. The cloistered courtyard was much quieter than the main square and the air was full of the sweet smell of jasmine, which left her feeling quite giddy.

‘Sit,' the woman ordered, ‘and listen, I won't waste words on
gadje
.'

Charlotte sat bolt upright at that word: ‘non Roma'. It was the first one Jairo had taught her. If Madame Cortes was indeed suggesting she considered Charlotte as one of her own, it was a huge honour so Charlotte listened intently.

‘Let me see your hand, child.'

‘Are you a fortune teller?' Charlotte asked, extending her hand.

‘Fortunes take care of themselves, have no need of me. I am
Drabarni
.' The woman scrutinised the lines on Charlotte's hands. ‘Is healer and seer,' she said in answer to Charlotte's unspoken question.

Madame Cortes seemed to go into some sort of trance and in the long silence Charlotte could hear the music of crickets and other night bugs. She got so caught up in the melody and the feel of the warm night breezes on her sun-crisped skin that she jumped when Madame Cortes finally spoke.

‘You have been dreaming of a tree I sense. Well, it has been dreaming of you too; for a very long time,
miri kushti chavi
.' She smiled cryptically.

‘You have important work to do and many knots…' The woman paused, her forehead wrinkled with concentration. ‘No… is not the right word, many… roots… to untie.'

Charlotte held her breath in anticipation. She desperately wanted to ask questions but suspected she would learn more by keeping silent and letting the woman talk.

‘Your hand shows you were born to travel, you are akin to us in some ways. How many countries have you visited already?' Madame Cortes continued.

Charlotte had to think for a moment. ‘Ten.'

Madame Cortes smiled and nodded. ‘Very soon you will be going on a journey to a land not on any map, through a gateway that has long been shut. But it will start normally enough, with you voyaging to meet ancient family in the East… they won't be going with you, however.' She nodded towards the town square where Charlotte's parents sat and Edessa danced.

Charlotte's stomach flipped at those words. She couldn't shake the feeling that Madame Cortes meant trouble was coming, but going anywhere without Edessa was out of the question.

‘Surely I can choose to…'

Madame Cortes would not entertain any interruptions and she had already moved on.

‘Your lifeline is broken too, see here…' The woman indicated the crease sweeping around the base of Charlotte's left thumb. ‘…See how it overlaps. You live both a normal life and a hidden one; this is how it is for all of your bloodline, but with you this duality must end. For the good of all worlds you must heal the severed root… it begins and ends with the tree. You must protect it at
any
cost.'

Charlotte felt shivers down her spine; it was like Madame Cortes was reading her thoughts. Charlotte instinctively knew the tree was important though she still had no idea where the stone came into it all. However, there was something that bothered her more.

‘What about the scream? Have you any idea what it all means?' Charlotte's voice was small in the night air.

‘Ah yes, the scream from the Dreamtime,' Madame Cortes nodded solemnly. ‘The space between worlds and home of the Fey. It has become a dark and dangerous place indeed since the Withering began; especially for the likes of you. You have great power indeed if you can sense it.' Madame Cortes pulled Charlotte closer and stared at her with the darkest eyes she had ever seen. The Gypsy woman held Charlotte's gaze for an uncomfortable amount of time and just as Charlotte thought that was her cue to leave, the old woman added: ‘You will need to overcome your innermost fears to recognise your greatest ally, but you can trust the diamond heart.
Shala
?'

‘Yes, I understand,' Charlotte said quietly, though she wasn't sure she did.

‘Sleep soon,
me chavi
.' Madame Cortes' voice was gentler now. ‘Perhaps dreams will bring the answers.'

LOUVRE, PARIS

Paris was calming after the excitement of Spain and Charlotte loved walking the streets of Montmartre where their guardian, Morag, lived when she wasn't in London. Morag De Beau was a naturally stern-looking Scottish woman in her late sixties with thick brown hair and a fondness for tweed. She was an old family friend and wife of the late Renoir De Beau who had been Richard and Ella Stone's university history professor. They had been his favourite students and a friendship was forged for life.

When alive, Renoir had relished teaching Charlotte pretty much all he knew while Morag, on the other hand, nurtured Edessa's creativity. The twins were like the grandchildren the couple had never had. Since Renoir had passed away, Morag spent most of her free time with the Stones and was virtually one of the family, acting as guardian for the twins when their parents were away. While she had business in Paris, they were all staying in the tiny apartment above a bakery on the Rue des Saules.

It wouldn't be long before it was back to the relatively boring Pimlico flat and a classroom routine (there had even been disturbing suggestions of the twins actually attending a school), so they were determined to make the most of their final days of freedom. Edessa and Morag adored spending hours floating around the various art galleries Paris had to offer, while Charlotte was most at home in the airy halls of the Louvre amongst the Egyptian antiquities.

The various artefacts on display were like old friends to Charlotte and she knew each one intimately. She smiled as she walked leisurely through the collection, mentally correcting a number of the information cards as she went. On the back wall a new stela caught Charlotte's attention and naturally she made a beeline to it.

‘Hello, you're new,' she muttered excitedly to herself, checking there were no guards around.

Charlotte ignored the
Ne pas Toucher
sign and placed her hands on the cold stone tablet, breathing deeply. It had been marked up as 18
th
dynasty – that was wrong, this was much older. She got a feeling of 5
th
dynasty and the birth of Hieroglyphics.

The image showed an acacia tree under which stood two identical people, one on each side of the tree in traditional, symmetrical Egyptian poses. She had no idea why, but the image gave Charlotte goosebumps, especially when she noticed the lozenge-shaped object at the bottom of the stela. It radiated light, each beam tipped with an ankh symbol, while a third figure buried it deep in the ground. Charlotte scrolled quickly through the glyphs that accompanied the image for any clues of its meaning, but there was nothing – just like the stone in the cave.

As she closed her eyes Charlotte could feel the power of chisel against granite, biting out deep flecks of sparkling rock; this was an official proclamation and the stela had been manufactured in haste. It was also deliberately vague, its meaning to be understood only by a select few. Soon Charlotte found herself in a blur of Nile sounds and the heat of an ancient sun. She would get nothing more.

‘Charlotte,' someone hissed.

Charlotte snapped back to the stark light of the Louvre to find Morag looking over her square glasses with a serious look on her face. Morag always knew exactly where to find her: amongst the Egyptian collection as usual. She was nothing if not predictable, like father like daughter.

‘Charlotte, you need to come with me please.' Morag beckoned her to hurry.

‘What's happened?' Charlotte could feel her stomach tighten; she could tell something was wrong as soon as she saw Morag's face.

‘You have to come quickly,' Morag replied.

‘I'm not going anywhere till you tell me why,' Charlotte insisted. If Morag had bad news she wanted to be in familiar surroundings.

‘This really isn't the place for this.'

Charlotte crossed her arms resolutely. ‘It's the perfect place, and I'm not moving from this spot till you tell me what's going on.'

‘Fine,' Morag sighed, taking a deep breath before she continued. ‘You might want to sit down for this.'

Under a colossus of Rameses II, Morag divulged the full contents of the email she had just received.

‘Lost? Presumed… dead?' Charlotte repeated the words. There had to be a mistake. She had seen her parents alive and well less than forty-eight hours ago, waving excitedly as they boarded a plane for Ghadames. No, she refused to believe it; they knew how to take care of themselves.

‘There's more.'

Charlotte was not normally prone to panic but the room felt as if all the oxygen was being sucked out of it and she was having trouble breathing as her skin became clammy and crawled with dread. Edessa! Something had happened to Edessa.

‘Your sister…' Morag struggled to find the words and avoided eye contact, ‘… well, she's… we don't know how it happened…'

‘She's unconscious,' Charlotte whispered.

‘She's in a coma, Charlotte.'

There was no other way to say it.

Morag put her arm around the girl. Normally so full of fire and determination she had never seen her so fragile and deflated; and in the blink of an eye. Morag had been dreading this moment. She knew Charlotte would take the news of her sister the hardest and she felt powerless as the young girl sat there, silent as a statue. Morag imagined she could see the light dim slightly in Charlotte's eyes, and her heart broke at the sight.

‘Let's go home, sweetheart,' Morag finally whispered.

‘No, I need to see her. Take me to the hospital… please,' Charlotte murmured, determined not to cry.

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