Hi I'm DJ Edwards, this is a bit of a taster from my first book Heart Stone. It's a fantasy aimed at the YA market, but lots for the adults to enjoy too. Hope you like it.
The man drove his car along the winding country road, never once considering that he may be driving a little too quickly around the blind bends, not even glancing at the occasional sign that pointed to some village or another. Curiosity at what might lie down one of the many narrow lanes that branched off his route had died in him long ago. Even the turning that always caught him by surprise failed to register in his preoccupied mind anymore. Often, as a younger man he had wondered what might be down that lane with no signpost, promised himself that next time he would drive down to have a look, but he never seemed to have the time. Besides, he always forgot about it until he had just passed the entrance and there never seemed to be any warning to it coming up. One moment he was looking at an unbroken hedgerow, then it was there, then a second later dwindling away in his rear-view mirror. Next time he would look, next time.
If as younger man he had remembered, although few people ever did, he would have found something that might have surprised him. Down a hill, around a bend, over a ford and then the prettiest village he would likely ever see. The first thing he would come to would be a village green, a flag pole at its centre with the Welsh flag fluttering in a gentle breeze. Picturesque cottages would surround the green, each fronted with a beautiful garden filled with blooms of every shape and colour imaginable. A small pub with no name, only a picture of a great tree on its sign, and around a corner, a tiny church, just big enough to hold all of the village’s residents. He wouldn’t know the name of the village, there was no sign to greet a traveller and it wouldn’t appear on any map. But then his curiosity would grow when he saw a lane leading out of the village on the opposite side to where he had entered. Continue along that for a while and he would find a house; just a typical old farmhouse, but with a garden even more stunning than those in the village. Perhaps he would wonder who lived there, or perhaps he would turn around and go home, or maybe a quick drink and bite to eat in the pub. A shame for him if he did, for if he had knocked on the door of the house and found a welcome there, he may have found that the lane he always drove past, was a very interesting lane indeed.
“Unicorns are very intelligent creatures,” Bryn Morgan said, pointing his fork at his grandson, “they’re not just horses with horns stuck to their foreheads, they can understand every word you say. But neither are they magical, people only assume that they are because of the intelligence they possess.”
Dylan shoved a forkful of chips into his mouth and chewed thoughtfully, considering his response. “If they’re not magic why do people hunt them then?”
“Because people are idiots,” Grandad responded, his mouth full of peas. “Are foxes hunted because they can pull a rabbit out of a hat, or elephants because their trunks double up as magic wands? No! People see a beautiful creature and try to lock it up, or shoot it and hang its head on a wall, therefore removing the very thing that gave it beauty in the first place. Life, freedom!”
“But all the stories say unicorns are magical, they can heal and stuff,” Dylan argued.
Bryn speared a chip and chomped noisily upon it. “Pah!” he said, narrowly avoiding spraying his food across the other diners. “The only stories worth listening to are the ones I tell you, Dylan. Trust me, the truth is more fantastic than the fiction. People hunt unicorns because they look nice, not for magical gain.”
“And these people who hunt unicorns,” Nanny said from the opposite end of the table to Grandad, “do they speak with their mouth full in front of their grandchildren too?”
Dylan’s eyes widened, feeling an immediate pang of sympathy for his grandfather. Nanny’s deceptively calm tone was always a clear sign that someone was about to get an ear-bashing.
“I am merely instructing Dylan of commonly held myths about unicorns,” Bryn retorted, “it might serve him well in the future.”
“And good manners at the dinner table won’t serve him well in the future, I suppose?”
“I consider unicorn law to be a far more fascinating subject to fill a child’s head with than dining etiquette.”
“I fail to see why,” Nanny said, eyeing her husband dangerously, “I was at the supermarket today and I didn’t see any unicorns, the hairdressers yesterday, no unicorns and I’m fairly certain there won’t be any at the garden centre tomorrow. In fact, I don’t believe I have ever seen a single unicorn in all of my fifty-nine years of life, so I’m struggling to understand why that makes it acceptable for you to SPEAK WITH YOUR MOUTH FULL IN FRONT OF THE GRANDCHILDREN!”
A palpable silence hung over the dinner table as Nanny and Grandad sat locked in a staring match. When she shouted like that, everyone knew that was the point you ceased to argue. The silence was broken by Nanny’s hand slamming hard onto the table-top making everyone jump.
“Katy Howard,” Nanny said, dangerous calm returning to her voice. Opposite Dylan, his elder sister rested a defiant look on her grandmother. “What have I said about that contraption at the dinner table?”
“If by ‘that contraption’ you mean this,” Katy held up her mobile phone, “you said something about not using it.”
“And yet you appear to be doing just that.”
“I was looking at something online.”
“And is the internet going to disappear in the time it takes you to finish your dinner?”
Katy held Angharad Morgan’s gaze a moment longer before shoving her phone into the pocket of her jeans and attacking her plate of food, shooting an angry glare at her brother as it were somehow his fault.
“So, Dylan,” Grandad said, changing the subject and making sure his mouth was empty before speaking, “your birthday is almost upon us, the big eleven. Have you decided what you want yet?”
“Skateboard,” Dylan said eagerly.
“A fine choice for a young man.”
“A stupid and dangerous one, if you ask me,” snorted Nanny.
“I’ll wear a helmet, Nanny,” Dylan protested, “and knee pads. All my friends have got one.”
“You haven’t got any friends,” Katy muttered.
Dylan scowled back. “I have.”
“Yeah, but they’re all going to different schools after the holidays.”
Dylan shifted in his chair, uncomfortably aware of how accurate Katy was. Being small for his age, Dylan often found himself the target of bullies and despite being assured by his grandparents that he would make new friends, losing the companionship of most of the boys he played with was making the prospect of starting a new school terrifying.
“We’ll see about the skateboard,” Nanny said sympathetically, “and I’m sure you’ll make lots of new friends.”
Dylan nodded and prodded unenthusiastically at his steak and kidney pie, his appetite diminished to a small and insignificant thing.
Bryn reached across and patted Dylan’s arm. “I’ve got a new story for bedtime, an extra special one. Trust me, you’re going to love it.”
“More of your nonsense,” Nanny shook her head despairingly. “Well I have a meeting in the village this evening, but that’s no excuse for staying up later than necessary. Katy, make sure your brother gets to bed on time.”
Katy’s mouth fell open in protest. “But I was thinking of going out!”
“Thinking about it isn’t doing it, so that means you’ll be here to make sure Dylan goes to bed on time.”
Katy threw her arms in the air. “Fine, whatever.” She shovelled a large portion of pie into her mouth, chewing furiously and glaring at her brother.
The rest of the meal continued in silence, just how Nanny liked it, and what Nanny wanted, Nanny usually got. It wasn’t as if she was a bad grandmother, quite the opposite in fact, she was always there with open arms when a hug was needed or a sympathetic ear; rules, however, were most definitely not made to be broken and the greatest breaker of rules of all was Dylan’s grandfather, Bryn Morgan. Dylan often wondered if Grandad wound Nanny up on purpose, almost as if he got some sort of enjoyment out of it. Not that any argument lasted for very long, life in Nanny and Grandad’s house followed a very predictable routine. Grandad would fight with Nanny, Nanny would win the fight, a brief period of peace and then Grandad would fight with Nanny again.
When dinner was finished and everything had been cleared away, Dylan lay on his bed for a while playing on his game console. Nanny soon went out, after reiterating that he needed to go to bed on time, to her meeting in the village. Although what they met up to talk about was beyond Dylan’s comprehension. Once, when he had asked why they had so many meetings, Grandad had whispered in a way that everyone in the room could clearly hear that it was just an excuse for old ladies to have a gossip, which, unsurprisingly, had caused another row; that Bryn lost.
With bedtime drawing near, Dylan slipped out of his clothes and into his superhero pyjamas and then tiptoed across his bedroom floor. He opened the door a crack and peaked out onto the landing, making sure the coast was clear. Katy always had her headphones on listening to her music, it was only if she decided to go to the bathroom or downstairs to get herself a drink at the wrong moment that she might catch him. Not that it was forbidden for Dylan to have a bedtime story, his grandfather openly encouraged it, even though Nanny quite often muttered about Grandad ‘filling the children’s heads with nonsense’. It was just that he couldn’t stand anymore of Katy’s teasing. She was right in a way, at ten years Dylan was a bit old for stories at bedtime from his grandfather, but they were so fantastic, so much better than anything written down in any book that he could never resist them.
There was no sign of movement upon the landing, no sound from Katy’s room or the bathroom. It was now or never. He slipped from his room, moving as speedily across the landing as stealth would allow and past his sister’s bedroom door. Reaching the top of the stairs he glanced quickly down to make sure that no one was coming up to catch him. Seeing that the stairs were clear he made his way down, remembering to miss out the fourth one from the top with its treacherous creak. He safely reached the bottom and found himself in the hallway, the front door directly before him. He glanced to his left towards the living room. There was no sound from the TV, meaning that Katy was unlikely to be in there, so he turned to his right, and the door to his grandfather’s study.
It was a curious door, Dylan had wasted many hours staring at it and no matter how hard he looked he had never found another like it. Whenever he asked where it had come from his grandfather just shrugged and said it had come with the house just like all the others. But the other doors were nothing like this one. Images of plants and trees were beautifully carved into the wood, so lifelike that Dylan almost felt he could push his way into the undergrowth to pick a flower and smell its scent. Seven curious symbols were carved in an arch towards the top of the door and then an eighth underneath the arch. He had no idea what the symbols meant, although he had drawn them several times, usually on a text book in school whenever one of his teachers was being particularly boring. His favourite was the centre one, a seven-pointed star with a circle surrounding it. The others were all wavy lines, crisscrossing patterns and circles, random fancies of the master craftsman who had lovingly made it. There were also eyes in the carvings, hidden within the foliage, camouflaged so cleverly that a casual observer of the door would probably miss them completely. Dylan believed he had found them all, though he couldn’t be entirely sure as they were the one thing he didn’t like looking at. He always felt they were looking right back at him, and they weren’t nice eyes to have staring at you. They were cruel eyes, filled with hatred. Who or what the eyes belonged to was anyone’s guess, but Dylan didn’t want to find out.
He gave one last quick look around to make sure his sister wasn’t lying in wait to catch him and then pushed open the door and stepped inside.
As always, at this time of the evening the study was dimly lit and slightly musty smelling, much to his grandmother’s annoyance. Grandad never allowed Nanny in to clean properly, he always insisted on doing it himself and he never did a proper job of it, if he did it at all. Dylan barely glanced at the hundreds of books that were piled haphazardly upon the many shelves, or the Welsh flag that hung on the wall between two heavily laden bookcases, nor did he pay any attention to the strange and alien looking objects that decorated table tops, hung on spare patches of walls and even lay on the floor where anyone unfamiliar with the room and its treasures could easily trip over. Many of these objects filled Dylan with wonder. The long, slender sword with the golden dragon stitched into the black scabbard that hung over the grand looking fireplace was his favourite, but he was never allowed to touch it, let alone hold it and swing it about, much to his annoyance. What else are you supposed to do with a sword but swing it about? Other oddities he was allowed to handle though; cracked vases and plates with odd designs painted on them he was able to pick up, although with great care and under adult supervision. Scrolls with letters he had never seen before, ornate boxes usually held curious odds and ends and there was one larger chest that, despite his best efforts, he had never been able to open. Then there were the ancient looking maps filled with lands that did not feature in his or any other atlas he had ever seen, Dylan had wasted many a damp afternoon staring at those.
Wonders to a boy of ten. Rubbish and useless junk to his grandmother. Katy liked the objects too, although she wouldn’t admit to it, even when Dylan had caught her trying to reach for the sword once. Girls are stupid, Dylan thought. He would have kept her secret if she had let him have a swing or two, but no, she had to start shouting at him and calling him names, as usual.
All the objects in the room told a story, each one more fantastic than the last and each one told a hundred times by the old man who sat in his big, leather armchair in the centre of the room. He looked up as Dylan entered, a smile creasing his already lined face, his bright eyes sparkling with amusement. He wasn’t really that old, he’d only just turned sixty, and still strong and fit. Nanny called him old and stupid and lazy and a rascal, but then, that’s what Nanny did. Dylan had overheard her explaining to Katy once that it was the best way to keep a man in line and Katy soaked it all up like a sponge, then spent her days practicing her grandmother’s advice upon her unfortunate younger brother.
Grandad leant forward in his chair. “Were you seen?” he whispered.
Dylan shook his head. “Nope, I was as stealthy as a cat.”
“The best kind of stealthy I’ve always thought.” He leant back and opened his arms. “Time to claim your reward for a well-executed mission.”
Dylan jumped up onto his lap and wriggled around a bit to find the most comfortable position, careful to avoid the half-full tankard of beer balanced on the arm of the chair. A clear indication his grandmother was out as Grandad wasn’t supposed to be drinking it in the house. If she caught him it would inevitably lead to a lecture about the dangers of drink to a man his age, that he wasn’t a teenager anymore, and he should spend a little less time down the pub with his boozy mates and start acting like a grown man. To which Grandad would always respond with a ‘yes, dear’ and as soon as Nanny’s back was turned he would go off and have another quick, sneaky swig of the stuff.
Dylan loved Grandad’s stories, even if the old man did insist that they were all true. His grandfather sometimes forgot that Dylan was ten and rapidly approaching his eleventh birthday, so, obviously, he was far too old to believe in the sort of fancies old Bryn Morgan spouted anymore. But the fact that the ten-year-old knew they were all made up did not stop him from enjoying them any the less. On the suggestion of his grandmother, Dylan pretended he believed every word of what Grandad said. Nanny said that it wasn’t lying, it was called ‘humouring him’, which as far as Dylan could tell was just a perfectly acceptable form of grown-up lying.
He looked up into his grandfather’s face wondering what tale would unfold this evening. Grandad had the same faraway look in his eyes he always had just before a story began, but then he did something out of the ordinary. He looked quickly away from Dylan and stared at a spot in the study, just in front of one of the bookcases and to the right of the large writing desk. A small smile slowly appeared on his lips as he turned back to face his grandson.
“Have you ever caught a movement out of the corner of your eye, but when you looked, there was nothing there?”
Dylan couldn’t recall a particular time when this had happened but he supposed there must have been one, so he nodded that he had.
“There is a secret,” his grandfather continued, “known only to a few. It is a secret so great, so wonderful, so fantastic that most people who learn of it do not believe a word. They just laugh. Scoff. Say that it’s the delusion of a madman.” He looked around the room as if to make sure no one was listening then lowered his voice to a whisper. “Can you keep a secret?”
Dylan had the feeling he was going to be one of those people who didn’t believe a word of it, but he nodded his head vigorously anyway, eager for Grandad to go on.
“The secret, Dylan, is that sometimes, in certain places, there is something there. And yet not there, if that makes any sense at all. You can’t touch them, you can’t see them, except in the corner of your eye, that tiny window to the dream world. They’re asleep you see, sleeping a sleep that has lasted for thousands of years, endlessly shifting from one dream to the next.”
“What are they?”
“Well that’s a question that scholars have debated for generations, and yet no one has managed to answer. Some say they are great monsters who used to rule the earth thousands of years ago, or aliens from another world; some say angels, others demons, nobody really knows. But the one thing we are sure of, the one thing that we know to be true, is that they are old, very old. Older than the human race, possibly even older than this world.”
“Older than the dinosaurs?”
“Oh yes, much older. If you can keep one awake long enough to ask it a question, then the sethundra would probably tell you exactly how old it is.”
“The seth…sef…sefunda?” Dylan said, struggling with the unfamiliar word.
“Se-thun-dra,” his grandfather repeated slowly, “that’s what they’re called.”
“What does that mean?”
“Mean?” Grandad furrowed his brows and rubbed at his chin before answering. “Well, it means…it means them, it’s just their name. We are humans, dogs are dogs, cats are cats and sethundra are sethundra.”
“Why have they been asleep for so long?”
“Because long ago a very powerful magical spell was cast, trapping them in an endless sleep. They can never wake up.” Bryn beckoned Dylan closer. “Unless someone else wakes them up of course.”
“You can wake them up? How?”
“By speaking the spell of awakening. It’s a magic spell known only to a few, handed down from generation to generation. I taught it to your mother when she was your age, I’m sure she would have passed it onto you if she…” For a fleeting moment Grandad’s face took on a pained look. “Well, I’m sure she would have passed it onto you.”
Grandad rarely mentioned Dylan’s mother, neither did anyone else in fact, everyone avoided the subject. When he was younger he would often ask about her and why she had left not long after he had been born, but either no one knew or they were refusing to tell him. His father wasn’t around much, he was great when he was there, but both Dylan and Katy always knew that it wouldn’t be long before he vanished, sometimes for weeks at a time. That was never really talked about either, although Dylan always suspected his father was searching for their mother.
“Does Katy know the spell?” Dylan asked.
“She’s probably forgotten it. Most people do you know, they forget the spell almost as soon as they hear it. It’s part of the magic. The spell decides who is worthy of this knowledge and who is not. After all, you can’t have just anyone waking sethundra up whenever they feel like it. Now listen carefully, Dylan, what I am about to tell you is not to be taken lightly. It’s not just a funny little poem that you can share with your friends in the playground, it’s something that you must keep very secret, only to be spoken of between ourselves. You must promise me that you will never breathe a word of this to another soul.”
“I promise, Grandad,” Dylan swore faithfully.
“Good lad.” Grandad lowered his voice to barely above a whisper. “It is not the words that are important, Dylan, it’s what you feel when you speak them. Allow me to demonstrate.
Ancient locked within the dream
Held for mortals’ sake
I command you now, come forth, be seen
Sethundra, rise and wake.”
Nothing happened, not that Dylan had been expecting anything to, but he couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed. “Nothing happened,” he somewhat needlessly pointed out.
“Of course not, as I said the words are unimportant, they’re merely a way of, shall we say, reminding yourself of what to do. A fully trained wizard could easily perform great feats of magic without saying a word, but someone new to the magical arts would need to say the words to practice.”
Dylan grinned playfully at his grandfather. “If you’re a wizard then why have I never seen you do any magic?”
“Did I say I was a wizard? I don’t recall saying such a thing. I thought I was telling you all about the sethundra. I said nothing about being a wizard at all.”
“Then how do you know the spell?”
“My father taught it to me, and his to him.”
“So, if you’re not a wizard how can you remember the spell?”
“Ah, er…well…you know there is such a thing as being too clever you know.”
Dylan laughed, feeling he was getting the better of Grandad for once. “Have you ever woken one?”
Grandad’s eyes crinkled with mirth. “You are trying to catch me out, young Dylan? I told you, I said nothing about being a wizard.”
“Can I try waking one up?”
“If you like. Do you remember the words?” Dylan nodded his head. “Now remember, you must let yourself feel the magic, let it envelope you like a cloak.”
“How?” Dylan asked, having no idea where to begin.
“Close your eyes.” Dylan closed his eyes. “Now take a deep breath and imagine all the tension leaving your body, let each and every muscle relax.” Dylan did his best. “Block out all thoughts from your mind. Focus only on the sound of my voice. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, slowly, not too fast. That’s it, well done. Now, imagine a light in front of you, just a small one, not too big, now let it come closer, don’t pull, just let it come on its own. Allow it to fill your vision so you can see nothing else but the light, then imagine it surrounding you, covering you completely, drawing ever nearer until it’s a part of you. When you have done that, then just say the words.”
Dylan did the best he could, although he wasn’t sure why he was bothering as it was all rubbish anyway, but he tried to let the light come towards him as he had been told. It took several attempts as thoughts kept getting in the way and the light would vanish, forcing him to start all over again, but in the end he thought he got it. He felt curiously different, his skin tingled slightly and he couldn’t remember ever feeling so relaxed. Deciding he was as ready as he would ever be he opened his mouth, and began to recite the spell.