The Houses of Enchantment


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2. The Girl

Haiden stood motionless for a few minutes, trying to work out what had just happened. He and his father had been getting along perfectly fine for the whole day. Just moments before, they had been laughing and joking together. He couldn’t understand what had caused his father’s sudden mood change. There had to have been more to it than simply a broken necklace . . .

Whatever the reason, it didn’t change things. It was cold, it was getting dark and Haiden had nowhere to go. He heard his father storm across the kitchen and the faint rustle as he replenished the fire. It seems like he had really meant for Haiden to leave and Haiden hadn’t the nerve to go back inside.

He turned on his heel and started walking along the narrow path leading from the cottage to the main road. The farm stretched for miles. Fields and fields of it. Haiden passed the horse stable he had spent all morning cleaning out, not knowing what would happen the following evening. He swung the gate open – it creaked like it always did – and looked back at the cottage. His father’s figure was silhouetted in the window, sitting on his favourite chair and not looking in Haiden’s direction.

Haiden sighed and carried on along the path. His feet automatically took him along the path leading to the little wood by their farm which eventually led to the nearby town. He couldn’t stay outside forever – there was nowhere for him to go. He would have to go back eventually. But the thought of facing his father’s furious face again made Haiden shiver. He would have to leave time for his father to calm down. Yes, that’s it – he would go back in a couple of hours, when they both would have had time to clear their heads, and they could sort out what had happened. That just left the question of what he was going to do in the meantime.

Haiden looked up and found himself standing in the vast shadow of a tree. Its branches stretched out in a giant embrace and its leaves were golden and glowing. The tree had been there for as long as he could remember. It was in the space that wasn’t quite the wood and not part of the farm. Haiden closed his hands around two indentations in the bark and hauled himself up, using all the familiar footholds as he climbed. When he was younger, he’d loved climbing tree, but this one had always been his favourite. He’d realised one day that if he climbed high enough, there was a spacious gap in the branches which he could sit in but couldn’t be seen from the ground. As he became older and grew out of the habit, he had never forgotten this tree and always went there when he wanted to be alone.

He folded himself into the crevice and brought his knees up to his chin. The sun had almost set and it was becoming bitterly cold. Haiden hoped he wouldn’t be outside for long. He tried not to think about what would happen if his father didn’t let him back inside.

From his position in the tree, he could see for miles. The farm stretched to his left where he could see the other farming families’ houses. Further to his right was the town where his father went every Saturday to trade and where he had gone to school back when they were still able to afford the penny-a-day fee. Over in the distance Haiden could just about make out the huge city of Hallery, which was the home of the King’s Palace and the Houses of Enchantment.

There was a strange noise coming from the bottom of the tree. He tried to work out what it was – someone breathing heavily and . . . crying? Holding onto a nearby branch, Haiden leaned over the side of the tree. There was someone crouched next to the tree trunk, covered in a tattered cloak and shaking with each sob. Slowly, he began to climb back down the tree and approached the stranger cautiously. The stranger didn’t seem to notice him and he debated with himself for a few seconds about whether he should just climb straight up the tree again, but he decided not to.

‘Are you OK?’ Haiden asked gently. The stranger’s head shot up, her hood falling down over her shoulders revealing the face of a girl, her cheeks stained with tears. Her hair was scraped back untidily – obviously done in a hurry – and her sharp features showed irritation rather than fear.

‘Who are you supposed to be?’ she snapped.

Haiden was taken aback by her tone. ‘I just heard you crying and wondered if you wanted some help.’

‘I’m fine,’ she said bluntly. She jumped to her feet and brushed the dirt off her cloak. ‘You didn’t answer my question: “who are you?”. Because I’m sure normal people don’t spend their evenings hiding up trees.’

Haiden flushed bright red.

The girl smiled. ‘So you’ – she scanned him from head to toe – ‘obviously work on the farms. But that doesn’t explain why you’re outside at this time.’

She looked at him inquisitively and Haiden didn’t know how to answer. He couldn’t place her accent – it was clipped around the edges but had its own wild tone.

‘Weren’t you the one who was crying a minute ago?’ he said angrily. ‘What does it matter who I am – I was just asking if you were OK.’

‘Look, I don’t cry often,’ she said, advancing on him, ‘and when I do, it’s not for very long and it’s for a good reason, treeboy.’

‘OK, I’m sorry,’ Haiden said hastily.

The girl turned away from him. Neither of them said anything for several minutes.

‘I ran away,’ the girl said quietly.

‘You ran away?’Haiden repeated.

‘I had to get away from them,’ she continued like he hadn’t said anything. ‘They have my whole life planned out and all of it is only for their benefit. If I’d stayed any longer I would have burst.’

She turned to him, a sour expression on her face. Haiden didn’t know how he was supposed to react to this.

‘Stupid, wasn’t it?’ the girl said bitterly. ‘Where am I supposed to go now? I can’t exactly go back.’

‘Of course you can,’ Haiden said. He wasn’t entirely sure what she was talking about but he wanted to say something to reassure her. ‘Just explain to them how you feel. I’m sure they’ll understand.’

‘That’s likely.’ She kicked at a tree root.

Haiden paused for a moment, wondering if he should say what was on his mind. ‘My father threw me out.’

The girl looked up at him.

‘That can’t have been good,’ she said. ‘What did you do?’

‘Nothing,’ Haiden sighed. ‘He just – it was – I don’t know.’

‘Looks like we’re in the same boat then,’ the girl said grimly. She held her hand out to Haiden. ‘I’m Iva – short for Ivaline.’

Haiden reached out to shake her hand. ‘I’m Haiden. But it’s spelt with an ‘I’ not a ‘Y’.’

‘That’s interesting.’

Haiden looked at the ground. ‘My mother was like that.’

‘I’ve always thought my name was kind of stupid.’ She pulled a face then, wrapping her cloaked tightly around her body, said. ‘It’s getting cold, isn’t it? That tree is looking more and more appealing by the minute.’

‘There’s a space near the top, big enough to sit in,’ Haiden told her.

He gripped either side of the tree and pulled himself up, before lowering a hand for Iva to hold onto.

‘I know how to climb a tree,’ Iva said bitterly.

‘Fine,’ Haiden said as he carried on climbing. ‘I was just trying to help.’

Iva grunted in contempt. In a few swift movements she had pulled herself off the ground and was scurrying up the tree like a squirrel. Haiden hurried after her but she was soon engulfed in the dense branches, showering him with golden leaves.

‘Is this it?’ he heard her shout from above him. Her head appeared between a gap in the branches, a smile on her face. ‘Hurry up, treeboy.’

She reached her hand out for him to take. Haiden ignored it and, gritting his teeth, pulled himself up beside Iva.

‘Oh,’ Iva said, pretending to be taken aback, ‘don’t you want to hold my hand, treeboy? I was only trying to help.’

Her imitation of him annoyed Haiden. ‘Shut up,’ he said.

Iva laughed. Her face filled with joy, the sound lit up the dark evening, joining with the calls of the night time birds. Haiden hadn’t realised such a noise could come from her sardonic tone.

It was a tight squeeze up in the tree. Neither of them had any space to move and eventually Iva decided to perch on a branch a few feet above Haiden with her back resting on the trunk. The tree did, at least, provide some shelter against the icy wind which had suddenly appeared. They sat up there in silence for a while. Haiden leaned his head against the bark, trying, once again, to puzzle out what had happened in the last hour. Never would he have guessed the previous morning that he would be sitting in a tree with a girl he had never met after he had been thrown out by his father.

‘We’ll have to go back, you know,’ he said.

‘Hmmm?’ Iva murmured.

‘We can’t stay here forever. We’ll have to go back eventually.’

‘You can go back if you want,’ Iva said. ‘I’m staying here.’

Haiden glanced up at her spot in the tree. ‘Look, I don’t know what made you run away, but leaving is never the answer. If you go back, talk things through, I’m sure it will get better.’

Iva didn’t say anything.

‘I’m not looking forward to going back home either,’ Haiden continued, ‘but I have to, because I know it’s not like my father to hold a grudge. It’ll be fine. I hope.’ She stayed silent. ‘How about you watch me go back home and if it goes well then you know it will be OK if you go home too. But if it’s doesn’t . . . then, well, I’ll go back with you and make sure you don’t lose your nerve on the way.’

Iva plucked a leaf from nearby branch and started shredding it between her fingers. ‘I suppose your right. But we go back tomorrow because I’m really tired – I’ve been walking since this morning.’

‘Where do you live?’Haiden asked.

‘Hallery.’

‘But that city’s miles away!’ gasped Haiden.

‘And don’t my feet know it,’ Iva groaned. ‘I’m going to sleep now.’

She curled up next to him, resting her head against a tree branch and closing her eyes.

Haiden sat hugging his knees on the other side of the gap in the branches, wondering if it were even possible for him to go to sleep in a tree. That didn’t stop his eyes, mere minutes later, dropping closed and his head falling forwards.

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