A Visitor from Pendle
The witch was chasing me through the dark wood, getting nearer and nearer by the second.
I ran fast, frantic to escape, weaving desperately, with branches whipping into my face and brambles clutching at my weary legs. The breath rasped harshly in my throat as I drove myself harder and harder toward the edge of the wood. Beyond that lay the slope leading up to the Spook's western garden. If only I could reach that refuge, I'd be safe!
I wasn't defenseless. In my right hand I gripped my rowan staff, which was particularly effective against witches; in my left was my silver chain, coiled about my wrist, ready for throwing. But would I get even half a chance to use either? For the chain I needed a gap between us, but already the witch was close at my heels.
Suddenly the footsteps behind me ceased. Had she given up? I ran on, the waning moon now visible through the leaf canopy above, silver-dappling the ground at my feet. The trees were thinning. I'd almost reached the edge of the wood.
Then, just as I passed the last tree, she appeared from nowhere and ran at me from the left, her teeth gleaming in the moonlight, her arms outstretched as if ready to claw out my eyes. Still running, veering away, I flicked my left wrist and cracked the chain to send it hurtling toward her. For a moment I thought I had her, but she swerved suddenly and the chain fell harmlessly onto the grass. The next moment she thudded into me, knocking the staff from my hand.
I hit the ground so hard that all the breath was driven from my body, and in an instant she was on me, her weight bearing down on me. I struggled for a moment, but I was winded and exhausted and she was very strong. She sat on my chest and pinned my arms down on either side of my head. Then she leaned forward so that our faces were almost touching, and her hair was like a black shroud touching my cheeks and blotting out the stars. Her breath was on my face, but it wasn't rank like that of a blood or bone witch. It was sweet like spring flowers.
"Got you now, Tom, I have!" Alice exclaimed triumphantly. "Ain't good enough, that. You'll need to do better in Pendle!"
With that, she gave a laugh and rolled off me, and I sat up, still fighting for breath. After a few momentsI found the strength to walk across and collect my staff and silver chain. Although she was the niece of a witch, Alice was my friend and had saved me more than once during the past year. Tonight I'd been practicing my survival skills, Alice playing the part of a witch seeking my life. I should have been grateful, but I felt annoyed. It was the third night in a row that she'd gotten the better of me.
As I started to walk up the slope toward the Spook's western garden, Alice ran to my side and matched me step for step.
"No need to sulk, Tom!" she said softly. "It's a nice mild summer's night. Let's make the best of it while we can. Be on our travels soon, we will, and we'll both be wishing we were back here."
Alice was right. I'd be fourteen at the beginning of August, and I'd been the Spook's apprentice for more than a year now. Although we'd faced many serious dangers together, something even worse was looming. For some time the Spook had been hearing reports that the threat from the Pendle witches was growing; he'd told me that we'd soon be traveling there to try and deal with it. But there were dozens of witches and maybe hundreds of their supporters, and I couldn't see how we could triumph against such odds. After all, there were only three of us: the Spook, Alice, and me.
"I'm not sulking," I said.
"Yes, you are. Your chin's almost touching the grass."
We walked on in silence until we entered the garden and saw the Spook's house through the trees.
"Ain't said anything yet about when we're off to Pendle, has he?" Alice asked.
"Not a thing."
"Haven't you asked? Don't find nothing out without asking!"
"'Course I've asked him," I told Alice. "He just taps the side of his nose and tells me that I'll find out in good time. My guess is that he's waiting for something, but I don't know what."
"Well, I just wish he'd get on with it. The waiting's making me nervous."
"Really?" I said. "I'm in no rush to leave, and I didn't think you'd want to go back there."
"I don't. It's a bad place, Pendle, and it's a big place, too—a whole district with villages and hamlets and big, ugly Pendle Hill right at its center. I've got a lot of evil family there I'd sooner forget about. But if we've got to go, I'd like to get it over and done with. I can hardly sleep at night now worrying about it."
When we entered the kitchen, the Spook was sitting at the table writing in his notebook, a candle flickering at his side. He glanced up but didn't say anything because he was too busy concentrating. We sat ourselves down on two stools, which we drew close to the hearth. As it was summer, the fire was small, but it still sent a comforting warm glow up into our faces.
At last my master snapped his notebook shut and looked up. "Who won tonight?" he asked.
"Alice," I said, hanging my head.
"That's three nights in a row the girl's gotten the better of you, lad. You're going to have to do better than that. A lot better. First thing in the morning, before breakfast, I'll see you in the western garden. It's extra practice for you."
Excerpted from The Last Apprentice: Attack of the Fiend by Joseph Delaney Copyright © 2008 by Joseph Delaney. Excerpted by permission.
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