The Tenth Lord

by

Emma Newman

            Only when she was certain that her grandmother was engrossed in her baking did Beth lift the edge of the embroidery canvas and peep underneath. The piece of paper was still there, tucked into the frame where she had hidden it that morning. She dropped the fabric, heart thrumming urgently. A flush of colour rose up from her chest to her cheeks. Could she dare sneak a peek now?

            She glanced at the door, slightly ajar, and listened to the sound of the cake batter being beaten in the bowl. She had a minute, surely? With trembling fingers, she plucked the secret from its place and held it in her lap.

            After another check, she looked down at it. It was brightly coloured and shiny, shinier than any of the paper in Grand-Mama’s impressive book collection. She was amazed at the vibrant colours. What luck that the high winds of the night before had deposited it in their window box, and that she had seen it before her grandmother!

            Forcing a swallow down her tight throat, she smoothed out the crushed edges on her lap and drank in the image hungrily. She had never seen anything like it before.

            There was a beautiful bottle made of deep purple glass, curved and exotic, with a large stopper shaped like a teardrop. Behind the bottle was the most beautiful woman she had ever seen, with dazzling green eyes and hair as neat as Grand-Mama’s eiderdown. She was looking up as a man was kissing her throat. The sight of him made her breath catch in her throat. He was so handsome, he must be a prince and the woman must be a princess.

            She read the words underneath the bottle. “Allure. Wear something he can’t resist.”

            Perhaps it was a potion of some kind, something to make one irresistible to princes. She looked for a map, instructions of some kind for obtaining such a thing, but there was none. She flipped the page over, this time with the torn edge down the right hand side. The picture there made her gasp out loud.

            It was a wood, filled with the most dramatic trees stretching into a blue sky. Gathered beneath the tree were young men and women, about the same as her by the look of it.

            The boys were touching the girls. One had his arm around a girl, one was holding hands with the girl next to him, but – oh but! – they were looking at a boy and girl in the foreground of the picture and their lips were touching!

            They were kissing each other, and they didn’t mind the others seeing too!

            There was some writing at the bottom, but before she had collected herself enough to read it, she heard Grand-Mama’s footsteps in the hall. She shoved the paper down the side of the chair cushion and grabbed her needle.

            “Elizabeth, lunch will be in one hour. That gives you enough time to practise your Latin. Put your embroidery away now, there’s a good girl.”

            “Yes Grand-Mama,” she replied meekly, praying that the old woman’s beady eyes wouldn’t notice how much she was blushing. She did as she was told, permitting herself one glance at the chair after she had left it to ensure that the paper was hidden. It was.

            “Open the window dear, you look hot.”

            As the old woman settled herself in the chair next to her, Beth crossed the room, and opened the large sash window, pausing to glance at the first spring flowers in the window box bobbing prettily in the breeze.

            “Hello!” A voice from below startled her and, unthinking, she leant out to catch sight of a young man standing on the gravel below. His bright white jacket and white trousers looked so odd against the creamy path and deep green of the dense hedges behind him. Almost like he had been drawn on paper, cut out and stuck on.

            She gripped the windowsill, pulling back into the room, flustered. Not another one!          

            “Hello?” he called out again. “Do you live in apartment five?”

            She glanced back nervously at Grand-Mama, but she was engrossed in finding a particular passage in her lesson book. Her hearing was fading, Beth reasoned that it might just be possible to get rid of him before she noticed.

            She leaned out slightly and tried to wave him away, tried to make it obvious to him that he needed to leave right now. But the strange fellow simply grinned and waved back.

            “Go away!” she hissed, as loud as she dared.

            “Don’t be like that,” he called up. “It’s taken me so long to find this place.” He consulted a scrap of paper in his hand. “Are you Mrs Spencer?”

            “No!” she waved him away again. She glanced back at her grandmother who was now frowning at her. “Just a wasp Grand-Mama,” she lied. “Please could I have a glass of milk before we start?”

            “Of course dear,” the old woman hauled her bones out of the chair and with bent back, went out to the kitchen.

            “Listen,” she leant back out over the window box. “You have to leave, right now!”

            “Does a Mrs Spencer live with you?” he asked, seeming oblivious to her panic.

            “You don’t understand!” she replied, ignoring the question. “My Grand-Mama will turn you into a frog!”

            He threw his head back and laughed. “That’s priceless! Is she a witch?”

            “Yes!” By now he was holding his sides, stumbling slightly as the belly laugh shook him. “I’m serious!”

            “So what are you supposed to be? A princess?”

            She blinked. Perhaps he was the one she had been waiting for. None of the others had guessed. “Are you a Prince?” she asked breathlessly.

            He shook his head, wiping a tear from one eye as he struggled to stop laughing. “Baby, I’m no Prince.”

            “Who’s that?” her grandmother shrieked from the doorway. “Who are you talking to?”

            Beth’s stomach lurched and she span around. “Please don’t be angry Grand-Mama!”

            “Is it a man?” the old woman hissed, but Beth didn’t need to reply, the dreadful blushing gave her away.

            She watched her grandmother dump the glass of milk onto the nearest bookshelf and storm over to the window. She pulled Beth out of the way with her talon like hand and peered down at the youth below.

            “I think he might be a Prince,” Beth gushed.

            “He doesn’t look like one to me,” Grand-mama replied grimly.

            “But he guessed that I’m a Princess.”

            The old woman scowled at her and peered back down at him. “What do you want?” she crowed.

            “I’m here about the advert. Are you Mrs Spencer?”

            Advert? Beth was puzzled. What on earth was an advert?

            “Well why didn’t you say so?” The old woman replied. “It’s number five, press the buzzer and I’ll let you in.”

            The old woman pulled herself back into the living room. Beth chewed her thumbnail anxiously. “Please don’t let him in Grand-Mama! Please don’t turn him into a frog!”

            “Hush now child,” came the reply. “You think he might be a Prince?” At Beth’s eager nod, the old woman smacked her wrinkled lips. “I’ll test him. If he passes, we might have a Prince in disguise – though I doubt it. And if he fails… if he’s just another filthy minded young upstart wanting to deflower you before your Prince comes, well… he’ll get what he deserves.”

            Beth bit her lip, hoping beyond all else that the young man waiting eagerly below was more than he appeared. “Couldn’t you just let him go Grand-Mama?”

            “No. He’ll get what he deserves, I told you. Now go to your room and don’t make any noise now. I need to make my special tea for him.” Beth watched her shut the window and followed her out of the room. She watched the old woman rubbing her hands together gleefully as she shuffled down the hallway, pausing only to usher her into her bedroom and lock the door.

            Beth sighed heavily and sat on the bed. She heard the door buzzer and listened to the sound of the young man climbing the stairs and being admitted by her grandmother. She didn’t even know his name.

            She looked at the glass tank at the far end of her room, and tears began to prick at the corners of her eyes. She went over and peered through the glass at the frogs sitting there despondently.

            “I’m so sorry,” she whispered. “I told you to leave, but you wouldn’t.”

            They croaked back at her. She imagined what they were trying to say. ‘Let us out!’ ‘Turn us back into men!’ I can’t let you out,” she whispered. “Grand-Mama would know it was me. I’m sorry.”

            She pulled herself away and went to the door, pressing against it, ear flat against the wood. She couldn’t hear anything; the kitchen was at the other end of the apartment with two doors shut between them. She wondered whether her Prince would be walking through her door soon, or whether he was soon to be a frog too. Unable to determine anything by eavesdropping, she drifted around her bedroom, looking at the framed pictures on the wall.

            Beth looked at the picture of her grandfather first. What a handsome fellow the old monarch had been, King Clark Gable the First. Grand-Mama still loved him very much, even now all these years later. Next she went to the picture of her father, the usurped King David Beckham the First. He was handsome too. Grand-Mama said she was beautiful because beauty ran in the family. Her gaze drifted to the portrait of her poor dead mother, Queen Gwyneth Paltrow. Such a sad smile. Grand-Mama said that she had the same blonde hair as her late mother, she wondered what it would have been like to know her.

            Beth moved on to the picture of the huge white castle. Even though she knew every single detail it had to offer, she spent hours gazing at it. To think that she had been born there, that she was supposed to grow up there. If it hadn’t been for that evil usurper, and his army of dark fairies, that her grandmother had told her all about, she’d be there now, with her mother and father. They’d play in the vast royal gardens and go horse riding and have picnics.

            But no, she was here, hiding in a small apartment in North London. She moved onto the next picture, one of her parents on the day of their coronation, this one a line drawing by the court artist. She took a deep breath and held the bitterness in check. As Grand-Mama had told her many times, she should be grateful. Grateful that Grand-Mama had seen the army coming, grateful that she managed to save her and these few treasures of their former life. Some days it was easier to be grateful than others.

            Beth wished that she had put that paper in her shoe, rather than stuffed it down the side of the chair. Who could have made paper like that? Where did it come from? It looked like it had been torn out of something, but she had never seen a book with paper like that before. And those pictures! They were beyond anything she had ever imagined before.

            She moved onto the picture of summer palace that had also been lost when her father was usurped. She knew so little of the world. She thought about the young man being tested now. What was that word he used? Advert? Grand-Mama had never told her anything about that. Her world was the apartment, sewing and lessons that all Princesses needed to learn. Perhaps adverts were something to do with the evil King’s reign. Or perhaps it was a secret code word that only Grand-Mama knew, like in the stories.

            That certainly was something she was grateful for; Grand-Mama was so careful to protect her from the evil King’s spies. They could be anywhere. Three of the frogs in the tank were young men who had been spies. If it hadn’t been for Grand-Mama, heaven knows what would have happened.

            She heard the key turn in the lock and held her breath. The door opened, and she knew instantly that her hopes had been ridiculous. A new frog wriggled in her grandmother’s claw-like grip.        

            Beth’s hands flew to her mouth and she squeezed her eyes shut. “Oh! Not another, not another!”

            “Now now, I told you he didn’t look like a prince,” Grand-Mama reminded her as she shuffled to the glass tank and dropped the new resident inside. He croaked in protest. “Now dry your eyes, be grateful I know what to do with these horrid young men, and pick a name for this new one. I have to clean up the mess, and have the building cleaner come to collect the rubbish, so you have stay in your room until I unlock the door. Magic is very messy as you know and it’s no place for a princess.”

            She left Beth standing in front of the tank, fat tears rolling down her cheeks. She looked forlornly at the new frog, croaking away in confusion and knelt down in front of him.

            “Sorry,” she said. “I did tell you what would happen.”

            Beth wept as she listened to the cleaner arriving, and the sound of thuds as the rubbish was taken out into the hallway. The steady heavy bump echoed in the stairwell as was taken away. How on earth could magic create so much rubbish?

            She took a deep breath and tried to think of something else. “Now I need to give you a name,” she told the new frog. “From henceforth, you shall be known as…. Lord White. In memory of those white clothes you wore when you came to find me. Lord White, meet your new friends. This is Lord Dimples, Lord Nervous, Lord…” She broke down, sinking the rest of the way to the floor, unable to bring herself to name all of her grandmother’s victims. The ten frogs croaked on, agitated by their confinement. Ten lords leaping futilely for the top of the tank, with as much hope of escape as the girl weeping on the other side of the glass.

BIO:  Emma sometimes feels a bit like a super-hero as she has two identities. By day, she writes B2B content for her business Your Nisaba (www.yournisaba.com) and by night she writes post-apocalyptic fiction and dark short stories for members of her short story club at Post-Apocalyptic Publishing (www.enewman.co.uk). Sadly she doesn’t have any super powers to go with her dual identities. Her debut YA post-apocalyptic novel ‘Twenty Years Later’ will be released in October 2010. She is mostly made of tea and lives in Somerset, England.

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22 Comments »

  1. 1
    Laura Eno Says:

    That was a grand tale, Emma! And you left us hanging on the dark side, which was wicked of you. 🙂 Had me entranced the whole time.

  2. 2
    Sam Says:

    Ooh, there you go again with the excellent stories! Really enjoyed this one – I too would like to know how magic can make so much rubbish.

  3. 3

    Em, this was wonderful! The suspense was turned up and up so smoothly, it was just heartbreaking when her grandmama carried the day yet again. I can only hope Elizabeth will get some decent therapy when the old witch dies.

  4. 4
    Darcy Says:

    Eeep, how do you think of these things? Very dark and twisty.

  5. 5
    Jen B Says:

    Marvellous! This made me laugh out loud, Emma. And I’m wondering, are they really turned to frogs, or is that another of Grandma’s tricks, a tank of frogs in the other room ready for when men come to visit? The whole idea of this story is wicked and fun.

  6. 6

    Emma, this was a wonderful story. You kept it full of suspense all the way through. I kept wanting to know what happens next. I loved it!

    Merry Christmas to you!

  7. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by EmApocalyptic, Theo. Theo said: The Tenth Lord « The 12 Days of Christmas: Perhaps he was the one she had been waiting for. None of the others had… http://bit.ly/8IYFAv […]

  8. 8

    Thank you guys! I had great fun writing this, and I hasten to add that my grandmother in real life is the most amazing lovely woman, so please don’t think I am basing it on her! Merry Christmas to you too! x

    • 9
      Jen B Says:

      I believe you, Emma– people are always thinking I base my characters (particularly mothers, etc) on real people. Not so! But this Grandma is nefarious. 😉

  9. 10

    This was a great story! Very imaginative and had a lot of great suspense.

    Laura

  10. 11
    Paul Says:

    Love it, love it, love it! Especially how you can take it either way, from a strange magical realism (have you read “Neverwhere” by Neil Gaiman, it put me in mind of that), to a terribly sad story of a cruel old woman keeping this girl captive with lies and tricks! Wonderful stuff.

  11. 12

    I have a feeling that her Grandma is lying/delusional. I do hope Beth escapes her prison soon. Poor thing.

    Loved the story! Your imagination is boundless!

  12. 13
    ray paterson Says:

    Merry Xmas to you Emma, loved this…and was wondering what may have happened if he WAS the one mmmm

  13. 14

    Of course! The advert must have been for a man to bring a frog for sale! What a wicked old granny to fool a young girl this way, using myths to keep the girl pure. Bump bump goes the salesman’s body down the stairs. Good one Em!

  14. 15

    I *love* it that you are speculating about whether it’s the mad grandmother or magical realism. I haven’t read Neverwhere, but I know the kind of thing you mean Paul.

    I have no idea where these stories come from, but I do know that I prefer to write them at night 🙂

    Have a lovely Christmas everyone!

    • 16

      Oh I do recommend Neverwhere, based on this and the other short stories of yours I’ve read, I think you’ll like it. It’s very good as an audiobook as well, it has a twisted-storytime feel when Neil Gaiman reads it aloud.

      I have to say, the ending of this story has my mind trying to suss out all the possible “solutions.” If Grandmother’s not a witch at all, then where did she get the frog? And how does she get the building guy to dispose of 10 bodies? Are they in cahoots? Or is Grandmother just a teensy-bit witch…enough to turn men into frogs & leave rubbish behind? Or, as the person below me said, do the men bring the frogs? Perhaps she advertises for frogs?

      Great story & I’m rooting for Beth to escape. 🙂

  15. 17

    Awesome as usual. More! More! 🙂

    My question is, where does she keep getting these frogs from? Or do the “princes” bring them with them?

  16. 19
    Caroline Says:

    Ooh, a wonderfully spooky story for Christmas! Hope Grand-Mama doesn’t take it into her head to do away with Beth, too. (Surely that’s what all those heavy bumps down the stairwell are?)

    And I loved and laughed out loud at ‘Queen Gwyneth Paltrow’ …

  17. 20
    Michelle Says:

    Oh dear dear, locked away, not knowing the real world, accepting what Grand-Mama tells her. Love it! Such a great story.

  18. 21
    LizzieR Says:

    Now that’s what I would almost call a Wizard read. I was definitely enchanted. Thank you.

  19. 22

    This story is so wonderfully creative! I love the variety in Jim’s #12 Days.

    Awesome work, Emma!


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