Once upon a time, a yeasty aroma filled the forest of Wheataker. Its dense foliage basked under the soft glow of the rising sun. The parrots chirped merrily, flapping their wings in tandem with the dulcet songs of the nightingales. The spotted wild cats purred in contentment, while the deer trotted around with their fawns, nibbling on the juicy grass. When the orange ball of flame disappeared below the horizon, one could hear the faint stirring of a leaf.
The forest was also home to bony imps. They had oval faces, and huge ears protruded from their heads. The Goddess of Wheataker, angered by their scampish behaviour, had once handed them an ultimatum. Mend you ways, or get out of the forest! Fearing her wrath, they apologized to her, and swore upon the Holy Moon that they would behave properly.
On the outskirts of Wheataker stood the House of Scones. Made up entirely of teacakes, it was inhabited by a family of four members. The man of the house was Mr. Scone, who went out early mornings to the forest to collect wild berries. His wife would then clean them, and bake delicious tarts. The twins Emma and Theo helped their parents occasionally, but spent most of their days chasing colourful butterflies. The fragrance from the house sent the forest dwellers into raptures of joy.
Life trudged along in Wheataker, until the imps played truant.
“Emma! How many times have I told you not to fiddle with the fiddle? This is so irritating!” screamed Theo. His blue eyes glinted in anger.
The chair made of muffin protested feebly, as Emma flung the instrument on it. But the girl ignored the dent she had created, and said aloud, “I am bored!”
“I see you have been spending a lot of time with that imp lately!”
“His name is Figo. He tells me wonderful stories of lands faraway. Do you know that across the forest is a majestic castle? It’s so huge that it can host the entire inhabitants of Wheataker! I want to go there!”
Theo’s eyes widened. “Are you out of your mind, Emma?”
“No! I am serious! It’s so dull out here! It’s the same old routine. You wake up to the sight of momma and papa going about their tasks. You sniff the yeast daily; this smell overpowers you. Not to speak of getting awakened by the eccentric rooster every morning! Don’t you crave for a change, Theo?” Emma placed her hands over her hips.
Theo murmured, “It’s not safe for you to go alone.”
His sister grinned, “You’ll come with me. Yes, my dear brother. Let’s run away. Just for a day!”
The next day, at the crack of dawn, the twins tiptoed out of their house. Emma carried a bundle filled with tarts, and Theo pocketed a tiny knife to ward off the evil spirits.
The spotted wild cat cocked its ears at the sound of two pairs of feet treading softly on the dewy grass. “Children! Why are you alone at this time in this place? Where are your parents?”
Before Theo could speak, Emma blurted out, “We want to explore the world outside!”
“Oh dear! It’s not a wise decision,” the owl hooted.
“It’s a big bad world out there!” agreed the nightingale.
“Nothing will happen to us,” dismissed Emma with a wave of her hand. “We are bored.”
“Where are you going?” the parrot demanded to know.
“To the castle!”
The animals gasped.
“Who told you about it?” the deer asked in a soft tone.
“Figo!” With that, the twins said goodbye to the animals, after swearing by the Holy Moon that they would be back by night.
Emma squealed in delight as the babbling brook came into view. Even her brooding brother couldn’t resist a smile. Hand in hand, they hopped to the bank. Cupping the water in their palms, they drank greedily. It had been an hour since they left Wheataker.
There was a row of pine trees to their left. Follow the trail, Figo had told Emma. The path was paved with uneven stones, and Emma had to pause many times to lift her foot and to flick a tiny pebble away from her shoe. Theo bent down, and picked one up. It was as smooth as the berries found in Wheataker. He put it in his pocket.
“I am worried, Emma, about our parents.”
“I wrote a note to them. Momma might have read it by now.”
Theo opened his mouth to say something, but stopped midway, grimacing. A pungent smell drifted in from somewhere. Emma covered her mouth with a handkerchief.
“Fed up with the aroma of teacakes, right?” Theo taunted.
Emma glared at him, but said nothing and continued to walk. The stench was indeed getting unbearable. It was as if someone had broken hundred eggs, poured the slimy mixture into a cauldron, and had forgotten about it.
Mercifully, the misery came to an end two hours later, as the twins came across an orchard dotted with shrubs. They had prickly leaves, and tiny white flowers in the shape of stars sprouted from the buds. Lavender oval shaped berries swayed in the gentle breeze, and seemed to coax the twins to enter the premises.
Theo ran his hands over the flowers. He plucked one berry and popped it inside his mouth. It was delicious! Nothing like the one found in Wheataker. Figo was right! This new world was beginning to intrigue him.
“Theo!” Emma’s voice brought him back to the present. Her wide eyes sparkled with joy, and he looked in the direction she was pointing with her finger. He let out a gasp.
Even from a distance, the castle loomed large over the twins. Its grey fortified walls were interspaced with tiny windows. At the centre was a tall cylindrical tower, which looked as though it had pierced through the castle, and claimed its rightful place as the owner. A black flag fluttered over it furiously. The reverie was broken by the full-throated cackle of an old lady. Emma shivered and reached out to clasp Theo’s hand. A scream escaped her mouth, as she saw her brother sprawled on the grass.
Emma ran as fast as her legs could carry her. She could still hear the maniacal laughter. Who was it? She had no clue. But she knew she had to get help! Suddenly, she felt something sharp prick her neck, and darkness swooped down on her.
“Emma! Wake up! Please!”
Is it Theo? But why does he sound so weak?
Emma tried to pry her eyes open, but the heavy lids were stubborn. Just like her! Her voice slurred, and she drifted off to a deep slumber again.
When she woke up, she found herself in a dark room which had no windows. The floor was damp. Where was Theo? Her eyes darted around, trying to adjust to the blackness. She rubbed them vigorously. There he is! Her brother lay huddled against the wall. His knees were bent, and his arms clasped around them, as if seeking solace in their nearness.
“Theo!” she whispered. “I am so sorry, Theo! I shouldn’t have listened to Figo. It’s all my fault!”
“Now, my child! Who is this Figo?” a sharp voice penetrated the dingy room. The twins stiffened. Their blue eyes were stamped with the fear of the unknown. In a swift and unsteady motion, Emma crawled towards Theo, and hugged him tightly.
A figure as thin as reed appeared before them. The body was draped in a black hood. A hat of a similar colour completed the attire. Scrawny hands jutted out from the loose sleeves. Nails covered in soot hung from shapeless fingers. But it was that face that would haunt Emma and Theo forever. It was covered with wrinkles, and veins criss-crossed over them, throbbing with blood that seemed to be a hurry to reach its destination. A raven’s beak stood where the nose should have been. The mouth when opened revealed crooked yellow teeth.
“I am ravenous, children. It’s been so long since I have had a feast. Oh! Those days when I could bake children like you!”
“W… W… Who are you?” Emma stammered.
“I am the Witch of Wheataker!”
Theo let out a gasp. “You are Athena?”
The witch laughed. “Yes! The sister of Olivia. The one whom you revere as the Goddess of Wheataker. She had always been the beautiful one. And extremely popular! And I? People wouldn’t touch me with a bargepole. Why would they? I was, after all, the hideous one.”
“B… But,” Theo interrupted her. “Momma told me you were exiled because you broke the rules of the forest.”
Bloodshot eyes glared at him. “You and your rules! I never cared for them. I wanted to rule the Forest of Wheataker. But the inhabitants wanted Olivia. What could I do? The forest always had its way! Olivia had strict rules in place. No harm should befall the little ones! Huh! I disobeyed her and devoured one child who had strayed into the forest. Olivia exiled me, sending me away to live a life of doom in this gloomy castle. But now, I will have my revenge.”
Emma and Theo screamed. Shivering violently, they held on to each other. Athena glided to the corner of the room. It was then they realised that her feet was two inches above the ground. Their frightened eyes followed her movement, and widened when she picked up a sceptre.
“It’s been years since I yearned for a visitor!” Athena squawked. “It’s so unfair that I have had to subsist on raw eggs!” She paused for a moment and resumed, “I must admit you both have been quite persistent. The stench of rotten yolk didn’t bother you.”
“Is the orchard yours?” Emma asked quietly.
“Smart girl! Yes. The berries are laced with a drug. I made it myself. It induces one to sleep for a good part of the day!”
Emma let out an audible gulp. That explains why Theo fainted! How long have we been here? Is it already evening? I have to keep her busy somehow.
“I didn’t eat any fruit. How did you bring me here?” she persisted.
Athena glared at her. “You are one pesky child! You tried to get help, and I had to let my pet bee on you to sting you.”
“W.. What are you going to do to us?” Theo murmured in a shaky voice.
In reply, Athena raised her sceptre, and was about to bring it down on the boy, when a thunderous voice reverberated across the room.
“You will not harm my children!”
A beautiful woman appeared before them. She was draped in a golden gown and a crown made of crystals adorned her head. Emma and Theo bowed down before the Goddess of Wheataker.
“Will you ever change, Athena? Spare these children! This is my order!” Olivia hollered.
Athena shook her head. “You are in my castle! I make the rules here!”
She took off her hat and flung it on the floor. It exploded into a thousand splinters and flew across the room. The twins shut their eyes instinctively. But they felt nothing. Breathing loudly, they gradually opened their eyes. A transparent wall had come up, and they could see the two fiery sisters, engaged in a gritty duel.
The Goddess of Wheataker had not only protected her children by conjuring up a wall, but was now fighting with the witch. Athena rained blows on her sister with her sceptre, but Olivia didn’t wince one bit. She waited for the exact moment when she would be able to use her magic to impale Athena – a curse she had never used in the history of Wheataker!
Emma stood on her knees and brought her hands together in a form of prayer. Theo followed suit. The Holy Moon wouldn’t leave his protégé in the lurch.
“It’s over, children. Get up!” Olivia ordered in a soft tone. “Athena won’t bother us again.”
“Is she d… dead?” Theo whispered hoarsely.
“Let’s not discuss this, children! Our friends are waiting for us back home!”
Emma burst into tears. “I am so sorry!”
Olivia stroked her blonde hair lovingly. “Don’t blame yourself. I have banished Figo and his friends away from Wheataker. Those imps had started to poison your mind. I shouldn’t have forgiven them the first time.”
“Who told you we were here?” Theo was curious to know.
“The animals were worried about you, and so sought my appointment immediately. I could sense their urgency. I granted them an audience. I seethed with anger when they told me about Figo. I could have punished him then itself, but their next words shook me. The wise owl mentioned about the castle. I knew I had to hurry up!”
“W.. What about momma and papa?” Emma spoke in a low voice.
Olivia smiled. “I assured them that I will bring you both safely home.”
Emma and Theo rushed to her, and hugged her, sniffling.
“My dear Emma! Home is the best place to be in. It’s good to explore the world. But for that you need to grow up. Till then, keep the idea of running away to yourself. Ok?”
The twins nodded.
The familiar yeasty aroma wafted in across the forest of Wheataker, as Emma and Theo returned home. The moonbeams cast their silvery glow on the leaves, while they swayed in the gentle breeze like graceful ballet dancers, and welcomed the children heartily. The nightingales sang paeans in praise of the kind Goddess Olivia who hadn’t hesitated to take down her evil sister to protect her children. The wild cats cracked jokes of naughty kids lured by evil imps, their bellies jiggling with laughter. The deer broke out into impromptu jigs with their fawns. The Holy Moon smiled from above. The order had been restored in the forest!
“Momma!” Emma squealed, fat tears trickling down her cheeks/
Mr. and Mrs. Scone were delighted to see their children.
“I promise that I won’t run away from home again!”
“I too will make sure my sister is safe,” Theo whispered.
Their mother smiled, and winked at their father. Mr. Scone grinned like a Cheshire cat.
“Why do you both have this strange expression on your face?” Emma and Theo asked in unison.
Mrs. Scone replied, “We wanted to celebrate this joyous occasion by….,” she paused, giggled, and brought out the biggest tart baked ever in the House of Scones.
“Momma!” Emma rolled her eyes, and laughed.
And they lived happily ever after!
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