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Chapter 1.[MOU1] Bri Winter lay on her couch, tossed popcorn into her mouth, and stared at the TV blindly. Daytime TV got her through the day, well, at least until midday, after that, she was at a bit of a loss. There wasn’t much she enjoyed about her life. Maybe the sighting of an eagle overhead or a cobweb pearled in frost. She often wished she had been born a couple of centuries earlier when life seemed more romantic. “Seemed.” As the old cliche says—things are not always what they seem. The eighteen hundreds may have spawned Romantic poets, but it was filth ridden and rampant with disease. The women on TV were getting heated about Botox, the Puffy Filler Face, and other stuff Bri would never have to worry about. At eighteen, Bri looked younger than her years, she would always look younger than her years. That was part of her “curse.” To the women on TV right now, she doubted her perpetual youth would be perceived as much of a problem. Bri sighed stretching her legs, wing tips digging into her hips as she tried to sit up, but her black sweater caught on something sticky. Lumps, dirt, and stickiness. That about summed things up these days. Of the millions of things she knew she’d miss about her mother she never thought her cleaning would be one of them. She slumped back like some fallen angel on the sticky couch and sighed again. “Hello, love!” called a voice from the front door. Bri leapt to her feet, popcorn tipping over, wings spreading wide and knocking over a picture on the far wall. The tips bending hard against the ceiling sending shocks of pain through her shoulder blades and down her back. Altogether too big for this place, she winced, brushing popcorn off the seats into . . .what? Where’s the bin? A lone black feather fell to the ground. “Bri? I’m coming in, love.” Aunt Stella. Her silver Sky Walker heels rapped loudly, sticking to Bri’s badly washed linoleum floor. They stuck only for a second, but still Bri closed her eyes and shook her head with an inward groan. Her dad was as useless as she was when it came to cleaning. “Ah, Bri, they’re beautiful,” sighed Stella, covering her mouth in awe. It was always the same with Aunt Stella, always the awe, always the beauty, never the damned inconvenience of having six-foot wings attached to your back that were agony to draw out of the flesh, agony to keep within and even more agony to tuck away. Beauty wasn’t exactly the first word that sprang to Bri’s mind. “Sure,” said Bri, “Give me a minute.” She closed her eyes. Bones stretched, her back arched, and she hit the floor crouched on all fours, neck bent forward reaching to the ceiling, not that she could see the ceiling, her eyes were squeezed closed, and her mouth opened in a silent scream. There would be no sound. She had mastered that much by eighteen. The fire spread out to her shoulders; they cracked, her back torn open, cold blood trailing down her skin, and finally the shiver passing through her as the wings pushed themselves within her flesh. Bri let her head hang loose for a moment as her body adjusted to the pain rattling through her bones. Keeping the wings concealed took more energy than releasing them. Placing her hands on her knees she slowly got to her feet. “Caught you at a bad time, love?” asked Aunt Stella, languishing in the doorway, sucking on a cigarette. “Those things will kill you,” said Bri. “Have to catch me first,” cackled Aunt Stella. “Right,” smirked Bri, pushing a wisp of her short hair behind her ear and getting to her feet. She couldn’t resist the old broad. Aunt Stella’s enthusiasm for life was only matched by her love of cigarettes. Two loves that ran deep, no matter the irony that one would eventually end the other. “What a mess. And I mean you, not the couch.” Bri looked around; thin curtains still drawn, flowers from Mrs. Mulligan dead in a vase, and an interesting rendition of the Leaning Tower of Pisa constructed from dirty glasses. She sighed, swatting popcorn off herself. “Come on, get the kettle on, I’m parched. Waste y’r life watchin’ that drivel,” Stella marched through to the kitchen. Her words definite. Final. No arguments allowed. That’s how she always spoke. Bri appreciated it, mostly. Bri’s toes curled when she saw the pile of crumpled bedsheets waiting to be folded piled on the kitchenette table. She scooped them up and pushed them back into the washing machine. Giving Aunt Stella a tight smile. It didn’t matter, not really, Stella loved her, and Bri knew it. As the only child of Stella’s younger brother, Llewellyn Winter, the 100th king of their tribe, Bri was the daughter Stella wished she’d had. “Where’s y’r dad this fine morning?” asked Aunt Stella, eyebrows arched at the dishes filling the sink. “Out. Went with Tommy Mulligan and the others to work on Ender’s farm. They’ve got the October potatoes to start pulling,” said Bri, striking a match and inhaling the glorious smell of sulfur before lighting the gas stove. Aunt Stella made a Tsk sound and squeezed herself between the table and bench, her bare legs squeaking on the plastic seat. Blue eyes sliding to Bri. Celtic eyes that spoke of the long history between gypsies and Celts, not to mention Stella’s long aquiline nose. That was a Celt trait no doubt about it. “Wastin’ y’r life watchin’ that drivel.” Stella pulled on her cigarette. The usual Benson and Hedges. A brand, in Bri’s view, reserved for only the hardcore smoker. “You said. So will sucking on those cancer sticks.” Bri rested her head against the cupboard, closing her eyes. “Can’t argue with ya there. Damned things will be the end of me. Get on with that there tea.” The plastic seat cover squeaked against her thighs. Bri felt a thud, not her heart, a thud within the room— an earthquake? In Enfield, London? Was that even possible? The trembling began, hands and fingers. She gripped the counter, neck tightening, legs shaking. “No, no, no!” Bri shook her head and honed in on the water bubbling, slowly churning in the kettle, toes sticking to the linoleum floor—ground, Bri, ground…she told herself. The image took hold—a small, gold clasp…a book…a man’s hand, his hand? How could she know his hand? She’d never met him. The image ebbed. With a sigh Bri released the countertop, fingers white. Bri could feel her Aunt’s eyes on her back. “Was it him?” “I think so…” “Same place?” “His hands, a gold clasp, and a book. I can’t be sure, I’ve never even met the man!” Bri felt her aunt’s weighty stare shift, the gentle flick of ash. “It’s Fate. Meeting ’ll happen. Timings right.” “Today? You’re saying I go today? I can’t go today!” Bri tried to shake the feel of the warm gold clasp. “You got more pressing matters goin’ on around ‘ere, have ya?” Stella scoffed. “Dad’ll kill us both. I can’t go running to the one place he’s forbidden in search of some guy I’ve never met because…” the next words cut in her throat. “Cos she believed?” “I haven’t decided—” Bri cut in, but Aunt Stella held up a hand. “It was decided when ya mother gave ya a gift, and that gift turned out to be the sight of that boy. He’s got this cure your hell bent on seeking Bri. Though, why you’d want it is beyond me. But, it was decided with yr mother.” “You mean when she refused treatment and died a painfully slow death? Right? Yes, I remember that. That did decide a lot of things for me.” “It’s time, Bri. No more puttin’ it off.” Stella got to her feet pulling down her skirt. Bri turned to face her, cheeks burning, her body giving way— “I miss her . . .” her body trembled, bile rose in her throat. Stella caught her before she hit the floor. “Alright, alright. Come on now.” “I . . .” Bri began, stopping to catch her breath. Everything swayed in and out of focus, as if she sat atop a rollercoaster waiting for the inevitable drop. Stella’s firm hand clutched her elbow, momentarily enveloping her in the smells of stale cigarettes, gypsum, and hairspray. Makeup, like cement, filled the lines around Stella’s eyes and mouth. Tired, hooded, steely blue eyes that saw more and saw further than most dared. Aunt Stella was built of iron not afraid to delve into pockets of the world few would peer at from a distance. Yet those eyes looked at her with a love that threatened to bring Bri to her knees. And that simply wouldn’t do. The electric kettle clicked off. Bri closed her eyes gratefully, allowing her head to hang for just a moment longer. After a couple of breaths she gripped the cold, steel, metal back of her chair she pushed to her feet. Turning her back and withdrawing cups and tea from the cupboard, she hoped to avoid the keen questioning that was sure to follow. Aunt Stella didn’t like to be told no. There wasn’t a person in their clan that accepted the word—come to think of it. “No” was perceived as nothing more than a challenge to the Winters. “Right. Well, I made ya this for the journey. Here.” Stella took a pouch out of her handbag. Bri poured water onto the loose tea in the old, chipped teapot. “A putsi?” Bri turned the pouch over tenderly in her hands. It was small, maybe one-inch by two-inch square, made of a light shade of yellow with small star-like, white flowers, “Is this . . . is this my old dress? “Course. A putsi should be made from somethin’ loved, preferably worn, by the owner.” Stella smiled. “I know ya don’ like our traditions, Bri but indulge me in this one. Ya never know what you’ll find when ya travel, and a putsi finds room for whatever ya place inside it.” Bri looked down and whispered, “You know I’m a curse.” Stella’s pale blue eyes raised to meet Bri’s and hardened. “I never believed that.” Her words weren’t mean, but her tone was absolute, brusque and she stepped away straightening the putsi cigarette crackling. It had been decided. She would go to the Deep. Find the boy, honor her mother’s sacrifice, and live a—"normal life”. A life without wings, a life free from the curse. Easy. [MOU1]Chapter 1. Morrigan [MOU1]Chapter 1.
Hello, this is my YA novel, Max and the Spracketts. I worked on two novels for my MA, which i completed this year. Morrigan's Curse/Feathered Heart is one and this is the other. Both are complete--although I am making minor structural edits to both in light of some stuff I've been reading on here-- hahahha CHAPTER ONE Max Somewhere inside all of us is the power to change the world. (Roald Dahl, Matilda) The snow fell in thick curtains around him, the houses twinkling with warm Christmas lights and the skinny streetlamps glowing with misty orbs. He had no idea it was so late—he’d not missed a train in five years, and he wasn’t missing this one. Wiping sleet from his eyes while he ran, Max slipped on the pavement and stumbled toward a lamplighter. “OY! Watch it, lad!” the lamplighter yelled, as Max crashed into him. The man wobbled on his ladder, hands grasped tight as the ladder tilted away from the lamp post until he stood like he was walking on stilts. “Whoa, woa!” he called, voice deep with panic, like he was talking to an unbridled horse. “Gotcha!” said Max, clutching the grainy ladder. He was going to get a splinter from this. He set the ladder back against the lamppost. “Sorry, I didn’t…” Max stammered, the cold air like blades in his throat. “Sorry I didn’t,” the lamplighter mimicked him. “Alright, no need for that, I saved you, didn’t I!” “Why you cheeky little—” The lamplighter lunged at him, stale breath reeking of ale. Max ran, snow seeping beneath his collar, skin numb to the coldness, fear pushing him on. He had to get back to the train! His whole life was on that train! No way could he spend a month on the streets in Vienna. He’d freeze for one thing! How could he be so stupid? Getting carried away playing his violin. He couldn’t help smiling, though. He loved it when a crowd drew around him, listening to him weave his father’s old song out of the new strings he’d just bought. Then he’d left the violin under the bench next to the carousel. Stupid mistake. It was that hooded girl, ratting him out to the Scouts when he was doing an innocent bit of thieving from that fat rich guy. Rookie move, letting her distract him, and he was no rookie. How had he forgotten his violin? He could always leave the violin, if he did, he’d definitely catch the train before it left the station. Darn violin was all he had of his dad he couldn’t leave the thing. Even if no one stole it, the wood wouldn’t last a week in this snow. That girl! He saw her—actually saw her—point him out to the Scouts! She wasn’t one of the rich. Her clothes were too dull and drab. Plus, she had no nanny with her, and couldn’t be older than thirteen, maybe fourteen. So who was she? She had to be street kid. Someone needed to sit her down and explain the street code to her. Rule number one: no ratting each other out. Max dragged his hands over his face, his mind clouded with images of her. She’d distracted him, and he couldn’t understand why, which distracted him even more. He didn’t like it. All he could think of was her hooded figure. That and his poor cold violin! Oh and his train. He had to focus, focus on the train! Get the violin, catch the train! Get the violin, catch the train! Pausing to catch his breath. The thick snow blanketed everything—where was he? He dragged his fingers through his hair, stinging with the cold. He should have worn full gloves, not the fingerless ones. The air from his breath hardly warmed them. The wind picked up, parting the snow momentarily and offering a glimpse the Vienna Ferris Wheel, hanging in the sky like a giant spider's web. A grin cracked his cheeks. He knew exactly where he was—not far from the town square. His eyes stung from the cold. Popping the latch on his leather satchel, he took out his brass goggles. His heart tugged at the empty space where his violin should be. He opened the pouch to reveal an array of colored lenses, neatly stacked in individual silk sleeves. Flicking through them, he found what he was looking for: copper. Always, copper for twilight. Inserting the lenses into the goggles, he pulled them down and felt familiar relief. He could wear his copper lenses at night, and see as well as in daytime. This was one of the reasons he wore the goggles. The other reason? They were a gift, and those hadn’t come by him very often in his short life. The main main reason, though, was Max had gold rings around the pupils of his eyes, and if he didn’t wear the goggles, people got too excited around him. Many people wore goggles, but no one had gold rings around their pupils. No one he’d met, anyway. They helped him fit in. People stared at his inky black pupils ringed with gold—after all, why wouldn’t they? One time he got a mirror and stared at them for so long he could have sworn he saw flames. He preferred the goggles. He checked his watch – 7:45 – the train left at 8:00. He took off at a sprint. Not far now. The question nagged at him again – why would anyone bother to snitch on him to the Scouts? It didn’t make any sense. He was a nobody, a thirteen-year-old orphan who lived on a train. He wasn’t like one of those rich kids the Scouts could ransom out for cash. Who was that girl, anyway? He had a pretty good grasp on the street kids. He’d visited Vienna every two weeks for over five years, but her…he’d never seen her before. He’d always liked his stops in Vienna. This one he’d got new strings for his violin, long overdue, but they weren’t cheap. This stop had gone very wrong. His dad had said they’d lived here once, before his mother had died. Max couldn’t remember it, but he felt it. Felt the near-touchable familiarity of the streets and the smells. It was by far the best train route, because they traveled through the Carpathians. Max loved to thieve off the passengers, hit Budapest and go straight to the new Opera house where he and his dad would sit in the rafters and listen to the music. And that was his plan today. If he missed the train, where would he go? He entered a broad street lined with grand houses, each one with a flight of steps leading to ornate front doors with large windows. Inside, maids lit candles, and Christmas trees were strung with so much popcorn Max could swear the smell of butter filled the air. It looked cozy. Max hated cozy. He suspected it had something to do with the peaceful look on children's faces as they snuggled into their parent's arms. This was what he suspected. It was a feeling, not something he could see, touch, smell, or taste—thus, not something he could really believe existed. Feelings were ghostly, unreliable. Max didn't like unreliable. Unreliable didn't work in his world. He skirted the corner and saw the town square. Music flowed down the street towards him. All the streets leading off the square glowed, snow fell, lamplighters protected their flames, grim faces undeterred. And the square was lit up like a snow globe. The warm aroma of toasted chestnuts filled the air. Children laughed at clowns cavorting on the circular wall around the main fountain. Couples linked arms as they stood in line for the chestnuts baking in orange fires. Old couples wrapped against the cold sat on benches watching the merry scene and listening to street musicians play beautiful music for copper and silver Gulden. And there it was, sitting beneath a bench—his violin! With its smooth, brown wood, polished so often it felt soft like an old shirt could feel soft after a thousand washes until it felt like a fine garment. His violin was not a fine garment, but it was treasured. From near the carousel came a shout: “There he is!” Max looked up. It was one of the Scouts the girl had ratted him out to. There was a gang of them patrolling the square. Helpers of the law my arse, thought Max. What were the chances of running into them here. Perfect. Just perfect! He leapt over a chained fence, slid across the dirt, under the bench and snatched up his violin. “Gotcha!” Opening his satchel, he slipped the violin inside. No time to wrap it properly—right now he had to shrug off those Scouts and get on the train. “Get him!” yelled the tall one. Max rolled his eyes. That Scout never gave up. He was like a puppy with an old rag. The station was two blocks away going east. He had to try! At the end of the street, the bright domed ceiling of Wien Hauptbahnhof, Vienna’s Central Station, lit up the night. He was almost home. He ran down the wide two-way road. Outside, the station buzzed with those arriving, those leaving and those ready to make a quick korona carrying trunks. He knew the inside was no different. Without a second thought he leapt into the traffic standing between him and home. Carriages beeped and swerved, horses reared but Max dodged them all. Reaching the curb where the carriages lined up for passengers, he was tempted to snatch a suitcase as it was being loaded, but slipped on ice and narrowly avoided a clap round the head from a grim-looking cab driver. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw the Scouts trapped on the other side of the road—he wanted to tease them, but had no time to waste. He ran to the entrance. The large clock hung above the doorway read 7:56pm, and the train was leaving at eight sharp. Stars peeked through the station’s domed skylight windows. Max craned his neck to see the Platform Board. He needed to know where he was departing from—there it was, Platform 16! He slipped into the crowd and let it carry him through mental tunnels towards the Platform area, slipping out when they reached Platform 16. Bursts of steam enveloped his ankles. Passengers emerged like specters, forcing him to sidestep out of their way. There were too many people blocking his path, he’d never make it to the train in time. His breath caught. There it was: his train, pulling out of the station. His only hope was to jump down onto the tracks of Platform 16 and run after his train. Taking a quick, courageous breath, he did just that, narrowly missing the tracks. "There he is!" Max felt his legs stiffen. Above him, on Platform 16, stood the Scouts. The scrawny one jumped onto the tracks, the other two stayed put. Max ran after his train, lungs burning, slipping and sliding on the icy tracks. The scrawny scout lunged for him but Max dodged to the side, sending him crashing to the ground. The hard ice was like a punch to the face but Max just winced and kept running. The tracks ahead glistened with ice. The train was just within his reach! He had to get alongside and find one of the ladders that ran up to the roof. The train hissed. Chugged. Slowly building momentum. Max was seconds ahead of the Scout. Steam gathered in clouds all around him. The sleek black side of the train beside him. The steam parted and he saw the ladder. Max broke into a sprint. The ladder inches from his grasp. The cold rungs bit his palms and fingers as he clutched them—Yes! He had it! A hand grabbed the back of his neck and yanked down hard. Max clung to the ladder, fingers white and firm, arm now wrapped through the rung. "I’ve got you!" It was the scrawny Scout, face burned from where he hit the tracks. The train let out a long whistle. The pistons fired harder, the wheels picking up speed. Max closed his eyes and clung on for all he was worth. The Scout’s sweaty hand slipped from his neck, only to grasp his ankle. Max kicked out and felt the hand, mercifully, release. “Yes!” he cried. "No!” "Hahah! Better luck next time!" Max laughed giving him a mock salute. “I’ll get you in Lemburg!” The Scout screamed. Clouds of steam quickly consumed his angry puce face. Max paled at the threat. Blimps allowed Scouts to travel quickly through the skies. It would be easy to find him if they decided to. But would they? He clung to their ladder. The train rushed beneath the sweeping arched tunnel of Vienna’s Central Station. A sigh escaped his lips when he felt the crisp night air. He’d probably be fine. Probably. The train lurched forward. Max scampered onto the roof and gripped the rails running along the sides. It was the throttle, releasing steam into the belly of the train. The train vibrated through his feet and up his legs, but Max stood firm as if he stood on solid ground. Relishing the wind in his face as the train thrust forward, he stole a glance over his shoulder and there she was: his Vienna, twinkling in the night. Max decided to sit down before he fell. Just for a moment—the same moment that swept over him every time he left Vienna. With his back to the city, he faced the approaching snow-capped peaks of the Carpathian Mountains. Tenderly, he withdrew his violin, the wood so tarnished it scratched against his chin as he tucked it in place. The chords strident and piercing as they twisted out of the warm wood. Max swayed to the familiar childhood rhythm his dad had played every day. His song. Their song. His mother’s song. Almost certain he could see the notes marching off into the sky. Max played until his fingers felt stiff with cold and he could play no more. "Until next time," he whispered, wrapping the violin in the cloth and packing it carefully in the satchel. Max dipped a hand into some unseen pocket and pulled out a greasy pack of chewing gum. Popping a stick into his mouth, he let out a sigh. Snowflakes fell heavy and fast, and he wiped them from his eyes. Relief flooded him. He’d made it. He’d made it back to his train. He’d made it home. For a moment, running through the streets, he’d lost everything. But he’d made it. And he’d found his violin. The train picked up speed. Time to move inside. Max got to his feet and ran. One destination in mind. Bounding over carriages and leaping across the divides, the rush of wind blinding, the clatter of steel wheels on steel tracks deafening. The front of the train was in view. Which meant he had to duck beneath the thick stream of smoke from the boiler room chimney. Ahead, he saw the hatch and skidded to halt next to it, blinded by smoke. But for what he needed to do, he didn’t need to see—he just had to be quick. The temperature plummeted, the farther they traveled from the city. Wrapping his fingers around the hatch’s frozen wheel, he fought to spin it open. Fat chunks of ice cracked and shattered. A hiss of steam belted him in the face. The hatch popped open. Before anything else could go wrong, Max swung through the hole. Closing the hatch behind him. Inside, he landed hard, but on both feet. He always hated how the drop was twice his height. He really had to fix a retractable ladder somewhere the guards wouldn’t find it, but that he could access with ease. The engine room was dark, but his goggles helped him snake his way around the back of one of the furnaces. The familiar din embraced him like an old comforter, with its endless clattering of steel wheels and the soft pulse of firing pistons. At the back of the furnace was a narrow walkway, barely wide enough for one person. With his back flat against the wall, Max inched his way along, careful not to touch the furnace’s scorching metal. He counted his paces. “One. Two. Three…” At three, Max stopped and felt the wall behind him until his hand found what it sought—a small handle set into the wall. He pulled forcefully and it moved only a fraction, but that’s all he needed to release the mechanism. The wall behind him hissed with steam as it separated into two sliding doors that slowly opened on a hidden room. “Home.” Max walked inside and pulled a level on his right. The wall hissed with more steam as it closed, sealing off the clamor of the engine room. “Ah, quiet. No need to wear you now old friends." He pulled off the goggles and placed them back inside his satchel, before hanging it on a hook. Max hadn’t always lived on a train, but it felt like he had. He knew every nook, hook, and baggage rack. There wasn't a place to hide, spy hole or quick exit he wasn't privy to. He had even found one or two 'special' places wide enough for his arm to enter carriages and swipe a quick bite to eat from unwitting passengers. He stepped through the dark towards an old lamp hanging from a pipe. He struck a match, igniting the oil. The flaming wick cast the room in a muddy light. The kind of light that summons dusty memories. He prodded them into the recesses of his mind and let his hand brush over his beloved books: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, a Roget’s Thesaurus, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and a leather-bound copy of Greek Myths. A small yet mighty shelf. "Time to investigate the new passengers. But first, what to wear?" he smirked, pushing the Scout’s threat out of his mind. Maybe they would be at Lemburg, but maybe not. It would take them time to organize. He pulled hard on a rope above his head. A small trap door opened, releasing a shower of clothing—bloomers, starched shirts, beards, cravats, wigs, and boots. A mass collection of disguises. "Not today, thank you.” He muttered, tossing a corset aside. "Ah, you will do nicely!” He held up a scarlet velvet suit and struggled into it, yanking at the lace collar. Too tight. How did these bourgeois put up with it? Trussed up in tight suits and decorated in baubles made them easy pickings. He grinned. Always the best to steal from. Max slipped through the engine room and was out the door quicker than a wink.