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The Erl King’s Daughter

Joan Aiken





  The Erl King’s Daughter

  Joan Aiken

  Illustrated by Paul Warren

  These things happened to my younger brother Kevin when I had my broken leg. If I hadn’t been in the hospital, maybe I could have helped him.

  While I was away from home, Aunt Ada came to look after Kev—and Aunt Ada’s about as useful as last week’s newspaper. She’s thin, and forgets everything you tell her; she has a whiny voice and a runny nose. And does embroidery.

  Well. Just after I broke my leg, a new girl, Nora Scull, turned up in Kev’s class at our school, that’s Green Elementary School. Kev told me about her.

  Kev’s good at telling stories. He got the knack from our Gran. Gran came from Europe when she was little, with her Gran, who knew endless tales about trolls and gnomes and witches. Our Gran passed them on to Kev, and he told them to the kids at school.

  Kev is little and pale and scrawny. He can’t run fast, for he gets breathless, so he does more watching and thinking than other people. He knows lots of words. He reads all the labels on boxes, and tells stories better than I can; I always seem to get the end part at the beginning, or forget the middle.

  When he came to see me at Squires Park Hospital, Kev told me about this Nora. She was in his class, though she was older, because she never had much schooling; her Dad was always moving. She was skinny as a broom, Kev said, with eyes black as lumps of soot, and a sharp nose. Her hair was dark and thick and so bushy that she always seemed to be hidden behind it, in a dark corner of her own. She never laughed, never smiled. Just watched all the time. Like Kev, in a way.

  Right from the start, Nora took a fancy to Kev. He couldn’t say why. She was older and bigger; you’d think she’d want to be with kids her own age. But no. Maybe it was because of Kev’s tales. Though, he said, if he did tell one, she’d sneer at it, and say it was a silly baby story.

  She really liked only one. That was the tale of the Erl King. It was one our Gran told, about the land her Gran came from, where there’s miles of forest. In those big woods there lives a spook; his name’s the Erl King. He rides at night, on his black horse that’s fast as the wind, but quiet.

  And there was a farmer who had to go through the woods one night, taking his sick kid to the doctor.

  The man carries the kid on his back, and it keeps crying, saying, “Daddy, Daddy, the Erl King’s after us, he’s grabbing at me with his cold hands.”

  Well, the father runs faster and faster, but it’s no use. When he gets to the doctor’s house, the little kid is stone cold dead.

  The Erl King had gotten him.

  When Kev told the story to kids at school, he changed it. Instead of those foreign woods, he had the father running along the old overgrown railroad tracks between Turnpike Woods and Squires Park Hospital. There’s a patch of woods there that runs down to the railroad tracks. After Kev told the story, some kids wouldn’t go near those woods, or the railroad tracks. They said the Erl King would get them.

  Nora really liked that story, Kev said. After she’d made him tell it once or twice, she got to telling it, and made it more scary each time, putting in awful things.

  “Do you like Nora?” I asked Kev, when he came to see me in the hospital.

  “No,” he said. “No, I don’t like her.”

  I found out later he’d stopped telling stories himself. As if they’d begun to frighten him.

  When Aunt Ada brought him to visit me, I could see there was something wrong, for he had gotten so thin and waxy-pale, with eyes as big as olives and dark hollows under them. But then I thought it was from grieving for our Gran, who’d died not long before. Kev and Gran were very close. Besides telling him tales, she’d let him help her around the house before he started school. They’d chatter to each other all day, about anything from people to potatoes. So it was to be expected that he’d miss her badly.

  Gran was a great cook. Not fancy—she had no time or money for that—but things you don’t get in other kids’ homes: onion and raw-potato pancakes, gingerbread, cheesecake, home-baked beans.

  After Aunt Ada came, it was all frozen stuff. “I’m no cook, never have been,” she’d sniff. “Can’t expect me to cook as well as take care of two children. All that trouble at that age.” It was fish sticks and peas, day after day, Kev told me.

  And, do you know what Aunt Ada did? She got rid of all Gran’s things. Every bit. Her clothes went to the thrift shop; and her brass pot and meat-pounder, her curved chopper, wooden spoons and big wooden bowl were sold to Mr. Simms, who has the secondhand shop on Turnpike Hill.

  Worst of all for Kev, he found that Gran’s little recipe book had gone too. It wasn’t much bigger than a box of raisins, with a greasy cover and a thick old rubber band around it, because of all the bits and pieces that were tucked into it. Gran had it from her gran, and both of them had written in the margins, and drawn little pictures (to show how things ought to be cut or peeled or shaped).

  They had stuck in clippings from newspapers and magazines, and written translations of the foreign words, till it was more like a family album than a recipe book.

  When Kev got home from school and found the book gone from the kitchen shelf, he was really upset.

  “I got rid of it,” Aunt Ada said when he asked her. “It’s better to have nothing to remind you of your Gran. You worry too much as it is.”

  Kev did go and ask Mr. Simms about it, but the book wasn’t sold to him. And Kev couldn’t find it in the trash can either.

  That was a bad time for him, and the new girl, Nora Scull, she made things worse.

  She was always following Kev. “Softy,” she called him, or “Dummy.”

  One day he saw Miss Clamp’s pin in the playground and picked it up. Nora snatched it.

  “You give me that, Softy!”

  “It’s Miss Clamp’s!”

  “Give it to me!”

  “It’s not yours.”

  “Give it to me, or I’ll put such an ache in your head you can’t see the blackboard.”

  Kev gets these awful headaches sometimes. He has to go home and lie down. Nora knew about them.

  “I can give you one,” she told him. “If I point my finger—like this!”

  Just the sight of that skinny pointing finger, and her dark eyes, like black holes, made Kev’s head begin to throb.

  “Do you know who I am?” she says.

  “You’re Nora Scull.”

  “I’m the Erl King’s daughter. If you don’t do what I say, my Dad’ll come and get you.”

  Well—Kev believed her. Where she lived, down on Spital Way, that’s a very bad neighborhood. Kimballs Green is a poor part of town, and Spital Way, in the middle, is the worst street. Nora lived in a shack, with her father. It was a run-down house, all boarded up. Nora climbed in through a hole over a rusty tank. She tried to get Kev to go in, but he wouldn’t. It was just the kind of place, he thought, where the Erl King would choose to live, with rusty stoves and broken TV sets in the front yard.

  “Don’t you tell the others about my Dad,” says Nora. “I’ll know if you do. I know all that happens to you. If you tell, my Dad will get you, on his black motorbike that can go up stairs and in windows.”

  So, when Miss Clamp asked, in Assembly, had anyone seen her pin, he kept quiet. He felt awful about it though, because he liked Miss Clamp.

  None of the other kids could stand Nora, so, as Nora was always with Kev, his friends stopped talking to him. She’d follow him home. Aunt Ada didn’t mind Nora. “I don’t object to a quiet, well-behaved child,” she said. Nora would sit in
our living room, with her sharp eyes everywhere, waiting for a chance to grab a chocolate cookie, or a quarter from Aunt Ada’s purse. She never took enough to notice, but she was always stealing.

  “If you tell, I’ll say you took it,” she told Kev.

  There’s an old blind man, who sits on a box outside the subway station. Mr. Greenway, his name is. He has his dog, Spot, on his lap, and a plate in front for coins people drop in. He doesn’t get much. And Spot always looks a bit embarrassed, sitting on Mr. Greenway’s lap like that. He’s too big, and his legs hang down. Still, he puts up with it. He gives his stumpy tail a wag when Kev goes by, because sometimes Kev brings him a bone.

  One day, walking past the station—“Wouldn’t it be fun to push Spot into the road?” says Nora.

  “No, it wouldn’t,” says Kev.

  But, without listening, Nora gives Mr. Greenway a hard shove; over he goes, onto the sidewalk, and Spot is thrown clear into the traffic. There’s a screech of brakes.

  Next, Nora’s picking Mr. Greenway up, making a big fuss.

  “Oh, you poor man! I saw those terrible boys knock you over!”

  Butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. While she was setting him back on his box, she stole 50 cents from his plate of money.

  Spot came limping out of the traffic. “Lucky he wasn’t killed,” said an angry motorcyclist.

  “I’m not going to talk to you anymore,” says Kev to Nora. “That was a horrible, horrible trick to play.”

  “If you tell, I’ll strike you blind,” says Nora. “How’d you like to sit on a box for the rest of your life, in the dark? I can do it,” she says, “if I point my finger at you.”

  And Kev believed her. When she pointed her finger, everything he could see began to darken and blur.

  Then Nora made him go into shops and ask for things that were hard to find—cream of tartar, or almond flavoring—and while the shopkeeper was hunting, she’d steal something from near the door, chewing gum or sour balls. If the shopkeeper found some cream of tartar, she’d say, “No, that’s not the kind Mom wants.”

  Kev was getting even thinner. He had awful dreams at night, about the Erl King coming to shut him up in the dark forever. And his headaches got worse.

  I worried about him, but my leg hadn’t mended; I was still in the hospital. What could I do?

  One day Nora says to Kev, “Come on, I’ve found a crummy old bookshop in March Street, run by an old lady who’s deaf as a post; we can sneak up behind her and take all the cash out of her drawer.”

  Kev didn’t want to. He hated that part of town, where Nora lived. He was afraid Nora’s father might come out of his shack and get him.

  “I won’t come,” he said.

  “I’ll make your head ache,” says Nora. “You’ll go blind!” And she points her finger. Right away, he can feel a thumping start, behind his eyes.

  So he went with Nora, but very slowly, lagging behind, thinking about Gran. If only Gran was still here, he thought. She wouldn’t put up with Nora. “I don’t like people that’s out only for themselves,” she used to say. “That kind, you want to have nothing to do with them. Tell them to clear out.”

  “But what if they won’t leave, Gran?” Kevin asked her once.

  And what had Gran said?

  “Here’s the place,” Nora said, on a dingy street that led off Spital Way. The house doors opened right onto the sidewalk. Most were boarded up. But one was still open, and the window was full of grimy books.

  It was a foggy October evening, cold, starting to get dark.

  Kev could just see, through the grubby window, shelves around the small shop, full of books, and a desk in the middle, with more books piled up, and somebody sitting behind them. Kev had never seen a shop full of books before—there’s none where we live, on top of Squire’s Hill—and he couldn’t help being interested, in spite of feeling so sick and scared.

  But Nora seemed annoyed. A gray, sour look went over her face—like the wind shifting over a patch of poison ivy. “There’s someone new,” she says sharply. “Maybe the old lady died. We must think of another plan. I know: you go in. Start looking around. I’ll stay outside, and soon I’ll shout, ‘Help, help!’ The guy will run out, to see what’s happening, and you grab the money. It’s in a green metal cashbox. Go on—hurry up.”

  So Kev went into the shop—scared, not wanting to, yet keen to see this place full of books.

  And another part of him was thinking about Spital Way, just around the corner, where Nora’s father, the Erl King, lived in his dark lair; and another part was trying to remember what Gran had said—what had she said—about bad people, and how to deal with them?

  Something about dark, it was.

  If only he could remember.

  He went into the shop, which smelled of old, dusty books. The young man at the desk glanced up from a paper he was holding and gave him a half smile.

  “Hello. Looking for any book in particular?”

  Kev could only mumble. “Can I—can I look around?”

  “Feel free.”

  The young fellow—he was pale, with red hair—went back to his reading. Outside the window, Kev could see Nora’s eyes like two black holes looking in.

  Kev stared at the books—there were thousands—hardcovers and paperbacks. How long would it take to read them? Weeks, months. Then he looked back at Nora. She was pointing toward the desk drawer. Kev moved a little closer to it.

  Then his eyes nearly dropped out of his head. Open on the desk, with all its pieces spread around, and its thick rubber band, was Gran’s recipe book. That was what the man was studying so carefully!

  “Why!” said Kev. “That’s my Gran’s recipe book! That’s her book! Did—did Aunt Ada sell it to you?”

  “Not to me,” says the young man. “I just took over this place. Was your gran called Martha Green?”

  “Yes—yes—and all those notes are in her writing—and my great-gran’s—” Kev was trembling. Partly, because he had just begun to remember what Gran had said—about dark.

  “It’s the most wonderful book!” The man was saying. “I’m going to try and get it published—notes and all—did your gran draw those pictures?”

  “Yes, she did.”

  “I’m sure I can find a publisher who’ll do it.”

  Now Kev remembered exactly what Gran had said. “Let them go,” Gran had said. “Bad people have their own dark inside them. Just you keep clear of them, Kev, my boy. Let them go, and they’ll get lost in the dark.”

  Kev thought of the Erl King, riding through the dark on his motorbike, with his long bony fingers reaching out, ready to grab someone. He thought of the black holes of Nora’s eyes.

  And, just at that moment, he heard Nora’s voice outside.

  “Help! Help! HELP!”

  “Gracious, what’s that?” gasped the man. He jumped out and rushed to the door. Forgetting the cashbox, Kev followed him into the street.

  Now—here’s the strange part.

  That street was entirely empty, from end to end.

  Not a soul to be seen. Nora wasn’t there. They found nobody, though they hunted from end to end of March Street, from Squires Hill to the subway station.

  Nora wasn’t in school the next day, in her seat next to Kev. He never saw her again. In November, a demolition team knocked down the whole row of houses in Spital Way, where the Erl King had his shack.

  Quite a few kids at Green Elementary School aren’t certain if Nora was ever there.

  When my leg finally mended, I came out of the hospital, and, after a while, Kev began to look better.

  The bookshop man—Alan Hudnut’s his name—has found a publisher who’ll print Gran’s book. The Survivors’ Kitchen Book, it’ll be called. They’ll print all Gran’s little pictures, and what she wrote in the front: “This book is for my grandson Kevin Green.” Alan thinks Kevin might get quite a bit of money from it.

  Aunt Ada is still thin and whiny, but Kev and I do the cooking now, so
she just sits in the front room and embroiders. (She only got 25 cents from Alan’s Auntie Tilly for the book. It was hardly worth walking all that way down Squire’s Hill.)

  Kev’s going to be a famous chef when he’s older. He has lost interest in telling stories.

  But the strange thing is that the kids at school still tell the story of the Erl King; and lots of them won’t go along the old railroad tracks to Squires Park, or into Turnpike Woods.

  They say the woods are haunted by a witch girl called Nora Scull.

  A Biography of Joan Aiken: A Writer’s Childhood

  Joan Aiken had a very happy childhood, and her memories centered around her two much-loved homes: a haunted house in the historic town where she was born, and a tiny old cottage in a country village where she grew up. These magical places became the settings for many of her stories, as you will be able to easily imagine if you read on …

  The house where Joan was born in 1924, nearly a hundred years ago, was in the small medieval town of Rye, in the county of Sussex, England—a place of cobbled streets and red-brick houses jostled tightly together on a high little hill rising out of the flat green plain of Romney Marsh. The English Channel was two miles away. Some of Rye’s castle walls and fortified gates still remained from when the village served as a stronghold against French invaders. Jeake’s House, where Joan was born, stood halfway up the steep, cobbled Mermaid Street. It was built in 1689 and was owned by several members of the Jeake family. One of them, Samuel Jeake, was an astrologer and mathematician; a huge leather-bound book written by him once belonged to the Aikens. Samuel Jeake had invented a flying machine, and, trying it out, he boldly leapt off the high wall of the town. Sadly, it did not work, and he crashed down into the tidal mud of the river Rother, which ran around Rye. Joan certainly included that in one of her stories!