In the third kingdom there was a village where nearly everyone was peaceful and contented. The soil was rich, the crops were abundant and a clear river flowed wide and deep along the edge of the village.
Alongside the river, at the outer edge of the town, Nemmy lived with her grandmother. Their land was especially rich because water was always plentiful, so their animals were healthy and strong, with fine, silky coats. Nemmy’s grandmother spun yarn from the fleeces of their sheep and their goats, that was prized as the finest and most beautiful across the whole kingdom. As she got older and her back ached and her fingers didn’t work as well as they once had, she taught Nemmy all that she knew, and Nemmy brought her own special understanding of the animals and their fleeces that made her yarn even finer and more beautiful than her grandmother’s.
Nemmy’s mother had left not long after she had been born. Nemmy had nothing of her mother’s except a black-covered book, a sort of journal. Her grandmother had given it to her on the day she turned fourteen, saying, “This journal has been kept by women in our family for generations, passed on from mother to daughter. I only wish your mother was here to give it to you,” and she sighed deeply.
The book was old, full of pages written in different hands, even in different languages. Most of the pages were full of ordinary details about chickens or planting, or nursing sick animals. There were odd drawings on some of the pages, one that seemed to be of a large diamond, and another of a key with a design like a dragon’s head. Some of the writing was too faded or too strangely written to read at all.
Nemmy turned straight to the pages her mother had written, but they were just ordinary notes about which pastures produced the best milk from the goats, and how to keep the ducks out of the cabbage patch. She was bitterly disappointed. She had been hoping that the pages of the book would tell her something about her mother, what she was like, her thoughts and ideas. But all she found was that her mother and her grandmother and all the women before her had taken up the task of looking after for the land and the animals in their care. Somehow it was comforting to think that now it was her turn.
One day, some time after, there was an outcry in the village. A whole row of turnips growing in the common ground were diseased, soft and mushy and black at their hearts. The Town Council met hurriedly and decided that the turnips must be dug up straight away. Their leader, a big man called Ornn, took his spade, but as he lifted it to dig into the soil, a voice shouted, “No!” A boy called Will came rushing up. “If you break the skin of even one of the turnips, the blackness will seep into the soil and poison the whole ground!” he panted.
“What are you talking about?” Ornn growled, but Will, who had no parents of his own, lived in a tiny hut on the common ground, among the plants themselves, and the people listened to him. Ornn put down his spade and strode off.
That night as Nemmy was falling asleep, or perhaps just after she had fallen asleep, a dark, hooded figure appeared in her room, standing by her bed. “The book,” it whispered. “Take a page from the book.”
When she woke in the morning, Nemmy remembered the mysterious whispering. She took the book from under her pillow where she always kept it. She scoured its pages again and again, but she could find nothing that seemed to be of any help. In the end, she gave up and shut the book with a snap. But then she closed her eyes and let her fingers open the book, and pull a page right out of it.
With clever fingers she folded the page into the shape of a duck, and took it down to the common ground where Will was keeping an anxious watch. She set it down on the ground and it immediately began snapping up the sick turnips, one after another, until every one was gone. Will was astonished, but no more than Nemmy was. She picked up the duck, straightened out the paper and put it back into the book.
They said nothing to anyone, except that Will made it known that the common ground was safe again. The whole village rejoiced. But before long, more cries of distress arose. “The river! The river has stopped flowing!” they cried.
Everyone rushed to the river, which had always provided clean water for drinking and washing and for watering the crops. It was choked with weeds, long twisting ribbons that had sprung up overnight. The water, unable to flow, was brown and full of dead fish.
Some tried pulling out the weeds, but the ribbons were as sharp as knives and sliced their hands. Ornn turned to Nemmy and said, “Your land runs along the length of this stretch of the river. This has happened because of your bad management, and it is threatening all of us in the village. You need someone of experience who can manage your lands for you. Come, let us be married, and I will take care of it for you.”
“Married!” Nemmy was horrified. Ornn was repulsive, coarse and loud-mouthed and a bully. But the villagers all urged her to accept his offer. “Let me have a night and a day to think,” she faltered, and escaped back to her home.
As soon as darkness fell, she opened the book and took out a page. She folded it into the shape of a fish and took it to the river. She put the paper fish into the water, where it swam about happily. With its sharp mouth, it nipped the base of each reed at the roots, cutting them off to float away downstream. Soon the river was clear and flowing once more.
In the morning when the villagers gathered at the riverbank, Ornn roared, “What magic is this?” He swung round and pointed an accusing finger at Nemmy. “You have done this, by some kind of sorcery!” He turned to the people and shouted, “She is the source of all the evil in this place – get rid of her! Put her to death!”
Will stepped forward and stood in front of Ornn. “It is you who have been playing with magic and bringing disaster down on us,” he said. “I saw you sprinkling some black powder over the turnip patch. You must have done the same to the river.”
Ornn roared at the top of his voice and came charging towards Will, drawing his great sword. Will fell back, dodging out of the way. Nemmy opened her book, which she had carried with her in her apron pocket, and tore out a page. She quickly folded it into a sword which she tossed to Will.
Ornn laughed scornfully. “A paper sword, for a paper hero!” He slashed at the sword in Will’s hand, but as it met the paper, his own sword trembled and shattered into a dozen pieces. His eyes filled with fear. He staggered back and fell into the river. The last of the reeds tangled around him like ribbons of iron and he was swept away, never to be seen again.
At that moment, the dark figure that Nemmy had seen at her bedside stepped out of the shadows, and pulled back its hood. Will raised his sword, but the woman said, “Don’t be afraid, I am Nemmy’s mother.”
“My mother?” Nemmy said uncertainly.
The woman said, “I have been in hiding all this time, my dear child. Ornn pursued me, day and night, trying to force me to marry him, not because he loved me, but because he wanted to get his hands on our land. When you were old enough and his eyes turned to you, I had to do something to save you from him.”
“You saved the whole village!” Nemmy said,
“Your strength and Will’s courage saved the village,” her mother smiled. “Now I can come out of the shadows and live in the light again, with you and my mother.” And so she did, even after Nemmy and Will were married, and they all lived very happily together. Nemmy passed the book down to her own daughter and her granddaughter, and they all added their own stories to its pages. In time the secrets it held saved more than the village and its people, but that is a story for another day.
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