Here we publish an exclusive extract from Emerald Witch, the stunning debut from local author Leona O’Neill. Here teenager Amelia, who has discovered she holds magical powers must fight against the might of her evil father.
They peered through the trees as a black figure on a huge dark steed came thundering down the path towards the bridge, his long black cloak flapping wildly in the wind.
He flicked a whip with a thunderous crack and his horse gained speed. When he cleared the trees Amelia saw that his shoulders were void of a head. He carried his head under his arm. The whip he cracked was a human spine.
“It’s the Dullahan!” shouted Brennan, “RUN!”
There was nowhere to run but over the bridge. Brennan grabbed Amelia by the hand and they raced to get out of the horseman’s path. If they could get to the end of the bridge they could split up and divert his attention, maybe even make it across the road.
The sound of his hooves was deafening, thundering over the stone bridge towards them.
Amelia felt a hand grab her by the scruff of the neck and her feet left the ground. She felt like she was being torn apart as Brennan tried to pull her back and the horseman tried to drag her away.
She lost her grip, lost Brennan’s hand and she was dragged, bumping along the ground at top speed. The horseman’s spine whip curled around her body and held her hands tight to her sides.
“BRENNAN!” she roared but she was being thrown about so much she couldn’t even focus on his fading figure. “HELP ME!” Her screams were pathetically low. She couldn’t take a breath as the spine constricted around her.
The hand threw her forward and onto the horses back and she was forced to grab the bottom of the horseman’s cloak to stay on. The spine curled around the horseman and held her securely in place as they jumped over the fountain and the iron fence surrounding the park.
As they galloped past the tall Georgian houses on Dawson Street, Amelia winced as she moved her hand and felt wiry hair on the decapitated head. She looked to her side and saw the horseman’s head staring at her. She felt sick as she caught sight of his face in the sharp morning light. His skin was like mouldy cheese, his eyes darted about his head, and his mouth bore a maniacal grin.
She saw the flashing blue lights of police cars still outside the National Museum in adjacent Kildare Street as they thundered past on the horse. She prayed that the police would hear her, follow and rescue her.
But no one did.
On and on they rode. Amelia’s throat was dry from screaming. She felt raw fear and repulsion in equal measure.
They tore down through the still deserted cobbled streets of Temple Bar, the horse’s hooves clattering like thunder. They sped past quaint bars and quirky art galleries, the steed barely slowing to take sharp corners in the narrow laneways.
The head would expel a crazy and disturbing laugh intermittently when it saw the renewed terror on Amelia’s face as they hurtled through a still sleeping Dublin.
The sun finally shone on a freezing Halloween morning as they galloped at speed down O’Connell Street towards the bridge. The horse’s mammoth wings unfurled and they left the street and rose into the sky, the forceful flapping of wings almost dislodging Amelia from the horse’s back.
Amelia squeezed her eyes closed tight. If she fell she would most certainly die. If she stayed with this creature, she would certainly die. If she used her hands to burn the horse, or hurt the headless creature she would die.
They followed the path of the river and flew high over country roads and fog-smothered fields.
The horseman did not speak; his severed head did not take his eyes off her, his face kept the same manic expression for hours.
They glided low over mountains, hurtled over forests and old graveyards.
The horseman dug his heels into his steed and they gained momentum, flying over mammoth lakes and patchwork fields. The steed veered to the right, almost throwing Amelia off and descended to follow a huge and winding river.
They passed moored tankers and flew low under a gigantic arched bridge as the sun began to fade on the day. Amelia could see houses and two tall Cathedrals standing proudly on the hill overlooking the city of Derry, their spires piercing the early evening sky. She could see Derry’s Peace Bridge winding across a raging river.
They flew low over houses, the steed tiring. It’s hooves clattered along the roof of the old red-bricked Guildhall, sending tiles crashing to the ground below. The headless creature cracked his spine whip and the horse moved faster.
They followed the path of the ancient stone Derry Walls, flying lower and lower until they came to a clattering halt on firm ground in the shadow of an imposing Gothic Cathedral.
She was thrown with force from the horse onto a cobbled street and the spine uncurled at the command of the horseman.
Warm blood ran from a wound on her forehead and she struggled to focus.
“Bind her,” shouted a familiar voice. “She holds her power in her hands.”
Amelia looked up to see her father and his minions peer down at her. She struggled as her hands were pulled tight behind her back and she was dragged to her feet.
“So nice of you to join us,” sneered her father.
“Go to hell,” she spat, blood trickling down her cheek.
“Oh, I’ve been, dear daughter,” he laughed. “It’s severely over-rated, not at all like it’s depicted in the movies. Much less, ah fiery, for want of a better word.”
Amelia looked around her. She was standing on top of Derry’s Walls, on a corner looking over the Bogside. To her left was a giant cannon, pointing out over the city. In the far distance she could see the Donegal Mountains that hugged her small town.
Black hoody wearing minions, all slobbering and grunting like pigs, surrounded her.
It was near sundown, the sky was a cold, pale blue. Pinkish clouds were dotted sporadically across the horizon. Amelia wondered how long she had been travelling with the horseman. It must have been hours.
“LET ME GO!” she shouted in the face of the closest minion.
“Don’t be ridiculous, you stupid girl!” sneered Meallach. “Why would we go to all this trouble just to let you go?
“You, Amelia, have a destiny to fulfil, and come sundown, you will do what you were born to do and raise the goddess Morrigan from her sleep. Now hush, daughter. Enjoy the last minutes of your stupid, pointless little existence.”
Two minions threw Amelia back against the stone wall and stood on either side of her. Their breath was heavy; they had the look of corpses about them. They drooled down the front of their clothes, and their eyes were void of anything, just pure black darkness.
Amelia sighed and scanned the area for escape routes. There were none.
“How do you get a job like this anyway?” she said to the minion to her left. “Do dark lords put advertisements in the paper for evil servants? What qualifications do you have to have? Is the pay good? Do you get many benefits?”
The minion stared at her with blank eyes and opened his mouth to reveal rotting, black teeth. His breath smelled like decaying meat.
“I see they don’t offer dental benefits,” said Amelia, looking away. “Your friend made a good pie, by the way. Delicious, I hear.”
Her brain was racing with ideas on how to escape, but unfortunately each idea ended in her getting badly hurt or killed.
She considered falling backwards over the wall onto the ground, but since it was at least a 40ft drop she felt she might not be able too run to well on two broken legs or with a concussion.
Darkness cloaked the land and an amber glow rose above the city as the streetlights came on. It was a clear, starry night. Amelia looked over the Bogside and up the hill to Creggan. Crowds of people where thronging into the city centre for the annual Halloween firework display. They were dressed in all sorts of crazy costumes. She saw families, young children, couples all heading off for an evening’s entertainment, unaware of what was happening yards from them. She and Allison had arranged to come into Derry, like they did every year. She was going to dress up as a witch, she remembered.
“It is almost time,” said Meallach smiling. “Give me the witch’s bag. I want to see the sword.
Amelia saw him take Finn’s bag, open the zip and rummage inside. She smiled widely at him as he drew out a large imitation version of a silver dagger, complete with pink plastic gems and a €9.99 price tag.
“Not what you were looking for father?” she asked him, unable to contain her glee.
He bounded towards her and slapped her hard in the face, almost removing her head from her shoulders. It stung, but she didn’t cry. She hid her pain and laughed aloud. He glared at her with his black eyes, grinding his teeth. He looked beastial.
Amelia wondered what was ahead for her. Her father hadn’t told her if he required her entire life’s blood or just a few drops. She wasn’t going to ask him, wasn’t going to let him know she was frightened, that she felt weak. Whatever it was he needed she was running out of options for escape as fast as night was falling.
“Bring her,” hissed Meallach through gritted teeth. She was roughly grabbed and shoved along the cobbled path towards some stone steps.
She was marched through a large archway and along a path that hugged the city’s walls. Huge stone walls loomed 40ft above them, merging with a now velvet black sky.
Amelia struggled to get free but her captors just gripped her tighter. She felt frustration and a rage creep over her like a disease.
A mammoth, heavy black cloud blocked the moonlight and made the night even darker. Torrential rain fell like a switch turned it on.
Meallach marched towards Amelia, his face like thunder. “Enough of the theatrics, Amelia! You’re just like your witch mother. I hate the rain!” he shouted in her face. “Make it stop immediately.”
Amelia smiled at him sarcastically and closed her eyes; she imagined more rain – heavier, wetter. She imagined it to be so heavy it hurt when it fell. She smiled as she felt the rain pelting her face, even though it was paining her skin. If she could make him feel even a tad uncomfortable before he killed her, she would be happy.
A loud bang broke her concentration and she opened her eyes to see the night sky turn a bright green colour as fireworks exploded.
“Let us begin,” said Meallach and several of his minions walked forward to a section of the wall slightly ahead. They waited for the next round of fireworks and threw fire bolts and spheres at the brickwork. Plumes of dust and smatterings of stone flew everywhere. Amelia tried to duck but the minions held her upright. They seemed fearless or oblivious to the danger of flying slabs of stone.
A loud peal of thunder rattled the night and a fork of lightning ripped across the sky. Meallach looked at Amelia suspiciously. “What’s next daughter, a sand storm? Cease with the theatrics, a touch of bad weather will not keep you from your fate.
“Hold her firmly,” he shouted over the din. “Do not let her go. Bring her here.”
Her captors dragged Amelia over to the large gap that had appeared in the wall. Minions where chipping away at the stones with pickaxes.
Through the rain Amelia could see a swatch of black shiny fabric, like silk, amongst the debris.
Amelia looked down over the brightly lit, homely houses in the Bogside, up the hill to Creggan, out towards the River Foyle and beyond. She thought it best if the people knew not of the terror that was coming this night. It would be best if they thought this night was like any other. That they’d ready themselves for bed, bathe children, watch TV, eat Chinese food, drink wine. By all accounts when the witch in the walls woke up she was going to annihilate everything and everyone in her path.
“Be careful!”, shouted Meallach, pulling her back to even colder reality. “We are close.” He walked over to Amelia, pulling back his black cloak to reveal a silver knife tucked into his belt.
As the rain fell and the pickaxes chipped away the stony restraints that held her Grandmother for decades, Amelia bowed her head and steeled herself for what was to come.
Meallach’s voice broke into her thoughts. “Now, daughter, you can at last say you have done something worthwhile with your pathetic life. You will give your pitiful existence so that your Grandmother shall live. This, dear daughter, is what you were born to do. This act will be your greatest honour.”
“You and your mother can go to hell!” shouted Amelia over the din. “I will not help you bring that monstrosity back to life.”
“I’m afraid you have little choice,” said Meallach, taking the knife from its sheath.
Amelia looked over her father’s shoulder and her blood ran cold.
There, in the hole that had been blasted in the Derry Walls, stood a tall black-haired hag, her face frozen in a wide-eyed scream, her hands raised as if to cast a spell. She wore a long, black, dusty, silk gown with a blood red sash tied around her waist.
Meallach grabbed Amelia by the hair and dragged her forward, the knife in his other hand. The goddess had been lowered to the ground like a freakish shop mannequin.
Meallach rummaged about in his mother’s hair and revealed a large ruby red gem, which hung around her porcelain-like neck.
He threw Amelia to her knees and she fell forward on top of the hag. Her bound hands prevented her from raising herself back up. Amelia felt the dust and dampness of decades fill her nostrils.
Her father pulled her hair back forcibly to reveal her neck. Amelia could feel the coldness of the blade on her throat and took what was probably her last deep breath…..