Chapter 1 Bright Lights
When I look back at my story now, I hardly believe that it can be true. Everything that happened to me and my friends, to Évora, to the whole of Portugal, seems so strange, dark and frightening that it would be easier to imagine it as a twisted tale from a warped mind, as a bedtime story told to small children to scare them to sleep, but it is all true. I know it all to be true because I was there. And my story didn’t end when my friends and I ran away and left Évora burning behind us. We had liberated the town, but this was only the beginning. There were Dollmakers all over Portugal, turning third-born to dolls; and second-born were still being sold to the convents while their oldest sisters – the firstborn – lived in comfort and luxury. We had to do something about it. We couldn’t let it go on, and we were a team now – Bruna, Giddy, Alice and I. We were the third-born.
“Come on!” Giddy was saying, marching ahead, and the others were almost trotting to catch up; she was by far the fastest of the four, and she was leading them away from Évora at a pace that was hard to keep up with. Beatriz would have been faster if she wasn’t carrying the heavy bag that the old woman had given her as they left Évora. She hadn’t even had a chance to look in it yet. She just kept marching with the others, as far away from the burning city as possible. Eventually, when they had been moving for what felt like forever, Giddy finally stopped and turned to see her friends, miles behind her. “Come on, slowpokes!” she giggled and dropped down onto the grass.
“You could have waited!” Bruna huffed, pushing her dark hair off her red, sweat-dripping face. They were all overheated and glad of the break.
“We can’t take any chances,” Giddy said, and she was now back up on her feet, ready to move again. “We don’t know who could be following us.”
It was true. Although the pace was gruelling, they needed to get as far away from Évora as possible. They didn’t know if they were being followed. They also didn’t really know where they were going, but it didn’t stop them ploughing on, through thick olive plantations that threatened never to end, through stunning, wild-flower plains, over rock-strewn hills that left them with no breath. And now, at a grassy clearing at the summit of one such hill, the mount of Arriolas and a whole world of beautiful wilderness stretched out all around them, made vivid by the strong afternoon sun. You could see Spain from the highest point.
“Why don’t we sit for a little longer?” Beatriz said, and her other two friends nodded. They had already been through so much, and they were hungry and thirsty. Beatriz had also got a little burnt in the fire, but, thankfully, one of the women had put a salve on the burn and bandaged her up, so it didn’t hurt too much. Giddy flopped down onto her back, shielding her eyes from the Alentejo sun, and groaned. It was so strange that the sun was still shining. This was a day for play and a picnic, but all they had encountered was evil.
“Here,” Alice said, her voice hard to hear over the breeze and birdsong, and she handed a water canister around and a morsel of bread. It was gratefully accepted, and all four girls sat eating and drinking, restoring themselves and managing to smile. They were scared of what was to come, but they were together, which would always make them smile.
“So, what’s in the bag?” Bruna asked, but when she looked across to Beatriz, her friend still hadn’t opened it; she was holding the doll instead, gently stroking the hair and looking into those painted eyes. There was no trace of a smile left on her face now.
“Don’t worry,” Alice told her. “We’ll find a way of turning it back into your sister.”
“Yeah,” Bruna added. “If Dollmakers can turn girls into dolls, they can turn them back again.”
“We’ll find a way,” Giddy told her.
“Thanks,” Beatriz answered and held her twin sister to her chest. “It’s funny,” she said. “I know she’s just a doll now, but I know it’s her. I can feel her. She was always such a worrier and I can feel her pain. She’s … she’s …” Beatriz looked as if she might cry, and the other girls looked to each other, wondering how they could make her feel better, but the moment was interrupted, and they were forced to sit bolt upright and look back at the city. They had marched for so long that they could barely see it, but a deafening eruption forced them to look in that direction, and it could be coming from nowhere other than Évora.
“What the—?” Giddy yelled and jumped up onto her feet. Even with the glare of the sun in their eyes, they could see the bright colours exploding ever upwards and away from the town, rushing up towards the clouds like an upside-down shower of light – reds, yellows, pinks and colours that the girls had no names for, colours that hadn’t existed until this moment. And as the colours rushed, the earth vibrated and the air was filled with whistles, whooshing and cracks, like a warped, daytime firework display. All four girls were now standing to watch the light show, which lasted no more than a minute, and when it finished as abruptly as it had started, they simply looked at each other and shrugged, finding it hard to find the words for what they had just seen.
“What the—?” Giddy repeated. The others slowly shook their heads. None of them had ever seen anything like this before. It was unnatural.
“Should we go?” Alice asked, folding her arms and looking the most uneasy. Although she was the same age as the others, she looked a little younger. She looked younger still now, as the fear gripped her. The others didn’t need to be asked twice and threw their bags over their shoulders.
“Yeah,” Giddy said, and they were off again, just as quickly as before, more determined than ever to get away now, covering miles through yet more fields and over even steeper hills, talking only of what they had just seen erupting out of Évora. It was otherworldly and spooky, but they were used to that by now. Nothing about their lives was normal anymore.
It was an hour before they stopped again to take on more food and water, and now, finally, Beatriz reached into the bag. The others watched in silence as she pulled out the dark, heavy object that had been given to her by the old woman.
“What is it?” Giddy asked.
“I’d say it’s a book,” Bruna snapped. “Something wrong with your eyes?”
“Very funny! I mean what book is it?”
The book was so big that Beatriz struggled to balance it on her lap as she sat cross-legged on the grass. She ran her hand over the ancient, brown cover and felt a warmth engulfing her, like a heated shiver – something she had never felt before. It was comforting, like a hug on the inside of her body. “It’s mine,” she mouthed. She had no idea why she had said it and wished that she hadn’t, but she knew it to be true.
“The Book of O’hlion,” Giddy read over her shoulder. The lettering wasn’t printed or embossed like the books they had seen before; it had been created by deep, violent scratches, each letter wildly slashed into a material that was as alien to the girls like the colours in the sky, bursting upwards from Évora. It was as warm as leather but softer, and it darkened and shifted at the touch as if it might have feelings, although that was impossible.
“Open it!” Bruna told her, full of excitement, and then the sun disappeared behind a cloud, and a cold breeze swept across them. Beatriz ran her hand over the cover a final time, still feeling connected, and pulled at the front cover. “Open it then,” Bruna urged. She wasn’t an unfriendly girl, but she had a habit of saying the first thing that came into her head, and she wasn’t known for her patience.
“I’m trying!” Beatriz answered. “It won’t open.”
“Here, let me try.” Bruna reached in and tried to open the book, too, but as much as she pulled, it wouldn’t budge. Giddy and Alice also gave it a little tug. Not because they didn’t believe Beatriz; just to see what a locked book felt like. It felt heavy and stuck fast as if a great force had one hand on the back cover and one hand on the front and refused to permit them entry.
“What use is a book that won’t open?” Bruna grumbled, but Beatriz was back to stroking the cover. Although the book wouldn’t open, she knew that it was important. She knew that it was hers.
“It is very important!”
The voice made them all jump.
“Aunt Oona!” Beatriz sang, turning to the voice, and ran over to her aunt. “Where did you spring from?”
“I have been here a while,” her aunt answered. She was sitting on a rock just a few metres away from where they had taken their break. Beatriz wanted to ask why she hadn’t said something earlier or why they didn’t see her, how she got here, but she stopped herself. It was as if her aunt had appeared from nowhere. “Are you okay? You look like you’ve been crying.”
“Oh, child, these are happy tears,” Oona answered and smiled at each girl in turn.
“Are you sure you’re alright? You look different.”
Oona really did look different. She had always looked odd, with her childlike face, mermaid-blue wig with the severe fringe and black and white dress, but her face had changed somehow; there was more colour, more expression. Beatriz never did find out exactly what happened when her aunt was sent to the Dollmaker when she was ten, like all the other third-born; just that she had somehow outsmarted him. The result was this child-like body, but at least she hadn’t been turned into a doll.
“I am different,” Oona said. “This is the first time I have been able to leave Évora.” The tears flowed again as she said this. “I have been a prisoner there since the day I met the Dollmaker, and now I am free.”
“Aunt Oona!” Beatriz cried and gave her a cuddle. “I’m so pleased. This is great!”
“And I now know …” Oona began to say, but she stopped herself and looked from girl to girl as if wondering whether she could trust them. She eventually smiled and continued. “I have powers, Beatriz.”
“I have always had them, but I lost them to the Dollmaker. It was because of these powers that I could escape his spell, but they didn’t work after that, at least most of them didn’t. I could feel my power rippling under my skin, swimming beneath the surface like creatures from the wild, but I couldn’t let it out. Some days, I thought I might explode.”
Beatriz didn’t know what to say, but Bruna was never stuck for words.
“What kind of powers?” she blurted out.
Oona laughed, although it was hard to see what was funny. “Powerful powers,” she smiled.
“Can you open that book?” Bruna added, and Oona laughed again.
“No, unfortunately, this is one thing that my powers cannot do. It is not my book. But look.” Oona held her hands out, together with the palms facing upwards, and the girls huddled around. At first, nothing happened, and then the flesh of her palms began to swirl. The girls stepped back, shocked by what they were seeing, but they couldn’t look away. The flesh was slowly swirling like hot tea, with steam rising. Then it began to glow, the swirling becoming a whiz, and her hands became a blur of movement. The girls looked on, holding their breath, desperate to see the outcome of this miracle, as Aunt Oona’s arms began to rise, and an orb emerged from the blur. It wasn’t like the orbs they had seen in Évora; this was rising and glowing by the second, drifting up into the air, created solely by Aunt Oona’s hands. And as it rose, it flattened and swelled as wide as the hill, floating just above their heads, crackling with electricity, turning the sky beyond purple.
“What is it?” Beatriz asked, craning her neck to follow as it drifted higher and away from them.
“It is a forcefield,” Oona told her, also watching its movement, now gliding far into the distance. “It will descend onto Évora and neither word nor woman will escape forewarning the rest of Portugal. You will be safe as long as the forcefield is in place. No one will find out what has happened, and you will be free to embark upon your quest.”
“Wow!” they all said.
“But something already escaped,” Giddy told Oona. “We just saw it. Something rushed up out of Évora with crazy colours. We saw it.”
“I saw it, too,” Oona said, “and, believe me, this is a good thing. I will explain more when I see you next, but for now, I need to be quick. You are a little closer to Aviz now. It is just several hours away. This is where I hope you will find the answers that we are all looking for.”
“How to turn Willa back into my sister?” Beatriz asked.
“Why the Dollmaker is turning girls into dolls?” Giddy added.
“The mysteries of the dragons?” Alice said.
“Where my brother’s gone?” was Bruna’s final question, and they all turned to look at her. It was true that there were no boys or men in Évora; they were all away fighting a war, what war though? it was strange. It didn’t seem like the truth. They all knew this already and wanted to solve the mystery, but they didn’t know about Bruna’s brother. This was the first time she had mentioned him.
“He’s two years older than me,” Bruna said. “I haven’t seen him since he was little.”
Oona reached out and took Bruna’s hand. “These are mysteries that I would like to solve too,” she said, softly. “I am told that the Book of O’hlion will help. There is a wise woman in Aviz who might be able to assist Beatriz in opening it. You will be able to investigate the Dollmaker of Aviz while you are there, to get more answers. This will be a good place for us all.”
“Erm …” a little voice began. It was from Alice. “I have a question,” she muttered, raising her hand. “We can’t just walk into Aviz. We are third-born. They will send us to the Dollmaker. Isn’t that what will happen?”
Oona smiled once again. It was a beautiful smile – so elegant and self-assured; she was so different now to the aunt that Beatriz had known throughout her life.
“This I have taken care of. The moment you step foot in Aviz, disguises will befall you. To all who lay eyes on you, you will appear to be first-born. You will be the first-born children of the richest families in Aviz. You will be able to walk freely and investigate the evil that has imprisoned Portugal.”
“How does that work?” Bruna asked, screwing her face up.
“You will look exactly like them, and their families will believe you to be them.”
“What about the real first-born?”
“They will feel compelled to walk around the olive groves surrounding Aviz until the spell is lifted. Trust me, children, this is a plan that cannot fail, but you must also heed my warning. The spell will last just twenty-four hours. If you remain within the boundaries of Aviz after this time, you will be exposed, and I will not be able to protect you from the deadly fate that will befall you. Do you understand?”
The girls looked to one another, gauging each other’s reactions. Alice’s face was full of fear, but she nodded slowly; she was in. Giddy put her arm around her shy friend and smiled; she was also in. Bruna looked as if she had a thousand questions to ask, but she just nodded. Beatriz gave the final nod. The quest was on.
They were going to Aviz.