Annie lay in bed. Her throat hurt and her head ached.
Grandma came into room. "I've bought you a book to read," she said.
Annie frowned. Books were boring.
"It's a very old book. I've had it since I was a little girl. But you have to be careful…" Grandma warned.
"Because if you fall under the book's spell there is no escape. Unless…" Grandma paused, then whispered, "…unless you find the key."
"What key?" asked Annie, becoming interested.
"The key to the castle." But before Annie could ask any further questions, Grandma left the room.
Annie turned to the first page. A castle stood beside a sparkling waterfall. She continued turning the pages, until she finally slammed the book shut. There was no magic. It was just the same as every other book. And so thinking she flung it onto the floor.
Next moment she heard a cross voice. "Help me up."
Cautiously Annie leaned over the side of the bed and there to her utter amazement sat a small red-faced princess. At least Annie thought she looked like a princess except for the blue tin helmet under the golden crown.
"Stop staring," huffed the red-faced princess. "And help me up."
Annie flopped back onto her pillow. She must have imagined it. Either that or she was sicker than she thought. Then came a strange clicking sound. Again Annie peered over the edge of the bed.
A man wearing a red and green kilt, a long cloak covered with stars and thin narrow shoes looked up. "Can you tap dance?" he asked.
Annie shook her head.
"What a nuisance."
"Where did you come from?" asked Annie.
The man tapped his toe on the floor. "We came from the book you threw down. It gave us quite a jolt."
"But you couldn't have."
The Princess jumped up. "Why not? We have to live somewhere."
"That's stupid," exclaimed Annie. "You're just a story. Now go away, I've got the flu."
"We can't get back into the book by ourselves," said the man.
Annie sighed and slipped out of bed and knelt on the floor. "What do you want me to do?"
"Put us back where we belong."
"I'm not going back," exclaimed the Princess, tossing her head. "I'm tired of being squashed flat. And I hate the smell of paper."
"She's very bossy," whispered the man. He held out his hand.
Annie shook the shaking fingers. They felt like tissue paper.
"I'm Count McTavish. And she is Princess Horrible. We're on this adventure to the Magic Castle."
"Can I come with you?" asked Annie, quite forgetting about her sore throat and aching head.
"No!" bellowed Princess Horrible. "This is our adventure."
"Oh," said Annie, "it's better if you have some children in the story."
At that moment a muffled squeak came from the book.
"That'll be the Godmother," said Count McTavish, slipping off his shoes and rubbing his aching toes.
Annie picked up the book and turned it over. The page was empty except for a forest and a hot air balloon. "Whose balloon is that?"
"Mine," shouted Princess Horrible.
Count McTavish shook his head. "No, it isn't."
"Is so," said the princess, tweaking a corner of the count's moustache.
"Ouch!" He grabbed his shoe and banged it hard against her tin helmet.
Princess Horrible's eyes swung around in horrible circles.
This was all getting too much for Annie who stood up and called out, "What about the Godmother? Where is she?"
"Shan't tell," said Princess Horrible, screwing up her green eyes and glaring at Annie.
"Page twenty-two," said the count.
Annie flicked through the pages until she came to number twenty-two.
"Save me!" cried the Godmother who was tied to the top of a tall pine tree.
"No," bellowed the princess, snatching at the book. "This is our adventure. Not yours."
"Please, save me!"
But too late. Already Princess Horrible had turned the page, squashing the Godmother's voice to a tiny whimpering sound.
At that moment Count McTavish spotted a black spider spinning and spiralling down from the ceiling. With a wild scream he leapt into the air, shouting, "Yuck! Yuck! A spider." He threw one of his shoes at the dangling creature, which missed by a mile and flew out the open window. "Help! Yuck-id-ee-yuck," screeched McTavish dancing a crazed dance then suddenly disappearing out of the window after his shoe.
Running to look Annie saw the count fluttering like a leaf on a tree branch while the black spider clung to his right toe.
"Get off," whimpered the count, flapping his foot.
"Hang on," called Annie, racing over to her desk and fetching her ruler.
"I am," muttered Count McTavish, his knuckles white and knotted in fright, his face purple and black like a rotting plum.
"Serves you right," laughed Princess Horrible.
"Don't be so horrible," said Annie.
"But I'm allowed to be. That's my name."
Annie leaned out the window. "Here, grab hold of the end of the ruler," she said to the trembling count.
After he was rescued and the spider flicked to the ground Annie said, "You are both going back to where you belong."
"I won't," said Princess Horrible. "I've never had so much fun for a long time." She started towards the door.
"No you don't," said Annie, darting in front of her.
Princess Horrible swung sideways and instead of escaping she knocked her head against the wall, sending her crown and tin hat tumbling to the floor along with a small silver key.
"Get the key," shrieked the count.
"What's it for?" said Annie, making a dive towards it.
"It's the key to the castle."
Annie let out a gasp. It must be the one that Grandma had mentioned?
But it was too late, for already the princess had the key safely in her hot hand.
Before Annie could make a move she heard footsteps coming down the hall. Grandma was coming! Quickly she picked up the count and the princess and tossed them back into the book. Then slamming the page shut she jumped back into bed.
Grandma peered round the door. "How are you feeling now?" she asked.
"A bit better."
Coming into the room Grandma bent down and picked up the book. "It must have slipped onto the ground while you were sleeping," she said. Then before leaving she dug around in the pocket of her apron and held out something in the palm of her hand.
Annie's breath caught in her throat. It was Count McTavish's shoe.
"I found it outside. I expect it belongs to one of your toys," she said, her eyes twinkling.
After she had left Annie opened the book again, turning the pages until she found the princess and the count. And when she did she started to laugh.
For there was Count McTavish standing on his head up against the trunk of a tree, his red and green kilt over his head like a broken umbrella, while Princess Horrible was caught in one of the Stinging Tree branches.
But as hard as Annie tried she couldn't pick them off the page. She knew she couldn't leave them like that, but what could she do?
Suddenly she had an idea. Lifting up the book she held it high in the air and then dropped it. She waited, expecting to hear the princess grizzling or the count complaining about his sore toes. But there wasn't a single sound.
Annie frowned. What else could she do?
Grinning, Annie leapt out of bed.
"Now see what you've done," moaned Count McTavish. "I'm not even meant to be in the forest. The dust gives me terrible hay fever."
"I'm sorry," said Annie, for she liked the count. "But look, here's your shoe."
Count McTavish blew his nose on the end of his sleeve. "Oh, thank you."
"Never mind about him," snapped the princess. I'm the one who's important. I command you to get me out of this Stinging Tree this instant."
"Only if you promise to go back on page three where you belong."
There was a short grunt.
"Then stay there," said Annie, folding her arms.
"I'll be good," said Princess Horrible in a sweet sickly voice, adding, "Please."
Count McTavish nodded to Annie. "I think you'd better. After all the story is quite a good one the way it was written."
But did the princess behave herself when she was set free? No she did not. As Annie was placing her on page three inside her castle bedroom she pinched Annie's hand. And as she did so Annie felt herself shrinking, smaller and smaller, until she was the same size as the princess.
"Now I'm going to turn you into a doll," said Princess Horrible. "So I can play with you whenever I want."
Then Annie remembered her grandmother's words. 'The only way out of the book's spell is to get the key to the castle.' But how could she when it was in the clutches of the princess' hot hand?
"Tickle her," cried out the count.
So without hesitation Annie began tickling the princess.
"Don't," gasped the princess. "I hate being tickled. It's horrible." Giggle… giggle… wiggle… squiggle.
A few seconds later Annie heard the tinkling of the key hitting the stone floor. Quickly, before the princess realised what was happening, Annie bent down and snatched up the key. As soon as she touched it she began growing until she had returned to her normal size.
Annie glanced around her bedroom. Now what had happened to Princess Horrible and Count McTavish? Then she saw the book lying open on the last page.
There they were.
Princess Horrible was scowling, the Godmother smiling, and Count McTavish was dancing in amongst a shower of stars, on the top of the castle. But what was that dangling from the end of his sleeve? Annie bent closer and peered at the picture. Uh-oh! It was the black spider.
Before shutting the book Annie slipped the small silver key into the little red velvet pocket beside the castle. Tomorrow she would ask Grandma to read the story to her.
© Elizabeth Pulford
Read our interview with Elizabeth Pulford.