This book is dedicated to my wife, who consistently believes in me when I do not. She is the best person that I have ever known.
“Sometimes the strength of motherhood is greater than natural laws.”—Barbara Kingsolver
Copyright © 2015 by Austin J. Bailey.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher at the address below. Please contact by email: [email protected]
Note: This is a work of fiction. All characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, or to businesses, companies, events, institutions, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Author Website: www.austinjbailey.com
Cover design by James T. Egan
Edited by Crystal Watanabe
Map of Aberdeen by Karl Vesterberg
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In which there is a pool of drool
Brinley fell out of a dream onto the floor of her bedroom and the jolt of the cold tiles against her sleep-warmed feet instantly sent her up on tiptoes. Last summer her dad had gotten four truckloads of tile for free. It was free because nobody could sell it, and nobody could sell it because it was so ugly, but that didn’t stop him from ripping out all of the carpet and tiling every last inch of the house. Sure, it was easier to keep clean, but tile was cold. She shivered in her nightgown, which was really just one of her dad’s old work shirts. She was too old to wear her dad’s shirts to bed, she thought vaguely. It was time to get some real pajamas, [_warm _]ones. Then again, the shirt had almost no holes in it, and it was so soft. Best of all, it smelled like Dad. And Dad smelled warm.
She got back into bed and then leapt out again when she remembered what had awakened her. The noise! It had been so loud! She dashed down the hall to her father’s room and shook him awake in the middle of a snore.
“Dad, did you hear that?”
He put his palms to his face and rubbed slowly. “Uh…what? What time is it?” he said blearily.
“Did—you—hear—that?” she repeated, more earnestly now that he was actually awake.
“Hear what, Brinley?”
“That noise. It practically shook the house!”
“What noise?” he asked patiently, pushing himself up on one arm and looking around as if to find the source of it. “Are you sure you weren’t dreaming?”
“Yes,” she said fervently. Then, “Well, maybe not…I mean, I guess when you’re dreaming and a giant gong wakes you, you can’t be sure if the gong was in the dream or not…”
“Exactly,” he said, nodding and lying back down. He was asleep again as quickly as he had awakened. He always did that. Now she was going to be awake all by herself for who knew how long, trying to figure it all out. She hopped onto the end of his bed, crossed her legs, and tried to remember what the sound had been like. Gong was how she had described it, but maybe it was more like a boom…like a cannon, maybe? Or was it more like a loud clang? No…
When she woke up the next morning, she was still on her father’s bed. She was half lying down, half sitting up, with an impressive amount of drool pooled beside her face. Evidently she had fallen asleep with her head on her hand, elbow propped against her knee, and then face-planted some time later. Her father was poking her.
“Wake up, drool-face.”
She lifted her head but stayed sprawled, wiping her face with one hand and batting him away with the other.
“Bad Daddy,” she said weakly. He stopped, then burst out laughing. She smiled with her face half-buried in the bed.
Later, as they stuffed their faces with pancakes, he asked what all the fuss had been about last night, and she repeated the story.
“Hmm…” was all he said when she finished.
“Hmm…” she mimicked.
“Well, it’s probably nothing,” he continued. “All the same, you should tell me if it happens again.”
“Really?” This was not at all how she had expected him to react. She’d thought he would simply reassure her that it was just a dream, and by doing so, end the silly idea that she was clinging to: that it may not have been a dream at all.
“Sure,” he said easily, helping himself to another pancake. “Giant nighttime bells are nothing to trifle with.”
“You’re making fun of me!”
“No,” he said, growing serious. “No, I’m really not.” The corner of his mouth twitched. “Well, maybe I am a little.” He gave her a significant look. “Actually, it happened to me once.”
“Really?” she replied. “What do you mean?”
“Hearing bells in the night. [_A _]bell,” he corrected himself.
“You never told me that,” she said, excited.
“No,” he said simply. “It was a long time ago…” He trailed off, and they ate in silence for a while.
“Dad,” Brinley said at length, thinking of the question she had meant to ask him, “how did you find me?”
“Hmm? Oh. In a basket, on the steps of the old church at Morley, like I told you,” he said, stirring the leftover syrup on his plate idly.
“No, I mean how. How were you there, at Morley, in the middle of the night?”
“Ah.” He looked up at her with renewed interest, eyes flashing a little in the morning light. “That brings us back to the bell.”
Brinley’s pulse quickened.
“I heard it that night. It brought me right out of bed. It was ringing again and again, so loudly that I couldn’t hear myself think. I got halfway to the church before I realized that no one else seemed to be bothered by it. No lights on, no one looking out their windows. The bell stopped as soon as I got there, and there you were, waiting for me.”
Brinley was quiet for a moment, reflecting on this new piece of the puzzle. “I don’t understand,” she said finally.
“What about it?”
“Well,” she said slowly, “Morley Church doesn’t have a bell.”
He blinked. “It doesn’t?”
“I don’t think so,” she said, shaking her head. She went there all the time, and she could have sworn it didn’t, but now she was doubting herself. “I’ll have to check, I guess.”
He shrugged. “Well, there was on the night that I found you. I know I heard one.”
“Do you think that’s what I heard last night?”
“I don’t know, Brin. Maybe.” He glanced at the clock. He took her plate and moved to the sink, where he began to wash the dishes.
“Dad,” she said, “what did it sound like?”
His hand made a slow, silent circle around the plate in the dishwater.
“I don’t know,” he said quietly. “It was…I don’t know.”
“What?” she prompted.
He turned to her, cocked an eyebrow. “Well, I was going to say that it felt like it was from somewhere else.”
Brinley felt a twinge of excitement. This was exactly what she’d thought last night, but this morning she figured he would think she was crazy. “Like another world?” she asked.
His eyebrows went up. “I don’t know what that even means,” he said, smiling sheepishly. “I’m probably being silly.”
“Yeah,” she said hastily. “Right, me too.”
They looked at each other awkwardly, then he shrugged and said, “Maybe we can go down there and take a look around together this Saturday.”
She brightened. “Really?”
He smiled. “I’ll be home late tonight. Don’t wait up.”
She watched him go. She thought about her father being drawn out of the house in the middle of the night by a bell that no one else could hear. It had led him to her when she was a baby. Could it have something to do with where she came from? Saturday, he had said. They would go to Morley on Saturday and check it out.
She glanced around the empty house and tried to imagine waiting until Saturday. She sighed. There was no way she could wait that long. She had to know now. There was something strange about that sound. It was as if it were calling to her[. _]Something deep inside her had recognized that bell. It was ringing for _her.
In which someone is very nearly eaten
Brinley was not wrong. The sound had indeed come from a place far from her world. In that place, several days before Brinley was awakened by the sound of the bell, the oldest of all the mages fingered his long beard and curled his age-worn body into a wisp of night mist, vanishing in the wind. He was the Wind Mage, after all, and the wind was his business.
The devil-child whom he had been following screamed and raised a fist in protest, but there was nothing to be done. Animus was too smart to be taken in by its tricks, too clever, too old, perhaps, to wander into a trap so obvious. He had followed the child across the night as it beckoned to him, followed it silently past the guards over the ancient bridge, followed it disbelieving over the section of the bridge that should not have been passable, moving through walls and wards of magic that should have barred their way; nobody should have been able to cross this bridge. The mages had taken precautions long ago to keep this from happening.
He had followed the creature through the mist at the top of the high, arched bridge and down the other side into a dark and tangled forest which bears a name so old and evil that it cannot be written. He had followed it long enough. He would go alone to investigate the creature’s claim. He would do it carefully, quietly; he would be nothing more than breath-mist on the wind, hiding his name and power from the darkness that lived within.
It didn’t take long before he found her.
She was unconscious—dead, he thought at first—but no, that was not possible. She lay there with her straw-colored hair fanned out across the mud like tarnished gold. Gold that should never tarnish. It was too much for him, seeing her like that, the best person in the world discarded like a dirty rag in a dark corner. Without thinking, he changed back into himself and moved to help her.
He regretted it immediately.
A mass of fur and feathers and claws tore from the shadows behind him and pinned him to the floor of the little clearing. It would have killed him too, mage though he was, if it had not recognized him in the split second that it took its teeth to reach his throat.
“Peridot!” Animus exclaimed. It was clear now, who had caught him. Pinned beneath her side, he was staring up at the place where wings connected to the rest of her body. There was only one such creature in the world: Peridot the Magemother’s herald. She was the last of her race—a winged lion, a “Laurel,” as they were called in the old days, and she was sworn to protect the Magemother.
“Animus!” she cried in alarm. She released him, rolling him onto his side with a big paw.
He rose unsteadily to his feet, catching his breath, and eyed the beast that had nearly killed him. He noticed there was blood pouring from her breast where a wing joined her body. “What happened?” Before she could answer, he remembered the woman and turned back to where she still lay on the ground.
“There’s no time now,” Peridot said, ushering him toward the woman in the mud. “You must take her, Animus, take her away from this place. He will be back soon.”
As soon as she said it, something dark slipped from the trees. Peridot whirled and Animus craned around her to see it. It was a man, hooded and cloaked. He looked familiar, but Animus couldn’t tell for sure who it was. The figure raised a hand and Animus felt his heart grow cold. Dark thoughts crowded in on him like a tangible force; his worst nightmares were being realized.
“Go!” Peridot howled. With a snarl, she crossed the clearing and pounced upon the dark man. Animus scooped the woman up in his arms in a way that would have surprised people to see, looking as old as he did.
The woman’s eyes opened slightly.
“Animus?” she said weakly.
“I have you,” he said, his voice low and comforting. “I shall take you to the king.”
“No,” she whispered, struggling with the effort to speak. “To Calypsis.”
“Go!” Peridot roared.
Animus leapt with the wind and flew skyward, faster than he ever had before, not thinking of what might be following him. He rose from the earth faster than any bird, fast enough to leave all shapes behind him, turning into the wind itself and cradling the woman in arms of air as they soared toward the glittering moon.
In which Hugo spies, sneezes, and walks through secret passageways
On the other side of the kingdom, there was a day with no wind. Then there were two. Then there were more—days upon days. The air was stale; clouds struggled to form up and make rain, and the farmers suffered. Then the food suffered, and when the food suffered, everyone suffered. Eventually, when it became so bad that people began to worry, the High King of Aberdeen sent a messenger to the Wind Mage to ask what the problem was.
Archibald, who was the king’s oldest friend and most trusted servant, was the first person to speak with the messenger when he returned.
Prince Hugo was watching from a high window above the inner courtyard as the messenger handed Archibald a scroll. A look of worry crossed Archibald’s face as he read it, but he put himself back together quickly and disappeared into the castle. Hugo moved to follow him. No doubt Archibald would be going straight to the king. Hugo’s father would want to know what the message said right away. Hugo turned from the window and ducked behind a life-size painting of a long-dead relative, turning down a steep stairway into the belly of the castle. He would have to be quick if was going to get there in time to overhear Archibald’s report.
He emerged from a broom closet into the kitchens, dodged a portly man carrying a tureen of chowder, then hastily turned a blind corner and nearly barreled into Lux. He cringed and closed his eyes at the last second, but the moment of collision never came. He looked around and saw the mage standing behind him instead.
“Sorry, sir,” Hugo said hastily to the shining man. His golden hair and beard were bright and pure, and his whole body shone with a faint light that seemed crisp and clean against the dancing orange of the kitchen fires. “How did you—” Hugo stopped himself. It really wasn’t polite to question mages. “I mean, I was going to run into you and then…I didn’t,” he finished lamely.
Lux raised an eyebrow in response, and Hugo felt even more foolish. Despite the mage’s shining appearance, his eyes were bloodshot, and his face was strained, as if he was struggling with something on the inside. Hugo thought about asking the mage if he was feeling all right, but decided against it. His father wouldn’t be pleased to find out that he was pestering Lux. He had always been attracted to the mages, and the king didn’t like it. He didn’t want him learning from the mages. He likely wouldn’t approve of him talking to one in the kitchens. “Sorry,” he said again, “I must be going.” He left Lux standing there and made for the stairs, praying that the mage wouldn’t mention the incident to his father.
Hoping that he hadn’t wasted too much time, Hugo climbed up through the maze of servant’s passages that led to the library. He entered the massive room and climbed a ladder to the very top floor. Taking the narrow stairway from there to the stacks, he opened a small door softly and ducked in. He lit a small hand lamp and held it out to reveal a maze of books leading away into the darkness. The ceiling was low, and though he was several years from reaching his full height, he had to duck slightly. Few people ever came here. Fewer still realized that the king’s private study lay directly above it.
Hugo knew more about the ancient castle than anyone alive, except perhaps Archibald. He spent many of his days alone, discovering its secrets. More than anything he wanted to go to the wizard’s school, the Magisterium, and learn to be a mage. Alas, his mother had died before giving birth to other sons, making Hugo the only heir to the throne, and his father insisted that he be raised in the castle and receive a “royal” education, whatever that was. He spent most days trying not to find out. He would often just fail to show up for his lessons. That worked for some of his tutors. Others required a more delicate touch. He would sometimes feign extreme interest in a subject and ask for leave to do his own research. Then he would study whatever he wanted in the library, and then disappear when he got bored. This type of tactic seemed to work the longest before he was discovered, but eventually his father would get wind of it and lose his patience. Today he was supposed to be studying with Kemp, the king’s stableman. His riding lessons were one of the few classes that Hugo never wanted to skip, but when he had caught sight of Archibald hurrying to the courtyard earlier, he couldn’t resist investigating.
He wound his way through the rows of books quietly, lamplight drawing more books out of the darkness at every turn, dust lifting silently from where his feet brushed the floor. He heard a door close above him and stifled a sneeze. He dashed ahead, then came to a stop beside an upturned crate of old ledgers where he knew he would be able to hear everything that went on above.
Archibald closed the door behind him and crossed the room. “The envoy you sent to the Wind Mage has returned, sire.”
King Remy was sitting at his desk in the private study. A wall of books rose on either side of him and a great round window looked out over a starry, stubbornly still night. He was a middle-aged man of normal size, apart from his rather large belly. He had been slender once, spry and strong as the knights that now served him, but his daily work mostly involved sitting on a throne or behind a desk these days, and he was getting older. He was the king of Caraway, and the High King of all Aberdeen. His head was bald on top, so that his graying hair wrapped around the sides of it. He didn’t look like much these days, but in Archibald’s mind he was the best king that they had ever had; wise, fair, and honest in his dealings. His only real flaw was his temper, and perhaps the way that he had failed to connect with his son.
The king looked up distractedly from the papers he was studying. “There have been three more raids on our southern cities, Archibald, one of them quite close to the Magisterium.”
“I heard, sire.”
“Our intelligence points to the witches. Can you believe that?”
“The witches, sire? The witches of Kokum?”
“Yes,” the king said bitterly. “Those blasted witches are growing more and more comfortable in the Moorwood, and not twenty miles from the Magisterium…” he stopped at the look on Archibald’s face. “What brought you, Archibald?”
“The messenger you sent to the Wind Mage, sire…”
“Oh,” Remy said, shuffling the papers and sitting up straight. “Where is his report?”
“I have it here,” Archibald hesitated. “Sire,” he began delicately, “the Wind Mage has resigned.”
“What?” the king bellowed, sitting up straighter. “I don’t understand. He can’t just resign, Archibald.”
“He did, sire.”
“But what about the wind? What will become of it? Did he name a successor, perhaps? I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
“I do not know, sire. He named no successor. In fact, he was not there at all.”
“Excuse me?” the king said, rising.
Archibald couldn’t tell if it was frustration or concern in the king’s voice now.
“Sire, the mage’s tower was empty. According to the townspeople, he dismissed his apprentice some weeks ago, sealed his tower, and disappeared into the wind.”
“Well,” the king said, sitting back into his chair with a defeated grumble, “apparently he took the wind with him.”
The king gestured for Archibald to sit. “What of his apprentice, Archibald? Did he have anything to say on the matter?”
“Yes, sire,” Archibald began. “The runner found him back at the school. He is trying to take up a position there. Evidently the mage will not let him continue his work. He said that he argued with his master over the matter of his retirement. He tried to reason with him, tried to make him stay, but to no avail.”
“No doubt. What is the boy’s name again?”
“Did he give Cannon a reason for his departure?”
Archibald frowned. “I’m afraid the boy wasn’t clear on that, my lord.”
“I would like to speak with him.”
“Yes, I thought you might. I have already sent for him.”
“Archibald,” the king said, his face darkening, “you don’t really think that he retired, do you? Surely we’re not buying that story, are we?”
Remy shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “This is bad business, Archibald.”
There was a long silence, so long that Archibald began to notice the ticking of the grandfather clock on the other end of the room. Finally, the king broke it. “I think, Archibald,” he said slowly, “that you must find her now.”
Archibald looked up intently. This was not what he had expected. He didn’t know what to say, so he decided to feign ignorance.
“I believe the Wind Mage is a man, sire.”
The king gave a half smile, but it faded quickly into seriousness.
“No, my old friend. I mean you must find her.” He paused, and they were both silent for a time, looking down and thinking.
“The Magemother,” Archibald said quietly.
Remy nodded. His brow furrowed in concentration as he fiddled with the papers on his desk. “We have to find her, Archibald. We have to find out what happened to her.”
“Sire, the mages still cannot find her. If they cannot, how shall I?”
The white-haired counselor held the king’s eye. Remy looked back at him just as intently for a moment, then the strength behind his expression unraveled, revealing a hopelessness that Archibald had never before seen in his king.
“The Magemother vanished…” the king said, sinking further into a mood and his chair, “…or left us, for all we know. Long before that, the Mage of Wood went missing, and then the Mages of Water, and Fire. All this time, the Magemother has claimed that she was searching for them, but she never found them. Why would she, of all people, she who should know where they are at all times, fail? Now she herself is gone, and Animus, the Wind Mage, as well. What is happening, Archibald? What could make them disappear?”
“A question we have asked ourselves a hundred times, sire. Only they know for certain.”
“But they are not here to tell us!” The king slapped his desk with the flat of his hand. “Things will fall apart quickly without Animus, Archibald.”
“I agree,” Archibald said. “Things will take a turn for the worse. Animus was the oldest mage. It is my understanding that Animus has, until now, been able to take up some of the slack for the missing mages.”
“He has done a questionable job of it,” the king complained, shifting in his chair. “The trees have not grown properly since Lignumis disappeared. Nor has tide been quite regular since Unda went missing. If I had a quarter for every angry merchant or fisherman that has come before me—”
“He has done an excellent job,” Archibald cut in. “And more than his fair share.” He was one of the few people that could get away with interrupting the king mid-sentence. “He has done much to keep the other elements under as much control as he has. Without him, though, I fear the sea may rage out of control. The tides may cease altogether.”
Remy shook his head. “There are too many questions, Archibald, and not enough answers…” He trailed off, thinking, searching for answers that eluded him.
At length, he glanced back up, his expression tired. “We must find the Magemother, Archibald. It is clear to me now that only she can put things right.”
Archibald regarded him silently.
“I am sending you, my friend. You must succeed where others have failed.”
Archibald put a hand over his eyes, rubbing his head. Where would he even start? What chance did he have of succeeding?
“We need her,” the king went on. “I should have sent you sooner. You, I think, knew her best.” He looked down as if embarrassed to bring up such a delicate subject with his old friend.
“Where would I even begin to look?” Archibald asked, trying to ignore the influx of memories. Walking with her by the lake, conversations through the night, the way her hair looked in the morning—sunlit and curly.
“Archibald, if I knew where to begin, you know we’d have already gone down that road. I trust your judgment, and you’ve never let me down before.”
“No,” Archibald agreed. Then more firmly, “No. I haven’t.”
Archibald glanced up at the king and something passed between them, a feeling of appreciation and camaraderie that is reserved for the closest of friends.
There was a soft sound below that might have been a sneeze.
“What was that?” Archibald said.
“Hmm. Nothing.” Archibald thought of what lay below them. The old library storage was directly under the king’s study, but people rarely went there. The king’s ancient librarian, perhaps. Or the king’s son—the boy that saw everything, heard everything, and pretended to care about none of it. Archibald smiled slightly, an idea forming. “Perhaps I should take Hugo.”
“Excuse me?” the king’s tone tightened.
“My lord, some say that he is getting a little…restless here in the castle.”
Remy’s eyes narrowed. He was not accustomed to people telling him what to do with his son. “Some say? And what do you say, Archibald? You are one of his teachers, are you not?”
“I say he quite despises this place, sire. It would be good for him to get out and see his kingdom. He may come back more willing to rule it.”
“Or less willing,” Remy interjected stubbornly.
“I hardly think that is possible.”
Remy sighed in resignation. “Very well then. But I don’t want him leaving Caraway. If your travels take you outside of it, you are not to take him with you. Times have grown too dangerous for this kingdom’s only heir to be gallivanting across the face of the world.”
Archibald dipped his head and rose to leave. “As you wish, sire.”
Archibald stopped, his hand resting on the door. “Yes, sire?”
In which Archibald has a very important flashback
Archibald returned to his own quarters and began to pack a small travel bag. He picked his favorite bowler hat and swung his cane under one arm. Pulling on his white gloves, he checked the silver watch that hung from a chain on his vest. It was almost midnight.
He glanced at the portraits of his ancestors that decorated the walls of his bedchamber, there to remind him of the legacy of service that preceded him. He grimaced, thinking of the impossible task that lay before him. He had never failed Remy. His family had served the kings of Caraway for centuries and he was not about to let the royal family down now. He glanced at the pictures again as he left the room, thinking that he might be on his way to end the family streak of loyal service.
Still, he would do as he was bidden. He would search the kingdom from end to end if need be, but he had a terrible feeling he would not find her. The Magemother was a very great woman, beautiful, mysterious, and magical from the beginning of her heart to the ends of her delicate fingers. No one understood her mind or matched her power, and when people like that go missing, they must find themselves.
He made his way to Hugo’s quarters next, swinging the delicate silver knocker twice when he arrived.
“Yeah,” a lazy voice called from within.
Archibald opened the door. Sprawled casually across a blue velvet armchair in the second most lavish set of rooms in the castle was a boy of twelve, naked to the waist, who was apparently so engrossed in doing absolutely nothing that he couldn’t be bothered to look up.
Archibald walked across to stand beside the armchair. Hugo’s eyes were shut idly. Archibald poked him sharply in the belly with the end of his cane. “It’s me.”
“Ouch!” Hugo cried angrily. “Why would you do that?”
“Because you were being rude,” Archibald said sternly. “And because you look like a fool. Where is your shirt?”
Hugo was looking up at him with a petulant expression, rubbing the little spot of red where Archibald had poked him. “I’m the prince, Archibald. You can’t talk to me like that.”
“So you keep telling me, my lord. I am sure I will learn sooner or later.”
“Make it sooner, then.”
“Yes, my lord. Speaking of learning, I came to inform you that your father has requested you accompany me on a journey.”
Hugo sat back, the bored expression returning to his face a little too quickly. “A journey,” he intoned flatly. “Sounds boring. Where are we going?”
“To look for someone.”
Archibald gave him a sharp look. “Have you been spying on the king again, my lord?”
Hugo shrugged nonchalantly. “Who else would you be looking for?”
“Will you be joining me, then?”
Hugo cast his gaze around the room in a distracted manner. “I don’t know,” he said, shrugging again. “Maybe.”
“As you wish, my lord,” Archibald said, bowing curtly and walking away. “If you so desire, you may meet me at the east doors in one hour. And Hugo,” he said, pausing in the doorway, “pack a good coat. I would hate to see that sneeze of yours turn into a cold.”
He closed the door on the flushing face of the prince of Caraway, and made his way down the hall to the Magemother’s guest quarters. The likelihood of finding any clues there would be small, since it had been thoroughly searched after she went missing, but it seemed proper to start at the beginning.
The doors to her rooms were locked, but they swung open at the touch of his hand.
“Hello, Archibald,” her voice said softly. It was not really her. The doors were enchanted to welcome her friends by name, and bar her enemies. He knew it was coming, but her voice still startled him. Her voice often did that to him, startling him out of the present world and into one long past. That was why he had slowly distanced himself from her over the past few years. Now he almost regretted that decision. Perhaps if he had nurtured their friendship instead of pruning it, he would have been able to help her, or at least know where she had gone. She had not been here for months—not since she disappeared. It had been much longer since he had been here. They had stopped talking many years ago on a day not unlike this one. The memory was still painful to him.
Archibald advanced through her rooms, his eyes falling on the sight of her possessions slowly becoming dusty without her use and care. To anyone else there would be nothing out of the ordinary; it was like any other empty and unused room. To him, someone who had so many fond memories in this space, it seemed disturbingly lifeless without her.
He had just decided that his trip to her rooms was a foolhardy idea when his eyes caught sight of something glinting from across the room. It was a small silver bell sitting on the corner of a writing desk. A memory brushed against him like a whisper from the past, and he crossed the room in earnest to pick it up, a sudden memory giving him a gust of hope. He had not seen it for at least twenty years.
He remembered a sunny day at Fall Hallows, rows and rows of booths, the smell of autumn, and the sound of country dances. She had purchased the little bell from the most unwholesome-looking witch he had ever seen. It wasn’t that she was particularly ugly, it was her outfit that was disturbing; she wore clothes that seemed to be fine leather at first, but upon closer inspection bore a frightening resemblance to human skin. He shivered at the memory. It was not normal practice for the Magemother to associate with such characters. As he recalled, she had also paid more money for the bell than he made in a year. It had seemed outrageous to him at the time; no doubt it was the absurd nature of the purchase that made it stick in his memory.
“Why would you purchase such a thing from such a person for such an outrageous price?” he had asked her in shock. She had simply smiled at him, held up the bell, rang it gently.
Suddenly, it was as if a loud gong rang out over their heads. The sound shook the ground and toppled a nearby cart. The witch who sold it to her yelled at them angrily and waved her fist in the air. Archibald was startled, unsure of how to react, but the Magemother gave a triumphant laugh, tucked the bell under her cloak and ran. She wanted to make a quick escape, he realized, before anyone recognized her and realized that she was the source of the tumult.
Later that day, when they had walked far from the market and were all alone on the road, she handed him the bell and instructed him to ring it when she had passed over the hill. He waited until he couldn’t see her anymore, then gave it a gentle ring. This time he noticed that the bell in his hand was silent, while the gong sounded out loudly from the other side of the hill. A second later, the Magemother appeared at his side, as if out of thin air.
“It is my bell, Archibald,” she explained, smiling at the surprise on his face. “That is why it is worth so high a price. No matter how far from me you are, ring it, and I will hear. If I can, I will come. It lets me cross even great distances in no time at all, if there is real need.”
There had never been a real need for him to ring it. Not in all the long years since that time. Not until now.
He held it up so that moonlight glinted off the bell’s shiny silver surface. He paused, then rang it once.
He sighed, tucked it into his vest pocket. He didn’t know what he had been expecting. As he left her rooms, he felt no closer to finding her than when he had entered.
He entertained one small hope: maybe, somewhere, she had heard it. Maybe she knew that he was looking for her now. He didn’t truly believe it, but he was too polite, too wise to dismiss hopeful feelings in a time of need, no matter how foolish they may be.
In which Brinley scolds a bird and teaches frogs to do gymnastics
Every year when school let out for summer break in Colorado and the other children began to spend all of their time with their friends, Brinley worked on her special talent: being invisible.
She usually disappeared before her father left for work. She went, invisible of course, all over town and into the hills. She had secret places that she loved. Huts she had built in trees where you could see a long way off, a perfect spot by a little waterfall where you could hear the sound of water bouncing off the turning pages of a book. This last one was one of her favorite little discoveries. One day, lying beside the pool at the foot of the waterfall, she heard the sound of the waterfall change as she turned the pages of her book. Magic, she thought at first. Then she realized that it was just the sound changing as it bounced off the face of the turning page, just like how the sound of a siren changes as it drives past. Privately, she pretended that it really was magic. Life was more fun that way. With no company but her imagination, she whiled away the long, carefree summer hours in the wilderness.
She would wake early in the morning, when most people were still dreaming, and walk across the river bridge to watch the bullfrogs stretching their long legs. She taught them some gymnastics every morning. A cartwheel and a back hand spring, a somersault and a heel stretch. Her imaginary bullfrogs followed, flipped, and bowed and were so appreciative that she didn’t mind that the “real” bullfrogs just sat there, burping at her with bored looks on their faces. After the bullfrogs, she would walk into town and look in all the shop windows before anybody got there; she liked seeing things when they were empty and quiet. It was easier to stay invisible that way.[_ _]She wasn’t truly invisible—not yet—but she might as well have been for the way she disappeared every day from the sight of normal people.
On this particular morning she woke especially early to the smell of a freshly watered world. She had left her window open the previous night to listen to the rain as it pitter pattered down from the clouds. There was no way she would be able to fall back asleep. All she could think about was the sound of the bell. Saturday was still three days away. Her father had worked a double shift yesterday, so she knew he would be sleeping in. She was supposed to do chores today. She was supposed to weed the garden and clean the bathroom, but she could do that later. Her father didn’t mind when she did her chores, as long as they got done. That was one of the greatest things about him. He trusted her. She got up, threw her hair in a bun, stuck a couple of her favorite drawing pencils in it, and left for Morley.
Morley was an old abandoned mining town on the side of the mountain. Over the years it had become one of her favorite places to draw. Today would be unlike any other trip to Morley. She would sketch the sun rising against the face of the broken church, and the birds, and the empty mine shafts, but this time she wasn’t going just to draw. This time she was looking for answers.
It was a long walk to Morley. Usually she didn’t mind, but today she wanted to get there as quickly as she could. Briefly, she entertained the idea of taking one of the four-wheelers. It would be faster, but it would be loud. She imagined rocketing through the streets, waking the neighbors, and cutting the journey down to fifteen minutes. She wrinkled her nose at the idea. She would walk. It was better to stay invisible, but she would have to walk fast if she was going to make it by sunrise.
She always liked walking the old trail to Morley; in certain places it was the very same Santa Fe Trail that the old pioneers came west on. Stories and pictures of their lives flew through her imagination as she glided along the trail, the cool morning wind invigorating her
When she arrived an hour later, the sun was on the verge of rising. She grinned. Apart from the question of the bell, Morley held a special meaning for her, and it was always exciting to visit—especially early in the morning (ghost towns are always best in the strangeness of the early morning hours). She wasn’t afraid. She had grown up around the town and was used to its strange emptiness. The emptiness was actually one of her favorite things about it. It wasn’t that she didn’t like other people; she liked them well enough. But she was different from them somehow. She felt different. Not because she had an imagination so wild that she often got lost in it (though she did). And not because of her shyness, which was so severe that she sometimes wished people really couldn’t see her. Those weren’t the main reasons anyway. Brinley felt different because of Morley. She was different because she didn’t have a mother.
Almost all children have a mother at some point, she knew. Her cousin Veronica said that she didn’t have a mother, but she really did. Veronica’s mother had split up with her dad and now she hardly ever saw her. Her friend Marshal had a mother who died giving birth to him. So in a way, he didn’t have a mother either, but at least he used to, and he had a picture or two of her, and he knew that his mother had once known him. Brinley didn’t have those things. Her father had found her right on the steps of Morley Church. She supposed her mother must have left her there, a baby in a basket, for her father to find. But how could any mother do such a thing? She didn’t understand.
“I will have to be your father and your mother,” her dad would say on the days when he could tell that she was sad. She knew he meant well, but it didn’t always help. She knew it was silly, hated herself for it sometimes, but no matter how she tried, she didn’t feel normal. When she was younger, whenever she got tired of feeling that way, she would pretend to be invisible and wander off to be alone. She surprised herself with how happy she could be, how content she could make herself, away from the world and invisible, and the habit stuck.
Her father didn’t approve. “When you do a thing for too long you become it,” he would say, but Brinley was not quite thirteen—far too young for anything like that to happen.
Brinley walked to the foot of the church and peered carefully up into the ramshackle bell tower.
It was empty.
She stared at it a while, wondering what that meant. Maybe there had never been a bell. Maybe the people who built it had never got around to putting one in. Then again, the place had been abandoned for so long…was it possible that there could have been a bell here years ago when her father had found her? She looked around the church, thinking that it may have just fallen out and rolled away, but there was nothing.
Eventually, she gave up the search and decided to draw. The sun had crested the trees now, and that magical hour of morning light had begun. Few people knew about that secret, she thought. Painters, and photographers, and movie makers, perhaps. They were the only people who seemed to know how the morning light made everything look different, special, alive. Walking past the church to sit on the shoulder of a fallen pine tree, her imagination started to run wild. She would let it loose like this sometimes; it was a relief, like dropping something heavy that you have been carrying for too long. She gazed around and saw the friendly ghosts of days long gone. Of all her secret places, Morley was her favorite; it was easy to imagine things in a place like this.
She pulled out her sketchbook and started working. The empty door, the steps, a basket. How many times had she drawn this picture? Too many to remember. She never finished it. She never knew how to draw her mother walking away. She tried this time, formed the loose lines of a head and body turning away from the basket. She stopped abruptly, changed it into her father instead, turning toward her. She wondered again about the bell that had brought him to Morley that night. Why had she never thought to ask him about it before?
She shrugged the thought away and looked around. For most people there wouldn’t be much to see, but her father worked for Fish and Wildlife Services, and she had practically grown up in the forest. She found the birds. She came here often enough that she knew where to look. She began sketching, writing their names beside each one: Black Swift, Downy Woodpecker, Hummingbird, Red-Tailed Hawk, Magpie. She squinted up at the magpie. He was a new addition. She looked back down and added a few extra details to her drawing so that she could recognize him in the future—if it [_was _]a him. She didn’t know how to tell with magpies.
Eventually she finished with the birds and looked up at the church. Images of what it used to be like flooded her mind, and she drew. Morley had been abandoned for less than seventy years, but by the looks of it, it might have been five hundred. She could see the old miners and their families, and she drew them coming out of the church on a Sunday afternoon. They had built the structure with their own money, and now it was practically the only evidence left that they were ever here.
After three hours her stomach growled and she checked her watch, surprised at how much time had passed already. She held her drawing up to check it against the real Morley Church, squinting at it appraisingly. Something wasn’t quite right about the empty bell tower. She added some shade to the left side, then set it down and rummaged in her bag for a sandwich. She put her back against a tree and ate. Twenty minutes later, she had drifted to sleep in the warmth of the sun.
She woke to the sound of a magpie.
“Are you the one I drew earlier?” she said, rubbing her eyes. As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she regretted it. Everything went quiet at the sound of her voice. That happened sometimes when she was out in the woods: Wild things forgot she was there, then remembered and were startled.
She sat up and put her chin in her hands, looking around again. She had just been dreaming about hiking with her father around Morley. She had asked him who her mother was. What had he said? She couldn’t remember. She must have awakened before he answered. If that magpie had only waited a few more seconds…
She looked around to where the noise had come from and saw the corner of a large nest peeking out over the edge of the bell tower. So it was a mother magpie. She drew her sketchbook out again, added the nest to her drawing of the church, then started on a new page. “Mother Magpie” she wrote at the top of it, then sketched the bird and her hatchling. Even the magpie babies had a mother.
Where was hers?
She began to draw faster, memories flooding into her mind. The first day of school, when Ann had asked what her mom’s name was. Her first sleepover, when Jennie’s mom had made pancakes in the morning, making her wonder how nice it would be to wake up to a mother every day. Her birthday, two years ago, when she had first really asked her father for answers, and he had told her about the basket. Had he told her everything, though? Maybe he was hiding something, thinking the truth would hurt her. Maybe her mother had been an awful person. Or maybe, just maybe, she really didn’t have a mother at all.
All things have a mother.
Brinley jumped at the voice, looking around. She hadn’t heard anyone come up.
“Hello?” she called. She waited, but didn’t hear anything. There was nothing there, just trees and rocks, half of an old empty church, and a magpie. She must have imagined it. Maybe she had drifted into a daydream while drawing. Yes, it would fit right into the last dream she had been having about her father. Maybe that’s what he had —
All things have a mother.
This time she jumped up and wheeled around. It was a woman’s voice. She was sure of it. Where on earth was it coming from? She definitely hadn’t been daydreaming this time.
“Hello?” she called again. Nothing. She had the sense that someone was there, watching. Perhaps in the trees, just out of sight, or hiding around the corner of the church. It was unnerving. She wished more than anything to be invisible. Really invisible this time.
She quietly zipped her notebook into her bag and started off toward the path. She walked on tiptoes, hoping beyond hope that whoever was hiding wouldn’t notice her. This time, the voice came as a whisper in her ear just as she was passing the door to the church.
All things have a mother.
She gave a little yelp. Whoever it was must have been standing right next to her, but nobody was there! Not knowing what else to do, she ran into the church, glancing around quickly. She couldn’t see anyone. Still…somebody was there. She stood stock-still, the hairs on the back of her neck standing up. She didn’t know what was going on, all she knew was that she was afraid.
After a few moments, she came to her senses. This was ridiculous! There must have been some funny tomatoes in her sandwich or something. She had been standing there with a dumb look on her face, her arms stretched out, hands poised to make karate chops. It was almost laughable. Almost. The magpie fluttered down to sit atop the broken wall of the church, looking at her curiously.
“Don’t give me that look,” she said. “I know I heard something—” No, she told herself. She had imagined it. She turned her back toward the door and a sound like musical thunder rang out above her head. It was like a giant gong. Louder than any normal bell could be.
She whipped around, staring up at the bell tower. It was just as empty as it had been before. Her heart was beating fast. Stubbornly, she forced herself not to run home. She had to walk, she told herself. This was all in her head. It had to be.
In which Archibald gets Hugo to recite a poem
In the stable of Caraway Castle, Archibald placed the bell back into the pocket of his vest, donned his hat and twirled his cane, catching it with an audible thump in the crook of his arm. It seemed like the thing to do, ringing the bell at the outset of the journey. Once again, he had little hope that anything would happen, so he wasn’t disappointed when it didn’t. He placed one foot in the stirrup and swung himself into his saddle, patting his sturdy pony on the side of the neck.
“Well, Pilfer, old boy, I thought he would come. But it looks like I was wrong.” No sooner had he said it when Hugo, wearing a large pack and a sword at his side, stepped into the stable. He was smartly dressed in a crisp cotton shirt with the symbol of the Paradise kings, an emerald green salamander, emblazoned on the collar. His golden hair fell in short locks above a clean gray traveling cloak. The dull, apathetic boy of an hour before had vanished, replaced by what looked like an agreeable person.
“What is that?” Archibald said sharply, pointing to the sword at Hugo’s side.
“It’s none of your affair,” Hugo said, and turned slightly to guard the sword from view.
Archibald folded his arms. “I see. And what about when your father notices that you have stolen the sword of the kings of Caraway and gone—how did he say it?—gallivanting across the face of the world? He will send the guard to fetch you straight back to the castle.”
Hugo went red in the face, but said nothing.
“Very well, you will pout in your chambers, and I shall have no pupil to vex with lectures on the road.”
Hugo muttered something under his breath.
“I beg your pardon?” Archibald said stiffly.
“Fine,” Hugo said loudly. “You are always right, I suppose.”
Archibald nodded, choosing to ignore the sarcasm. “Tomlin!” he called loudly.
One of the stable boys ran in.
“Tomlin, please take the king’s sword back to the armory and fetch Prince Hugo’s from his chambers.”
Hugo unbelted the sword reluctantly, handing it over to the stable boy.
“Your horse is almost ready, my lord,” the boy said hastily. “They will bring him out to you in a moment.” He took off at a brisk pace, not unaware of the sudden change in the prince’s mood.
“I’ll be waiting outside,” Hugo said sullenly, and turned for the door. He paused and turned back for a moment, looking like a person who is forcing themselves to say something that they don’t feel like saying. He spoke in a mumble so soft that Archibald almost missed it.
“Thanks for taking me.” His face turned a brilliant red, and he turned to leave the stable before Archibald could comment.
Archibald chuckled to himself, thinking it was a good start.
That night they made camp on the far bank of Mirror Lake. They could see the castle faintly in the last light of day; it looked small from this distance. Half a day’s ride had taken them around the long shore. Tomorrow they would ride all the way to Ninebridge, then on to the Magisterium in Tarwal, where Archibald hoped they would find some clue to the Magemother’s whereabouts, and hopefully learn something more about what really happened to Animus; with any luck, the mage’s apprentice would still be there.
They gathered loose branches from the underbrush for a fire and spread themselves out beneath the stars, waiting for water to boil.
“I saw Lux today,” Hugo said abruptly, breaking a long silence. Hugo had not said three words to his teacher since Archibald had made him return the sword that morning. Archibald propped himself up on one arm politely.
“I bumped into him on my way to the—uh—kitchens,” Hugo lied.
“On your way to spy on your father and me,” Archibald corrected.
Hugo was silent.
“Well,” Hugo continued slowly, “I mean, I should have bumped into him. I should have run him over really—I was running—but I just sort of…went through him.”
Archibald smiled. “I’m not surprised. Mages are quite powerful, you know. It is not wise to pretend that we understand everything that they can do.”
Hugo mumbled something, poking the fire with a stick.
“But then, you have always wanted to understand them, and their magic,” Archibald said, guessing his thoughts.
Hugo looked up in surprise.
“Fine,” Archibald continued. “That can be our first lesson.” Archibald cleared his throat in a formal way. “Who are the mages of Aberdeen and what do they rule?”
Hugo rolled his eyes. “I suppose you want to hear it like it says in the poem?”
“Yes, I do. Speaking of which, where is the poem found and what is it called?”
Hugo sighed. He had walked right into that one. “The Seven Souls of Nature, from the Book of the Magemother,” he recited.
“And what does it say?”
Hugo shifted, settling into a more comfortable position, and began.
“Chant the names of mages five:
Chantra first, the Mage of Fire
Second, Belterras of earth
Cassis, metal’s mage, is third
Unda is the lord of sea
Lignumis of wood and tree.”
Hugo paused, trying to remember.
Archibald goaded him on. “Didn’t you say it was called the [_seven _]souls of nature?”
“Just a second! It’s not like I read it every day.” He cleared his throat and continued,
“Above the stone, above the sea,
Above the fire and the tree,
Above the earth, the wind is free;
Animus, the sixth, is king.”
“There you have it,” Archibald began, but Hugo interrupted him.
“So Chantra rules the fire—her magic governs it, I guess? Belterras is over the earth, Cassis is the Mage of Metal, Unda controls the sea—and Lignumis the forest and wood,” he said in a rush.
“That’s the gist of it,” Archibald agreed. “It is far more complex than that, however. The mages don’t [_rule _]over the elements, strictly speaking.”
“They control them,” Hugo insisted. “I’ve seen Animus control the wind.”
“The wind obeys him, but he does not control it. It obeys him, honors him because the life energy of the wind flows through his soul. Whatever energy the wind requires to govern itself, it takes from the soul of Animus: his spirit and his body.”
“How do you know all this?”
Archibald raised an eyebrow “I asked him once.”
“Why are you telling it to me?”
Archibald gave him a small smile. It was good that the boy appreciated what was being shared.
“Because someday you will be the king.”
Hugo was quiet and Archibald wondered if, for the first time, he might be appreciating the weight of that responsibility.
After a while Hugo cleared his throat. “Archibald, I guess you know that I’ve studied the mages a bit on my own…”
Archibald raised an eyebrow, and Hugo hurried on. His father wouldn’t approve of him delving deeper into the restricted subject, but then, his father wasn’t around. “Anyway, in my reading I found something that doesn’t make sense. Out of the mages we just listed, I’ve only really heard about three of them: Animus, Cassis, and Belterras. There is a lot written about them too,” he said. “I’ve met Animus and Belterras, but I don’t know anything about the other three. They are in the poem, but you don’t ever hear anything about them. Why is that?”
Archibald nodded appreciatively. “You have stumbled upon a very serious question, Hugo, and one not easily answered.”
Hugo twisted to get a better look at Archibald. He didn’t want to miss a single word.
“Many years ago,” Archibald began, “three of the mages went missing—Chantra, Unda, and Lignumis. One day they were there, the next they were gone.”
“Gone?” Hugo prompted.
Archibald nodded. “Without warning. At first there was a bit of a panic.”
“Like when my father found out about Animus disappearing?”
“Yes. But soon it faded away. There were no big problems; the sea seemed to behave, more or less. The trees went on producing fruit, and fires did not rage out of control as we first feared. It seemed that the mages, wherever they were, were still in control of things. Though if I’m being honest, I am no longer so sure.”
“What do you mean?”
Archibald squirmed a little. “There are differences, I think, in the way the world works now. Every year there are less fish to be caught. While trees continue to produce fruit, seeds rarely produce new trees. The forests have been diminishing since the day Lignumis disappeared. Your father thinks that something serious has happened to them, and I agree.”
“Can’t we just ask Animus? The poem says that he’s the king of the mages. Maybe he would know.”
Archibald shook his head. “It doesn’t work like that. He is not really a king of any sort. I suppose that, in some ways, the poem is just a poem. By ‘king’ I guess that it is referring to the fact that he is the oldest of the mages. In reality, the mages are all equal to one another in power, even though you could argue that some of them have more important powers than others.
“What about the Magemother?” Hugo asked. “Wouldn’t she know where the lost mages are?”
Archibald shook his head. “She always maintained that they were safe, though whether she actually knew where they were is hard to say. She would not speak much on the subject.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes. Hugo was trying to piece together everything that he had heard. It felt wonderful to talk about the mages out in the open. If he had known that Archibald knew so much on the subject he might have tried before, even if his father wouldn’t have liked it.
“You know,” Archibald said, breaking the silence, “that is still only six mages.”
“What? But that’s the whole thing,” Hugo said, reviewing the poem in his head to make sure. “It ends with Animus, the oldest.”
“What about Lux?” Archibald asked.
Hugo’s face went blank. “He’s not in the poem,” he said, looking suddenly confused. “Why didn’t I ever notice that? Why isn’t he in the poem, Archibald?”
“He is. He’s in the next stanza.”
“There’s more?” The lines on Hugo’s forehead drew together. “I don’t remember it.”
“Because you were never taught it,” Archibald said simply. “There is power in it, and secrets. It isn’t taught, and it isn’t even printed in the copies of the Magemother’s book.”
“But you’re going to teach it to me?”
“Because I’m going to be a king?”
“Yes. And because you want to understand magic. Those who seek understanding find it, though not always in the places they expect.”
Hugo waited patiently and quietly, which was the most powerful thing that he probably could have done, since it was the most difficult.
Archibald looked around the little clearing of trees before he began, as if checking to see that they were alone. Eventually he began, his friendly voice bending into a thin and tired sound under the weight of the words:
“After every mortal thing
Rule the elements of being:
Space and time and wrong and right;
Lux Tennebris—day and night.”
The moment he finished, the light from the fire changed, lifted free of the churning flames, and left them burning in the dark. The light spun together and expanded, and Lux stepped out of it into the night, his luminous body lighting them more sharply than the fire had done. Hugo started at the sight of him. It wasn’t just the suddenness of his appearance, it was his actual appearance. This was not the mage that had lived under the same roof with him his whole life. This was not the sunny-faced counselor to the king. This was a twisting shadow—a sickle-faced man of light and[_ _]dark. He had one blue eye like the North Star and one filled with emptiness. His mouth, half smile, half sneer, barked into the night.
“Who said my name?”
“I did,” Archibald said, and the twisting specter turned to him. “It’s me, Lux. It’s Archibald. I was just teaching Prince Hugo here the names of the mages.”
The specter turned his blue eye on Hugo and seemed to relax. The shadow half of him faded; his empty eye filled with blue and the strange expression fell from his face. The light around him flickered and he seemed to shrink as he turned into the kind-faced, frail man that Hugo was used to.
Lux considered him a moment, then turned to Archibald. “Very well,” he said, and faded back into the night without another word.
Hugo blinked in the sudden darkness. He heard Archibald scraping about, starting another fire, no doubt.
“Is he gone?”
“He’s gone.” Archibald’s face appeared as a match tip burst into life. Hugo moved to help him.
“What was—what was—” Hugo stammered, struggling to make up his mind about which question to ask first.
“That was Lux Tennebris,” Archibald said quietly.
“It didn’t look like Lux.”
“No. That was his true form. He usually hides it.”
“I can see why,” Hugo said, shivering. “What is he?”
“A mage—the seventh mage, as the poem says. But he is different. While the other mages rule over the elements of the world, Lux is connected to that which makes it possible for the world itself to exist.”
“And what is that?” Hugo asked, trying to think of what made the world possible.
“What do you mean?”
“Duality,” Archibald said patiently. “The law of opposites. Up and down, here and there, good and evil, light and darkness, life and death.”
Hugo shook his head. “I don’t get it.”
Archibald smiled. “It’s simple,” he said. “Just think of time and space. Could you exist—could this world exist, if there were no such thing as time and space?”
Hugo thought. “No, I guess not.”
“Well, to have time, you need a now and a then. A past and a future. To have space you need—”
“A here and a there?” Hugo asked.
“Exactly. That is duality.”
“And Lux is the mage of duality?” Hugo said, sounding skeptical.
“Yes, ‘the Mage of Light and Darkness,’”
“I don’t understand,” Hugo said. “Is he good or bad?”
Archibald gave him a thoughtful look. “You saw him,” he said. “What do you think?”
“Well…” Hugo hesitated, remembering Lux’s one dark, empty eye, the way his mouth blended from smile to sneer. “I think…he’s both.”
Archibald nodded approvingly.
Hugo shook his head again. It didn’t make any sense. “But Archibald, that’s just messed up—isn’t it?”
Archibald laughed. “Yes,” he said. “I suppose it is. But that is the nature of Lux Tennebris. Lux, the light, Tennebris, the dark, the two sides of him working together in balance…” He studied the fire. “Actually,” he said,” I think that is the reason for our trip.”
“What do you mean?” Hugo asked, sitting up.
Archibald glanced over his shoulder. “It’s a small thing,” he said. “A conversation I had once, years ago, with the Magemother.”
“What did she say?” Hugo asked eagerly.
“She said that Lux was changing.” Archibald’s expression grew dark, his eyes stared curiously into the flames. “She said that something was wrong with him—wrong [_about _]him,” he corrected.
Hugo shuddered, thinking of what it might mean for there to be something wrong with the person in charge of balancing good and evil.
“That would be bad,” he said.
Archibald glanced up from the fire. “Indeed it would,” he agreed. He gave Hugo an appraising look. “I think that this is the very puzzle the Magemother was working to solve when she disappeared.”
“Really?” Hugo felt suddenly worried. He hadn’t been aware before that they might be in any real danger on the trip. Knowing what the Magemother might have been investigating seemed to cast a shadow over the trip.
“What does that mean, Archibald? If that’s true, then where should we start looking?”
“I don’t know,” Archibald said. “But I think we should start at the Magisterium.”
Hugo felt a flutter of excitement. The Magisterium! The one place he had always wished he could go. Maybe this adventure was going to be all right after all.
In which there is a team of oxen
Brinley cracked the oven door and squinted at the blackened chicken as smoke wafted out. Why hadn’t she just set the timer? She opened the door farther and another wave of heat and smoke hit her, making her cough. Quickly, she turned the oven off and opened the kitchen window, hoping that the smoke alarm wouldn’t sound. Then she retrieved a pair of daisy-patterned hot pads and extracted the poor bird. As she set it down on the stove, the smoke alarm went off. Just then, her father opened the door, a towel wrapped around his waist, his hair still dripping from the shower.
“What is—oh,” he said, taking in the scene. He opened the front door, and Brinley handed him a cookie sheet, which he used to fan the smoke away from the smoke detector. It stopped a second later.
“Brinley,” he said, “you shouldn’t have.”
Brinley bit her lip apprehensively. This was not a new occurrence. She used to burn something at least once a week, which was a lot, given that she only had to cook twice a week. But it had been two months since her last offense.
“How did you know I love extra crispy?” he finished, producing a smile.
She laughed. “Just had a hunch.”
“What were you doing this time?” he asked. “Working in the garden? Playing solitaire?”
She shook her head, pointing to the table. “Drawing.”
He crossed to the table and bent over the drawings that she had spread out there.
“When did you do these?”
“Uh…recently,” she said carefully.
“Well, okay. I did them today. I know you said you wanted to go together, but I didn’t think you would mind if I took another trip out there on my own first—and this morning when I woke up it was such a perfect day for walking, so I decided to do my chores later and go to Morley.”
“Hmm…” he said, still looking over the drawings. “And did you?”
“Get your chores done.”
She stopped short. She had been so caught up with the excitement at Morley after she got home that she hadn’t thought about the garden, or the bathroom, until now. At least she had remembered dinner, but now she had messed that up too.
He snorted at the look on her face. “Relax,” he said. “You know I don’t mind. And I don’t mind that you went to Morley either. You knew I wouldn’t. You can do today’s chores tomorrow, just don’t get too far behind.”
“I won’t,” she promised.
“I know,” he said. “I can’t do it all without you, you know.”
“We’re a team.”
“What?” she said, perplexed.
“Oxen. One ox, two oxes,” he said, poking her each time. “Oxen.”
She snickered at him. “What are you talking about?”
“You and I, Brinley.” He adopted a tone of mock solemnity that made it very hard to take him seriously. “You and I are like a team of oxen.”
“Is this another one of Grandpa’s lectures?” she cut in, catching on.
“Yes,” he said, waving a finger at her. “Don’t interrupt. As I was saying, you and I are like a team of oxen, pulling a cart together. We’re connected at the shoulders by a beam of wood, which in turn is connected to the cart. Do you know what the beam is called?”
“Yes—brilliant child—a yoke! It helps us pull the cart together.”
“And we’re the oxen?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said. “A big ox and a little ox.”
“So you’re saying you’re just a big ox?” she said, trying to keep a straight face.
He smirked. “I’m saying we have to work together. We have to be [_evenly yoked. _]We each have to work as hard as the other. You do your work, and I do mine, and in the end, two oxen are better than one.”
“But Dad,” Brinley protested. “Technically you can’t have one oxen. It would just be an ox.”
“Aghh,” he growled. “I give up.”
They laughed and began to set the table together.
“Are we still going to eat it?” Brinley asked, eyeing the chicken.
“Sure,” he said. “There’s bound to be an unburned bit inside there somewhere.”
“Dad,” she said as she spooned instant mashed potatoes onto her plate, “that was a very good lecture.”
He cocked an eyebrow. “You think so? I didn’t overdo the oxen thing?”
“A little bit,” she admitted. “But it was still good.”
“Grandpa was better at explaining it,” he said. He smiled at her and began to dig through the chicken.
They ate in silence for a while, then Brinley thought of something. “Dad, we’re still going to Morley together, right?”
“Of course,” he said.
She nodded, glad that he hadn’t abandoned the idea simply because she had gone without him. She looked at him again. He seemed to be lost in thought.
“Did it happen again today?” he asked suddenly.
She nodded. “I heard a really loud bell again,” she said, “when I was right by the church.”
He nodded, taking another bite of chicken.
“Dad,” she said slowly. “There was no bell there.”
He nodded again. “There is something strange going on for sure,” he said. “Maybe we can figure it out together.”
“I might go again tomorrow,” she blurted out.
He gave her a searching look. “Why not just wait till Saturday when I can go with you?”
She shrugged, not wanting to explain. The truth was she felt a bit embarrassed about the way she had practically run away from the situation. It seemed real enough at the time, but looking back it was clear to her that she must have simply let her imagination get the best of her. She was going to make herself walk all around the church until she was convinced of how ordinary it was, even if she had to sit there drawing birds and looking at nothing all day long. But she didn’t know how to explain that to her dad without sounding crazy.
“I just have to,” she said.
He made a face. “If you say so. But be careful, and don’t spend all day there.”
“Okay,” she promised. “I won’t.”
True to her word, Brinley only spent two or three hours there the following afternoon. She didn’t see or hear a single thing out of the ordinary. Mother Magpie was there again—that bird she had seen on the day she had heard the voice—and she drew another picture of her. Then she sat down inside the church and spent an hour doing a full panoramic sketch of the inside, taking care to make it look as ordinary as possible.
After she had gathered up her things, she took one last look at Morley Church before leaving. She was about to walk away when a thunderous gong shattered her thoughts.
She could feel the sound reverberating through her whole body. Instinctively, she looked up to the bell tower in the church. It was empty, of course. Wherever the sound was coming from, it wasn’t anywhere she could see. And strangely enough, as far as she could tell, nothing else was aware of the noise. The birds were still singing happily, and a squirrel scampered past her on the forest floor. Somehow, for some reason, just as it had done for her father, the bell rang only for her.
In which Hugo is bitten by a monster
Put that down this instant!” Archibald cried. Hugo jumped. He swept the bell behind his back, but it was too late. He had awakened that morning to find Archibald still asleep. He couldn’t help noticing the little silver handle protruding from his teacher’s vest pocket. He told himself he would just take a peek. But, of course, it is very hard to not ring a bell after you have it in your hand. He thought if he did it very quietly, he might be able to return it without ever waking Archibald.
“Give it to me.”
“What’s it for?” Hugo said, dancing away boldly now that the jig was up.
“Give it to me, and I will tell you.”
Hugo’s brows creased together sharply. He held out the bell.
“There,” Archibald looked relieved. “Now don’t go taking it again.”
“But it doesn’t make any noise! What’s it for?” Hugo asked again.
“Ah. I never said [_when _]I would tell you, did I?”
Hugo looked outraged. “But—” Archibald gave a little chuckle. “Do not ‘pop your top.’ If you must know, it is a summoning bell.”
“A summoning bell?”
“Who’s it summon?”
Hugo looked around. “But it doesn’t ring.”
“It rings where she is. She hears it, and she comes.”
“But she didn’t come,” Hugo said, eyeing him suspiciously, sure that Archibald was tricking him.
“Indeed,” Archibald said darkly. “She did not.”
Hugo wasn’t sure why, but Archibald seemed to be in a bad mood after that. They poured water from the lake on the small remnants of their fire and packed their bedrolls. Quietly, they shared a loaf of pan bread and honey. It wasn’t a particularly good breakfast—certainly not what they were used to receiving in the castle, but to Hugo, who had only ever read about such things, it felt incredibly daring to start the day out with a simple lump of bread and then jump in the saddle.
When they had finished, Archibald pushed his hat a little more firmly onto his head and climbed onto Pilfer. The dapple grey pony moved into a canter and Hugo followed. The jet black horse that Hugo rode was so tall that he towered over Archibald on his pony. He had been bred for the king but was born with markings like ivory socks on each leg, so he was given to the prince instead. Hugo named him Stilts for his height and white legs.
Archibald looked up at him and frowned. “I am not sure it is entirely healthy for you to be looking down on me all day long.”
Hugo smiled wryly. “Well, I’m not riding your pony.”
“Too right, you are not,” Archibald said protectively, patting Pilfer on the side. “He is too much for you to handle.”
Hugo rolled his eyes.
They traveled at a steady pace, camping by the river as they went so the horses could drink and graze. Each morning Archibald continued Hugo’s lessons. They spoke of history, politics, philosophy, and for the most part it was quite boring.
After three days of this, they found themselves traveling through the forest in the early afternoon. Archibald was telling Hugo a story about a long dead king, and for once he was trying to pay attention.
“Why was he going to be beheaded again?” he asked, rummaging in his bag for an apple.
“[_He _]was not, Hugo. Pay attention. His brother was going to be executed because the wizard Tif told the high court that he was responsible for the murder of a visiting lord. The king discovered that she was lying and raced from his chambers to the courtyard to stop the execution, but he arrived moments too late, and his brother died. That was the last time that wizards were allowed to give testimony in the king’s court until the Magemother took up a teaching post at the Magisterium and began to mend ties between the courts and the wizards.”
“Well,” Hugo said, taking a bite and talking through a mouthful of apple, “I woodn’t hab lep my buther die.”
“Oh?” Archibald said with a grimace. “And how would you have stopped it? Figure things out more quickly?”
“No,” Hugo said, making a slow gesture with the half-eaten apple as if the answer was obvious. “I would’ve gotten to him sooner. People say I waste time exploring the castle, but I bet I could have made it to the courtyard in half the time h—AAH!”
Pilfer, who had been eying Hugo’s apple for some time, had snapped it out of the prince’s hand mid-gesture.
Archibald laughed as Pilfer downed the apple and dipped his head approvingly. “My apologies, Hugo, I should have warned you. He has a habit of pilfering food; you see, that is how he got his name. He means no harm by it.” Archibald patted the side of Pilfer’s neck appreciatively.
“He’s a monster,” Hugo said darkly, rubbing his bruised fingertips and glaring down at the pony.
Archibald gave him a moment to recover, then tried to divert his attention. “So how would you[_ _]have made it to the courtyard on time?”
“What?” Hugo said, looking up from his fingers. “Oh, I would’ve taken the chicken stairs.”
“The chicken stairs?” Archibald said skeptically.
Hugo blushed. “Well, I don’t know what they’re actually called, I guess, but it is the fastest way.”
Archibald was thinking. “There are three hidden exits to the south,” he said, ticking them off one by one on his fingers, “the king’s closet, the maid’s mirror, and the clover shoot.”
“And the chicken stairs,” Hugo insisted. He could tell that Archibald didn’t follow, so he hastened to explain, excited to finally know something his tutor did not. “Behind that seascape across from the Magemother’s rooms—the one that comes out in the chicken coop outside the castle.”
“There’s a passage that comes out in the chicken coop?” Archibald said incredulously.
Hugo nodded. “Yeah, I use it all the time; it’s the only exit that the guards don’t bother watching at all—I guess they think the smell will do the trick all by itself.”
Archibald laughed generously, putting his hand across his chest to steady himself. “Hugo,” he said, grinning, “they do not guard it because they do not know that it is there. I did not know. And neither did your great-great-grandfather, who as it turns out, could have saved his brother’s life with a trip through the hen house. Ha!”
“So,” Archibald said, straightening his hat. “What is the lesson in all of this?”
“Never underestimate a chicken?”
“No,” Archibald said shortly, but he was still smiling. “Skio kor toom.”
Hugo bit his lip, trying to remember what that meant. His knowledge of the old language was poorer than it should have been, mostly because studying it always put him to sleep.
“Know your own heart,” Archibald offered. “Or in this case, your own home. Either way, I think we should focus on ancient languages for the rest of the day.”
Hugo groaned. “Why?”
Archibald gave him an appraising look. “Because once again you have proven that you are incapable of translating even the simplest of phrases.”
“It’s not like I’m ever gonna need it,” Hugo complained. “No one uses it anymore.”
“Excuse me?” Archibald said. “No one uses it? I just used it now.”
Hugo rolled his eyes.
“You are using it now, as a matter of fact, for our language has grown [_out _]of those that have gone before. As such it behooves those of high station to make themselves acquainted with it.”
Hugo was berating himself silently. Why had he let Archibald go down this road? His teacher was obsessed with language, and now he was going be punished for saying it wasn’t important—probably for hours. He was still arguing vehemently about the supreme importance of it.
“As a future ruler you will be in a position to affect the culture of the kingdom at large. I will, therefore, to the best of my ability, see that you are properly educated. Speaking of which,” he said reproachfully, “It’s not like [I’m _]ever _gonna? When did you start talking like this? You have been spending too much time cavorting with the servants, and too little with your teachers and your peers.”
“I regret that you disapprove of my colloquial tone,” Hugo said dryly.
“Aha!” Archibald exclaimed. “I knew you had it in you. Why do you not use it more often? Do you resent your education? Your position? Are you hoping that someone [_else _]will be the king someday, so that you won’t have to?”
“Yes,” Hugo said honestly.
Archibald stared at him. “Well,” he sighed, “I suspected as much. But we have some time. Let’s save that hurdle for another day, shall we?”
“Transfirendum hok kwayezo. Translate.”
That night, Hugo struggled to sleep. When the fire began to die down and Archibald’s breathing became deep and even, he found himself counting the stars as they emerged, one by one, from the depth of the night. He shifted from side to side, unable to stop thinking how uncomfortable sleeping outdoors was. If only that root was gone, or that stone, or the sound of that bug, maybe then he could sleep.
After a while he realized that it was his mind that was uncomfortable. Every time he closed his eyes he saw Lux staring back at him, one blue eye, one black and empty…so empty. He shivered. Part of him never wanted to set eyes on the mage again. Another part of him wanted to speak his name right now and see if he would appear. For all his strangeness, Lux had real magic, [_real _]power—power like he had always dreamed of. He had always been drawn to magic—like a fox to a hen house, his father had said, because he had no business being there. He sighed. If only he were that interested in laws or governing or politics, maybe then his father would be happy. He had read every book he could get his hands on about magic, about mages, but there was nothing in them that said how to become one. It couldn’t be done, it seemed. Either you were magical or you weren’t.
Something tugged at his heart, a deep sadness that he hadn’t known before. He would never be what he wanted to be. He could never become the man he felt like on the inside. It wasn’t in the cards. His heart felt heavy. The weight of it nearly crushed him. This was so stupid! Why couldn’t he be content with the life he was given like other people were. He was going to be king! Wasn’t that good enough?
He knew deep down that it wasn’t. He would never be satisfied being like everyone else. But what choice did he have?
A single tear squeezed out of his eye, and he wiped it away hastily, berating himself. He was being a baby. With an effort, he steeled his resolve, pushing away the aching in his heart. He would just have to ignore it. A prince would do nothing else. He was out in the real world now. Archibald was trusting him. He needed to start acting like a man. If that meant giving up his dream, then that’s what had to be done.
He closed his eyes and forced himself to stop thinking about it.
From above his head, a bird began to sing; it was the last thing he heard before he fell asleep, and the last thing he thought was that it was odd for a bird to sing at night. It was, wasn’t it? This must be a particular kind of bird.
It sounded sad, he thought, like his heart.
In which we meet Tabitha
The highest tower of the Magisterium at Tarwal stood at the edge of a cliff. Sea spray washed across its footings a few times a year when the water truly raged; otherwise, it stood well out of reach, gathering creatures from the wind. Birds flitted about the head of the tower, darting in and out; birds flitted around the head of the girl standing at the top of the tower. She stood on a little balcony that jutted out into the open air, high above the frothing mass of blue.
Tabitha paid no heed to the ocean or the city or the Magisterium. Her toes dangled off the edge of the balcony as she leaned against an iron balustrade, eyes shut in concentration.
She was trying to find the wind.
Tabitha kept the birds; she looked after them and they looked after her. She spread their feed, filled their fountains, and listened to what news they gathered on their far-flung flights. In turn they kept her company, never once thinking as others did that she was anything but ordinary.
Sometimes, when the morning was unusually quiet, she could hear a bit of news on the wind; a birdsong or a feather carried on the air was enough. But there was no wind today, just as there had been no wind in the days before. She leaned back into the tower peacefully, dancing lightly away to greet her visitor.
Denmyn was the only person that ever came to visit, the only other person, as far as she knew, that had ever bothered to make the long climb to the top of the tower more than once. A gray head rose above the top step, several hairs out of place. She was wheezing heavily, out of breath after the climb. “Tabitha,” she said with a breathless smile, her wrinkled cheeks pink from exertion, “how are you always standing here waiting for me when I arrive?” She collapsed into the tower’s solitary chair, which Tabitha had carried up for this very purpose.
“I hear you coming,” she said simply.
“Oh—ohh,” Denmyn stifled her wheezing self-consciously. She got to her feet, walked across to the ladder that led up to the nests. She began to climb, sighing, “Someday, Tabitha, I will count all those steps.”
“Thirteen hundred seventy-one,” Tabitha whispered, a little more loudly than she intended. She had counted them one day, long ago.
“You counted them?” Denmyn gave another sigh as she reached the floor above. “Of course you did.”
“Of course, dear. And what news do the birds bring today?”
Tabitha ran through the day’s news mentally, looking for something that might interest Denmyn. A gull caught under the slapping tail of a passing whale, a forest fire in the high mountains, a herd of heartbeasts rumored to have been put on the run by a bird. She smiled at the last one, trying to imagine a bird with such pluck. “No news,” she said. None that the wizards would be interested in, anyway. “Except the magpies.”
“The magpies, dear?”
“Yes, I told you yesterday. More and more have been disappearing.” She had told Denmyn every day since it began that the magpies were disappearing. The magpies themselves claimed that they were being hunted, but why, they would not say.
“Oh well, that’s as it is, often enough,” Denmyn said dismissively, climbing back down. She called up as she fell out of sight, “I’ll see you tonight.”
Tabitha didn’t respond. She forgot to sometimes, but this time it was for a different reason; something had caught her attention from the window. There was something there, something on the wind. No, not the wind—there was no wind. On the bare air there floated…something. Something birdlike.
She flew to the wide window, hair scattering over the edge as she came to an abrupt stop, eyes closed, listening. It was a dove—a mourning dove.
A burst of excitement raced through her. They were rare, and to hear one singing was even rarer. She became somber as she listened to the song. It told the tale of a future lost, a spirit broken.
She stepped away from the window, thinking. This was a strange thing indeed. Often in bird lore they sang over weeping kings and maidens in the depths of travail. She had never heard one in real life. She wondered who it sang for. It must be a special person to attract the attention of a mourning dove.
For a moment she indulged in the thought. She could find out. Leave her tower. But for what? To satisfy her curiosity? She had responsibilities here, and the world outside her tower was so big.
It must be a very important person for a mourning dove to sing, she thought again.
She crossed the room and poured bird seed into a long feeder, but she did the task without paying attention; her mind was already far away.
Over the next couple days, Hugo tried to be a model student. Archibald seemed more alarmed than relieved. Hugo could guess why. Though his behavior had been admirable, his mood was poor. He couldn’t help it. Ever since he made his decision he’d had a difficult time being cheerful. Life seemed heavy now.
“Is something wrong?” his teacher finally asked after a long day of riding. He was gathering wood for a fire.
“Ah,” Archibald said sagely. “The shrug.” He touched the side of his nose. “Sometimes a shrug means no. Sometimes it means yes. Other times it means something in between. Which kind was that?”
Hugo shrugged again.
“I see.” Archibald nodded to himself. “Very well. Keep your dreary thoughts private. I shall still endeavor to cheer you up.”
Hugo felt his temper surge. He didn’t want to be cheered up. Why couldn’t Archibald just leave him alone? He always did this—it was one of the best and worst things about him. His teacher was always, day after day, excruciatingly cheerful. “Aren’t you ever just in a bad mood?” Hugo blurted.
“Yes,” Archibald said easily, “but lucky for you, it takes more than a melancholy adolescent to put me there.”
“Very well,” Archibald said. “I know just the thing.” With a spark, the fire caught and Archibald leaned back. “I will give you…” he said in a dramatic voice, “[_three _]free questions.”
Hugo brightened. It had been a long time since he had a free question. It was a thing they had done when he was younger. When he got too tired of studying, Archibald would let him ask a free question. It could be about anything, and Archibald [had _]to[ _]answer, even if he didn’t want to, even if it wasn’t appropriate or prudent. As he got older, the practice had ceased. No doubt Archibald had grown cautious about the things he might ask. After all, Archibald was one of the most educated people in the land, and there were many things he might not wish to tell a young boy.
Hugo settled down against the base of a tree opposite Archibald. What should he ask? He forced back a smile.
“Where do babies come from?”
Archibald went pale.
Hugo burst out laughing. “Ah! I got you!” He was doubled over laughing now. It felt good to laugh again. Archibald looked at him sternly. Hugo wiped a tear from his eye. “Ah…okay, I’ll admit, I feel better.”
Archibald smiled in a satisfied way. “You still have three questions.”
“Right.” Hugo mustered his courage. He knew what he wanted to ask most, but he was embarrassed about it. Plus, hadn’t he already decided to give up on his dream of becoming a mage? He settled on a different question. He knew Archibald wouldn’t want to answer it; under normal circumstances, the subject was off limits.
“You agree to answer my questions fully? No taunting me with half answers?”
Archibald looked wounded. “Have I ever?”
“Okay. In that case…what really happened between you and the Magemother?”
Archibald sighed. “Somehow I knew you would ask that. But I suppose it is the most mysterious part about me, isn’t it?”
Hugo tried to hide the guilty grin on his face. He had to admit he was more than a little embarrassed to bring it up. There were all kinds of rumors about Archibald and the Magemother. It was a common topic of gossip among the oldest servants after a little too much wine.
“The rumors are true,” Archibald said candidly. “We were very close once.” He looked sad.
For all his curiosity, Hugo started to feel bad for asking, but Archibald went on.
“We were friends for a long time, then confidants. Because of the nature of her life, her responsibility, her position, her power, there was no one who could really understand her. Most men were either intimidated by her power or simply unwilling to take second priority to her responsibilities. I was not. We became…as close as two people can be, perhaps—at least two people such as ourselves. Your father married us.”
Hugo gaped at him in shock. Archibald was married to the Magemother? Archibald? He took a good look at his teacher. He had always thought of him as a silly old man, wise—brilliant even—but eccentric. He was always dressed too well, and usually so polite as to be mistaken for uptight if you didn’t know him. Could this man really have caught the eye of someone like the Magemother?
Archibald chuckled. “Yes. Hard to imagine, isn’t it? But there you are, the truth. We kept the relationship largely to ourselves, but you can ask your father if you must. It was long ago, but he remembers. What is your second question?”
Archibald stopped laughing. The sad look crossed his face again. Then he folded his hands and gave a resigned sigh. “We had a child.”
“What?” Hugo sat up. The Magemother had a child? Could that happen? Had that [_ever _]happened?”
“Yes,” Archibald said knowingly. “We did.”
“But is that allowed? I never knew the Magemother could be an [_actual _]mother.”
Archibald raised his eyebrows. “Is that your third question?”
Hugo winced. “Ahh, um, no?”
Archibald nodded. “No doubt the situation got the best of you. I will ‘cut you a break’ as they say. Just this once.” He cleared his throat. “Yes, the Magemother can have children. In fact, she must. The Magemother does not live forever, though most people do not know that.”
“She’s mortal?” Hugo asked, shocked.
Archibald nodded. “She lives long enough that few people know it. There have been only two Magemothers in the history of our world. In order to pass on her calling she must have a child.”
Archibald nodded. “As I was saying, we had a child. I saw it only once.” Archibald looked as if he were remembering something painful. “She gave birth in her sanctuary on Calypsis. No man had ever set foot there before, but she brought me.”
“What happened?” Hugo had lost track of how many questions he had asked. He needed to hear the end of it.
A dark look crossed Archibald’s face, a painful memory brought back to the present. “The child disappeared one day.”
He nodded. “She would not tell me how, or why. She said that she could [_not _]tell me. After that, we…grew apart.” Archibald’s jaw clenched.
Hugo looked down.
Archibald coughed awkwardly, and when he spoke, his voice sounded deep and throaty. “Time for your third question. Make it an easy one, will you?”
Hugo thought hard. He decided not to ask what he wanted to. Archibald had already given him so much, he could see it on his face.
“Do you want some tea?”
Archibald smiled appreciatively. “Thank you.”
The conversation was pleasant after that. They spoke of simpler things. All the while, Hugo studied his teacher when he wasn’t watching. He had lived a much more interesting life than Hugo could have guessed.
That night he thought about how much pain Archibald must have been in all these years. He still felt it, obviously. Did he blame her? Had he ever forgiven her?
His thoughts drifted to his own inner turmoil. Was he kidding himself, thinking that he could just bury his dreams, his feelings like that? Would he end up like Archibald in forty years? Archibald gave off the appearance of being on top of the world, but deep down guarded a secret wound. Hugo didn’t want to live like that. Just then he felt the pain come back. It was a tangible thing. He could actually feel his heart hurting.
No, he thought as sleep drifted nearer. That was stupid. Hearts don’t actually hurt.
Above him, a bird started to sing. It sounded like the same bird from last night. That was odd, wasn’t it? He realized he’d forgotten to ask Archibald whether birds sing at night. Sleep was close, and he wasn’t thinking clearly. Maybe they did. He couldn’t remember. But why was it following them? Maybe it liked to pick up stray crumbs that they left behind on the trail. The bird’s song sounded sad, like his heart. Why would a bird be sad? Maybe it didn’t get enough crumbs today. He would have to be sure and drop some good ones tomorrow…
An hour later, Hugo woke with a start. Something was wrong. He strained his ears, trying to pick apart the noises of the night.
Ground mice rustling in the underbrush, Archibald breathing, an owl hooting, his bird singing. Everything sounded right.
But everything wasn’t right.
His skin prickled, and he sat up.
“Archibald!” he hissed.
Archibald mumbled something and rolled over.
“Hello,” a soft voice said.
Hugo leapt to his feet, spinning around, only to find a young girl. She was sitting cross-legged on the ground a few paces behind him. Her hair was wild, but her face was kind. She didn’t look at all threatening.
“It’s okay,” she said. “You don’t need that.”
Looking down, he realized he had drawn his sword. In the back of his mind he was impressed with his reflexes, but he put the sword down, donning his traveling cloak instead. He glanced back at the girl and she waved at him enthusiastically. She might have been greeting a friend at a party instead of waking a stranger at night in the middle of nowhere.
He looked back at Archibald. Should he wake him up? Probably. Still, he felt bad about last night. He could tell the conversation had worn his teacher out. This was probably just a girl that had wandered by from a nearby town.
“Archibald,” he whispered. “Do you want to come and talk to the crazy random girl with me?”
Archibald muttered and rolled over again. “Borborygmus,” he said in a patient tone, “is the harbinger of flatulence.”
Hugo grinned. Always teaching.
He walked over to the girl. “What are you doing here?” he hissed as he stepped closer to her.
“I didn’t mean to frighten you,” she said. “My name is Tabitha. I’m a student at the Magisterium.”
“Really?” Hugo asked, suddenly intrigued. “That’s where we are headed. You came all that way?”
She shrugged, shaking loose a tangle of hair. “I wanted to see who you were.”
“Why?” He took a step back. This was strange. Maybe he should wake Archibald after all.
“I came because of your bird,” she said earnestly.
Hugo blinked. “My bird?”
“You have a mourning dove. It’s been singing for you every night. Haven’t you heard it?”
“Oh…” Hugo scratched his head. “Yeah, I guess I have. But how—”
“I’m the bird girl,” Tabitha said significantly.
Hugo nodded. That made sense. They had a “bird man” at the castle too—a crazy old man who gathered news and sent messages through the birds. “I’m Hugo,” he said. “Hugo Paradise.”
“Oooh,” Tabitha said, her eyes widening. “A king! I figured it would be something like that.”
“A prince,” he corrected her. “What are you talking about, anyway?”
“They [_can _]sing for common people,” Tabitha said, scanning the dark trees for a sight of the mourning dove, “but they usually don’t bother.”
“You heard it all the way from the Magisterium?” Hugo asked, amazed.
Tabitha blushed. “I’m a good listener.”
Hugo whistled. “I guess so. Well, what now?”
Tabitha looked confused. “What do you mean?”
“You’ve found your elusive dove. What now?”
Tabitha looked startled. “Oh! Nothing, I guess.”
“Nothing? You came all the way here just because?”
Tabitha’s forehead furrowed. “Well,” she said, “I’ve never heard a mourning dove lament in person before.”
“Oh, yes,” Tabitha said excitedly. “The lament—the song of sorrow—it only comes out of hiding to sing for someone experiencing true sorrow.”
Hugo felt awkward. He thought about the pain he had been feeling in his heart. He felt silly now. A [_bird _]was singing about him? And this girl heard it and now she wanted to come investigate?
“You don’t have to tell me what it is or anything,” Tabitha said hastily. “I just wanted to see it for myself.”
Hugo nodded hesitantly. “Okay…”
“Okay,” Tabitha agreed. “I guess I’ll be going now?”
Hugo nodded. “I guess so. See you at the Magisterium?”
Tabitha looked startled again. “Oh, maybe. Probably not. Most people don’t.”
Something swooshed over Hugo’s head before he could ask what she meant, and he ducked reflexively. Looking up, he saw a gigantic eagle land next to Tabitha. She sat astride it and gave him another wave before rising into the night.
Strange, he thought as he walked back to his bedroll. He climbed under his blanket, listening with more appreciation to the mournful song of the dove somewhere above him. Very strange.
“What?” Archibald said, sitting up. “Did you say something, Hugo? Is everything all right?”
He considered telling Archibald what had happened, but decided it could wait until morning.
“Yes,” he said. “Everything’s fine.”
“Oh, good,” Archibald yawned.
“Oh.” Archibald scratched himself sleepily. “Odd question for a time like this. Borborygmus is the technical term for the gurgling sound that your intestines make. It is caused by the movement of gas and fluid moving through the bowels in the process of digestion.” He chuckled mildly to himself. “The harbinger of…wait, why do you ask?”
Hugo rolled over and grinned to himself. “Never mind.”
The following day, they reached Ninebridge. The city was named for the nine stone bridges that extended out from the center of the town like the spokes of a wheel. They curved into space from the center of town like slender black arches, scraping the sky dramatically. These bridges were not built to cross rivers or gorges, he knew, but space. They connected cities separated by hundreds of miles, transforming a month on the road into a journey of minutes. How the bridges were made, and by whom, nobody could remember. Maybe nobody ever knew. They predated the wizards, the Magisterium, even the mages.
From a long way off Hugo could tell that the actual city of Ninebridge was smaller than he had imagined. There was one large establishment at the very center, as well as a small military outpost at the base of every bridge (traffic was loosely policed by the king’s soldiers), but apart from a few inns, that was about it.
Archibald must have been thinking along the same lines. “You now see,” he said, pointing to the army outpost, “why your father, among all of the rulers of Aberdeen, is the most powerful. What is the most important city in Caraway?”
Hugo stayed silent, recognizing this as a rhetorical question. Archibald was really on a roll.
“Ninebridge! Never forget it. Many people think of Tarwal, because of the Magisterium, but they are wrong. All travel and trade necessarily passes through Ninebridge. Your father controls that, which means he has a hand in everything.”
They stopped at the edge of the city.
“There is something we need to discuss,” Archibald said.
“I promised your father that if you accompanied me, I would not take you out of Caraway. As you know, the rest of Aberdeen, while still technically under his rule, is not under the High King’s direct protection. He does not want you venturing out in times like this.”
“But Archibald, we aren’t leaving Caraway yet! Ninebridge and Tarwal are both inside it!”
Archibald held up a hand. “We will leave Caraway eventually. Trust me. One does not follow a quest such as this without traveling outside their own country. We will likely not find what we are looking for at the Magisterium. As such, we will need to travel elsewhere.”
Hugo felt a flutter of excitement.
“By then I am sure you will be quite impossible to reason with. As such, I want to make it clear to you now that this is as far as you go under my care.”
“I promised your father that I would not [_take _]you out of Caraway. So, I am officially leaving you here, well inside Caraway, and making his wishes known to you. What you do now is your own business.”
Hugo grinned. “Archibald, is this how you justify defying the king?”
Archibald looked grim. “Sometimes. The king and I do not see eye to eye on certain matters, one of them being your education. Of course, I defer to his judgment, and I would never break my word to him.” With that, Archibald turned and rode casually into Ninebridge.
A second later, Hugo pulled up alongside him. “Archibald,” he said seriously, “I’m liking you more and more.”
As they rode through town, Archibald quizzed him on the history of Ninebridge. The first bridge led to the Magisterium, which was located in an ancient coastal town on the southern tip of the country. The second and third bridges led to the Greggan States, while the fourth and fifth led to cities in Chair. The sixth bridge led to the Wizard’s Ire, an old forest kingdom which had long since been abandoned. This was the only bridge that was guarded very heavily, as the Ire was full of unsavory things that occasionally tried to creep into the rest of the world. Hedgemon and Aquilar were reached by the seventh and eighth bridges, respectively. The ninth bridge was broken, and led to nowhere.
As they reached the center of the city Hugo stared at the massive structure in the center. It sat at the foot of the bridges like the body of a nine-legged spider, and while it was not as breathtaking to look at as the bridges themselves, it was still quite impressive. To Hugo, it looked like a giant, many-steepled tent. Carts and caravans rode in and out of it from several entrances, coming and going over the various bridges.
“Fall Hallows…” Hugo breathed. He had heard of it many times, though he had never actually been inside. “Are we going to go?” Hugo asked hopefully.
Archibald laughed. “Not today. The last thing we need is a five-hour detour. I have no doubt that you would completely lose yourself inside…in fact, in such a place even I would be prone to distraction.”
“What do they have in there?”
“Anything you can imagine,” Archibald said simply, “and many things you cannot. And everything is for sale. For the right price.”
Archibald snorted. “I’ll wager that in twenty minutes I could sell everything on my person and trade you for a decent pair of plow horses—well…maybe just [_one _]decent plow horse…”
“Done!” Hugo said enthusiastically. “Let’s go!”
Archibald laughed. “Another day, perhaps.”
They rode around the edge of town to the foot of the first bridge, where Archibald had a quick word with the guards before proceeding onto it. It was long and steep, too steep to ride up, so Archibald dismounted. Pilfer actually gave a couple grateful nods when he realized that he would not be expected to bear his master on his back while climbing. Hugo followed suit, walking beside Stilts as they rose slowly above the level of the city. After a few minutes, Hugo gave in to the urge to look over the side.
He had only seen the bridges once before, and he had forgotten how big they were. Built entirely of black stone, they stretched at an impossible angle into the sky for half a mile, at which point the visible bridge terminated in a veil of mist. Hugo knew that the other end was several hundred miles to the south, in Tarwal.
It took just over half an hour to reach the top and they were both winded by the steepness of the climb; Pilfer and Stilts were the only ones that didn’t seem to mind. There had long been talk of cutting stairs into the stone bridges, but the stone was too hard to be reworked by any normal craftsman. Before them stood the curtain of gray mist. It stretched upwards and out like a veil as far as the eye could see.
Archibald stopped to enjoy the view. “I’ve been meaning to ask you,” he said. “What was the question you chickened out of asking me last night?”
Hugo felt his cheeks go red. “What?”
“Your third question. You backed down from it in an effort to spare me. I am curious what it was.”
Hugo shuffled his feet. “It’s nothing.” He hated that Archibald knew him so well.
“Last chance,” Archibald said, stretching his legs casually. “Soon my mind will be on other things.”
“Well,” Hugo began, “I was just wondering how mages become mages.”
“The Magemother selects them,” Archibald said simply.
“But were they always mages? I mean, were they always magical?”
“Ah,” Archibald gave him a critical look. “You are wondering if you can become a mage.”
“I’m not surprised,” Archibald said kindly. “You have been obsessed with the subject since you were old enough to be a nuisance to the librarians. I’ll admit I have given it some thought myself.” He leaned against the side rail. “The short answer is that I do not know. A new mage has not been called in my lifetime, and I never saw fit to question Lewilyn about it.”
Hugo stared at him. The Magemother’s name was not usually spoken. It was considered highly disrespectful to refer to her as anything other than her title. He had never heard anyone talk about her so casually.
“Forgive me,” Archibald said. “I have been living in the past these last few days, and I forgot my place. In any case, I doubt anyone without inherent magical prowess could be a plausible candidate for the role of mage. It just does not make good sense. I am sorry I cannot provide you with a more complete explanation. Does my answer suffice?”
Hugo nodded. It was as he suspected. Why had he gotten his hopes up again?
Archibald turned back to the mist. “In we go,” he said, and disappeared through it, tugging the reins as he went. Pilfer hesitated only slightly, snorting and shaking his head before walking forward. Hugo shook himself. It was time to go on. He was on one of the magical bridges, after all. This moment, at least, he would enjoy. This was magic that he could participate in. Traveling such a far distance in one step [_had _]to be magic, didn’t it? He walked right up to the mist until his toes touched it and then bent forward at the waist, ducking his head through.
He broke head and shoulders through the silvery mist and found himself looking out over the mass of stone and noise and towers that was the Magisterium; it sprawled across the belly of Tarwal like some great, pointy-peaked beast that had crawled out of the ocean to sun itself and rest under the spell of sea smell and a purple-moon sunset. “Whoa,” he said, and stepped through.
They passed three carts pulling slowly up the bridge as they descended, but the men who attended them were too busy with the climb for words. When they reached the bottom, they were in the center of Tarwal. Like many other large cities, this one had been built hundreds of years ago around the foot of the bridge for convenience, since it served as the main route for entering and exiting the city.
The sounds of the city felt overwhelming compared to the silent forest roads they had been traveling on during the past few days. Shopkeepers bustled around trying to lure customers inside, a musician played a stringed instrument over a hat full of coins, and street vendors took hurried dinner orders from hungry students. The city felt alive. People were moving in every direction down streets lined with buildings five stories high. Houses, offices, mercantiles—each ran into the next in a dizzying parade of structures, punctuated briefly here and there by small streets and tunneling alleyways; it was a giant, wonderful mess.
After a few blocks they arrived at the main entrance of the Magisterium and tied their mounts to the post outside.
“Are you ready?” Archibald asked, glancing sideways at him as they climbed the steps.
Hugo grinned. He couldn’t help being excited at the prospect of entering the epicenter of his lifelong dreams, despite his recent resolution to abandon them. “Yes, I am.”
In which a door is closed
When Archibald and Hugo entered the Magisterium, they found it strangely bereft of occupants. They glanced at each other and Archibald arched an eyebrow quizzically.
“Is it always like this?” Hugo asked, guessing the answer.
Hugo’s shoes echoed eerily off the polished brown bricks as they made their way down hallways that were usually bustling with students this time of day. After five minutes of walking, they began to hear the low murmur of a crowd in the distance. Finally Archibald opened a set of doors that led out of the building into what appeared to be the central square of the complex. It was interspersed with small enclosures and benches where students could gather, study, or in the case of this day, crowd around the entrance to the library.
Archibald whipped his hat off his head and held it against his chest, using his cane to part the crowd. At one point, a great burly youth with his back turned blocked their path; no amount of the usual pushing or prodding made him lean aside, so Archibald lifted his cane and knocked the handle of it against the boy’s head. The handle was a bright silver ram’s head, and very heavy, and it made a dull thump against the boy’s head, causing him to cry out and leap away in surprise.
“I beg your pardon,” Archibald said, and they hurried past before anything came of the matter. When they had pressed their way through the throng and entered the building, they found the source of the commotion: the door to the records room was locked, and a sound like rampaging cattle was coming from within. The majority of the masters were assembled outside trying to gain entry. The dean of the school was practically pulling his hair out as he spoke to a girl of about sixteen.
“I don’t care where he[_ isn’t,_] I care where he is! If we can’t find him, we may never get inside.”
The girl turned and ran down a side corridor, and the dean turned nervously back to the closed door, wringing his hands.
“Pardon me,” Archibald said as they approached, startling the nervous man out of his thoughts.
“Pouzhfougy!” the dean exclaimed, practically jumping a foot in the air. (Hugo couldn’t help but laugh out loud at this.) “Don’t sneak up on a man like that, you—oh.” He cut himself off as he took in the sight of them.
“Good graces,” Archibald said mildly. “There is no call for such language.”
The dean blushed. “But what are you doing here, Archibald? And without announcement? Who is this? Is something wrong?”
“I might ask you the same thing,” Archibald observed, indicating the door and the masters gathered around it in discussion. “Why is the entire school gathered in the square outside? Have you got a wizard locked inside there?”
The dean’s eyes widened. “A wizard locked—is that what they are saying—of course not! He has locked[_ us_] out, not we him in!” He pointed to the door in consternation, but Archibald simply chuckled and placed a calming hand on the man’s shoulder. He often liked giving the excitable little man a hard time, but regretted it today, for the dean was far more out of sorts than usual, and it wasn’t in good taste.
“Who is it?” he said simply.
“Ah,” the dean said, sounding a little calmer. “His name’s Cannon—a young man of some talent, it seems—he wandered in some weeks ago looking for a job and I gave it to him. Heaven knows we could use the help—but he turned out to be such a—I mean, if I had known, well…” the dean looked exasperated. “But what are you doing here, Archibald?”
“Never mind that now,” Archibald said, waving the question away. “Tell me, is this the same Cannon who was apprentice to the Wind Mage?”
“Yes! The very same,” the dean said, wringing his hands and glancing at the locked door of the library. “Early this morning he shooed everyone out of the records hall, barricaded himself inside, and by the sounds of it let loose the fire of Shael’s wrath inside—”
“Good heavens, man,” Archibald said. “Do not say such things.”
“—and we can’t find the master librarian anywhere! This door hasn’t been locked in a hundred years. Nobody knows where to find the keys.”
“Dean Chambers,” Archibald said a little sternly, making the nervous man flinch, “are you aware that Cannon has been summoned to appear before the king? Why has he not left already?”
The dean slumped down onto a bench against the wall and waved a hand in the air. “You can have him as soon as we get to him, I suppose, unless our librarian kills him first—won’t even stand for anyone disturbing the library in the usual fashions, but this…” He shook his head.
Archibald let him be and turned to inspect the door, where the masters still huddled before it, and the dean seemed to relax. He approached the wizards who stood in front of the door talking with each other, Hugo following behind him.
“I’m surprised that a little thing like a lock can keep all of you out,” Archibald said wryly.
“Indeed.” A tall, proud-looking wizard in his seventies gave him a little smile. “It is rather disheartening.”
“Come off it,” said a burly wizard with a moustache. Archibald knew him as the master framer, specializing in all things related to building and construction. The man rapped the door with a hard knuckle and put his ear to the keyhole. “These doors were built to withstand any forceful opening. Only the key will do the trick, I think.”
“What worries me,” said an older woman, Denmyn, if Archibald remembered correctly, “is the terrible noise on the other side! In any case, I would rather not open it. Or at least I would like you to wait for me to leave before you do.” The wizards looked thoughtful at her words. “Who is this with you?” she asked suddenly, pointing at Hugo.
“Ahh,” Archibald said. “This is my traveling companion for a time.” He waved at Hugo dismissively and left it at that. Hugo thought it rather rude that Archibald had failed to introduce him properly. He had been a small boy when he came to this place last and people couldn’t be expected to recognize him without an introduction.
“Do you mind if I have a go?” Archibald asked the little group of wizards. “Indulge me, please, I have business with the boy that comes straight from the king.”
The wizards seemed surprised at that, and doubtful, but moved aside just the same.
Archibald pulled on the doors, but they didn’t move, so he lifted the silver ram’s head of his cane and knocked hard. The silver head thudded against the door thunderously, making it shudder slightly.
“Oh my,” Denmyn said. Hugo considered the cane with a new interest.
Archibald knocked three more times, making it creak on its hinges, and waited, but to no avail. Cautiously, he slipped the bell out of his pocket.
“Is that a summoning bell?” a tall wizard with a moustache said with interest.
“I can’t say I really know,” Archibald said innocently, and tucked away quickly. Perhaps he thought it unwise to use it in front of the wizards. Hugo wondered if Archibald was even supposed to have such a thing.
Just then the dean’s aide returned, two men following behind her and carrying a third between them. This, no doubt, was the master librarian.
“What is going on here?” the librarian demanded sharply, causing Hugo to jump; he had thought the man was unconscious. “Why did you insist that I be brought here instead of taken to the infirmary?” He gave the dean such a scathing look that Hugo was almost embarrassed for him. He had a point, of course. The master librarian, though evidently in control of his head and voice, was clearly otherwise incapacitated. His feet were dragging on the floor as the two men carried him, his body hanging limply beneath him. If it hadn’t been such a serious moment, Hugo might have laughed (the old woman, Denmyn, did laugh, and if it wasn’t quite appropriate, well, she was very old).
“Good night!” Dean Chambers exclaimed. “What has happened to you, Master Ipps?”
“Good night, indeed!” the librarian exclaimed. “It was good night to me when that Cannon fellow”—he spat the name with loathing—”brought me a cup of tea. Nice thing, I thought. Kind of him, though it tasted a bit strange. After my eighth sip I had the good sense to stop. Even then, I lost consciousness. I have only recently been revived. As you can see, I am not altogether right yet.”
“Indeed,” Archibald said. “My condolences.”
The librarian didn’t hear him. He seemed to have finally taken in what was going on. “Save us!” he exclaimed, going pale. “Is that door locked?”
After an intense moment in which everyone looked from the librarian to each other, Archibald responded. “Do you have the key?”
“Key?” the librarian shouted. “The key? Of course I don’t have the key! There is no key! That is the Hall of Ages. It opens,” he said, raising his eyes to the inscription carved over the double doors, “for the Monumental Moment and the Momentous Man.”
“Surely that is just tradition, Ipps,” the tall wizard said mildly. “It isn’t actually true?”
“Of course it is,” the librarian blustered. He continued in a lecturing tone that was usually reserved for students. “The chamber itself was created out of pure magic at the founding of the Magisterium. The doors opened the day the Magisterium opened, no doubt a ‘Monumental Moment.’ The locking of the doors is a defense mechanism of the chamber. They were locked during the fire of 1147, and remained locked for almost three hundred years.” He let this news settle on his listeners for a moment, and looked annoyingly at one of the men holding him. “I do think that you can put me down now.”
As they sat him on the bench and propped him against the wall, Archibald asked the obvious question. “How were the doors reopened, Master Librarian?”
“Ah,” he said, looking up critically. “They were reopened by Animus in 1420.”
“Animus?” the wizard with the chopped moustache asked. “Wind Mage, Animus?”
“The very same,” the librarian responded.
“Excellent!” the dean said, relief flooding into his voice. “We will send for him at once and have done with this business.”
“Good luck with that,” Denmyn clucked.
“Pardon me, counselor. What do you mean?”
She adjusted her tiny round spectacles and sent a meaningful look toward Archibald. He took his cue.
“I think what she means is that you may not be able to find him, Dean Chambers. Indeed, no one can. Coincidentally, that is the principal purpose of my visit to the Magisterium.” They were all watching him closely now. “As you know, the Magemother has not been seen for months. Now Animus has resigned his post and disappeared as well. I have been sent here by the king to search for them.” He paused, giving an opportunity for someone to respond, but only blank stares greeted him. “I do not think it is a coincidence,” he continued, “that upon my arrival I find Animus’s apprentice in the middle of everything. He was summoned to appear before King Remy and seems to have deemed it unnecessary to do so. According to accounts of those present, he was quite distraught when his master disappeared, and now this. I would very much like to speak to him.”
“You’ll have to wait your turn,” the master librarian said furiously. “What do you suppose he is doing in there to make such a racket?”
The tall wizard raised a hand. “I believe I can answer that.” He leaned against the door and placed an aging hand upon its hard wood surface. “I believe it is a storm. A great wind rages behind these doors.”
“Graces!” the dean squeaked nervously.
“No doubt that is the cause of the doors locking,” the librarian muttered, preoccupied. He was starting to get some feeling back in his limbs and was trying to move them. “I wonder if they will open for him when he wishes to leave.”
Denmyn spoke again. “Oh, no, I don’t think so,” she said confidently, and they all turned expectantly toward her once more. She turned to Archibald. “I think you will have to open them, Archibald.”
“Me?” he said, surprised.
“Yes, yes. I always thought you would grow up to be a ‘Momentous Man.’ And look,” she said, stepping to him and pinching his elbow as if to illustrate her point, “here you are.”
Archibald chuckled at that, unsure whether to take her seriously. A thought occurred to him then, and he knew what to do. He drew out the little silver bell again.
“It is a summoning bell!” the tall wizard exclaimed, hand leaping up to grab the end of his pointed chin in surprise. “I didn’t think that any still existed. Do you have any idea what that is worth?”
“Quiet,” the old woman snapped. “Let the man work!”
The wizard fell into silence. Archibald rang the bell, ear pressed against the door to listen. The loud gong that rang back made everyone jump where they stood. The librarian swore and fell off the bench he had been propped up on.
“Witch’s britches!” the dean exclaimed, rising from his seat. “What are you doing?”
Archibald just smiled and rang it again. He rang it again and again and again, until Hugo clamped his hands to his ears in protest and the dean stormed down the hall in retreat. He rang the bell for half an hour. By then only Denmyn and the librarian remained, the old woman smiling at his side, the librarian’s face entrenched in a gloomy expression that threatened to last for several years. None of them could have any idea what this meant. She must be on the other side of the doors.
He had found her.
In which a door is opened
The next time Brinley heard the bell, she was ready for it. It rang early in the morning, an hour before the sun would come up, and she was already leaving the house when she realized two important things. The first was that, unlike each previous time, the bell had not rung just once. In fact, it was still ringing, filling the little town with a tumultuous bellowing noise that apparently disturbed nobody else. The second thing she realized was that her father was calling after her. She must have awakened him with her rampage down the stairs moments before. It didn’t matter. She couldn’t spare time to go back now. He would catch up. She didn’t know why, but somehow this time was different. She had to get there as fast as possible. The bell had never rung more than once, certainly not incessantly like this. She felt as if it was calling to her, urging her to come. So she did.
The bell never ceased the entire time she rode to the church. She took the four-wheeler this time, not caring, for once, that she was visible. The bell grew louder and louder the closer she came, and by the time she stood before it, she had to clamp her hands over her ears. She jumped off the four-wheeler without bothering to turn it off. The moon was almost full, so it was easy enough to see where she was going as she ran up the hillside to the doorway of the church.
Something about the way the light faded in the doorway stopped her from going in. It was like awakening from a dream as she came to a halt on the steps of the church. What was she doing? Why had she ignored her father? She had no idea what she might be getting herself into, and she had no idea what she was looking at. She reached her hand out slowly toward the inside of the church. There was something wrong with the way the air looked in the moonlight, but she couldn’t figure out what it was. She had never seen anything quite like it before. She hesitated a moment, then pushed her hand into the space beyond the doorway. Something intangible swept her hand in and off to one side before she drew it back, shaking in surprise. Wind, she realized. It was wind, twisting, writhing like a ghost in a blender.
A second later, the wind seemed to slow down. Then it stopped altogether, and she could see what the wind had been hiding. It was as if she were looking through the wrong end of a telescope. There was a person standing a long way off in the middle of a large room, but she couldn’t make out much detail.
She glanced about her, desperate for something that would tell her what to do, but there was nothing. She was alone. She was here alone on the very steps where she had been found as a baby. The bell had rung again like it had that night. A door had opened, she knew it somehow. What was she to do?
Unbidden, the words that had been haunting her thoughts in the previous days rose again in her ears.
All things have a mother.
That is what she had heard in this very place the same day that the bell started ringing. That voice, those words. From nowhere.
All things have a mother.
She looked around desperately, but she was alone—except for a magpie. It stood on the broken church wall as it had done before, watching her. She looked back into the doorway. She could very easily back away from the door. She could go back and talk to her father, see if he could make sense of it. She didn’t know what would happen if she walked into the church, but it didn’t seem like a good idea; deep down something told her it wasn’t safe. It would change things, she felt. The problem was, that same something was saying that the answers to all her questions lay beyond the door, and the words from nowhere rang in her ears again:
All things have a mother.
This time when she heard it, she knew deep down that it was true.
She took a step.
Blackness swallowed Brinley completely. She cringed, closing her eyes, but nothing happened. A second later, she looked up to find that she was in a well-lit room. A young man was staring at her. Black hair hung about his head like a shadow, billowing gently. He had the look of someone standing in a breeze, though they were clearly indoors. There were papers in his hands. Papers fell to the ground all around her as if they had just been blown off some high shelf.
“Hello,” the young man said genially, dropping the rest of the papers and walking toward her. “Is someone there?”
“Hello,” she said in return. “My name is Brinley.”
He stopped a few feet from her, folding his hands behind his back and turning his head from one side to the other. “I can’t see you. Who are you? I don’t suppose you are the Magemother?”
“I didn’t think so.” He took a half step closer, his dark eyes narrowing. “Who are you, then? Or what are you? And why are you invisible?” he sniffed the air. “Did you come out of the painting? It sort of…flashed.”
From the other end of the library (for they were obviously in a library of some kind), someone was banging on a set of double doors. A second later, the giant gong rang out again. The sound came from right above them, so loud that the hair on the young man’s head actually bounced a little.
“Did you come because of that summoning bell?” he asked shrewdly. “It has been ringing incessantly since before you arrived.”
“Summoning bell?” she said.
He raised his eyebrows impatiently, staring at a spot somewhere above her head.
“Uh—I did hear a bell,” she said after a moment. “I’m looking for my mother.” As soon as the words were out she felt silly, but it was the only thing she could think of. This was not turning out the way she had expected. She’d hoped that she might find her mother right inside when she stepped through, or meet someone who knew where she was, but this young man didn’t seem to know anything. She was starting to have second thoughts about stepping through the doorway.
He stared at her blankly. “I see,” he said finally, and his shoulders seemed to sag in disappointment. “Well then, we have some problems.”
“We do?” she asked, bewildered.
“Yes,” he said, setting his shoulders in a determined way and starting to circle around her. “First, I am not your mother. Second, and perhaps most important, you are not the Magemother, which would have simplified things. Third,” he continued, circling around her so that she had to turn on the spot to keep him in sight, “you are invisible.”
“I am not,” Brinley said defiantly. This was starting to get out of hand. She looked down at herself just to make sure. Yep, she could see herself just fine. “Am I really invisible?” she asked.
“You are,” the young man said. “You sound surprised. Are you not usually invisible?”
“Of course not!” This was ridiculous! She had spent so much of her life wishing she could be invisible, and now, when it was most inconvenient, it had happened. She heard her father’s words ringing in her mind again. [When you do a thing for too long you become it. _]If she ever told him about this, she would never[ ]live it down. She thought about that for a moment. How _would she get back? She had no idea where she was. She tried not to think about that. She tried to focus on the hope that somehow she would find her mother here, along with the answers to her past.
“I see,” the boy said, circling her again. “Then we have come to our final problem. Namely, neither one of us knows what is going on.”
Archibald pressed his ear to the doors once more. He thought he could hear the sound of the storm beginning to diminish on the other side of the door. After a minute, it was completely silent. He turned to Denmyn and raised an eyebrow.
“Well, something’s happened,” she said simply. They waited and waited, but could hear nothing behind the door. Then, without warning, it swung open, leaving them stumbling back in surprise.
A young man stood in the open doorway, looking for all the world like the lord of some manor who had caught a few doorbell-ditching children.
“Who rang?” he said imperiously. “Ah.” He had spotted the bell in Archibald’s hand. Without another word he reached across the threshold and pulled Archibald through, swinging the door closed again behind them. Hugo, who had been standing right beside Archibald, nearly didn’t make it.
“Nooooo—” the librarian cried as the door swung shut, but his cry was cut off by the sharp thud of wood. The young man’s low chuckle fell eerily over the empty library. He smiled sideways at Archibald. “It’s not locked, you know. I am not so inept as that. They say if you lock this door there’s no telling in what century it might reopen.” He indicated the large lock-bolts on three edges of the door, which remained unmoved. “I have other ways to keep it shut.” He swept his arms behind him and then forward, as if tossing a sheet out over an unmade bed. Archibald shivered as he felt an invisible wind rush past him to settle over the door, pressing it closed.
“I am Cannon,” he said simply, head cocked to one side in a penetrating expression that almost dared Archibald to contradict him. “And you are Archibald, trusted servant of the High King. Am I right?”
Archibald nodded in agreement. “Pleased to meet you.”
Cannon turned to Hugo. “Who are you?”
“Hugo Paradise,” Hugo said, extending his hand.
“The Prince of Caraway,” Cannon said, ignoring the proffered hand. “Of course you are. Who else would you be on a day like this?”
With that, he turned on his heel and hurried away past a stack of shelves, Archibald and Hugo stepping quickly to catch up with him.
“Why did you let us in?” Archibald asked as they wound their way through the rows of shelves.
Cannon drew up short, turning to look at Archibald in an almost interrogatory way. “I brought you in to show you what you have done.”
“Done?” Archibald said, taking his hat off and smoothing his hair a little self-consciously.
Cannon pointed to the bell still in Archibald’s hand, which caused him to tuck it inside his vest pocket protectively. “Yes, what you have done, Archibald. With your summoning bell.”
In which Cannon shows off, jumps to conclusions, and throws dust in people’s faces
Brinley stood alone in the library. The young man had excused himself and told her to wait. She guessed he was going to answer the banging on the doors. Curiously, she examined her surroundings. The space was immense. Vaulted ceilings towered high above her, laced with dark wooden beams that ran from the center of the ceiling down to the top of the walls, where they joined with massive square columns. Bookcases broke up the floor every few feet.
She didn’t know what to think. A moment ago, she had been at the old church in Morley, Colorado. She obviously wasn’t in a church now. She wasn’t even sure she was in Colorado. That bell had been ringing again, the bell from nowhere, and she had gone inside the church. But now she was somewhere else entirely. The doorway that she had stepped through was not a doorway at all, at least not on this side. It was a painting. It stood at least ten feet tall and wider than she could spread her arms.
As if that wasn’t curious enough, it was a painting of Morley Church, so familiar it looked as if she could have painted it herself. And yet, this painting was different from any other that she had seen. It seemed to be alive somehow, colors glinting like real objects in the light of day. The whole thing seemed to be moving, drifting ever so slightly in the frame like clouds inching across the sky. She reached out to touch it, wondering if somehow she would be able to get back through. Her breath caught as her fingertips brushed the surface of the painting. It was warm and wet, like melting butter, and the colors brushed away at her touch, leaving streaks of black in the image.
Her heart beat faster. How would she get back? She found herself humming an old tune in her head, like she always did when she was nervous. It was a song, to be exact—an old Irish lullaby from “the homeland” as her father said. He had sung it to her as a little child. Now she sang it to herself whenever she wanted to put some space between herself and the world.
When beyond my home you go, there’s several things you ought to know:
That lies will catch you fewer flies than honey and a happy smile
So wash your face, but not the mirror (It’s full of evil things, my dear).
And tie your shoes and break the rules (but only when you know you should).
And when you’ve finished dancing with the princess and her magic man,
Just come back home to father and I’ll put you back to bed.
That was [_her _]now, she realized. She had gone beyond home for sure. How would she ever get back to her father?
The young man who had disappeared a moment before reemerged from behind a bookshelf, only now he was followed by an older man and a boy who looked to be around her own age. She felt a twinge of apprehension and she remembered something else her father said:
If you’re afraid, DO something.
She decided to take the initiative. “Hello,” she said, waving in a friendly way. “I’m sorry we didn’t get off on the right foot earlier, Mr….” She was looking directly at the young man, but he didn’t seem to see her.
“You see?” he said to Archibald. “It appears to be a girl of some sort, but she isn’t visible. Can you see her?” Archibald shook his head. “No, I didn’t think so. I wonder…” He disappeared around the corner. They heard the opening and closing of a door, and then he came back into view, carrying what looked like a dustpan. “I was in the middle of my work and she stepped right out of the painting of Ert,” he said, walking back to them. “I wonder if this will work.” He moved in Brinley’s general direction. “Where are you?”
“I’m right h—” Before Brinley could finish, he flung the contents of the dustpan in her face. She doubled over, coughing and sneezing.
“Oh my!” Archibald exclaimed.
“Sorry,” the young man said weakly.
A layer of dust now covered her whole upper body, allowing the others to see her. But why was she invisible in the first place? Was this some sort of joke? Was she dreaming? Maybe she had slipped and knocked her head when she had stepped through the doorway.
“Ah,” the young man continued, studying her closely. “You are a little girl then.”
“A little girl,” Archibald echoed softly. “But this doesn’t make any sense.”
“Who were you expecting?” the young man asked sharply.
Archibald shrugged. “Not a little girl.”
Brinley couldn’t take it any longer. “Excuse me,” she said, “but I am not a little girl. I’m nearly thirteen, thank you very much.”
“I beg your pardon,” Archibald said, looking startled.
The young man rolled his eyes. “Anyway,” he said, pressing his point, “whomever you were expecting, you have summoned a little girl. What do you propose we do with her?”
Brinley glared at him. He couldn’t be more than a couple years older than she was, and she didn’t appreciate being talked down to by somebody who had just thrown dust in her face.
The older man had better manners. He stepped around his friend and offered her his hand. “I am Archibald,” he said, removing his black bowler hat with his other hand and straightening it smartly at his side. He gave a little bow.
“Don’t[_ touch_] her…O—oh well.” The younger man gestured in an exasperated manner. Archibald was ignoring him, so Brinley decided to do the same. “I’m Brinley,” she said.
“Indeed!” the young man chided skeptically. He took a step closer, eyes narrowed with interest.
Archibald gestured to him. “This is Can—”
“Stop!” the young man bellowed. “Shake her hand if you like, tell her your name if you like, but leave me out of it.” The younger man looked practically alarmed. “People do not walk through paintings, Archibald, no matter how magical they may be. Mages may fly, and perhaps walk through portals, but I have never heard of there being a portal in the Hall of Records, nor did I see one open.” He spoke fast and low, and Brinley had to strain to hear him. “It is possible—in fact, probable—that she is not a person at all, but rather something else.” His face became a mask of suspicion.
“Something else?” Archibald repeated.
“Yes,” he went on, a touch of darkness in his voice. “At first I thought she might be a Specter, since she appeared to emerge from the painting—she looked like a ghost then, before going completely invisible—but then of course, you shook her hand. You did feel her hand? Touching you?” He turned suddenly to Archibald as if half expecting him to declare that he had touched a ghost and neglected to mention it.
“Of course I did. Look at her! She’s just a girl!”
“Archibald!” the young man said reprovingly. “There are things that appear as children which in reality are far from innocent.”
Archibald surveyed Brinley doubtfully. “But why would you suspect her?”
“Because,” he said darkly, “my master followed an idris into the night three weeks ago, and has not been heard from since.”
Archibald paled a little and took a step back. “An idris?” he said slowly.
“Yes,” the young man replied. “An idris—a devil child, as they are often called.”
“Excuse me, Mr. Can,” Brinley interrupted dryly, “but I have no idea what you are talking about. Where am I?”
The young man gave Archibald a dark look.
Archibald, on the other hand, looked slightly relieved, as if hearing her voice somehow calmed whatever misgivings had taken hold of him. “You are in the Hall of Records at the Magisterium in Tarwal.”
None of those places sounded familiar. She thought she might have heard the word “Magisterium” before, but she couldn’t recall what it meant. “In Tarwal?” she asked.
“Yes,” Archibald replied, nodding. “Tarwal is the southern city in Caraway. Surely you know Caraway? The kingdom of Caraway?”
Did he say kingdom? She shook her head, and a rain of dust particles drifted down off her head.
Archibald continued. “You do not know where you are?”
She shook her head again, and Archibald asked her, “Where did you come from?”
“Colorado,” she said simply. She thought about adding that that was in the United States, but decided against it; she did not want to sound insulting stating something so obvious.
Archibald looked from her to Mr. Can and back again. “And what kingdom is that in?” he asked.
“Uh,” she wasn’t sure how to respond to that, but clearly she had to be a little more forward with this man. “The United States of America?” She turned and pointed to North America on the painting.
The two men stared at her in amazement. Archibald pointed to the painting as well. “This is where you came from? From Ert?”
“Earth,” she corrected.
“Oh my,” Archibald mumbled. “Oh my.” He started pacing back and forth in a small line.
Mr. Can had gotten a better hold of himself. “How did you get here?” he asked.
Brinley explained how she had heard the bell and come through the church door. They asked her so many questions that in the end she had to tell them the entire story from the first time she heard the bell to the moment she stepped through the long dark tunnel. Halfway through, Archibald realized that they were all still standing around and insisted that they sit down in order to talk more comfortably. The more she spoke, the more Mr. Can scowled. Finally, when she had finished her story, Archibald turned to him.
“You still do not believe her?” he asked confrontationally.
“On the contrary,” the younger man responded, brushing a lock of dark hair from his eyes and leaning forward thoughtfully. “I do believe her story—or at least I begin to. That is what worries me.”
Archibald looked like he was about to ask a question, but then thought better of it, nodding to himself. He took his hat off and set it upside down on the table absently.
“I don’t understand,” Brinley said. “Why don’t you believe me?”
Cannon’s eyes narrowed slightly. As Brinley watched, his hair began to billow again, as if in an invisible wind. “Do you know what an idris is?” he asked her.
The wind seemed to be growing outward from him. Soon there was a visible funnel cloud spiraling around him, gathering up dust. It expanded quickly. When the edge of it passed through her it felt like she had stepped in front of a large fan.
“No,” she said hastily. “I don’t know.” Whatever was going on, things were taking a turn for the worse, she was sure of it. The whirlwind was building momentum now, picking up paper and other small objects. She felt like it should be a loud thing, but it was remarkably quiet, like the sound of distant whispers. “Are you doing this?” she asked, indicating the wind.
“Yes,” he said, his eyes hard.
“Is it magic?”
He cocked his head a little at her question. “Have you never seen magic before?”
“No. They don’t have it where I’m from.”
Archibald spoke up suddenly. “No magic?” he asked.
“No,” she said, not taking her eyes off the younger man.
“This is magic,” he said firmly, raising his hands to the level of his shoulders. The wind instantly doubled in velocity, picking up several books and a lamp. The table began to rattle. Brinley’s heart pounded faster. This was too much. This couldn’t be happening.
“It is not the kind of magic that they teach at this school, though,” he went on. “It is real magic, old magic, given to me by the Wind Mage.” He stared at her for a long moment and then lowered his hands. The whirlwind subsided to its normal size, and he continued in a level voice, “An idris is a giant,” he explained. “There were only two of them left in the world before their race was banished to the Wizard’s Ire. According to legend, the idris hunts in the daytime, taking the form of a child to lure unsuspecting victims back to its lair. They are said to be cunning, capable of fooling even the very wise.” He paused. “My master was led away by such a monster.”
As the young man spoke, he drew a thin wooden box from the inside of his robe and laid it on the table. He slid the lid off slowly, measuring his movements by the tempo of his words. Then he withdrew two small vials of liquid. The first was a deep crimson red, the color of blood. Just looking at it made Brinley feel uneasy. The second one looked friendlier; it was bright yellow and reminded her vaguely of lemonade.
“You must drink this,” he said gravely, pushing the red vial toward her.
She glanced at Archibald, but he was staring into his hat, determined, it seemed, not to meet her eye. She looked at the boy beside Archibald, who had yet to say a word.
“Come on now,” Mr. Can said, passing the vial to her.
“What does it do?” she asked warily.
He pursed his lips thoughtfully. “It will test you.”
She took it. “Why?”
“Because,” he said quietly, “I now believe that you are one of two things. Your story is so unbelievable that it must be either entirely true, or entirely false. If, on the one hand, you are simply a girl as you say, then you were summoned here by powers that I do not understand. The thing that brought you here is a power designed to summon the Magemother. It follows that you must be a person of incredible importance. As such, you need my help, and I need yours.” His voice grew deathly quiet. “If, on the other hand, you are an idris, come for me like you came for my master, then this is exactly how I would expect you to appear—with a story that I could not resist.”
He stared at her calmly for a moment. “If you are what you say you are, you’ll be fine. But if you don’t drink, I’ll have to assume you are an idris. I’ll have to kill you.”
Brinley felt a cold chill run down her spine. The calm certainty with which he spoke unsettled her. She took the vial and drank. It tasted like…nothing. It tasted like liquid air, maybe, or dry water.
She looked at Archibald, who was darting glances back and forth between her and Mr. Can. “Well?” he asked. The young man said nothing, but he handed her the other vial.
“Drink this now,” he said, and smiled at her for the first time. She took it. It smelled faintly of sunflowers.
Suddenly she was distracted by an odd tingling sensation in her fingers. Her heart began to beat faster. The warmth fled from her arms and legs as if she’d jumped into freezing water. By contrast, her head felt like it was burning up; beads of sweat were forming on her brow. Her mind rushed, lashing out wildly in panic. The vial tipped in her hand as she slid to one side.
The young man crossed to her in an instant, catching the vial before she could spill it. He lifted it to her lips and tipped the contents into her mouth. It was hot—not in the way that soup or tea is hot, but it filled her with warmth. The taste had an immediate calming effect upon her mind, causing the strange thoughts to vanish.
“How do you feel?” Mr. Can asked.
“Okay,” she said uncertainly. She felt nauseous.
“Good,” he said, straightening up and smiling at her again. He held out his hand. “I am Cannon.”
Brinley held out her hand and tried to smile, but ended up grimacing at another wave of nausea. “Nice to meet you,” she said faintly. Then she leaned forward and threw up in Archibald’s hat.
In which Brinley pretends to be a boy
An hour later, she felt much better. She had pestered the two men with questions for a few minutes and obtained some answers. She was in the country of Caraway, which was in the realm of Aberdeen, where a man named Remy was king. Hugo was his son, and Archibald was one of his advisors. Cannon explained little about himself.
They knew little of Earth, including how to pronounce it. To them it was nothing more than a distant legend—an old story. They did not know who her mother was. On this point, Brinley had the feeling that both men had something more to say, and it was apparent that they had an ample amount of questions for each other, but it was determined that they could keep the good men of the Magisterium waiting no longer. The banging on the doors had resumed.
“Very well,” Cannon said when Archibald mentioned this. “I could use something to eat.” In that spirit, they determined they would continue their discussion over dinner. When they attempted to exit the hall, Cannon instructed her to brush the dust off her as best she could. “Better if we don’t have to explain you to everyone at once,” he said.
As soon as they made it outside, Archibald and Cannon were pelted with questions. Three old men were waiting for them, and others began to arrive as soon as word spread that the doors had opened. Soon the men were surrounded by a throng of people.
“Why don’t you come with me, dear,” a woman’s voice said. Brinley turned to see an older woman talking to the boy named Hugo.
“Don’t worry, my lord,” she continued. “I’ll have you back to Archibald soon enough, but they will be explaining themselves for a long time, and I’d rather not stand around just to listen to them lie.” She smiled in a friendly way, and there was no note of judgment in her voice. “I’ve heard that you have a certain fondness for the Magisterium.”
“Uh, yeah…” he responded slowly. “How did you hear that?”
“Your father told me, in a recent letter requesting a new tutor for you from the university. He seemed to think that bringing the university to you might be just the thing to further your education. At any rate,” she continued, “I’m on my way to see something rather interesting just now, and I thought you might like to come along. I’m sure Archibald won’t mind.”
“Well, sure, I guess,” he looked around then, and Brinley wondered if he was trying to find her.
She tried to catch sight of Archibald or Cannon through the group of people, hesitant to accompany the boy away from the only other people she knew at all, but the woman was already leading him out of the doorway. She decided to follow.
“My name’s Denmyn,” the woman said as they walked. She wore a pale blue silk gown, gray hair tied behind her head with a delicately patterned scarf. “I am the school counselor,” she continued, “which means that I am a wizard, but not a powerful one, and that I am a master, but not an important one. Mostly people come to me for advice, and I have to admit, that is probably due more to my looking like a kind old granny than to any wisdom my advice might contain.”
Hugo smiled. So he was getting a tour of the Magisterium from the official school grandmother. This was awesome.
“I am on a way to pay a visit to Tabitha—our bird keeper.”
Hugo felt a jolt as he remembered the strange girl who had visited him in the middle of the night. Apparently she really did live at the Magisterium.
They took a right turn through a small iron door that led out onto a causeway. It jutted out from the rest of the structure, hanging over the ocean below them.
“Oh!” Brinley exclaimed. She had never seen the ocean before.
“What’s that?” Denmyn asked.
“Uh—” Hugo looked around. “I, er—didn’t realize we were so near the coast.”
“Yes,” Denmyn said. “The Magisterium was built on the very edge of civilization. The first king of Aberdeen wanted it as far away from him as he could manage. In those days people barely tolerated magic.”
Brinley glanced over the edge of the causeway as a large wave crashed against the wall of the Magisterium far below them. She wondered what it would be like to grow up in a world where magic was real. She thought of the way that Cannon had made the wind circle around him. He had been surrounded by people after that. Had he gotten in trouble for using magic? She wished she could ask her questions.
An idea struck her then. She lowered her voice, trying to make it sound more like Hugo’s, and asked, “Why are Cannon and Archibald in trouble?”
A gust of wind blew a few of her words away before Denmyn answered.
“Speak up please, Prince Hugo,” Denmyn said. “I know you have a stronger voice than that.”
Hugo glared at the place where her voice came from as she repeated her question.
“Archibald isn’t in trouble,” Denmyn explained in response. “He’s the king’s right-hand man, you know, and beyond the laws of this place, as you are.” She swept a hand up, indicating the towers of the Magisterium above them. “Cannon, on the other hand…well, he confiscated one of the most ancient wings of the Magisterium, didn’t he? The masters have been trying to get in all day without success.” She smiled. “That bruised their pride quite deeply, I think. No doubt that was the greater crime.”
“But why did he do it?” Hugo asked before Brinley could. He didn’t want her to keep making him sound girly. “Isn’t he a student here?”
“Oh, no,” Denmyn said seriously. “Cannon is far too wild to go to school.” She smiled faintly. “I don’t think we could contain him. He is the apprentice of the Wind Mage—a true mage.”
“A true mage?” Brinley asked, her voice ridiculously low now.
Denmyn actually stopped to look at Hugo. “Coming down with something, my lord? Your voice keeps cracking—though I suppose that happens at your age. Anyway, I thought your education was better than this. Perhaps I should come and tutor you myself.”
Hugo looked furious. Brinley couldn’t help feeling a little bad. On the other hand, it was nice to be getting answers.
“Sorry,” she whispered to Hugo, but he waved her off.
“There are seven true mages,” Denmyn was saying. “In our world there is enough magic running through the blood of the people that almost anyone can become a decent wizard with training, but the true mages are called by the Magemother herself—here we are.” They’d reached the end of the walkway and Denmyn pulled open a wooden door set into the face of a curving tower wall. “Up we go,” she said, stepping onto a steep stone stair.
“Who is the Magemo—” Brinley began, but Hugo elbowed her angrily. “I’ll tell you later,” he hissed at her through clenched teeth.
They took the steps slowly, keeping pace behind the old woman. The stairway seemed to go on forever.
“Who are we going to see again?” Brinley asked, and Hugo added hastily, “Tabitha?” He didn’t want Denmyn to think that he hadn’t been listening.
“Yes,” the counselor replied. “Tabitha is our bird keeper. It’s a very important position here at the university.”
“Why?” blurted Brinley.
“Why?” Denmyn said incredulously (Hugo actually slapped his palm to his face in embarrassment). “Because of the news, of course! Birds see everything, hear everything, go everywhere. How else could we know what’s going on in the world? Don’t you use birds at the castle?”
Brinley thought of how the news got around in Colorado. They had never had a TV in their home (her father always said they were a waste of time), but she had watched the news at other people’s houses. She thought of newspapers and reporters and e-mail and spy satellites.
“Yes, of course,” Hugo said quickly. “I was just checking.”
They walked in silence for a while. The stairs were long and steep and it seemed like Denmyn was breathing too hard to answer many more questions. After a few minutes Brinley took up her Hugo voice again. “How high does it go?”
Her question was answered by the last turning of the stairs, which revealed a small circular room with a high roof. It had windows so large that the whole room seemed to be open to the sky outside.
“Ugh!” Brinley clamped both hands over her nose at the smell that suddenly overwhelmed her.
Hugo rolled his eyes.
“I mean, wow, that’s…really something,” she said, noticing that Denmyn, who had collapsed into a chair to rest, seemed not to mind the smell either.
“Yes,” Denmyn said, wrinkling her nose finally. “It is, isn’t it? I suppose I come up here too much to notice it.”
Brinley looked down at her feet and found the source of the smell. Two large beams had been placed crosswise in the center of the tower floor, and apparently served as a walkway. The beam seemed to be kept fairly clean, but the tower floor itself was covered with feathers, droppings, and an impressive assortment of other unsavory things that had no doubt fallen from above. The ceiling of the tower looked to Brinley like the bottom of a giant nest.
“Up we go,” Denmyn said, heaving herself out of the chair and walking across the beam to an old wooden ladder that leaned against the wall. Brinley followed her, sliding in behind Hugo. She could hear the birds now. By the sound of it, there were more birds above her than she had ever seen in one place. She climbed the ladder, rising through a small circular opening in the bottom of the nest. It was so small she doubted a grown man could fit through. When she got to the top, she dismounted the ladder and ducked as a pair of birds flew past. They were everywhere. Some flitted from nest to nest while others were flying in from the open air to feed at an immense trough of bird seed cut into the stone.
Brinley stepped away from the ladder, moving to stand beside Hugo, who was also staring around in amazement. Nests of all sizes covered the floor and filled the rafters to the top of the pointed roof. Elegant marble birdbaths were set into stone pillars where the beams met the edge of the tower wall. Brinley thought briefly about how long it would take to haul water all the way up the tower to fill those. Then she caught sight of Tabitha and forgot everything else.
The girl was hanging upside down in the rafters, talking to the birds. She wore dark blue overalls and shiny black boots that came up almost to her knees. Her eyes were oddly large, and she held them open as far as she could, as if she were trying to take in as much as possible. She was hanging from her knees, like Brinley herself had done at the park as a child, and talking animatedly to a group of solid turquoise house finches that were flying around her head. At least, they appeared to be house finches; except house finches were not usually solid turquoise. Birds here might be entirely different than those from home, she realized, startled.
“Tabitha,” Denmyn called gently over the noise of the birds. Tabitha looked down at them, and then reached up to grab the beam with her hands. Untangling her legs, she swung down and dropped nimbly onto the beam below her. She had curly brown hair that fell to her shoulders. A few small feathers and twigs rested in it casually, as if they belonged.
“Hi, Denmyn,” she said. “What are you doing here so early? Ooooh, who’s that with you?” She bobbed up and down a little when she talked, and was now craning her neck around Denmyn in order to get a better look. “Hi, Hugo. I’m glad you came to visit me. Why don’t you bring friends up more often, Denmyn?” she asked, stepping back and glancing up at the old lady with a hurt expression.
“You two know each other?” Denmyn said in surprise.
Tabitha blushed, and Hugo tried to think of the best way to explain how they had met. Before he could start, Tabitha was waving the question away. “Come look!” she said, dancing over to a birdbath. “Flitlitter came to visit today. You won’t believe what he has to say!”
They followed her over and a dozen or so birds backed away from the edge of the stone basin to make room. Tabitha was holding a magpie in her hands. Brinley was surprised to see that it wore a small bandage around its breast.
“Flitlitter has been hurt,” Tabitha informed them. “I think it may have been a hawk.”
“Will he be okay?” Denmyn asked.
“Oh, he’ll be fine.” Tabitha said dismissively, “but he’s lucky I was here when he arrived or he would have been in real trouble.”
Brinley turned away to hide a smile and then remembered that nobody could see it anyway. She could see why the school counselor made it a habit to keep tabs on this girl.
“How are the starlings doing?” Denmyn asked conversationally.
“They’re on the mend,” Tabitha said, shrugging.
“Last month, Tabitha rescued a whole family of starlings,” Denmyn explained to Hugo. “They were nearly crushed by a falling tree not far from here. I do believe they would have died without her ministrations. Now they are almost flying again.”
“Where are they?” Denmyn asked. “I would like to look in on them.”
Tabitha pointed, and Denmyn made her way across the menagerie, leaving the children alone.
“I really am glad you came,” Tabitha said to no one in particular. She was looking at the bird.
“Yeah,” Hugo said awkwardly. “Me too. This is a nice uh—tower you have here.”
“Thanks,” she said, and her abnormally wide eyes swiveled to rest on Brinley. “What’s your name?”
Brinley gave a small start. “I’m Brinley,” she said without thinking.
“Hi, Brinley,” Tabitha said.
“You can see me?”
Hugo’s mouth fell open stupidly. “You can see her?” he echoed indignantly.
“Oh, yes,” Tabitha said, facing Brinley. She stood closer than most people do when you talk to them. “I hope that’s okay,” she said. “I can tell you don’t want to be seen—like a startlewish, or a plover—but even the shy birds come to me these days—like you.”
Brinley didn’t know what to say, and before she had time to think of something, Tabitha was changing the subject. She was holding up her arm so that the bird was as far away from her as possible. She raised her other hand to her mouth, lowering her voice to a whisper. “Can I tell you a secret?”
Brinley tried not to smile. This was obviously a serious matter to Tabitha. “Yes,” she whispered back.
Tabitha checked to make sure that Denmyn was still browsing among the other birds, then looked back at her sideways, lifting the magpie even farther away as if to keep it from overhearing. “Flitlitter isn’t really a boy!” she said so quietly that Brinley almost didn’t hear. “He’s just pretending.”
Brinley bit her lip, trying to hide a smile again, but ended up laughing instead. She watched Tabitha, worried she might be offended. Tabitha just stared at her wide-eyed for a moment. Then, to Brinley’s relief, she smiled. “Yes,” she said kindly. “I think it’s silly too, but I humor him.” She set Flitlitter back down on the edge of the basin and leaned on one leg, staring intently at a point somewhere halfway between her and the birdbath.
Brinley waited for her to say something else, but she didn’t move. She didn’t even blink. Brinley suppressed the urge to wave her hand in front of Tabitha’s face. Hugo looked inquiringly at Denmyn as the old lady approached them again. She put a hand on Tabitha’s shoulder.
Tabitha jumped. “What? Ooooh, sorry, did you say something?”
Denmyn patted the young girl gently on the shoulder and smiled. “You were going to tell us what Flitlitter said, I think. You said we wouldn’t believe it, but I do hope you will give us a try.”
“Oh…yes.” Tabitha turned back mater-of-factly to the bird and picked it up again, walking back to the center of the room.
“Flitlitter says that there is someone hurt down by the Lake of Eyes,” she said.
“I see,” Denmyn said patiently, reaching out to take Flitlitter. Tabitha handed him over, and Denmyn looked at him carefully. After a moment she looked up at Tabitha. “Did he say who?”
“Yes,” Tabitha said, “but I can’t understand him. I think I just don’t know the word he is using.” As soon as she said it, the bird turned in Denmyn’s hands. It opened its beak and started singing in a throaty voice. Tabitha shook her head stubbornly, looking at the bird. “I told you before, Flitlitter. There are no such things.” She turned to Denmyn, “He is saying it is a ‘lion bird,’ but there are no such things, are there?”
Denmyn looked startled. “A lion bird?” she asked. “Does he mean a Laurel?”
Flitlitter let out a series of vehement squawks, and Tabitha’s eyes widened. “Oh my, yes, that’s what he means.” Tabitha shook her finger, scolding the bird, “Don’t you talk to me that way! How was I to know what a Laurel was? What’s a Laurel?” she added in a brighter tone, turning to Denmyn.
“A winged lion,” Denmyn answered. She was already across the room, depositing Flitlitter back into the birdbath. Tabitha moved after her, apparently dissatisfied with the answer. “They are an ancient species,” Denmyn continued. “There is only one Laurel left in this world. Come with me,” she said, taking Tabitha’s hand and hurrying them toward the ladder.
“But the birds!” Tabitha protested. “I haven’t got all their news yet!”
“This is all the news we can handle today,” Denmyn said shortly, huffing a little as she descended at a quick pace. “If I am not mistaken, Flitlitter has found the Magemother’s herald.”
In which there is a mighty roar
Have you met this healer before, Tabitha?” Hugo asked, trying to peer inside the smoked glass window of the door. Brinley and Hugo were waiting with Tabitha outside an office on the ground floor. Denmyn had given them instructions to wait for her there while she left to fetch Archibald and Cannon. According to Denmyn, Lumps the healer would be an important part of their rescue mission.
“Oh, yes,” Tabitha replied cheerfully. “Lots of times. Master Lumps is one of my teachers.” She sighed and began to pick feathers out of her hair. Soon she had a handful, and was looking around for a place to put them. Brinley held out her hands like a cup. Tabitha smiled at her, deposited the feathers, and went back to picking through her hair.
“He helps me with the birds sometimes, if I don’t know enough, but that isn’t very often anymore. He’s taught me lots and lots about healing birds…” Tabitha got lost in some thought. Her fingers slowly stilled in her hair and her eyes glazed over again, staring at some point in the empty space ahead of her.
“Tabitha,” Brinley said loudly, startling the girl out of her strange reverie.
“Oooh—what? Sorry.” She looked at Brinley, hands working in her hair again, patiently waiting for whatever she had missed to be repeated. Brinley looked at Hugo, who was watching Tabitha with a half-smile. Evidently, these moments of fading in and out were a normal occurrence for the girl.
Hugo indicated the door. “Maybe we should knock, you know? I mean, Denmyn’s been gone for a while and I bet she’ll be back soon. Maybe we should try and get this Master Lumps ready?”
“Okay,” Tabitha said, scooping her little pile of feathers out of Brinley’s hands and standing up. Hugo turned and was about to knock, but Tabitha brushed past him and walked right in. “Maaaaster Lumpppssiieee,” she called in a singsong voice. “Iiiiitt’s mmeee!”
Brinley could see why she was shouting. The room was immense, all bookcases and tables and charts and pictures of muscles and bones. “Master Lumps is out of his office right now,” Tabitha said as if she were his secretary. “We’ll just have to wait for him.” She brushed aside some scrolls and a colored skull and sat down in a cushy armchair, her feet hovering a few inches off the floor. “Oh look,” she said, pointing across the room to Lumps’s desk. “He’s left his satchel. That’s odd, isn’t it?”
“Is it?” Brinley asked, looking around for a place to sit. Hugo had given up and leaned against the door instead.
“Oh, yes.” She mimicked her teacher in a deep voice, “‘A healer always has his bag.’ Look! I’ve got mine right here, just like he says.” She raised a little black leather pouch from under her shirt.
Brinley smiled. “Interesting.”
They waited in silence. After several minutes, Brinley started to fidget with uneasiness. Casting around for something to do, she caught sight of a piece of paper sitting on a low table near her. She leaned over, took a pencil out of her hair and began to draw. She drew a handful of objects sitting in view—a paperweight, an apple core. Then she began to draw Tabitha’s bird tower.
Several minutes later Hugo startled her. “Are you doing that, Brinley?”
She dropped her pencil in surprise. He was standing right beside her. “Oh, yes,” she whispered. She hadn’t thought of how odd it must look to him. No doubt he saw a picture appearing on the page out of nowhere.
“You’re really good,” he said kindly, taking a step back. He jabbed a finger in Tabitha’s direction. “I think she’s out of it again.”
Brinley followed his gaze. Sure enough, Tabitha had glazed over. Brinley wondered what went through her head when that happened. “Should we wake her up?”
Brinley wondered how much time had passed. She glanced around for a clock, then realized that she hadn’t seen one anywhere since entering this world. “I hope Denmyn hurries back,” she said. “I don’t know what a Laurel is, but I don’t like the idea of it waiting for us out there, hurt.”
“Oh,” Tabitha said, coming around. “Ohh, no. I forgot! You’re right. That’s terrible! We have to go save him.” With that she stood up, strode across the room, and took the black satchel off Lumps’s desk. She hastened out of the room without another word, and Brinley was forced to run after her.
“Hey, wait!” Hugo said, leaning out of Lumps’s office and shouting after them.
But it was no use. Tabitha had already disappeared around the corner of the hall.
“Brinley?” he said to the empty corridor. “Are you still here?”
“Oy,” he said, and closed the office door before following them.
But by the time he got out to the main hall, they were gone.
“Tabitha, wait! I didn’t mean—I don’t like waiting any more than you do, but don’t you think we should? I mean, we can’t just go off on our own!” Brinley followed Tabitha through a door at the end of the main hall. It led down a flight of stone steps into darkness.
“Don’t worry,” Tabitha’s voice echoed up from below. “You’ll be fine. You’re with me.” Her voice was farther away now, and Brinley hurried after her. She didn’t like the thought of Denmyn bringing the others back only to find them missing. Then she looked around and saw there was no sign of Hugo. At least he would be able to tell the others where they had gone. That is, assuming he understood what Tabitha was talking about.
Brinley was relieved to find that the stairs were not long. Nor did they lead into a dungeon. Rather, they ended at a door that led outside to a large lawn.
“This way,” Tabitha said, taking Brinley’s hand. They went around the castle and started toward the forest. Halfway there, they saw a young page leading a dapple gray pony. “Oooh, good!” Tabitha said enthusiastically when she noticed them coming, and hurried off to intersect.
“Thank you, Tobias,” she said cheerfully, taking the reins out of his hands as soon as she reached him. “It will be much faster with a pony.” She mounted and motioned for Brinley to join her, ignoring the boy’s protests.
“Wait, girl! That pony belongs to the king’s man! You can’t just take him for a joy ride, he’s going to the stables. Besides,” he added, reaching out to grab the reins, “he’s tired.”
“No, he isn’t,” Tabitha said stubbornly, turning so that the reins spun out of his reach. Brinley swung her leg over the back of the saddle, glad that her father had taught her how to ride last summer. They trotted away at a quick pace, Tobias’s pleas going unnoticed behind them.
“Sometimes you have to push people around a bit when they get silly,” Tabitha said sagely.
They were almost into the trees now, and Brinley was relieved to see a path ahead. She guessed that they had less than an hour before sunset and she didn’t fancy getting lost in the middle of a forest in the dark with nothing but a pony and an eccentric girl. “How far is it to the lake you mentioned?” she asked.
“Not far,” Tabitha replied. “I walk there for picnics sometimes. There are a lot of birds. They like the water.”
As if on cue, a bird swept up from behind them and landed on the saddle in front of Tabitha. “Flitlitter!” Tabitha exclaimed. “What are you doing here? You are supposed to be resting. Go back right now. Are you listening to me?” The bird made a honking sort of noise, ruffling its jet black feathers.
“Oooh,” Tabitha growled in irritation. “Okay, you can come, but hold still a second!” The bandage around Flitlitter’s breast had slid out of place. He allowed her to reposition it.
Then, to Brinley’s surprise, the bird hopped from Tabitha’s shoulder to her own, nibbling her hair delicately.
“Oh, look,” Tabitha said brightly, “Flitlitter can see you too. Don’t eat her,” she said sternly, flicking the magpie as it nibbled Brinley’s hair again. “She’s my new friend.”
Brinley blushed once again. She wasn’t used to having friends.
As they trotted through the forest, Brinley began to inspect their pony a little more closely. He looked like a hardy animal, and seemed to take it in stride that he was now carrying two girls instead of his usual rider. “I wonder what his name is,” she said, patting his thigh.
“Pilfer,” Tabitha offered.
“Do you speak to horses now, too?” Brinley asked, surprised.
“Says it on the saddle.” Tabitha pointed to the place without looking, and Brinley made a mental note not to underestimate her again. She might have some odd things going on in her head, but she certainly wasn’t less intelligent for it.
Brinley didn’t know what Tabitha meant by not far, but after a half an hour the sun was almost set, and in the forest that meant that it was quite dark already. “Tabitha,” she said carefully. “I thought you said it wasn’t far.”
“Well,” Tabitha said in a reasonable tone, “it takes longer in the dark.”
“No, I don’t think it does, Tabitha,” Brinley said, trying not to sound mean. She wouldn’t blame Tabitha for getting lost, but she wanted to know it if they were. How had she gotten herself into this situation? “Didn’t you say you walk there for lunch sometimes?” she asked.
“Well, yes,” Tabitha agreed, “but lunch takes all day sometimes…don’t worry, I don’t think it’s much farther.”
Thankfully, she was right. After another couple minutes, the path opened up to a clearing, which led into a small, grassy canyon. The sun was down now, but the moon was full, and they could see it shining off a lake less than a mile away. They quickened their pace a little, and within a few minutes they were at the near edge, moving along it toward an outcropping of hills at the edge of a forest.
“Do you see anything?” Brinley asked, craning around the other girl in an effort to see to the other side of the lake. It was difficult to see that far in the moonlight, and part of the lake seemed to turn back into the hills.
“No, but there must be something.”
“What do you mean?”
“Listen,” she said simply, and Brinley felt a little chill run down her spine as she realized how quiet it was. She felt glad again that she was invisible. Whatever was out there wouldn’t be able to see her. A second later she chided herself for the thought. What kind of friend would she be if she hid when things got dangerous?
“Let’s talk about something,” Tabitha said quietly. “So we’re too busy to be scared.”
“Um, okay,” Brinley said, searching for something to talk about. “How about birds? You can tell me about birds.”
Tabitha smiled. “Tomorrow the thresters come to sing, especially here at the lake. There will be ducks on the water.”
“Ducks,” Brinley whispered. “We have those where I’m from.”
“Of course you do,” Tabitha said soothingly. “Everyone should have ducks.”
A strange noise interrupted them. Pilfer snorted and dipped his head, stepping back.
It sounded like a sheet of metal being torn apart. Brinley looked around wildly for the source of the noise. They heard it again, and this time there was no mistaking it: only a monster of enormous size could make a sound like that.
“It doesn’t sound angry, whatever it is,” Tabitha noted. “Hurt maybe, or just curious.”
A mighty roar shook the trees, the grass, their very bones. The hair on the back of Brinley’s neck stood up and she wanted to run, but nothing attacked them. It was hard to tell how far away the beast was.
“It might be a little bit angry,” Tabitha conceded. “Or maybe it just wants us to know that it can kill us.”
Pilfer had reared up at the roar, and Brinley had to throw her arms around Tabitha to keep from falling off. The pony was turning on the spot now, trying to retreat the way they had come. Tabitha pulled hard on the reins.
“Easy, Pilfer. Don’t worry, boy, that’s who we came to help. It’s not going to eat you…I don’t think.” Pilfer calmed down, but he wouldn’t go any closer, so they had to dismount and proceed on foot.
Flitlitter fluttered from the saddle, landing on Tabitha’s shoulder. Brinley wished she could get herself to calm down. The sound came again, a deep oscillating rasp that made her teeth rattle. Tabitha walked ahead at a steady pace and Brinley followed, wishing she knew what they were going to find in the dark.
They headed up a little hill that jutted out toward the edge of the water and saw that on the other side there was a bowl-shaped valley. The valley was dark; trees shaded it from the moonlight.
From the base of those trees, somewhere in the darkness, the sound came again. This time it sounded like a series of loud coughs, and this time the noise didn’t stop.
Brinley followed Tabitha closer and closer, until eventually they could make out a shape against the grass at the base of the trees. Tabitha came to a halt, lacing her fingers in front of her waist and standing on her tiptoes. “Hello?” she called, craning her neck toward the shape in the grass. The noise stopped, and everything went silent. Brinley could hear her heart beating. It seemed loud against the silence of the night.
Flitlitter chirped once, and the silence swallowed the little sound.
“Hello?” Tabitha called again, more quietly.
The voice that came back was deep. It sounded closer than Brinley was expecting. She stepped forward a little. “We’re here to help you,” she said. “We’re friends.”
“May we come closer?” Tabitha asked.
The shape in the shadows moved. It was only a dozen yards away now, and Brinley could tell that it was huge. It moved to the edge of the trees and stepped into the moonlight. At first they thought it was a lion, but it was too large, and it had wings, beautiful golden-brown wings that swept back against its sides. Its eyes were the color of green grass, its voice deep and vibrant, like a song spun out of the night, spilling over their ears like moon-shadows on the lake.
“I am Peridot,” it said. “Who are you?”
In which there is a flying carpet
It took Hugo a few minutes to figure out which door the girls had taken. By the time he did, they were too far away to hear him shouting. When he saw Tabitha intercept a stable boy leading Pilfer, he ran after them, but they disappeared into the forest before he got there.
“Where were they headed?” he asked the stable boy.
“How should I know?” the boy returned.
“Well, then, how do I get to the Lake of Eyes?”
The boy sighed in resignation. “There’s a path through the trees here. Take it right to the fork, then left. That will take you to the lake.”
“Thanks,” Hugo said, dashing off.
“Hey! It’ll be dark soon!” he heard the boy calling, but Hugo ignored him. His plan was to find the girls and get back before that.
Soon he had found the path and was making good time. As the king’s son, he had studied with the best hunters and trackers in the land, and with a quick look around he knew he was going in the right direction. When the sun had finished going down and he was walking by moonlight, he realized that he wasn’t going to catch up with them. He sighed and rubbed his arms as the forest started to cool, thinking that he should have just waited for the teachers to return. He couldn’t go back now though; Archibald would not be pleased, and he would look foolish returning empty-handed. Besides, he didn’t like the idea of the girls walking through the forest alone at night.
He found himself thinking about the dangerous things that might lurk in a forest at night. Everything around him took on a more sinister hue. He started to see the shadows of trees more than the trees themselves. Small animal noises sounded bigger because he could not tell where they were coming from in the moonlight. He forced himself to keep walking. He was probably just imagining things. There was nothing out there.
Then there [_was _]something out there. He was sure of it. A great, silent something in the tree above him. It sat on a low branch, silent and menacing, like a stone about to fall on him. But stones don’t sit in trees, he thought. What was it?
Then it moved. A great head spun around backward and golden eyes stared at him from a ghostly, heart-shaped face.
Hugo froze. He wanted to scream, to cry out, to run, but he couldn’t. Great wings spread out and flapped once. He felt a silent flush of air against his face and clamped his eyes shut, not wanting to see.
Nothing happened. No talons tore into him, no sharp beak split him open. He opened his eyes a second later and the beast was gone. Hugo breathed a deep sigh of relief, and then ran.
Soon the trees parted, and the lake was before him. He still felt like he was being watched. And no wonder; he thought he knew what the creature was. He had heard of it anyway, but it was supposed to be dead—long dead. It was the Kutha, an ancient, evil creature.
He shivered as he approached the lake. He couldn’t shake the feeling that the Kutha was following him. He looked out over the lake and blinked. He was being watched, but it wasn’t by the Kutha.
Great yellow eyes, green eyes, purple eyes the size of pomegranates were lifting out of the lake to stare at him.
The Lake of Eyes, he thought. He had always assumed that was just a funny name. Now he knew it was called that for a reason. He took a step toward the lake, wondering what sort of creatures had eyes like that. He had forgotten now about the girls and the Magemother’s herald, and the dangers of exploring strange lakes alone at night.
Hugo spun around, rubbing his fingers. Something had bitten them.
“Pilfer!” The pony was alone, left there by the girls, no doubt. The girls!
Hugo left the lake behind and hurried up the path after them, sparing just enough time to cast a quick glance back at the lake. The eyes were gone.
Archibald wrapped a finger around a cold iron bar of the dungeon door. Thankfully, he was on the outside of the cell instead of inside it, like Cannon.
“Now, Dean Chambers…” Cannon said, eyeing his iron cage as if it were vaguely interesting. “Is this really wise? I doubt this cell has been used once in the last five hundred years.”
“The Hall of Records has not been sealed in the last five hundred years,” the master librarian spat coldly.
The dean’s eyes darted back and forth between the two of them nervously. He looked far less comfortable with the idea of locking Cannon up now that it was done.
“As I said,” Archibald started in his most patient voice, “nothing good will come of this. If you want to question him, question him, but I can promise you the king will not approve of this when he hears.”
The librarian ruffled in consternation. “The Magisterium is governed by its own laws.”
“Which you’ve ignored,” Cannon interjected lazily.
The wizard’s voice dripped with venom. “My mistake.”
The dean scratched his neck nervously. “That does have some weight to it.” He continued as if reading from a book. “The rules of incarceration clearly state that apart from cases of mortal crime, jailing a student requires the consent of at least two masters and the school counselor.”
As if on cue, Denmyn burst through the door. “What in the world is going on?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Cannon said loudly over the sudden outburst of explanations, and everyone went silent.
Cannon continued, “Where did you go after you left the Hall of Records?”
Denmyn looked confused. “What?”
“While Archibald and I were being waylaid by these two,” he pressed, indicating the librarian and the dean, “you left with Hugo.”
“And what about it?”
“You were followed.”
“I beg your pardon. By whom?”
Archibald felt a small knot untangle inside him. So that’s where she had gone. He had lost track of Brinley in the bustle outside the Hall of Records, unable to find her even after searching the entire wing.
“If you didn’t see her, it doesn’t matter,” Cannon went on, “but she’s obviously not with you now. Where did you go?”
“I went to see Tabitha.”
“She’s our bird keeper, among other things,” Dean Chambers broke in knowledgeably. “Quite an eccentric girl, she—”
“I don’t need her whole history,” Cannon snapped at him. He said to Denmyn, “What happened there?”
“That’s why I came looking for you,” she said eagerly. “The birds brought news of a creature wounded by the lake—a Laurel.”
“Peridot?” There was a note of hope in Cannon’s voice.
“It has to be,” she nodded excitedly.
“The Magemother’s herald!” Archibald exclaimed. He couldn’t believe it. Peridot, the Magemother’s herald, was a Laurel—a half lion, half eagle. She guarded the Magemother’s throne on Calypsis. In all his life, he had seen the creature only once.
“Impossible,” the librarian protested.
“Where is she?” Cannon asked, fingers wrapping around the bars.
“Well, still by the lake, I suppose.”
“The girl,” he said impatiently. “The bird girl. Where is she now?”
“Oh, I left her with Hugo at the healer’s office, to wait for us. She wanted to go along, and since she found the beast…”
“Then it’s time to go,” Cannon said. He stretched his arms behind him, took a deep breath, and brought them forward, exhaling loudly. The wall of bars bent and spun as if caught in the fury of a tornado, crumpling into a ball as easily as a piece of paper. He dropped his hands to his sides and the ball dropped too, landing squarely on the librarian’s foot.
There was an audible crunching noise, followed by a shriek as the librarian bent over. Denmyn rushed over to help him.
Cannon gave him a sympathetic look as he passed. “My mistake,” he said. “Come along, Archibald, we might need your bell.”
Archibald followed him out of the cell, patting the vest pocket where he kept the bell. He had developed a habit of doing that, patting the bell just to make sure he hadn’t dropped it. Now he gave a grunt, for it was gone. He searched his pockets as he hurried after Cannon, but it was nowhere to be found. “It’s gone!” he cried.
“What’s gone?” Cannon said, rounding on him at the foot of the stairs.
“The bell! I don’t know what could have happened to it.”
Cannon waved a hand dismissively, returning to the stairs. “We don’t have time to search now,” he called back. “We’ll just have to hope that we don’t need it.”
Archibald had to agree with this assessment, but he felt horrible for losing the bell. It was the only connection they had to the Magemother, and though he didn’t like to admit it, the bell had become a symbol of hope to him. He sighed, pushing the matter out of his mind, and ran up the stairs.
When they reached the healer’s office, they found it deserted.
“Could they have left without us?” Archibald asked, trying to remember exactly how impatient young people were.
“I would have.” Cannon sniffed the air, eyes closed, then strode off the way they had gone. “They passed this way.”
“How do you—”
“The air remembers.”
Archibald thought about that. Magic made him uncomfortable sometimes. He didn’t like the idea of air remembering things. That would make the air alive, he reasoned—a strange concept. If the air was alive, what else was? He glanced around himself and shivered. There was a reason he had never wanted to learn magic. The only magic he liked was the bit inside his cane. He hefted it as he walked, and the wood felt warm and reassuring in his hand.
Cannon paused at the top of a set of stairs leading down into darkness. “How will we get there?” he mused aloud.
Archibald looked around, remembering where he was. “I believe this leads to the lawn,” he said, indicating the stairs.
“Not that. I mean how will we get to the lake?”
“We could walk?”
“Too slow,” Cannon said dismissively. “And of course, you can’t fly.”
“No,” Archibald agreed, startled. “I certainly cannot. We could ride.”
“Mm…but ride what?” Cannon began walking away.
“Horses!” Archibald said, bristling impatiently as he hurried to catch up. “Would it kill a wizard to do things simply just once?”
Cannon pretended not to hear him. He had paused before one of several office doors. “Ah, here it is,” he said, and let himself in.
Archibald read the little gold sign on the door.
“Oh, dear,” Archibald said, following Cannon inside. “Is this really necessary?”
Cannon ignored him. He was walking around the room thoughtfully. “Ah!” he said brightly. “This will do quite nicely.” He bent over and grabbed the tasseled ends of a fine blue rug. He pulled it smartly, toppling a small table and upending several shoes. “Come on, Archibald,” he said, rolling up the rug and bustling out of the room.
“Whatever happened between you two?” Archibald asked in a huff as they walked back to the stairs.
“How do you mean?” Cannon strode down the steps and into the darkness.
“Yourself and the master librarian. You loathe each other, do you not?”
“Ah, that.” The darkness was split by a sliver of moonlight as Cannon opened the door at the far end.
“Well, I came to the school when I was younger, before Animus found me. I wanted to study here.” He unfurled the carpet with a flare, letting it fall open over the cool grass. The moonlight revealed an intricate pattern of berries and bluebirds embroidered on the silk. A current of air caught the rug just before it touched the ground, holding it in the air.
“I wanted to study the magical arts, of course,” Cannon explained. “He was one of the masters that interviewed me.”
“I see.” He could still remember his own entrance interviews.
“He insisted that I had no talent for magic, so I demonstrated.”
“Yes,” he said, reminiscently, “on his cat.”
“I was only ten.” A wry smile caught at the corners of his mouth. “Archibald, have you ever seen a cat in a tornado?”
Cannon’s smile widened. “That’s how Animus discovered me, actually. He was visiting the Magisterium that day.” Cannon stepped onto the rug, stumbling slightly, and sat down. “Are you coming?”
Archibald eyed it cautiously, prodding it with the tip of his cane. Then he sat sideways, awkwardly swinging his legs up and trying not to fall over as the carpet jostled on the bed of air beneath. “I think horses would have been just fine,” he mumbled under his breath, trying to figure out how to look dignified on an airborne carpet.
“Nonsense,” Cannon said as the carpet began to inch forward, slowly gaining speed. Then without warning, the carpet jumped several feet into the air, and to Archibald’s horror, he let out an involuntary yelp.
Cannon glanced back curiously.
“Have you done this before?” Archibald asked, scowling. There was still more fear in his voice than he would have liked.
“I’ve never even thought of this before,” Cannon said. The young man looked wild, hair starting to ripple in the wind as they picked up speed. “I don’t know why—novel idea, really—Oh my.” The ground fell away as they careened over the top of a hill, banking downwards toward the forest. As they tipped down, an odd sense of weightlessness made Archibald shout.
Cannon pulled the front of the rug up, wrapping it over their feet like a sled to keep them from falling off. In another moment, they leveled out. They were flying through the air just above the tops of the trees, traveling faster than any horse could.
“I’ll admit I haven’t perfected this yet,” Cannon said, raising his voice to be heard above the whip of the wind, “but I think it’s going to be big!”
Archibald had no idea what he meant. He was too busy silently cursing the disposition of wizards, which seemed to include a penchant for trying out bad ideas on unsuspecting persons.
Just then a gust of wind hit them from the side, forcing them into a barrel roll. As they turned over, Archibald reached for his hat but was too slow; the wind wrenched it from his head and flung it toward the ground.
“CANNON!” he shouted indelicately as the rug righted itself again. “Could we please not do that again?”
“My apologies, Archibald,” Cannon said shakily. “I quite agree.” He cast the older man a sideways look and frowned. “Lose something?”
Archibald shot him a dark look, only to see his hat spiraling neatly into the wizard’s hands, borne there on some invisible current of air.
“Please don’t litter, Archibald. It doesn’t become you.”
Archibald smiled, taking the hat. “No,” he agreed. “And I take back what I said about you.”
“A moment ago, in my head.”
Cannon gave a half smile. He was about to say something in response but he was cut short by a noise ahead. A throaty rumble echoed through the trees in the distance, sending birds into the air.
“What was that?” Cannon asked, his voice taut.
“That,” Archibald said, “was a roar.”
In which there is an astonished goat
Brinley leapt backward when Peridot roared, heart jumping into her throat. They were going to be eaten! This had been a terrible mistake! But no, nothing else had happened. She was still alive. Finally, she came to her senses. Tabitha had not moved when Peridot roared. She was smiling at the beast now, bobbing up and down on the balls of her feet as if the giant, winged lion had merely purred at her.
“I see that you are not my enemy,” Peridot said. “You have no fear, little one.”
Tabitha crossed the remaining distance and began to stroke Peridot’s wing.
“How did you find me?” Peridot asked.
“Flitlitter told us,” Tabitha said. At the sound of its name, the magpie took to the air, circling a few feet above them before landing squarely between Peridot’s ears.
The great beast shook her head in mild annoyance but the bird stayed put, spreading its wings to steady itself. “Are you a wizard, then?” she asked Tabitha, surrendering to Flitlitter’s choice of perch. Tabitha was watching the magpie curiously, and didn’t seem to hear the question.
“Tabitha is a student there.” Brinley said, forgetting that she was invisible.
“And you?” Peridot turned toward her, the Laurel’s huge head coming close enough to touch. Brinley could see where the creature got her name; her green eyes sparkled as brightly as gemstones.
“You can see me?” she said, not quite surprised.
“Of course, child,” Peridot said solemnly. “I am not so old yet that I cannot see what is right in front of my face. Who are you?”
Brinley thought for a moment, trying to decide how to explain herself. “I’m Brinley,” she said, deciding the simplest answer was the best. “I’m looking for my mother.”
“Mm…yes,” Peridot said. She seemed to consider Brinley for a moment, breathing deeply, taking in the smell of her. “I know who you are.”
“You do?” Brinley asked, startled.
“Yes, I do. And I know your mother.”
Brinley didn’t know what to say. She couldn’t believe it. She was finally going to find out who her mother was.
“However,” Peridot said, the warmth in her voice fading, “I do not know where she is. She has hidden herself even from me. Perhaps we will find her together, but not now.” She turned to Tabitha. “Right now I need a mage. I had hoped there might be one at the school.”
Tabitha shook her head. “There isn’t. We haven’t had a mage visit the Magisterium since Cassis came to speak, but that was in the spring.”
“There’s Cannon,” Brinley offered.
“Cannon is at the school?”
“He is not a mage,” Peridot said sharply. “Though he thinks of himself as one.” She glanced between the two of them.
“Never met him,” Tabitha said, shrugging. She reached forward and picked up Flitlitter with an outstretched finger, holding him up to examine the bandage idly.
“I just met Cannon tonight,” Brinley said hastily. Peridot seemed nice enough, but there was something humbling about standing next to a creature that could eat you for lunch. “I suppose I don’t really know what a mage is, but he seemed magical enough.”
Peridot was eyeing her with what looked like an amused expression, if a lion’s face could look amused. Brinley hurried on, trying to fill the silence. “Do you want us to go get him for you?”
Peridot lifted her head, breathing the night air in deeply. She sniffed a few times, then sent another chortling call out into the night. “No need,” she said, peering into the darkness. “He is already here.”
Brinley turned to look. She didn’t see anything but shadows. She wondered if Peridot could see in the dark. Then she noticed a shift in the wind. The little breeze coming off the lake was replaced by wind coming out of the forest, heavy with the scent of pine. There was a tiny storm in the center of the wind, blowing toward them like a silver spinning top made of air. It slowed as it approached, spiraling in on itself until it died completely. Cannon stepped from the storm to the grass, transitioning seamlessly into an austere bow. “Pardon my lentor, Peridot. How may I be of service?”
Peridot squinted at him and roared. Brinley clamped her hands over her ears, eyes shut tight against the noise. When she opened them, Cannon was sprawled on his backside, robes ruffled, hair askew, and all his pomp deflated.
“That’s better,” Peridot said seriously. “Do not come before me flaunting yourself like a mage.”
Cannon got to his feet shakily, one hand attempting to fix his hair.
“Are you okay, Mr. Can?” Brinley said, grinning to herself.
“Brinley?” Cannon said sharply, searching the night air.
“What does ‘lentor’ mean?” Tabitha interrupted, looking at him as if she’d never seen a wizard before.
“Lateness,” Peridot answered softly. She addressed Cannon. “Where is your master?”
Cannon gave a slightly more humble bow. “Apologies, herald,” he said formally. “And sorry again, for I do not know where he is.” He paused, giving her the opportunity to speak, but she said nothing. “A child came to visit him,” he continued. “An idris, I think. He received it in his chambers and talked with it for a long time. He did not allow me in, and finally, when I couldn’t wait any longer, I went in and found that he was gone.” He paused again, but Peridot sat still. “I waited a day, and when he did not return I left to find him.” He trailed off, then finished darkly, “I’ve been looking for maps at the Magisterium. Maps of the Wizard’s Ire.”
“I do not think that is where he is,” Peridot said. Her manner seemed to ease, as if hearing Cannon’s story had relaxed her. “Animus is too wise to have followed an idris far,” she continued. “Though it seems obvious that its words spurred him into action. I expected something like this. I met him not two weeks ago.”
“You did? Is he okay? I have not seen him since he disappeared.”
“I nearly ate him,” she growled. “Then I realized who he was.”
“Calm yourself,” she went on. “When he left me, he was in one piece.”
He looked relieved. “Do you know where he is now?”
“I could guess,” Peridot said, her eyes narrowing slightly. “But I have no wish to do so here. Nor do I have the strength, for I am wounded.”
Cannon looked down at the wound in her chest for the first time. Blood dripped slowly from a small hole near where her right wing met her side. He bent in closer to look at it, but she stepped back, and he stopped short.
“It is beyond you, Cannon. I need a mage. We must go to Aquilar, and you must take us there.”
Cannon nodded uncertainly. “Can you fly?”
“Not for long,” she admitted. There was a note of weariness in her voice and Brinley wondered how far Peridot had come already. “I may be able to glide, if you can provide the wind.”
“That should be easy enough,” he said, turning up the sleeves of his robes and looking at her in a calculating way. “Will I, uh…I don’t know how to ask this.”
Peridot gave him a forgiving smile. “You will ride on my back with Brinley.”
“He will?” Brinley asked. “I mean, I will?”
Cannon looked around. “Brinley? I nearly forgot. She’s coming?”
“Oh, yes,” Peridot said, turning to face her again. Her voice felt warm in Brinley’s ears, like the voice of a familiar friend. “This concerns her as much as anyone. Besides,” she said soothingly, turning a deep green eye to Brinley, “I promised her I would take her to her mother.”
“What about Tabitha?” Brinley asked. She turned to indicate the other girl, and was surprised to see her picking vigorously at the tips of Peridot’s wings. Apparently some stray bits of the forest had wandered out of place and landed among the feathers there. Peridot didn’t seem to mind.
Flitlitter danced off Peridot’s head and down the length of her back, jumped onto Tabitha’s shoulder, and stared back at them defiantly. Tabitha went on with her work, apparently unaware that she was being discussed.
Peridot gave a weary sigh. “Very well,” she said. “Tabitha can come as well. Now let’s be going before anyone else comes. My back is only so big.”
“I’m going to stay,” Tabitha said, backing away from them. “Flitlitter says he isn’t going, and I need to stay with him while he’s injured.”
Peridot nodded. “I hope we meet again.”
“Are you going to Belsie?” Tabitha asked, taking another step away from them. “Master Lumps says Belsie is the best healer in the world.”
Peridot smiled, but turned away without answering. Cannon mounted lightly, settling himself just behind her shoulders. Brinley followed him, stepping on Peridot’s leg to help herself up. She was surprised at how warm Peridot was. It was not unlike the warm furry belly of a house cat.
“Wait!” Tabitha said suddenly. “You need to wait for Hugo.”
“Hugo?” Peridot asked. “The prince of Caraway?”
As soon as she had said it, Hugo came walking up. He looked thoroughly frightened, and the sight of Peridot didn’t seem to help matters.
“You’re just in time!” Tabitha told him, pulling him toward the others.
“Wha—what’s going on?”
“Flitlitter says you must go with them!” Tabitha told him, bustling him onto Peridot’s back. Brinley had to scoot back to give him room.
“Bye!” Tabitha waved, walking back the way they had come.
“Good-bye, Tabitha!” Brinley called to her. She felt something tug at her insides and realized that she had begun to think of Tabitha as a friend.
“Are you ready?” Cannon asked Peridot.
She dipped her head in agreement. “Hold on,” he said. He raised his hands to his sides as he had done in the Magisterium, and Brinley laced her fingers into the fur on Peridot’s back. She didn’t want to pull Peridot’s hair, but she didn’t want to fall off either.
It came more gradually than she expected, a soft turning of leaves and grass and the golden hair from Peridot’s back. Wind built beneath them like a slow tide, swelling, lifting them away from the ground. As they picked up speed, Peridot spread her wings and they shot up, rising smoothly over the distant tree line. Brinley felt her stomach surge and grabbed Hugo around the waist as she slid backwards. Hugo gave a cry of alarm; he had forgotten she was there.
“Faster,” Peridot’s deep voice came against the sound of wind.
Brinley slipped backward again, fingers unlacing from Hugo’s waist, face and arms and chest pelted by the wind. She realized with frightening clarity that she was going to fall. She slid back farther, bent over from the wind now. She tried to shout and failed, the air blowing the words back at her. The wind died just as she toppled over backward, and a firm hand hauled her back up. She threw her arms around Hugo tightly, quite forgetting that he was a boy, and a stranger at that.
After a second, Brinley realized that the wind had stopped. “Sorry,” she said weakly, and released him. She was surprised to see that they were still flying.
“The air is passing around us,” Cannon said in explanation, reaching his hand out to the side until it brushed the edge of wind. Brinley copied him. She was reminded of sticking her hand out the window of a car on the freeway. She laughed and the lingering fear of her near fall melted away.
Cannon grinned at them over his shoulder, looking sheepish. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before.”
They passed the edge of the trees and banked high over the Magisterium. Brinley saw a tower below them and wondered if it was Tabitha’s bird tower. It seemed like she had just been there a moment ago.
They descended more quickly than Brinley would have liked, turning toward the center of the city. She thought for a moment that they might land, but they were moving too fast.
“Where are we going?” she asked Cannon when they leveled out, flying between buildings down the center of a busy street.
“The bridge,” Cannon said, pointing straight ahead. What Brinley had taken for a tall stone wall now sharpened before her eyes. It was a very long, very steep bridge jutting toward the sky. She was glad they were flying; it looked like it would be terrible to climb.
Brinley expected Peridot to bank upward before they reached the bridge. Instead, she flew straight at it. For a moment Brinley was worried they might run right into it, but at the last second Peridot gave a sharp downbeat of her wings and angled them upward. They were ten feet above the bridge, flying parallel to it. A wide straw hat spun over Peridot’s wing and Brinley looked back to see an astonished old man leading a goat. The goat looked terrified. Brinley smiled, glad to know that this type of thing was out of the ordinary for somebody other than her.
Hugo chuckled. “I bet that goat doesn’t sleep tonight,” he said.
Brinley laughed. “Giant flying lion? I bet it doesn’t sleep for a week!”
A great wall of mist rose before them and Brinley barely had time to hold her breath. She blinked in surprise, and just like that they were through it.
Everything had changed below them. The moon was bright, and she could make out a small town, tiny in comparison to the one they had just flown over. A circle of bridges surrounded the town like the spokes of a wagon wheel. Peridot turned toward one of them. She flew close to this one too, passed through the mist, and the scene changed below them once more.
A very different city lay beneath them now; this one was dirty and old looking. Houses littered the ground like speckled bugs.
Peridot descended on a dark street corner. A cat looked up from a slumping rooftop and hissed at them. They dismounted quickly and followed Peridot, shadows dancing menacingly in the unfamiliar corners of the street. Short fenced yards held tools and cans, bins and boxes, and old rusted equipment that Brinley did not recognize.
“Here.” Peridot turned at the entrance of what seemed to be a long, narrow garden. They walked under a low trellis overhung with vines that smelled faintly of milk and honey.
“Is this where Belsie lives?” Brinley whispered softly to Cannon, remembering Tabitha’s words from earlier.
“Belterras,” Cannon corrected her softly. “Only fools and little children call him Belsie. He is the Earth Mage.”
Brinley felt herself grow a little angry. Is that what he thought of Tabitha? A foolish child?
“Hush,” Peridot whispered sharply. They had come to a cobblestone path overgrown with white and purple flowers. At the end of the path there was a small door to a house of brown wood covered in the same honey-scented vines. The door stood slightly open, and there was a thin gold line of light emanating from within. Peridot pushed it open the rest of the way with a sweep of her massive paw.
The room was round and warm; everything looked to be made of a deep golden wood and painted with the pallet of sunshine. Two men stood waiting for them.
They seemed different than the wizards that Brinley had met at the Magisterium, no doubt because they were what Denmyn called “true mages.” Power hung about them like an audible hum.
The one on the left looked like the storybook depiction of a magical person, minus moons and stars and a pointy hat. He looked stern. Belterras, she supposed, was the one on the right. He was large, with a happy fat belly wrapped in robes the color of the earth in spring; a necklace of pine nuts and turquoise bluebirds hung loosely about his neck, with brown curly locks of hair cascading across it from a kind face.
The stern man saw them first, eyes snapping open, gray looking out from a stark field of white. He raised his hand and pointed at them in a commanding way. Brinley froze, unable to move. Her arms suddenly felt both heavy and brittle at her sides, as if they might break off.
“Cassis!” Peridot’s voice rushed over the room like warm water, and the grey mage put his hand down hastily, eyes widening in recognition.
“Peridot!” he exclaimed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think it could really be you. This has been a night of illusion for us, and danger.”
“Peridot,” Belterras said, his round face breaking into a relieved smile. “Friends! Welcome! Come in, and may my home be yours.” He actually hugged Peridot around the neck, which was a thing Brinley didn’t know you could do.
“Where is my master?” Cannon asked them, peering around as if he might find the mage sitting in a corner.
“Come,” Belterras said, “we have much to discuss, and you must be hungry from your trip. Oh my.” He had caught sight of Peridot’s wound.
Without another word he passed a hand over the wound and whispered something, twirling a finger around the small bloody hole in a gentle fashion. A barbed piece of wood emerged from the wound and clattered to the floor. Peridot gave a snarl, eyes closed against the pain. She stomped one great paw vehemently in protest and the floor shook.
“Hand me that,” Belterras said to Hugo, slapping a big hand on the boy’s shoulder and pointing him toward an empty pie tin. Hugo retrieved it and Peridot lay so that the wound was just over the tin. Belterras placed two fingers in a careful way along her chest over the wound.
He bent close, whispering something in a language that Brinley had never heard before. He repeated the words a half a dozen times before Peridot growled again, shivering. Her whole back rippled with the effect, and her head fell to the floor with a thud. Blood began streaming freely out of the wound and Belterras nudged the tin to the left with a stumpy finger to catch it. There was so much of it. Too much, Brinley thought. But Peridot was large and strong, and soon it was over; the blood slowed rapidly, returning to a drip.
“Good, good,” Belterras said. “You will be fine. This could use a poultice. If you have strength, we can all go into the kitchen while I make it, and you can tell us what is going on. Hold this here, boy.” He handed Hugo a cloth to hold against the wound as they moved into the other room.
As soon as they entered, Peridot walked to the fire and lay down before the hearth, falling asleep almost instantly.
“She will need to rest after that,” Belterras nodded approvingly. “At least a few minutes.”
The kitchen was a long rectangular room with a sandstone fireplace at one end and a large deep sink at the other. A long island stood in the middle beneath a cascading array of shiny brass pots. Cannon and Cassis took seats on the high stools next to the counter while Belterras brought out a basket of bread. He sliced it slowly, arranging it on a plate. Then he brought out cheese, fruit, and a small side of dried meat. Cassis shot him a half-angry look. “I hope she is not out for long, Belterras. It may have been prudent to speak with her before you anesthetized her.”
“I did no such thing, Cassis,” Belterras said, coming to a halt in the middle of his work. “I healed her, that’s all. This,” he continued, waving his long knife in Peridot’s direction, “is the result of fatigue, nothing more. The healing took the last of her strength.”
“And who are you?” Cassis said to Hugo.
“Where are our manners?” Belterras interrupted. The big man set down his mortar and pestle and crossed the kitchen, taking up Hugo’s free hand and shaking it warmly. “I am Belterras. And this stern fellow,” he said, pointing at the gray-robed man, “is Cassis, Mage of Metal and Stone.”
Hugo looked up at him. “And you are the Mage of Earth,” he said. “I met you once with my father.”
“Ah, then you are Hugo. I thought you looked Paradisiacal,” Belterras smiled kindly. “And who, might I ask, is the spirit with you? Can you feel it, Cassis?”
The other mage’s eyes narrowed. “Yes, I see what you mean. A ghost of some sort, perhaps.”
Brinley felt a lump in her throat, and Hugo tried to answer them. “Oh, you mean Br—”
“That,” Cannon cut in loudly, “is a matter for Peridot to explain, as apparently only she understands it.”
The two mages looked at him, one stern, the other puzzled. Brinley remembered how guarded Cannon had seemed earlier when she had asked him about her mother. She wondered if he knew more about her than he was letting on.
“Now,” Cannon pressed on, “what can you tell me about my master?”
“Nothing,” Cassis retorted sharply, “with this princeling in the room. Send him away, Belterras.”
Belterras looked apologetically at Hugo. “He is right. This is not a discussion for you. Peridot brought you here, so she may decide what to tell you. For now,” he said, retrieving an empty bucket from under the counter, “you can fill this with flour. It’s in the pantry, first door on the left.” He indicated a small hallway opposite the door they came in.
Hugo scowled. “You have to tell me what they say,” he whispered to the empty air as he left, hoping that Brinley was there to hear him.
“The door on the left,” Belterras reminded him.
Hugo crossed the room without a word and disappeared down the hallway.
“It feels like a child,” Belterras mused, staring at the place where Brinley stood.
“The other idris?” Cassis asked sharply.
“I don’t think so.”
“She isn’t,” Cannon assured them. “I tested her myself. She appeared at the Magisterium, and claims to have come from Ert.”
Cassis’s brows drew together in confusion. “I don’t understand.”
“Well,” Cannon started, then thought better of it. “Neither do I, really.”
Belterras waved a hand dismissively. “If Peridot trusts her, that’s enough for me.”
Brinley felt frustrated. She wanted to shout out, telling them that she was right there. Obviously she could hear them. Then she stopped herself, thinking that she would have a better chance of learning something if she kept quiet.
“What did you mean before? About the other idris?” Cannon asked.
“We caught the idris that visited Animus.”
“You did?” Cannon seemed as if he might burst at the seams. “What did it say? Did it tell you what became of him?”
“Cannon,” Belterras began, but Cassis interrupted him. “The Magemother has been captured.”
Cannon stared at them in disbelief. “What do you mean captured? Nobody can capture the Magemother, can they?”
“Almost nobody,” Belterras agreed.
“This is why Animus left,” Cassis explained. “The idris came to him with a promise to take him to the Magemother.”
“Surely he didn’t believe it?”
“He did and he didn’t, I’m sure.”
“And you have heard nothing from him?”
In which Hugo is foolish
Hugo moved down the hallway. Sure enough, he heard a low murmur of voices start up as soon as he left the room. He thought about turning around to eavesdrop on them, but decided against it. They were mages, after all; maybe they could tell when someone was listening to them. He would just have to get Brinley to tell him what he missed. He hoped she would. Hugo got the feeling that she didn’t really trust him yet. She was shy, he sensed, and shy people often take a while to warm up to you.
He reached for the handle of the door on the left. Just as he was about to turn it, he heard something and stopped, listening. He put his ear to the door, but the sound didn’t seem to be coming from inside. He crossed the hall to the opposite door. A sound filtered through it, a faint whimpering, like the noise a dog might make. He almost went in, but remembered what he was supposed to be about. It wasn’t polite to go snooping around in someone else’s house—not that that would have stopped him—and mages probably shouldn’t be messed with. He went back to the door on the left and turned the handle. It was locked. He sighed and took a step back toward the kitchen. There was the noise again. It was clear this time: a small child crying. He tried the handle, but this one was locked too. What was going on? Why would Belterras lock a child in his house?
The child screamed.
Instinctively, Hugo threw his body against the door. It sprung inward with a crack as the latch broke.
Hugo stumbled through the doorway onto a secluded patio. High walls shielded the space from the street beyond. Bins and bags and barrels lined the walls. Then he saw the source of the noise: a little boy sitting between the barrels, knees held against his chest, hands pressed to his eyes, weeping.
“Hello?” Hugo said, taking a step forward curiously.
The boy stopped crying and looked up. “H—hi,” he said in a terrified voice, lowering his hands slightly. He was dressed in rags and had a large black bruise over one eye.
“Are you okay?”
“He c-caught me,” the boy stammered.
“The gray w-wizard!” the boy looked scared at the thought.
“Cassis? What do you mean he caught you? What were you doing?” Hugo took a step closer, lowering himself onto a bucket. The boy was only a couple years younger than himself.
“He caught me stealing,” the boy said. He let out a heaving sigh; now that the truth was out, he seemed to relax a bit. “I’m not proud of it,” he went on, “but I have to eat, you know. I didn’t know that a wizard lived here.”
“Well,” Hugo said, then stopped. He wasn’t really sure how he felt about it. He had never gone without a meal in his life. He knew there were beggars in some places—faraway places, he had thought. Stealing was wrong, of course, but the boy before him looked so pitiful that Hugo was having a hard time judging him. He settled on a neutral tack. “I can see why Cassis was angry, but he seems nice enough to me. I’m sure you can work it off or—”
“No!” the boy shouted, starting to cry again. “He hates me! He beat me!”
Hugo looked at the large bruise over the boy’s eye. It certainly seemed fresh, but Hugo couldn’t imagine one of the mages beating a child.
“Hugo?” he heard someone calling faintly from the kitchen.
“Help me, please!” The boy scrambled up, taking his arm and shaking it. “Please!”
“Well, I don’t think—”
“Hugo?” the voice came again, louder this time. He could hear the sound of someone moving in the kitchen.
“Please!” The boy shook the little gate in the wall. The sound jingled down the alley. “Just unlock the gate for me!” He stretched his hand as high as he could. “I can’t reach it! Just let me out! I promise I’ll come back. I’ll pay him, I’ll pay him. Please!” The boy was screaming now, shaking him, placing his hand on the gate. Someone was running down the hall.
Hugo moved without thinking, reaching high to turn the lock. As soon as he did, the boy bolted out into the street.
“No!” Cassis cried from the doorway. He crossed the patio in one step, jostling Hugo roughly as he bounded into the street, but the boy was gone.
At the look on Cassis’s face, Hugo knew he had made a mistake. It didn’t make sense, though. Cassis wouldn’t lock up a street boy just for stealing some food, would he?
“Oh,” Cassis said, his voice filling up with a quiet rage as he made his way back from the street. “You have no idea what you have done.”
“Sorry,” Hugo said, trying not to be intimidated. Cassis looked like he was going to explode. His skin flashed, suddenly reflecting the light like polished steel, and his eyes turned the color of hot iron. “Cassis!” Hugo exclaimed. “I don’t understand!”
At his words, the red left the mage’s eyes. “No,” he said coolly, “I suppose you wouldn’t.” Hugo started to say something else, but Cassis cut him off, reaching out to place his hand over Hugo’s eyes.
Hugo blinked, pushing Cassis’s hand away. Then he understood. He could see it now. The patio wasn’t a patio at all, there was no gate, no high wall, no street on the other side, just an empty stone cell with one high, iron barred window, which was broken. Cassis swept back into the house, pushing Hugo before him. “Belterras!” he shouted. “Belterras! The idris has escaped!”
Hugo apologized more in the next five minutes than he had in his whole life. Belterras assured him that it wasn’t his fault, while Cassis continued to chew him out for his stupidity.
“You must have magic in you, boy, to break those bars, even under illusion like you were. It shouldn’t have been possible,” Belterras said.
Hugo said nothing. Inside, deep down, there was a flutter of excitement. Of recognition. Magic? Was Belterras being serious?
Cannon cleared his throat, trying to steer the conversation elsewhere. “How [_did _]you catch the idris?”
“It came to us,” Belterras explained. “Walked right up to our door with the same story that it gave to Animus. The Magemother’s been taken, trapped and dying in the Wizard’s Ire. Cassis was quick enough to bind it, thankfully.”
“So,” Cannon said, his face going white. “That’s where he went. The Wizard’s Ire. The dead forest.”
“Now wait just a minute, lad,” Belterras said, rising. “I know what you’re thinking, but it’s no use. He won’t be there anymore.”
“You wouldn’t last a minute in the Ire anyway,” Cassis said.
“None of you would.”
The new voice made them all turn. Peridot was rising from beside the fireplace. “Take heart, Cannon,” she said. “I barely survived the forest myself. Animus was safe when last I saw him, but he is no longer there. I am sure of it.”
Cannon seemed to relax.
Peridot turned to Belterras. “Thank you, my friend,” she said, “I do not know how much longer I would have lasted.”
Belterras inclined his head graciously.
“Enough pleasantries!” Cassis said impatiently. “We have wasted too much time already.”
Peridot gave him a sharp look and he softened. “You know that the Magemother was captured,” she said. “Animus has freed her, but only for a time. She is weak.”
The mages went pale.
“The darkness has overcome the light,” she said, and a look of horror spread across Cassis’s face. Belterras looked like he would be sick.
“Lux…?” Cassis asked.
“Is gone,” she finished. “That which walks in his place now is less than whole.”
There was a long silence.
“Do not fear,” Peridot said. “His plan to destroy the rest of you has failed…” Her great voice broke, the smooth sound of it faltering like the wrong note in a song. “The Magemother,” she said slowly, “may not survive the death of Lux.” She waited for a moment, letting that sink in. Brinley wasn’t sure exactly what that meant for her, but she could sense a deep sadness creeping into the room.
“You must all go to the castle,” Peridot said. “Tennebris has failed in one part of his plan. He will strike at the king next. You must be there to help.
“It doesn’t matter,” Cassis spat bitterly.
“He’s right,” Belterras said. He sounded more sad than angry. “If the Magemother dies, we will not survive.”
Peridot cocked her head. “You may yet,” she said gently. “That is why I must take the girl to her now.”
The mages scrutinized Peridot curiously.
“Brinley?” Cannon asked.
“The spirit that is with you?” Belterras said.
“It is not a spirit at all then,” Cassis broke in, nodding.
“It is a child,” Peridot said, taking Brinley under her wing so that they could see the outline of her.
Belterras spoke in a whisper, “Where will you take her?”
“I will take her to her mother, if I can,” Peridot said, turning slowly on the spot and sweeping Brinley out of the room. “I will meet you at the castle as soon as I can. You should take Hugo there.”
“Where is he?” Belterras said, looking around.
Cannon swore under his breath then, and Peridot turned back around to glare at him.
“I’ll check the back,” Cassis said, heading for the hallway. “Is he foolish enough to do what I think he has done?”
“Oh, yes,” Cannon said, following Cassis out of the kitchen. “I think he is.”
In which there are witches
As soon as he was no longer the center of attention, Hugo slipped away.
He slunk back down the hallway and onto the little patio that wasn’t a patio. He wanted to be alone. He hadn’t felt this ashamed since Sir Eagn and his cousin had convinced him that a young lady had a crush on him. She didn’t, of course, and they had mocked him for a solid month afterward. He hated being deceived. He had been angry with the knights, but then, he expected such things from them. He didn’t expect to be fooled by a little boy, even if it [_was _]an idris. He should have known better.
He stopped pacing and leaned out of the gate.
A pair of eyes stared back at him. They were peering around the corner across the street.
He took a step toward them, then broke into a run as he realized who they belonged to. It was the boy! It had to be! He paused. Maybe he should go back and get the mages. He could tell them that the idris was right outside. But if he did, the boy would probably just run again. If he could just get the idris back, lure him back to Belterras’s house somehow, he could redeem himself. He had to try.
He set off, running to the red brick store where the boy was still peeking at him, but as soon as he got close, the boy vanished.
He chased glimpses of the boy across town for several minutes, down alleyways, through a broken fence behind an old mill, and into the forest.
“Not again,” he groaned. He had just gotten [_out _]of the forest. He almost turned back then, but something stirred in the distance. There it was again, between two trees. Was it the boy?
He would just check and see, then he would go back.
Twenty minutes later he was still searching; whatever he had seen earlier had vanished. He made a large half circle through the trees and doubled back to the trail he had found. He would take it back into town.
As he walked he thought about what Belterras had said. Magic. Could it be true that there was magic in him? Wouldn’t he be able to tell somehow? He wished there was somebody he could ask.
He thought of Lux. He thought of how the mage had come out of nowhere at the sound of his name. [_That _]was magic. If he spoke the name now, would Lux appear? Maybe the mage could answer his questions about magic.
He stopped short. There was something ahead of him, dimly visible atop a fallen tree. He couldn’t tell what it was, only that it didn’t belong. It twitched, and he jumped, then let out a nervous laugh.
It was just a magpie.
Hugo chided himself for being so skittish. He was about to move on when he saw something else. It was a shadowy thing, another bird, he thought, but huge! Bigger than any bird he had ever seen. Bigger even than the giant eagles. It drifted down from the trees like a ghost, its wings silent against the night air. It drifted straight toward the magpie, its talons reaching out like deadly invitations. “Move!” he breathed, and he wasn’t sure whether he was talking to the magpie or himself.
The smaller bird tried to fly away at the last moment, but it was too late; claws pierced it and lifted it into the air.
Hugo gave a little shout, and the giant owl turned its heart-shaped face on him. In that moment Hugo was sure of two things: it really [_was _]the Kutha, and he didn’t want to be here anymore.
He knew running through an unfamiliar forest in the dark was asking for trouble, but still he ran. He didn’t stop, not even for a moment. He knew that if he looked behind him, even once, that owl would be there—or worse, it wouldn’t be there, and then he would know that it was just out of sight somewhere above, hunting him.
Hugo stopped running sometime later when he finally realized that he was lost. He hadn’t been paying any attention to where he was going. He thought back on it now, trying to remember which direction he had run when he fled from the owl, but he couldn’t piece it together.
“Great,” he said bitterly. His voice sounded small in the endless expanse of dark trees. Moonlight filtered faintly through them, providing just enough light to make his way without running into anything. He moved slowly, scrutinizing the forest floor as he went. Nothing seemed familiar. There was no path, no trail.
He heard a faint rustling in the trees and spun around. He caught a flash of brown. He felt his heart start to beat faster and he stumbled backward. Why was this thing chasing him? How was he going to get away from it?
It was at that moment, as Hugo jumped between two trees, that he remembered the bell. It happened because his leg bumped the tree as he jumped, and he felt the hard bulge of the bell in his pants pocket. A second later he had it out, and was ringing it wildly as he ran. He didn’t think for a second how silly he might look, running through the forest at night, alone, ringing a little bell. He wanted help, he wanted someone to come—anyone, and he was willing to try anything. He was still running, ringing the bell and glancing behind him. Presently, as he rang the bell again, a giant gong sounded over his head and he collided with something soft, tumbling to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs.
“Ouch! Yes, it’s me. What’s going on? Ouch! You’re stepping on my face!”
“Sorry.” Hugo bent down to help her stand but she brushed him off.
“How did I get here?” she said, staring around. “Where are we?”
“I don’t know exactly,” Hugo said awkwardly. “Somewhere in the forest. We can’t be far from the city. How did you get here?”
“I was just with Peridot,” she explained, brushing herself off. “We were looking for you. Then there was this sound like a giant bell—just like when I came through the church—but this time it was like it was trying to pull me to it.” Brinley had noticed the bell in his hand. “What is that? Is that what brought me here?” She reached for it, but he whisked it back into his pocket.
“Oh,” he said, blushing. “It’s nothing—I mean, it [_is _]a bell obviously. I—uh—got into a bit of trouble and so I rang it, and, well, I guess it worked.”
“Where did you get it?”
“From Archibald. It’s supposed to summon the Magemother.”
“He gave it to you?”
Hugo shuffled his feet uncomfortably. “Well, not exactly,” he admitted. “During all the excitement in the Hall of Records it nearly fell out of Archibald’s pocket, and I, er—picked it up.
“You stole it,” she said shortly. “Aren’t you the prince? You stole it, and you were trying to summon the Magemother with it to help you?”
Hugo blushed. “I didn’t really think it through. I’ve tried it before, and so has Archibald. But the bell never works.”
“Except for when it brought me to that library.”
“Right,” Hugo said, then he looked back at her again sharply. “Wait, it did?”
“I think so. And it brought me here just now.”
“Well,” Hugo was fiddling uncomfortably with his pocket. “Yeah, I guess. But it’s supposed to summon the Magemother, not you.” As soon as he said it, he regretted it. It sounded rude. “Well,” he laughed weakly. “Maybe [_you’re _]the Magemother.”
She shrugged. “I don’t know what that means.” She thought for a moment. “Can I try ringing the bell?”
Hugo looked startled. “Why?”
“Well,” she said slowly, “this might not make any sense, but if the bell is supposed to summon the Magemother, and it summons me instead, what will happen when [_I _]ring it?”
Hugo considered it. “It’s worth a shot, I guess,” he said. He took it out and it vanished from his hand as Brinley snatched it up. Apparently anything she held became invisible too.
It was small and light, not at all the kind of thing you would expect to make a loud noise. She rang it firmly, then dropped it and clamped her hands over her ears as the gong rang out right above her head.
“Well,” she said, “it was worth a shot.” She bent down to pick up the bell. “Do you want it back?”
“You keep it,” he said.
“But it might be useful if we get separated again,” she insisted.
“It isn’t mine. You should hold on to it.”
“Well, let’s not stand here arguing about it,” she said in exasperation, stowing it in the pocket of her jeans. She eyed the dark trees nervously. “I don’t like the looks of this place.”
With a jolt, Hugo remembered why he had needed help in the first place. There was no sign of the owl now, but there was no telling when it might be back. “We should go,” he said.
He picked a direction, giving his best guess as to the way he had come in the darkness, and they set off.
“I’m glad I’m here,” Brinley said a moment later.
“You are? I mean—you aren’t mad?”
“No,” Brinley said. “Why would I be? I mean, I was surprised, being in one place one second and then being clobbered by you the next, but I’m glad I found you.”
“Me too,” Hugo agreed. “I just hope we can find our way out before it finds us.”
“Before what finds us?” Brinley asked, coming to a stop beside him.
Hugo told her about the Kutha.
“You have owls that big here?”
He could tell by the timbre of her voice that she was afraid. “No,” he said, dropping his voice to a whisper. “That’s the thing. This owl is famous—legendary, even—and not in a good way. It’s supposed to be trapped in the Wizard’s Ire! I don’t know how it could have got out. Nothing is supposed to get out of the Ire. That’s the point.”
“Look,” Brinley whispered. “Is this a path?”
She was right. It was faint, but it was definitely a path.
A few more minutes went by and Hugo began to think they were going in the wrong direction. They couldn’t have been this far in.
“There’s a light ahead!” Brinley said excitedly.
“Hold on a minute.”
Hugo was thinking. That light was in the middle of the forest still, and they should be making their way out.
“Let’s see what it is,” Brinley said.
“Hold [_on _]a minute.” Something was tugging at the back of Hugo’s mind.
“I’m going. Maybe there’s someone there who can help us.”
“Wait,” Hugo followed her footsteps down the path. It widened into a small road and joined with others. This was no campsite. There were little huts among the trees, and a few buildings big enough to be called houses. Most of them were dark, but the largest one had light pouring out of every window. This was a town. That might be good, or it might be bad. He wished bitterly that he had paid more attention in his geography lessons. There were a few small towns in the Norwood. Stilthig was one of them…or was it Stirling? That would be okay. Kokum was another. That would be very bad.
Two shadows were making their way along a path toward the road they were on. He slowed to hear their conversation, trying to sink back into the shadows so as not to be noticed.
A squeaky voice pierced the night air sharply. “Come on, Pike, don’t dawdle. If the Kutha gets you, you’re on your own. Serves you right. A team of snails would move faster. Maybe I’ll just hire some and have done with you.” Her words were punctuated by raspy grunts as she labored along the path. She must have been very old for walking to be that hard. It sounded like she was using a cane too; Hugo could hear the tip slapping against the underbrush as she moved.
The woman stepped through a moonbeam and Hugo caught a glimpse of her. She had a face that looked like a fish—all nose and lifted chin, with odd teeth sprouting here and there. She passed out of the light and into darkness as quickly as she had come. The man that followed her could have been a gorilla. He was tall, hairy, and walked bent low to the ground. He was pushing a little wooden wheelbarrow, which was much too small for him. It struck Hugo as very strange. It might have looked almost comical somewhere else, but in the middle of the night, it was just creepy.
“C’mon, Marchy,” said the gorilla-man in a deep, unintelligent sort of voice. “I’m’a doin’ me besties.
Hugo’s lip curled. That name…Marchy…Marchy…March…He racked his brain. He should know it.
“Hush up,” she said in a sharp whisper, and the lumbering man fell silent. “You there!” she croaked, looking straight at Hugo.
Hugo went stiff.
“Why are you skulking like that?” she demanded. “If you’re trying to knife me in the dark, you’ve got a nasty surprise waiting for you.”
“Oh, no,” Hugo said hastily, moving out from the shadows. “I mean, I’m just on my way to the inn.” He hoped there [_was _]an inn in this town. This lady gave him the creeps.
“The inn, eh?” the woman grinned. “Well, get on[_ _]your way then.”
Hugo jumped back onto the street. He thought he could hear Brinley’s soft steps beside him. He quickened his pace, not wanting to be overtaken by the old lady again. When they reached the inn, Hugo stopped. Something that smelled like sour cider was wafting from an open window and he could hear the rumble of voices inside. He paused under the sign; it had been too dark to see it from the street. A great owl was carved into the wood. It had a heart-shaped face, and there was something hanging from its talons: an emerald green salamander. His blood went cold. This was Kokum, the witches’ village. How had they come so far south? He shouldn’t be here. Not ever. Definitely not in the middle of the night, dressed like the prince of Caraway. The witches of Kokum had been the mortal enemies of his family for generations.
He turned around, but the old woman was right behind him. He remembered who she was; the March Witch had been banished to the Wizard’s Ire a hundred years ago when she was caught trying to throw his great grandfather—then a baby—into the river. If she had escaped and made it all the way to Kokum without being caught, he didn’t want to be anywhere near here. He reached up hastily and folded down his shirt collar, hiding the salamander. He might as well just introduce himself if he was going to sport the king’s crest on his clothing.
“Stay close and be quiet,” he whispered under his breath. Brinley had no way of knowing what kind of danger they were in. If she did anything that drew attention to them they would likely pay for it with their lives. He pushed the door open and ducked inside, sliding past a group of people without looking at them. He would make his way to a corner and then hope nobody noticed him. Maybe there was a back door. No, then he’d have to go through the kitchen. He sat down at a vacant table in the taproom, trying not to stand out.
He did stand out, though. Indeed, any normal person would have; the taproom was a spook alley. There was a witch with black skin and black eyes that looked like bugs had crawled into them, a witch wearing a hat with a dead hawk on it, and another witch that might have been a man. This last one had a head that looked more like a third shoulder. Hugo couldn’t look at him too long without gagging; he had a peculiar wart-like hairy bump on his neck with a yellow tooth growing out of it.
“Sneak away while you can,” he whispered to Brinley.
For a second, he thought she hadn’t heard him. Maybe she had already left. But then a hand touched his shoulder. “We’ll get out together.”
But there was no place to go. If he got up now and left just as he had come in, he was sure to be noticed. They didn’t just need to get out either, they needed to get out without being chased. After all, they were a long way from help now. Even if they could get out of the inn, there was no way they were going to escape if anyone in there figured out just who Hugo was.
In which Archibald fights a giant
Tabitha met Archibald halfway down the hill next to the lake. He was leading Pilfer and looking very much like a man in a hurry.
“I saw a great beast fly by,” he said excitedly, hurrying up to her. “Was it Peridot? Do you know?”
“It was Peridot,” Tabitha said. “Peridot, and the wizard Cannon, and Prince Hugo, and my friend Brinley.”
“You know Brinley?”
“Yes,” Tabitha said patiently. “I told you, she’s my friend.”
“How did my pony end up all the way out here?” Archibald asked, collecting himself.
“Oh,” Tabitha said, “We took him. He’s been wonderful, except for when Peridot roared. He didn’t like that much.”
“No,” Archibald said, “I don’t suppose he would have.”
In that moment, Tabitha and Archibald realized that they did not actually know each other, so they introduced themselves. Tabitha, who usually did not make friends easily (human friends, that is), decided that since Pilfer seemed to trust Archibald, she could too. “We have to go to Caraway Castle,” she informed him, taking the reins out of his hands and turning Pilfer around.
“Excuse me,” he said incredulously. “Whatever for?”
“Well,” she said, considering the question. She was walking ahead now, which forced Archibald to follow her. “I suppose I don’t know exactly—but Flitlitter says so.”
“Yes,” she said, and introduced him to the magpie on her shoulder. “Flitlitter knows lots of things. He is usually very quiet, and never brings any news. He just listens…but not today. Today he knows things.”
“Really?” Archibald asked absently. He was searching the sky for Peridot and the others. It looked like they had flown back toward the Magisterium, but he had lost them behind the clouds.
“Oh, yes,” Tabitha continued, “Flitlitter was the one that told me about Peridot in the first place.”
“Really?” Archibald said again, more interested than before.
“Yes, and now he says that we must go to the castle!”
Archibald gave a half smile. “Does he say why?”
Tabitha screwed up her mouth in concentration as Flitlitter let out a series of small, gurgling squawks.
“The king is in danger,” she interpreted.
Archibald hesitated. There was still Hugo to consider. “Do you know what has become of the prince?” he asked her.
“He’s safe,” Tabitha said. “He went with Peridot and the others.”
That was all Archibald needed to hear. Wherever they had gone, it was out of his hands now. If the king was in danger, that was where he needed to be.
“Very well,” he said, and together they turned toward the Magisterium.
For the first time in her life, Tabitha did not return to her tower. She wanted to, but she didn’t; she was too afraid that she would get caught up with the birds and forget to leave with Archibald when the morning came. Accordingly, she slept in a little chamber beside his. They rose early, ate a quick breakfast, and left for Caraway without delay.
It didn’t take long for them to warm up to each other; Tabitha was very curious, and Archibald loved to teach. There were many things that Tabitha knew as well, things that most people don’t—such as the secret life of birds—and Archibald was just as good a student as he was a teacher.
This was how they found themselves late in the afternoon on the day after they had separated from the others. They were walking down a forest road in the opposite direction that Archibald had come days before, and Tabitha was pointing out a magpie nest high in a tree that they were passing. She was explaining how magpie nests are often large and domed on top, and very soft inside except for the ceiling, which is left rough to let the breeze in, and how lovely they are when magpies are in them, but that they can fall into disrepair or be taken over by owls if the magpie leaves for too long.
As they were talking, they spotted the owner of the nest, and Flitlitter, who had been sitting on Pilfer’s rump and picking bugs off of him for a snack, flew into the air to greet it.
The other magpie let out a vehement squawk and Flitlitter withdrew.
“That bird seems to be very territorial,” Archibald commented.
“Something’s wrong,” Tabitha told him, looking around.
“I don’t know—oh, look!”
Archibald looked up quickly to where she pointed, and there, high in the tree, he saw the source of the disturbance. A giant barn owl, larger than a horse, had drifted out of nowhere. Its heart-shaped face was the color of ash.
Tabitha held her breath as its wings spread outward. It held them there, white wings high against the daylight so that she could see its bones through the feathers. Its dark eyes were locked on the magpie in the nest, talons reaching out carefully.
There was a hush as the owl alighted softly on the nest. Then it turned and flew away without so much as a backward glance, the lifeless body of a magpie dangling from its talons.
“That was a very bad owl,” Tabitha said darkly.
Archibald shivered. “That was no owl.”
“What do you mean?” Tabitha asked.
“It was—”Archibald gave a small start and cut himself off. He had looked back down from the trees to find a small boy, dressed in rags, standing right beside them. He must have walked up when they were distracted by the owl. The boy was patting Pilfer on the nose. Apart from his sudden arrival, there was something in the boy’s eyes that made Archibald feel uneasy.
“Sorry,” the boy said shyly. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”
“Just startled us, is all,” Archibald said hastily, gathering himself. “Who are you?”
The boy didn’t answer.
Tabitha was tugging at Archibald’s coat, trying to get his attention, but he shrugged her off. He didn’t want to take his eyes off the boy. “Where are you going?”
“Where are you going?” the boy repeated. “Do you have any food?”
Archibald slid a piece of cheese out of Pilfer’s saddle bag and handed it to the boy. Tabitha was still sitting behind him, tugging on his sleeve.
“Here you are,” Archibald said. “Now, where are you going?”
“Really? Why? Ninebridge is closer. You could get a meal there.”
“I have to deliver something to the king.”
“You? Deliver something to the king? What?”
Tabitha yanked hard on his sleeve.
“What message? From whom?”
The boy bit off a piece of cheese. “From my master.”
Archibald felt a little chill. He was remembering how Cannon had described the idris. Tabitha was practically bouncing up and down behind him now.
“The boy is bad!” she whispered desperately. “Flitlitter says the boy is bad!”
Archibald dug in his heels to spur Pilfer forward, but the boy had hold of the reins too. Pilfer gave a jolt, but the boy’s grip was unnaturally strong. The pony pulled and pulled, but he could not break free.
The boy smiled. Then in the blink of an eye, he was no longer a boy. A giant stood in his place, two times the size of a normal man. His body was tall and graceful, rippled with muscle and naked except for a pair of short, sheepskin pants. He had mean eyes and a twisted face.
“GO GO GO!”
Pilfer reared up and turned, streaking off through the trees. Flitlitter took to the air and darted away—going for help, Tabitha hoped. Archibald bent close over the pony’s neck to avoid hanging branches; Tabitha was squeezing him tight from behind. They could hear the cracking of brush and branches behind them that meant they were being followed.
Tabitha screamed as Pilfer lurched forward. They plummeted down a ravine into a dry riverbed. A moment later they heard a giant clash of stone and dirt as the idris leapt down behind them.
Before he could catch them, the riverbed opened into a meadow and the giant stumbled in the afternoon sun, missing a step. That one stumble is what saved them. The giant’s outstretched fist missed Pilfer’s head and slammed into the grass instead, making a deep impression.
Archibald threw Tabitha off of the pony and turned to face the idris.
“RUN!” he bellowed. He flipped his cane over and let it slip through his hand until he held it by the very tip, swinging the heavy silver ram’s head in the air, and charged.
Cannon hesitated before leaving with the other mages for Caraway. After searching for Hugo for a few minutes, it had been determined that the mages would depart for Caraway while Peridot and Brinley continued the search for Hugo alone. Now Cannon was having second thoughts, but not about Hugo. He was thinking about Archibald.
“Aren’t you coming?” Belterras asked him. They had stepped out into the little garden.
“I’ll catch up with you,” Cannon said, and watched as the mages shrank out of sight in a slip of light. He caught a faint glimpse of a small yellow bird before it disappeared above the vines; a canary carrying a small, stern-looking stone. He had to admit, it was impressive that Cassis could make even a stone look stern.
Cannon felt bad for leaving Archibald behind when he had made his entrance with Peridot, and he was wondering what had become of him. On top of that, if the king truly was in danger, he knew that Archibald would never forgive himself for being anywhere else. Decision made, he wrapped the wind around him and flew.
An hour later he found Archibald fending off a giant. An idris, he realized numbly. How it had made the journey here so quickly, he could not imagine. This must be the other idris, he realized.
He dropped out of the wind next to Archibald and sent a tornado to collide with the giant’s head. “How on earth are you still alive, Archibald?” he asked, impressed. Archibald, it seemed, had been fending off the giant with nothing more than his cane and his courage.
Archibald stooped a little, breathing hard. “Sheer stubbornness, I expect.” He glanced back up at the giant, which was trying to duck out of the wind swirling around its head. “It’s high time you showed up. I don’t know how much longer I could have held him on my own.”
“I almost didn’t come at all.” Cannon raised his hands and the tornado snatched up the carcass of a dead tree. It twirled in the air and then slapped the giant several times across the face. The idris lifted one hand to block it, but the long end twisted around to attack from behind. The idris swung a huge fist toward them in retaliation and they scrambled out of the way. Archibald was surprisingly quick on his feet, Cannon thought. The older man dashed forward deftly and struck the giant just below the knee with his cane. His blow landed with a curiously loud thud, and the giant howled in pain, limping to the side. It seemed to have had enough, for it turned abruptly and ran in the opposite direction. Wind-borne rocks and sticks were still pelting its face, and Cannon gave a satisfied smile. “Interesting cane,” he commented, eyeing it curiously.
“Been in the family for years,” Archibald said, flipping it over and holding it like a cane once more. “It has come in handy more times than I could count.”
“No doubt.” Cannon raised an eyebrow. “Archibald, is something wrong?”
Archibald was casting about with a worried look on his face. “Tabitha,” he said. “The bird girl from the Magisterium. She has been my traveling companion for the last day or so, but I seem to have lost her.”
Just then they heard a high-pitched scream. They turned to stare at the place where the idris had run into the woods.
Archibald ran. Cannon ran too, then leapt into the air and was carried by the wind in a jump that arced over the band of trees in front of them. Archibald ran faster. It took him a minute to make his way through the stand of trees, and by the time he did there was no idris. There was no Tabitha either, just Cannon standing there with a puzzled look on his face, holding a shoe. Tabitha’s shoe, he realized in horror.
She was gone.
In which there is a plan
Unlike Hugo, Pike and the March Witch fit in quite nicely when they entered the little inn; their oddness was the norm here. The little company seemed to have been waiting for them, and the room fell into an expectant silence.
“Sisters,” March said, taking a place at the head of the bar. “We are all here.”
Many nods answered her, and one voice, which to Hugo’s dismay issued from the person at the little table next to him, said, “So it is true, you have returned…”
He had been trying not to look at that particular witch since he’d sat down. She wore loose fitting yellow clothing made of what he had first taken to be leather. Now, looking at it more closely, he was sure that it was human skin. An empty translucent glove was sewn onto the end of each shirtsleeve, and the nails were still on the ends of the fingers. The witch had a voice like a whisper, but it carried to every corner of the taproom. Hugo got the sense that even some of the other witches felt uneasy at hearing her speak. “How did you do this thing?”
March nodded in acknowledgment of her question, then spoke to the room at large.
“Sisters, is the coven proved?”
Hugo paled as a half a dozen faces turned to him and pointed their fingers.
“He is a stranger here,” someone said.
Hugo jumped to his feet. “Sorry,” he said, and half ran to the door. “I’ll go.”
The March Witch gave a cackling laugh. “Sit him down,” she said. “He stays.”
Strong hands grabbed Hugo, forcing him into a chair. His hand went to the sword at his waist, but it was gone. He tried to stand up again and received a slap in the face that stung like lightning. “Rise again and I’ll take your head off, boy.” He blinked. The woman who had slapped him was burlier than any man he’d ever seen. She had no teeth, no hair, and no shirt. She held his sword casually in one hand. He decided to stay where he was.
“There,” the whisper witch said, drawing them all to a shuddering silence again. “Now that that’s settled. How did you escape?”
The March Witch gave her a withering look, but relented.
“Long ago,” she began, “when the world was young, the gods gave power to the mages. Only one man opposed them. He fought to keep power out of the hands of the mages. His name was Shael.”
Hugo shuddered. He had heard the story before, but he knew hearing it from the March Witch herself would be different.
“We know our history, March,” the whisper witch hissed. “Get on with it.”
March fixed her with a deadly stare. She raised a finger and the whisper witch straightened suddenly in her chair, shaking in silent pain as if invisible arms were jostling her head. Eventually, a single drop of blood oozed from one eye. March lowered her finger and the other woman slumped forward onto the table, breathing hard.
“The history of Shael is my history,” March said proudly. “I will tell it when I want.
“Shael was the first to lead away the Mage of Light and Darkness. Taluva fell, long ago, and victory was almost ours—but the light survived. The gods gave the mages a guardian. A Magemother,”[_ ]she sneered, “to _protect them. Lux Tennebris was born to replace Taluva, and Shael was banished to the Wizard’s Ire to wither and die.” She paused, looking around the room with a hungry expression. Hugo could tell she had waited a long time for this telling.
“Shael was my father,” she said. Hugo jumped at this, but he was the only one. Apparently this was common knowledge. No doubt this is why they respected her so much.
“I took up his work when he was taken from me,” she went on briskly. “I worked on Lux day after day, pushing the dark in him to the breaking point.” She paused. “As you know,” she said, “the Magemother caught me—banished me to the Ire.” Her face was white as a sheet. “You cannot know the horrors of that place!” She grew silent, remembering, and after a moment whispers broke out among the other witches.
“But Tennebris was already mine,” she said loudly, causing instant silence. “He came for me, and for the beasts.”
“What beasts?” the broad witch who guarded Hugo asked eagerly.
“The Kutha?” the hawk-head witch asked. “I saw it in these very woods.”
“No,” the bug-eyed witch said. “An idris. I have heard rumor that an idris has come out of the Ire.”
“Two idris,” the toothy witch broke in. “I heard that [_two _]escaped.”
March waved her hand, bringing their attention back to her. “You are all right,” she said. “Two idris, and the Kutha.”
“War is coming!” someone whispered excitedly.
“Silence!” March broke in. “Tennebris has overcome Lux. The darkness in him has overcome the light. Surely you have noticed your own powers growing!”
There were nods and whispers of agreement from around the room.
“The time for open war has not yet come,” March said. “Shael has not yet escaped the bonds that hold him in the Wizard’s Ire.”
Hugo felt slightly relieved at that, but it did not last for long; March looked as if she were winding up for something else.
The witch drew herself up proudly. “Shael requires our assistance,” she said. “We must aid Lord Tennebris in an attack against the Paradise King.”
Several of the witches cackled in excitement.
“We cannot hope to succeed in such an attack.” the whisper witch said flatly, stifling the enthusiasm of the others. “The mages are sure to come to the aid of the king, and we cannot stand against the mages. They are too powerful.”
March’s eyes shot toward her. “Only two mages remain,” she said. “They will be no match for all of us together. Besides, that is the whole point of the attack.”
“You seek to lure the mages into battle?” the whisper witch asked darkly.
“Yes,” March explained. “The power that keeps my father bound in the Wizard’s Ire flows through the mages. If our attack results in the death of even one mage, the sacrifice will be worth it, for he will be a step closer to freedom.
The whisper witch looked skeptical. “Perhaps,” she said.
“What about the Magemother?” a voice asked. Hugo could not see clearly who had spoken. His heart nearly stopped a second later when he realized that it had been Brinley. He hoped that nobody else tried too hard to find the source of the question.
March smiled again. “Tennebris has already destroyed her.”
“Dead?” the whisper witch asked, sounding surprised.
“Nearly. She escaped Tennebris with the help of her pet, Peridot, and the Wind Mage—”
Several of the witches hissed disapprovingly.
“—but he struck her a fatal blow,” March said, practically glowing. “She will not last long, and Animus cannot protect her forever.”
“What next?” a voice called, and other excited calls joined it, punctuated by cheers.
“Where do we strike? When?”
“Silence!” March commanded, and the witches obeyed.
“Lord Tennebris will strike the king’s city at noon tomorrow. We,” she said, “will give him a little offering tonight, and meet him on the field of battle tomorrow!”
Cheers spread through the room.
“What gift?” someone said. “What will we offer?”
“Him,” March said as she leveled her finger at Hugo. “Hugo Paradise. We will give our lord a little Paradise king to play with.”
In which something amazing happens
Archibald told her to run, so she did. She ran until she thought that she was far enough away to be out of danger, and then she waited. She waited for what seemed like forever, only to realize that she didn’t know what she was waiting for. The danger could be over by now, but she would have no way of knowing. Archibald wouldn’t know where she was. There was nothing to be done except make her way back the way that she had come.
She got five steps before the idris came pelting through the trees in front of her, rubbing its face and looking furious. It didn’t notice her right away, small as she was. Perhaps if she had been thinking, she could have slipped away without being noticed at all. But her mind was on something else. She was looking at its face, all covered in fresh cuts and bruises, and wondering if it might let her make a salve for it from the geneberry bush that stood beside her. Probably not, she thought, as it noticed her finally.
She moved to dive under the bush, then stopped herself and ran instead, but it was no use hiding after she’d already been spotted. She tripped on a large stone and squawked as her big toe lit up with pain and her ankle bent backward. She stumbled and her shoe slipped off.
She scanned the ground as she ran, trying not to trip over any more rocks. Then she had an idea. She bent down and scooped up a rock like the one she had tripped on and turned to hurl it at the idris. She dropped it in shock and it almost landed on his toe. He was right behind her! He lunged for her and she dove between his legs. She picked up another rock and lobbed it at the back of his head. It struck there with a reassuring crack, but she knew it would do little more than make him angry. She needed to get away, and fast. She ran for the trees, hoping that if she couldn’t outrun him, she might be able to outmaneuver him.
It worked for a minute or so. Then she ran out of space to run. The trees thinned out and the ground sloped away, ending in a long, sharp drop into a deep canyon. It was pretty, she thought, but very inconvenient. She turned around to backtrack, but she was too late; the idris had already emerged from the woods and was advancing on her.
In that moment, her fear left her, and she became angry. She thought of the little boy that the idris had been before it had transformed. She put her hands on her hips and glared up at it. “Stop!” she said sternly. “What do you want with me?”
The idris stopped. It looked less like an animal then, less fierce, less crazed. It straightened up.
“There,” Tabitha said. “That’s better.” As Master Lumps had taught her, animals (and people) will often rise or fall to meet your expectations.
The idris regarded her silently.
“What do you want with me?” she said again.
The idris responded, its voice low now, grizzly and gnarled, not at all like the voice of the child. “I take you to Tennebris,” it said, pointing at her.
“Why?” she asked curiously.
“You are a mage.” It took a step forward.
“No,” she said patiently. She spoke to it the way she would talk to a baby. That was the way to calm wild things.
“Mage!” it said again, jabbing a huge finger at her. It took another step forward.
“No mage,” she said slowly. “Student.”
“Mage,” it said again. “I take you to Tennebris.”
She didn’t know who Tennebris was, but she was sure she didn’t want to go anywhere with the idris. She backed up until her heels hung over the edge of the precipice.
It stepped forward again cautiously. “We go now,” it said, stepping even closer, bending toward her. “You no magicking me. Okay?”
“No,” she said firmly, and stepped backward off the cliff.
The idris grunted and walked forward, confused. Master wouldn’t be happy. He didn’t like the mages, and this girl was a mage no matter what she said. He could smell it. He leaned over the edge. There was nothing but flat cliff face for hundreds of feet, and a little river at the bottom, winding through rock. There was a small ledge, right below, but it was very small. He doubted even the girl was small enough to walk it. He followed it carefully with his eye, but it shrunk and faded away to nothing a few feet in either direction. He shaded his eyes with his hand. No girl falling. No girl’s body at the bottom. He looked down the river. No girl’s body floating down the river. He scratched his head. Where did she go?
Tabitha was crouching in a little cave right beneath the idris. She hoped that he wouldn’t see it. She hadn’t seen it. She had dropped to the little ledge because she couldn’t think of anything else to do, and there it was, a perfect little cave, just right for hiding in. She crouched there now, her hands covering her mouth, afraid she might make a noise and give herself away. She could hear the idris breathing right above her. He might be able to reach her if he tried. She hoped he would not.
It felt like she waited there forever. Then, eventually, the idris seemed to sigh. Its breathing disappeared, and she thought she might have heard the faint creak of stone as it walked away. Maybe she had imagined it though. Maybe it was still up there, trying to lure her out. Was that a quiet breath she heard? Maybe it was just the wind. She waited for what felt like an hour before checking (it was really twelve minutes, but it’s hard to judge time when you are alone, afraid, and hiding from a monster).
She took a hesitant step onto the ledge, holding her breath. She breathed a sigh of relief, and opened her eyes…and screamed. Iron-like fingers clamped shut around her waist and lifted her into the air.
“Help!” she cried. “Help me! Archibald! Someone, help!”
Her screams seemed vain after a moment, and she stopped. The hand around her waist was only getting tighter, and nobody was coming. The idris was walking through the forest now, holding her at his side like a rag doll. She winced painfully, her body jostling up and down with each giant step the idris took. She hardly noticed when a sparrow landed on her arm. She blinked at it a second later. “Hardly!” she exclaimed. (Yes, that was his name—he had come to the tower two summers ago, and she had named him that because, though he stayed for weeks, there was hardly anything wrong with him.) “Can you help me, Hardly?”
Hardly said nothing. Then he flew away. She hoped that meant yes.
After a few minutes the idris stopped at the foot of a little river. Tabitha opened her eyes, wondering why. The giant seemed afraid. It was looking around, and its grip on her was loosening ever so slightly.
The forest floor went dark.
They both looked up then, she and the idris, his big hairy hand shading his eyes from the sun. A second later, the sun itself had disappeared behind the shadow that was gathering above the trees.
“Birds,” the idris whispered. He was right. It looked like all the birds in the world were gathering above them. Bluebirds, finches, golden larks, seagulls, night jays. Some of them she recognized from her tower, but many were strangers. Out in front, leading the tremendous flock, was Flitlitter, with Hardly flying right alongside.
The idris grunted and ran, which seemed to be what the birds were waiting for. Like the tail of a tornado, a line of birds broke free from the swarm and dove at him. They split apart across his face, his arms, his legs, swarming around him like a cloud of bees, their tiny beaks and claws needling his skin. He screamed and dropped Tabitha, shielding his face with his hands. A giant pelican caught the collar of her shirt before she fell three feet, and a score of other birds were there to help an instant later, including, she realized with delight, the little family of starlings from her tower. They were flying again! Soon she was rising through the air instead of falling, birds catching hold of every inch of her clothes, lifting her into the sky. An albatross tried to grab hold of her hair to help, but it was startled away by her squawk of pain.
The forest was beneath them now. The idris’s screams were growing fainter. The birds seemed to be taking her somewhere. Where, she couldn’t guess, but they were still rising, high into the air, birds holding her up by shirtsleeves and socks and bootlaces. She forgot all about the idris. They were going so fast! She laughed and spread her arms, feeling like a bird in a giant flock of birds. It was like being part of some wild, multicolored flying dream! They reached a wall of clouds and broke through, vaulting high above a plane of white and sunshine that few people ever see. It was utterly silent. The sun was so close that the chill air felt almost warm. Nothing could ever be wrong up here, she knew. Here, she would always be safe…If only she could stay here forever, like a bird, with eyes wide enough to see the wind, and wings strong enough to wander through heaven.
One by one, the birds let her go. She flailed her arms wildly at first, thinking that she would fall. But she did not fall. She flew—beside the other birds, her own new wings spread wide against the sky. She had wings! Had she always? She tried hard to remember. No, she hadn’t. She wasn’t a bird at all. Not [_really. _]She was a girl—Tabitha, Brinley’s friend, the birds’ friend—the birds! She could hear their voices now, clearer than ever. Their dreams, their fears, their old, small knowings.
Flitlitter flew away. The magpie had other things to do, Tabitha knew. Besides, she was safe now; the other birds would take care of her. Her little family of starlings drifted beside her. They would follow her for some time, she knew. She had saved them, and now they had helped save her, and neither she nor they would be quick to forget it.
The birds banked left and she banked with them. She knew where they were going. They were being called together by the Earth Mage, he who spoke the language of earth and listened to the dreams of birds. There was a battle somewhere, and he was calling all living things together to help. She would go with them.
She belonged with them.
In which Hugo is tempted
That night was the darkest of Hugo’s life. He was dragged from the inn and bound hand and foot with cords, then thrust into a brown canvas sack and dumped on the ground in the center of a little clearing. The bag was tied tightly above his head and he sat there, silence all around him, his heart threatening to burst out of his chest. His gut told him that the witches were still there.
They were. They stood around him in a wide semicircle, watching the sky. If Hugo could have seen, he would have been much more frightened than he already was. The Kutha soared out of the night and landed between him and the witches. To Hugo, it sounded like nothing more than a faint rustle of the night.
“Mighty Kutha,” March intoned solemnly, “take our gift to the master.”
Hugo heard someone scream. His heart sank. It sounded like Brinley.
“Silence,” March hissed.
Hugo tried to peek through the top of the bag, but it was shut tightly. Surely the Kutha couldn’t be there already.
His question was answered as he was lifted smoothly into the air. He cried out in shock and heard the witches break out in laughter below him. He had a mental image of the earth dropping away below him, the sinister owl carrying him up into the air where he would be totally at its mercy. Would it take him to Tennebris as they said, or would it simply drop him from the sky onto some sharp rocks and have done with him?
This last thought was more than enough to set him moving. He squirmed and wriggled, trying to loosen the ropes around his hands and legs. He felt the bird tip slightly in the air, no doubt his shifting about had unbalanced the Kutha’s flight. A giant talon gripped him around the chest in retaliation, squeezing him until all the air was gone from his lungs.
“Okay,” he wheezed, but hardly any sound came out. The Kutha must have understood, because it released him. He coughed and sputtered, rubbing his ribs awkwardly to make sure that they were all in one piece.
The second time around, he was much more careful. He curled up gradually, as far as he could, bending his knees so slowly that the Kutha didn’t notice. He found that he could just barely slip his fingers into the top of his boot. He smiled in satisfaction. He had kept a small knife in his boot ever since he overheard a knight talking about the practice over supper. If he ever got back, Hugo was going to buy that knight the finest boot knife in the world as a thank you gift.
He slipped the blade out gingerly. He didn’t like the idea of dropping it in this position. Things were bad enough flying through the air in a confined space without a sharp knife bouncing around in the dark. It took a minute, but he was able to saw through the ropes on his hands and wriggle free. Then he freed his legs. When he was done, he cut a tiny slit in the bag to peek through.
He couldn’t believe it. He seemed to be flying among the stars. He got a glimpse of the world below him, but they were so high up that nothing was distinguishable besides a hazy film of green and blue. Where were they going?
The Kutha turned then, and Hugo had to stifle a little gasp. He had heard stories about the Magemother’s private home on the moon, but as far as he knew, nobody besides her ever went there. It was said that only the mages and the Magemother herself possessed the power to travel to it. As far as he knew he was the first person ever to see it. No, he reminded himself, Archibald had seen it. Despite the danger, he felt a thrill of excitement. That would make him only the second person to see the Magemother’s home.
The Kutha banked slightly and Hugo caught a faint glimpse of glass towers before everything went dark outside the sack. He guessed they had gone inside the castle. They were actually in the Magemother’s home! In his excitement, Hugo had temporarily forgotten what was waiting for him at the end of the journey. It came back to him as the Kutha dropped him on a hard surface with a bone cracking thump, and he heard an empty voice say, “What’s this?”
“A gift from the March Witch,” the voice read softly, brushing the top of the bag. The witches must have left a note. The rope was untied quickly, and the bag fell to the floor around his feet as he crouched. Lux stood over him.
Hugo stared up at the face in surprise. He was not frightening, as Hugo had expected. He looked like the bright, shining mage that he had grown up seeing in his father’s council chambers.
“What do you want?” Hugo asked the mage warily.
“What do [you _]want?[”_] Lux said, taking a step back and gesturing in a friendly way. “Didn’t you want to talk to me?”
“What do you mean? I was captured. Your monster brought me here. What do you want?” Are you going to kill me? That is what he wanted to ask, but he couldn’t bring himself to say it.
Lux shook his head, looking more concerned than dangerous. “No, no, Hugo. You’ve got it all wrong. It is [_you _]that wanted to talk to [_me. _]Remember? You have questions. Questions about magic. Haven’t you been wanting to talk to me?”
Hugo swallowed, remembering. He [_had _]wished that. He was a fool for wishing that. “How did you know?” he asked.
“I know,” Lux said simply. “I can feel it when my presence is needed.”
Hugo was silent, trying to figure out what was going on.
“I sense you have second thoughts,” Lux mused. “But why? Do I frighten you?”
Hugo shrugged. He was frightened, but there was no sense in admitting it.
“I do.” Lux nodded to himself. He didn’t sound angry, though. If anything he sounded compassionate. “That is to be expected of one who knows so little of magic.”
Hugo bristled. He might not [_be _]magic, but he knew more about the subject than half the students at the Magisterium probably did. “I know,” he faltered. Now that he was trying to say it, it was difficult to put into words. “I know you have bad in you.”
Lux smiled. “‘Bad.’ Yes, I suppose. But that’s who I am, you see. It’s my job.” He hesitated, looking slightly uncomfortable. “I regret that you had to see me like that with Archibald. I was having…a difficult moment. I assure you, you do not need to fear me.”
Hugo fidgeted. He didn’t feel assured at all.
“You and I have things to discuss,” Lux went on, circling around so that Hugo’s back was to the center of the room. It was almost like Lux was trying to keep him from looking there. He started to look over his shoulder. There was something big behind him, like a wall, but made of wind.
“Hugo!” Lux barked. “Look at me!”
Hugo glanced back at Lux. “What is that?” he asked.
“Something I’ll explain momentarily,” the mage said, waving his hand. “We have things to discuss first, and I don’t want you getting distracted.”
“We do?” Hugo asked, perplexed. “What?”
“How to become a mage.”
Hugo’s pulse quickened. He felt his mouth go dry. What was going on? Was this just coincidence? Could Lux read his mind?
His thoughts were interrupted as something brushed his face. A breeze, he thought, a brisk night wind. Then he could [_see _]the wind, and he knew it must be something else. He turned to see a ghostly form detach itself from the wall behind him. The wall, he saw, was made of wind. So was the person who had stepped from it. Hugo knew who this must be. There was only one person in the world who could do things like that with the wind.
“Animus,” Lux said cordially. “Nice of you to join us.”
Animus ignored him, turning his back on Lux and facing Hugo. “Do not listen to him,” Animus whispered.
The Wind Mage was very old. His body was beginning to bend with age and his beard was tattered around the edges, but despite his ghostlike appearance there was a striking quality to him. It was power, Hugo thought. It hung about him just like it did Lux. But with Animus it seemed like a lighter, cleaner thing.
Hugo jumped as Lux swept his hand through the face of the Wind Mage, dispersing his features.
“Too busy to come in person?” Lux mocked, waving his hand through Animus’s chest now. “Something important taking up all your time?” He leaned in to whisper in Animus’s ear. “Why are you resisting me? You know it’s only a matter of time.”
Animus continued to ignore him, focusing his gaze on Hugo. “Do not listen to him,” he said firmly. “He cannot help you. You must speak with the Magemother.”
“Why?” Hugo asked. “What are you two talking about?”
Animus looked down, sighing. “This is not the way for you to find out,” he said.
“I want to talk with you about your power,[_ _]Hugo,” Lux said solemnly, drawing Hugo’s attention again.
“Yes,” Lux said with a smile. “There is magic in you, Hugo, just as you have always dreamed. I know you can feel it. I can[_ _]help you. I will help you to find it. I know the way. Once I was a boy such as you! You could be a mage someday.”
Something stirred inside of Hugo. Could it be true? Could Archibald have been wrong?
“Do not listen to him,” Animus said, stepping in front of Lux again. “He wraps the truth in lies. A mage you may become, but only with the Magemother’s aid. That is [_her _]work.”
“I don’t understand,” Hugo began. Lux interrupted him.
“Mages do not live forever, Hugo,” he said. “Eventually they die. Eventually they need to be replaced. Few people have the capacity to become a mage, and you are one of those few. Look inside. Haven’t you always known it?”
Hugo felt confused. “Is he telling the truth?”
Animus looked uncomfortable. “Perhaps,” he said. “It is uncertain. Only the Magemother can decide. You should not listen to him.”
Lux scowled, waving his hand through the Wind Mage’s face again. “Be gone,” he said coldly. “The boy and I are trying to have a conversation.” He turned back to Hugo. “I am offering you help. You don’t know who you are, what you are capable of, Hugo. I have watched you for years. Why do you think I spend so much time at the castle? If your father did not keep you so isolated from all things magical, perhaps we could have begun our friendship sooner.”
“He means you harm,” Animus warned. “He cannot help you. He will seek to use you to his advantage, nothing else.”
Hugo looked at Lux. Everything he had learned from Archibald flooded into his mind. He thought of the things that he had overheard in Kokum. Had the darkness truly overcome the light? He stepped closer to Lux, peering into his eyes. He thought of the stories of wise old men reading people’s souls through their eyes.
It wasn’t working. He couldn’t tell. In the end he decided to trust his gut.
“I don’t believe you,” Hugo said.
Lux frowned. And then, suddenly, he wasn’t Lux anymore. He wasn’t the gleaming, light-filled mage of his youth. Nor was he Lux Tennebris, the half light, half dark Lux. This man was all darkness. Two dark and empty eyes stared out at him, and when he spoke his voice sounded dead, like it wouldn’t echo even in a cave.
“Leave us,” Lux whispered to Animus. He put a finger into the wind body, and something black issued from it.
“Run,” Animus whispered to Hugo. Then he winced in pain as his wind-body dispersed, drifting back to join the wall of wind behind them. Hugo examined it for the first time and saw that the real Animus was suspended in the center of the wall. He was creating the wind, Hugo realized, forming the wall. Wind spun out from his hands and feet and sides like light from the sun. Hugo wondered what was behind that wall. What was he guarding?
“What do you think your father will pay for your safe return?” Tennebris asked, bringing his head back around viciously. The mage’s face was contorting in a way that made Hugo feel queasy—a smile, he realized. “Do you think he will give up the kingdom in exchange for you? Perhaps I won’t have to fight him at all.”
“No,” Tennebris said, voice becoming carefully gentle now. “That’s right, your father doesn’t particularly care for you, does he?”
“That’s not true,” Hugo said automatically. He was trying to back away from Tennebris, but the other man was advancing.
“Of course it is,” Tennebris said smoothly. “He makes you spend all your time with dusty old teachers. He keeps you confined to the castle when all you want is to leave. You want to go to the Magisterium and learn to become a mage. Well, that future is gone now.”
Hugo felt his face go hot. He took another step back, tripping over something soft. He glanced down hurriedly. The floor was covered with something. Something black and soft.
“I could have taught you, Hugo,” Tennebris said seriously, regaining Hugo’s attention. “I wasn’t lying.”
Hugo stopped retreating. “It’s not worth it,” he said bravely.
Tennebris looked taken aback. “Do I repulse you so? The Magemother made me what I am today. Don’t you trust her? Don’t you trust the ways of nature? Someone must give evil a place to live.” Tennebris paused, nostrils flaring as he calmed himself. “There is no reason,” he said kindly, “that the people of Aberdeen cannot still have a Paradise king to rule them. You could be both king and mage. I could teach you.”
Hugo shook himself. He was almost listening. Tennebris had become gentle again, like Lux, and he was saying nice things, but it was still Tennebris. “No,” he said softly. Then more firmly, “No.” He stood up as tall as he could, though Tennebris still towered over him. “I don’t want to learn from you. You’ll just make me like you are! I—I’d rather die.” Hugo took a quick breath, gathering speed. “I heard the witches say you killed Lux, and you killed the Magemother!”
“Ah,” Tennebris said. “Yes and no. She will die, and I did that, but she is not dead yet. She fled from this place in the form of a magpie.” He took a step and something crunched under his foot with a sickening sound. Hugo looked down at it and felt a little dizzy. The floor was strewn with the bodies of magpies—there must have been hundreds of them. “Ugh,” he said, reeling. “That’s disgusting.”
“Yes,” Tennebris agreed, lips curling into a snarl. “The Kutha has been hunting for her.”
Hugo remembered how he had seen the Kutha attack the magpie in the forest. He felt himself start to sweat. What if that had been the Magemother? “You’re a monster,” he said softly. “You’ll never find her.”
“Oh, but I will,” Tennebris responded quietly. “Eventually she must return to this place.” With a shout, Tennebris took him by the throat, spinning him around to face the wind-wall. The ancient Wind Mage was still suspended in the midst of it. Animus looked ill, pale, like he was on the verge of death.
“Are you doing that to him?” Hugo asked, straining against the fingers at his throat. Strange, he thought vaguely, that in his moment of need the main thing he felt was concern for Animus.
Tennebris sneered. “It is difficult for him to keep me out. It wears on him. It takes all of his energy to resist me, to keep her from me. Let’s see if he will come down for you, shall we?” He lifted Hugo into the air.
Hugo kicked out wildly. He couldn’t breathe.
“Will you save him, Animus? Your little wind ghost won’t do the trick, you know. You’ll have to come down here.”
Hugo scrunched his legs up and took the knife from his boot, twisting to plunge it into Tennebris’s stomach, but the mage caught his wrist and ripped the knife away with surprising strength. Tennebris dropped him, then slapped him so hard across the face that he fell to the floor. When he got back up again, Tennebris was advancing on him, twirling the boot knife in his hand. Hugo stared at it. It was growing, changing, as if under some dark spell. In a matter of seconds the little knife lengthened, twisted once, and turned from bright silver to black. Tennebris bent down and lifted Hugo again, holding the twisted black sword against his cheek.
“Well, Animus,” he called again. “Will you save him? Or will you watch him die?”
In which Brinley cuts a deal with a shady character
When she saw the Kutha dropping out of the sky toward Hugo, Brinley let out a scream and pounced on the witch closest to her. She had no idea what she was doing, but she had to do something. She couldn’t just stand by and let the witches give Hugo to that monster.
“Silence!” March hissed.
The witch that she had attacked spun Brinley to the ground. The next second, Brinley received a blow to the stomach that knocked the wind out of her. When the pressure didn’t go away, she looked up.
The whisper witch stood over her, foot planted firmly in her gut, pinning her to the ground. “Move and die,” she said.
Brinley was forced to watch as Hugo was carried into the sky. When he was gone, the witches all turned to March, who addressed them in a loud voice. “Gather your beasts! Gather your strength! Tomorrow we ride to the king’s city!”
The witches cheered. Many of them ran into the woods, while a few walked back through town. March stopped in front of the whisper witch, who was still standing with her foot on Brinley. “How dare you stand up to me in front of the others!” she spat. She slapped the whisper witch hard in the face.
Brinley heard a snarling sound and March took a step back. The whisper witch’s cat, it seemed, had come to her defense. “Agh, death and dirt!” The cat was hanging from her arm. It was gray with a white patch under one eye, and no matter how she shook it, it would not come off. March’s hand lit up with a pale green light and she slapped the cat. It fell to the ground without a sound, and she turned back to the whisper witch. “Today it’s just your stupid cat that dies. Don’t give me a reason to add you to the pile.” She looked over her shoulder as she walked away. “Father would be ashamed of you, Habis.”
The witch called Habis didn’t move or say anything. She waited until the clearing was completely deserted, then bent down and picked Brinley up by her hair. “Who are you?” she snarled. “What are you doing here?”
“Ouch!” Brinley cried. “Put me down!”
“A little girl,” Habis said.
“Put me down or I’ll scream!”
“A [_stupid _]little girl. Go ahead, scream. Everyone here would kill you quicker than I will.” The witch released her and she fell to the ground.
“I could kill you now,” she said, “but it occurs to me that we might be able to help each other.”
Brinley looked up into Habis’s face. She hardly looked trustworthy. She was old and pale, and something about her robe made Brinley’s skin crawl. “I don’t want to help you,” she said. “You’re a—a witch.”
“Fine,” she said, and drew out a long, pale knife.
Brinley stared at it. She was going to die. The witch was going to kill her after all! She was going to die just like the cat. “Wait,” she said. Even as she did so, she knew it was a bad idea. “How can we help each other?”
“Hold out your hands.”
The witch reached into her sleeve and pulled out a long black snake, which she draped across Brinley’s arms.
“What are you doing?” Brinley shrieked.
“Relax. It’s just to hold you.”
That didn’t exactly make Brinley relax. She held her breath fearfully as the snake wound itself around her wrists quickly, clamping them together. When it had finished, it stretched out its triangular head and stared her in the face.
“This is Jax. He won’t hurt you unless you try to escape. Now, follow me.” She walked toward the forest. She paused when she came to her cat. Reaching inside her robe, she pulled out a tiny black bottle and bent over to hold it next to the cat’s head. To Brinley’s amazement, the cat was sucked into the bottle, head first. It disappeared with a [_pop, _]and Habis placed the bottle back into her robes. A second later, she had disappeared into the bushes.
Brinley was surprised to find herself alone. She glanced around. Maybe she could make a run for it right now!
The snake hissed and tightened painfully around her arms. Her wrists felt like they were going to break. The snake opened its mouth to reveal two fangs like yellow needles. “Let’sssss go, girl,” it said. “We don’t want to keep the misssstress waiting.”
Brinley gave a shout of alarm and dashed after Habis, trying not to look at the snake’s beady black eyes. She caught up with the witch and followed her through the woods until they came to a bubbling creek that wound through the trees. The creek led to a crevice in the side of a rock wall. Brinley stopped, but Habis kept walking. When the witch reached the wall, the rock groaned and the crack widened to the size of a door, allowing her through. Brinley hurried in after her, reminded oddly of the automatic doors at supermarkets back home.
The inside of Habis’s cave was not the dank, creepy hole that Brinley had expected. It was actually quite nice. There was a fireplace, a couple of cushy armchairs, and a wide workbench littered with all manner of papers and strange items. There was a pile of alligator-skin paper covered in spidery writing, a set of glass beakers filled with strange fluids, and a box of white mice all tumbling over one another.
Behind Brinley, the stone doorway shut with a groan.
“Thank you, Jax,” Habis said, and the snake uncoiled itself and dropped to the floor, after which Habis took a mouse out of the box and tossed it to him.
“Now,” she went on, “first things first.” She brought the little black bottle out of her robe and uncapped it, dumping the cat onto the counter. It lay there, limp. The witch picked a thorny looking berry from a small plant in the corner and stuffed it into the cat’s mouth.
“Isn’t it dead?” Brinley asked.
“Not if I can help it,” she said shortly. “These bottles are a talent of mine—naptraps, I call them—they are a prison really, a tiny holding cell…not very nice to be in, but they stop time. This one,” she said, indicating the cat, “was [_barely _]alive when he went in, so he is still [_barely _]alive. And that’s enough for me to work with. With a little know-how, almost anything can be mended.”
She walked to a large cabinet and withdrew a little cup. “Now, as for you, I need to see you.” She filled it with what looked like flour.
“Not again,” Brinley muttered, but it was too late. Luckily, Habis was more careful than Cannon had been, sprinkling the flour over her head instead of flinging it in her face.
“AHH! It can’t be. Surely you cannot still be so young!”
“Of course not. What am I saying? You are the daughter. Yes, the daughter that went missing so long ago. She hid you, and now you’re back. Am I right?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Brinley said, backing away.
“Jax!” Habis shouted. “Hold her fast! This girl is the Magemother’s daughter. I’d bet your life on it! She’s the spitting image of her mother.”
The snake slithered out from beneath a rug and leapt into the air, wrapping itself around Brinley’s arms again. She screamed.
“Shut up, girl!” Habis spat. She pushed Brinley into one of the armchairs. “Tell me everything. Do not lie to me! I’ll know it if you do. If you are the Magemother’s daughter, then I’d rather not kill you, but I will if you can’t behave.”
Brinley stopped shouting. The snake, she realized, wasn’t squeezing her that hard, and Habis wasn’t going to kill her. Why she wasn’t, Brinley didn’t know. It didn’t make sense. This was a witch, after all. Hadn’t she just helped capture Hugo? “Why?” she said, voicing her question. It wasn’t a full question, but Habis seemed to understand.
“Why don’t I want to kill you? Ah…well, that’s complicated. I’m afraid we will have to hear your story first. Out with it.”
Brinley started from the beginning. Surprisingly, Habis made for a good audience; she kept quiet for the entire story. Once, when Brinley was describing her meeting with the mages, Habis’s eyes narrowed, but she didn’t say anything. Brinley left out some details, not wanting to give Habis any information that might harm the mages. No doubt, she had already told the witch too much, but then, maybe not. The more time Brinley spent with her, the more she suspected that Habis didn’t really mean her any harm. Sometime in the middle of Brinley’s story, the cat’s tail twitched. Habis picked it up and set it in her lap. Ever since, she had been slowly massaging it all over, and now the cat was standing and stretching as if nothing particularly bad had happened to it. Surely a person who cared for something like that couldn’t be all bad. She hoped she was right.
“You mentioned a bell,” Habis said when Brinley had finished her story. “Do you have this bell?”
Brinley squirmed. She did, of course, but she was in no mind to show it to the witch. It had been her mother’s, after all.
Habis held out her hand. “Give it here. I promise I will return it to you after I examine it.”
Grudgingly, Brinley obliged.
Habis turned the tiny silver bell over in her fingers, examining it with utmost care. “This is my work—a summoning bell. Very few of them were ever made—four to be exact, and I made all of them.
“You made this?” Brinley said, surprised.
“Of course I did,” Habis sniffed. “Who else do you suppose could do such a thing? My sister? Bah! She couldn’t make a broom sweep the floor for her if her life hung in the balance. As for the others…” She rolled her eyes. “Well, they are young.” She looked back at the bell. “Yes, I[_ _]made this. I made it for your mother, to summon you when the time came.”
“I don’t understand,” Brinley protested, feeling confused again. “Hugo said it was to summon the Magemother.”
Habis waved her hand. “That was a different bell entirely. Archibald must have found this one and mistaken it for the other. But that’s beside the point. This bell is the proof I needed. Proof that you are the Magemother’s daughter.”
Brinley stared at her. “But how do you know—”
“Quiet! It is enough that I know. She hid you in another world—smart. It’s what I would have done.” She watched Brinley quietly for a minute, thinking. “You are the Magemother’s daughter, and nobody has told you what that means. Stupid of you to be walking around so ignorant in these parts, isn’t it?”
Brinley, who had been about to ask another question, shut her mouth. Did Habis have the answers she was looking for? Was this where she would find out the truth?”
“Yes,” Habis said, as if reading her thoughts. “Good, isn’t it? I’ll tell you what you need to know. I wouldn’t normally, but this is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Brinley shivered with anticipation. This was it. She was finally going to learn the truth!
“Listen carefully,” Habis began. “It’s a long story and I’m only going to tell it once, so don’t interrupt me.”
Brinley stayed quiet.
“Good.” Habis set the cat on the ground and folded her arms thoughtfully. “This world is governed by seven mages. They rule the seven elements. Do you know this already?”
Brinley shook her head.
Habis grunted. “The seventh mage is the most important. He governs light and darkness, good and evil, and he has been corrupted. It’s happened before, and it will probably happen again. It may destroy the world. That’s what my sister wants. The gods that gave power to the mages also gave them a guardian, the Magemother. The Magemother is your mother. Someday [_you _]will be the Magemother.”
“What?” Brinley asked, startled. “How do you know that?”
“Everything gives birth to its own kind, girl,” Habis said. “Dogs to dogs, cats to cats, gods to gods, and Magemothers to Magemothers. It’s common sense. Don’t they have common sense on whatever world you grew up on?”
“I suppose so.”
“Say,” Habis said curiously, “where did she hide you anyway? On what world?”
“Ert!” The witch sat up. “Really? Interesting choice…not where I would have sent you. Too cushy. But I see why she picked it.”
“What do you mean too cushy?”
“Well,” Habis said, rolling her eyes, “Earth is one of the god planets, isn’t it?”
Brinley stared at her blankly. “God planets?”
“Yes. They say the people there are the offspring of God.”
Brinley felt a little uneasy. Her father didn’t take her to church very often. Sometimes they went on Christmas, but that was it. She didn’t feel qualified to talk about things like this. “Well, some people say that, I guess.”
“It must be a wondrous place,” Habis went on excitedly. “With baby gods growing into greatness right and left. Nothing like here, I’m sure—no war, no violence, no sadness.”
She looked down at her lap, and for a moment Brinley felt sympathy for her. It was obvious that she must have experienced those types of things herself. “No,” Brinley said firmly. “It’s not like that. We have all those things. I mean, there’s good where I come from, but I don’t know about baby gods.”
“Hmm,” Habis frowned. “Well, I suppose it’s a long process…at any rate, we’ve strayed from the topic at hand. I told you not to interrupt me.”
Habis cleared her throat. “Not long ago, the Magemother was betrayed by Lux. He tried to kill her. He may succeed in time. She is obviously injured very badly. It’s the only explanation for her bringing you back to our world in such a haphazard way. I’m amazed you’re still alive.” She tapped her finger thoughtfully on the arm of the chair. “You would be dead very quickly if my sister found out that you were here, but for now you don’t have anything to worry about.”
Brinley swallowed. “I don’t?”
Habis smiled faintly. “As you may have gathered by our little interaction tonight, my sister and I are not exactly cozy.” She gave Brinley a sharp look. “You were at the inn tonight? You heard everything?”
“Her story was true. Shael is our father. However, unlike her, I am not eager to see him return to this world. The power of the mages, and of the king, keep him locked away, which is one reason she wants to overthrow them. I say let the mages be.”
“And the king?” Brinley was thinking of Hugo. Habis certainly hadn’t gone out of her way to help him that night.
“Well…” the witch smiled darkly, revealing several rotten teeth. “He is another matter.”
Brinley could tell the subject was closed. “So why help me? Why tell me all this?”
“Ah, yes.” Habis smiled again. “We have come to the heart of the matter. As I told you, my sister and I don’t see eye to eye. While I’m not on your side—strictly speaking—I’m not on [_her _]side either.” She wrapped a thin finger around a strand of her spiderweb hair. “I’m sort of…in the middle. Mostly I’m helping you because it will hurt her. Oh, yes,” she smiled greedily. “It will hurt her very much.” Habis’s expression became suddenly hard, eyes narrowing. “Of course, in exchange for not killing you, I expect a favor.”
Brinley couldn’t help noticing that there was a hungry look in her eyes now.
“You see,” Habis went on, “you are invisible. Perfectly invisible—magnificently invisible. March will not be able to see you coming.”
Brinley felt a chill. “You don’t want me to kill her?”
Habis laughed. “No. I doubt you could even if you tried.” Her expression became calm. “I’ll do that someday, perhaps, when she’s not expecting it. I just need you to get something from her.”
Brinley raised an eyebrow.
“She wears a large iron ring. It once belonged to our father. It was part of a set, which our father gave to us,” she said, her eyes glazing over as if she were seeing something that took place long ago. “The ring for me, the dagger for her. You saw it tonight—the ring, I mean—if you were paying attention. It glows green. She used it on Griffin here.” She indicated the cat.
Brinley remembered. She had a dark thought. “I hope she doesn’t keep it on her finger all the time.”
“She takes it off when she sleeps. That is when you will enter her lair.”
“Lair?” Brinley didn’t like the sound of that. Their deal didn’t feel very fair. “So let me get this straight, I have to sneak into an evil witch’s lair—no offense—and steal her magic ring, and if she catches me, I’ll die, and all in exchange for you not killing me? You said yourself you don’t want to kill me anyway. It hardly seems fair.”
Habis scowled at her. “Fine. A favor for a favor. What do you want from me?”
Brinley hesitated. She had not expected the witch to actually back down. Mostly she just wanted to avoid breaking into March’s house, but it didn’t look like there was much chance of that. She considered her options. Habis had been helpful so far, and despite her many opportunities to hurt her, she hadn’t. Brinley didn’t like the idea of making bargains with a witch, but then again, she didn’t have much choice, and a favor from someone like Habis might come in handy. “How can I be sure I can trust you?” she asked.
Brinley was startled by the speed of her transformation. In a second, the reasonable, helpful Habis was gone. Her eyes flashed, and she took out the knife that she had been holding earlier. “Ungrateful child!” she spat, brandishing the knife. “I could kill you so quick you’d be a ghost before you saw it coming!” She put the knife away. “But I don’t,” she said calmly. “That should be enough proof that you can trust me. But,” she said slowly, “if it helps, you also have my word.” She held out her hand. “Witch’s honor.”
“Witch’s honor?” Brinley asked, taking the woman’s hand reluctantly. “Is that a thing?”
Habis shook once, and Brinley pulled her hand back sharply as something zapped her. “Ha!” the witch laughed darkly. “You see, a [_real _]thing. Now, what do you want?”
Brinley thought hard. “Will you help me rescue Hugo?”
The witch gave a bark of laughter. “The Paradise prince? Not unless you plan to kill him afterward. Next.”
“Will you take me to Peridot?”
Habis’s eyes widened. “The Magemother’s herald? I think not. She’s a vicious creature. And she has no love for me in particular. Next.”
Brinley felt a wave of frustration. “Come on, I’m helping you here, you have to help me too.”
“Ah,” Habis held up a finger. “But what I’m asking you for will help you too in the end.”
Brinley fidgeted. “So you say.”
They eyed each for a moment. “Fine,” Brinley said. “What do you suggest I ask you for?”
Habis smiled. “Ah, humility! You’re smarter than you look, girl.” She rubbed her chin thoughtfully. At length, she stood and crossed the room. She drew a small silver key from the pocket of her robe and opened a box on the mantle. When she came back, she was holding what looked like a small glass marble.
“What is it?”
She handed it to Brinley. It looked like a normal marble, except that it had a tiny golden face inside. Habis’s face.
“It summons me,” Habis said, frowning slightly. “I don’t like giving it to you, but it is a fair trade for what you will be giving me. If ever you find yourself in a sticky situation, break this and I will appear instantly.”
Brinley thought it over. “Fine,” she said. “And you’ll take me someplace safe after I give you the ring.”
“Fine.” Habis drew herself up to her full height. “Now, if you are done exploiting me, it is time for you to fulfill your end of the bargain.”
Brinley gave a start. “Right now?” She hadn’t thought things would happen so fast. “I mean, will she be asleep already?”
Habis grinned. “For your sake, I hope so.”
In which Hugo has an earache
Hugo shuddered. He couldn’t see anything, but he could hear the Kutha as it crunched softly on the body of a magpie and then swallowed it with a muffled gulp. He couldn’t move his arms. He was inside the bag again, wrapped in a strong chain this time. He couldn’t move, he couldn’t see. All he could hear was the sound of the Kutha feasting. He had never felt so alone.
Eventually Tennebris had given up on threatening to kill him. Animus had never budged. Hugo didn’t blame him. There were more important things than his own life. He would have done the same thing if their positions had been reversed.
But now he needed to get free. He tried to move again and only succeeded in rolling over. He was on his back now. He stopped struggling when he felt a sharp pain in his leg. The sword point slid slowly up his leg and across his hip, where it pierced through the bag and into his flesh. He screamed and convulsed, but the chains kept him from doubling over.
“Why do you struggle?” Tennebris asked in an eerily calm voice. “You have been beaten. Soon you will know it.”
Hugo bit off a retort. It would only make things worse. He felt his whole body break out in a cold sweat. His breath was coming too fast. He wasn’t getting enough air through the bag. He needed to calm down or he was going to pass out.
Tennebris kicked him violently and then strode away. Hugo heard a loud clang and wondered if Tennebris had dropped the sword. If he could just get free, if he could just reach it.
“Be careful, my pet,” Tennebris said. He was farther away now. “Play, but do not eat.” What was he talking about?
Something sharp pecked at his foot. He shouted, more startled than hurt. Then he realized what was happening. The Kutha was going to play, and [_he _]was the toy. His knee was hit next. The pain was sharper this time. He thought it might have broken the skin, and his knee went numb. His head came next, and he was screaming. Once, twice, three times it pecked him. He thought his ear might have been torn. Vaguely he wondered if he would still be able to hear with a torn ear.
The Kutha pecked him again and again, biting, tearing—striking him just hard enough to wound without incapacitating him.
His thoughts became murky as the pain grew. His ear was definitely torn. He wondered if it would fall off. He couldn’t hear out of it anymore.
The Kutha bit into the bottom of his foot savagely, causing him to recoil. He swooned. When he came back to himself his thoughts were fuzzy. He could feel wet blood dripping down his neck from his ear. Would he ever be able to hear again? Would he have to always turn his head to hear people now? From a long way off it seemed he could feel the Kutha still pecking at him. He could tell faintly that his body was in an incredible amount of pain. He could tell that something horrible was happening, and that he was very afraid, but it felt like it was happening to somebody else, not him. (It happens like that sometimes; if things get too bad for your mind to handle, it just shuts off. Hugo was happy to discover this, because it protected him from the bad that was happening, but it is a pity when a person has to discover it at all.)
In this odd, dreamlike state, Hugo’s thoughts were still confused: Would his bad ear be scarred? Would he have to wear a hat to hide it? Even to sleep? If he got out of this alive and lived to be an old man and had a wife, surely she wouldn’t want to turn over in the middle of the night and see his nasty ear? Yes, he would have to wear a hat even when he was sleeping. Sleeping…It would be wonderful just to fall asleep now and not have to think or feel anything at all any more.
Thankfully, his thoughts of sleep eventually turned into the real thing.
In which Brinley kicks a bucket
Brinley crouched behind a pile of firewood several yards from an abandoned mill. “Is that it?” she asked desperately. She had lost track of how long it had been since she had slept. The last few minutes of traipsing through the woods was a blur of mud and thorns and branches clawing at her, and she was exhausted.
“The mill? No, of course not. That would be rather obvious. Come with me.”
Sighing, she followed Habis halfway to the mill, where the witch stopped next to an abandoned well. The well looked like it had come out of a storybook. It had stone sides and a partially dilapidated shingle roof. A bucket stood beside the well, half full of rainwater.
“In you go,” Habis said. “Watch out for her dog.” With that, the witch gave her a firm push. She stumbled forward, foot catching the edge of the bucket. She should have fallen over it, but she didn’t. The bucket [_grew. _]It widened, opening like the petals of a flower, swallowing her whole, and she fell. She fell farther than she should have. Finally, she hit water. It was cold and dark, and she couldn’t tell how deep it was. Frantically, she flailed her arms, trying to figure out which way was up. Her feet hit something and she stomped down hard, lurching upward. Her fingers broke the surface and found an edge, and she pulled herself out, coughing.
She was in a cellar of some kind. The bucket wasn’t a bucket from this side; it was a massive barrel, half the size of a car. She figured the witch must keep it for drinking water.
The witch! She was in March’s house!
Fear gripped her as she stood there, cold, dripping wet in the semi-darkness. She had to relax. She had to calm down and think clearly. She thought of her father. What would he do? What would he say if he could see her now? She was a long, long way from safety now. She felt hot tears forming, and forced them back. [_That _]isn’t what he would do. She needed to calm down. She recited her father’s poem in her head.
When beyond my home you go, there’s several things you ought to know:
That lies will catch you fewer flies than honey and a happy smile
So wash your face, but not the mirror (It’s full of evil things, my dear)
By the time she finished the third line, she was calm enough to look around. The cellar was dimly lit by torchlight that filtered down the stairs. She started up them. All she had to do was find the witch’s ring without being caught. Hopefully March was asleep and it would be easy; she was invisible, after all. The only reason she was here was that Habis thought she had a real chance of success.
Halfway up the stairs, she stopped. There was a dripping noise. She looked down. She had forgotten! She was sopping wet! She glanced back the way she had come and saw that there was a trail of puddles following her up the stairs. Even now she could see water appearing in drops out of thin air, slapping on the stone steps. This wasn’t going to work. Should the witch happen to look in her direction, she was sure to realize something funny was going on. What was she going to do? Desperately, she ran back down and looked around for something to dry off with, but there was nothing. Unbidden, the next line of the poem came into her mind.
And tie your shoes and break the rules (but only when you know you should)
She blushed at a thought, then ground her teeth in determination. Not an ideal solution, but it would have to do. She peeled off her dripping clothes and left them on a barrel. Shivering now, but silent, she snuck back up the steps. I hope I’m still invisible, she thought bitterly. She could hardly have picked a worse place to walk around in her underwear!
She passed a smoldering fire in a small kitchen and suppressed the urge to stop and warm herself in front of it. She had to get this done quickly and get out. Leaving the kitchen, she entered a dimly lit workroom. The walls were lined with cages. As she walked toward them, something on the workbench caught her eye. It was a little bottle of red glass. She read the label.
Hyack: Sets fur on fire. Use in conjunction with Brogueweed to prevent burns.
She shivered. Who would want to set fur on fire? She stepped back and inspected the cages. Animals of all kinds filled them. There was a hairless rabbit, and a bluebird with a massive spike instead of a beak. “You poor things,” she whispered. “Is she experimenting on you or something?” Unlike Habis’s snake, these animals didn’t answer her, but a very tired-looking gopher turned at the sound of her voice. There was smoke trailing out of its ears.
Brinley looked around quickly. There was a set of keys on the workbench. She picked them up and went to the first cage. This wasn’t part of the plan, but she couldn’t just leave them here. To her dismay, several of the animals went wild the moment she opened the cages. The bluebird chirped and banged at the ceiling with his beak, and a three-legged porcupine tipped over a tray of instruments as it bounded around in search of an exit.
“Stop!” she whispered desperately. “Please stop!” But they ignored her. She hurried to open the rest of the cages. When she got to the last one, she heard a bark from somewhere above her and spun around.
“Please,” a soft voice said, and Brinley jumped. “I beg you, phantom, release me! I cannot stand another day in this cage.”
She turned back to see a very small man peering at her through the cage door. He had thick shoulders and a strong face under a scraggly beard. He seemed to be middle-aged, but couldn’t have been more than ten inches tall.
“Come, spirit!” he urged, rattling the door. “Release me and I will aid you in your quest.”
Brinley inserted the key and the man burst out of the cage. At the same time, a gargantuan black dog came hurtling down the stairs. The hair on the nape of its neck was standing straight up, its teeth were bared in a snarl, and its eyes were locked on the tiny man.
“Ha!” the man laughed enthusiastically. “Out of the frying pan and into the fire!”
Without missing a beat, the man leapt into the air and punched the dog hard on the nose, causing it to sneeze and reel back in surprise. The little man landed lightly on his toes and sprinted from the room. “I’ll distract him, spirit!” he shouted. “You kill the witch!”
The sound of crashing pans issued from the kitchen, and the dog, gaining control of itself once again, bounded after it.
“What is this racket?” a voice hissed. March emerged from the same staircase the dog had.
Brinley held her breath, squeezing up against the nearest cage to stay out of the way. She was almost close enough to touch her.
I’m invisible, she assured herself. I’m invisible. I’m invisible. I’m invisible.
The witch’s eyes narrowed as she surveyed the room, taking in the open cages. “This will be that filthy gnome’s work,” she muttered to herself, sliding out of the room towards the kitchen. Her hand passed dangerously close to Brinley as she walked by. There was no ring! She must have been asleep up there and forgot to put it back on.
When the witch was gone, Brinley dashed up the stairs, tiptoeing as she ran. She couldn’t believe she was sneaking farther into a place that she should be trying to get out of. She reached March’s chambers and had to cover her nose. The smell was horrible! In the middle of the room there was what looked like an oversize cradle lined with corn husks and straw, and a slimy orange substance. Just by looking at it she knew that’s where the smell was coming from.
On the floor next to the cradle was a small wooden table, and in the center of the table, reposing on a little black cushion, was an iron ring.
She crept towards it, trying not to look at a frightfully carved stone gargoyle that guarded the door. She grabbed the ring and turned around, only to find that the gargoyle had come to life. It glared at her with bright red eyes.
“INTRUDER!” The gargoyle screamed in a voice like an avalanche. “I CURSE YOU! INTRUDER!”
Brinley screamed and fell to the floor, tripping over something as she tried to back away. The gargoyle turned to stone again. She stared at it. Would it come back to life? Maybe it was just an illusion.
Then she heard footsteps on the stairs. The damage had been done. March stepped from the stairs into the room. “What devilry is this?” she spat, staring at the place her ring had been. Brinley ducked around her as she advanced, leaping down the stairs.
“AGHHH!” the witch screamed behind her. “WHO ARE YOU, THIEF?” Brinley tumbled as she hit the floor of the workroom. Righting herself, she found the dog blocking her way to the next set of stairs. It barked at her, hair bristling, and she backed into the wall. It couldn’t see her, she knew, but it could smell her.
“Aha!” she heard someone shout. Looking down, she saw a blur and flash of steel, and then the last few inches of the dog’s tail sailed through the air. The dog howled and twisted, snapping his jaws twice in quick succession. The little man narrowly avoided the dog’s teeth, dancing away gracefully.
The red jar on the table caught Brinley’s eye again as she swept past it. Spontaneously, she picked it up and hurled it at the dog.
It broke over his head and spilled out over his back, and a shower of sparks cascaded from the place the powder met the dog’s fur, and he burst into flame. Howling, he ran up the stairs towards the witch’s bedroom.
“Get out of my way!” she heard the witch scream from the staircase. “They are escaping!”
“Ha! Excellent!” the little man cried jubilantly. “Now hurry!” He rushed for the front door.
“This way!” Brinley said. “Follow me.” She sped down the steps into the cellar and stopped next to the water barrel.
“What are you doing?” the man said, coming up behind her. He was looking around for Brinley. “The witch will catch us!”
“No, she won’t.” Brinley jumped into the barrel. She hoped this worked both ways.
It did. In a moment she was climbing out of the bucket on the ground outside the old mill, her newfound friend right behind her.
“Did you get it?” Habis asked excitedly. “Where are you?”
Brinley tossed the ring to her and she snatched it out of the air. “Now get us out of here,” Brinley said. “She’s right behind us.”
A cold gleam issued from Habis’s eyes. She put the ring on one finger and held her knife in the other hand. Both glowed with the green light. “I’m busy just now,” she said. She pointed with the knife. “That is the quickest way to the city.” With that, she jumped head first into the bucket.
“Where are we?” the little man said. “I was captured far from here.”
“Somewhere near…Aquilar, I believe,” Brinley told him. She had to think to remember what Cannon had called the city. “We got lost in the woods and then we were in this town full of witches.”
“Kokum?” He sounded startled. “Then this is not a good place to be. Can we trust the witch’s directions?”
“I think we have to,” Brinley said, glancing back at the bucket. She was shivering like mad now, teeth chattering violently against the quiet backdrop of the night. How could she be so stupid! Why hadn’t she grabbed her clothes?
“Pardon me,” the little man said awkwardly. “I know that I do not understand the nature of your situation, and I hope that I have not violated propriety, but as I was following you into the barrel I could not help noticing a bundle of girl’s clothing just sitting there.” He reached inside his tunic and brought out her clothes. “I remembered that your voice sounded much like a girl’s, and it occurred to me that you might not be a spirit at all.”
“Oh, thank you!” Brinley said, taking her clothes gratefully. “No, I’m not a spirit.”
His face contorted into a confused half frown. Brinley knew that to him it must look like her clothes had disappeared into the night.
When she finished putting them on, she glanced back at the bucket. The water was trembling now, as if there was a battle raging on the other side. “I don’t want to be around when they come back out,” she said.
“Agreed,” said the man, and together they set off at a run.
In which Brinley flies to the moon
Brinley and her new companion had run until they could run no longer and then walked until dawn. Now they stopped for a break next to a stream of cool water, and Brinley was grateful for the rest. She gulped down several handfuls of water from the stream and leaned against a tree. She remembered how tired she had been before sneaking into March’s house. That had been hours ago. She nearly fell asleep before rousing herself. How rude would that be? She hadn’t even introduced herself to her new travel companion. She had to say something. He couldn’t see her after all. He might think that she had left him. She was wondering how much to tell him about herself when she drifted off to sleep again.
“Hello? Wake up! Pardon me, but I think that we had better get moving.”
Brinley started out of a dreamless sleep. There was drool hanging off her chin. She was glad nobody could see it. There were advantages to being invisible.
“Okay, I’m up,” she said, rubbing her eyes. The sun was a little higher in the sky. She must have slept for at least an hour. “Sorry,” she said blearily. “I was exhausted.”
The small man smiled. “I gathered as much. No trouble. I needed to recuperate myself…being a prisoner is not as restful as you might think.”
He looked like a different man now. He had bathed, and his beard was trimmed short and neat, revealing strong, chiseled features.
“How did you know I hadn’t left?” Brinley said curiously.
“Well,” the man said uncomfortably, “I hope you will forgive my impoliteness in saying so, but you snore quite loudly.”
“Oh,” Brinley blushed. It was true. Her father always teased her for it, even though his own snores could wake a mummy.
“No matter,” the man said. “But I believe introductions are overdue. I am Thieutukar Manisse. But you may call me Tuck.” He held out a hand, and Brinley took it.
“Brinley,” she said. As their hands met, Brinley noticed that Tuck’s expression relaxed noticeably. “I’m just a girl,” she said. “It’s a long story.”
“Are you bewitched?”
Brinley thought about it. “I don’t know. Maybe. I think my mother did it to protect me.”
Tuck cocked his head curiously. “Who is your mother?”
Brinley was silent. She still hadn’t decided how much she should tell Tuck.
“Forgive me,” Tuck said. “I do not mean to pry. You have saved my life. In return, I will help you if I can. Please tell me what I can do.”
Brinley relaxed. “I have an idea,” she said. “I just need to get to the highest place we can find.”
An hour later, Brinley and Tuck reached the top of a high hill. It wasn’t the tallest thing around, but it did command a good view of the surrounding countryside. More importantly, it afforded a good view of the skies; it should be easy for Peridot to spot them from the air if she was still looking.
“Can you help me make a fire?”
“A fire?” he asked. “Whatever for?”
“To make smoke. As much of it as we can.”
Tuck shifted uncomfortably. “That would give away our position.”
“Exactly,” she said, her confidence growing. “I’m fairly sure my friends will find us before anyone else does.”
“How sure?” he asked.
“Almost positive. My friends will probably be in the air still, looking for me.”
“I hope you’re right,” he said, and set about gathering wood.
When they had a large fire burning, Brinley helped Tuck cover it with green leaves, and it started to smoke heavily. Soon there was a dark tower rising into the air. Brinley withdrew the summoning bell from her pocket and rang it, over and over, sending the sound of the gong cascading through the hills. They probably didn’t need it with the smoke, but she figured it couldn’t hurt.
Within ten minutes, they could see a shape flying towards them above the trees, and soon Peridot had landed next to the fire.
“Peridot,” Tuck said, bowing.
“Thieutukar,” she returned, inclining her head to him.
Brinley ran to Peridot and buried her hands gratefully in her fur. There was something comforting about being back with the Magemother’s herald. She was probably the most dangerous creature Brinley had met in this world, but if anything she felt safer now that they were together again. Brinley looked back and forth between Peridot and the gnome. “You two know each other?”
“Everyone knows the Magemother’s herald,” Tuck said graciously. “Forgive me, but if you have no further need of me I have other business to attend to. I fear the witches may be planning an attack on Caraway.”
“They are,” Brinley said. “I heard them talking about it. It will start at noon.”
“Noon!” Tuck exclaimed. “Then we have only hours. I was hoping for days! I will gather my people, Peridot. I trust I will see you at the battle.”
“I trust you will, too,” Peridot said, and she leapt into the air.
“Good-bye!” Brinley called down to him, but he had already disappeared. “How do you know Tuck?” she asked Peridot.
“Tuck? I do not call him that. Thieutukar is the king of the gnomes, and the ruler of Hedgemon. If he can raise his army in a matter of hours then Caraway will stand a better chance of defending itself, but I doubt that he will have time enough to gather more than a few soldiers. Is it as you say? Will the king’s city be attacked today?”
Brinley related all that had befallen her since they parted the day before. Meanwhile, Peridot was circling higher and higher, until the whole forest looked like a distant blur beneath them.
“You did well,” she said. “Habis spoke the truth to you, though I would not have expected it. Still, it is not how I would have wanted you to find out. Your mother wished to explain things herself.”
Brinley nodded. She felt a thrill of excitement. She knew now. She knew, and Peridot had confirmed it. Her mother was the Magemother.
“What’s her name?” she asked.
“She will tell you.”
“Where are we going?”
“There,” Peridot indicated the shining moon above them. Before Brinley could ask what she meant, Peridot bent forward and they hurtled upward at an incredible pace. This was not the way they had flown before. They were shooting straight up. In a second they were too high to distinguish anything on the ground; in another, the ground itself was gone. They passed the clouds, falling upward through mist and moonlight toward the stars. Space was all around them, stretching out like an ocean of silent wind—ribboned with color and starlight.
Brinley wanted to ask how it was possible, but she couldn’t. She couldn’t even breathe. It felt as if the air was gone. She tried to breathe again and could not. She panicked, tried again, and found that she could. They landed on the pale, shining surface of the moon, and Brinley found that it was not what she had expected. There was no barren, craggy, cratered crust, only smooth white sand.
She dismounted and bent to sift it between her fingers; a hundred tiny diamonds fell from her hand, sparkling in their own soft light. Ahead of them, the sand swept on in a curving path like a riverbed, curving away to the foot of a castle of glass.
“What is this place, Peridot?” she asked.
Her words were punctuated by a sudden flapping and Brinley looked up in surprise to see Flitlitter fluttering down out of the stars.
“Flitlitter!” she exclaimed. “What are you doing here? I thought you were with Tabitha.”
Peridot smiled at the bird now resting on Brinley’s shoulder. “Glad to be back with you, I think. We are on Aberdeen’s moon, Calypsis. We have come to the throne of the Magemother. You will meet her soon.”
Brinley was riveted by her every word. She couldn’t believe that she was finally going to meet her mother.
“She will tell you the whole story,” Peridot said as they approached the crystal stairs of the castle.
Brinley looked up at the structure. It gleamed like a diamond in the half light. Her eyes fell over it hungrily, her mind busy, her heart full of questions and excitement.
Peridot instructed her to take her shoes off in the entrance hall, after which they walked through what seemed like an endless array of rooms. Each one was a glistening crystal palace in its own right. There was a green room, where the crystal was growing, breathing. It hung from the walls like tropical plants. In another room, everything was round. Another room was completely golden—flat and empty, like the inside of an amber box. Everywhere they went, the glass floor sparkled beneath their bare feet. It was warm to the touch.
Brinley knew she had never been here, but the place had a feeling of home.
At length, they came to a large square room somewhere near the center of the castle. The floor here was different—covered with a soft black something that made the space feel close. At the center of the room there was a round wall that seemed to be made of…something.
“Wind,” Peridot explained. “It is Animus. He guards the Magemother’s hall.”
As they made their way toward it, something crunched beneath her feet.
Brinley looked down and let out a little scream. What she had taken for carpet was something else entirely; the whole floor was strewn with the bodies of black birds—magpies. There must have been hundreds of them!
Brinley felt something sick rise in her throat. “Why…?” she began in protest.
“Hurry now,” Peridot said softly, pushing her to a run. “It is not safe here.”
“Brinley? Are you there? Is someone out there?” Brinley turned at the sound of Hugo’s voice.
There was a bag lying on the floor at the foot of the wind-wall. It was wrapped in a thick iron chain.
“Hugo!” she called, running to him. “Hold on, I’ll help you!”
“No!” he shouted. “You have to go! Tennebris and the Kutha! They’re here!”
“Through the wall, as fast as you can!” Peridot roared. “I will take care of Hugo.” Peridot leapt to the bag and snapped the chain with a twist of her claws.
Brinley hesitated. She couldn’t just leave Hugo, not again. There was a soft thump behind her and she spun around. The Kutha was standing in the doorway. There were two more thumps as dead magpies fell from its beak. Taking in the scene, it gave a sharp cry and leapt into the air, eyes fixed on Flitlitter.
“Here, Flitlitter,” she said, and took the bird down, cradling it protectively in both arms as she ran.
Brinley had eyes only for the wind-wall now. There was a silent rush of feathers above her head and she knew the Kutha had reached her. She was only feet from the wall, but it was too late.
She heard a great roar then, and the piercing claws that she expected never came. She looked up at the grey wind-wall as she jumped into it. In that split second she thought she saw a man standing in it, old and worn, the edges of his wrinkled skin fanned out and blending with the wind.
In which there is a mage and a magpie
Brinley thought that she would spin away when her body hit the swirling wind, like the movies she had seen where cars get sucked into a tornado, but she passed through it like mist, emerging onto the clean crystal floor on the other side.
Immediately she felt peaceful.
All the sound of the world outside was silenced. Something wonderful was pressing in around her. Not water—though it reminded her of water—it was…
Brinley looked around for the source of the voice. In the center of the room there was a round hole in the roof. Through it, streaming and falling to the floor, was what looked like a waterfall of light.
There was no one there, but she walked toward it anyway. As she did, Flitlitter leapt from her arms and soared toward the light. The bird banked, flying right into it. Light spilled over her wings and pulled her, feather by feather, into her true form.
Her mother smiled at her from within the light.
“Oh!” Brinley’s voice caught in her throat. Her mother was walking to her now, picking her up, gathering her into her arms.
Brinley looked up into her face.
“Brinley,” her mother said, and Brinley started to cry. They were both crying now, overcome by how easy it was to love each other after so long apart, and feeling all at once the weight of the years that they had missed with each other.
“Brinley,” her mother said again and again.
“You’re so beautiful!” Brinley cried. “I knew you would be!”
After a while they pulled apart and smiled at each other through their tears. Brinley laughed as her mother’s fingers brushed tears from her cheek.
Her mother laughed too, and then winced in pain. Brinley looked down and saw a small round hole over the center of her mother’s chest—right over the place where her heart was. It was small, but it looked sharp and deep. It bled slowly.
She looked into her mother’s face. Was she going to be all right? She couldn’t lose her. Not now. Not after all this.
“Come,” her mother said, and took her hand, leading her across the room to the lightfall.
“I will show you everything.”
They stepped into the light together and Brinley felt the stress of her adventure fade away, like little bruises of the soul.
For a moment, Brinley thought that they had fallen into some kind of dream world. She floated like a ghost beside her mother, hovering in space. This is what astronauts must feel like, she thought, hovering in the middle of empty space, looking down on the Earth.
They were looking down on a strange scene. There were people below them, walking and talking as if they couldn’t see Brinley and her mother hovering above them. Then she realized that one of the people below them was her mother—younger, she realized, but definitely the same woman. “This isn’t real,” she said.
“No,” her mother assured her. The hole in her heart was gone now, and Brinley was eyeing the place where it had been.
“It will come back,” her mother said softly, “when we go back.”
Brinley nodded. Looking away, she blinked against hot tears. She wanted to be brave—brave like her mother was.
“Look!” her mother said, and she did.
She saw her mother, much younger, standing with a group of children. They were all about Brinley’s age, except for one—a boy—who was much older.
“That’s me,” her mother said, “and those are the mages—years ago when they were young.”
Brinley watched the oldest boy for a moment, then noticed that another boy stood out as well, but for different reasons. He was strange looking, happy and sad at the same time, as if he couldn’t decide.
“That is Animus, the oldest. And that,” she said, pointing to the strange boy, “is Lux.”
“Why is he like that?” Brinley asked.
“He always was,” her mother said simply.
A man was there now, and a woman. They were tall and beautiful, and Brinley didn’t have to ask who they were. Gods are unmistakable.
They placed their hands on her young mother’s shoulders and spoke for a long time. By the end of it Brinley understood how the mages each had a part of the gods’ power and helped govern the world—serving it—keeping it safe. Her mother was supposed to watch over the mages and the hearts of the people.
“What does that mean?” Brinley asked. “The hearts of the people?”
“Look,” her mother said again.
Brinley watched the scene change. Years went by and her mother taught the mages. She was with Unda the first time he helped water rise from the great ocean into clouds and fall out over the farmer’s crops. She was with Chantra as she helped the old forest be struck by lightning and burn through the night to make room for new growth. She was with Belterras as he helped the new trees to grow.
Most often, she was with Lux. The little blond-haired boy changed day after day, from good to bad to good again. Some days he sat with new young mothers and taught them how to hold their babies without hurting them, and what lullabies were the quickest to calm their children. Other days he taught young boys how to pick people’s pockets in the street without being caught. As the years went by, his good days became better, and his bad days darkened. The Magemother would sit with him as he yelled or cried himself to sleep at the end of each day, frustrated by the two-faced nature of his soul.
Then, as the boy grew older, he began to help people do terrible things—things so dark they made Brinley sick and terrified at the same time, like she needed to take a shower after watching.
“Look,” her mother insisted when she tried to turn away. “You have to see it all.”
A baby lay in a cradle in a small room with crystal walls. Lux was picking it up.
“That’s you,” her mother said.
Brinley went cold, watching the boy with golden hair stroke her tiny head.
“Was it a good day or a bad day?” Brinley asked.
Her mother’s face fell. “I didn’t know,” she said.
Brinley watched her young mother enter the room and panic. She reached for the baby and wrenched her away from Lux.
The young mage wore the look of someone who had been slapped without warning, surprised and betrayed.
“His eyes frightened me,” her mother whispered. “He was always respectful to me—good days or bad, but I didn’t know what he would do to you.”
She turned to face her daughter and tears were in her eyes again.
“I was so scared then. I was afraid of him—afraid for you. I brought you here,” she hurried on, pointing back to the scene that was changing beneath them.
Brinley saw her mother carrying her into the lightfall. She gave Brinley to the man and the woman—the gods who had been with her in the beginning. Brinley stared at the baby version of herself. She was wrapped in a bundle of blankets inside a basket. She was so small—too young to know that she was losing her mother. It would take years for that to sink in, and then it would hurt. Brinley closed her eyes, wishing she could change what was happening, wishing she could stop it. But this wasn’t really happening, she knew. It was a vision—a memory. She could no more reach out and stop it than change the course of a movie while it played out. She watched as the woman lifted her out of the basket and held her. Her mother handed the man a tiny silver bell. What did that mean?
“I asked them to hide you,” her mother was saying. She was struggling to control her voice. She paused, sighing as if she had made it past the worst part of the story. “But they brought you back to me,” she said. “They brought you back.”
“What about the other children? The other mages?” Brinley wanted to know. She had forgotten about the bell now. The scene before them had changed again.
“[_I _]hid them,” her mother said. “Not all of them. Animus was old enough. He has always been strong, but I was worried about the others. I hid them, even from myself, and then told everyone that I did not know where they were. I pretended to look for them. But I have been watching Lux—looking for a way to save him.”
Brinley was confused. “But I met Cassis and Belterras,” she said. “They aren’t hidden.”
Her mother nodded. “They came forward when they were ready.”
“But where are the others?”
“I do not know now,” her mother said. “I hid them, but I chose to forget. To keep them safe.”
“You did what?” Brinley said, appalled. “How?”
Her mother smiled. “You will find that you are capable of almost anything when you are protecting the ones you love.”
Brinley nodded. “What happened to Lux?” she asked.
Her mother blinked. “That’s the strange part,” she said. “Everything seemed to get better after that. The evil things got better. They didn’t go away—but they got better.” She squinted, as if struggling to remember something. “But Lux wasn’t right. Whenever I was with him—even when he was good—he didn’t seem right. He was hiding things from me. One night, not long ago, I followed him to an evil place.”
Brinley watched as Lux crossed a high bridge like the one she had flown over on Peridot. He was dressed like the night itself—invisible to the guards that would have blocked his way.
“He entered the forest,” her mother narrated the scene before them, “and woke things that should have been left to sleep. I thought I could talk sense into him—change his mind. His anger was terrible.”
Brinley watched as her mother confronted Lux. All the goodness was gone from him now. He broke a piece of sharp black bark from an evil-looking tree and plunged it into her heart.
“But he didn’t kill you!” Brinley said desperately. The thought of losing her mother right when she had found her was unthinkable.
The Magemother gave her a sad smile. “No,” she said, “not yet.”
“Not ever,” Brinley insisted.
“I am strong, Brinley,” her mother said, “but even I am not immortal. Maybe if it had been someone else I could survive it, but my own son? No, that is too much for a mother’s heart…I will die, slowly.”
“But he’s not your son!” Brinley cried desperately. “Not really.” She hoped that if she could just see it, just get her mother to see it her way, that somehow it would change things.
“But he is.” The Magemother knelt down and looked up into her face. “He is my son because I chose to be his mother. You must understand this. It’s what being the Magemother is all about.”
“But I don’t understand it.”
“You will,” she said kindly, “you will.”
Brinley was shaking her head against what was coming next. She knew it must come—could see the need—but she didn’t want to hear it.
“You will understand,” her mother said at last, “because [_you _]are the new Magemother.”
She thought she was going to scream when she heard it—at the size of it, and the unfairness of it all—but she didn’t. She didn’t feel anything. It sounded absurd, fake, like a friend asking her to play house forever and ever; it meant nothing.
Then she saw it.
The dream world was spinning again, showing her glimpses of the future. She saw herself, the same age, then older and older—not just one future, but many. In one she grew old all alone. In another she died young. In another she found love. In another she lost her way and destroyed the world. In every future, every life, kings and wizards came to her for advice. Weeping mothers and broken fathers came to her for comfort and council. She was important. She was powerful.
She was visible.
“Do I even get a choice?” she cried, terrified. All she wanted to do was hide, find a way out.
“Of course you do,” her mother began, and there it was beside them, growing out of the dream world: the doors of the old church at Morley.
She didn’t wait to hear the rest, she just ran.
In which Brinley grows up
She burst through the doors of the church and into her father’s arms. She didn’t think to wonder how he had known to be there right at that moment. If she had, she might have looked around and noticed that it was still dark out and that her father’s four-wheeler was parked beside her own. She would have realized that he had followed her when she had run out in the middle of the night and that very little time had passed here while she was away.
“Dad!” she cried, and gripped him so tightly it hurt.
“Dad, I went to Caraway and there were mages and there was a magpie and Flitlitter was my mother and she’s dying! And she wants me to be Magemother!”
“What? Calm down, Brinley. What are you talking about?” He was brushing back her hair in a soothing way and looking around for possible sources of her discomfort.
How could she tell him? How could she make him understand about her mother?
At the thought of her mother, she turned around and looked back the way that she had come, hoping to find her just beyond the doors, standing under the light. If he could just see her—if she could just show him…but there was nothing. Just the empty belly of an old church.
“Oh no,” she said in horror. What had she done? She had abandoned her mother. What had she been thinking? She had chosen, and she knew that she had chosen wrong.
She felt sick. What would happen to them? All the people she had met? Her mother would die, and Peridot and Hugo and probably Tabitha too, and Tennebris would get control of everything.
She looked around madly, wanting to disappear, wanting to take it all back—it was like that moment when something terrible is happening and you wish you could turn back the clock just a few seconds and do things differently.
And then, everything stopped.
Her father’s face had frozen. The sounds of the forest were gone. A bee hung motionless above a flower.
She turned. The two shining people, the gods, as her mother called them, were there. The woman was beautiful. She was smiling. The man looked serious.
“Brinley,” he said again, “what are you doing here?”
She winced. “I ran away,” she said in a rush. She knew she couldn’t lie to them, and anyway she wasn’t the type of person that lied. “She showed me what I would have to do if I stayed and I ran away! I’m so sorry!”
The man’s face softened. He looked at his wife (for she was obviously his wife, the way he looked at her).
She spoke next. “You do not have to go,” she said kindly. “If you wish, you may remain here in this world. Your father loves you, and you are safe here.” She was smiling, but Brinley felt sick at her words. “You will not be safe in your mother’s world, not always, but there is great joy there for you, if you choose it.”
Brinley shut her eyes. What kind of friend would she be to leave Tabitha behind like that? What kind of daughter? She looked at her father then, with his face frozen in worry and confusion. “I have to go back,” she said slowly, “I [_want _]to go back.” She tried to say it forcefully, hoping the sound of her own voice would help convince herself, but she sounded small.
She had an idea. “Can I just have one thing?” she asked hastily, turning to the woman and her husband.
The man cocked his head and the woman gave a small nod of encouragement.
She took hold of her father’s arms. “Can you help him understand? Can you show him? Please?”
The man was smiling now too. He reached out with one finger and touched her father in the middle of his forehead. A little light shone on her father’s head for a moment after he withdrew his finger. Then the world was moving again.
Her father was taking her in his arms and tears were beginning to stream down his face. He was hugging her as if he was afraid he never would again.
“I’m so proud of you, Brinley, so proud,” he said. “You have to go back, you must! You have to be who you were born to be.”
“Come with me!” she pleaded.
He looked at the man standing with his wife. “Is it possible?” he asked.
The man looked solemn. “Yes,” he said. “However, the journey would be different for you than for your daughter. You are not from that world.”
Her father nodded. “I understand.”
“No, you do not,” the woman said gently. She looked almost sad. “Still, if you go, go with our blessing.”
He nodded, turning to Brinley. “Let’s go,” he said. “Before I think better of this.”
Brinley’s heart leapt. He was coming with her! She would not have to be alone after all!
They walked into the church arm in arm, facing the darkness together.
In which there is a very reluctant witch
When Brinley emerged on the other side, she was alone. “Where did he go?” she said, reaching back through the doorway. He had been right behind her, but now only her mother stood beside her in the lightfall.
“Who?” her mother asked.
“Your father?” she asked, startled.
“They said he could come with me. He was right beside me, but now he’s gone.” She was growing desperate. Something was not right.
“He may make it yet,” her mother said. “Have patience. It is a long way between our worlds, and he may not be able to travel through the void as easily as you. Now is not the time to worry about him.”
Brinley took a deep breath.
“You have decided to stay?”
“Yes,” Brinley said quietly. “I’ll do it. I’ll be the Magemother, on one condition.”
“You have to try to live.”
“You [_have _]to try!” Brinley exclaimed. “I just found you! Won’t you even try?” She felt herself starting to cry again.
Her mother wiped tears from her own eyes. “It’s not that I don’t want to,” she said. “If I step out of this lightfall, I will die in minutes. That is the reason I have been a magpie. Belterras taught me that shape long ago. It is the only form besides my own that I have ever been able to master. A smaller body was easier to keep alive…but no longer. These past hours have taken a lot out of me. I cannot leave the lightfall again—in any shape.” She touched the wound over her heart. It was bleeding faster now.
“Isn’t there any way to save you?” Brinley asked. “Any way at all? If I become the Magemother, can you stay alive and just be [_my _]mother?”
Her mother considered her. She was thinking carefully. “No,” she said at last. “No…Perhaps, if we had all the mages with us, there [_might _]be a chance, but—Brinley!”
But Brinley had already turned to leave. “Stay there!” she called back to her mother. “I’ll be back in a second. I have an idea.” It was a ridiculous idea for sure. It probably wouldn’t work, but then again, it just might. As soon as she was out of the lightfall she took the little marble out of her pocket. Raising it into the air, she hoped upon hope that this wouldn’t end badly. Then she threw it as hard as she could and it shattered with a loud crack against the floor. Immediately, the splintered glass caught fire, glowing with a bright light. The shards burned hotter and hotter and started smoking, and then Habis stepped out of the smoke.
“What in blazing death—oh, it’s you. Where have you brought me? Oh, no! You didn’t. Tell me I’m not where I think I am! Curse your smoldering bones, child, I—”
“I’ve thought of what I want,” Brinley said loudly, trying to take control of the situation. “You did say I could summon you at any time, didn’t you?”
“I did,” the witch said uneasily.
“Well, I need you now.”
“Very well,” the witch growled. “I shall see to your request then, and try not to think about where I am. It is forbidden for me to be here.” She sniffed and pointed her nose up. “Even if it weren’t, this is not my kind of place.”
Brinley had to agree with her. Habis, with her spidery hair and her clothes of skin, looked out of place in the clean beauty of the palace.
“I see you are visible now,” Habis said, looking her over. “How did you accomplish that, may I ask? Did your mother put you right?”
“What?” Brinley looked down at herself. “Am I?”
“I don’t know! It must have happened when I came out of the lightfall.”
“Ah,” Habis said, looking at the light suspiciously. “Very well. Best not to dwell on such dark things. Now what do you want?” She was tapping her foot impatiently now.
“My mother is dying,” Brinley blurted.
Habis stopped tapping her foot. “Is she now?” Her face was blank. “Then I was right. More’s the pity, but the time comes for each of us. I shall leave you to mourn her.”
“Wait!” Brinley said. “You have to help me save her. You promised you would. It’s what I want, and[_ ]it helps you because it’s bad for your sister, and you gave witch’s honor, [_and—]”
“Enough! Enough girl!” Habis was waving her arms in protest. “Where is she? Let’s fix her up.”
“I don’t think you can,” Brinley said. “No offense,” she added hurriedly at the look on Habis’s face. “She says nobody can help her but all the mages together. I was hoping you could give me one of your naptraps to keep her in until—”
“Ha!” the witch cut her off. “Put the Magemother in one of my naptraps? Unthinkable. They were not designed to hold people. That would be far too complex. The cat was pushing the limits.”
Brinley’s heart sank.
“Never mind,” Habis said dismissively. “At any rate, I’ll make my own diagnosis, thank you very much, and the sooner the better. I don’t want to be in this place one minute longer than I have to. Where is she?”
Brinley led her to the lightfall, but the witch stopped just short of following her in. “What devilry is this?” she mumbled to herself, and reached her finger out to touch it delicately. The light fanned out and cascaded around her finger like water, and she jumped back. “Oooh no,” she said. “I’m not going in there. You tell her to come out here.”
“But she can’t come out,” Brinley said. “She’ll die if she does. If you want to see her yourself you have to come in. It’s not bad,” she said reassuringly. “I promise. It’s really wonderful.”
Habis mumbled something to herself, then took a half step forward. “Blast. I’m going to regret this. Maybe there’s something else. Some other favor I could do for you?” she said, an almost panicked look on her face.
Brinley shook her head. She didn’t understand what the big deal was.
The witch was beside herself now, bouncing on the balls of her feet nervously. “You’re getting the better part of the bargain, you little brat!” she spat. She looked down at the ring on her hand. “This wasn’t worth it.” She took another step towards the light. She was close enough to touch it now, and her eyes flew open so wide that she looked crazy (crazier than usual). Brinley was reminded of a child working up the courage to jump into an ice cold pool. “Fine! Fine! Ooh, fine!” Habis shouted, lifting her arms and dipping her fingers in the light again. She walked forward at a slow but steady pace, cringing. When the light got halfway to her elbows she paused and started to panic, then she glared at the light and started moving again. She was cursing darkly now through clenched teeth, so that she spit a little with each forced word. “Ooh! Ouch! Black spike-piking spite-spitting die-lying sly-frying filch-pilching—AHHHH!”
With a final, piercing scream, she forced herself through the light. Brinley followed her in, totally perplexed. She paid extra attention as she passed through it, but it didn’t hurt at all. She just felt the same comfortable warmth that she had the first time.
“Habis? This is unexpected,” her mother was saying. Habis was standing across from her, ringing her hands. Tears were trickling down her cheeks, and her panicked breathing was coming in great heaving gasps now, so that she gave the impression of someone in great pain.
“What’s wrong with her?” Brinley asked her mother.
“Shh,” she said gently. “She just needs a minute. She’s a fish out of water in this much light. This is your plan? I can’t believe you got her to come in here.”
Brinley nodded slowly, comprehension dawning on her. “She didn’t want to. It looked really painful for her.”
“Ah, yes, well,” Habis sputtered, gaining control of herself again. “I’m fine now, no thanks to—uh, thank you.” She looked perplexed. Evidently she had tried to say something rude, but it had gone wrong. She tried to sink back into her scowl now, but her face twitched and her eyes widened, and she found herself smiling instead. “Ugh. It is as I feared. This light is poisoning me!”
Brinley’s mother smiled. “It is healing you.”
“And what if I don’t want to be healed?” she sputtered. The corners of her mouth were twitching weakly as if some strange emotion was about to come bursting out of her.
“Few people do. Thank you for coming. I expect you made some sort of binding agreement with my daughter?”
Habis nodded. “I will help you if I can.” She shook her head, trying to free herself from the goodness that was plaguing her. “Let’s see it then, Lewilyn,” she said.
Brinley’s ears perked up. “Lewilyn?” she asked. “Is that your name?”
Her mother smiled. “Yes,” she said, “I forgot to tell you. Few people ever use it.”
Habis went bright red. “I’m sorry, Magemother,” she said, biting her lip as the apology slipped out. “Your name just slipped out.”
“No matter,” Lewilyn said. She moved so that Habis could see the dark, red wound in her chest.
Habis paled. “Where did you get this? It was Lux, I assume.”
Lewilyn nodded. “He stabbed me with a shard of bark from a druciduous tree.”
Habis’s hand shot back from the wound. “A twistwood tree?” she demanded. “From the Wizard’s Ire? Which one? There are four. Tell me! Which one did the bark come from?”
Lewilyn laid a calming hand on Habis’s shoulder. “The smallest of the four.”
“You are certain?”
Habis looked relieved. She spoke to Brinley. “I’m afraid you were right. She is going to die. Luckily, that is all that will happen. It could have been much worse.”
Brinley felt a pang of anger. “What could be worse than that? What do you mean there’s no hope? You said almost anything can be mended if you know how.”
“But I do not know how,” Habis said. “And even if I did, it would probably take all of the mages to do it, as you said. And we do not have all of the mages.”
“I can find them!” Brinley insisted. We can learn how to save her! We just need time. Please, help me!” Brinley was on the brink of tears again. It was so unfair. After all this time she was going to lose her mother, and Habis didn’t understand how important it was to save her. Or maybe she did.
Tears were rolling out of Habis’s eyes, and she was wiping them away angrily. “What is wrong with me? Don’t worry, you may be right. Hope may not be lost. We should try the naptrap, as you suggested.” She turned back to the Magemother, holding up one of her bottles. “This bottle will suspend time for you, and keep you safe until Brinley can find a solution, but it was not designed for people. You need to be smaller. I once heard rumor that you could take the shape of a magpie, is that true?”
“Excellent,” the witch said. “It should be able to suspend you for a very long time then.”
Lewilyn looked down at the little bottle that Habis had produced. She nodded silently, and took it. “Thank you, Habis. We will use your naptrap. Please leave me alone with my daughter now.”
Habis nodded. To Brinley, she said, “We’re even now. That’s it.”
As she was about to step back through the light, Lewilyn caught hold of her shoulder. “Whether you admit it yet or not, this will change you—being in this place. You have been flirting with goodness for too long now for it not to. Do not fight it.”
Habis turned, and to Brinley’s surprise, smiled weakly. “I was afraid of that,” she said. Then she stepped backwards and was gone from view.
Lewilyn moved her hand to Brinley’s shoulder. “We should do it now,” she said.
“Now?” Brinley was taken aback. “I thought that we could do it later,” she paused. “You know, after you put things right, and teach me what to do, and we’re ready.”
Lewilyn laughed. “I’m afraid it won’t be that easy,” she said. The hand on Brinley’s shoulder suddenly got heavier as Lewilyn leaned on her for support.
“But I don’t know what to do!” Brinley protested. “I’m not ready yet!”
Lewilyn smiled weakly. “Welcome to motherhood,” she said. “We all feel that way in the beginning, but you will find that you know more than you think.” She stopped, cringing. “Help me to the floor.”
Brinley gave her both hands and helped her sit down slowly. Then she sat next to her in the middle of the lightfall.
“There are three things that you need to know,” Lewilyn said, wincing. “First, you need to become the Magemother.”
“When does that happen?”
“Right now. It is a small thing, an easy thing. It will only hurt a little.”
“What?” Brinley shifted uncomfortably. This is not what she had expected.
Lewilyn raised her eyebrows. “There is no fanfare in this, Brinley. That comes later. Now, hold still.” She leaned over and tugged at the neck of Brinley’s shirt to reveal the skin over her heart. Then she took a little crystal knife from the sash at her waist and with one swift motion made a long, shallow cut.
“Shh,” her mother soothed. “Bear the pain with honor. This is an ancient ceremony. There is blood and pain, but great joy as well. If we had time, the full ceremony is very beautiful. Maybe someday.” Her eyes rolled suddenly against the pain, and Brinley thought her mother was going to pass out.
“Okay,” she said, composing herself. “Hurry. Let’s get this done. You will not feel the effects until you leave the lightfall. When that happens, my mantle will pass to you, so to speak.”
“You need to find a herald. Someone to accompany you, protect you, as Peridot did for me.”
“Why can’t I just have Peridot?”
“She will not follow you. She was [_my _]herald.” Lewilyn coughed, doubling over. “When you confront Tennebris,” she said, changing the subject, “you must take away his power. There are specific words that you must say. Listen carefully.”
She pulled Brinley close and whispered the words in her ear, repeating it once to make sure that Brinley heard. She squeezed her mother’s arm. “I have it,” she said. “I won’t forget.”
Lewilyn nodded. “The power of the mages is yours to give and take from them. Few people know this, and you should keep it that way.”
“Let me finish,” Lewilyn said, wincing. Brinley looked down and saw that the blood was flowing out freely now. It had begun to pool on the floor. “You cannot revoke one child’s power without taking it away from them all.”
“You must treat them all equally. That’s how it works. In this case, you couldn’t do it differently if you tried. When you take their power back, it will rest on you. You will feel all of it weighing on you alone—don’t look so afraid. It will overwhelm you at first, but don’t panic. The first thing you need to do is give Animus his power back. Just touch him, and tell him, and he will receive it. He will help you.” She was speaking so quickly now that Brinley had to strain to remember all of it.
“After you take Tennebris’s power, his body will die. He has become dependent on the darkness for his survival, and you will be cutting him off from it. The elements of light and dark will leave him. You need to rescue the light. It will not last long without a mage to care for it. You must find a new mage quickly.”
“And the darkness?”
“It cannot take a new body without your permission, but it will try anyway. Eventually, when you choose the next Mage of Light and Darkness, it will find him, and then he will have to learn to deal with it. Choose someone with a pure heart. Do not wait too long.
“Trust your heart to guide you with the other mages as well,” Lewilyn continued. “That is the third thing: you must find them now. Remember, Brinley, when you take the power from Tennebris, you will take it from them all, wherever they are, in whatever form they may be in. They will be trapped until you find them. They should survive the loss of their power, but it will be terrible for them. They will be shocked, weakened. Their power will be gone, but they are still the mages. They will need you. They may not be able to come out of hiding without their powers.”
Brinley nodded. She struggled to hold her mother upright now.
“Take this,” Lewilyn said, handing her the little crystal knife. “Use it for no other purpose than the one I showed you. Above all, follow your instincts. Follow your heart—”
“I love you!” Brinley said, as she held up the naptrap. Her mother’s head lulled. The flow of blood was beginning to slow. “Wake up!” she said, shaking her. “You have to change!”
Lewilyn opened her eyes weakly, and smiled. Then she was gone. A magpie limped across the palm of her hand. Brinley opened the bottle, and the naptrap swallowed the bird. She shut the bottle carefully, staring at it blankly. Her mother was inside.
She put the bottle in her pocket. As easily as that, her mother was gone. So close, but so far away. Standing there in the lightfall, Brinley realized she was alone again.
It was all up to her now.
Taking a deep breath, she squared her shoulders and strode out of the light.
In which Brinley feels the weight of the world
When Hugo heard Brinley’s voice, he couldn’t believe his good luck. He was going to be rescued! A second later, he berated himself. Surely this was a trap. The Kutha was out hunting, and he hadn’t heard anything from Tennebris for a few minutes now, but he knew they were probably still out there. He tried to warn them. They had to leave! Brinley couldn’t be caught like he was. There was no reason for Tennebris to keep her alive.
Then Peridot was freeing him from the bag. “Climb on my back!” she hissed. The moment he complied, she lurched into the air. Brinley was running for the wind-wall and the Kutha was after her. Hugo could see a magpie bobbing through the air, cradled in invisible arms. They weren’t going to make it!
Then Peridot gave an extra burst of speed and he was sent tumbling backward onto the magpie-strewn floor. By the time he righted himself, Brinley was gone and Peridot was tumbling across the floor, locked talon and tooth with the hissing owl.
“Help me!” Peridot snarled in frustration, and Hugo, looking around, realized she must be talking to him. He searched the floor desperately and found what he was looking for. The twisted short sword lay discarded on the floor. The great owl turned its head to watch him—turned [_just _]its head, its body still busy wrestling with Peridot, trying to pin her against the wall.
The cold, heart-shaped face looked spooky twisted around like that. Hugo swallowed the fear that was telling him to turn around and run, and lunged toward the Kutha instead, bending to scoop up the sword as he went.
Maybe the Kutha thought he would run, or maybe it just hadn’t expected him to be much of a threat. Whatever the reason, it reacted slowly. It watched, eyes widening, as he ran forward and buried the sword deep into its back. It screamed and slipped in its grappling with Peridot.
The Laurel’s great lion’s teeth silenced it.
Hugo’s sword slipped free from the Kutha and he stared in shock at the blood-stained blade in his hands. He looked up. Peridot was looking at him in surprise.
“Thank you,” she said at last, her expression changing. She was looking at him the way people looked at his father. But no one had ever looked at him that way.
They were interrupted by the sound of slow clapping. Tennebris was walking out of the shadows, and they strangely seemed to follow him wherever he went.
“Well done, Peridot. Well done, Hugo.”
“What now, Tennebris?” Peridot said, crouching defensively, ready to spring. She sounded more curious than afraid, Hugo noticed, so he tried not to be afraid either, despite the fact that they might be about to die.
“We wait,” Tennebris said. “You cannot harm me, and I have little use for killing you just now.” He looked up at the wall of wind. “Animus is nearly out of strength. Soon the Magemother will no longer be able to hide.
“Animus is too strong for you,” Hugo blurted.
Tennebris considered him thoughtfully. “True,” he said at last. He put his fingers cautiously into the wind-wall as if testing it. “We wage war, he and I, though you cannot see it. I cannot overpower him when he is like this, but he can barely breathe now, or move, or think. He will not last much longer.”
Hugo felt the weight of the sword in his hand; he wanted to use it again. Maybe, if he could just move fast enough…
“Do not try it,” Tennebris said dismissively.
“Or what?” Hugo asked, caught off guard. “You’ll kill me?” He didn’t know what was making him so bold, but it was terrible just standing by while Animus protected the Magemother, knowing all the while that he would fail in the end.
Tennebris flicked a look in his direction and Hugo doubled over, blind. It was as if some invisible bully had put him in a head lock and everything had gone dark.
An empty voice whispered against his ear; he could feel the sick breath of it. “No,” it said, “I will not kill you. I’ll whisper and watch as you try to resist me. I’ll put thoughts inside you—terrible, maddening thoughts. You will want to cut them out, but you won’t be able to. You’ll fillet yourself with your own sword like a fish trying to cut them out, and I will look on with dim curiosity to see what you drown in first—thoughts? Tears? Blood?”
“Enough!” Peridot had taken Hugo under one wing, jerking him off his feet. “Do not look at him, Hugo,” she ordered. “Let him be.”
“Yes, don’t look at me,” Tennebris mocked.
Hugo looked anyway. Tennebris was still standing on the other side of the room with his fingers in the wind. Dark streaks were spreading out from his fingers now and spiraling into the wind. Several of them snagged on Animus’s robes. They caught at his arms and legs and beard, pulling at him.
“Yes,” Tennebris said darkly. “Give in, old man. You’re too old, too tired to carry on like this. It’s too hard. Give up…”
With a bang, the wind-wall ripped apart at the edges, dancing wildly as it spun to a stop. The old mage fell out of it and sprawled across the floor, exhausted. Tennebris gave a shout of triumph, but Hugo was looking beyond the mage at what the wall had been hiding—a thing like a waterfall of light. A young woman had stepped out of it. She was very beautiful, Hugo thought. He knew that he knew her, but he couldn’t think how.
“Hello, Mother,” Tennebris said coldly.
“Hello, Tennebris,” she returned softly.
“There will be no more running now,” he said.
“No,” she agreed. “Not for me.”
“But what has happened to you?” he asked, faltering slightly. “You’re so young. You’re…different.”
Brinley regarded him silently. Her heart was pounding. She tried to remember everything her mother had said. She might only get one chance.
A look of comprehension crossed Tennebris’s face. “You’re [_not _]her,” he said. “You’re the daughter.” He smiled, nodding to himself. “The one she hid from me so many years ago. So,” he said coldly. “It has happened, then. She’s dead? You are the new Magemother.”
An idea struck Brinley. There was no reason anyone had to know her mother was still alive. It might be safer this way. “Yes,” she said, her confidence growing. It was strange, but somehow it boosted her confidence that Tennebris recognized her as the Magemother. She didn’t feel any different yet herself.
“You will die then, as she did,” Tennebris spat, and leapt at her.
“No,” Brinley said softly. She had shut her eyes against the sight of him. She had to focus. She had to remember the words. “I release you from your duty as the Mage of Light and Darkness.”
She opened her eyes. Tennebris was standing stock-still inches from her, hands outstretched to take her, but unable.
“You cannot do it! You cannot take power from one mage and not the others!”
Brinley’s knees were shaking hard. What if it didn’t work? What if her mother was wrong? What if the mages didn’t survive the loss of their powers? What if she couldn’t bear the weight of it?
“Lux Tennebris,” Brinley said formally, forcing her fears away.
“I remove your power and your calling as a mage, as shall be for all my children.”
Tennebris stared at her blankly. He had the look of a man surprised to find himself on the brink of death. Then his face twisted in a horrible expression of pain, like someone had ripped his heart out through his mouth. He crumpled to the floor so quickly it was as if his bones had turned to water.
For a moment, all was quiet. Brinley looked at Hugo, who was staring at him, transfixed. “Look,” he said, pointing to the empty body that had been Tennebris.
Brinley watched as what looked like a tiny golden star rose silently from his chest, then flickered and tumbled to the floor.
Brinley heard her mother’s voice in her head. The elements of light and dark will leave him then. You need to rescue the light. She ran to it. It burned as she picked it up. She gasped. It was soft, delicate, the size of a tennis ball, but light as air. It was stringy, like a ball of pumpkin pulp made of light and flowing glass. She handled it gently, afraid that she might break it. As she held it, it began to cool. The glass-like light pooled and solidified into a protective shell around a glowing center.
Brinley backed away as something much darker began to emerge from the body. Two black hands, dusty and burnt, broke upward in a cloud of smoke. Strong arms followed, then a head. The darkness placed its hands on the floor and lifted the rest of its shadowy form out of Tennebris’s body.
“You haven’t killed me,” it said shortly. “You can’t kill me.” He stomped on Tennebris’s body with a smoky foot. “You will need another mage to hold the balance, and when you find him, I will own him, just as I owned this one.”
Brinley shuddered. She wanted to run away. She wanted to be invisible again. She wanted to do anything other than confront this being. Then she caught site of Animus’s broken body lying on the floor and something stirred inside her; a hard, ironlike something she had never felt before. “We’ll see,” she said.
“Silence!” the darkness shrieked. It seemed disturbed that she was not more afraid. “Everything you love,” he said quietly, “everything you choose to care about, I will destroy.” It smiled grimly and was gone, evaporating like smoke fanned away from a fire.
The room was silent. It seemed strangely empty. There was too much death, she thought. Dead magpies, dead Kutha, dead body of Tennebris.
Brinley put her hand to her head. There was a sound like rushing water, then wind, then the creaking of trees and the grinding of rock and the roar of fire. It was so loud! She folded her arms across her chest and held herself tight, looking around for the source of the noise.
“Where is it coming from?” she said.
“What?” Hugo asked, looking around nervously. “Is he coming back?”
It was happening, she realized, the power of the mages was coming upon her, just like her mother said. It came like a crushing weight, and her knees struck the floor painfully. Somewhere, far away, she felt Hugo put his arms around her and lower her to the floor.
It came then, the weight of the world crushing down on her—the weight of the ocean and every rock in the land. She felt the energy of the sea, the constant restless breathing of the tide—in, out, in, out, in.
She felt the hunger of fire and her stomach groaned, and she wanted to dance naked over everything and hypnotize the world.
The ancient dreams of trees filled her mind like a green cloud of leaves, choking off her own thoughts; tiny seedling gods cried out of the earth for light, straining against the crust of dust for life and height.
The cold silence of stone covered her, full of nothing and questions. What am I? I am alive but do not grow. I think but do not speak. I know but do not feel. What am I? What am I? WHAT AM I?
Birds and beasts and swimming things stampeded through her heart, leaving holes. They left scratches too, holes and scratches and a feeling of exhilaration. Sadness. Nearly all of the magpies were dead—only nineteen remained in the whole world. There was a baby seal in the sea of Urank by the sharp rock where the yellow sea dragons lived. Its mother had just been eaten by a shark and it was scared.
Its cries were washed away by the pounding of the tide—in, out, in, out, in—but the water was air, the tide wind, the shores were every living body. She filled them, emptied them again. Her body trembled against every noise, against every voice. She knew every whisper, touched every face. Her fingers were as long as the earth, her arms as wide as the sky…
“Brinley! Brinley, wake up!”
Hugo was shaking her. Animus was there, too. Behind his exhaustion was a comforting sense of strength. “I’m here, Mother,” he said. He took her hands in his. “If you return my power to me, I can help you bear the weight. Let me help you.”
She nodded. She pushed the waves and wind and rock aside in her mind, searching for the words she needed. The moment she found them, she said them.
Animus grunted and the storm inside her vanished. She closed her eyes, body trembling, mind reeling. Her heart felt bare and dry, like a fruit with all the juice squeezed out of it. The scratch on her chest was throbbing. She tried to open her eyes again but could not remember how.
In which Hugo takes the chicken stairs
Brinley woke amid a field of white clouds. They were rushing by her silently, and Hugo’s arms were around her, holding her steady. She sat up. They were riding Peridot, she realized. She had survived.
“Good morning,” Hugo said brightly.
“Good morning,” Brinley smiled.
“I thought you were dead for a while there.”
“Good,” Hugo laughed nervously. “Imagine what I’d say to my father!” He cleared his throat. “Yeah, sorry, Father. The old Magemother died. There was a new one—she died too, though. No, I didn’t do anything to save her. By the way, the essence of all evil is loose in the land.”
Brinley laughed, then stopped when she realized that almost all of that was true. She looked back at Hugo. “Oh no! What happened to your ear?”
“The Kutha,” Hugo said, reaching up to cover it. “I forgot.”
“Don’t touch it!” Brinley stopped his hand and examined his ear herself. It was a terrible thing to look at.
“How bad is it?” Hugo asked.
“I don’t know,” she answered truthfully. “Half of it is gone, but the inside part looks okay. It’s just bleeding on the outside. It will probably be okay.”
Hugo nodded. “I’m starting to hear out of it again.”
Brinley looked at him. He had been through so much, captured by the witches, imprisoned by Tennebris, attacked by the Kutha. [_She _]had been through a lot, too. Tears filled her eyes as she recalled the events of the day in her mind.
“What is it?” Hugo asked.
“My dad,” Brinley said. “He’s gone.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“When I was with my mother, she showed me things. Anyway, I got to see my dad, and tried to bring him back with me from Ert, but…he didn’t make it. He just—” she gestured desperately, choking back tears, “he just got lost somewhere. In ‘the void.’ I don’t know what’s going to happen to him, and there’s no time to look for him now.”
“I’m sure you will find him,” Hugo said. His voice sounded odd.
“It’s just,” Hugo gave her a careful look, “you say all those things happened to you in there. But you were only gone for a minute.”
She shrugged. “I think that light that I went through must have some effect on time.” She wanted to change the subject. She didn’t want to think about what had happened in there. “Where is Tennebris?”
“I don’t know,” Hugo looked out over the city nervously. They could just see the castle in the distance now. “He just disappeared.”
“He will be looking for a new body,” Brinley said, remembering what her mother had said.
“The king?” Hugo asked, looking sick at the thought.
“Your father?” It made sense. “Yes, maybe. I’m sure he’ll be fine,” Brinley said hastily, putting a hand to her head to steady herself.
“Are you okay?” Hugo asked her, looking concerned.
“I think so,” she said.
[It will return more slowly this time, _]a voice said in her head, startling her. _Do not worry. It’s me, Animus. The Magemother can communicate over great distances with her children. She didn’t tell you?
We didn’t have time, _]Brinley said. [_What will return more slowly?
The weight, the power. I am holding most of it for you. I will help you bear it.
She told Hugo what Animus had said.
“Wow,” he said, eyes going wide. “That’s amazing! Ask him where he went. He just disappeared and told us to meet him at the castle.”
[I am already in the city, _]the voice came again. _I was worried about Belterras and Cassis. They were nearly destroyed when their power was taken. I am taking them somewhere safe. The battle has already commenced. I will meet you there.
She told Hugo what he had said.
“So you really are the Magemother?” he asked, his eyes full of wonder. “What’s it like?”
“It’s awful,” she said truthfully.
“Oh,” Hugo said, “It’s just, you know…”
“Well,” he said, looking slightly sheepish. “It’s always sort of been my dream to become a mage, and you’ve just done it overnight…” He went silent, looking embarrassed.
Brinley felt taken aback. She hadn’t thought that anybody would [_want _]to be in her position. “How would you like to be the Mage of Fire?” she asked, holding out her hands.
He looked at them, his expression turning from shock to hunger, then to embarrassment once more. He looked down, shaking his head. “I don’t think it works like that.”
“No,” she agreed, “but we tried.” She shrugged and smiled at him.
He forced a smile in return. “I guess I’ll just have to be the king, then.”
“Poor thing,” she said, trying to look very sad. “Anyway, I’m not really a mage, I’m the Magemother. I don’t think it’s the same thing.”
“No,” Hugo agreed, “it’s not.” He smiled. “You really don’t know much, do you?”
“Hey,” she said, and punched him playfully in the shoulder. It felt good to be laughing with a friend. The danger was far from over, but they were alive. They had escaped Tennebris once, and it was easier to believe that they could do it again.
Hugo grinned a little wider. “It’s nice to finally see you, by the way.”
“Oh no!” Brinley exclaimed. “You can, can’t you?” Her hands went to her hair. She had lost track of how long she had been here, but she knew she had slept on it at least twice without brushing it.
Hugo laughed. “No, no, you look fine—really good, actually.” He blushed and hurried on. “I’ve been able to see you since you came out of that light stuff.”
“That makes sense,” Brinley said slowly. “I guess that’s about when I stopped trying to hide—I mean,” she added hastily, wishing she hadn’t said that. “I didn’t need to be hidden anymore—from Lux, I mean.”
“Oh,” Hugo said. “I almost forgot! Animus said that you would need this.” He reached into his pocket and brought out the little glowing ball.
She took it, tucked it back into her shirt pocket next to her heart. She felt its warmth go through her almost at once.
“It’s warm,” Hugo said softly. “What is it?”
Hugo nodded. “That’s what it feels like,” he said.
They sat together in silence for a while, enjoying a moment of peace while they could. They knew that when they reached the king’s city, it would be under attack, but for now, there was nothing to do but wait.
When they reached the city, a battle was raging beneath them. Brinley counted ten—fifteen—no, twenty witches. A few of them rode terrible-looking creatures, while others were advancing on foot. They moved through the city streets from every direction, advancing on the castle. Archers were poised on the high castle walls, and the gate was closed. March seemed to be leading the attack. Her mount, a giant, bristling wolf, was bearing down on the castle gate. On the other side of the gate, standing with the king’s guards, was Tuck. A small group of armored gnomes stood with him.
A pale, green smoke covered most of the city, and began to billow over the castle wall. Most of the townspeople, it seemed, had taken shelter in their homes. On top of the wall, several of the soldiers began to choke and gag on the smoke. One of them toppled off the high wall and was set upon viciously by a tall, wraithlike witch with a shaved head. The other witches held their ground, waiting outside the wall. Brinley searched the scene below, trying to find the source of the smoke.
“There,” Hugo said. He must have been thinking along the same lines, for he was pointing at March. Upon closer examination, Brinley realized that the smoke was not coming from any fire, but from the witch herself. She rode the wolf proudly, slowly, one hand high in the air, brandishing a green dagger like a saber—Habis’s dagger, she realized. March must have stolen it from Habis during their fight. The smoke was issuing from the glowing blade.
“What is she doing?” Brinley exclaimed.
“Poisoning the soldiers,” Peridot snarled. “Hold on,” she said, then dove abruptly.
Brinley screamed. She wasn’t afraid for her life exactly—she trusted Peridot, but the sensation of going into a sudden dive was unnerving. When she got control of herself, she realized what they were aiming for. Peridot was descending upon March. The witch looked up at the last second and dove to the side, narrowly avoiding Peridot’s outstretched claws; the wolf she had been riding was not so lucky. Peridot landed on it with a loud crunch, while Hugo and Brinley were flattened against her back by the force of the sudden stop.
Brinley looked up, only to see the March Witch staring back at them. She was standing mere feet away, looking furious. Brinley grabbed the back of Hugo’s shirt wildly as Peridot rocketed into the air again.
“I must get you to safety,” Peridot said, her wings beating fast as they climbed. “The witch will not be taken by surprise again, and it is not a good idea for you to be in the middle of the fighting.”
“Why not?” Hugo said fiercely, a wild look in his eyes. “Just let me pick up a spear or something!”
“No,” Peridot said, banking to the left to fly over the castle, “There is no reason that the two of you should be risked in battle. Besides,” she said dipping her head to draw their attention to the scene below, “this fight will be over quickly.”
Brinley followed her gesture and saw Animus moving through the streets inside the castle wall. Archibald was right beside him, and Cannon brought up the rear.
“Look!” Hugo exclaimed. “Tennebris, and the idris!”
Brinley had noticed them too. The idris, twelve feet tall at least, was sprinting towards the rear castle wall. Riding on its shoulders, like a mantle of dark mist, was the darkness that had come out of Tennebris’s body. It reminded Brinley of a child riding on his father’s shoulders. It had been a diversion of sorts, Brinley realized. March had drawn the soldiers’ attention to the castle gate. Archers scrambled, sending a hail of arrows at the idris, but it was not enough. Several arrows missed, while others bounced off of the idris’s thick skin as he jumped onto the wall. The wall was high and sheer, and Brinley wondered how he would make it to the top, but her question was soon answered. In midair, the idris raised a pair of steel spikes, driving them hard into the face of the wall as he struck it. He then proceeded to climb, hand over hand, using the spikes like a climber’s pickaxes.
Peridot was flying lower now, observing the idris as he made his ascent. The giant reached the top of the wall and hurried across it, sending knights and archers flying over the edge in a chorus of screams.
“Come,” Peridot said restlessly, banking over the castle. “Where shall I take you?”
“To the keep,” Hugo said. “That’s where my father will be. We can help him fight.”
“No,” Peridot said. “Someplace safe. I will drop you outside the city.”
“No,” Hugo said. “There’s an old farm right below the castle. Nobody ever goes there. We’ll be safe.” He leaned out over Peridot’s neck so she could see where he was pointing. A minute later, they landed amid the sound of chickens scrambling for cover. Brinley stood on the ground with Hugo and watched as Peridot flew away toward the battle.
“You gave in to Peridot pretty quickly,” Brinley observed. “Why did you tell her to bring us here?”
“I’ll show you,” Hugo said, grinning. “Follow me.”
Animus stopped in front of Tuck and his warriors when he reached the inside of the castle gate, and Archibald came to a halt beside him.
“Are you ready?” Animus asked Tuck.
“Quite ready,” Tuck said, one hand tightening on the hilt of his ax. “There is one witch in particular that I need to have words with. Although,” he said as an afterthought, “I wouldn’t mind having some backup.”
Animus nodded. “You and I will handle her together. Cannon, you take the rest of the gnomes and attack the witches from the east wall. Captain Mark,” he continued, addressing the Captain of the King’s Guard, “I am going over the wall to break things up a bit. As soon as you are able, you may wish to raise the gate and come out to join me.”
The captain nodded.
“Where are Belterras and Cassis?” Archibald inquired. “Will they not come to fight?”
“They have other business to attend to,” Animus said, and he reached down to grab hold of Tuck by the shoulders.
“Wait,” Archibald protested. “I would appreciate it if you gave me a lift as well.”
“As you wish,” Animus said. The mage raised a hand and Archibald shot into the air in a high, graceful arc, landing lightly on the other side of the wall. A witch wearing a hat with a hawk’s head on it blinked at him in surprise.
“I bring you greetings from the king,” Archibald said formally. Without another word, he brought the silver ram’s head up and struck her in the shoulder. Her collarbone broke with a loud snap and she fell backward, shrieking in surprise. The hawk on her hat twitched to life and leapt at Archibald, talons reaching for his face. He twisted to the side, brought his cane around again, and the bird crumpled.
The witch was on her feet again, one hand held out before her like a sword. Archibald advanced slowly, unsure of what might happen next. After two steps, a pale-colored sword appeared out of thin air, streaking toward his left shoulder. Archibald brought the cane up to meet the sword, still advancing. The witch raised her other hand limply, her face twisting with the pain of her injured shoulder, and another sword appeared. Archibald breathed harder, retreating under the attack of the double blades. Finally, he twisted the cane sharply to bring the ram’s head against the sharp edge of the left blade. At the moment of impact, the blade shattered, and the witch gave a yelp of pain, dropping the other sword to cradle her newly injured hand.
Archibald seized the opportunity. He danced forward and hit her hard in the chest, and she tumbled backward. He waited for a second, but she didn’t move. Turning, he saw Animus fighting with five witches at once. He had separated himself from them by a wall of wind that he seemed to be trying to turn into a tornado.
The witch in the middle brandished a green dagger. She was screaming harshly in a language that even Archibald had never learned, leading the other witches in a chant, and the tornado kept coming apart before it could fully form. Archibald took a step toward them and was stopped by a burning sensation in his foot. He hopped backward, shaking his boot. It felt like he had been standing in fire. It looked like the toe of his boot had been eaten away by acid.
“You killed her,” a prickly voice hissed. “But I will not be so easy.”
Archibald spun around to face his new attacker. She had charcoal skin and eyes like writhing black beetles. She was oddly short, and wore a rotting leather bag over one shoulder. Archibald raised his cane. “How can you hope to prove successful,” he asked calmly, “when even that marvelous hat didn’t save your friend?”
The witch laughed. With a flourish, she removed a large red and yellow mushroom from the bag at her side and crushed it in her hand. Then she opened her hand and raised it to her lips as if blowing him a kiss. Tiny particles flew at Archibald like dandelions seeds, catching in his clothes, his hair. Everything they touched melted instantly. His clothing seared and shriveled, burning his skin, and his hair smoked. Several of the particles nearly landed on his face before he jumped away.
The bug-eyed witch cackled cheerfully. With a loud crack, she brought her hands together, black eyes spinning up beneath her eyelids. She let her head fall backward, extending her arms to her sides, and something shifted beneath Archibald’s feet, as if the ground had become suddenly soft. He glanced down to see the dirt rippling like water beneath his boots. A beetle emerged from the dirt and flopped onto his boot, like a seal jumping out of a wave. Then another followed it. Then they began pouring out. Hundreds of beetles, thousands, pouring out of the ground like ants out of an ant hill. They were crawling up his legs, into his clothes, biting him, and each bite felt like the sting of a bee. Archibald shouted. He tried to run forward but the beetles were heavy and his movements were sluggish.
With great effort, he managed to break free enough to reach the witch and tackle her to the ground. He had hoped that the beetles would attack her too, but they fell over her without effect. The beetles covered him again, and he had just given in to the idea that he would not break free when a sudden gust of wind blew the beetles from his back. Another gust sent him falling to the ground, but he didn’t mind; it had blown most of the beetles off the front of his body. For a moment, he thought that Animus had come to his rescue, but it was Peridot, standing over the body of the bug-eyed witch, which had been reduced to several pieces. With the third down stroke of her wings, the rest of the beetles were dispersed.
“Thank you,” Archibald said, attempting to stand up. “I bit off more than I could chew, so to speak.”
Peridot nodded, licking her lips. “I must leave you to it now,” she said. “It looks like Animus has things under control now. There is an idris that needs my attention.”
Archibald waved as she launched herself skyward. Finally, he succeeded in getting to his feet. The bite of the beetles had left his legs oddly numb and unresponsive. Turning back to the fight, he saw that Animus was chasing down the rest of the witches with several swirling ends of a tornado that stretched into the clouds. He could see the captured witches tumbling around in a circular vortex high in the air. Nine, he counted, but the one called the March Witch was not among them.
Brinley sighed. She had expected something like this. “Where are you going?” she asked, following Hugo to the hen house.
“We,” he corrected. “I’m not leaving you alone.”
She gave him a blank look.
“Well,” he said, shuffling his feet. “I mean, you’re the Magemother now, aren’t you? So I should look out for you, right?”
“I suppose,” she said cautiously. “But if you’re trying to protect me, then why do I feel like we’re about to do something dangerous?”
He grinned. “We can’t just sit here and do nothing, can we?”
“But chickens?” she asked, following him inside.
“Never underestimate a chicken,” Hugo said sagely, trying for his best Archibald imitation.
It was dim and cramped. The chickens clucked and shuffled around her in a puff of feathers. Hugo lifted a rusted sheet of metal off the floor to reveal a hole, which he immediately jumped into. A second later, his head popped back out of it. “It leads into the castle,” he said. “Come on!”
She hopped in after him, landing in a low dark tunnel.
“I can’t see!” she said, startled at the idea of pressing forward in the darkness.
“It’s okay,” Hugo said, “I know the way. I’ve been through here a thousand times. Here, hold on to me.”
She sighed. She had felt torn when Peridot told her that she was supposed to hide instead of fight. It didn’t feel right to desert her friends. Now she had even less of a choice. She couldn’t just let Hugo go alone. So much for staying out of the action. She put a hand on his shoulder. “Okay. Let’s go.”
When they emerged a few minutes later from behind a painting, the castle was quiet.
“Is it always this quiet?” Brinley whispered nervously.
They heard heavy breathing, and a scullery maid scrambled out of a doorway on one side of the hall and disappeared through another. She hadn’t noticed them.
“The castle has been locked down!” Hugo said excitedly. He headed off at a brisk pace and she followed him, their footsteps echoing eerily off the marble floor. “They’ll be keeping the king in the throne room,” he explained. “It’s the most secure place in the castle.” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “I know a way in, though.”
She rolled her eyes. “Of course you do.”
In which Brinley has a brilliant idea
Five minutes later a tall mirror swung open and they stepped into the throne room, startling a group of guards nearby.
King Remy broke free of the circle of bodyguards that surrounded him. “You’re here! How? Where have you been?”
Hugo’s answer was cut off by a vigorous hug from his father. “Is Archibald with you? Did you find Animus? There is wind outside, great whirlwinds fighting the giants!”
“Yes,” Hugo said, shaking himself free. “Animus, and the Magemother.”
“The Magemother?” the king said, casting a look toward the passage as if waiting for her to step through. “She’s back?”
“She’s here,” Hugo said, pulling Brinley forward.
“Oh my,” Remy mumbled, hand covering his mouth in surprise. “Dear me, you look just like—” He stopped himself. “A new Magemother? In my lifetime? It is an honor to meet you.” He turned to the room and said in a loud voice, “All hail the new Magemother.”
“Hail!” the room shouted, and to Brinley’s surprise, everyone gave her a bow, even the king.
“I’m afraid that’s all the ceremony we have time for under the circumstances,” he said apologetically. “Can you stop these giants?”
“It’s here!” a guard shouted from the doorway. Something had collided with the massive oak doors. Brinley felt a sudden wave of fear overtake her. The idris was here. Tennebris would be with it, and she would have to face it. Alone.
“When beyond my home you go,”[_ _]she sang softly to herself.
“There’s several things you ought to know…”
“I hope you have a plan,” Hugo said as the guards encircled them. Across the room, several soldiers were attempting to brace the door.
Brinley was thinking hard. How had the giant gotten through the wind? Was Cannon all right? What had her mother said? [_Trust your instincts. _]That didn’t seem like much help.
“That lies will catch you fewer flies,” she continued, “than honey and a happy smile.”
The king put a hand on her shoulder as the circle of guards tightened nervously. “My men can’t handle the idris for long. What should we do?”
“It’s not the giant I’m worried about,” Brinley said. “Tennebris is with him—I mean, not Tennebris. I took his power, and he died, but—”
“Darkness,” the king finished. His face had gone white.
She continued, trying to calm herself. “So wash your face, but not the mirror. It’s full of evil things, my dear…”
The left door cracked right down the middle and the soldiers started jabbing at the idris through the crack with swords and pikes. One of them screamed as he was pulled through it. Brinley looked on in a daze, her mind clutching at a ridiculous idea. It was the poem that had made her think of it.
“Brinley?” Hugo said frantically, tugging on her arm.
“I have an idea,” she said. It was a crazy idea—a bad idea probably, but it was the only one that she had. She wasn’t even sure if it made sense, but it felt like the thing to do. She decided to run with it, trusting that this was part of the “instincts” her mother had spoken of.
“The mirror,” she told him, grabbing hold of his arm and forcing her way out of the protective circle. “Come on, help me!”
As soon as he figured out what she was about, Hugo got some of the guards to help them take down the mirror that hid the secret passageway. It was housed in an ornate wooden frame, which they pried from the wall.
“Put it by the throne,” she told them.
They had just finished leaning it against the throne when the door finally broke and the giant forced his way inside. The idris was fifteen feet tall and as wide as three men. Despite the arrows sticking out of it, the idris fought with great energy, dispatching the dozen door guards in a matter of seconds.
A long row of knights met it next, and they proved more resilient than the guards. They were heavily armored and most of them were tall and broad with the exception of a small, wiry man with a bow. Brinley felt helpless as she watched. Soon the knights had formed a circle around the idris. The smallest knight let fly arrow after arrow, apparently determined to turn the giant into a pin cushion, but the idris continued to challenge them. Soon one knight fell, then another. When the third knight fell, Hugo drew the sword at his side and stepped forward, but his father held him back.
“No,” he said. “Let them do their duty. Your moment will come.”
A loud crash brought the fighting to a pause as all heads turned to the doorway.
A wild boar, big as a rhinoceros and wheezing in panic, skidded into the throne room bearing March upon its back. The witch looked very haggard, and it didn’t take long to realize why they were running. Peridot was close behind. With a bound, she sailed through the air and latched onto the boar’s hind quarters. The great beast jerked wildly in an attempt to free itself, but Peridot unfurled her wings and gave a single powerful down beat, lifting the back end of the boar into the air and flipping it upside down.
With a yelp, March leapt from the boar, rolling on the floor to break her fall. The boar, disoriented, died a moment later as Peridot descended upon its throat. A second later, she leapt after March, stopping a foot from her face.
Brinley caught her breath. She had never seen anything so terrible. The fur around Peridot’s jowls was red with blood, her teeth bared savagely. “Withdraw your forces, witch!” Peridot growled, a ridge of fur and feathers rising on her back.
For a moment, Brinley thought March would comply, but a second later the witch was rising to her feet, her face set. “You cannot win this war,” she said calmly. She turned to the room at large. “Today,” she said with a loud voice, “you may prevail, but you will not last against the darkness that is coming!”
“Enough,” Peridot growled, slapping her across the face with a massive paw so that she tumbled to the floor. “It is [_your _]strength that has failed today, March. Your forces have been insufficient. Your own sister has abandoned your cause.”
“Lies!” March spat back, holding the side of her face gingerly as she stood up. Peridot had left a single deep cut that ran from the back of the witch’s head to her chin. “The witches are strong. We stand as one against you!”
“The witches are divided. Your sister stood against you in battle today. I saw her with my own eyes coming to the aid of the Magemother on Calypsis.
March looked furious. “Lies!” she spat. “She would not! She could not!”
Peridot lunged, taking advantage while the witch was distracted, but March slipped away at the last second, running for the door. She was incredibly fast, moving with the speed of a wild animal. Peridot spun, trying to corner the witch again, only to find that the idris had approached her from behind. She leapt into the air and sailed over his head, cutting off March’s retreat at the same time. Several of the guards had sprung into action, falling in behind her.
“Here, herald,” March said, coming to a halt and scowling. “A gift from my father. It was meant for the Magemother, but you will have to suffice!” As she spoke, she began to draw something like a spiderweb from a pouch at her belt. She drew it out by the corner with a flourish and brandished it like a matador’s cape. It was a black thing, woven of shadow, glistening with tears. Without warning, she flung it at Peridot.
It sailed through the air slowly, transfixing the onlookers. Peridot retreated, but not fast enough. It engulfed her face and chest, clinging to her like a living thing. She gave a single, solitary roar of outrage before her body went limp. Seeing its opportunity, the idris rushed forward, picking up her body and hurling it out the door and over the ramparts.
Her wings never beat to break the fall.
March let loose a peal of laughter and flung a tiny crystal marble at the floor. It erupted into a cloud of smoke and she disappeared.
“No!” Brinley screamed. Hugo held her fast as the knights swarmed the idris. They fought with new vigor, enraged by Peridot’s death. The idris fought with desperation too, taking down one guard, then another, but in the end his leg was taken at the knee by a large knight with a poleax, and he came down.
A small hush of relief passed through the chamber, only to be stifled as a shadow crept through the doorway.
The darkness had come.
It slid around the door posts and convalesced upon the floor, growing, step by step into feet and legs and torso. Hands and head came last, pitted ember eyes emerging as it came to stand before the king’s circle.
“I need a husk, Remy,” the darkness rasped, “and I think you will do nicely!”
The knights lunged, but their weapons swung through him, touching nothing but air.
Hugo pushed Brinley and they tumbled out of his path.
He glided slowly up to the king, hands outstretched.
“Stop!” Brinley’s voice startled even herself. She stood beside the mirror. “He is not your host.”
The darkness turned to face her, a look of doubt flitting across its face. “You do not decide.”
“I do,” Brinley said firmly. Her mother had said so. Hoping beyond hope that her plan would work, she held the gaze of the darkness as it glided toward her.
“Who will I take?” it asked curiously. “You?”
“Not me,” she said. “Look.” With a little flourish, she stepped aside so that the darkness was standing right in front of the mirror.
The darkness stared into itself.
It didn’t see the mirror—not like a normal person would. It saw itself, darkness reflecting darkness, and it was mesmerized.
“Yes,” the darkness whispered softly. It moved closer to the mirror, then hesitated. It turned back to Brinley, suspicious.
“You are providing a host?”
“You must live,” she said simply.
The darkness turned back to the mirror and smiled. “True,” it said, and walked inside.
In which there is a fluffy bathrobe
Where did he go?”
“Will it keep him locked in?”
“I don’t see him.”
“I think,” Animus said, “that he will be lost in there for a long while.” He smiled at Brinley proudly. “Well done.”
It was the day after the battle, and Brinley was meeting with the king and his council. Animus was there too, along with Hugo and several of the soldiers who had been present for the battle.
“While Animus was fighting the witches on the west,” a soldier was saying, “we were on the east side with Cannon and King Thieutukar. Cannon was holding up well against two witches, but the rest of us were…struggling. After a while, Archibald joined us, and we began to gain ground. Then the second idris arrived.”
“We were losing men fast after that,” a gray-bearded soldier agreed. That was Captain Mark, Brinley knew. “We would have lost many more, if it had not been for the Angel Witch.”
“Who?” the king asked.
The captains looked to Archibald. “It’s what the soldiers are calling her,” he explained. Compared to the day before, Brinley thought he was looking much better. Sleep seemed to have done him a world of good. “One witch broke off from the others,” Archibald continued. “The Angel Witch. She started fighting on our side.”
“She was incredible!” Captain Mark cut in. “She picked apart their defenses like that.” He snapped his fingers to emphasize the point.
“What did she look like?” Brinley asked.
“Oh, she was an ugly hag,” Captain Mark said appreciatively. “Fierce, you know. She wielded a magic green ring. My platoon was under attack from the smaller idris when she came to our rescue.” He shuddered. “I don’t like to think what would have happened if she hadn’t been there.”
Brinley grinned. Apparently Habis had been unable to resist the good after all.
They all wanted to hear about Brinley’s story next, and she told it in full, only leaving out the part where she had saved her mother in the naptrap. That, she thought, would remain secret for a while.
Brinley lost track of the conversation for a while after that. They were speaking of people and places that were not familiar to her. Then they began to speak of the idris. “We all know where they must have come from,” the king was saying, “but how did they get here?” Remy was a short, solid man of even temper. His captains seem to have the utmost respect for him, as did Archibald. He sat beside Hugo, directly across from her in the circle of chairs.
Hugo nodded. “They could only have come from the Ire. How they made it here is the question.”
Animus stirred in his seat. “Days ago,” he began, “I followed an idris across the sixth bridge to the Wizard’s Ire.”
The soldiers stirred. “I received no such report,” one said.
Another protested, “That is impossible. The bridge is too well guarded.”
“We were not seen,” Animus explained. “I, too, thought that it was impossible, until I did it.”
The king waved a hand. “You and an idris are one thing,” he said. “What may be coming out next is what concerns me.”
Several heads nodded in agreement. Animus spoke up next. “This merits an investigation, to be sure. If the bridge has somehow become passable, then it is possible—however unlikely—that Shael may make the crossing.”
After a moment, the king cleared his throat. “We will investigate. Perhaps you will consent to go with me to the bridge, Animus, and we can look into this problem together.”
Animus nodded. “The question of how creatures from the Ire crossed over should be our first priority,” he said, “but there is still the matter of the March Witch. She, for one, got away.”
The discussion seemed to go on for hours. Some of what they said was important, some seemed to have little to do with her. At length, Animus whispered something to the king and escorted her from the room.
“I needed a little break,” he admitted, “and there is a pressing matter to attend to.”
“You will see.” He led her to a set of lavish rooms, his assigned guest quarters, she assumed. “I’ve hid them in here,” he said quietly as they entered. “It is not good for people to see them like this.”
Brinley gasped. Sitting in a set of high-backed chairs were a pair of men that she recognized only because of the clothes they wore. Belterras was thin and pale. His smile was warm with enthusiasm, but his face looked sickly. Cassis looked next to death. “Oh my!” she exclaimed, running to them. How had she forgotten about them? How long had they been waiting here in this room? She laid her hands on them each in turn, whispering in their ears, and their power returned.
Belterras was visibly altered right away. He wasn’t his jovial self yet, but he looked much healthier, and his smile was heartier.
As their power returned, Brinley felt lighter. Animus was visibly relieved as well.
“Why does that happen?” she asked.
“Why does what happen?” Animus said.
“I feel lighter. I feel the weight lifted from me, now that Belterras and Cassis have their power back.”
Animus nodded. “It feels the same for me. The power that the mages hold, the energy of the elements, it is all the same energy. You felt all of it, held all of it at once, did you not?”
“Yes,” she said, “but they all felt different too, and there are different mages.”
“We all carry our share,” Belterras chimed in.
“But it is all the same weight,” Cassis finished.
Comprehension dawned on Brinley. “Like oxen,” she said.
“Pardon?” Belterras asked.
“It’s something my dad told me…I mean, it’s like the mages all pull the same cart, but they are all responsible for their own portion—the different elements of existence.”
Belterras nodded slowly. “I suppose that works, yes.”
“And when one of you loses your power, the others have to pick up the slack. The cart still has to be pulled.”
“True,” Cassis said. “However, one mage can never fully do another mage’s job. For example, since Lignumis has disappeared, we have been able to sustain the life of the trees that now stand, but are unable to grow any new ones.”
Brinley sighed deeply. It felt good to understand more about this. The mages were her responsibility now, and it was important that she learned as much about them as she could. “I suppose we will have to find Lignumis, then,” she said. “And the others.”
Animus smiled approvingly. “There is much to learn,” he said. “The power connects us, to each other and to you, but we have been unable to feel the lost mages since they disappeared. It is very likely that we will be of little help to you in the search for them. We have made no progress on our own.”
“I’m sure you will be very helpful,” she said reassuringly. She could feel them too, she realized suddenly. She could feel them standing there, even if she closed her eyes. She was connected to them.
“You feel us, and we feel you,” Belterras said, as if reading her mind.
“You feel different than your mother did,” Cassis said. “More…pleasant,” he said awkwardly. “At any rate, thank you for restoring our power.”
Belterras was less formal. He swept her up in a bear hug and began to tell her of all the things he would cook for her when she came to visit, and all the stories he needed to tell her.
“But not yet, Belterras,” Cassis said, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Now we have work to do.”
Belterras nodded. He addressed Brinley. “We are going to find out how the creatures made it here from the Ire.”
Animus nodded. “I am accompanying Captain Mark to investigate the bridge.”
“Then we will start elsewhere,” Cassis said.
“Tomorrow,” Brinley urged them. “No offense, but you look terrible.”
Cassis gave a half smile, and Belterras laughed out loud. “Right you are. You sound just like your mother. Very well. Anyway, I have something else to do tonight.”
“What?” Brinley wanted to know.
“Well,” he said, “now that I’m back to my normal self, I have a mystery to solve.” He went on to tell a story about the battle. Evidently they had watched it from the castle, too weak to participate.
“We would have fought anyway,” Cassis said sourly, “but [_he _]locked us in here.”
Belterras cleared his throat. “As I was saying, all sorts of animals came to help fight for our side as well. Bears and lions and foxes…and birds.” He touched the side of his nose. “I knew all the birds, except for one. A big black swan.”
Cassis sighed loudly. “Not this again.”
“I didn’t recognize her! I didn’t know her! Just looking at her made me feel woozy…”
Cassis rolled his eyes. “You’re always woozy.”
“It was strange, that’s all. And I intend to get to the bottom of it. I’m not as tired as I look.”
Brinley laughed and bid them good night.
“I look forward to serving with you,” Cassis said formally.
Belterras hugged her again.
Brinley tried to sleep that night as well, but without success. She had been given the Magemother’s chambers, which she supposed was appropriate. However, as she looked around the room in the half-darkness she couldn’t help but think of her mother. This had been [_her _]room. She got out of bed and donned a fluffy bathrobe that hung nearby, reveling in the softness of it. She wondered if that had belonged to her mother as well. Maybe it did. Or maybe there was a closet full of fluffy bathrobes in the basement and they always brought them out for guests. She shrugged her silly thoughts away.
Crossing the room, she rummaged through the drawers of a desk until she found what she was looking for. She drew out a thin pad of paper and laid it on the desk, searching for the pencil in her hair. That was silly, of course. She must have lost it long ago. She couldn’t remember when it had fallen out. After another minute she found a set of long wax crayons and began to draw.
She drew her mother. She drew her the way she had looked in lightfall, warm and radiant, with no wound in her chest. She had to draw her before she forgot her face. She was already starting to forget—another day and it may have been too late. When she had finished, she looked at it. It was pretty good. That would have to do for now.
She returned to the bed and picked up the naptrap, turning it over and over in her hands and thinking about everything her mother had told her. There were so many things to do. She tried to list them all.
1. Find her father.
This one weighed heaviest on her mind. The only thing that gave her comfort was how little it seemed to worry her mother. Maybe it was normal for people to disappear on the way through. How was she going to find out, though? Where would she even start? She would have to learn more about the “void.” Maybe Animus could help her. Maybe Habis knew about the void.
When she thought of Habis, something shifted in the back of her mind. They were connected somehow, her father and Habis, but she couldn’t think how. Wait. That didn’t make any sense, did it? Then she saw it: the bell. Of course! Her father had said he heard a bell coming from Morley Church, just as she had! But given what she knew now, that didn’t make any sense. Habis said that the bell was made to summon her. How would her father have heard it? He couldn’t have, could he? Was there some other bell he was hearing? Was there some other way to contact him? Then she remembered the bell that her mother had handed to the gods when they had taken her. Was that it? Had they used it to summon her father? She shook her head. There were too many unknowns. She would have to talk with Habis and get some answers. If nothing else, the witch would be able to explain how the summoning bells worked.
She sighed. It was a place to start. At least she had hope now—a direction. But there were other things to be done first. She had responsibilities now. She wondered how often she would have to remind herself of that.
2. Find the lost mages and restore their power.
She said their names out loud to herself quietly. “Chantra, fire. Unda, water. Lignumis, wood.” Where would she start? She had absolutely no idea, but she had to succeed. Her mother’s fate depended on it.
She wondered where they could be. She remembered how she could feel the presence of the mages when she was with them and she closed her eyes, wondering if she could do it from a distance. If she could talk to them over a long distance, maybe she could feel where they were. She concentrated hard, picturing Animus as clearly as she could.
Almost immediately she felt him. It was faint, like looking at a person from a long way off.
[_Yes? _]A voice came in her head.
She gave a start. Animus, is that you?
I felt you searching for me. Are you all right?
This was going to be ridiculous! How would she ever have any privacy if she kept accidentally bumping minds with mages?
[Do not despair, _]Animus said, sensing her angst. _You will get used to it.
I was just thinking, _]she explained, changing the subject, [_that I might be able to find the lost mages. I mean, if I can feel you and the others, why not them?
She did. At once she realized that it was harder to focus on them since she had never met them. She changed tactics, thinking about their names, remembering what they had been like when she had seen them in the lightfall. It’s different, _]she admitted. [_Like they are so far away I can’t even tell if they’re real or not. I think I feel something, but I might just be imagining things.
[That is how it feels for me too, _]he said. _We will speak of this more another time. I must go now. I am speaking with the king.
As quickly as it had come, Animus’s voice was gone.
She twirled the naptrap faster. Right here between her fingers, her mother lay dying, frozen in a state of near death. Could she still think? Would she be aware of the time as it passed? It might take weeks to find the mages, even years. Had she saved her mother’s life, or confined her to prison? She shuddered at the thought, forcing herself to return to her list.
3. Find a herald.
That ought to be straightforward. She could just pick the burliest guard in the palace, couldn’t she? Or maybe perhaps she would pick a wizard. She almost smiled thinking of Cannon trailing behind her with a look of perpetual frustration. But of course that would never work. Cannon was meant for other things.
An idea struck her then, and she smiled. She would pick someone unexpected. Someone powerful, dangerous, but not in the eyes of others.
She returned to her list.
4. Pick a new mage to replace Lux.
This one made her especially nervous. Her mother had made it sound very important. She knew she couldn’t wait. Despite how pleased everyone was about her capture with the mirror, she doubted it would hold the darkness for long. A new mage was needed. But how would she pick? [_Who _]would she pick? She hardly knew anyone. A mage needed to be smart, she thought, and able to handle power. They needed to have good character, and they couldn’t be afraid of the darkness. They would have to confront evil in a way that nobody else would. Who did she know who fit that description? Who did she know who had faced the darkness and overcome it?
She sat bolt upright. She did know someone that fit that description. The idea seemed absurd to her at first, but the longer she entertained it, the less crazy it seemed. She gathered the crystal knife, the glowing ball of light, and the summoning bell and slipped them into the single, oversized pocket on the front of her robe. She felt a little silly, dressed like this, but it shouldn’t matter. Everyone would be asleep.
She walked quietly from her room in search of Hugo.
She found him in his rooms. She was worried that he might be sleeping, but he wasn’t. Archibald was there too. He bowed quickly to them. Brinley thought that his eyes lingered on her before he left. It was like he wanted to say something, but then he was closing the door.
Hugo was holding the king’s sword, and Brinley thought she could see an unshed tear or two in his eyes. He stared at her a moment, then collected himself and offered her a chair in the sitting room. “You’re still up too, huh?”
“Can’t sleep,” she said, sinking into a plush white couch.
“He brought me the king’s sword,” he said, looking down at it numbly. “I stole it once, you see, thought I deserved to carry it. Now he—” he broke off. “Anyway, I’m rambling. What can I do for you, Magemother?”
Brinley smiled. Something significant had obviously happened just now between Hugo and his teacher. She wished she hadn’t cut it short, but it was too late now. She guessed that he had changed a lot in the last few days, as she had.
“Your ear looks better.”
“Thanks,” he said, touching it absently. “Archibald helped me clean it. He thinks it will be just fine, but that I’ll look like a freak forever.”
Brinley laughed. Hugo did, too. It felt good to laugh at something after all that had happened.
“I wanted to talk to you about something,” she said cryptically.
Hugo sat down, waiting. That was part of the new Hugo, she thought. The boy she had met at the Magisterium hadn’t been patient at all.
“It’s about Lux,” she began.
Hugo sat up straight, face going blank. She guessed that he was remembering the monster Lux had become, the terrible things that Lux had done to him.
“It’s not what you think,” she assured him. “It’s about this.” She pulled the orb out of her pocket. The room seemed to brighten a little.
Hugo relaxed. “Oh. What about it?”
“I have to find someone to give it to,” she said. “It’s fading.”
Hugo looked confused. “What do you mean?”
“It needs a human heart to live in.”
“Oh,” he said, but she knew he still didn’t understand. “How much time do you have?” he asked.
“Another day, maybe. I don’t want to take more time than that.”
Hugo looked thoughtful. “You have to find someone to take it?”
“What about you?” he asked. “Couldn’t you do it?”
“No,” she said firmly. “Whoever takes it will become the Mage of Light and Darkness, and I am not a mage. I’m—”
“The Magemother, right.” He was thinking.
“What about Archibald?” he asked brightly. “He’s probably the best man I know.”
“Not Archibald,” she said. “But you’re on the right track. Whoever takes it has to be a very good person, or the light wouldn’t be at home, I think.” She startled herself with that last bit. Nobody had told her that, but instinctively she knew that it was true. Maybe this was what her mother had been referring to when she had told her to trust her instincts. She shook herself. “Anyway, they need to be wise, too, and strong, because eventually they will have to deal with the darkness.”
Hugo stood and started to pace. “What about one of the wizards from the Magisterium? They’re used to dealing with power and things like that.”
“I don’t think so,” she said. “Too old. Anyway, I don’t know them.”
“That’s true,” he said, stopping to look at her. “I don’t either. I just thought…” He started pacing again. “What about Tabitha?” he said, turning suddenly.
“I mean,” he said, “I know she’s odd, but she’s good. She’s sort of pure, you know?”
“I know,” she said. “But no. Not Tabitha, either.”
“Where do you suppose she is, anyway?” Hugo asked.
“Well,” Brinley said, “I suppose she went back to the Magisterium, didn’t she?”
Hugo looked startled. “No. No, she didn’t. Archibald just told me all about it. She met him after we left her, and they traveled together. They were attacked by an idris and she disappeared.”
“What?” Brinley sat up straight. “Are you serious?”
“Yes.” Hugo relaxed a bit. “I’ve been thinking about it, and I’ve decided she’s probably fine.”
“Yeah,” he said, nodding to himself. “I don’t know what it is, but she seems to be able to take care of herself.”
“True,” Brinley admitted. Her mind was racing again. She would have to find Tabitha now, too. “Five,” she mumbled to herself.
“Oh, nothing,” she said hastily. “Where were we?”
“Looking for a new mage. Who are you going to get, then?” he said, starting to pace again. “How will you find them?”
“My mother told me I would just know. She said it would be clear to me.”
Hugo looked at her, struck by a sudden idea. “Okay,” he said, hurrying to get his boots. “Okay. I’ll take you to see some people. I know a lot of people. We’ll start with the knights. You can meet them and see if you can pick someone.”
“But I’ve already picked someone,” she said, standing up.
He got to his feet too, one boot on, one left by the chair. “You have? Who?”
Hugo stared at her blankly.
She smiled at him and held out the ball.
He reached his hand out for it slowly, then paused. “But this means…”
“You’ll be a mage,” she said softly. “Will you take it?”
He took it. The ball melted in his hand and he gave a sharp intake of breath. The little golden strands of light unwound and wrapped themselves around his hand, scooting up his arm. It moved across his chest until it was right over his heart, then sank in through his shirt, through his skin.
“Are you okay?” Brinley asked him, taking his arm.
“Yeah, I think so. What happens now?”
“I don’t know.”
“What will my father say?”
“I don’t know.”
Hugo grinned. “Okay.”
[_Hey, Hugo, _]she said, reaching out to him with her mind.
“What?” he asked. Then his face grew pale. “Holy buns,” he mumbled. “That’s different.”
She nodded. “I think a lot of things will be different now.”
She left Hugo’s rooms feeling exhilarated. One down. Now she needed to find Tabitha. She thought over the events of the day, looking for some clue as to what might have happened to her. She had made Hugo relate Archibald’s account to her in full. How could she have disappeared? Where could she have gone?
Then she remembered. The swan! No wonder it had stuck out to Belterras. It wasn’t a bird at all. She didn’t know how she knew it, but she felt certain.
In which there is a herald
She found the mage of Earth among the earth; he was in the king’s gardens, speaking to the birds. She didn’t have to ask anyone where he was. She could feel him there, like you feel a person in a dark room right in front of you. She could have found him anywhere. He was a mage, and she was the Magemother.
“Have you found her yet?” she asked. She had walked up behind him quietly, and he hadn’t heard her coming.
He jumped, turning away from the birds. “Brinley!” he said. “I mean, Mother.” He smiled and offered her a seat on a little stone bench that bridged a garden stream. “To what do I owe this honor? I would have thought you’d be sleeping till lunchtime.”
Brinley looked up at the pinpricks of starlight clinging to the dawn. “Maybe later,” she said. “I wanted to ask you about the swan.”
“Really?” Belterras looked surprised, and more than a little pleased. “Good.” He smiled. “I know the swan is significant somehow. Unfortunately, no one seems to know where it went.” He gestured at the birds peeping out of the trees around them.
“I think I do,” she said.
He blinked in surprise.
“Yes. Will you take me?”
A very large harpy eagle landed on the east balcony of the highest tower of the Magisterium and Brinley slid smoothly from its back. The eagle became Belterras again and they walked into the tower together.
“What a wonderful place!” he said brightly. “I came here myself once, when I was blown into a hedgeapple tree…I had almost forgotten. A little girl took thorns out of my wing. Is that who we are looking for?”
“Yes,” Brinley said, looking around now.
“There,” Belterras said, pointing to a dark corner of the roof where a black swan was nestled beside a family of starlings.
Brinley held out her hands and called to it, and the swan glided down to land at their feet, looking up at them.
“Tell me about her,” Belterras said eagerly.
“Her name is Tabitha.”
“Does she study shape changing at the school? I had no idea that the Magisterium had produced anyone with her talent. I’m surprised I have not heard about it.”
“I’m not,” Brinley said. “She studies what she wants. Mostly how to help things that can’t help themselves. The rest of the time she stays up here, collecting news from the birds.” Brinley placed her hand on the swan’s head gently. “Nobody knows her, really. I think I might be her only friend.”
“My, my,” Belterras cooed, bending down to stroke a glossy black wing. “I have been looking for someone like her for half my life.”
Brinley nodded. This is what she had hoped for. “You need an apprentice,” she said.
Belterras looked up at her like he was about to backpedal. “Well, I’m not sure I’m really old enough to have a formal apprentice,” he said, winking, “but I would certainly like to tutor her, for a start. Someone with her talent! Imagine the possibilities.” He stared off into the distance and Brinley smiled to herself.
“Why won’t she change back?” Brinley asked. “‘Doesn’t she know how?”
Belterras smiled. “Oh, I think she could figure it out, if she wanted to. It’s very freeing, being a bird. The first time I did it I didn’t change back for a month. I was terrified I’d never be able to do it again.”
Unbidden, a question popped into Brinley’s mind. “Belterras,” she said. “Can I learn to change shape, too? My mother told me the Magemother wasn’t an actual mage, but she could change shape just like you.”
Belterras gave her a kind smile. “With enough practice,” he said, “you may be able to. Almost anyone may learn, given enough time and the right teacher. I worked with her for a long time before she was able to accomplish the task.” He chuckled. “Actually, it happened quite by accident. She was trying to turn into a swallow—a very graceful bird, but a magpie flew past as she was transforming for the first time, and her concentration wavered. Next thing you know she was a magpie. She never could shape anything else.”
Brinley nodded. “What about Tabitha?”
“Ah,” he said, turning back to the swan. “For her it will be very different. I expect she will take to new shapes like a duck to water. Speaking of which, it would be nice to talk to her while we are here.” He looked the swan in the eyes. “You can be yourself now,” he said. “I promise I’ll teach you to be a bird again if it’s the last thing I do, though I think you will find that it is very easy.”
The swan’s head swung swiftly up at him then, its form shifting silently under the morning sun.
“Tabitha!” Brinley cried, throwing her arms around the girl.
Tabitha looked a little confused, but pleased. “I knew you would come for me,” she said softly in Brinley’s ear. “I knew it.” She pulled away, looking at Belterras. “Hello, Belsie,” she said, surprised.
“You’ll teach me?”
She looked back at Brinley. “You don’t need me?”
Brinley felt her heart break a little. “Of course I do, Tabitha. You’re my best friend in the world, and I barely even know you.”
“Don’t worry about that,” Tabitha said, waving her hand dismissively.
Brinley gave her a long smile. They walked to the east balcony, arms around each other. Belterras moved away politely, studying the array of birds—talking to them, she realized.
“What is it?” Tabitha asked her.
“You wanted to tell me something else?”
Brinley laughed. She wasn’t used to talking to people like Tabitha—not that there were people like Tabitha. She was looking forward to getting used to it.
“I do need your help, Tabitha, and Belterras does, too.”
Tabitha looked over her shoulder at the mage when his name was mentioned. “What does he want?” she whispered. “I thought he was going to teach me how to be a bird again.” She grinned playfully. “I’m already pretty good.”
Brinley giggled. “He wants to train you, Tabitha. Maybe to be his apprentice one day. Maybe to take over for him one day.”
Tabitha’s eyebrows shot precariously high, looking back at him with wonder. Her gaze slowly dimmed, eyebrows locked up, gazing at nothing.
“But for now,” Brinley said, shaking the other girl’s sleeve, “I hope you will do something for me.”
“Oh,” Tabitha said, blinking the haze away. “What?”
“I want you to be my herald.”
Tabitha looked confused.
“I’m the Magemother now,” Brinley began.
Tabitha patted her on the head, smiling proudly. “I know that, silly.”
Brinley laughed again. “That means I need a herald.”
“Exactly,” Brinley nodded. “Like Peridot.”
“But I’m not like Peridot,” Tabitha protested.
Brinley smiled. “I expect lots of people will say that, but [_I _]think you are more like her than you might think.”
Tabitha scowled slightly, thinking hard. “What would I do?” she asked.
“Well,” Brinley began. “I have a lot of things to do. We just had a war, didn’t we? And I have to find the lost mages. The Magemother’s herald goes with her everywhere, mostly to protect her. I think that is mainly what Peridot did for my mother. My mother told me I needed my own herald right away. Will you do it?”
“But how would I protect you?” Tabitha asked. “I’m not a Laurel like Peridot.” She raised her fingers like claws and opened her mouth as if she had fangs.
Brinley laughed again and pushed Tabitha’s hands back down. She turned to Belterras. “Can you teach Tabitha to become other animals?” she asked.
He raised an eyebrow. “Of course,” he said. “She will have to learn them all.”
“There,” Brinley said triumphantly. “When we need to fly you can be a bird. When we need to run, you can be a gazelle. When we need to fight—”
“I can be a whale,” Tabitha said, a look of comprehension on her face. “Squish them!” She clapped her hands together loudly to emphasize the point, and several birds shuffled away at the noise.
Brinley and Belterras laughed. Tabitha gave a shy smile.
“I’ll leave you two to figure things out, then,” Belterras said. “I have many things to attend to.” He nodded to Tabitha. “I look forward to our time together.”
She gave a little curtsy.
When he had gone, Brinley turned to Tabitha.
“Well,” she said.
Tabitha raised her eyebrows. “What?”
“I’d like to go back to the castle, herald.”
Tabitha blushed. “It’s a long walk,” she said thoughtfully.
Brinley laughed. “I was thinking we could fly.”
Tabitha looked startled.
“Do you think you can turn back into that swan? Or maybe a bit of a [_bigger _]swan?”
Tabitha went quiet, her eyes staring blankly into space.
In which there is a mother
What will we do first?” Tabitha asked her. They were soaring high above the castle, descending in lazy loops as Tabitha slid from one warm updraft to another. Tabitha’s starlings glided around them like a halo.
“Find the mages,” she answered, “and learn how to take care of myself. I mean, you can’t always be there to protect me.”
“Yes, I can,” Tabitha said matter-of-factly.
“No, you can’t.”
“No, I can’t,” Tabitha agreed easily.
They were silent for a while, enjoying each other’s company.
“You’ve changed,” Tabitha said at length.
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” Tabitha said, “when I met you, I could tell all you wanted was to go home.”
Brinley nodded. “I did,” she admitted.
“Well, I did go home,” she began, wincing as she remembered. She still felt bad at the way she had run away, but deep down she knew it had to happen that way. “But when I was there I realized that there were more important things.”
“What about now? Do you still want to go back?”
Brinley cocked her head. “To tell you the truth, I haven’t thought about it.”
Tabitha dipped her slender black neck in acknowledgment. “It’s probably better that way.”
There was another long silence before either of them spoke. Tabitha flapped her wings once, pushing them out of the thermals to glide toward the lake. “Funny, isn’t it?” Tabitha said finally.
“You know, how you came here looking for a mother, and really you just became one instead.”
Brinley thought about it for a moment. “No,” she said. “It’s not strange.”
Tabitha nodded. “I see what you mean. Sort of perfect, really.”
They saw Animus walking across a balustrade to the king’s chamber far below them.
“What’s it like, being their mother?” Tabitha asked in a dreamy voice.
Brinley closed her eyes at the thought of it. “Oh,” she said, “I don’t know.”
“Yes, you do,” Tabitha said.
Brinley smiled grimly. “It’s very stressful actually,” she said. “I feel this big responsibility hanging over me, but I don’t know how to fulfill it, and I am terrified that I am going to mess it up. I don’t mean to complain—” she amended hastily. “It’s really wonderful, too. I’ve never felt anything like it before.”
She rushed on, her feelings pouring out of her in a torrent. “It’s changing me, you know? Even now, already. You wouldn’t think so, but it is. It’s like my heart has little rivers going out of it—one for each of them—and I don’t know where they lead. The water goes both ways, and all I am is that heart, and all I want is for the rivers to run—full and wild and free…”
“And safe,” Tabitha added, glancing sideways at one of her starlings as it whizzed past her to land atop her head.
“And safe,” Brinley agreed. “Always safe.”
She bent down to hug Tabitha close as they soared through the sky.
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People and Places
[*Aberdeen *]The lands under the rule of King Remy, consisting of the countries of Caraway, Aquilar, Hedgemon, Chair, and the Greggan States.
Agner A Teacher at the Magisterium.
Archibald The most trusted advisor to the King of Caraway.
Animus The Mage of Wind.
Aquilar A Country in Aberdeen.
Belterras The Mage of Earth.
Brinley The main character. If you don’t know who she is, you should probably just start over.
Calypsis The moon of Aberdeen. The location of the Magemother’s castle.
Cannon The Apprentice of Animus.
Captain Mark The Captain of the King’s Guard in Caraway.
Caraway The most powerful country in Aberdeen. The king of Caraway is also the King of Aberdeen.
Cassis The Mage of Metal.
Chair A country in Aberdeen.
Chantra The Mage of Fire.
Dean Chambers Dean of the Magisterium.
Denmyn School counselor at the Magisterium.
Fall Hallows A large trade center in Ninebridge.
Greggan States Ganna, Garra, Galla, Gappa, Gassa, Gatta. Together, they form one of the five countries in Aberdeen.
Habis One of the oldest and most powerful witches in Aberdeen. Sister to March, and daughter of Shael.
Hedgemon A country in the north of Aberdeen.
Hugo Paradise The Prince of Caraway, and heir to the thrones of Caraway and Aberdeen. Son of Remy Paradise.
[*Hurrit Ipps *]The head librarian at the Magisterium.
Idris A type of evil giant that can take the form of a child.
Kokum The witches village. Located in the Moorwood, near Cemlin.
Kutha A giant owl. Evil creature that serves Shael.
Lake of Eyes A lake in Pine Forest, close to Tarwal.
Lignumis The Mage of Wood.
Lux Tennebris The Mage of Light and Darkness.
Magemother The guardian of the mages.
Magisterium The ancient school of wizards. Located in Tarwal.
March a.k.a. The March Witch. One of the oldest and most powerful witches in Aberdeen. Sister to Habis, and daughter of Shael.
Moorwood A forest in Aquilar.
Morley A ghost town near Brinley’s home in Colorado.
Ninebridge An important city in Caraway. The location of the nine magical bridges that lead to major cities in Aberdeen.
Peridot The Magemother’s Herald. Peridot is a Laurel, or winged lion.
Pike March’s servant/muscle.
Pilfer Archibald’s pony.
Pine Forest A large forest in the South of Caraway.
Remy Paradise The King of Caraway, and the High King of Aberdeen.
Shael An evil wizard of ancient date who was confined to the Wizard’s Ire.
Tabitha Brinley’s friend. The bird girl at the Magisterim.
Taluva The first Mage of Light and Darkness.
Tarwal A city in the south of Caraway. Location of the Magisterium.
Thieutukar Manisse a.k.a. Tuck. The King of the Gnomes.
Unda The Mage of Water.
Wizard’s Ire This is the nasty bad place where Shael, and other evil creatures are imprisoned. It is separated from the rest of Aberdeen by a deep, impassable canyon.
Thank you to…
…Brinley, for her name, her frogs, and her inspirational spirit.
…my wife, whom I cannot thank enough for making me do this.
…my mom, who paved the way by writing a book first.
…my dad, who gave me my love of reading (this book is just over eighty thousand words. To date, I estimate that he has read over eight million words to me).
…my editor, Crystal Watanabe, for fixing my issues, improving the story, making Archibald more awesome, for staying out of my way so gracefully, and for being so generous with her wit. She fixed the first sentence, wrote the last, and improved everything in between.
…my many wonderful beta readers…especially Bryonna Bowen, Spencer Bowen, and Spencer Bagshaw, who should probably have been paid…as for the rest of you, there are really too many of you to name, but you know who you are. Your feedback and enthusiasm kept me writing.
And to God, who was the first person to tell me that I should be a writer, and who deserves all the credit in the end.
About the Author
Austin has been reading books and making up stories since he was a little kid. In those days, he was dressed like Peter Pan, Robin Hood, cowboys, and wizards, more often than he was dressed like himself. Today he wears normal clothes, but he is still making up stories, and now he has learned to write them down. Austin lives beside a little river in California with his wife Brigette, and his son, who is as yet unborn and unnamed. He has many more stories on the way and cannot wait to share them.
Brinley has spent most of her life lost in her own imagination, teaching bullfrogs to do gymnastics and pretending to be invisible. Now, when a magic bell from another world summons her across time and space on a journey to find her mother, she will discover real friendship, face true evil, and overcome her greatest fears in order to save the ones she loves. When Brinley arrives in Aberdeen, she finds that all is not well. The Magemother—guardian of the mages—is missing. Hugo, a reluctant prince, is on a quest to find her. Together, Hugo and Brinley team up with an eccentric young bird keeper named Tabitha and set off to solve the mystery of the missing Magemother. Just maybe, Brinley will find the answers to her own past along the way... Interview with the Author Q - So, why should readers give these books a try? A - Because the Magemother books are fast and fun, and I guarantee you'll never forget the friends you find inside them. Each of the books is a different experience, but each one is worth your time. And I'm not just saying that because I wrote them. I've also read a TON of Fantasy. If you like fun, kid-friendly books with lots of magic and a plot that twists and turns, you'll get a kick out of this series. Q - So, what makes the Magemother series so special? A - A few different things. When I set out to write the Magemother series I wanted to write the types of books that I love to read. My top picks are usually fantasy books. I'm well into my 20's now and I still love reading the middle grade bestsellers. Especially ones with a good bit of mystery, a few surprises, and lots of laughs. The Magemother books have a good mix of these things. They mostly focus on the children's fantasy / teen fantasy adventure genre's over all, with some coming of age and mystery aspects thrown in for good measure. Overall the Magemother series is designed to invite you into another wonderful fantasy universe alongside a set of unforgettable characters. Q - What order should I read the books in? A - Well, if I did my job right you should be able to read them in any order you want right? Seriously though, fantasy worlds can get a bit complicated, so if you don't want to risk missing anything I would suggest this order: - The Mage and the Magpie - The Empty Throne (Novella) - The Paradise Twin - The Bridge to Nowhere (coming soon) Q - Which one was your favorite to write? A - That's a tough one. The Empty Throne was fun because Tabitha is such a wonderfully strange and quirky character, and I really had a blast giving her her own adventure. That said, The Paradise Twin is my favorite so far. The characters really come alive in that book, especially Hugo, who has some serious demons to wrestle with. There is also some great plot twists and comedy in that one, if I do say so myself. Magemother Middle Grade Fantasy Adventure Series eBook Categories: - middle grade fantasy - epic fantasy adventure series - fairy tale teen - epic fantasy quest - teen fantasy adventure series - teen fantasy novel - teen fantasy series free - childrens books for kindle free