Court of shadows, p.1
Court of Shadows, p.1Madeleine Roux
For Mom and Pops
And of course, for The Smidge
Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until
Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him.
—WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, MACBETH
Nature, with equal mind,
Sees all her sons at play;
Sees man control the wind,
The wind sweep man away.
We should forgive our enemies, but not before they are hanged.
About the Author
Books by Madeleine Roux
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Journal of Bennu, Who Runs
They emerged from the tree like worms from the earth. More shadow than mass, they slithered out from between the groaning cracks in the trunk before making their way to the clearing. The roots of the tree were as thick around as horses, broad and gnarled, never touched by man and rarely even glimpsed by him. The creatures came out of those roots gradually at first, but as twilight dipped into evening, they arrived at a steadier pace, a slow drip that became a constant stream.
Where did they come from? Was the tree hollow inside to hold so many children? How deep down into the earth did the roots go? Was that where the creatures lived when shunning the cool green air of the forest? Were they made of mud or rock or wood, or were they flesh like me?
I had come so far, untold miles, to witness this rebirthing with my own eyes, though I had witnessed many oddities in Per Ramessu and Bubastis, and though I had struggled through the unknown territories swarming with painted strangers and curious animals. I had seen a woman swallow a cobra whole to no ill effect, watched a woman’s face melt like wax under the breath of an angel, and taken meals with men who claimed to be older than the sands of my home.
But this . . . It blackened my heart to see this, to see nothingness given shape, to see a tree, tall as any palace, act as fleshly woman and create life. Life that walked and breathed, each creature with a different face. They were not ugly, these creatures, but nor were they like any man I had seen before. Dark lines like tattoos covered their skin, though even in the dim light I could see that they were carved into the flesh, and carved deep. The creatures glistened and moved with unnatural grace, as if floating along the dewy grass.
Owls, horned and menacing, sat in the smaller trees around me, hooting in a low rhythm. All manner of snake and spider had come to watch, an army of glittering black eyes and scales. I noticed that it was a kind of music, frogs and crickets singing in concert, aided by the low moan of what sounded like a deer. The music echoed in my chest, ancient and primal, and I shivered, huddling beneath the fur I had scavenged along the trail from a fallen animal. The forest stank of new growth and suppurating rot, a rich earthen smell that seemed to pulse with its own life.
I wondered where my protector had gone, the beast man who had come with me from Egypt and guarded me through so much. But he was gone, and in the distance I heard an angry howl. Had they taken him? Was he in pain?
Life. Everything here was life, almost to suffocation, all things growing and expanding, spreading through the loam and the water with no civilization to curtail it. How lonely and cold it was, to be the only man for what felt like an eternity in every direction.
But I remained.
None emerging from the tree noticed me, though I made no attempt to make my presence secret. After all, I had been summoned here, sent by women with visions, guided in daylight by a winding Sky Snake that threaded its great, terrible body across the clouds. I’d listened and I’d followed, and crossed seas and mountains and valleys to this place. To the tree. To Father.
At last the tree slowed its creation, and all those it had made circled around it. The music of the forest grew louder, painfully loud, drumming in my chest like a fist striking harder and harder. I could do nothing but cower under my fur, feet wet with mud, and wait, watching as the tree opened once more, the great rift in its trunk sighing out one last figure.
Had I known true cold before? Had I known the face of real and evil magicks? No, this changed all. I was in the presence of something out of time, out of calculation, a being without a beginning and without end.
He was their king, and this, this was his court. My king. My Father. At once, all eyes turned to me, black as beetles and shining. All of them smiled, though I did not wish to know why. I felt suddenly hunted and knew this could be my death—those were not smiles of welcome but marks of insatiable hunger.
Father came toward me and the song grew softer, more like a chant, now with reedy, ghostly whispers chasing through the rhythm.
The words blossomed with sense as this forest king saw me and approached. He was taller than the others, with a sharp, jagged face, a trembling hand’s sketch of a human’s features. Nose of hawk, chin of lion, cheeks of sphynx, hair of ravens. His eyes, deepest black, danced with faint red pinpricks of light, and he wore moss, vine, and feathers, fashioned into a robe that floated out from his shoulders.
He reached toward me with fingers curved and sharp, and I knew that what I held in my arms, what I clutched protectively to my chest, would soon be his. The whispers! The whispers gnawed at my brain, making me weak and forgetful.
Why had I come? The nymphs had offered me sanctuary. This was not meant to be my end . . .
All Father of the Trees, All Father of the Trees, All Father of the Trees . . .
I could hear nothing but the whispers now, not even my own thoughts. If I survived this forest, I knew not if I would ever think another thought again.
“You have come so far to bring me this . . .” His voice was the very crack and creaking of branches in a storm, it was the rush of wind through leaves, the babble of water over stone. “To bring me her.”
Is it for you? Have I made a mistake? Perhaps it was made for no one. It must never be found!
Then his fingers touched the book clasped to my chest, and there was no power left in my body. The hundreds of black eyes hunting me had stolen my strength, and their chant had put me almost to sleep. He took it from me. He took it, and I failed.
“Sleep now, Bennu, one who has known hunger and exhaustion and fea
North of England
It was not the first time I had stared down the barrel of a gun, but I sincerely hoped it would be the last.
Then again, this was at least a change in my normal routine. I had come to know the numbing effects that boredom could have on even the most bizarre chores. At first, the novelty of cleaning up after guests annihilated by Poppy and Mrs. Haylam’s magicks had kept it interesting. But hefting buckets of gore, scrubbing bloodstains from wood tiles, and scraping bird droppings from Mr. Morningside’s carpets had quickly grown tiresome. Life, even in a house of dark wonders, could become drudgery. I’d begun to lose count of the villainous boarders whom I’d had a hand in killing. It still made me ill if I thought too much about just what I was employed at Coldthistle House to do.
“Och, you’re not concentrating one jot, Louisa.”
Behind the curved hammer of the pistol, Chijioke grimaced. There was an exhausted twitch to his eye, and his hand shook a little as he pointed the weapon at my face. Hazy sunlight fought through the grime on the library windows, pale dust motes dancing around us like afternoon fireflies.
“Just promise me it isn’t loaded,” I said, grumpy.
He rolled his eyes at me and snorted. “For the fifth time, it’s empty. Now focus, Louisa, or was that just a lucky fluke that saved your life?”
I tried to concentrate, but now his questions were only making me more distracted. In truth, it was a combination of things that had saved my life on the day Lee’s uncle decided to try to take it. There had been Mary shielding me with her peculiar magic, and Poppy using hers to lance George Bremerton’s head like a boil. I shuddered at the memory of it—nightmares of that day visited me often, and I knew in my heart they were unlikely ever to leave.
There were the hideous dreams, and there was the even crueler reality of Mary’s absence. I missed her. Months had passed since I had gone to Ireland, hoping to conjure her again with a wish thrown into a special spring. According to Mr. Morningside, Mary, as an Unworlder spirit, neither dead nor alive, should have gone to the Dusk Lands, a place like limbo; I should have been able to conjure her back with the same magic that had brought her into existence in the first place. But my wish had fallen into the spring, only to plop into the water and drop like a stone.
In that horrible moment, I’d at least fancied myself free of Coldthistle House. I’d left the spring and drunk my way through Dublin to London and then, reluctantly, back to Malton. Those few things I had stolen from the house went far when sold, but not far enough. I’d thought to strike out on my own, to find some measure of independence working as a barmaid. Alas, my quarrelsome nature was not tolerated in town the way it was at Coldthistle House. In no time, I was broke and unemployed once more. Perhaps it was fate that was forcing me back to Coldthistle House; perhaps, on some level, I just missed the dastardly place.
Chijioke must have read the dismay on my face. He sighed and nodded toward the pistol pointed at my nose, as if to remind me that he was doing this for my own good.
Outside, even through the tightly shut windows, I could hear the sounds of merry voices. All that week, workmen from the neighboring property had labored to raise a massive tent on the lawn of Coldthistle House. Well, part of it was on the house property—half, to be specific—and the other half landed on the pastures to the east, those tended by the kindly shepherd who had taken me in for an afternoon. The purpose of the festival tent remained a mystery, and my thoughts shifted from poor Mary to whatever Mr. Morningside might have planned. The workmen took their tea down on the lawn, their deep, boisterous laughter an unusual sound on the somber Coldthistle grounds.
“Go on, lass, you’re trying my patience now!”
Chijioke was nearly shouting in my face, that tired tic in his eye gone as he snarled in earnest.
“Very well!” I cried back, finding at once the focus that had eluded me. It came, as it had before, out of anger. There was no smoke or loud pop of magic, no descent of sparkling dust, nothing quaint or worthy of a children’s story in what I could do—I simply focused all of my mind for an instant and the Changeling power within me stirred, transforming the pistol in his hand into a rabbit.
Chijioke gasped, looking as shocked and befuddled as the baby rabbit squirming in his grasp.
Then he laughed and loosened his grip, letting the darling little animal curl into a curious, snuffing ball in his palm. It was a charming enough sight—the callous-handed gardener of Coldthistle cradling an ivory bunny no bigger than a snowball.
“Very funny,” he said, eyeing the rabbit with a cocked eyebrow. “So your power wasn’t a fluke after all. What will you name it?”
I turned away from them both and trotted to the dirty window, going on tiptoes to gaze down onto the lawn. The white tent was nearly as large as the barn. A red, green, and gold flag topped each of its attractively curved and then pointed peaks. The pennants were simple, unadorned, and I couldn’t help but wonder what they meant. Perhaps, with the weather changing, this was meant to be a May Day celebration. Yet that seemed altogether too whimsical for Mr. Morningside. He could do nothing pleasant without there being some sinister motivation.
I glanced back at Chijioke and his new little fuzzy companion. It was not to last. In another blink the rabbit was gone, and Chijioke again held a weapon in his hand. “Alas, nothing at all. No matter how hard I try, I cannot seem to make the spell last.”
He gave me a sympathetic shrug, tucking the pistol into the back of his trousers and joining me at the window. We both gazed down at the fool courtyard and watched the workmen finish their tea and return to the pavilion, each doing their best to avoid the holes dotted around the yard.
“This time it might be for the best, lass,” Chijioke said. “That wee thing would’ve been lunch for Bartholomew before sundown.”
“He certainly has been eating more,” I agreed. “And growing. Soon you’ll be tending to him in the barn. Poppy will be riding him up and down the lawn.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Chijioke wince.
“You truly don’t know what all this is about?” I asked, using a little pile of books to lever myself up for a better view. There was a shallow ledge to the window, enough that I could rest a knee on it and crane my neck down to see the lawn.
“I suspect only Mrs. Haylam knows, though it would not surprise me at all if she were just as in the dark. I’ve no reason to lie to ye, Louisa. But if you find out first, ye best share all of it with me.”
I squinted, but of course could see nothing, even when the slit of an opening at the front of the tent ruffled in the wind. Muttering, I let my forehead touch the glass of the window. Using my powers—Changeling powers, or so Mr. Morningside claimed—had left me feeling slightly fragile. “If this were any other boardinghouse, I might think we were hosting a wedding.”
He laughed and leaned onto the ledge next to me, flicking the necklace that had slipped free of my gown and now swung visibly from my neck. “Have those on the mind, do we?”
God, the necklace. I had hoped to keep it a secret, and now my unladylike climbing and crawling had dislodged it from the partlet tucked primly into my bodice. I snatched the spoon up with my hand and tucked it back into my frock. Jumping down from the window ledge, I turned away, trying to find shelter among the bookcases. “It isn’t what it looks like.”
“Oh aye? Because it looks like a lot of sentimental rubbish to me.”
“This sentimental rubbish,” I said hotly, turning and finding the door, “saved my life.”
After nearly dying at the hands of George Bremerton, I’d thought often of leaving permanently. I still did. But if I fled now, abandoning Lee and what memories of Mary lingered, what would that make me? A thief and a runaway I might be, but I would not also prove disloyal. Perhaps if Mary somehow returned and Lee found happine
Chijioke called after me, but I was drained from our practice and now saddened. I felt the weight of the spoon on a chain around my neck and closed my eyes, taking quick steps to the corridor. There was no thinking of the spoon without thinking of Lee, who had died in my scuffle with his uncle. Well, died, but only briefly, his life renewed by Mrs. Haylam’s magic and Mary’s sacrifice. Dead. Renewed. That hardly covered it, the scope of what I had done, what I had chosen, as a fate for my friend.
No, not a friend; a shadow of a friend now. Though he lived at Coldthistle and could not leave it, I had not seen a glimpse of Rawleigh Brimble in weeks. He skulked and hid like a shadow, and not a single part of me could blame him.
“Louisa! Neglecting your chores again, I see . . .”
My swift exit was cut short by Mrs. Haylam, tidy and clean as ever, her gray hair knotted at her nape, her apron starched and blindingly white. She tucked her dark hands in front of her waist and looked down her nose at me, sniffing.
“Just on my way to retrieve the linens for the Pritcher Room,” I murmured, avoiding her sharp gaze.
“Of course you are. And you’ll see to the Fenton Room as well after, and bring in the wash. There will be no more lazing about with the Court convening.”
I could sense Chijioke’s eyes went as wide as mine did at that. “The Court?”
Mrs. Haylam was a fearsome woman at the mildest of times, and now her eyes flared as she turned to make room for me to pass and pointed down the hall. “Does it sound like I’m in the mood to be interrogated, girl?”
“Right. Pritcher, Fenton, the wash,” I whispered, trotting by her.
She caught me by the ear and I twisted, crying out in sudden pain. Lord but the old woman was far, far stronger than she looked.
“Not so fast, Louisa. Mr. Morningside wishes to see you. Something urgent, he said, and I wouldn’t tarry if I were you.” She gave a mean little laugh as she let go of my ear.
Court of Shadows by Madeleine Roux / Horror / Fantasy / Young Adult have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes