Chapter no 2

One Dark Window (The Shepherd King, 1)

It began the night of the great storm. The wind blew the shutters of my casement open, sharp flashes of lightning casting grotesque shadows across my bedroom floor. The stairs creaked as my father climbed on tiptoe, my handmaid’s cries still ripping through the corridors as she fled. When he came to my door, I was unmoving, delirious, my veins dark as tree roots. He pulled me from the narrow frame of my childhood bed and cast me into a carriage.

I awoke two days later in the wood, in the care of my aunt Opal.

When the fever broke, I woke every day at dawn to inspect my body for any new signs of magic. But the magic did not come. I slept each night praying it had all been a grave mistake and that soon my father would come to bring me home.

I felt their eyes on me, servants quick to scurry away, my uncle with a narrowed gaze, waiting. Even the horses shied away from me, somehow able to sense my infection—the sprouting persuasion of magic in my young blood.

In my fourth month in the wood, my uncle and six men rode through the gate, their horses slick with sweat, my uncle’s sword bloodied. I cast my gangly body into the shadow of the stable and watched them, curious to see

my uncle with a triumphant smile on his mouth. He called for Jedha, the Master-at-Arms, and they spoke in low, swift voices before turning in to the house.

I stayed in the shadows and trailed them through the hall into the mahogany library, the wooden doors left slightly ajar. I can’t remember what they said to one another—how my uncle had gotten the Providence Card away from the highwaymen—only that they were consumed with excitement.

I waited for them to leave, my uncle fool enough not to lock the Card away, and I stole into the heart of the room.

Writ on the top of the Card were two words: The Nightmare. My mouth opened, my childish eyes round. I knew enough of The Old Book of Alders to know this particular Providence Card was one of only two of its kind, its magic formidable, fearsome. Use it, and one had the power to speak into the minds of others. Use it too long, and the Card would reveal one’s darkest fears.

But it wasn’t the Card’s reputation that ensnared me—it was the monster. I stood over the desk, unable to tear my eyes away from the ghastly creature depicted on the Card’s face. Its fur was coarse, traveling across its limbs and down its hunched spine to the top of its bristled tail. Its fingers were eerily long, hairless and gray, tipped by great, vicious claws. Its face was neither man nor beast, but something in between. I leaned closer to the Card, drawn by the creature’s snarl, its teeth jagged beneath a curled lip.

Its eyes captured me. Yellow, bright as a torch, slit by long, catlike pupils. The creature stared up at me, unmoving, unblinking, and though it was made of ink and paper, I could not shake the feeling it was watching me as intently as I was watching it.

Trying to grasp what happened next was like mending a shattered mirror. Even if I could realign the pieces, cracks in my memory still remained. All I’m certain of was the feel of the burgundy velvet—the unbelievable softness along the ridges of the Nightmare Card as my finger slipped across it.

I remember the smell of salt and the white-hot pain that followed. I must have fallen or fainted, because it was dark outside when I awoke on the library floor. The hair on the back of my neck bristled, and when I sat up, I

was somehow aware I was no longer alone in the library.

That’s when I first heard it, the sound of those long, vicious claws tapping together.

Click. Click. Click.

I jumped to my feet, searching the library for an intruder. But I was alone. It wasn’t until it happened again—click, click, click—that I realized the library was empty.

The intruder was in my mind.

“Hello?” I called, my voice breaking.

Its tone was male, a hiss and a purr—oil and bile—sinister and sweet, echoing through the darkness of my mind. Hello.

I screamed and fled the library. But there was no fleeing what I had done.

Suddenly it became bitterly clear: The infection had not spared me. I had magic. Strange, awful magic. All it had taken was a touch. Just a touch of my finger on velvet, and I had absorbed something from within my uncle’s Nightmare Card. Just a single touch, and its power stalked the corners of my mind, trapped.

At first, I thought I had absorbed the Card itself—its magic. But despite all my efforts, I could not speak into the minds of others. I could speak to only the voice—the monster, the Nightmare. I pored over The Old Book of Alders until I knew it by heart, searching for answers. In his description of the Nightmare Card, the Shepherd King wrote of one’s deepest fears brought to light—of hauntings and terror. I waited to be frightened, for dreams, for nightmares. But they did not come. I clenched my jaw to keep from screaming every time I entered a dark room, certain he would rip through the silence with a terrifying screech, but he remained quiet. He did not haunt me.

He said nothing at all until the day the Physicians came, when he saved my life.

After that, the noises of his comings and goings became familiar. Enigmatic, his secrets were vast. Stranger still, the Nightmare carried his own magic. To his eyes, Providence Cards were as bright as a torch, their colors unique to the velvet trim they bore. With him trapped in my mind, I, too, saw the Cards. And when I asked for his help, I grew stronger—I could run faster, longer, my senses were keener.

At times, he remained dormant, as if asleep. Others, he seemed to take over my thoughts entirely. When he spoke, his smooth, eerie voice called in rhythmic riddles, sometimes to quote The Old Book of Alders, sometimes merely to taunt me.

But no matter how often I asked, he would not tell me who he was or how he had come to exist in the Nightmare Card.

Eleven years, we’ve been together. Eleven years, and I’ve never told a soul.



I did not often walk the forest road at night, and never alone. I cast my gaze over my shoulder, once more hoping Ione would come up behind me, that we might brave the darkness together, arm in arm.

But the only thing to stir at the edge of the wood was a white owl. I watched it soar from the thicket, startled by its quick descent. Night crept over the trees, and with it came animal noises—creatures emboldened by darkness. The Nightmare shifted in the back of my consciousness, sending shivers up my spine despite the tepid air.

I crossed my arms over my chest and quickened my step. Just a few more bends in the road and I would be able to see the torches from my uncle’s gate, beckoning me home.

But I did not make it to the second bend before the highwaymen were upon me.

They came out of the mist like beasts of prey—two of them, garbed in long, dark cloaks and masks obscuring all but their eyes. The first caught me by my hood and slid his other hand over my mouth, smothering the scream that escaped my lips. The second drew a dagger with a pale ivory hilt off his belt and held the tip to my chest.

“Stay quiet and I will not use this,” he said, his voice deep. “Understand?”

I said nothing, choking on fear. I’d walked these woods half my life. Not so much as a dog had given me pause—certainly not highwaymen, not this close to my uncle’s estate. They were either brazen or desperate.

I reached into the darkness of my mind, grasping for the Nightmare. He slithered forward with a hiss, stirred by my fear, awake and present behind my eyes.

I nodded to the highwayman, careful not to stir his dagger. He took a step back. “What’s your name?”

Lie, the Nightmare whispered.

I drew a hitching breath, my hood still imprisoned in the first highwayman’s clutch. “J-J-Jayne. Jayne Yarrow.”

“Where are you going, Jayne?”

Tell him you have nothing of value.

So they might take their gain in flesh? I don’t think so.

Rage began to boil behind my fear, the Nightmare’s wrath a metallic taste on my tongue. “I—I work in the service of Sir Hawthorn,” I managed, praying the weight of my uncle’s name would frighten them.

But when the highwayman behind me gave a curt laugh, I knew I’d said the wrong thing.

“Then you know about his Cards,” he said. “Tell us where he keeps them and we’ll let you go.”

My spine straightened and my fingers curled into fists. The punishment for stealing Providence Cards was a slow, grisly, and public death.

Which meant these were no ordinary cutpurse highwaymen. “I’m just a maid,” I lied. “I don’t know anything.”

“Sure you do,” he said, pulling my hood until the clasp was pressed against my throat. “Tell us.”

Let me out, the Nightmare said again, his voice slithering out from behind his jagged teeth.

Shut up and let me think, I snapped, my eyes still on the dagger.

“Hello?” said the highwayman at my back, tugging my hood again. “Can you hear me? Are you daft?”

“Wait,” cautioned the one with the dagger. I could not see his face behind the mask, but his gaze held me pinned. When he stepped closer, I flinched, the scent of cedar smoke and cloves clinging to his cloak.

“Search her pockets,” he said.

Trespassing fingers roved down my sides, across my waist, and down my skirt. I clenched my jaw and held my nose high. The Nightmare remained quiet, his claws tapping a sharp rhythm.

Click. Click. Click.

“Nothing,” said the highwayman.

But the other was not convinced. Whatever he saw in my eyes— whatever he suspected—was enough to keep his dagger stilled just above my heart. “Check her sleeves,” he said.

Help me, I shouted into my mind. Now!

The Nightmare laughed—a cruel, snakelike hiss.

White-hot heat cut through my arms. I hunched over, my veins burning, and muffled a cry as the Nightmare’s strength coursed through my blood.

The man behind me took a step back. “What’s wrong with her?”

The highwayman with the dagger watched me with wide eyes and lowered his blade. He lowered it only a moment—but a moment was all the time I needed.

My muscles burned with the Nightmare’s strength. I struck the highwayman’s chest with brutal force, knocking the dagger out of his hand and propelling him backward onto the road. His head slammed heavily onto soil just as the highwayman behind me reached for his sword.

But the Nightmare’s reflexes were faster. Before the highwayman could free his blade from its sheath, I caught him by the wrist, my grip so tight my nails dug into his skin. “Don’t come here again,” I said, my voice not entirely my own.

Then, with the full force of the Nightmare’s strength, I pushed him off the road into the mist.

Branches snapped as he struck the forest floor, a curse echoing through the moist summer air. I did not wait to see him get back up. I was already running—running full speed for my uncle’s house.

Faster, I called over the drumming of my own heart.

My legs strained with effort, my steps so quick and sure my heels hardly touched the ground. When I reached the yellow torchlight, I threw myself against the brick wall near my uncle’s gate and forced myself to take long, burning breaths.

I peered over my shoulder down the road, half expecting to see them chasing me. But the darkness was punctured merely by trees and mist.

The Nightmare and I were alone once more.

My arms continued to burn, even when my lungs grew steadier. I rolled up my sleeves, staring at the ink-black tributary of magic shooting down my

veins, flowing from the crook of my elbow to my wrist. It looked just as it had that night eleven years ago when the fever took hold of me.

It looked the same every time I asked the Nightmare for his help.

I waited for the ink to burn off, grinding my teeth against the stinging warmth. Do you think they realized I’m infected?

They’re Card thieves. Report you, and they report themselves.

A few moments later, the warmth was gone, its ghost twitching up and down my arms. I leaned up against the brick wall and heaved a rattling sigh. Why does it burn every time? I asked.

But the Nightmare had already begun to vanish into the dark chasm of my mind. My magic moves, he said. My magic bites. My magic soothes. My magic frights. You are young and not so bold. I am unflinching—five hundred years old.

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