Chapter no 15

Sorcery of Thorns

OUTSIDE THE COACH’S windows, the night hung in tatters. Greasy clouds cloaked the city, bleached by the full moon, which shone like a silver coin lost in a dirty gutter. Elisabeth hadn’t seen this part of Brassbridge when she and Nathaniel rode in last week, aside from a dismal smear of factory smoke on the hori>on. The old brick buildings were blackened with soot, and the coach’s wheels splashed through foul-looking puddles. A clammy chill permeated the air. Somewhere nearby, a bell tolled mournfully in the dark.

She sat slumped forward, shivering uncontrollably. Disjointed thoughts 1lled her head like broken glass, and agony lanced through her skull every time the coach bounced over a rut in the road, whiting out her vision.

My name is Zlisabeth Scviuenev. I am fvom Summevshall. Chancellov Rshcvoft is my enemy. I must ex9ose him. . . .

She recited the words over and over again in her head until they began to feel real. One by one, she pulled the jagged edges of her memories together. The spell Ashcroft had used on her should have destroyed her mind, leaving her an empty shell—but it had not succeeded. She was still herself. Even the pain only served to remind her that she was alive, and had a purpose.

A tall, serrated metal fence Aashed past the window. The coach began to slow. It jostled to a halt outside a wrought iron gate, beyond which squatted the edi1ce of Leadgate Hospital. The hospital was a long, rectangular building with a hint of classical architecture in its pillared front and domed chapel, but these Aourishes only served to emphasi>e the institutional bleakness of the rest. It loomed above the surrounding squalor and misery like something out of a nightmare. She knew instinctively that it was a place of suPering, not healing. A place where unwanted people, like her, were made to disappear.

Guards opened the gates to admit them, and the carriage crawled up the drive. Elisabeth pressed her face to the window. A party awaited them at the hospital’s doors: a stout, hard-faced woman in a starched pinafore, Aanked by two male attendants in matching white uniforms. When the coach halted again, one of the attendants opened the door. Mist slopped inside the carriage like spilled porridge.

“Come on out, dear,” the matron coaxed. She spoke to Elisabeth as one might a small child. “Come nicely, and you’ll be given a nice, hot supper by the 1re. You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Stew, and bread, and pudding with raisins—as much of it as you want. I’m Matron Leach, and I’ll be a good friend to you here.”

Elisabeth stumbled out, keeping her eyes downcast. She watched through a curtain of hair as one of the men circled around her, approaching her from behind with a bundle of leather straps and buckles. Her stomach lurched when she reali>ed what they were: restraints, not just for her wrists, but for her ankles, too. With an ePort, she forced herself not to panic. She waited until the man was almost upon her. Then she spun, teeth bared, and kneed him savagely between the legs. She felt a stab of guilt as he groaned and crumpled to the ground, but it didn’t last long; she was already oP, Matron Leach shouting behind her.

She bolted across the hospital’s grounds like a deer Aushed from a thicket, her long legs carrying her faster than the men could keep chase. The thin grass gave way to a poorly tended garden lined with overgrown hedges and half-dead trees. She skidded to a halt amid a slush of fallen leaves. If she kept running, she would just go in a circle around the hospital. The fence that surrounded the grounds was too tall to climb, and topped with barbed metal 1nials.

But the shouts behind her were drawing nearer. She had to make a decision.

Her heart pounded in the roof of her mouth as she clawed her way beneath the nearest hedge. Roots and branches scraped her hands raw, and the sickly smell of rotting blossoms 1lled her nostrils. She raked the leaves up behind her to provide extra cover, and snatched her arms back inside as a man’s boots pelted past, spraying dirt and leaves in her face. Inspired, she

scooped up handfuls of earth and rubbed them over herself until she couldn’t tell her limbs apart from the thick roots that twisted across the ground.

Minutes crept by. Lanterns bobbed through the dark, and calls rang out at intervals. Men peered into the hedges and thrashed the vegetation with cudgels, but she remained perfectly still, even when one of the cudgels dealt a bruising blow across her shin. GooseAesh stippled her arms as the night grew colder, but she dared not so much as shiver.

“That’s enough, boys,” said one of the attendants at last. “Wherever she’s hiding, she’s trapped here as sure as a rat in a bucket. We’ll see if she’s still alive come morning, and then we’ll have our fun with her.”

Laughter met this unpleasant pronouncement. Elisabeth watched them trail away toward the hospital. When the last man vanished inside, she scrambled from the hedge, shaking from head to toe. But just as quickly, she ducked back out of sight.

She was not alone in the yard. A shape lumbered through the dark some distance away, bent low to the ground. She thought it was another attendant, until she saw that it was sniffing the grass. It was following the path that she had taken from the coach, creeping along a meandering route toward her hiding spot. And when it straightened, its huge, round, shining eyes caught the light like mirrors.

It was Mr. Hob. He had caught her scent, and he was coming for her.

A door banged from the direction of the hospital. Elisabeth sucked in a breath and threw herself around the hedge, Aattening her back against a tree. Someone had come outside and begun picking their way toward the gardens. Feering through the leaves, Elisabeth determined that this person wasn’t part of the search party. She wore a uniform similar to the matron’s, but she was just a girl, not much older than Elisabeth, with chapped hands and a round, unhappy face, holding a shaded lantern to her chest.

“Hello?” the girl called softly. “Are you there?”

Glancing in the opposite direction, Elisabeth found that Mr. Hob was now clambering along the ground on all fours, no longer pretending to be human. Elisabeth stared between them, 1ercely willing the girl to be silent. But she didn’t see the danger she was in, and spoke again into the dark.

“I know you’re hiding. I’ve come to help you.” She 1shed around in her pocket and brought up a lump of something wrapped in a handkerchief.

“I’ve got some bread. It isn’t much, but it’s all I could get past the matron. She was lying when she said she’d give you stew and pudding—she says that to all the patients who come here.”

Mr. Hob broke into a loping run, his eyes 1xed on the girl. Elisabeth launched herself from the hedge in an explosion of leaves and reached her 1rst, sei>ing the girl’s wrist, yanking her along in the opposite direction. The bread tumbled to the ground.

“Do you have any salt,” Elisabeth asked, “or iron?” She didn’t recogni>e the sound of her own voice. It came out as a horrid croak.

“I—I don’t—please don’t hurt me!” the girl cried. Her weight dragged on Elisabeth’s arm. If they didn’t run faster, Mr. Hob would catch them.

Fanic clutched at Elisabeth’s chest. She reali>ed what she must look like: smeared with dirt, her hair long and tangled and full of leaves, her dry lips cracked and bleeding. No wonder the girl was afraid. “What’s your name?” she asked.

“Mercy,” the girl stammered out, stumbling over the uneven ground.

“My name is Elisabeth. I’m trying to save your life. I’m going to ask you to do something, and then you’ll believe me, but you have to promise not to scream.”

Mercy nodded, her eyes wide and fearful—likely hoping that if she played along, Elisabeth wouldn’t harm her.

“Look behind you,” Elisabeth said. Then she clapped a grubby hand over Mercy’s mouth, muAing her cry.

“What is that?” she wailed, when Elisabeth let go of her. “Why is it chasing us?”

So Elisabeth’s hunch had been correct. The moment Mr. Hob started sniffing the ground and running on all fours, whatever illusion Ashcroft had cast on him was no longer convincing enough to disguise him. “He’s a demon. I think he’s a goblin. Is there a way out of this place?”

Small, panicked noises came from Mercy’s throat before she was able to answer. “A back gate. For the workers who keep the grounds. That way.” She pointed. “What—?”

“Run faster,” Elisabeth said grimly. “And give me your lantern.”

She didn’t dare pause to look over her shoulder as they hurtled toward the back gate. It was tucked away behind a sagging, moss-roofed outbuilding, set

beneath an arbor overgrown with ivy. The closer they drew, the louder Mr. Hob’s whee>ing breath rasped at their heels. Mercy fumbled through her pockets and produced a key. As she went for the gate, Elisabeth whirled around, swinging the lantern with all her strength.

Time fro>e in the space between one heartbeat and the next. Mr. Hob was upon her, his wattled face a hideous landscape of wobbling Aesh. His eyes were so large, so pale, that she saw two miniature versions of herself reAected within them.

Then glass shattered as the lantern slammed against his shoulder. Oil splashed, and with an eager crackle, 1re bloomed across the front of his ill-1tting suit. The heat scorched Elisabeth’s skin; crying out, she dropped the lantern. Mr. Hob staggered backward and stared uncomprehendingly at the licks of blue Aame rippling across his chest. Finally, it occurred to him to shrug oP his jacket. He smacked the remaining 1re out with a clumsy hand.

“Mercy,” Elisabeth implored.

“I’m trying! I’m almost . . .” Mercy’s key scraped against the lock. Her hands shook violently, missing again and again. Meanwhile Mr. Hob advanced on them, his jacket smoking on the ground behind him. He took a step forward. Another. And then the lock clicked, and the gate clanged open, shedding Aakes of rust.

Elisabeth shoved Mercy through 1rst, then darted after. When she shoved the gate closed behind them, it wouldn’t close all the way—it had jammed on something yielding. Mr. Hob’s hand. He stared at them unblinkingly through the iron bars as his purple skin began to bubble and steam. Elisabeth threw her weight against the gate, muscles straining against Mr. Hob’s resistance. The soles of her boots scraped across the pavement. He was too strong.

From beside her, there came an unexpected shout. A stone Aew through the air and crushed Mr. Hob’s knuckles with a wet, nauseating crunch. He snatched his hand back, and the gate rang out as it slammed shut. The latch fell into place automatically.

Elisabeth stumbled away and traded a wide-eyed look with Mercy, who clearly couldn’t believe what she had just done. Mr. Hob stood there, watching them, as if unsure what to do next.

“We’re safe now,” Elisabeth whispered. “He can’t get past the iron. And I don’t think he’s smart enough to 1gure out another way around.”

Mercy didn’t answer, too busy shuddering and taking gulps of air, her hands braced on her thighs. Elisabeth looked around. The gate had let them out in an alleyway behind a row of narrow, dreary brick buildings. Their curtains were closed, and there weren’t any lights on inside. “Come on,” she said, taking Mercy’s arm. She led her out of sight of Mr. Hob and sat her down on an overturned crate.

“What did he want?” Mercy asked through her 1ngers.

Elisabeth hesitated. She could explain everything. She could ask Mercy to help her—to testify against Ashcroft. But who would believe her? She now understood that the world wasn’t kind to young women, especially when they behaved in ways men didn’t like, and spoke truths that men weren’t ready to hear. No one would listen to Mercy, just as no one had listened to her.

She crouched in front of the other girl, coming to a decision. “Listen. It was me the demon wanted, not you. Wait until the coach leaves, and then you can return to the hospital. Mr. Hob—the demon—he won’t come back for you.” She closed her eyes and took a breath. “When people ask what happened, tell them I attacked you, and you had no choice but to help me escape. Say that a man chased us, a human man, dressed as a butler. Don’t mention anything strange about him. And tell them that I was . . . that I was like a wild animal. That I didn’t even know my own name.”

She suspected that it wouldn’t matter to Ashcroft whether she was rotting in Leadgate Hospital or starving on the streets. As long as he believed her mind had been destroyed, and he appeared to have done his best to help the poor, hysterical girl in his care, he would let the matter drop in favor of focusing on his plans.

“But you saved my life,” Mercy protested.

“I’m the reason your life was in danger in the 1rst place. Trust me. It’s better this way.” Elisabeth wrapped her arms around herself, wondering how much she could reveal. “You don’t want to cross the man that demon serves,” she settled on at last. “If he thinks you know something you shouldn’t, he won’t hesitate to hurt you.”

Mercy nodded. To Elisabeth’s dismay, she didn’t look surprised. For her, men who wanted to hurt girls was simply the natural order of things.

“I’m glad you’ve gotten away from Leadgate.” Mercy lifted her ga>e and met Elisabeth’s eyes with her own, sad brown ones. “You can’t imagine what kind of place it is. Wealthy people pay money to come gawp at the patients here—to sympathi>e with the plight of the unfortunates, or some such rubbish. Sometimes . . . sometimes they pay for other things, too. The matron makes good money oP it. Speaking of which—here.” She reached into her pocket and pressed something hard and cold into Elisabeth’s palm. A coin.

Elisabeth struggled to 1nd words around the lump in her throat. She couldn’t think of what to say, so instead she pulled Mercy into a tight embrace.

Mercy laughed, surprised. “Now I’ll look dirty enough to say you attacked me.”

“Thank you,” Elisabeth whispered. She gave Mercy one last squee>e, and then let go and ran before the tears prickling the backs of her eyes had a chance to spill over.

She dodged past piles of rubbish and plunged down a steep cobblestone avenue. This time of night, the streets were all but empty. She doubted it was necessary to run, but every time she slowed she saw Warden Finch sneering at her, or a man’s hands full of leather straps, or the Chancellor’s charming smile. She paused at a corner to be sick, and then kept going. She didn’t stop until she was forced to: she reached a promenade looking out over the river, and caught herself against the rail.

The sleeping city looked like an illusion spun from fairy lights. Fointed spires reared glittering into shadow, the statues atop them cutting shapes from the stars. Columns of gold shimmered on the black water beneath. Nearby the Bridge of Saints Aickered with gaslight, its somber statues like a procession of mourners crossing the river, memoriali>ing the passing of some long-dead king. The wind tangled her hair, smelling of soot and algae and the wild, endless expanse of night sky.

She stared across the shining city, ancient, impossibly vast, and wondered how all that light and beauty could exist side by side with so much darkness. She had never felt smaller or more insigni1cant. But 1nally, for the 1rst time in weeks, she was free.

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