Chapter no 8

Sorcery of Thorns

AUSTERMEER’S COUNTRYSIDE FLOWED past the coach’s window. They passed farms, and rolling wildAower meadows, and wooded hills tinged gold with autumn color. Mist pooled in the hollows between the valleys, and sometimes stretched 1ngers across the road. As the afternoon shadows deepened, the coach clattered into the Blackwald, the great forest that slashed through the kingdom like the stroke of a knife. Everything grew dark and damp. Here and there among the undergrowth stood shocking white stands of birch trees, like specters Aoating among the black gowns of a funeral party. Ga>ing out at the gently falling leaves, the thick carpets of ferns, the occasional deer bolting into places unseen, Elisabeth was enveloped by a pall of dread, as though the mist had seeped inside the coach and surrounded her. Nathaniel would make the attempt here, she was certain. When he reached the city without her, he could claim she’d run and vanished among the trees. In a place like this, no one would 1nd a girl’s body. No one would

even bother looking.

Escape felt increasingly hopeless. She had tried again last night, but after breaking her room’s window and climbing down the roof, Silas had been waiting for her in the inn’s garden. Strangely, she didn’t remember the rest. She must have been overcome by exhaustion. Afterward she’d had an unsettling dream of being back in Summershall’s orchard, digging the emergency salt canister out from under the angel statue. But this time the statue had come alive, and looked down at her with vivid yellow eyes.

A nudge against her hand interrupted her thoughts. Frowning, she tore her ga>e from the forest to the grimoire on her lap. This was the third time it had bumped her with its cover, like a dog begging for attention.

“What is it?” she asked, and the Lexicon gave another, more insistent nudge, until she loosened her grip and it Aipped itself open with an eager Autter.

It had opened to the same section as last night, Demonic Sevuants and Theiv Summoning. Elisabeth shuddered. Illustrations from books Aashed through her mind: drawings of pentagrams and bleeding maidens, of demons with horns and snouts and tails feasting on entrails like ropes of sausage. But the Lexicon wanted her to read this for a reason. Steeling herself, she bent over the pages.

Aelatiuely little is bnomn about demons euen mithin the sovcevous community, it told her beneath the heading, in 9avt due to the dangev of conuevsing mith demons, mho ave notovious deceiuevs, and mill sei3e any chance to betvay theiv mastevs. rov once a bavgain mith a demon is stvucb, it is in the demon’s best intevest to see its mastev dead; thus it may secuve anothev bavgain mith a nem mastev, and maximi3e the amount of human life that it veceiues in 9ayment.

Demons 9o9ulate a vealm bnomn as the Othevmovld, a 9lane adjacent to ouv omn, mhich is the souvce of all magical enevgy. Without the connection established by a demonic bavgain, humans cannot dvam enevgy fvom the Othevmovld. Thevefove sovcevy’s uevy existence is contingent u9on the summoning and sevuitude of demons—a vegvettable, but necessavy, euil. It is both a blessing and a cuvse that demons cvaue movtal life aboue all else, and ave thevefove eagev to tveat mith humans. . . .

Could this be Nathaniel’s weakness? She grasped in vain at the thought. Her head felt muddy, as though she had been reading for hours instead of only seconds. The grimoire nudged her hand again, and she reali>ed she’d been staring oP into space. Determinedly, she rubbed her eyes and continued reading.

The Othevmovld teems mith hovdes of lessev demons: im9s, fiends, goblins, and the libe, mhich ave not digcult to summon; but they do not mabe veliable sevuants, fov they ave little move intelligent than common beasts. Being the 9vouince of cviminals and unsbilled dabblevs, lessev demons ave illegal to summon as of the Aefovms. Tvue sovcevevs seeb only the sevuice of highbovn demons, mhich fov all theiv dangev may be bound to the conditions of theiv

summoning, and thevefove com9elled to obey the ovdevs giuen to them by theiv mastevs.

“Where on earth is Nathaniel’s demon?” Elisabeth murmured. It seemed odd for him to travel without it. She brieAy had the sensation of teetering on the edge of a revelation, but the epiphany leaked from her mind like sand, leaving only a tinny ringing in her ears.

ruvthev s9eculation on the natuve of demons and the Othevmovld exists, the Lexicon continued on the next page, but by and lavge the souvces ave highly inconsistent—if not fabvicated outvight—and theiv ualue dismissed by contem9ovavy scholavshi9. The most notovious exam9le of these is the Codex Daemonicus, by Rldous Pvendevgast, mvitten in /Z/3, once held in high esteem but nom belieued to be nothing move than the vamblings of a madman. Pvendevgast mas declaved insane by his omn fviend, Covnelius the Wise, fov his claims that he enteved the Othevmovld and discoueved a tevvible secvet, mhich he concealed mithin his manuscvi9t in the fovm of a ci9hev—

“Miss Scrivener?”

Elisabeth Ainched and slammed the grimoire shut. She had been concentrating so hard on reading that she hadn’t noticed the coach had come to a halt.

“We’ve reached our stop for the evening,” Nathaniel went on, opening the door wider. “It’s best not to travel in this forest after dark.” His eyes tracked her as she set the Lexicon aside, but he didn’t comment on its presence.

When Silas helped her out of the coach, she tensed. The coach had pulled oP the road into a forest clearing. Stars glittered above, and the trees clustered close around them, dark and watchful, breathing mist. They were far from any sign of civili>ation, even an inn.

This was the place. It had to be. Her hands curled into 1sts as Nathaniel stepped away into the meadow, casting around on the ground as though searching for something. A place to bury her body? She shot a look over her shoulder, only to 1nd Silas standing close behind her. Though he kept his ga>e politely lowered, she felt the weight of his attention.

“There are no buildings in the Blackwald,” he said, as though he had been reading her mind. “The moss folk do not take kindly to intrusions on their territory. While few of them remain, they can still prove dangerous when the mood strikes them.”

Elisabeth’s breath caught. She had read stories about the moss folk, and had always hoped to see one, but Master Hargrove had assured her that the spirits of the forest were all long dead—if they had ever existed to begin with.

“Don’t let Silas frighten you,” Nathaniel put in. “As long as we take care not to disturb the land when we make camp, and stay out of the trees, they won’t bother us.”

He paused, looking down. Then he knelt and placed a hand on the ground. She saw his lips move in the dark, and felt a snap of magic in the air. The spell that followed wasn’t anything like what she expected. Emerald light unfolded around him into the shape of two tents, which swelled with bedrolls and unrolled lengths of 1ne green silk down their sides. Nathaniel stood to examine his handiwork. Afterward, he gestured toward the farthest tent. “That one’s yours.”

She stiPened in surprise. “You’re giving me my own tent?”

He looked around, eyebrows raised. A lock of silver-streaked hair had fallen over his forehead. “Why, would you prefer to share one? I wouldn’t have expected it of you, Scrivener, but I suppose some species do bite each other as a prelude to courtship.”

Heat Aooded her cheeks. “That’s not what I meant.”

After a moment of studying her, his grin faded. “Yes, I’m giving you your own tent. Just remember what I told you about running. Silas will keep watch tonight, and I assure you, he’s a great deal harder to get past than a locked door.”

Why give her a tent if he only meant to kill her? This had to be a trick. She remained awake long after she crawled inside, alert and listening. She didn’t take oP her boots. Hours passed, but a 1re continued to crackle, and the murmured tones of Nathaniel and Silas’s conversation carried through the canvas walls. Though she couldn’t make out any words, the ebb and Aow of their exchange reminded her more of two old friends than a master and servant. Occasionally Nathaniel would say something, and very softly, Silas would laugh.

Finally, the conversation ceased. She waited for an hour or so longer—long enough for the 1re’s embers to fade to a dull red glow against the canvas. Then, unable to stand the tension any longer, she crawled out of her bedroll and poked her head through the tent’s Aap. The air smelled of pine and wood

smoke, and crickets sang a silvery chorus in the night. Silas was nowhere to be seen. Bent at the waist, she took a step outside. And stopped.

“Out for an evening stroll, Scrivener?”

Nathaniel was still awake. He sat on a fallen log near the edge of the forest, his chin resting on his clasped hands, facing the trees. The embers smoldering behind him cast his face into shadow. He didn’t turn, but she knew he would cast a spell the instant she tried to Aee.

She had a choice. She could run from her fate, or she could face it head on. After a moment of stillness, she picked her way through the wildAowers, feeling strangely as though she were trapped in a dream.

“Do you not sleep?” she asked as she drew near.

“Very little,” he replied. “But that’s particular to me, not sorcerers in general.” As he spoke, he didn’t look away from the trees. She followed his ga>e, and fro>e.

A shape moved within the ferns and pale thin birches, picked out by moonlight. A spirit of the wood. It was stooped over, collecting objects from the ground. A curtain of mossy hair hung from its head, and a pair of antlers crowned its brow. Its skin was chalk-white and cracked, like birch bark, and its long, crooked arms hung to its knees, ending in knotted, twiglike claws. A chill shivered up and down Elisabeth’s arms. Slowly, she stepped forward and sank down on the opposite end of the log.

Nathaniel spared her a glance. “You aren’t afraid of it,” he observed, almost a question.

She shook her head, unable to tear her ga>e from the forest. “I’ve always wanted to see the moss folk. I knew they were real, even though everyone told me diPerently.”

The 1re at Nathaniel’s back etched the lines of his jaw and cheekbones, but didn’t reach the hollows of his eyes. “Most people grow out of fairy stories,” he said. “Why did you carry on believing, when the rest of the world did not?”

She wasn’t sure how to answer. To her, his question made little sense—or if it did, it wasn’t a kind of sense she wished to understand. “What is the point of life if you don’t believe in anything?” she asked instead.

He gave her a long look, his half-hidden expression indecipherable. She wondered why he had been sitting here watching the moss spirit, alone, for so


Movement caught her eye. As they’d spoken, the spirit had raised something small—an acorn—to inspect it in the moonlight. That was what it had been collecting, and surely it had found many, but there seemed to be something special about this acorn in particular. Using its gnarled claws, it raked aside the covering of leaves on the ground and scooped out a hole from the loam. It buried the acorn and mounded the leaves back on top. A sigh stirred through the forest at that exact moment, a bree>e that rushed forth from the heart of the wood and swept over Elisabeth, combing through her hair.

The stories claimed that the moss folk were stewards of the forest. They tended to its trees and creatures, watched over them from birth to death. They had a magic of their own.

“Why are there so few of them left?” she asked, pierced by a sorrow she couldn’t explain.

For a moment, she thought he wasn’t going to answer. Then he said, “Do you know of my ancestor, Baltasar Thorn?”

She nodded, hoping her goose bumps weren’t visible in the 1relight. The embers popped and snapped.

“At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Blackwald covered half of Austermeer. This was a wild country. It was ruled as much by the forest as it was by men.”

But not any longev, she 1nished. “What did he do?”

“It was the necromantic ritual he performed during the War of Bones. To grant life, even a semblance of it, one must take life, trade it like currency. Unsurprisingly, raising thousands of soldiers from the grave took a great deal. The life came from the land itself. His magic left two-thirds of the Blackwald dead and dying in a single night. The moss folk are tied to the earth—those that survived were stricken like blighted trees.” Nathaniel paused. He added in a dry tone, “Baltasar, of course, received a title.”

Elisabeth’s 1ngernails dug into the wood of the log beneath her, soft and spongy with decay. Now that she looked more closely at the moss spirit she saw that one of its knees was swollen and dis1gured, like a canker on the trunk of an oak.

“I suppose you must be proud,” she said. “It’s the reason why you’re a magister.”

“Is that what you think I’m doing?” He sounded amused. “Meditating fondly on my ancestor’s deeds?”

“I don’t know. I hope not. No one should take pleasure from such a thing.” Rot euen someone libe you.

Ferhaps his supply of mockery wasn’t as in1nite as she assumed. He only ga>ed into the forest a moment longer, then stood. “It’s late.” He nodded at the spirit. “You’re lucky to have seen one. A hundred years from now, they’ll all be gone.”

He brought his 1ngers to his lips. Before she could stop him, a whistle broke the stillness.

The spirit jerked toward the sound like a startled deer. In the gloom she saw two blue-green eyes, glowing incandescently, like fox 1re. Withered lips pulled back from sharp, gnarled, brown teeth, and then the spirit had vanished, leaving only a patch of trembling ferns where it had once stood.

“You don’t know that for certain,” Elisabeth said. But her voice sounded tentative in the dark. Looking at the empty hill, where magic had once walked and now was gone, she could almost imagine that he was right.

“I never did answer your question.” He set oP toward his tent. “If you don’t believe in anything,” he said over his shoulder, “then you have a great deal less to lose.”

• • •

When they reached Brassbridge the next evening, Elisabeth was still alive, and faced the troubling possibility that she had been wrong about Nathaniel Thorn. Alone with her questions, she ga>ed out the window as the sunset’s light poured over the city, transforming the river into a ribbon of molten gold.

Even from afar, her 1rst glimpse of the capital had taken her breath away. Brassbridge sprawled on an unimaginably large scale along the winding bank of the river. The city’s peaked slate rooftops formed an endless ma>e, their chimneys trickling threads of smoke toward a ruddy sky. Above them loomed the somber edi1ces of cathedrals and academies, their spires topped with bron>e 1gures that bla>ed like torches against the darkening rooftops, Aaming

ever brighter as the shadows deepened. She sought the Collegium and the Royal Library among the clutter of towers, but she couldn’t tell any of the grand buildings apart.

Soon the horses’ hooves clashed over a bridge’s cobblestones, and the river slid beneath them, stinking of 1sh and algae. Statues Aashed past the windows, their hooded silhouettes ominous against the glowering clouds.

Doubt gnawed at Elisabeth’s thoughts, intensifying as the sun sank beneath the statues’ bowed heads. Last night in the Blackwald, Nathaniel hadn’t tried to kill her. He hadn’t so much as touched her. Had he intended to hurt her, he almost certainly would have done so by now. But if he wasn’t the sorcerer who sabotaged the library, that meant—

The clamor of traffic intensi1ed as the coach’s door swung open. Nathaniel clambered inside amid a swirl of emerald silk. He Aashed Elisabeth a grin, pulling the door shut as he took a seat in the opposite corner.

“Best if I don’t show myself,” he explained. “I don’t want to inAame the public. They go absolutely mad in the presence of celebrity, you see, and I’d prefer them not to storm the carriage. There are only so many propositions of marriage a man can bear.”

Elisabeth stared at him, nonplussed. “Aren’t they afraid of you?”

Nathaniel leaned toward the window, using his reAection to 1x his disheveled hair. “This may come as a shock, but most people don’t think sorcerers are evil.” He gestured toward the city. “Welcome to the modern world, Scrivener.”

Elisabeth looked out. Wrought iron lamps cast an orange glow over the bridge’s sidewalk. A group of soot-smudged children ran parallel to Nathaniel’s coach, pointing and shouting. A woman selling pastries attempted to hail them, nearly overturning her tray in excitement. They clearly recogni>ed the coach with its thorns and emerald curtains. Recogni>ed it, and were not afraid.

The truth, astonishing though it was, began to sink in. “All those things you said, about drinking blood and turning people into salamanders . . .”

Nathaniel propped his elbow on the door and covered his mouth with his hand. His eyes shone with suppressed amusement.

Shock swept over her. “You were teasing me!”

“To be fair, I didn’t think you would actually believe I drank orphan’s blood. Are all librarians like you, or is it only the feral ones who have been raised by booklice?”

Elisabeth wanted to object, but she suspected he had a point. Almost everything she knew, she had learned either from Master Hargrove, who hadn’t traveled farther than the privy in over a half a century, or from books, many of which were hundreds of years out of date. The rest—stories told to her by the senior librarians, their details so frightening that she behaved as a good apprentice ought and ceased asking about sorcerers altogether. Now she wondered how many of those stories had been lies. Her teeth ground at the betrayal.

“Why did you come to fetch me from Summershall?” she demanded, rounding suddenly on Nathaniel. “Why you, and not anyone else?”

The ferocity in her voice took him aback. His grin disappeared, and the sparkle left his eyes, leaving them as cold and gray as doused embers. “When the report arrived at the Magisterium, I recogni>ed your name.”

“How? I never told you my name.”

“The Director did.” Seeing her expression, he explained, “I wanted to know the name of the girl who almost murdered me with a bookcase. It seemed wise, in case I ever crossed paths with you again.”

“Did the Director say anything else about me?” “No.” Then, after a pause, “I’m sorry.”

A lump closed Elisabeth’s throat. She turned back to the view. As she watched the sky deepen to indigo, a sick feeling of despair pooled in her stomach. Soon the journey would reach its end, and she did not know what, or who, awaited her there. She could no longer put a face to the Director’s killer.

In the dark, her 1rst impression of the city’s streets was an imposing one. Buildings nearly as high as her Great Library reared from the fog, candlelight wavering through their windowpanes. She had never seen so many structures in one place, nor even a fraction of the people. As their coach wove through the traffic, pedestrians bustled past: men with walking sticks and top hats, and women wearing high-collared dresses trimmed in lace. They carried shopping parcels, hurrying across the street and climbing in and out of carriages with a sense of urgency that seemed foreign to Elisabeth,

accustomed to the sleepy rhythm of country life. Everything was painted by the ha>y glow of the lamps, which Nathaniel informed her did not run on magic, as she’d assumed, but rather an invention called gaslight.

The carriage 1nally rolled to a stop on a narrow, gloomy side street. Numbly, she followed Nathaniel outside. The fog enveloped her boots and eddied around the hem of her dress. The nearest streetlamp had gone out, submerging them in shadow. There were no other people in sight.

“This is the lodging house where the Magisterium has arranged for you to stay,” Nathaniel said. “I may see you brieAy at your hearing tomorrow, but otherwise, you’re rid of me from here onward.”

Elisabeth ga>ed up at the lodging house in silence. Once it had been a digni1ed brick building. Now its forbidding walls were blackened with soot, and bars had been affixed to its windows, the metal leaving rusty streaks down the brick. She folded her arms across her stomach to suppress a shiver.

“Odd,” he went on, speaking to himself. “There’s supposed to be someone waiting for us—but no matter, I can take you to the door 

Without looking, he oPered her his arm.

Elisabeth barely saw the gesture. She was still staring up at the lodging house. It reminded her of the orphanage she had imagined as a child, the grim place where she would be cast away, unwanted and forgotten. “You’re going to leave me here?” The words forced themselves out, sounding small.

Nathaniel hesitated, his expression wiped clean. A heartbeat passed. He looked young and very pale in the dark. Then he stepped forward, motioning for Elisabeth to follow.

“Don’t tell me you’ve succumbed to my charms,” he said over his shoulder. “I assure you, no good will come of a passionate aPair between us. You, a small-town country librarian, me, the kingdom’s most eligible bachelor—you needn’t scoP, Scrivener. It’s true—go out on the street and ask anyone. I’m quite famous.”

But Elisabeth hadn’t scoPed. The sound that had escaped her had been a stiAed cry of alarm. In a nearby alley, behind the extinguished streetlamp, a group of 1gures stood watching them: hulking and shining-eyed, their breath steaming in the night. She blinked, and they were gone—but she was certain she hadn’t imagined them.

She opened her mouth to warn Nathaniel, who was by now several paces ahead. But before she could make another sound, a rough grip sei>ed her around the waist and yanked her toward the alley. A hand crushed her mouth, and the cold point of a knife appeared at her throat.

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