Authors: Margaret Rogerson
“Where on earth is Nathaniel’s demon?” Elisabeth murmured. It seemed odd for him to travel without
it. She briefly 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.
Further speculation on the nature of demons and the Otherworld exists,
the Lexicon continued on the next page,
but by and large the sources are highly inconsistent—if not fabricated outright—and their value dismissed by contemporary
scholarship. The most notorious example of these is the Codex Daemonicus, by Aldous Prendergast, written in 1513, once held in high esteem but now believed to be nothing more than the ramblings of a madman. Prendergast was declared insane by his own friend, Cornelius the Wise, for his claims that he entered the Otherworld and discovered a terrible secret, which he concealed within his manuscript in the form of a cipher—
Elisabeth flinched 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 off 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 civilization, even an inn.
This was the place. It had to be. Her hands curled into fists 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 find Silas standing close behind her. Though he kept his gaze 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 fine green silk down their sides. Nathaniel stood to examine his handiwork. Afterward, he gestured toward the farthest tent. “That one’s yours.”
She stiffened 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 flooded 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 off her boots. Hours passed, but a fire 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
flow 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 fire’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 flap. 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 flee.
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 wildflowers, 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 gaze, and froze.
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 gaze from the forest. “I’ve always wanted to see
the moss folk. I knew they were real, even though everyone told me differently.”
The fire 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 long.
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 breeze 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 firelight. 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 longer
, she finished. “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 fingernails 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 disfigured, 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.”
Not even someone like you.
Perhaps his supply of mockery wasn’t as infinite as she assumed. He only gazed 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 fingers 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 fire. 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 off 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 gazed out the window as the sunset’s light poured over the city, transforming the river into a ribbon of molten gold.
afar, her first 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 maze, their chimneys trickling threads of smoke toward a ruddy sky. Above them loomed the somber edifices of cathedrals and academies, their spires topped with bronze figures that blazed like torches
against the darkening rooftops, flaming 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 fish and algae. Statues flashed 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
wasn’t the sorcerer who sabotaged the library, that meant—
The clamor of traffic
intensified as the coach’s door swung open. Nathaniel clambered inside amid a swirl of emerald silk. He flashed 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 inflame 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 reflection to fix 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 recognized the coach with its
thorns and emerald curtains. Recognized 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 recognized your name.”