The Accidental Afterlife of Thomas Marsden (2 page)

BOOK: The Accidental Afterlife of Thomas Marsden
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Perhaps she would let him ask his questions if he did as he was bade. This was quite often the case with Mam, who got more kindly with each completed chore. Thomas had learned this very young.

He wrested himself from the nest of blankets, which had become nearly too hot under the wash of warmth from the blazing fire and dipped his hands into the bucket in the corner. Too cold. Everything was always either too warm or too cold, usually the latter. His gruel this morning burned his tongue, though, and Thomas was sure Mam had cooked it much longer than usual as he'd slept. The honey cake sat in a chipped dish, but Thomas had more important things to think about.

“Last night—”

Thomas's mother began to whistle as she scrubbed the shelves that held their cups and bowls.

She told him off for whistling. Said it was rude.

“Where's Papa?”

Finally, Lucy Marsden met Thomas's eyes. “Gone out,” she said, knuckles clenched white around the rag in her fist. “Said 'e'd be back soon, and that there'd be a bit of pie for us to have for lunch. I know as you both found something strange last night, but I won't discuss it, not without your—not without Silas 'ere. So you be a good boy and do today's lesson, and we'll just wait.”

Thomas knew two things: that there was something he wasn't being told, and that Mam, having made her mind up good and proper, wouldn't tell him no matter how he begged.

So he'd had a brother once. Surely that was it. A brother down to an identical birthmark, and even the Robertson girls didn't have those, far as Thomas knew. Not that he'd ever asked, or had reason to.

It wasn't so odd, really, to foster out a child. Where would another have slept in this house? On the nights there was no food at all, even bread or old potatoes filched from the barrow-man, one less mouth to feed must've seemed a blessing.

But now his brother was in a grave, and an empty, uneasy feeling slithered through Thomas from his belly to his fingers and toes.

It was the nature of the Marsden business, if it could be called a business, that Thomas had seen far more than his
fair share of cold, unbreathing bodies and skeletons rotting to dust. The boy in the grave, however, he had looked healthy, as if the pinkness had been only temporarily stolen from his cheeks and would return any moment.

Thomas shivered. He could not finish the gruel in his bowl, just thinking about it. Mam didn't even tell him to finish up, simply took his breakfast away and replaced it with a book as if it were a day like any other, when it was anything but. Heavy, worn, the long words faded and sometimes missing where the pages were torn right out. The firelight flickered across the paper and, behind Thomas, his mother dusted things that were already as clean and tidy as they'd ever get in this dank, sooty room.

Click-thunk.

At the sound of his father's boots on the doorstep, Thomas straightened, and Mam dropped her cloth. Hinges creaked and Silas Marsden stepped in, flushed and sweaty, hands holding a twist of greasy brown paper that he set on the end of the table.

“All right?” Mam asked.

“Aye.” But Silas did not sound all right. His voice was quiet, even gruffer than usual. He fixed his eyes on Thomas.

“We need to have a chat, boy. Some things your—some things we should've told ye before now.”

Thomas could smell the pie, with real meat in it. Well, it
was
his birthday. “I had a brother,” he said, expecting them both to agree. But his father grimaced, and his mother folded her hands together.

“That may well be,” said Silas. “Truth is, we wouldn't rightly know. See, there we was, muddling along, just the two of us. Never no babies on the way, and that's just how it was. But your mam, she wanted one, and I could see the . . . the advantages, ye might say, of having someone could learn the skills of the trade I've picked up in my time. Funny business, grave robbing. Got to treat it with respect. You get what's you deserve. Go out there with a smile on your face and a shovel in your hand, and there might be riches. Dig as if you were digging to the devil 'imself, and you'll find nothing but dirt.”

Before he could open his mouth, Thomas's mother spoke. “What your papa means to say is that, well, we sort of found you, a bit.”

“Found me?” Thomas asked, blinking. “Where?”

Though he had been red just a few minutes before, Silas's face paled in the licking orange light from the hearth. “That's just the thing,” he said, almost to himself. “We found you in a grave, too.
On
one, really, curled up against the headstone and quiet as a ghost.”

CHAPTER TWO

The First Test

T
WO PAIRS OF EYES HAD
watched Thomas and Silas enter the graveyard.

“He looked just—” said the younger one.

“Hush.”

They had watched the discovery, and watched Thomas and Silas leave again, the fear and confusion on their faces so obvious in the bright moonlight. Relief filled the elder one as the boy read the note. A promising start.

“I don't understand why we can't just find him and tell him, Deadnettle,” said the younger, when it was safe once more to speak.

The tall, old one named Deadnettle had sighed. He had, indeed, asked himself this very question, and ruled it
impossible for a great many reasons. Not only impossible, but foolish, too. In his pocket, his fingers turned over the small, corked bottle of ink.

“He must come to us,” said Deadnettle calmly. “He must prove himself capable of that much, at least.”

“You're testing him? Now? You wanted to see if he could read the note, didn't you?”

“Yes. There are things I must know about him. Whether he is clever, and whether he can do as he is told. Whether he is as kind as his mother and—this is the most important thing, Marigold—whether he can be trusted with a secret so large.”

“We're going to watch him,” Marigold said, with no hint of question.

“We are. Not for long. We do not have long.” A week, perhaps. No more. He pushed the thought away and smiled slightly. “Also, I would like for you to imagine how you might react, if you were Thomas and I were simply to approach you on the street and tell you the truth.”

Marigold considered this. She laughed, and then she frowned. “I see. But if reading the note is as much as he can do?”

“Then, Marigold . . .”

But there was no
then
. Then Deadnettle would not know what to do. Even this much was a risk, a last, desperate
chance, taken only because his beloved Wintercress, whom he had always held to be right in all things, had been so very wrong.

The graveyard had scarcely changed since the night, twelve years earlier, when Deadnettle had placed the tiny infant Thomas on a well-tended grave and waited in these same shadows for someone to find him. He hadn't been
Thomas
then. He hadn't been anything. The unimportant one. But Deadnettle hadn't wanted him to perish, and neither had Wintercress. She had told him what to do, and so he'd kept watch until Silas Marsden found the creature and took it home, Deadnettle following at a safe distance.

He'd watched there, too, for a time. And then he had returned to care for the kept one.

The important one.

He had taught Thistle all he knew, at least up to the point when Thistle's powers had surpassed Deadnettle's own, and the pupil became the master. From before that, however, Deadnettle had many a memory of schooling Thistle in the ways of faery, and in how to act human when such a distasteful act was required. He'd watched Thistle grow, heard his ready laugh shape into an echo of Wintercress's, touched his hair when Deadnettle said they were finished with magical practice for the night but Thistle, exhausted and determined, begged for one more lesson.

Perhaps if I had given them,
thought Deadnettle sadly,
perhaps if I had let him practice more, instead of forcing him to rest, we would not be here.

Marigold had wandered over to the fresh grave—she'd done most of the digging, to save Deadnettle's waning strength—and stared down.

He'd given her a moment. The boy within had been her closest friend, and it was the more surprising, therefore, how quickly she'd accepted the whole truth. Much more quickly than Thomas would, that was a certainty, but Marigold hadn't lived eleven years believing herself to be human.

Telling her had meant breaking a solemn promise, one made in the moments before Wintercress had used her last rush of magic and, because of that, drawn her last breath. But, in her way, Wintercress had broken a promise to him too, so perhaps letting Marigold in on this long-kept secret was the proper choice.

The only choice. Deadnettle was no longer strong enough to have carried out the night's task alone. Ah, he envied her the energy of the young. Marigold and the other fledglings were not yet as weak, as sick as the rest of them, who had been fully grown when they'd come to London.

A smile, bitter as lemons.
Come.
As if it had been voluntary. As if they had wanted to, and not been dragged
to this filthy city, with its biting, stinging, poisoning iron everywhere one looked and ringing church bells everywhere one listened.

An angry red burn crossed Marigold's palm where she'd grasped the iron graveyard gate.

“Come,” Deadnettle had finally said. “We must go back.”

“I don't want to. I never want to.”

“I know,” he'd answered, but he was surprised—not at her words, but that she'd said them. Usually she was the cheeriest of them, despite little cause to be. She had just lost her friend; he must remember that. The three of them had been aware of the risk, but even so, none had wanted to believe the worst would happen. He looked her straight in her pretty face. Fledglings so easily passed for human—or, the more beautiful sort of human, of which there weren't many. It was not until later that the signs began to show. In the moonlight she'd seemed just a girl, and he flinched, momentarily afraid of what she saw when she looked at him.

Age and frailty, for certain. Both were more than true.

“Come,” he had said again. “We must be back before dawn.” Because of Mordecai, of course, and the time Deadnettle could stand to be out among the metal was getting shorter and shorter. He could last only a few hours now at most.

This time she did not argue. They'd approached the high, ornate gates, nothing like the gate through which they had been hoping to make their final escape. Marigold's muffled scream as she grasped the metal pained him near as much as it did her.

“Will Mordecai wonder what's happened to him?” Marigold asked, speaking the name as she might a curse.

“He was younger than most of our lost ones, it's true.” Deadnettle himself was concerned about this, but nothing could be done now. “I will simply say that Thistle was clearly overworked, and that we have cared for him as we do all our dead. Do not worry.”

“But—”

“Do not worry.”

“And what will we tell the others?”

“The same.”

“Nothing about . . . Thomas?”

“Not yet. We will tell them when—
if
—there is reason to hope. To do otherwise would be cruel.”

They walked through the streets, Deadnettle's face shielded by the hood of his cloak. In this part of the city, the houses and shops huddled close together as if for warmth, too few of them lit by hearth fires within. Cracked cobbles slipped beneath their feet, and everywhere a nose-wrinkling stench.

Marigold dropped a few steps behind, and Deadnettle thought he heard a soft, quiet sob. Perfectly understandable. Simply because he had never been able to force tears for Wintercress didn't mean Marigold shouldn't cry for Thistle. He had left her to it, trusting her to skip back to his side when ready, and concentrated on ignoring the iron. Which was impossible. It couldn't be dismissed as a mere nuisance, but trying was preferable to surrender. Sputtering gas lamps and fences and the signs over shop windows, it was everywhere. Poison, sapping his strength with every step, draining his senses so his vision blurred and he could no longer hear—

“Marigold?” He spun round. “Marigold!”

Her cloak flashed around a corner, streaming behind her. Oh, the energy of the fledglings! Their health! Quick as he could, Deadnettle chased, a sinking sensation dizzying him.

They were not far. “No!” he shouted, but he could not do so loudly, for fear of awakening the street and someone who might peer from a window at the inhuman face below, its hood blown off by the wind as he ran.

He heard her scream, louder and more agonized than when she'd opened the graveyard gate. She lay in the middle of the road when he reached her, thrown back by the force of the boundary they could not cross. It encircled London,
powerful against them as an iron ring, though it could not be seen nor grasped.

“I'm fine!” she hissed, jumping to her feet, far too enraged for pain, and Deadnettle envied her this, too. He could remember feeling the same, long ago. “I want to go home! Thistle said he was strong enough. He
promised
me he was strong enough to try!”

“And he should have been.”
Oh, Wintercress,
Deadnettle thought,
how could you have been so wrong?
“You saw him cover the sun with the moon. Wintercress said that was how we would know he was ready, that he had reached full strength. It is not our fault that . . . It is not our fault.”

“I want to go home,” she repeated, and it was not the time to remind her that she spoke of a home she had never seen, and that the memories she had heard spoken by her elders were in danger of passing into myth by virtue of time, becoming nothing more than stories, bedtime tales.

“We all do,” Deadnettle said. “No one more than I, Marigold. It is a powerful enchantment we are under. Mordecai is skilled, and we are weak. Thistle was the strongest of us, but even that, even that was not enough.”

“Is there nothing that will break it?”

Deadnettle paused. “No. Thomas is our only hope now.” He could be certain, at least, that Thomas existed. He was their only chance.

And not much of one at that. There was a very good reason Deadnettle had put him on that grave years before, cast out as a useless thing. Blood and time were against them. Time, because after tonight, the worlds would drift apart again. They had a week, perhaps, until the gap would be too large to leap.

Overhead, the pinkness of morning had touched the sky. Deadnettle clasped Marigold's hand firmly in his own and together they walked north once more, amid the sting of iron and fear, trapped within the city that enclosed them like a fist.

•   •   •

Long after Marigold had curled up on a fetid mattress, Deadnettle kept his drooping eyes open, deep in thought.

He would have to be very careful, more so than ever before, while taking greater risks. It might be simpler, perhaps, if he was certain the boy could—or would—help them. Deadnettle had no knowledge of what kind of child Thomas was, having paid him no more attention over the past eleven years than necessary to keep track of the boy's whereabouts. And that only because he felt he ought to. Worthless and watery though it was, Thomas remained Wintercress's blood. The very last drops of an ancient, noble line ran through his veins.

Deadnettle looked around the dank cellar, water and
slime coating the walls. This was no palace, but it was a haven of sorts.

There was no iron here. Oh, how benevolent Mordecai was. Unconcerned with what the faeries did when he was not using them. Mordecai knew they would always return, if they bothered to leave, and why should they venture out into the city that hurt them so? Even if they dared, they would always keep themselves hidden, for fear someone else might treat them even more shockingly than Mordecai did.

Mordecai was clever. Too clever. Just enough freedom to be a punishment.

Footsteps neared. Deadnettle squinted through the gloom.

“Samphire,” he said.

“I've been summoned upstairs.” She paused, waiting for Deadnettle to offer himself in her stead. He did this for the hatchlings and fledglings whenever he could, to spare their pain, and because he hoped. He hoped that they would yet see their homeland, and it was the hatchlings and fledglings who would restore their race to what it had once been. Those who were strong enough to birth new hatchlings in this poisoned place were never summoned upstairs. Mordecai and his benevolence once more. That left few but Deadnettle to volunteer; today, he could not.
The night had left him far too drained, and this was exactly the wrong time to make Mordecai suspicious.

The wrong time . . .

“The performance is this evening,” said Deadnettle, eyebrows furrowed. “There should be no sessions today. Mordecai always has us rest.” Deadnettle would not go so far as to say they were given a holiday on this day every year, merely that their suffering was delayed until nightfall.

Samphire spread her long-fingered hands. She knew no more about Mordecai's activities than Deadnettle. Less, indeed. There were things he was careful not to tell any of the others; they did not need to be frightened or sickened more than they already were.

“Be strong,” he told Samphire. “Do as you're bidden.”

“Yes, Deadnettle.” She retreated, leaving him in his dark, filthy corner to sleep.

He was tired, too tired to allow his strength to be sapped any more today. So tired that
tired
wasn't even the proper word for it. Exhausted down to the marrow of his bones, which were not human bones. Oh, how lovely it would be to sleep long enough that he must never wake; he almost envied Thistle that, comfortable and at peace in his grave.

BOOK: The Accidental Afterlife of Thomas Marsden
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