My Big Idea is as follows: I put up a short story to celebrate every week sales reach a certain (modest) number, to thank readers for buying hardcover, and as a show of faith that blogs and free content make a difference.
People who link to the short story get entered for a draw for a Prize Pack (this week's is a Demon's Lexicon signed book, a UK edition of Holly Black's Valiant, a selection of bookmarks and an Irish silver knife charm). Links from book bloggers count as extra, as I think book bloggers are awesome.
This story is set in the universe of The Demon's Lexicon, but it doesn't spoil you for any of it: it's the back story of one of the characters.
People who know me may not be surprised to learn that my short story got a little long. Next part out (with luck and good numbers) next week. Hope you enjoy!
Sorcerer and Stone, Part One of Two
He wondered about it for a long time, and asked his mother once. They were walking back home, hands full of groceries, past the town hall. Tourists who came to Athy always came there first, and a woman he could tell was American – she was wearing very American shorts – stepped out holding her baby as they went by.
The American woman had lifted the baby over her head, and she was looking up into his face as if he was a revelation.
Gerald turned to his mother and asked: “Were you happy to have me?”
Mum considered this. ”Yes,” she said at last, slowly, as if she was trying to remember something someone had told her once and not her own life. “We thought it was wonderful, having twins. A boy and girl. A ready-made family. We took a picture, as soon as we left the hospital, of our new family. Your father was holding Ashling, and I was – I was holding you.”
He hadn’t expected an answer like that. He hefted the shopping bags so he could hurry forward a little, tin cans banging against his legs, and catch up with her. So they were walking side by side.
He was eleven and too old for make-believe, but he told himself that if they weren’t holding shopping bags she would have held his hand.
“Were you as happy to have me as you were to have her?”
“Yes,” Mum said again.
She was still speaking with difficulty, as if trying to recall the words to a long-forgotten song, but he was busy telling himself the story of how it would be. She would stop, and hold out her hand because she wanted him to hold it, and he’d be embarrassed. But he would let her, in the end.
Mum stopped and he almost walked into her, he was walking that close. She looked down at him and his daydream faltered and faded in the cold light of her eyes.
“That was before we knew you’d inherited the curse. After that, I wished you had never been born.”
Gerald lifted his chin. “Of course,” he said. “That’s understood.”
She turned around with a click of heels and a swing of plastic bags. Gerald took his usual place walking several steps behind her.
She’d never held his hand in her life.
Gerald looked back at the town hall, but the mother and her baby were long gone.
He didn’t have any friends at school, of course. Ashling saw to that. They both went to St Columcille’s, and sometimes at lunchtime Gerald amused himself by walking around and seeing the other kids drift away from him as fast as they could without seeming to do it. He was like Moses parting the schoolyard sea.
Ashling couldn’t tell people what’s really wrong. She murmured things about defects in the family, dark whispers in shadowed corners, and the other kids looked at Gerald as at any moment if he might explode into boils, produce a withered and terrifying extra limb, or at the very least have some sort of psychotic episode in the middle of the playground.
It hurt, and it hurt, and then it started being a little funny.
“Oh, shoot,” Gerald said loudly into the middle of Ashling’s solo, and choir practice stuttered to a halt. “I forgot to take my pills!”
Choir and mistress gave him identical looks of horrified curiosity. Gerald smiled back at them, eyes wide and smile easy in the way that calmed strangers and upset his whole family.
“Oh, what am I saying,” he said. “I’m so sorry. Please go on, Ashling. I’ll be all right. Well, you know. Probably.”
For the rest of the day he took care to cough and twitch quite a bit. The rest of the class was twitching with him by the bell.
Ashling got him out of school by herding him like a small furious sheepdog, feinting to the right when he tried to move away from her, but not touching him. She never touched him, any more than Mum or Dad did.
“How could you?” she demanded in a low, heated voice.
She always seemed honestly offended by any retaliation. It had taken Gerald years to work it out: she didn’t think of herself as attacking him. It wasn’t attacking, to isolate the bogeyman who had crept out of the closet. Whatever she did to him, it was self-preservation.
Mum or Dad would look away in the old days, when Gerald had done it again and was being punished, locked out in the back garden and crying. Ashling would watch, though, her face set to the window. Every time he looked up he would see her, the child inside, safe and warm.
Gerald raised his eyebrows. “I was just having fun with you, Ash,” he said, as if they were friends. “Did I take it too far? Aw, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t even talk to me!” Ashling broke and ran for the car and their mother.
“Don’t stay mad for keeps!” Gerald called after her.
The other kids took their time getting to their parents’ cars, laughing and calling out nicknames, playing a game of ball before they eventually get in. Gerald had never had a nickname, never been Gerry Lynch, the son his parents were planning on, who they loved as much as his sister. He didn’t even want to be by now. His name was Gerald.
He used to leave school reluctantly. The first teacher he ever had was called Miss Mulligan. She’d had hair the color of honey and a voice twice as sweet, and she used to touch him approvingly on the shoulder as she went by. She leaned against his back and praised him when he did his work well, and he made sure he always did it perfectly. He loved her so much it was hard to look at her because she filled his sight from edge to edge with light, until he thought that he would go blind. He loved her better than the sun.
He asked if he could stay in at lunchtime when she corrected papers and she let him, and he could be perfectly happy then, curled up against a wall with his arms around his knees, just watching her in an ecstasy of pure adoration. Sometimes, on the best days, she would look up at him and smile.
She smiled at him thirty-eight times in all.
One day Ashling whispered something to the girl sitting beside Gerald, and the girl got up and changed seats in the middle of class, and Miss Mulligan kept Gerald after school.
“I didn’t do anything,” Gerald had said in terror, sure that she was going to hate him. “I didn’t do it. I know I’m not allowed to do it and I didn’t – I didn’t-”
He’d started to cry, curling up tight into a ball even though Ashling wasn’t there to see, and Miss Mulligan had done something amazing. She’d knelt down by his chair, arms out, and bundled him in somehow, so his wet snotty face was against her beautiful honey-colored hair, jammed up against her smooth cheek, and she hadn’t seemed to mind at all.
“Gerry, honey, don’t cry,” she said, and made a hushing sound, but not as if she would be angry with him if he didn’t stop.
She slid an arm around his small, shaking back, and rocked him for an instant. It was deep, unbelievable luxury.
“What do you mean, Gerry?” she went on. “I don’t understand.”
He knew he wasn’t supposed to tell, Mum and Dad had made that perfectly clear, but he loved her so much. He whispered in her ear and when she pulled back, looking at him with sweet puzzled eyes from the agonizing distance of a few inches away, he showed her what he could do.
She knocked over a desk getting away. They said she’d moved to Dublin to teach but Gerald remembered that knocked-over desk. He knew that wherever she’d gone, what she was doing was getting away from him.
School or home, it was all pretty much the same. Gerald had never been tempted to tell anyone the truth since then.
That night Ashling managed to imply that Gerald had done something besides tease her, and Gerald was put out in the back garden. He could hear Mum and Dad having one of their fights. Dad was shouting about how it wasn’t his family, wasn’t his curse. Ashling’s face was at the window watching him until they made her go to bed.
Then it was only the moon watching him, a silent pallid witness far more friendly than his sister. He lay by the little goldfish pond and skipped pebbles, making them dance across the water and then fly back to his fingertips, fly in the air and catch the moonlight like a host of hovering dragonflies.
It was just magic. It wasn’t like it could hurt anybody.
The next day they all got in a car and started driving. They didn’t take Gerald on pleasure trips, so he sat there, curled up tense and tight, and thought to himself that this was it: this was the moment that they pushed him out of the car, abandoned him like an unwanted pet by the side of the road.
Nobody pushed him. They just drove, until they reached a totally unremarkable bit of road, with fields stretching out from it and a grey ruin in the distance.
“This is Moone,” said Dad. “That’s Killelan Abbey over there.” He cleared his throat, as he always did before undertaking the task of speaking directly to Gerald. “Why don’t you go take a look at it?”
Gerald wanted to say something like, Gee, Dad, I sure would love to, why doesn’t Ashling come with me, but the words stuck in his dry throat. They wanted him to do it himself, to leave so they could drive off and maybe even pretend to themselves that he got lost.
He wasn’t going to beg them. He nodded and climbed out of the car, walking stiffly. He was too aware of the bones in his legs, as if they were made of dry sticks that could snap. This must be what being old felt like.
He kept walking towards the ruin. He did not hear the telltale sound of the car starting up and driving away. There was nothing but silence.
And then suddenly the silence did not matter and he stopped thinking about his family, because as he neared the ruins of the abbey he felt something. Like a leap of recognition at seeing a face well-known and unexpected, but he couldn’t see anyone. He could just feel them.
There was someone inside that ruined tower. Gerald put his hand to the stone as he climbed in and it shifted beneath his fingers like shale on a beach, as if the ruins were trying to escape from him.
That feeling of recognition pulled him on, and as he was crawling up the spiral stairs in the dark, feeling his way around carefully, every step rocking beneath his weight, he smelled something terrible like dust and garbage, and heard someone singing.
“He made a harp of her breast bone,” Gerald heard, in a reedy voice more whisper than song, and then Gerald put his hand down on something that was soft and wet as rotten fruit beneath his palm and he screamed into the darkness.
“Hush,” the voice said from above, from the top of the spiral stairs. “Hush, boy. You scream loud enough to wake the dead, and if you did that where would I be?”
“I,” Gerald gasped out, a wet startled sound.
Gerald kept climbing, over what felt like bloated old fruit and smelled like mince his mother should have thrown out. The worst was when he touched material that his brain identified as clothing, because if whatever lay beneath him had been wearing jeans – He kept climbing.
He had to crawl through an opening, too small to be called a door even by an eleven-year-old, and into grey daylight.
There was a man at the top of the round tower, his hair brown and stringy, his eyes darting about like a small animal looking for escape. He was holding a skull in his hands.
There was still some skin on it.
Gerald looked away, bile rising hot and sudden at the back of his throat, and saw his own hands and clothes covered in slime. He looked up at the man again, and felt it: that recognition. I know you.
“Did you kill these people?” he asked, and his voice shook all over the place like a little kid’s, like the bits and pieces of the dead all over the ancient stone.
“No, I didn’t,” said the man. “That’s the whole point.”
He looked at Gerald for a while longer, and then apparently dismissed him as uninteresting. He hunkered down on the floor, tucking his skull into the crook of his arm, and started to arrange the fragments of the dead.
He resumed his song. “The strings he made of her yellow hair…”
He was organizing the dead into a pattern.
“What are you doing?” Gerald demanded.
The man looked annoyed to be interrupted. “It’s just necromancy,” he said. “Nothing to get worked up about.”
“Oh well, maybe so,” said the necromancer. “I used to think so myself, I believe. But you get fond of them, you know.” He glanced at Gerald, a little shyly, and then stretched out his hand with the skull in his palm. “She was a lovely lady,” he said, low as a secret. “I just had to keep something to remember her by.”
Gerald backed into the wall and thought he felt the whole tower rocking at his touch.
The whole thing, death laid out before him like a feast of nightmares, didn’t even seem real. The tower and sky spun around him as he realized why.
“Where are the flies?” he asked, quiet and desperately calm. “There should be flies.”
“Oh, I couldn’t allow that. It would ruin the pattern.”
The man smiled at him then, his skull still held out and his eyes friendly, as if he knew Gerald.
No wonder they all hated Gerald. If this was what he was connected to, this place the only place magic could lead.
“Why are you doing this?” he burst out, his voice still all out of control. He couldn’t stop shaking.
The necromancer tucked his skull back into the crook of his elbow, cradled against his heart. He looked rather thoughtful. “For power. Don’t you want some?”
Gerald thought of pebbles flying over the pond in his garden, glinting like shards of moonlight. He’d dreamed of breaking the whole moon into pieces, sending them flying through the sky like a thousand silver birds.
That has nothing to do with the lump of gristle and bone tucked under the necromancer’s arm.
“Yes,” he said, controlling his voice so it was just tight, careful, not shaking. “But there have to be other ways. Easier ways.”
“Oh,” the necromancer says, fitting a yellow bone with a grey, curled hand as if doing a join-the-dots puzzle. “There are. But you have to pay for luxury. Or someone else does. And this isn’t so bad. It isn’t forever.”
Gerald looked at his hands, pink healthy hands messing with the ruined remnants of the dead, and shut his eyes. “How long?”
“A necromancer has to serve his term of apprenticeship for a year and a day,” the man said slowly. “But… the very first measurement of time, I believe, is your own heartbeat. And they see time differently now, my pretty ones. It was a miscalculation on my part.”
He sounded only mildly regretful, mostly absorbed with his little puzzle, his tongue sticking out over his teeth. Gerald’s dad was a bit of a judge of horses down at the Curragh, and Gerald had seen him check a horse’s age by looking in its mouth a hundred times.
The necromancer had teeth a deeper yellow than the bones beneath his feet and his tongue was purple and grey. It looked like an ancient, diseased slug.
“How long have you been here?” Gerald asked in a thin voice, almost a scream.
“A year and a day,” the man answered. “But it’s lasted a long while. My time runs on as slowly as their blood, you see.”
“W-why are you doing this?”
“It will be worth it in the end,” the apprentice necromancer said, but not as if he was sure. “And nobody will have suffered but me. My pretty ones are beyond the reach of pain and time, and that’s worth – I remember when I made the promise I thought it was worth anything. I remember.”
His hands fluttered over the bones and decay, patting, soothing, like a mother.
“What’s your name?” Gerald pursued. He couldn’t stop asking questions, any more than the necromancer could stop arranging the dead, as if they were both trying to piece together sense out of the horror.
“Now that I don’t remember,” said the necromancer. “But I’m sure I’ll come up with a new one. There’s world enough for us, my boy, and time. Nothing but time.”
“Us,” Gerald repeated.
The sky seemed to tilt above him, vertigo reversed. This time when he backed up against the wall he wanted the whole tower to fall down.
“That’s why you’re here,” the necromancer said, almost dreamy. “The magic’s bursting out of you, trying to find a way to get loose. You can’t imagine it now, with magic burning in your veins, but eventually that dies, everything dies, you walk through the valley of death and come out with a different magic and – peace comes. Peace comes, dropping slow.”
He was telling finger bones like rosary beads as he spoke.
Gerald edged over the bodies to a little window on the left, leading to a passage, clean of bodies, clean of the nightmarish web this man was trying to form out of the dead and trap him in.
“I’d rather burn,” said Gerald.
He ran, his feet kicking up bones, skidding into the passage and along it, but the passage just led back to the stairs, everything led back to the dead, and Gerald had to scramble over the bodies through the darkness to get out. He pressed his lips together and crawled, breathing them in, and he felt like he would never get the dead dust out of his lungs and mouth.
Above him he heard the necromancer beginning to sing again.
“Rolled him up in a nice clean sheet and laid him out upon the bed…”
Gerald didn’t understand why it was the singing that made him start to cry, after everything that had happened, everything that he’d seen, but it was. He was stumbling and choking on tears as he ran, bawling like a little kid, and then as he ran up the slope with wild tangled grass trying to trip him up at every step it occurred to him that his family must have driven off and left him here.
The car was still there, Ashling and his parents waiting inside. When Mum saw Gerald, she put her face in her hands.
Dad gave him a look that said he was beyond even being disappointed, heavy as a stone weight pressed to Gerald’s chest until he confessed everything and agreed to anything.
“We were hoping you would do the right thing.”
“What, stay there?” Gerald gulped out, tears still running down his face. Ashling looked perfectly composed, as if she was older than him and able to cope with anything, but they would never have sent her into that. “Stay there in that – with that man, in that place! That’s disgusting!”
He shouted the words at them and Dad started the car with a grunt, not even bothering to reply. Gerald ran to fling himself in the car before they could drive away without him.
Ashling stared at his clothes, the material stiff with terrible fluids. Her lip curled.
“You’re disgusting,” she said. “Mum and Dad were just trying to show you the right path.”
Gerald wanted to say something to her, try to tell her how it had been, how she would have gone mad half-way up those stairs and died in the dark listening to the necromancer sing, but he was still crying. He jammed his dirty fist against his mouth so he wouldn’t make any noise, glared at her, and shook all the way home.
Gerald was being punished. He understood that. It wasn’t like Mum and Dad took him on a lot of pleasure trips anyway, he’d expected to be left in the house when Ashling said they were going to the zoo.
He hadn’t expected to be herded into the back garden, to find himself staring around in amazement at the high wooden fences and his father’s stern face. The sky was laden with heavy, lead-colored clouds. It was going to rain.
“I’m getting tired of being put out here like a bad dog,” Gerald said, his eyes narrowing until all he saw was darkness and his father standing in the doorway, hand tight on the doorknob as if Gerald might try to force his way back in.
They were punishing him for not staying in that grave, going mad scrubbing among the bones.
“You’re safer here,” said Dad. “The rivers are closer here.”
The Barrow and the Grand Canal meet somewhere close by, Gerald knew, but he’d never thought about what that meant for him. Running water was supposed to be bad for the magic.
They were putting the bad dog out in the yard and slapping on an electric collar.
“I’m safer?” Gerald asked. “What about you?”
For years, he’d thought about rescue. Mum always said it was her family, the Fitzgeralds, and so he’d thought of being swooped up by uncles, aunts, cousins, people coming with magic in their hands and sweeping him away.
And now he’d met a magician. Now he’d seen one of his own kind, hands caressing the dead, singing. There was no rescue coming.
The rain started, cold little points of water dashing against his face and his fists. Gerald turned towards the pond and raised one of his hands, fingers uncurling, and all the stones from the bottom of the pond rose in a huge surge. The stones were a strange dark constellation clustered close above them, moving in changing patterns across the sky, casting shadows over Gerald’s head like a dark crown.
Dad took a step back.
“Gerald, stop that!”
“I won’t!” Gerald said. “You can’t keep me out here.”
“You’re safer here,” Dad said again.
The stones were spinning over Gerald’s head again, the whirling nimbus comforting him, showing them all how he felt so they couldn’t turn their faces away. Not this time.
“I don’t care. I don’t want to stay where you put me!”
A stone went hurtling through the air like a comet and struck Dad on the forehead. Dad staggered back with blood running down his face and Gerald gasped, half triumph and half terror, as he saw Ashling and Mum come running.
There were stones falling like rain now. Gerald couldn’t keep a grip on them, didn’t have the power to hold onto his shadowy crown.
He thought of what the necromancer had said: For power. Don’t you want some?
He did. All he could think of was how much he wanted more, how much he wanted the power to make his father step back the way he had before.
Nobody was stepping back now. Mum crossed the threshold and came towards Gerald, her face blazing. It was her family, Gerald knew that, it was her shame, and now Gerald had struck out. He didn’t know what his mother would do to him to redeem herself.
He wished desperately for more magic.
That was when all the wooden fences went crashing down, as if a hurricane had descended on their home. There was wind all around them, Mum, Dad and Ashling were clinging together, and Gerald stood alone in the centre of the whirl and tried to see with the wind in his eyes.
There were two figures walking towards him from the east. At first they were just dark outlines against the stormy sky but the winds dwindled and they walked on, turning from shadows into people.
There was a tall fair-haired man, but it was the woman who caught Gerald’s eyes. She was walking a step in front, and the pale light leaking from the clouds caught the thick streaks of grey in her dark hair. And Gerald felt what he had felt in the tower of the dead at Moone, felt it a hundred times told. Every atom of his body was burning, pulling him towards those two, and the rush of blood in his ears was telling him: you know them.
Oh God, how he knew them, down to his bones.
The woman stopped in front of Gerald, and put her hand on his shoulder. He looked up at her and she smiled down at him as if he had always belonged to her, as if he’d been lost and she’d been searching for him, and was now just relieved he was here.
It was that simple.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Gerald,” the woman repeated, not as if he should have said ‘Gerry’ but as if she liked it. She had an English accent, rolling and rich-sounding. “I’m Laura. I want you to come away with us. Will you come?”
Gerald looked at his family on the doorstep, in a tight embrace that did not include him, at his father’s bleeding face and his mother’s furious eyes.
“Go then,” Mum said. “I always knew you would. I could see it in you, from when you were a year old. You were born one of them. And that means you were born evil.”
“Don’t speak to him like that,” said the man, and made a small pass with his hand.
Mum opened her mouth and no words came out at all. Gerald gave a small laugh, more startled than anything else. Ashling and Dad glared hate at him and Laura drew him close to her side. As if she was ready to protect him, just like that, at once.
“Might the girl be useful as well?” asked the man. “Could turn out a messenger.”
Dad and Mum both reached for Ashling in a swift concerted moment of terror, ready to die before they let the magicians touch their child. Gerald turned his face away from them all, against Laura’s breast. She put an arm around his shoulders.
“No,” she said, clearly. “The girl’s nothing special. Not like our Gerald. And I don’t think he’d be keen on having her along.”
“That so?” said the man. “Don’t get along with your sister, is that it? We could give her a little of her own medicine before we go, Gerald. Just say the word. What’ll it be? Take her voice as well as her mother’s? Turn her hair to snakes?”
Gerald risked a look at Ashling. He was better protected than her, for the first time in their lives. He had the power now.
He let himself think lovingly over a thousand childhood fantasies of his revenge and her pain. He looked at her wide terrified eyes.
“It’s okay,” he said, and turned his face away, leaning his head against Laura’s shoulder. “Don’t bother. She doesn’t matter any more.”
“All right, Charles, you heard him,” Laura said briskly. It was clear who was in charge. “Let’s go.”
Charles swung to Gerald’s other side so they were flanking him like a guard, protected even from the sight of his family as they walked away. Laura’s arm was still around his shoulders.
They’d come. The other magicians had finally come to rescue him.
They walked across Emily Square and out of town past the ruins of St Michael’s. Laura talked to Gerald as they went, asking about magic as if she was talking about school and rather proud of his progress, as if it was normal and good.
“The display with the stones was very impressive,” she told him in her measured way, as if she really meant it. “Most magicians couldn’t manage that until they reach sixteen.”
“I can do better than that,” Gerald said, eagerly pressing into her side.
“I am sure you can,” said Laura, and then she stopped and knelt in front of him, taking her hands in his. “Gerald, I want to take you home as soon as possible. How would you feel about flying?”
“On – on a broom?” Gerald faltered, overcome by the idea: how much power it would take, to soar up in the storm clouds.
“As a bird.”
Gerald stared at her. “A real bird?”
Laura put her hand to his cheek and he began to feel different – not as if he was changing shape but as if he was filled with power, enough to convince the whole universe that he could be any shape he wanted to be. He smiled at her, dizzy with delight, and found himself smiling at a beautiful moonlight-silver bird.
He could still feel her palm against his cheek, warm and human, and hear her voice in his ear.
She said, “Not quite.”
They went flying over the sea, the three of them swooping and laughing, with enough power to fool reality and the wind rushing around them. Laura taught him how to move as if he was really a bird, and really flying. The storm clouds were breaking up into light that turned into a sparkling path cutting along the sea.
Gerald had never been so happy in his life.
It was night by the time they reached their destination, landing on the street and suddenly human to all eyes. They were on a tree-lined street in England, somewhere Gerald had never been before in his life, but he knew which house was the one.
It was huge and beautiful, with ivy clinging to cream-colored walls, the windows filled with warm butter-yellow light. And it was glowing with power: Gerald could taste magic on his tongue, feel it tingling to his fingertips, and he wanted to run for the house as if he was home after a long time away, indisputably home and sure of his welcome.
He wasn’t quite sure of his welcome, though, so he stayed by Laura and she took his hand and squeezed it as if that was the most natural thing in the world. They went up the steps of the house together.
“Everyone!” Charles called as they walked into a hall with a chandelier in it, the nicest room Gerald had ever seen in his life. “Look what we found in Ireland.”
Strangers came down the stairs and from the kitchen, about ten of them, and all of them Gerald felt like beaming at, all of them he felt he knew. Whenever he met their eyes he saw magic, and felt magic in himself stir in response. It was like looking into a mirror after a whole life of being uneasily conscious you had no idea what you looked like: it was such a relief.
It was the sense of magic that made him look up at another step on the stair, a sense of magic overpowering all other magic in the room, greater than and yet encompassing them all.
Gerald looked up at one of the tallest men he had ever seen, built like a fighter with a mane of black hair. He looked like Finn MacCool, one of the legendary heroes from the stories Miss Mulligan used to read out, looked like a knight or a king.
“This is our leader,” said Laura in his ear. “This is Arthur. Arthur, this is Gerald.”
“He doesn’t look sixteen,” Arthur said in a genial voice, so amused and friendly that it took a moment for the paralyzing fear to strike Gerald.
“Oh, please, sir,” he said on a single frantic breath. “Let me stay.”
“He’s very promising for his age,” Laura informed Arthur. “By the time he’s sixteen, who knows what he’ll be able to do? And he had parents who knew: they weren’t treating him well.”
Arthur’s pale eyes darkened, like shadows cast over ice. “The old story. Well, we can’t have that, can we? Nobody is allowed to mistreat one of our own.”
A murmur of agreement rose from around the room. Gerald stopped clinging to Laura quite so hard, warmed by the way they all accepted him, said one of their own, as if it was a matter of course.
“If you do really want to stay, youngster,” said Arthur.
“Yes. Oh, please!”
He leaned down, hands on his knees, and smiled. “Having a young magician around who isn’t part of the Circle, it can lead to a lot of trouble. Can’t be sure we can trust you with our secrets, the other magicians will be trying to recruit you… It might be safest to send you home for now, son.”
“No,” Gerald said, desperate. “I can – can’t I join the Circle? Please. Please can I?”
Arthur smiled a slow, pleased smile. “Well. If you’re sure that’s what you really want.”
“Come on, then,” said Arthur decisively, and he went up the stairs, so different from the dark spiral of the dead, a broad shining sweep of white marble. Laura followed in his wake with Gerald’s hand securely tucked in hers, and they went up to a landing with gold-framed pictures and through the second door on the left.
It was like the house. Gerald could tell where they were going before they went there, because he could taste the power.
He stepped over the threshold of the room and stood dazzled by magic.
There was a huge circle with criss-cross lines and circles inside it almost filling the room, save for the space where Arthur, Laura and Gerald were standing. It was lit with a pale fire that looked like light and water as well as fire, that looked like something Gerald wanted to drink, to wrap around himself, to have forever. It looked like magic.
The man crouched at the centre of that fire looked like magic, too. It was different than the way the magicians looked. They looked as if they had magic. He looked as if he was magic.
He was tall and slim, naked chest shimmering with fire, with the kind of face that Ashling and her friends giggled over magazines about. His golden hair had crimson feathers growing in it, so bright they cast a scarlet haze on all the rest and made it look like gold dipped in blood.
His bare feet had sharp talons digging into the wooden floor instead of toenails, and when he turned to see who was at the door gold shadows unfurled from his pearl-white shoulders.
“Anzu,” said Arthur. “We have a little job for you.”
“That man has wings,” Gerald told Laura in a hushed voice, speaking so quietly he wasn’t sure she could hear it. “Like an angel.”
Apparently it didn’t matter how quietly he spoke. The magic, winged creature heard him and laughed, a terrible echoing laugh that made Gerald want to run and draw closer at the same time.
“That’s right, little man. Do you think I’m an angel?”
“Shhhh,” Laura warned him, her body next to his a little tense.
Gerald looked at all his golden and bloody beauty, the dark talons on his feet and hands, at the curl of his mouth.
“No,” he said, despite Laura’s warning.
Anzu really smiled then, red mouth unfurling into something beautiful and cruel . “Good call.”
“This is Anzu, Gerald, you’re not to be frightened of it,” Arthur said. “Think of it as a friendly household spirit. It can be a lot of help to us.”
“Honored,” Anzu drawled. “What do you want, Arthur? I like them young, but this one is too young to be any use. And I can smell a magician from here.”
He did not look as if the smell particularly appealed to him.
“He’ll be of use to us,” Arthur said. “I want my sigil on him tonight.”
Anzu tilted his head in a strange, birdlike gesture, and then came at Gerald in a swooping rush. Gerald shrank against Laura and Anzu’s rush was stopped, cut short like the flight of a bird into a pane of glass.
Laura held him close. “You have to step nearer,” she urged him. “It’s only for a moment, and then you’re ours. I won’t let it have you.”
“That’s right, little magician,” Anzu purred. “Come closer.”
Arthur sounded slightly bored. “What’s the matter, Gerald? I thought you wanted to stay?”
Gerald thought of the necromancer and his hands full of bones, thought of his silent mother and bleeding father. There was no way back, nothing to go back to, and so he stumbled forward onto the five sharp points of Anzu’s talons.
There was a low birdlike screaming in his head, pain erupting in his chest as if someone had put a fireball through it. He could smell material and skin burning and Anzu’s eyes filled his vision, clear as glass, as if he were staring into a pair of crystal balls, and seeing his own death.
The screaming filled his head and Anzu’s eyes were lost as blackness filled his vision, like a rush of dark wings.
Gerald woke in a big white bed, massive and snowy, the kind of bed you wanted to roll around in and never leave. The room stretched out before him was beautiful, with hangings and little objects that called out to Gerald that they were magic: the toys Ashling had received and he hadn’t, the toys he was always meant to have.
The windows were filled with pale early-morning light, and Laura was looking down at him. His chest stung.
“It’s done now,” Laura whispered. “Nothing will ever hurt you again.”
“Oh,” said Gerald muzzily, feeling terribly comfortable and infinitely far-away. “Good.”
“You need to sleep more now,” Laura said, a hint of magic behind her words, so his vision blurred the light. “When you wake, I’m going to tell you what everything in this room can do, and after that I’m going to show you real magic. What would you like to turn into next?”
She asked it as if offering him a treat, as if asking him what he liked best to eat. Gerald smiled dazedly up at her and she reached out and brushed back a lock of his hair. He pressed his face into the hollow of her hand.
“I wish,” he said, his voice thick with sleep, “I wish you were my mother.”
Laura smiled back at him. “I’m better than that,” she promised. “I’m one of your Circle. Go to sleep, Gerald, and don’t worry. You’re ours now, and we will never let you go.”
Continue to Part 2