My brother Elliot was a murder of crows. Mom didn’t know yet; it was our big-brother/little-sister secret. Like the time he took me to see Night of the Worm People even though it was rated R, only not as fun and the nightmares didn’t go away after a few days.
Still, he took it well (he was cool like that), and sometimes he even joked about it, as if fitting his human skin over the mass of wings and black-feathered bodies and sharp blue-smoke beaks was no big deal. I knew he was joking for my sake.
The skin was my gift. I bought it from a witch at the edge of the Dark Lands, in exchange for the memories of my last five birthdays. It was the least I could do, since Elliot had lost his body to save me in the first place.
The skin worked well enough to fool the whole world. I was the only one, it seemed, who saw those moments when it twitched at the sudden flurry of buried wings, or when his eyes opened and a cluster of black beads peered out.
We shared a lot of secrets like that. We looked out for each other. Which was why I went back to the Dark Lands, and why I didn’t tell him.
On the day before his birthday, I packed my book bag and left for school at the usual time. As soon as my house was out of sight, I slipped off the sidewalk and down into the woods, circling around to the old and twisted oak that marked the entrance. It was pretty hard to miss: its thick branches hung nearly to the ground, stark and leafless, and its bark was almost black. It was a tree that had died a long time ago but refused to fall over or rot completely away. A zombie tree. I circled it once and was through.
It’s easy to tell the difference the moment you slip over to the other side. The air gets chilly and all the trees around you start looking like that zombie oak, and nettles and undergrowth carpet the woods, a deep rich green the color of dark emeralds. There’s always a path, too, because the people of the Dark Lands are all about paths and whether you stick to them or not.
Professional Tip: sticking to the path won’t keep you safe, but it will keep you marginally safer. Never confuse the two. All it really means is that anything trying to kill you or steal your eyes or whatever has to give you a fighting chance. Leave the path, and all bets are off.
So I stuck to the path, picked a direction and walked, figuring I’d run into something sooner or later. I hadn’t gone far when I saw a man (an elf? A fae? I was never a hundred percent sure on the terminology here) standing on the path, tugging on the leash of a shaggy dog about the size of a large pony. He was tall and sapling-thin, with a floppy green hat the same dark emerald color as the forest floor. A ridiculously large feather bobbed from its brim as he heaved against the dog, who had dug its paws into the soil and refused to budge. He snarled and swore at the poor thing, and the dog whined and shook its furry head.
“Excuse me,” I said, as politely as I could. “Is there a problem I could help with?”
Another Professional Tip: if you see something going down on the path, always interfere (unless you’ve been told not to).
The elf man stopped tugging, but he didn’t loosen his grip on the leash. He stood up straight, tipped his hat to me, and smiled. The smile slid across his face like butter across a hot griddle. He wasn’t bad looking; in fact, he was one of the prettier beings I’d seen here, and he smelled nice, like a flowery shampoo my mom uses. But his nose was sharp as an icicle, and his eyes were just as cold.
“Good evening, miss . . . ?” he said, leaving me to supply my name.
“I am the Blueberry Knight,” I said, since people didn’t give out their real names here, just titles. I was wearing a hoodie with a trio of smiling blueberries over my heart, in that kawaii Japanese style that you find in import stores. Beneath them were the words “Happy Day.” Not the most impressive coat for a knight, but it was a coat nonetheless and the smiling blueberries cheered me up.
I think it must’ve been a birthday present, because I don’t remember when I got it.
The elf man’s smile didn’t waver, though his eyes flicked to the blueberries and then to my face. I could tell that he’d been hoping I’d slip up and give my real name, and then he’d have me. But I learned a few tricks the last time I was in the Dark Lands, after I’d been suckered in here and spirited away in a flouncy black dress to be the bride of the Prince of Thorns. I wasn’t going to be fooled again.
“Charmed,” he said, bowing like a reed in a stiff breeze. “You may call me Hans.”
Hans was a generic name, like Jack. It could mean anything. At minimum, it meant he was more dangerous than he looked.
“And what business brings you to these lands, Blueberry Knight?” he went on.
I threw back my chin and adopted what I hoped was a brave pose. “I am here to restore my brother, Crowsbody, to his rightful form.”
Hans chuckled softly. “A valiant wish, to be sure!”
“And where are you going, Hans?” I asked. “Your dog doesn’t seem too eager to go with you.”
He scowled at the dog and gave it another sharp tug—not even to try to budge it, but just to hurt it. My stomach clenched. “I am taking this cur here to market to be sold,” he said. “She is no longer worth the trouble. Perhaps I can get something for her meat.”
I glanced at the dog, who peered out at me with one frightened eye from beneath long bangs of gray fur. What else could I do? “How much are you looking to sell her for?”
Hans’s eyes shot toward mine. There was that sly, buttery grin. “I won’t take any less than three magic beans for her,” he said. “If you have any, that is.” He regarded his fingernails, which were in pretty good shape. Pretty good as in salon-quality, cheerleader nails.
I pulled my book bag off my shoulders. I’d brought a few things from home (the people here were big into bartering), but I wasn’t sure if any of them were worth magic beans. I pulled out a cherrywood music box, turned the key, and let it play a few bars of “Memory.” “Will you take this for her?”
But his eyes slid past the music box to the inside of my book bag. “Ah,” he said, and his long fingers jumped forward but stopped before they could reach uninvited into my stuff. “And what is that you have there?” He pointed to a Swiss Army knife.
I wasn’t too eager to barter that; it was just too practical. But he wouldn’t even look at anything else I offered. So I pulled out the knife and handed it to him.
He flicked out the little blade and ran one finger over its flat edge. “Yes,” he said, “this is very well crafted. It is a fine exchange.” He flicked the blade back into its shell. “You may have the dog for this.”
I glanced at the dog, whose eyes begged me. I nodded.
Hans’s grin spread. The Swiss Army knife disappeared into his sleeve. He handed me the dog’s leash. “A pleasure doing business with you, Blueberry Knight,” he said, and bowed low. The feather swept almost to the ground. With one last mean look at the dog, he turned and strode away down the path.
“Thank goodness,” said the dog. It had a soft, feminine voice. “I thought I would never be free of him!” She looked at me with deep brown puppy eyes. “And thank you, lady knight.”
“You’re welcome,” I said.
“And where are you going, lady knight?”
“I’m not sure,” I admitted. “I need to find a way to get my brother’s human form back. I don’t suppose you’d know anyone who could help me?”
The dog tilted her head and lifted one ear. “I heard my master talking about a tournament that is to be held at the market today,” she said. “The prize for the winner is a single wish.”
That sounded promising. A single wish was all I needed. “Do you know where the market is?”
She turned and aimed her nose down the path, then looked back at me over her shoulder. “A proper knight needs a proper mount,” she said. “Climb onto my back, and I will carry you there.”
I grinned. Who could say no to a cool shaggy riding dog? I sat on her back; her fur was incredibly soft. “Thanks. What should I call you?”
“Oh,” she said, “my former master never called me anything besides cur or bitch.”
“You need a better name than that!” I said. “May I call you Sasha?” I dunno why the name popped into my head, but she looked like a Sasha. I guess you had to be there.
“You may,” said Sasha. She sounded pleased.
* * *
The market was hard to miss. In a clearing where the land dipped low into a bowl was a cluster of bright tents in sunset reds and bright purples and parrot blues. The rim of the bowl was scooped out of the black soil and held in place by the giant, snaking roots of the zombie trees. A steady stream of the Dark Land’s denizens flowed in and out, their arms full of baskets or wrapped bundles or whatever they had come to buy or sell.
Sasha carried me down the curve of the bowl and into the market, the Blueberry Knight on her shaggy dog steed. We got a lot of looks, some curious, others hostile. Maybe they thought I was looking too much like a hero, coming to stir up trouble.
On the far side of the market was a little enclosed green, and on the far side of the green was a stand under a big purple awning. It looked like it might be the sort of place to have a tournament, so I directed Sasha onto the green and looked around for, well, anybody.
“Oh!” came a high voice from the shadows under the awning. “Another player in the tournament! How marvelous!” A figure stood and skipped out into the overcast daylight, clapping little white hands. She had that young-ageless look that was so popular around here: about my height, with a round girlish face that made her look a couple of years younger than me. In fact, she could’ve passed for a Victorian doll brought to life, with her mass of honey-gold ringlets, purple dress that was about ninety percent lace and frills—the works. She was probably at least a couple of thousand years old.
Still, she grinned at me like a little girl who’d just been given the proverbial pony for Christmas. Her poison-green eyes had slits in them, and when she smiled I saw sharp little fangs, like cat’s teeth.
“What is your name, girl?” she asked, leaning forward over the platform’s railing.
“I am the Blueberry Knight,” I said in my best knight-voice.
“The Blueberry Knight, how marvelous!” she squealed again. This was going to get old fast, I could tell. “Here, let me explain the rules.” She gestured sharply toward another figure on the platform, who came forward into the light with slow, stiff steps. He’d been so still in the shadows, I hadn’t even noticed him there. He was dressed in a faded gray pageboy uniform, and stared straight ahead with glassy gray eyes. All of him was pale and washed out, as if someone had dragged an eraser over him just to take off the top layer of pigment but didn’t bother to remove him completely. He held out a piece of bright sky-blue cloth edged in black fringe.
His grayness only made the blue of the cloth and the bruise-purple of the elf-woman’s dress stick out all the more. Next to her, he almost vanished. She took the cloth without so much as a thank you and gestured for me to step forward. She tied the cloth around my arm.
“This is a sign that you’re in the tournament,” she said. “Each duel is one-on-one. You may challenge anyone you see on the market grounds who bears this flag, and they may challenge you. The person who issues the challenge may choose its terms, so be on your toes.” Her eyes flashed and she grinned a nasty grin, like she was sharing a mean joke with a friend. “At sunset, the first part of the tournament will end, and all those who are still in shall return to this spot, and depending on the number remaining—if there is more than one remaining—it will be decided then how to proceed with final eliminations.” She patted the neat little knot just above my elbow. “All clear?”
“Yes, thank you,” I said.
She looked past me and smirked. I whirled just in time to see a short goblin with a similar blue flag on his arm. His mouth was already open and he was sucking in breath to speak.
“I challenge you!” I cried, half in panic.
The elf-girl tittered behind me. The goblin scowled, and his thick fingers reached for a mace at his hip.
“Well, silly,” came the high-pitched voice behind me, “you challenged first! Choose the terms.”
“Spelling contest,” I blurted out. I was decent enough at spelling. “Single elimination.”
The goblin didn’t have eyebrows, but his forehead slid up his skull and bunched into impressive wrinkles. The elf-girl smiled.
“I see you get the idea,” she said. “Very well, I will be the arbiter of this challenge. Blueberry Knight, please spell regal.”
Honestly, I was expecting something harder. But I wasn’t gonna look a gift horse in the mouth. Not here. “Regal,” I said. “Are. Eee. Gee. Ae. El. Regal.”
The elf-girl smiled. “Correct. And Mister Gristlebottom, your turn. Spell perspicacious.”
If possible, the furrows in his brow grew even deeper. I actually felt sorry for him. Maybe the elf-girl liked me, but it felt like cheating.
“Ah,” said the goblin, “perstipashius. Purr with a stick in the middle, and a fish on the end. Nice cat-kabob goes down sweet, yes. Yes?” He added that last ‘yes’ with a hopeful glance at the elf-girl.
She looked down on him as if he were a squashed bug beneath her pumps. “I’m sorry,” she said, in that way that suggested she really wasn’t. “That is incorrect. Winner is the Blueberry Knight. You may turn in your blue flag.”
The goblin growled and all but ripped the flag off his arm, throwing it at the feet of the gray pageboy.
“Hey,” I said, “good try!” I stuck out a hand. It never hurt to be gracious in the Dark Lands.
He harrumphed, glared at me, and stalked off.
The elf-girl’s cat grin grew wider. “Well, Blueberry Knight,” she said, “we expect good things from you.” Then she spun neatly on her heel and flounced back to her shadowed throne.
* * *
I figured out quickly how treacherous this tournament was. It was a game for the sneaky, the backstabbers, the kind of people who lingered in shadows and who knew how to hit first. Those who didn’t were quickly eliminated. I felt paranoid turning every corner, afraid someone would spot me and issue a challenge to a duel by clubs or swords or flying fire-potion or God knows what else they have here that can kill or seriously maim you. I couldn’t even enjoy the market stalls. What if I turned my back to look at some fairy pottery, and some troll came up behind me and challenged me before I knew he was there?
I felt guilty about it. But it was for my brother, so if I had to be sneaky I’d be sneaky. I beat them with anything I thought I could get away with: math, skipping rope, facts about American history. (I never thought I’d say this, but thank goodness for homework!) I even beat a proud elf-lord with a challenge of humility. (He sneered at me and told me he would never partake in such a silly challenge. I told him that I won.)
Since the sky was a solid sheet of dull gray clouds, I had to guess when sunset was. When it started to grow dark around the edges of the bowl, I climbed onto Sasha’s back and rode to the little fenced-in green by the covered stands. I saw the outline of the elf-woman’s puffy skirts in the shadows, and I guessed that the ghostly shape behind her was the pageboy. But no one else was milling about. I looked around, wary of being out in the open but also wondering if I were, miraculously, the only one left.
“I challenge you, Blueberry Knight!” said a voice behind me.
I nearly jumped straight off of Sasha’s back. My whole insides clenched. I turned around and saw Hans and his slick smile. His long fingers flicked the blade of my Swiss Army knife in and out, in and out.
“Battle by knife,” he added casually, almost as an afterthought.
I was screwed.
“Oh, marvelous!” squealed the elf-lady from the stands, clapping her little white hands. I wished I could slap her.
I stepped into the middle of the green with Hans, leaving my stomach on the ground behind me. Sasha licked my hand as I passed her, and the gesture made me feel just a smidge better.
Still, how could I win a knife fight when I didn’t even have a knife? I looked around; spectators were starting to line the enclosure, cheering on either Hans or myself.
At least I didn’t spot anyone else with a blue flag. Hans and I were the last ones left. All I had to do for my wish was beat him. But that was the tricky part, wasn’t it?
Hans slipped the Swiss Army knife into his sleeve and pulled out another knife, long and wicked and with an emerald-green hilt. The blade alone was as long as my forearm, and jagged near the hilt, like it was meant to be shoved in all the way and then ripped out.
The elf-lady strode to the railing of her private stand. “The final challenge will take place between the Blueberry Knight and the Roving Dagger,” she said. The growing crowd responded with an assortment of cheers and oohs, and leaned forward to get a better look at us.
Why was I not at all surprised that Hans had a title like that?
He soaked it in. He took off his hat to reveal a head of pale silver-blond curls, and bowed like a dandy prince in my direction. Then he spun on his toes (he moved so easily! What, did he slick the bottom of his boots with butter, too? Or was this all his magic?) and bowed again to the crowd. The cheering grew. It looked like he had a reputation.
Then he turned his gaze back on me, and drew close. “No knife of your own?” he asked in a voice like frostbite.
I glared at him.
His dagger flicked like a snake’s tongue, and a thin line of pain ran over my cheek. I reached up and felt the sting of an open wound and the warm stickiness of blood. Several of the spectators crowed. I stepped back, pretty certain that I wasn’t getting my brave face back anytime soon.
“Do you yield?” he asked, running a finger over the edge of the knife.
“No,” I said.
He danced past me. My hair stirred at the sudden movement of air, and a sharp pain in my ear told me he’d nicked me there, too. I whirled to face him before he could get a clear shot at my back.
He cocked an eyebrow. He darted in close; I stepped back, barely dodging out of his reach, one arm protecting my belly. I did not want a dagger in my gut, especially not the one he held.
My back came up against the elf-lady’s railing. She peered down at me, mouth slightly open so I got a good view of those creepy little cat-teeth.
“Here,” she said, slightly annoyed, “at least try to make this fight remotely interesting.” And she reached down and held out a dagger, hilt-first.
I took it and gave her a grateful smile, but she still looked annoyed and slipped out of view without another word.
The dagger she’d given me was smooth and black and curved, like a crescent moon. Its edge was so thin it faded to transparency. I held it in front of me, trying to copy the way Hans held his.
He was still smiling. He jabbed cautiously at me, but I jumped aside and struck. I went wide, of course. But I wasn’t out of the game yet.
If anything, his grin grew wider. He came at me at full tilt, aiming for my belly.
He would’ve gotten me. But he tripped and lost his footing, and his arms flailed out in a ridiculous attempt at balance.
In that split second, I had two instincts: one, to hold out my hands and try to grab a person falling at me, and two, to duck down and get out of the way of the dagger sailing wild at my face. Those two instincts collided, and I ducked down and thrust my hands out in front of me—and the curved black dagger slid into Hans’s gut.
His eyes went wide; his fingers grasped at my sleeves as he slid to the grassy green. The crowd cheered.
I felt sick. Not because I killed him—the people here didn’t die from a dagger in the belly, not in the way we’d think—but because I saw why he’d tripped.
The curving loop of a vine, deep bruise-purple and bristling with thorns, retreated into the soft earth.
Hans curled up at my feet, defeated and still. He pressed a hand against his bleeding belly, and blood the color of an old scab oozed out between his pale fingers. I looked away, trying to hold down the contents of my stomach. A splatter of applause erupted from the shadowed stand, and the elf-lady strode forward.
“Wonderful, marvelous!” she squealed. “Congratulations, Blueberry Knight. Myself and my lord are pleased beyond words. Now, step forward and receive your reward.”
My heart skipped at the words ‘my lord,’ and not in the good way. I knew who her lord was, and I knew he’d helped me, though I didn’t know why and I didn’t want to find out. Still, I stepped forward. I couldn’t lose my chance at a wish, no matter who it came from.
Behind the elf-lady and her washed-out pageboy, the shadows thickened and then parted, and the Prince of Thorns stepped forward to greet me.
* * *
I can’t convey how sick and awful I felt, seeing him again. My nose was stuffed with the smell of sickly-sweet vegetation, my ears were clogged with the sound of beating wings and the cries of crows. The Prince of Thorns had a thing for crows. His castle bristled with them. That’s why it was his parting shot to turn my brother into a murder of them, as if to say, “You may have gotten away, but you’ll always be one of mine.”
I wanted to walk right up to him and slap him in the face. But even politely standing there in his purple and black velvets and silver buttons, smiling as if he’d just run into a friend at the supermarket, he was too terrifying to approach. If I tried to attack him, I’d be dead before anything connected. His thorns could move faster than Hans’s dagger. I knew. I had watched them feed.
The girlish elf-lady giggled and slipped her arm into his, leaning against his side like some blushing bride. She wasn’t some two-thousand-year-old magical princess, I realized with another sick jolt. She was a girl like me, and she’d been stolen away to the prince’s castle to be his replacement bride. But unlike me, she’d given in to his charms and promises. And his power had warped her into the cat-fanged little goblin she was. I wondered if anyone had tried to rescue her.
“Ah,” said the Prince of Thorns, “the Blueberry Knight.” He seemed to chew on the title, tasting it, matching it to my new appearance. He gave no public hint that we’d met before, but I saw the sharp glint in his eyes—a malicious glee meant only for me. “Whispers of your skills have already reached us. And you have handily won the day, it seems!”
The ground rumbled. I glanced back to see the unconscious Hans grasped by blind, feeling vines. Foot-long thorns pierced his skin, and he jerked back into semiconsciousness just in time to let loose a choking scream as they dragged him into the heaving black earth. I looked away until the sound cut off and the green was still.
People here didn’t die easily. Not unless you found their core, their heart, and destroyed it. Dragged underground and ripped apart by thorns, Hans the Roving Dagger wouldn’t die—he would just change. Willing or no, he was under the power of the Prince of Thorns now.
“Tell me, brave lady knight,” said the prince, in a tone that got under my skin like sharp nails, “what is it you wish for your reward?” He smiled, and his teeth were blazing white.
My fingers curled into fists. “I want my brother, Crowsbody, restored to his rightful form,” I said, looking him straight in the eyes as I said it.
Beyond the lift of one perfect plucked eyebrow, the prince didn’t react. The little princess on his arm snorted, but in that way that said she wanted to get in on the winning side of the mockery but wasn’t sure what the joke was about.
But then the prince smiled and spread his hands in this big public show of generosity, and said, “I believe that can be arranged.” Next to me on the green, thick thorny vines shot from the ground and clumped and wove together into a huge carriage, and a pair of crows landed in front of it and morphed into tall black horses. But it was a carriage out of Cinderella’s nightmares, and the crows obviously didn’t know what horses looked like, because their heaving sides still sprouted the feathered stubs of vestigial wings, and their heads were freak-show crow heads that snapped their beaks on silver bits.
With his princess still clinging to his arm and smiling with her sharp little cat-teeth, the Prince of Thorns stepped from the stand and gestured for me to join them in the carriage. “Come,” he said, “I know where you may find his human bones. Once they are joined together, Crowsbody will be restored.”
“My wish doesn’t involve me going with you,” I said. Sasha had drawn near and I slipped my fingers into the fur between her ears. I felt a little better knowing she was there.
The prince laughed. “Oh, no need to be shy,” he said. “The trip will bring you no harm. You are our guest! Besides, it is within my power to show you where the bones are interred. It is not in my power, however, to join them again.”
The ghostly pageboy held the door open for me. I frowned at him, and at the prince. I wasn’t going to trust them as far as I could throw them. Sasha growled, but the crow-horses snapped at her with a God-awful shriek, like a cross between a loud caw and a horse’s whinny. She backed away and eyed me through her bangs.
“Thanks,” I said to the prince, patting Sasha on the head, “but I already have a mount. I’ll ride behind you.”
The prince hesitated only an instant, then smiled graciously. “Of course,” he said, and helped his princess into the carriage before following her inside.
The pageboy shut the door after them and climbed up into the driver’s seat. He whipped the horse-crows forward with a loud crack, and they responded with more of their terrible shrieks. The carriage rolled into motion. I climbed onto Sasha’s back and gave her a reassuring scratch as we followed the carriage to the house of my enemy.
* * *
The Dark Lands slid by in a panorama of shadowy woods, ashy fields, and finally brown, craggy mountains sharp as broken bottles. At the top, just as the air started to turn thin and cold, Thornhold erupted from the rock in a jumble of spiteful black spires and corpse-gray stones. Crows swarmed around the towers in roiling clouds and dotted the walls like a plague.
My heart twisted and shrank. I don’t even know how the Prince of Thorns had once convinced me that this was some kind of paradise. No homework or parents or irritating big brother, just exploring a fantastic castle all day long and being waited on by servants and wooed by a handsome prince, and sitting in the smug knowledge that I was magical now, that I was somehow above it all.
But this? This sharp barrenness, this high-and-mighty loneliness? If being the Princess of Thorns meant becoming that mean-eyed bundle of lace and poisoned sugar in the carriage ahead of me, then I’d been unbelievably lucky to come to my senses in time, and to have a brother like Elliot risk everything to get me back. Just in time, too, before I’d been unlucky enough to eat anything and been stuck here forever.
We passed under the portcullis, which dropped behind us with the solemn ringing of a funeral bell. The carriage rode through the courtyard, where a garden full of—you guessed it—nettles and briars and thorny rose bushes burst out of the ground in long trails and tall, painful clumps. I could swear they twitched and reached for me as I passed.
That’s another thing about the people here: they’re not very creative. Give them a theme and they’ll run it into the ground.
The carriage rolled to a stop. The prince took his sweet time getting out, letting his princess down as if she were some delicate bubble. The pageboy drifted from the driver’s seat and shut the carriage door after them with the dead-eyed expression of someone who couldn’t think of anything better to do; the carriage dissolved into loose vines that wriggled and scrambled into the garden’s dark earth. The crow-horses turned back into proper birds and flew off.
I was led inside to a passageway I had never explored during my last stay—or maybe he’d remodeled since then. It was dark, and the gray pageboy walked ahead of us carrying a lamp with a sickly little flame inside, which made him look even more transparent. The princess clung to the prince’s arm with a fierce grip, as if she’d been grafted onto him. Either she was desperate, or desperately trying to make me jealous. Her fingernails were painted the same garish purple as her dress.
We stopped at a tall, black wooden door. The pageboy unlocked it and led us inside to a long, thin stairway that soared down into the darkness in a bone-white arc. He drifted down the stairs and we followed until the pale light reached the bottom, revealing a pile of bones. More pale flames flicked into life around the room, which extended away from the stairs in a wide circle. Tiny things I couldn’t identify skittered and squirmed away from the light.
The room was a sea of bones.
It must’ve been three times the size of my school gymnasium, but the deep shadows and the faraway ceiling made it feel much bigger. It could’ve stretched on forever. I didn’t even know if there was a floor somewhere under all the bones; the stairs just dove right into them, and I didn’t want to guess how much deeper it went.
The Prince and Princess of Thorns slipped behind me on the stairs, blocking the exit. The pageboy stepped aside and gestured me forward into the bonepile.
“Well,” said the Prince of Thorns, smiling, “I’m sure he’s around here somewhere. Good luck!”
The princess tittered and tossed me a look I wanted to slap off her face, then flounced around on the stairs and began the long climb back up. The prince said nothing more, and followed her.
I said every word I couldn’t get away with saying at the dinner table, and stepped onto the pile of bones. Something snapped underfoot. I groaned.
But with my second step, a warm tingling shot up from my toe straight to my chest and bloomed there, and I thought of Elliot. I looked down and found a small knucklebone beneath the toe of my sneaker. It stuck out from all the other bones. Not visibly, not by glowing or being whiter or newer than the rest. But I knew, I just knew it belonged to my brother. It was a part of him.
I picked it up, and the moment my fingers touched it I became certain. I slipped it into a pouch of my book bag.
The pageboy still lingered on the stairs, gazing straight ahead of him. Not like he had anything else to say, but like he needed to remember what he was supposed to do next.
“I don’t suppose I get any clues?” I asked him, on the off chance that I might get lucky.
He slid his gaze in my direction, then over his shoulder, in the direction of his retreating master and mistress. Without another word or gesture or anything, he turned around and climbed after them, leaving me alone in a torchlit room full of bones.
* * *
Time in the Dark Lands doesn’t move the way you’d think. Days and nights, they can take as long as they want to. So when I say I was down there for a few days, picking through the bones for Elliot’s remains, it could have been minutes or it could have been years.
The only marker I had was the pageboy, who came down once a day with a tray full of food. I didn’t eat it, of course. I’d packed enough food to last me at least a little while, and a couple of bottles of water, too. He’d linger on the bottom step, staring straight ahead of him, and if I didn’t come for the food after a few minutes, he would turn around and drift back upstairs and vanish into the light of the faraway door.
I don’t have to tell you I didn’t have any luck. I picked up bone after bone and dropped them again. Besides that knucklebone (a teaser left by the prince, I’m sure), not a single piece resonated with me, ringing in my head to tell me it belonged to Elliot. But I kept going, and whenever I thought about giving up, I’d take the knucklebone out of my book bag and hold it for a few minutes, thinking of Elliot and his lopsided, dopey-big-brother smile. It was my turn to rescue him, and I couldn’t give up now.
I wasn’t alone in the bone room. Remember those things I saw hiding from the light? Yeah, they were still there. Mice and spiders and snakes and things. I’d’ve royally freaked out about it, but it was painfully obvious they were terrified of me and kept away. But still I sometimes saw them at the edge of the light, rooting through the bones. I don’t know what they expected to find down here, or what they ate. Every single bone was scraped clean and dry as dust.
I was eating my lunch one day (a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a piece of jerky, some trail mix) when the pageboy wandered down with another meal I wouldn’t eat. I think the Prince of Thorns was trying harder every day to tempt me into eating his food, because every day the pile of offerings grew. Today I could barely see the pageboy’s face behind the bowls of huge, jewellike grapes and blocks of chocolate fudge and a whole roasted chicken.
My soggy PBJ looked, smelled, and probably tasted pretty pathetic next to that portable feast. But at least the PBJ was real.
I looked away. “I don’t suppose you eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches around here, do you?” I asked. Not that I was expecting a response, but just to say something into the heavy silence.
The pageboy lowered the tray, looked at the sandwich in my hands, and blinked a little stupidly. I regretted having asked him. Some of these weaker fairies, they’re so deep into their roles that if you try to talk to them about anything else they just bluescreen.
“Never mind,” I muttered.
“I . . . like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” said the pageboy, in a voice as thin and fragile as cobwebs.
I nearly dropped my PBJ. “You do?” I asked. I guess it was my turn to be stupid. I added, “I didn’t know they made them here.”
The pageboy didn’t answer for a long minute. Like he had to process the answer. “No,” he said at last, “they don’t. Back home . . . Mom did. She . . . made them for me. I think.” He frowned, as if remembering this fact required painful amounts of effort.
My jaw dropped. He was a stolen child, a changeling—just like the Princess of Thorns. I looked at him, carefully this time, but there was hardly anything to him at all. He barely existed, like a ghost.
I didn’t have a lot of food. But seeing the way he stared at my sad PBJ, half confused and half desperate, I found myself cutting it in half with a plastic knife and holding the clean half up to him. “Do you want some?” I asked.
Again, he took his time to figure it out. But finally he set the tray down and took the oozing half-sandwich and ate it, holding it carefully between his gloved fingers. When he was done he stood blinking in the low light, his expression a mix of half-feelings, like he wasn’t quite sure how to react. But he seemed to be a little less gray, a little more there.
“Thank you,” he whispered, and fell silent again, gazing blankly ahead as if he’d just reset.
I wasn’t gonna let this drop. “How did you end up here?” I asked. I wondered what the Prince of Thorns had offered him, what wish he’d had that the prince had convinced him he’d fulfill.
It took him even longer to answer this question, and in the meantime he’d picked up the tray of food and resumed his waiting-servant-pose on the bottom step. “Renée,” he muttered at last. “Came for . . . Renée.”
Now I did drop my sandwich. “Renée?” I asked. “Not the Princess of Thorns?”
He squeezed his eyes shut and opened them wide again. Very slowly, he nodded. “I came . . . to get my sister back.”
I leapt to my feet and grabbed him just below the shoulders. I wanted to stare him right in the face and see if this was some kind of deception, a trick sent by the Prince of Thorns. My hands sank half an inch into his cool, barely substantial arms. But there was no lie in his face, just vague misery. His fingers loosened, and the tray of food clattered off the steps and landed among the bones in an aromatic mess.
“But you didn’t win, did you?” I asked. And now the prince had the poor kid waiting hand and foot on his tittering, cat-goblin sister. Dangling his greatest wish two feet away from him, close enough to touch but always just out of reach. “That bastard! When I find all my brother’s bones, I—I’ll do what I can to stop him!”
Don’t ask me what I thought I would be able to do. He was a powerful fae of the Dark Lands, and I was just me, in a ridiculous hoodie with blueberries smiling over my trembling, terrified heart. But I wanted to do something. I couldn’t allow this to stand.
The pageboy tilted his head. “You won’t find your brother’s bones,” he said flatly. “This is not a room for finding things. This is a room for forgetting things. The Prince of Thorns puts things here that he wishes to forget.” He stared past my shoulder into the darkness. “They stay down here and he forgets about them. And . . . and they forget themselves, too, after a while.”
The sound of skittering rose from the shadows. My spine shivered, as if the sound were crawling up my back. I let go of the pageboy and turned my attention to the mice and snakes and spiders that lurked at the edges of the room, nosing their way inside skulls and through ribcages, as if they too were searching for something they’d lost but had forgotten what that thing was. An emerald-green snake lifted its head and regarded me, no bigger than the corn snakes Elliot used to catch and keep in an aquarium in his room. Its eyes were blue and human.
I shuddered. I thought I would throw up. A mouse poking its way through an eye socket blinked at me, likewise, with tiny human eyes; I suspected the spiders had them too.
Every living thing in the room was a trapped person. How long had it taken them to forget themselves? Months, years? Centuries?
Not even people truly died in the Dark Lands. They just changed.
I whirled back to the pageboy. “Where are my brother’s bones?” I cried. “The Prince of Thorns promised me a wish, and he’s obligated to grant it! That was the deal!”
The pageboy trembled. His cheeks darkened to a pale rose—the first spot of real color I’d seen on him yet—and he said, “The garden. They are in the garden.”
“Thank you,” I said. I grabbed my book bag and barreled up the stairs past him, all the way up and through the black door, and down the hallway till I reached a high-arched cloister that faced out into the courtyard. The garden was in the center of it all, a boiling mass of thorns erupting from black earth and grass the color of dark emeralds.
I stepped gingerly out into the dull light of an overcast afternoon. High above me, the crows murmured to each other, circling lazily or nestled into little murders perched here and there on the turrets. I wondered how long it would take for the prince to find out I’d left the bone room. I had to move fast. I was halfway to the garden when I heard something whining. There was Sasha on the other side of the courtyard, trapped in a cage, her head lolling dejectedly on her paws. She saw me, raised her head, and barked once, loudly.
I put a finger to my lips and crossed the courtyard to her. She stuck her nose through the bars and I let her snuff at my palm. Her muzzle dropped open in a doggy smile. “Are you all right, lady knight?” she asked.
I nodded. “I think I might need your help, though,” I said. “How good are you at finding bones?”
“Oh,” she cried, a joyful bark in her voice, “bones are a treasure and a delight!”
I smiled. “Hold on then,” I said, looking around, “I’ll try to get you out. . . .” But I couldn’t find a lock on the cage, or even a hinge that suggested where it might open
“Please,” came a gray voice at my elbow, “will you let the dog out?”
The iron bars twitched, and one side of the cage slid upward silently, just high enough for Sasha to crouch low and wriggle through.
I turned. Behind me was the pageboy. Of course! He was the prince’s all-purpose servant. The castle would listen to him. I flashed him a grateful smile.
The iron bars slammed down behind Sasha with a clang.
The crash echoed through the courtyard. The pageboy and I both jumped. The clouds of crows above my head burst into flight and began to swirl in a raw storm of croaks and caws and the beat of startled wings.
I took that to be the alarm system. “Come on!” I said, and dashed for the garden. I didn’t even know where to begin looking, but I let Sasha sniff the knucklebone and she put her nose to the ground. I looked for anything that resembled a shard of white in the dark soil.
An ear-piercing shriek rang out, dimming even the crows’ noise for an instant. Renée, the Princess of Thorns, was stomping toward her brother across the courtyard. I ducked behind a bush.
The pageboy, her brother, crossed the courtyard to intercept her. She glared at him and sniffed.
“Will you tell those crows to be silent?” she screeched, stomping her foot in time to her words. “I can’t hear myself think!”
The pageboy blinked.
“Oh, what good are you?” she cried, waving a hand dismissively through the air. She’d been in the castle too long, I could tell. Her once-purple manicured fingernails were now black and curved, like thorns growing from her fingertips. Sharp ears poked out from her honey-colored ringlets.
The pageboy said something, but he was too far away and his voice too quiet beneath the cacophony for me to hear what he said. But the princess slapped him, and he fell to the paving stones, as limp as a string-severed puppet.
The crows boiled, and the sky darkened with thunderheads as heavy and iron-gray as anvils. The wind that cut around the castle rose to a shriek. The Prince of Thorns stepped out of the air next to the girl, and looked down at the pageboy with narrowed eyes.
“What is the matter, my dear?” he asked in a voice as smooth and cold as syrup from the fridge. “Has this . . . thing . . . displeased you?”
Even from this distance, I could see the pageboy’s slight coloring washing out again, even as the Prince of Thorns grew taller, more present, like all light was bending toward him.
I looked around for something to wield as a weapon. And there it was, as if it had just been wished into existence: my Swiss Army knife, nestled in a tangle of briars. I picked it carefully out from among the leaves.
The briars twisted and wove together into a man-sized shape. I stepped back, unfolding the knife as I moved. The shape resolved into Hans’s long, lanky body and his all-too-familiar face, formed entirely of thorny wooden vines like some mad topiary. His legs were a tangle that rooted him to the earth. He was not smiling.
Holes opened in his face where his eyes should have been. “That’s my knife,” he growled.
I took another step back. He swiped at me with an arm jagged with long, spiny thorns, but he was still rooted to the ground and I easily jumped out of his reach. A vine burst from the ground and curled around my ankle. I staggered, lost my balance, and fell.
Something warm and familiar tingled beneath the soil. I saw Elliot in my head, telling me to go on without him even as his body flaked away into clouds of ebony feathers and raw bird-cries.
“Sasha!” I cried. “Here! Dig here!” I severed the vine that clung to my ankle, climbed to my feet, and dashed away toward the center of the garden, hoping that Hans would go after me and let her do her work. And another idea was beginning to bud in my head. If Hans was rooted to the plants here, he would move more slowly, and I could defeat him if I cut him off. There had to be a central root ball, and I had a feeling it would be in the center of the garden, beneath the largest clump of briars I could see.
In the corner of my eye, I could see Hans’s vines reaching for me. And I saw something else, too. The Prince of Thorns, still unaware of me, was picking up the pageboy by his collar and dangling him in the air. The boy was barely visible, more mist than person.
I wished I’d thought to ask him his name. I would have shouted it out to him, given him something to anchor himself with. But I hadn’t asked. All I knew about him was that he liked—
“Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches!” I yelled. It was the strangest rallying cry in the world. I hoped it would work.
The Prince of Thorns saw me. But it was only for a split second, because the pageboy twitched and thickened into substance. One pale hand grabbed the prince’s arm and wrenched his attention away from me.
“You took my sister,” he growled. “You took my sister. LET HER GO!”
Hans was almost on top of me. I dove for the briar clump and dug my knife into its base, where the trunks met the soil. One thick, woody vine came loose. Hans cried out, and half his left arm went limp and fell away.
The briar clump was aware of me, too. The vines contracted around my hands, and thorns dug into my skin. Tears burned in my eyes and a scream rose in my throat, but I pressed my eyes shut and bit back the scream and pushed the knife further into the soil, just like Mom had taught me how to weed. You had to get the roots out.
Hans’s scream withered behind me. The sky roiled and darkened further, as if the sun had just decided to give up and set. I shoved harder—and thick, black fluid welled up from the soil.
A high-pitched wail rose from somewhere in the courtyard, a sound I didn’t recognize. It cut off just as suddenly, and the briar clump parted and the Prince of Thorns stepped out in front of me.
His face was pale. Not that elegant-powdered-princely pale, but ashen and sharp-angled. His eyes flicked down at me, with my lacerated hands still wrist-deep in the sticky soil. A shaky smile spread across his purple-gray lips.
“Blueberry Knight,” he said, in a soothing whine, “there is no need for this. I will give you your brother’s bones if you wish. I will give you anything you want.” His soft, cool fingers brushed along my cheek. My heart cringed. My whole body tingled with goose bumps, and my throat tightened into a knot. I hated how handsome and hurt he looked. “All you need to do is let go of the knife. And I will give you everything.”
The vines still cut into my flesh. But as long as I didn’t pull, as long as I didn’t struggle, the pain was held back in stasis. A soothing coolness filled my hands. All I had to do was not fight back.
I looked down at the smiling blueberries and their incongruous “Happy Day.” I wondered who had given the hoodie to me. I wondered if it had been Elliot. My eyes drifted up to the Prince of Thorns, who was handsome and hurt and helpless, and utterly lying with every fiber of his being.
“Forget you,” I said, and drove the knife all the way down, straight into the source of his blood.
The people here don’t die easily. Not unless you find their heart and destroy it.
He opened his mouth, but he didn’t scream. The crows did, however: one single resounding shriek before they blew away like ash on the wind. A loud sharp boom nearly split my eardrums, like the stone castle had cracked right down the middle. The Prince of Thorns turned gray, withered, and curled up like a starved stem. The sun came back, and when its light hit the courtyard and the garden with its shriveled briars, the prince was gone, a shadow burned away in the daylight.
Gingerly I pulled my hands from the thorny vines and staggered towards Sasha. She lifted her head from a hole she’d been digging—a hole full of bones—and padded forward to lick the dirt and blood from my hands. Beyond the grassy edge of the garden, Renée had collapsed in a cloud of purple lace and satin, and the pageboy—still gray, but fully solid—was staggering to his feet beside her. I gave him a minute to see to his sister first, to make sure she wasn’t dead or anything, and when he came to me at last I told him I had a first aid kit in my book bag.
“Is she okay?” I asked, thrusting my chin in his sister’s direction as he bandaged my fingers and my scraped palms.
He nodded. “Unconscious, stunned I think. But I think she’ll recover.” He winced. “She won’t be very happy.”
“She’ll get over it,” I said. “And when that day comes, she’ll know you were there to stick up for her.”
He ducked his head and blushed. “I couldn’t have done it without your help,” he muttered. “Thank you.”
I smiled. “You’ll come back with me, right? We can get you home, back to your family. . . .” I trailed off at the tragic look on his face.
“She’s already eaten the food here,” he said, not looking me in the eye. “And so have I.”
“Oh. . . .”
Sasha nosed up to him and whined. He scratched her behind the ears. “I think . . . I think I’ll stay here. The castle listens to me, and maybe I can help the others still in the bone room. Help them remember who they were.”
I forced a smile, but it was a sad smile and my heart felt like lead in my chest. “Sasha will take care of you, I’m sure. Won’t you, girl?”
“Of course,” she said. “We can make a home here.”
The pageboy gave a shy and grateful smile. When he secured the last of my bandages, he leaned against Sasha a little, and I could tell they both appreciated the gesture.
“What’s your name?” I asked. “I mean, your real name?”
The pageboy gave me that stunned, blank look and for a minute I was afraid he’d forgotten it completely. But then he said, “Gary. My name’s Gary.”
“Well,” I said, sticking out my hand, “I won’t forget you, Gary.”
He shook my hand—carefully, of course—and smiled, really smiled, for the first time since I’d met him. “I won’t forget you either.”
We didn’t talk much after that, not that we needed to. He gathered up all the bones that Sasha had dug up, and packed them carefully into a large satchel he found in one of the castle rooms. Sasha offered to take me back to the gateway home, and as she carried me over the drawbridge I turned and waved to Gary high up on the castle wall.
It’s true, you know. I never did forget him.
* * *
Elliot was waiting for me when I came out by the zombie tree. All the crows that made up ‘him’ were perched on its branches, and when the real world popped into focus, with the sun setting through the trees over the rise, he started up with such an irritated cawing that I could almost hear the words in it all. Where were you, what in God’s name were you thinking, you could’ve been stuck there, why didn’t you tell me.
Well, he is my big brother, he’s supposed to be worried sick when I do something stupid. But he changed his tune when I told him I’d brought him a present for his birthday, and opened the satchel to show him his own bones.
We hid them under his bed on a piece of tarp. It took me a couple of days to put them all together, with him supervising and with help from a couple of library books on human anatomy. But I finally fumbled the last knucklebone into place, and there was a bright glamour-glow and a shower of fairy glitter as all the crows of his false form burned up like flakes of fire and poured into the skeleton. You know, the usual pyrotechnics.
And then my brother, in his real, true body, was lying on the tarp gasping breath into his lungs, feeling his arms and his face and grinning like a loon.
No, not like a loon. Not like any sort of bird. Like a dopey big brother. I hugged him, and he told me that I should never do anything that stupid again as long as I lived, and what a great little sister I was, and how he’d never forget this.
It’s true, you know. He never did forget.
We’re still never gonna tell Mom, though.
Jennifer Hykes lives with her husband and two cats just outside of Pittsburgh. Her work has appeared in Abyss & Apex, and another story is forthcoming in Apex Magazine. Moonlight still surprises her. She has never been stolen away to the land of the fairies, but she has seen many crows, and sometimes wonders about them.