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One Dark Window: Part 2 – Chapter 23

Practice restraint, and know it by touch.

Use Cards when they’re needed, and never too much.

For too much of fire, our swords would all break.

Too much of wine a poison doth make.

Excess is grievous, be knave, maid, or crown.

Too much of water, how easy we drown.

Miss? Miss Spindle?”

I woke with a start, my wrist stiff and painful, violent shivers ripping up and down my spine.

Mourning doves called above my head. I sat up in a daze, startled to see the cool morning sky, my bedroom ceiling and walls vanished. My skin hurt, pricked by gooseflesh. I was in my nightgown, dirty and damp from the flattened grass beneath me. I looked around, recognizing tall yew trees, the bramble of unkempt foliage growing, unbidden, around me.

In the distance stood the stone chamber I’d left only hours ago, surrounded by mist.

Filick Willow stared down at me, his hood damp and his eyes wide. “Are you all right, Miss Spindle?” he asked.

I pulled myself up, my body stiff with cold. Still wary of Physicians, even one in the Captain of the Destriers’ pocket, I took a step back.

I could not recall drifting off to sleep, nor taking an impromptu walk back to the meadow. Probing the darkness in my head, I found the Nightmare curled up, quiet in his respite, perfectly content not to offer up an explanation.

“I—I must have walked in my sleep,” I said.

Filick unfastened his cloak and handed it to me. “Come, I’ll make you a cup of tea. You’re cold as death.”

I did not stop shivering until I’d sat by Filick’s hearth a full ten minutes. He called for tea and I drank it in three gulps, hardly noticing when the water singed my tongue. Filick sat next to me, unwrapping my swollen wrist.

“Does that happen often?” he asked after I’d regained a whit of color. “Walking in your sleep?”

I shook my head. “No.”

“Had you ever been to the ruins before?”

“Yes.” I shivered. “What is that chamber? The one with the magic stone?”

Filick took a sip of tea. “Ravyn showed you, then?”

Memory of last night flooded my senses. I faced the fire, a blush rushing into my cheeks.

If the Physician saw, he made no mention of it. “I can’t say for certain. Castle Yew is old, full of artifacts,” he said. “There is strange, ancient magic in that chamber. I walk there often, in the mornings.”

I eyed him with a healthy dose of distrust. “You seem to place a lot of value in old magic,” I said. “For a Physician.”

Filick smiled, retrieving fresh linen from his shelves. “We Willows have been Physicians for hundreds of years. Ages ago,” he said, “we knew the mist was full of salt—full of magic. But we did not fear it. We venerated the Spirit of the Wood and the gifts she gave. Those who suffered the fever and the degeneration that followed were treated—not hunted.”

“What changed?” I asked.

He wrapped the linen around my wrist. “There are no surviving records. But stories remain—a chain of events.” He rewrapped my wrist with the dexterity of someone long acquainted with injuries. “To her own detriment, the Spirit of the Wood granted the Shepherd King magic so great, he created the Providence Cards. He shared them with his kingdom, and people stopped going to the woods to ask the Spirit for magical gifts. Instead, they vied for the Cards, greedy for magic that would not degenerate.”

I nodded. My aunt had told me this story. “And so, the Spirit created the mist, to draw people back to her. By force.”

“Precisely.” Filick’s brow furrowed. “When the mist locked Blunder away from the rest of the world, the Shepherd King went to bargain with the Spirit. When he returned, he wrote The Old Book of Alders, that the people of Blunder might ward themselves with charms. But all bargains bear a price.”

“The Twin Alders.”

“The Twin Alders.” Filick shook his head. “A fool’s bargain.”

“Why do you say that?”

“The Spirit is cunning, ‘neither kin, foe, nor friend.’” Filick leaned back in his chair. “It takes the entire Deck to lift the mist, no? So then why would a King, who sought to save his kingdom from the mist, give up the Twin Alders, the only Card of its kind?”

A latch in my mind lifted. “The Spirit tricked him,” I whispered, recalling what my aunt had told me years ago. “He didn’t know he needed the Twin Alders to lift the mist until he’d already bargained it away.”

Filick nodded. “It’s a common theory among those of us who like to look into the past. And, to the Shepherd King’s credit, it wasn’t an entirely empty bargain. We got The Old Book of Alders and learned to be wary of magic, to carry charms in the mist.” He took a long drink of tea. “You ask what changed, Miss Spindle? Brutus Rowan, the first Rowan King. That’s what changed. He took The Old Book of Alders and made it doctrine, twisting the words until they’d become weapons against anyone infected.”

Closer—I was getting closer to knowing—understanding—something that, for years, had lived in the dark corners of my mind, obscured but ever present. I leaned forward. “Why should Brutus Rowan hate the infection?”

Filick tapped his finger on his cup. “Perhaps he feared old magic—magic he could not control.” His brow darkened, his eyes distant. “Or perhaps in a kingdom where balance is the only constant, he simply sought to cheat the scales. He stole the throne from an infected King. And now his lineage strives to kill anyone with enough magic to take it back.”

A chill crept over me. “Is that what happened? Rowan stole the throne from the Shepherd King?”

Filick’s eyes found me again, his furrow easing. “Of course, this is all just theory, Miss Spindle. A story.”

But it wasn’t. Not for me. “What happened to the Shepherd King?”

“He died. How, I cannot say.”

Darkness overtook my eyes. For a moment, I lost vision, the sound of the Nightmare’s laugh, hollow and cruel, blotting out all noise.

A moment later it was gone, my vision returned. Filick must have seen the disquiet behind my eyes because when he patted my hand, my new bandage perfectly knotted, his voice was soft. “It’s easy to get lost in the past in a strange, old castle like this. Have no worry, Miss Spindle. A wrong done five hundred years ago has no bearing on today. You and Ravyn will find the Twin Alders Card and unite the Deck. Of that, I am certain.”

He was trying to reassure me. And while I was sure Filick Willow was one of the cleverest men in Blunder, there was one thing he was terribly, terribly wrong about.

What happened five hundred years ago mattered. Far more than I had ever realized.

I pushed out of my chair. “Thank you. I’m sorry if I disturbed your morning walk.”

“Not at all,” he said, escorting me to the door.

I might have gone back to my chamber—hurried through the castle, my hem still soaked with morning dew. But I lingered at the Physician’s threshold.

“There is something I still don’t understand,” I said.

“What’s that?”

“Degeneration.” I searched for the words. “Ravyn’s degeneration does not allow him to use Cards. Emory’s is slowly killing him, body and mind.” I paused. “But I… I can’t seem to understand what mine is.”

Pity washed over Filick’s aged face. “No two infections are the same, Miss Spindle. Emory’s degeneration is widespread, while Ravyn’s doesn’t seem to affect his health at all. What is certain for the Yew brothers may just be a whisper of truth for you.” He shook his head. “I wish I could offer more comfort. But I simply do not know.”

Lost for words, I gave the Physician a simple nod and stepped into the corridor.

I waited until I’d turned the corner before barking into the blackness. Sleepwalking? I demanded. Really?

He stretched lazily across my mind. What of it?

You can’t do that—not here, not anywhere—but especially not here!

Who says I did anything?

Don’t play me for a fool, Nightmare! My voice was blade sharp. Or should I call you Shepherd King instead?

He slithered through the darkness, his voice ricocheting in the din, as if there were many voices, not his alone. Call me what you will, Elspeth. It changes nothing.

I gritted my teeth, eleven years of his games—his secrets—boiling in me. All I felt was rage, the desire to banish him from my mind so violent I might have struck the wall had it not been made of stone. If it’s your soul I absorbed when I touched my uncle’s Nightmare Card, I said, then I absorbed a King. But you—you are not a King. You’re a monster.

He laughed at me again. I am both. There was a pause. Don’t you remember the story, Elspeth? Our story?

My stomach dropped. The story. Whispers, near and far, always as I was drifting off to sleep. The haunting lullaby of the maiden, the King.

The monster.

I leaned into the wall, my legs suddenly unsteady. I pressed the heel of my palm to my brow. But that only made the darkness behind my eyes more oppressive. Why, now, am I seeing your memories?

You don’t need me, or that Physician, to tell you why. You have your own theory regarding that.

I shook my head. Well? I demanded. Is it true?

You tell me.

I’m ASKING you.

But you already know. Deep down, you’ve always known.

I felt cold again, a profound, unbidden frost emanating from the center of my chest. You’re becoming stronger, I whispered, my voice hardly audible in the dark din. That’s why I’m seeing your memories. I may not be getting weaker like Emory, but I’m… fading. A lump rose in my throat. That’s my degeneration, isn’t it?

He said nothing, his jagged teeth clicking as he clamped and unclamped his jaw. Click. Click. Click.

It’s my payment, I said, filled with biting clarity. Every time I ask for your help, you grow stronger. And I’m—I’m losing control.

I told you, child, he said, nothing is free. Nothing is safe. Magic always comes at a cost.

Yes, but I didn’t realize that meant you were taking control of my body—my mind!

I’m not TAKING anything, Elspeth Spindle. He hissed, claws flashing, suddenly vicious. I cannot TAKE. I am capable only of what I am willfully given. He slinked into the darkness, hasty to be away from me. Remember that, when you finally have the courage to admit it. In the end, I took nothing you had not already given me.

I was not sorry to feel him go. I felt cold again, afraid and hollow.

But that hollowness soon gave way to a scorching anger. I would not succumb to my own annihilation, victim to degeneration or the Nightmare. I would free myself—cure myself—and go back to the life I’d abandoned eleven years ago.

Only two more Providence Cards stood in my way.

I hurried through the galley on my way to my room, but stopped when I heard the clamor below.

Dozens of voices melded together in loud discord from Castle Yew’s great hall. I heard the clank of steel—armor and swords and chainmail. The Destriers milled below, their Black Horses glowing ominously from their cloaks. Some were eating, others examining their weapons. Hauth Rowan stood among the fray, his broad back covered in a black cloak. He spoke to the others in a curt voice, his demeanor characteristically dominant.

The corner of my lips curled when I saw his wounded left hand wrapped heavily in linen.

“Like what you see?”

I jumped so violently I nearly flew off the banister.

Elm watched me, a small, satisfied grin on his face. “Sorry,” he said. “I thought you’d heard me.”

“Well, I didn’t.” When the Prince eyed me up and down, I cringed, still draped in Filick Willow’s cloak, the hem of my nightdress soaked by morning dew. “I got lost,” I lied.

“Still can’t find your way around?”

“Something like that.”

The Prince rolled his eyes and pointed a sharp finger back behind us. “That corridor will take you back up through the galley and into the guest hall. Your room should be somewhere along that corridor. Or should I call Ravyn to take you? I’m sure he’d be delighted—”

“No,” I said quickly. “I’ll find it.”

“Hurry,” Elm said, moving down the stairwell. “We’re heading out soon.”

“Heading out where?” I called.

But he was already halfway gone.

Elm,” I hissed. “What’s going on?”

“Market Day,” he called without stopping. “Wear your colors. That is, if your father ever condescended to give you any.”


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