By Martha Wells
This is a complete novel presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Martha Wells, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2013 by Martha Wells.
This is Chapter Ten. Read Chapter Nine here.
Lodun was a lovely town. Houses and cottages painted white, or ocher and blue, or a warm honey-color lined the ancient stone streets. Most had vines creeping up their walls and gardens or large courts with old cowbarns and dovecotes, relics of the time when they were farmsteads in open country, before the town had expanded to embrace them. Nicholas remembered it as even more beautiful in the spring, when the flowers in the window boxes and the wisteria were in bloom.
Asilva lived close to the rambling walls of the university, almost in the shadow of its heavy stone towers. The house was on a narrow side street, flanked by similar dwellings, each with a small stable on the ground floor. The entrance to the living area was reached by a short flight of steps leading up to an open veranda on the second floor. Asilva’s veranda was cloaked by vines and crowded with potted plants, some still covered for protection from the last of the cold weather.
Nicholas hadn’t liked the implication of the tightly shuttered windows and when he had climbed to the veranda, his knocking at the blue-painted door had brought no response. A neighbor had appeared on the recessed balcony of the next house, to explain that Asilva had left over a week ago and that they didn’t expect the old man back for at least a month.
Cursing under his breath, Nicholas went back down to street level and through the little stone barn beneath the house and into the garden. He knew that as Asilva had grown older, the sorcerer had come to find Lodun more and more confining and had taken to travelling for several weeks at a time throughout the year. I expected my luck to hold, Nicholas thought, disgusted at his own presumption more than anything else.
Madeline was standing on a stone-flagged path, almost hip deep in winter-brown grasses, contemplating an assault on the back of the house.
“He’s gone for an indeterminate period,” Nicholas reported. It was early morning and the air was mild; it would be warm later. He pushed his hat back, looking over the garden. “We can’t stay here long.” With a sorcerer living on practically every street there was breathing space, though not much. And if the Sending came after him here and was destroyed by any of the number of sorcerers whose attention it would attract, the questions raised would be impossible to answer.
Madeline rubbed her eyes wearily. They had had coffee and pastries in the dining car on the train and very little sleep. The overgrown garden around them was mostly herbs, dry and bushy from the end of winter. Herb gardens were everywhere in Lodun, grown not only for the benefit of cooking pots but for their magical uses and for the dispensaries at the medical college. Nicholas was conscious of movement in the undergrowth, quicksilver sparkles of light. Asilva had always allowed flower fay to inhabit his garden, another example of his eccentricity. The colorful little creatures, as harmless as they were brainless, were drawn by the warmth of human magic, apparently heedless of the fact that the owner of this garden could destroy them with a gesture.
“There’s no one else, I suppose,” Madeline said thoughtfully. “Asilva was the last of Edouard’s old colleagues.”
“Yes.” Nicholas looked toward the towers of the university. Seeking help there meant explanations, discovery. “I haven’t been here in years. He’s the only one who might have helped us and kept quiet about it.” Nicholas realized he was saying that he didn’t know what to do next, an admission that would normally have to be forced out of him under torture, yet he could say it to her without a sensation of panic; it was odd.
A gossamer puff of blue-violet, with a tiny emaciated mock-human figure in its center, settled on Madeline’s shoulder. He flicked it off and it tumbled in the air with an annoyed squeak.
“I might know of someone.” Madeline became very interested in the dead weeds at her feet.
“Might know? Who?”
“An old… friend.”
Nicholas gritted his teeth. Madeline’s fellow artists in the theater mostly behaved as witlessly as the flower fay gamboling in the weeds around them now. Occasionally, when she was unsure of herself, Madeline imitated their behavior, apparently because it took up little of her attention, allowing her to devote her resources to finding a way out of whatever dilemma she was in. It drove Nicholas insane when she did it to him. He said, “Take your time. I do have all the time in the world, you know.”
The look she gave him was dark, almost tormented. “I should let the dead past lay buried. It’s a mistake to trouble still waters but –”
“That’s from the second act of Arantha,” he snapped, “and if you’re going to behave in this nonsensical way and expect me not to notice you could at least do me the courtesy of not employing the dialogue from your favorite play.”
“Oh, all right.” Madeline cast her arms up in capitulation. “Her name is Madele, she lives a few miles out of town, and if anyone can help us, she can.”
She let out her breath in annoyance. “No, I’m not certain. I thought a wild goose chase would occupy us until certain death tonight.”
Nicholas contemplated the morning sky. “Madeline –”
“Yes, yes, I’m certain.” She added more reasonably, “We can get there by this afternoon if we hire a trap or a dogcart or something. We’d better get started.”
“But… ” You never told me you knew any sorcerers. He was beginning to realize why she had been so determined to accompany him to Lodun. She had known of an alternative to Wirhan Asilva all along but she hadn’t wanted to suggest it until she was certain all other possibilities were exhausted. He knew she knew something of magic, but supposed she had picked it up somewhere the way he had, from simply living and studying at Lodun. He had the suspicion this was going to lead to a longer conversation than they could afford to have in Wirhan Asilva’s fay-haunted garden with a Sending on their trail. He said, “Very well. Let’s go.”
Nicholas hired a pony trap from the stables on the street that led up to the university gates and they drove west away from the main part of the town.
The shop-lined streets gave way to laborers’ cottages and summer residences with large garden plots, then finally to farmsteads and small orchards. This gave way in turn to fields of corn or flax, some standing fallow, all separated by earthen banks a few feet high planted with trees. The houses, whether they were tumbledown shacks or fine homes, all had runes set into the brickwork, painted on the walls, or cut into posts and shutters. A reminder that this was Lodun and it had seen stranger things than the Sending that currently hounded them.
It was close to noon and Nicholas was all too aware the hours of light left to them were limited. “Is it much further?” he asked.
“We’re almost there,” Madeline said.
It was the first words they had spoken to each other since leaving Asilva’s garden.
Finally they reached a cart-track that led off the old stone road and Madeline indicated they should follow it. It led them past gently rolling hills and through a copse of sycamore and ash, then out into cultivated fields again. On a rise overlooking the track were the remains of a fortified manor house. As the wagon passed beneath the tumbled-down walls, Madeline said, “There’s a story Madele told me, that an evil baron lived here and that she did something awful to him, tricked him into turning himself over to the Unseelie Court or something.” She added, “It couldn’t have been a baron, of course. What’s left of the house is too small. And I think this land is part of the County of Ismarne, anyway.”
Nicholas smiled at her. “Perhaps an evil gentleman farmer,” he suggested. The breeze lifted a few strands of Madeline’s hair that had escaped from under her hat and wig. “This could be very dangerous for your friend.”
“Do you think she would be able to do something for Arisilde, as well?”
“I hope so.”
Could you be any less forthcoming? Nicholas wanted to ask, but he reminded himself that he was avoiding a quarrel.
There were a couple of farmsteads in the distance; Nicholas could see the smoke from their chimneys and hear the lowing of cows on the wind, but the area they were travelling through seemed deserted. Then the wagon track circled a hill and a house appeared as suddenly as if it had leapt out of the bushes.
It was of light-colored stone, two stories with a stable or cowbarn tucked in below and an old dovecote rising like a tower to one side. Vines, dried and brown from winter, climbed the steps and the arches of the stables, and the whole was shaded by an ancient oak tree, far larger than the house it sheltered, its lowest branches as large around as wine barrels and so heavy they had come to rest on the ground. The windows had carved casements and paned glass and the doors and shutters were well-made, though painted a dull brown. It was a substantial house; somehow Nicholas had been expecting a tiny cottage.
He drew rein in the dirt and graveled yard and Madeline jumped down from the box.
An old woman was standing in the doorway where a set of stone steps led up to the second floor. Small and wiry, her gray hair knotted up in braids, her skin dulled by age, she was almost invisible against the weathered stone wall. She wore a smock and a dull-colored skirt: peasant clothes, oddly incongruous if she owned this prosperous house. No peasant, even in countryside as rich as this, would own such a large dwelling.
She put her hands on her hips and said, “So you’ve come to see me, hey, girl? You wouldn’t if you didn’t have to, I suppose. You reek of dark magic, I suppose you realize. If you’d stuck with your real calling you wouldn’t need my help with whatever it is.”
Madeline looked around, consulting an imaginary audience. “Has anyone got the time? What was that, one minute, two? How many instants have I been here before the same old song starts again? I suppose the rest of the family will be along to chime in on the chorus before the hour’s out.”
Nicholas sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose, trying to discourage an incipient headache. This is going well so far.
The old woman sniffed. “You’ve brought a man with you.”
“An astute observation.” Madeline folded her arms. “I await further wisdom.”
“And you’ve done something awful to your hair.”
“It’s a wig, Madele, a wig.” She snatched it off and brandished it, scattering pins on the dusty ground.
“That’s a relief. You could at least introduce me.”
To the wig? Nicholas thought, stepping down from the wagon, then realized she meant him.
Madeline took a deep breath and said, “Madame Madele Avignon, may I present Nicholas Valiarde.” She turned to Nicholas. “Madele is my grandmother.”
For a moment, all he could do was stare at Madeline. As if sensing the trouble, the old woman coughed, and said, “I’ll just step in and put some water on to boil, if you want to shout at me some more later.”
She went back inside the house, leaving the door standing open. Madeline snorted. “She’s listening to us, of course. She has the manners of a precocious child.” She smiled faintly, and added, “But now you know where I get it from.”
Nicholas didn’t fall for this attempted distraction. He said, “Your grandmother is a sorceress?” An old friend, an old lover even, he had been prepared for.
“Well, yes, she is.” She let out her breath, as if in resignation.
Nicholas looked away, over the rolling fields. “Why don’t you go and tell her about our little problem, and I’ll take care of the horse.”
Madeline looked a little uncertain, as if she had expected a different response. “All right,” she said finally, and went toward the house.
Nicholas unharnessed the biddable horse and led it into the little barn beneath the house. The mule and the two goats penned there greeted his appearance with enthusiasm, as if they expected every human they encountered to be delivering food. Upstairs in the house, he could hear metal cooking pots slamming around.
Arisilde had known, he supposed. The sorcerer had made some comment about giving his regards to her grandmother that had seemed to startle Madeline. It would be very like Arisilde to have somehow realized Madeline’s antecedents years ago and during one of his drug-hazes to forget that she obviously wanted it kept secret.
Nicholas finished tending the horse and went out and up the stairs. The front door was still standing open and he stepped inside to a long room, the walls limewashed a cerulean blue and the floor of patterned brick. A ladder led up to what was probably a sleeping loft and another door indicated at least one more room on this level. Madeline was nowhere to be seen.
Madele was standing at the large cooking hearth, which held pots on hooks and a crane, trivet, and kettle. There was a settle inside, in good peasant style, and a cloth frill to help the chimney draw. She eyed him a moment, then gestured for him to take a seat. “Madeline says there’s a Sending after you. Of course she doesn’t know what she’s saying.” Her voice was raspy and harsh, as unlike Madeline’s as possible. Any resemblance in feature was disguised by a profusion of wrinkles. “She could have been more help to you if she had followed her calling.”
Nicholas took a seat on the bench at the deeply scarred table. Over the mantelpiece there was a clock with a garden scene on the enamel dial and a framed photograph of a stiffly posed family group, looking uncomfortable in their best clothes. There were two young girls in the group, either of which might have been Madeline, but the broad flowered hats made identification impossible. There were a few chairs, an enormous wooden dresser stacked with china, a shallow trough sink, a potager embedded in the wall and a wooden drying safe hanging from the ceiling. Dried herbs and fragments of knitting littered the shelf below the window. There was absolutely nothing to indicate that Madele was a sorceress. No books, nothing to write with or on, and he was willing to bet the ceramic jars on the table contained only comfit and cooking oil. He asked, “What calling was that?”
Madele eyed him, almost warily, then as an apparent non sequitur muttered, “She’s certainly found herself an interesting one, hasn’t she?” She gazed out the window at nothing and answered, “The family calling. Magic. Or power, or whatever pretentious name it has at Lodun. All the women in my family have always had talent and they’ve all pursued it, except one. Well, except my cousin twice removed, and she was mad.”
Nicholas managed not to comment. He was wondering if there was anything else Madeline hadn’t told him.
Madele shook her head. “Let’s see about this so-called Sending.” She sat down across from him and took his hand. Her skin felt almost as rough and hard as the wood of the table. “Well, it is a Sending. A very powerful one.” Her eyes, which were a warm brown and clear for her age, seemed to look straight through him. “It came at you in the dark, from under the earth. It took no form you could recognize. It was drawn from something that had been dead for some time, buried under the street, but the iron in the soil kept it from decay. It shuns the sun and seemed to withdraw from iron, but that was only because it remembers the fear of the cold metal from when it was alive.”
Is she a sorceress or a fortune-telling hedgewitch? Nicholas felt more than a touch of impatience. Had Madeline gone completely mad? Not only was she going to get herself killed when the creature came after him, but this old woman as well. He asked, “If the Sending follows us here tonight, can you turn it away?”
“Oh, I’m no Kade Carrion, I’m only a little hedgewitch, but I’ll do,” she answered cheerfully, as if she had read his thought. She pursed her lips and released his hand. “There’s no if about it, you know. It will follow you here.” Her gaze sharpened. “It’s a very old sort of spell, this. Strange to see it used now. Strange to see that there is someone who can use it at all.”
Nicholas hesitated, then took the book out of his pocket and opened it to the woodcut of the necromancer. “I think the man who is behind it is deliberately imitating, or believes himself to be, this person, Constant Macob.”
Madele took the little book, fumbled for a pair of spectacles on a ribbon around her neck, and studied the illustration carefully, chewing her lip in thought. She ran her thumb over the page, as if testing the texture of the paper. “Believes himself to be Macob? Are you sure?”
Nicholas felt a flash of irritation. “No, I’m not sure of anything.”
“I meant, it’s more likely that he actually is Constant Macob.”
“How can that be possible?” Nicholas said impatiently. “The man was drawn and quartered over two hundred years ago.”
“I know that, young man.” Her gaze was serious. “Anything’s possible.”
Madeline came out of the other room. She had changed into an old skirt and smock of Madele’s and had brushed her hair and washed her face. She and Madele eyed one another warily.
Madele stood. “I’ve a couple of things to attend to outside.”
As the front door banged shut behind her, Madeline said, “I suppose you want to talk.”
Nicholas steepled his fingers. “Perhaps your supposition is incorrect.”
He had meant to be cold, but found himself saying, “Why didn’t you tell me your family were all sorcerers?”
“Grandmama’s been talking, I see. Why would my antecedents be your concern?” She looked up, caught his expression before he could conceal it, and said, “That’s not what I meant.” She gestured, exasperated, though at herself or him he couldn’t tell. “I suppose I was afraid.”
“Afraid of what?”
Madeline sighed and played with the fringe on her shawl. She said slowly, “I want to be an actress just a little less than I want to keep living. It takes all the time and concentration that I have. Studying this… ” She waved a hand at the little room. “Power, and all the varied ways of it, would take all the time and concentration that I have. I had to choose one. I did. Not many people understand that.”
Nicholas folded his arms. Be reasonable, he told himself. They couldn’t afford to fight now. And maybe it was none of his business; they weren’t married. But he had told her everything. She was the only one who knew the whole story. “And you assumed I would be one of them?”
“Yes, I did.” She met his eyes gravely. “I want to be an actress the way you want to destroy Count Montesq. I know what that kind of wanting is like. I could be much more of a help to you if I pursued magic instead of the leading role at the Elegante. Especially with Arisilde going to Hell in a handcart.” She looked away. “I realized why I suspected it was a Sending. When it was trying to get into the room with me, there was a feel, a smell, something… When I was a child Madele took me to Lodun once for the midwinter festival and while we were there some old enemy tried to kill her by slipping her an apple with a Sending of disease on it. She said it was a trick old as time and turned it aside, but she had me hold it first, so I would know how it felt, and know not to take anything that gave me that feeling. It was subtle, but it was there. It felt like wanting, like lust. It was frightening.” She smiled briefly. “She didn’t even bother to find out who Sent it to her. At least that’s what she told me; for all I know he’s buried under the house.” She gestured helplessly. “I don’t know. I’ve given up something that other people have begged, stolen, schemed for all through time. Maybe I’m mad.”
“All my closest friends are mad.” What that said about him, he didn’t want to closely consider. Nicholas sighed and rested his head in his hands. “I wouldn’t ask you to do something that you didn’t like. Especially knowing it would do no good to ask.”
“But if you had asked, I might have considered it.” She smiled ruefully. “But that’s not your failing, is it?”
Nicholas shook his head. He didn’t want to discuss this anymore. It came too close to the bone. He said, “Do you think your grandmother can deal with this Sending? She’s only a hedgewitch. There’s no point in risking her life.” He turned to look at her. “We still have time to get back to Lodun if we leave now.”
Madeline’s brows rose. She asked, “Did she say that? That she was only a hedgewitch?”
Madeline squeezed her eyes shut, briefly. “Her definition of hedgewitch is a little different from everyone else’s.” She looked up at him. “The name they called her was Malice Maleficia.”
“Oh.” The woman known by that name hadn’t been seen for more than fifty years, but Nicholas had heard the stories of her exploits. Including the one about the evil baron, though he hadn’t been a baron and he hadn’t lived here. It had been the Bishop of Seaborn, who had tried to turn all the followers of the Old Faith out of the city and had reportedly ended up as a permanent fixture on the disappearing island of Illcay. “I see.”
Madele banged in through the door, pausing to scrape the mud off her wooden clogs. “If you’re staying for dinner, I’d better pluck a chicken.”
They waited. Just before dusk fell, Nicholas helped Madele close the shutters.
He had forgotten what night was like in the countryside. It might be darker in the city, where gas streetlights were still sparse and crumbling buildings could blot out moon and starlight and leave the streets and alleys like little narrow ribbons of pitch, but it was never so silent as on an isolated farmstead. It might have been a great void outside, nothing stirring but the wind, an empty world where this little house was the only habitation of the living.
Madeline had fallen asleep on a chair and Nicholas covered her with a blanket from the bed in the other room.
Madele was knitting, her brow furrowed with the kind of concentration usually reserved for intricate mathematical calculation or perhaps surgery. Watching her, Nicholas smiled. She was acting, he realized suddenly. It shouldn’t have taken him so long to see it, but this was really the first quiet moment he had had for real observation. She was play-acting the role of an old, somewhat daft peasant woman, for an audience of one. God knew Madeline did it often enough, concealing her true feelings, character, or temper behind a role tailor-made for whomever she wished to fool. He saw now where she had caught the habit. To draw Madele out a little, he said, “So this is where great witches go to rest?”
Madele smiled. She was missing some teeth, but it was a remarkably predatory smile all the same. “She told you?”
“Yes. It gave me confidence.”
She sniffed. “Well, I’m old, it doesn’t change that. I haven’t done a great magic or trafficked with the fay in a very long time. Can’t hardly find the fay anymore; they’re waning. But I’ve a few twists and turns left.” She finished the row on her knitting, and said, “You’re a thief.”
Coming from Malice Maleficia, this was not so heavy an accusation. He said, “Sometimes. Sometimes not.”
“Madeline didn’t tell me,” Madele added. “I saw it on your face when you came in.”
“Thank you,” Nicholas said, with a polite smile, as if she had complimented him.
Madele shot him a suspicious look from under lowered brows, but forbore to comment.
Outside the wind had risen and Nicholas heard something heavy shift. He tensed, then realized it must be the huge oak that half-embraced the house. He started to say something, then saw Madele’s head had lifted and her eyes were alert.
Madeline woke with a start and sat up, the blanket sliding to the floor. The sound came again, less like a heavy tree branch lifted by the wind and more like earth moving. Madeline whispered, “Is that it?”
Madele motioned at her to be quiet. She stood, setting aside her knitting, and moved to the front of the hearth. Her head was tilted to one side, as she listened with complete concentration to the night.
Nicholas got to his feet, glancing at the front door to make sure the lock was turned, for all the good that might do.
Madele frowned. “Can you hear it, girl? My ears aren’t as good as they were.”
“No.” Madeline shook her head, her brows drawn together in frustration. “Nothing but the wind. You know I was never good at that.”
Madele snorted in denial, but said only, “I need to know where it is.”
Madeline went to the front window and Nicholas headed toward the back room. It was crowded with furniture, bureaus, chests, and an enormous cabinet bed. He blew out the candlelamp on the wall and opened the shutters on the single window, standing to one side of it in case something broke through. He could see nothing through the dusty panes but a moonlit stretch of empty ground and a clump of trees and brush swaying in the wind. He went back to the doorway.
Madeline had cautiously twitched back the curtain on the front window and was kneeling on the floor, peering out. “I can’t see anything,” she reported. “There might be something just behind the big oak, but the side of the house is blocking the view.”
“I need to know,” Madele gasped the words. Her face was pinched and drawn, as if she was in pain.
“I’ll go out the back and look,” Nicholas told Madeline. “See if you can find a length of rope; I’ll need it to get back in.”
Madeline started to speak, stopped, then cursed under her breath and got to her feet. Nicholas took that for agreement.
He opened the catch on the back window and raised it slowly, hoping the wind would cover any betraying noise and that the Sending’s hearing wasn’t keen. The outdoor air was dry and sharp, without any scent of the rain that the clouds and wind seemed to promise. He slid one leg over the sill, found footing on a wooden beam below, and slipped out to cling to the stone facing.
He dropped to the ground, landing on packed dirt. He couldn’t hear anything but the wind roaring through the trees and the dry winter grass of the fields; it was like standing on the beach at Chaire when the tide was coming in.
Nicholas found the wooden half-door and eased it open, slipping into the barn beneath the house. The docile horse stamped and snorted in its stall, agitated, and the goats were rushing back and forth in their pen from fear. He went to the door that led to the front yard and edged it open.
The wind swept dirt over the packed earth and made the oak tree stir and groan with the weight of its branches. The surrounding fields were empty in the snatches of moonlight. Nicholas pushed the door open a little further, meaning to step out, when suddenly the mule in the barn behind him brayed.
He saw it then, just past the giant shadow of the oak, a piece of darkness that the moon didn’t touch, the wind couldn’t shift. He was astonished at the size of it. The thing that came up through the floor of the house was only part of it, he realized. The creature itself, whatever form it took, was taller than the tree that towered over Madele’s house.
He edged the door closed for all the protection that might give the animals within and crossed back to the opposite door, giving the mule a pat on the neck as he passed.
Madeline had already dropped the rope from the window and tied it off to the bedframe and he scrambled up it easily. She was standing nearby in the warm room, her arms folded and her face tense, and Madele was waiting in the bedroom doorway. “It’s just past the oak tree,” Nicholas told her, locking the window catch. “I couldn’t tell what it was, except that it’s immense –”
The roof creaked suddenly and a little dust fell from the beams.
“Ahh,” Madele said. “That’ll be it, then,” and turned back to the main room.
Nicholas and Madeline exchanged a look and followed her.
The house started to shake. Nicholas put one hand on the table to steady himself. He wondered if it would come through the floor again. That seemed most likely. Or perhaps through the roof. This house was more sturdily built than the one in Lethe Square; more dust fell from the trembling roof beams but the walls still held.
Madele was staring at the fireplace, kneading her hands and muttering to herself incomprehensibly. The iron pots and hooks hanging above the hearth rattled against the stone; the flames crackled as fine dust and hardened chunks of soot fell into them.
Something drew Nicholas’s eyes upward. The stones of the chimney near the ceiling bulged out suddenly, as if whatever was within was about to explode across the room. Impossibly the bulge travelled downward toward the hearth, the stones appearing almost liquid as it passed.
It burst out of the mouth of the hearth in a cloud of soot and ash, a giant hand, skeletal, yellowed by decay, too large to have fit through the chimney, larger now than the hearth behind it.
Nicholas thought he shouted, though he couldn’t understand the words himself. He heard Madeline cursing. Madele hadn’t moved. She was easily within its reach, standing like a statue, staring intently at the thing.
It hung there and Nicholas saw it was formed as if human, five fingers, the right number of bones. Time seemed distorted; he wanted to reach Madele to take her shoulder and pull her away from it, but he couldn’t move.
Then it withdrew, drawing back into the hearth, disappearing up the chimney hole that was far too small for it to fit through. The bulge travelled back up the stone chimney, vanishing as it climbed past the ceiling.
Nicholas realized his knees were shaking, that his grip on the table was the only thing keeping him upright. He thought he had imagined it, except the pots had been knocked to the floor and he had seen the thing’s knuckles brush them aside when it emerged.
Madele’s head dropped and she buried her face in her hands. Madeline pushed past him to catch her shoulders, but the old woman shook her off. Madele lifted her head and her eyes were bright and wicked. “Open the door,” she said. “Tell me what you see.”
Nicholas went to the door and tore it open. He saw nothing at first. The wind had risen alarmingly, making the house groan and tossing the branches of the oak tree. Then he realized that the tree was making far too much noise; a wind of the strength to stir those immense branches would have knocked the house flat. Thunder shook the stone under him and in the blazing white crack of the lightning, he saw the Sending.
It was white and huge, wrapped in the branches of the oak tree, struggling to free itself. He saw the hand that had reached down the chimney stretching up above the tossing branches, its claw-like fingers curled in agony. In the lightning flash of illumination, a branch whipped up and wrapped around the straining skeletal arm and snatched it back down into the tree.
The light was gone, leaving the yard to darkness and the rush of the wind. Nicholas slammed the door and leaned against it.
Madele was picking up the scattered pots from the floor, clucking to herself. “Well?” Madeline asked.
“The tree appears to be eating it,” Nicholas reported soberly. He was glad his voice didn’t shake.
“You’re lucky you came here,” Madele said. She straightened and rubbed her back. “That tree was a Great Spell. I made it years and years ago, when I was young and I first came to live here. The Sending isn’t fighting me as I am now, old and withered and dry. It’s fighting me as I was then, at my prime.” She lifted her head, listening to the wind against the stones, and maybe to something else. “And whoever Sent it is far more powerful than I am. Then or now.”
The wind didn’t die down for another hour and after that Madele said it was safe to go outside. There was no trace of the Sending, except a scatter of broken twigs and detritus beneath the heavy branches of the guardian oak.
END CHAPTER TEN
Continued in Chapter Eleven
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