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Authors: Kelly Link

Tags: #JUV000000, #FIC000000, #FIC029000

The Wrong Grave (9 page)

BOOK: The Wrong Grave
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“Here,” Burd said to Onion. He gave him a bowl of porridge. “No, eat it slowly. There's plenty more.”

Onion said with his mouth full, “Where are the wizards of Perfil?”

Halsa began to laugh. She laughed until her sides ached and until Onion stared at her and until Essa came over and shook her. “We don't have time for this,” Essa said. “Take that boy and find him somewhere to lie down. He's exhausted.”

“Come on,” Halsa said to Onion. “You can sleep in my bed. Or if you'd rather, you can go knock on the door at the top of the tower and ask the wizard of Perfil if you can have his bed.”

She showed Onion the cubby under the stairs and he lay down on it. “You're dirty,” she said. “You'll get the sheets dirty.”

“I'm sorry,” Onion said.

“It's fine,” Halsa said. “We can wash them later. There's plenty of water here. Are you still hungry? Do you need anything?”

“I brought something for you,” Onion said. He held out his hand and there were the earrings that had belonged to his mother.

“No,” Halsa said.

Halsa hated herself. She was scratching at her own arm, ferociously, not as if she had an insect bite, but as if she wanted to dig beneath the skin. Onion saw something that he hadn't known before, something astonishing and terrible, that Halsa was no kinder to herself than to anyone else. No wonder Halsa had wanted the earrings—just like the snakes, Halsa would gnaw on herself if there was nothing else to gnaw on. How Halsa wished that she'd been kind to her mother.

Onion said, “Take them. Your mother was kind to me, Halsa. So I want to give them to you. My mother would have wanted you to have them, too.”

“All right,” Halsa said. She wanted to weep, but she scratched and scratched instead. Her arm was white and red from scratching. She took the earrings and put them in her pocket. “Go to sleep now.”

“I came here because you were here,” Onion said. “I wanted to tell you what had happened. What should I do now?”

“Sleep,” Halsa said.

“Will you tell the wizards that I'm here? How we saved the train?” Onion said. He yawned so wide that Halsa thought his head would split in two. “Can I be a servant of the wizards of Perfil?”

“We'll see,” Halsa said. “You go to sleep. I'll go climb the stairs and tell them that you've come.”

“It's funny,” Onion said. “I can feel them all around us. I'm glad you're here. I feel safe.”

Halsa sat on the bed. She didn't know what to do. Onion was quiet for a while and then he said, “Halsa?”

“What?” Halsa said.

“I can't sleep,” he said, apologetically.

“Shhh,” Halsa said. She stroked his filthy hair. She sang a song her father had liked to sing. She held Onion's hand until his breathing became slower and she was sure that he was sleeping. Then she went up the stairs to tell the wizard about Onion. “I don't understand you,” she said to the door. “Why do you hide away from the world? Don't you get tired of hiding?”

The wizard didn't say anything.

“Onion is braver than you are,” Halsa told the door. “Essa is braver. My mother was—”

She swallowed and said, “She was braver than you. Stop ignoring me. What good are you, up here? You won't talk to me, and you won't help the town of Perfil, and Onion's going to be very disappointed when he realizes that all you do is skulk around in your room, waiting for someone to bring you breakfast. If you like waiting so much, then you can wait as long as you like. I'm not going to bring you any food or any water or anything that I find in the swamp. If you want anything, you can magic it. Or you can come get it yourself. Or you can turn me into a toad.”

She waited to see if the wizard would turn her into a toad. “All right,” she said at last. “Well, good-bye then.” She went back down the stairs.

The wizards of Perfil are lazy and useless. They hate to climb stairs and they never listen when you talk. They don't answer questions because their ears are full of beetles and wax and their faces are wrinkled and hideous. Marsh fairies live deep in the wrinkles of the faces of the wizards of Perfil and the marsh fairies ride around in the bottomless canyons of the wrinkles on saddle-broken fleas who grow fat grazing on magical, wizardly blood. The wizards of Perfil spend all night scratching their fleabites and sleep all day. I'd rather be a scullery maid than a servant of the invisible, doddering, nearly blind, flea-bitten, mildewy, clammy-fingered, conceited marsh-wizards of Perfil.

Halsa checked Onion, to make sure that he was still asleep. Then she went and found Essa. “Will you pierce my ears for me?” she said.

Essa shrugged. “It will hurt,” she said.

“Good,” said Halsa. So Essa boiled water and put her needle in it. Then she pierced Halsa's ears. It did hurt, and Halsa was glad. She put on Onion's mother's earrings, and then she helped Essa and the others dig latrines for the townspeople of Perfil.

Tolcet came back before sunset. There were half a dozen women and their children with him.

“Where are the others?” Essa said.

Tolcet said, “Some don't believe me. They don't trust wizardly folk. There are some that want to stay and defend the town. Others are striking out on foot for Qual, along the tracks.”

“Where is the army now?” Burd said.

“Close,” Halsa said. Tolcet nodded.

The women from the town had brought food and bedding. They seemed subdued and anxious, and it was hard to tell whether it was the approaching army or the wizards of Perfil that scared them most. The women stared at the ground. They didn't look up at the towers. If they caught their children looking up, they scolded them in low voices.

“Don't be silly,” Halsa said crossly to a woman whose child had been digging a hole near a tumbled tower. The woman shook him until he cried and cried and wouldn't stop. What was she thinking? That wizards liked to eat mucky children who dug holes? “The wizards are lazy and unsociable and harmless. They keep to themselves and don't bother anyone.”

The woman only stared at Halsa, and Halsa realized that she was as afraid of Halsa as she was of the wizards of Perfil. Halsa was amazed. Was she that terrible? Mik and Bonti and Onion had always been afraid of her, but they'd had good reason to be. And she'd changed. She was as mild and meek as butter now.

Tolcet, who was helping with dinner, snorted as if he'd caught her thought. The woman grabbed up her child and rushed away, as if Halsa might open her mouth again and eat them both.

“Halsa, look.” It was Onion, awake and so filthy that you could smell him from two yards away. They would need to burn his clothes. Joy poured through Halsa, because Onion had come to find her and because he was here and because he was alive. He'd come out of Halsa's tower, where he'd gotten her cubby bed grimy and smelly, how wonderful to think of it, and he was pointing east, toward the town of Perfil. There was a red glow hanging over the marsh, as if the sun were rising instead of setting. Everyone was silent, looking east as if they might be able to see what was happening in Perfil. Presently the wind carried an ashy, desolate smoke over the marsh. “The war has come to Perfil,” a woman said.

“Which army is it?” another woman said, as if the first woman might know.

“Does it matter?” said the first woman. “They're all the same. My eldest went off to join the king's army and my youngest joined General Balder's men. They've set fire to plenty of towns, and killed other mothers' sons and maybe one day they'll kill each other, and never think of me. What difference does it make to the town that's being attacked, to know what army is attacking them? Does it matter to a cow who kills her?”

“They'll follow us,” someone else said in a resigned voice. “They'll find us here and they'll kill us all!”

“They won't,” Tolcet said. He spoke loudly. His voice was calm and reassuring. “They won't follow you and they won't find you here. Be brave for your children. All will be well.”

“Oh, please,” Halsa said, under her breath. She stood and glared up at the towers of the wizards of Perfil, her hands on her hips. But as usual, the wizards of Perfil were up to nothing. They didn't strike her dead for glaring. They didn't stand at their windows to look out over the marshes to see the town of Perfil and how it was burning while they only stood and watched. Perhaps they were already asleep in their beds, dreaming about breakfast, lunch, and dinner. She went and helped Burd and Essa and the others make up beds for the refugees from Perfil. Onion cut up wild onions for the stew pot. He was going to have to have a bath soon, Halsa thought. Clearly he needed someone like Halsa to tell him what to do.

None of the servants of the wizards of Perfil slept. There was too much work to do. The latrines weren't finished. A child wandered off into the marshes and had to be found before it drowned or met a dragon. A little girl fell into the well and had to be hauled up.

Before the sun came up again, more refugees from the town of Perfil arrived. They came into the camp in groups of twos or threes, until there were almost a hundred townspeople in the wizards' meadow. Some of the newcomers were wounded or badly burned or deep in shock. Essa and Tolcet took charge. There were compresses to apply, clothes that had already been cut up for bandages, hot drinks that smelled bitter and medicinal and not particularly magical. People went rushing around, trying to discover news of family members or friends who had stayed behind. Young children who had been asleep woke up and began to cry.

“They put the mayor and his wife to the sword,” a man was saying.

“They'll march on the king's city next,” an old woman said. “But our army will stop them.”

“It
was
our army—I saw the butcher's boy and Philpot's middle son. They said that we'd been trading with the enemies of our country. The king sent them. It was to teach us a lesson. They burned down the market church and they hung the pastor from the bell tower.”

There was a girl lying on the ground who looked Mik and Bonti's age. Her face was gray. Tolcet touched her stomach lightly and she emitted a thin, high scream, not a human noise at all, Onion thought. The marshes were so noisy with magic that he couldn't hear what she was thinking, and he was glad.

“What happened?” Tolcet said to the man who'd carried her into the camp.

“She fell,” the man said. “She was trampled underfoot.”

Onion watched the girl, breathing slowly and steadily, as if he could somehow breathe for her. Halsa watched Onion. Then:

“That's enough,” she said. “Come on, Onion.”

She marched away from Tolcet and the girl, shoving through the refugees.

“Where are we going?” Onion said.

“To make the wizards come down,” Halsa said. “I'm sick and tired of doing all their work for them. Their cooking and fetching. I'm going to knock down that stupid door. I'm going to drag them down their stupid stairs. I'm going to make them help that girl.”

There were a lot of stairs this time. Of course the accursed wizards of Perfil would know what she was up to. This was their favorite kind of wizardly joke, making her climb and climb and climb. They'd wait until she and Onion got to the top and then they'd turn them into lizards. Well, maybe it wouldn't be so bad, being a small poisonous lizard. She could slip under the door and bite one of the damned wizards of Perfil. She went up and up and up, half running and half stumbling, until it seemed she and Onion must have climbed right up into the sky. When the stairs abruptly ended, she was still running. She crashed into the door so hard that she saw stars.

“Halsa?” Onion said. He bent over her. He looked so worried that she almost laughed.

“I'm fine,” she said. “Just wizards playing tricks.” She hammered on the door, then kicked it for good measure. “Open up!”

“What are you doing?” Onion said.

“It never does any good,” Halsa said. “I should have brought an ax.”

“Let me try,” Onion said.

Halsa shrugged.
Stupid boy
, she thought, and Onion could hear her perfectly. “Go ahead,” she said.

Onion put his hand on the door and pushed. It swung open.

He looked up at Halsa and flinched. “Sorry,” he said.

Halsa went in.

There was a desk in the room, and a single candle, which was burning. There was a bed, neatly made, and a mirror on the wall over the desk. There was no wizard of Perfil, not even hiding under the bed. Halsa checked, just in case.

She went to the empty window and looked out. There was the meadow and the makeshift camp, below them, and the marsh. The canals, shining like silver. There was the sun, coming up, the way it always did. It was strange to see all the windows of the other towers from up here, so far above, all empty. White birds were floating over the marsh. She wondered if they were wizards; she wished she had a bow and arrows.

“Where is the wizard?” Onion said. He poked the bed. Maybe the wizard had turned himself into a bed. Or the desk. Maybe the wizard was a desk.

“There are no wizards,” Halsa said.

“But I can feel them!” Onion sniffed, then sniffed harder. He could practically smell the wizard, as if the wizard of Perfil had turned himself into a mist or a vapor that Onion was inhaling. He sneezed violently.

Someone was coming up the stairs. He and Halsa waited to see if it was a wizard of Perfil. But it was only Tolcet. He looked tired and cross, as if he'd had to climb many, many stairs.

“Where are the wizards of Perfil?” Halsa said.

Tolcet held up a finger. “A minute to catch my breath,” he said.

Halsa stamped her foot. Onion sat down on the bed. He apologized to it silently, just in case it was the wizard. Or maybe the candle was the wizard. He wondered what happened if you tried to blow a wizard out. Halsa was so angry he thought she might explode.

BOOK: The Wrong Grave
13.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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