A Lane of Locks
by Faith Mudge
It took twice as long to get home. I was supporting Agnes most of the way, but she seemed barely aware of me, staring off into the distance and drifting away if I didn’t keep firm hold of her arm. When I finally got her through her own front door and settled her in the bath, with towels wadded up behind her head as a pillow, she fell asleep almost immediately and I went to show the map to Robert.
It made much more sense to him than to me. I had studied maps in the schoolroom, but whenever I had been on a journey someone else had planned it for me and driven me there. Robert, prone to spontaneous travel whenever he couldn’t bear talking to Papa any more, knew how to use a map. There were two within the twist of paper, the directions to the den and, as Crane had promised, the layout inside.
“Trows are very small,” Robert said, “and they will have their children there. They will be afraid of us. It may not be too hard.”
“You can’t come with me,” I exclaimed, shocked. “What about Agnes?”
“If we leave now, we may return before she wakes.”
“And if not? If she sets fire to the house?”
Robert lifted his head. “Geraldine,” he said softly, “we are all each other has, in this place. You are not going alone, and there is no one else to help us.”
I mouthed a wordless protest. Robert turned his attention back to the maps.
He was right, as I had been right with Agnes; and wrong, as I had been, because we needed each other but we also needed to be in three places at once, at home and at the shop and in the hidden bolthole of wicked creatures that burned people from afar. Robert had better reasons than mine to be afraid and he still meant to go. I had no way to stop him.
According to the map, the den was on the borderline between the Viridian district and the Northern Gardens. Neither of us had been in that part of the city before. I had to pay a foul-mouthed little winged man to catch us a bus timetable, then we had to fold out the paper wings and interpret the tiny writing within. By the time we were underway, it was almost noon. The clouds were heavy overhead, sheeting petals and thorns, and the gutters ran crimson. Robert’s face was very pale, his lips tight. He wore a long coat and underneath it, a sword I had not seen him handle since the day we threw his armour in the river and reclaimed him from the Game. I didn’t like to see it.
I had watched him execute a goblin in the Game, poor frozen thing, with a face blank as marble and that sword shining in a bright terrible arc. I wondered if he had killed humans with a look like that on his face, in Crimea. He had never talked about it. He had not talked much at all, when he came home from the war.
We were the only humans on the bus. Everyone was staring at us and Robert in turn stared fixedly ahead, his hands fisted so hard the knuckles strained white under the skin. A satyr brushed past us to leave the bus, deliberately shoving Robert sideways. Robert snarled under his breath. It didn’t sound like him at all.
This city was poison to people like us.
* * *
This time we had kept the moth; I unfurled it every so often to remind myself of our stop. Hob Place, when we reached it, was a gloomy square of tall grey houses thatched with moss. A fountain at its centre spat irregular jets of dirty water. Robert took another look at the map and went over to the fountain. The pool at its base was grotty with wet dead leaves and the fresh fall of rose petals were already turning brown.
“It’s under there,” he said glumly.
“How do we get at it?”
“There are some spiralling arrows, but I’m not sure what they mean.” He sat on the edge of the fountain and held the map in front of his face, turning it slowly around to try different angles. I leaned over his shoulder to see, feeling increasingly panicked. The bus ride had taken well over an hour; what if, in our absence, the flames set a spark and the flat caught fire? Agnes might not wake in time. What if the curse worsened faster than Absolution Crane had expected?
Robert stood suddenly and circled the fountain, staring at the paving stones. He slammed his boot down and there was a crack – the paver tipped down like a trapdoor and we both leaned forward to look at the descending line of steps.
“It’s so small,” Robert said, dismayed.
“You won’t fit,” I agreed, with mixed relief and anxiety. “I think I will.”
Robert didn’t reply for a long moment. Then he pushed both maps into my hand. “For Agnes,” he said. “But if you need me, I will find a way to reach you.”
Did he know he had one hand on the sword?
“I’ll be quick as a mouse,” I promised, and squeezed through the gap.
I am quite small, but it was still a narrow fit. The steps led to a tunnel, floored with shimmering dust, silver spoons of all sizes hanging from the ceiling like tiny silver stalactites. I had to crawl along on my stomach so as not to set them all chiming.
A bit further along the ceiling lifted and the spoons petered out. Little tunnels started branching off at the sides. It was very dark, with only the occasional lamp sconce to light the way, but that was enough to set alight the gleam of silver: bent forks, goblets, all manner of coins, pressed into the packed earth and forming painstaking patterns across the walls and floor. I stopped at the first sconce and held the second map up to its light. There were more of the circling arrows. I studied them carefully, then hurried down one of the branching tunnels, marked by a silver fob watch embedded in the wall above.
The patter of footsteps in the tunnel behind made me glance quickly back, catching sight of my first trows. They were passing through the main tunnel, a pair of women half my height, grey-skinned with bulbous features and bright kerchiefs tied over their heads. One held a grousing baby. They were heading the way I had come; I was unexpectedly afraid for them. The look on Robert’s face as he watched me go had not been marble-cold, but if they took him by surprise – if he thought I was not coming back –
I walked very quickly.
This tunnel twisted like the arrows, and without the map I would soon have lost my bearings. Then I smelled smoke. Around the umpteenth corner the tunnel suddenly ended, leaving me at the mouth of a room bathed in red firelight.
There was no question I had found what I was looking for. A pair of rough wooden effigies stood in the middle of the floor, and a male trow sat by the fire with several prongs heating in the coals. I plunged into the room.
“Not a sound,” I hissed at the trow, who had jumped to his feet and opened his mouth. I flourished the wrench to emphasise my point. Backing towards the female effigy, I looked it over frantically. It was terrible work, not like Agnes at all, but there were two long brown hairs encircling its wrists and when I snapped those away the trow swayed toward me, making a protesting noise.
“You bastard,” I said, with feeling. “How dare you?”
Fixed under my glare, he hunched his shoulders protectively. “You?” he asked, gesturing at the effigy.
“My friend,” I growled. “What did she ever do to you? Or do you just like setting people on fire?”
He spread his hands placatingly. His eyes were on the wrench.
“Promised silver,” he said, like that explained everything. “Great insult – bad hurt. Valentine says, penance.”
“Well, he can’t have it,” I said furiously, and tore the scrap of red cloth from around the second effigy’s throat. The trow groaned.
“Don’t you dare move!” I flourished the wrench forcefully. “What you are doing is wicked and if you come after me or any of my friends again I – I’ll sell maps of this warren in the street. I will tell everyone I meet how to find you. Then you’ll know what it’s like to be at someone’s mercy. As if this foul city has any mercy at all! For any beauty it has there’s a counterweight of cruelty and you never know when it’s coming for you. How can these things happen? Why does no one make you stop?”
There was a hysterical edge to my voice now. I had been wanting to put my rage into words for so long. “I didn’t want to come here! I’d leave in a breath if I could, and take Robert with me, and Agnes too. I want muddy fields and dressing for dinner and knowing everyone I meet is human. That they aren’t about to eat or enspell me. I want to be safe again! I want to go home!”
The trow shuffled his feet and twisted his fingers. I thought he was frightened; that was a silly mistake. He only wanted to get close enough to the fire to knock out the prongs. They made a terrible clatter together, falling onto the hearthstones. Jumping well out of my reach, he started shouting.
I turned and fled. Where before the tunnel had been empty, hidden doors were now opening from the earth walls and other trows were emerging: men and women, a few children, all wearing silver in their ears or around their necks, some with it embroidered into their clothes. A babble of cries erupted around me. Some of the trows shrank back, clutching at their children; others gathered, trying to block my way, but I was taller and stronger and very determined. I had my wrench – I didn’t use it. I used my elbows and knees instead, kicking away the tiny hands seizing on my skirt, wrestling my way to the main tunnel and running as fast as I could, straight through the jangling spoons with one arm raised to shield my face. When I looked up, I saw Robert’s hand thrust through the trapdoor.
He hauled me out. A trow clung to my ankle; Robert slapped it away and it tumbled across the cobblestones with a mewl of pain. The sword was suddenly unsheathed in his hand; he was standing over the trow, his foot pinning its raggedy coat to the ground. I opened my mouth to cry out, then let the breath go – Robert had stepped back, the sword falling limply to his side. The trow scrabbled away, down into the warren.
“The bus is coming,” Robert said, catching my arm to pull me to my feet.
We attracted even more stares this time, me being so smeared in shining dust, but I didn’t care much. The combustion curse was broken. We had been victorious.
I looked at Robert. He was staring out the window with a wondering expression.
“I didn’t do it,” he said softly. “I stopped. I could stop.”
“Of course you did,” I said fiercely. I leaned my head on his shoulder, and he sighed quietly. For once he didn’t sound sad.
* * *
Agnes was not there when we got back.
The bath had been drained and the worst of the mess cleaned up. By the time I found her note, pinned to the front door (we had not even looked as we pushed it open) I had already realised what she must have done. Washing off the silver dust and dressing afresh, I set off into the lengthening shadows of afternoon. The rain had eased and the air was heady with the scent of crushed petals.
The Chamomile Heart was open, spilling golden lamplight into the street. I paused at the window, watching Agnes mix leaves at the counter. She looked very tired, but not hurt. As she passed over the cup, she caught my eye and her face lit up with a smile.
“You’re all right,” she said, coming quickly to the door. “And Robert?”
“He’s…” I didn’t want to risk saying out loud, I think he’s getting better. “I left him copying the maps. Just in case, he said.”
“I should have waited for you,” Agnes said apologetically. “But I’d left the shop too long. Next time I need to see an apothecary, I’d like to be able to pay in coins.”
“I would like to never see an apothecary again,” I said.
Only that was not really true. Absolution Crane had said she could give me a way home, if I could pay. And I could not. There were things I wasn’t desperate enough to sell yet – my memories, my secrets, the colour of my eyes. Still, I would not stop dreaming about it. There might be a way.
Agnes held the door open. “Can you help? There’s a bit of a crowd.”
I took off my coat and picked up the teapot. This, I could do.
© Faith Mudge 2014