Lyra was twenty when it happened.
She woke up from what felt like a nightmare she couldn’t remember. Her body jolted, jackknifing as she whirled up, sucking air into her lungs in a shuddering gasp.
Something was wrong.
For a moment, she didn’t know what. It had been a bad dream, she rationalised. She couldn’t remember it, but that had to explain the sudden awakening, the uneasiness coiling in her stomach like a writhing snake.
She took several deep breaths, willing herself to calm down. She shuffled back down, curling up into the bunk, shutting her eyes. It would be alright. It would be fine.
She settled down and tried to remember a story, one of the first ones Maggie had taught her. It was a distraction, a comfort, and would lull her to sleep again soon enough.
Only, it wouldn’t come.
Lyra’s eyes opened again.
Perhaps it had been too long since she last told it, she soothed herself. She was tired, disoriented. She’d momentarily forgotten it. She’d try a different one, one she’d told barely a day or so ago.
But it, too, wouldn’t come to her.
Lyra sat up.
She tried. She sat and racked her brain, scouring for stories, begging for one to recall itself to her. She’d never forgotten a story before – how could she suddenly lose all her stories now?
Something was not right.
Lyra swung her legs over the side of the bunk. She ripped a book off the shelves, one of the many she still hadn’t been able to decode.
She opened it, and in the bright moonlight filtering through the windows, it was clear the pages were blank.
No confusing glyphs to mystify her, just white paper.
Fear roiled in Lyra’s chest.
“Coco,” she whispered, stumbling out of the vardo. “Coco, something’s wrong.”
She saw the horse tethered by the caravan blink. Her eyes were wide and her ears were pressed back.
“Something’s wrong, alright,” Coco said. “I can smell it on you.”
Lyra swallowed. “Coco, do you remember any of my stories? The ones I told yesterday?”
Coco whinnied, shaking her head.
Lyra clutched the blank storybook tighter.
“I think my stories have been stolen,” she said in a soft voice.
The next day, Lyra looked through the books again.
All were blank. White, stark pages, free of the puzzling noise that brought her so much frustration. How she wanted it back, now. The blank pages were even scarier, somehow.
“This isn’t normal,” Coco had said that night. After realising the stories were stolen, Lyra had paced around the vardo for some time, racking her brain as to how the stories could have disappeared. The full moon had hung high in the sky, shimmering off Coco’s dark coat. The horse had kept her ears pressed back the whole time, until the moon finally sank.
“It has to be magic,” she’d continued. “But not fairy magic – fairies can’t steal. That means it must have been a witch.”
That had disturbed Lyra even further. Fairy magic was one thing; formidably strong, it made sense that only fairies had power enough to be capable of stealing stories from her mind.
But fairies, as the fairy horse had said, could not steal.
They could charm you. Trick you into bargaining away your entire life to them, all your possessions and treasures.
But they could not steal. And Lyra knew, her stories had been stolen. Stolen from page and all living memory, as if they’d never existed in the first place, and no fairy could have done that.
However, witches weren’t like fairies. They were humans who willingly experimented with magic – dangerous, as magic had unpredictable and often unpleasant effects on humans.
But dabble they did, and they could become powerful in their own right.
Even so, Lyra had never known any witch to be powerful enough to ransack her mind, and the idea that there could be one out there capable of doing so scared her.
Fairies had rules. They were predictable, and it was easy to stay wary of them and steer clear of their tricks. But witches? Their rules varied from witch to witch, and they were much harder to avoid. Like her, they tended to be nomadic – travelling from town to town, offering various spells and potions and whimsies. Fantastical solutions that varied according to the witch’s area of study and expertise. For a time, Lyra and Maggie had travelled alongside a woman with cat’s eyes who could use the moon’s energy to fuel crystals for various purposes. However, she’d never been able to do anything about Maggie’s voice.
So Lyra had no idea what kind of person could have stolen her stories and blanked her books. And she had no idea where they could be, or what they would want with them.
And that scared her.
Lyra closed the book she’d been holding.
She stepped out of the caravan, walking around to hitch Coco up and prepare to leave. “We can’t go to Yarlesford as planned,” she said. “Not if I don’t have any stories to tell there, now. I wonder, how does one find a witch?”
“With difficulty,” Coco snorted. “They have a smell, though. I’ve no hound’s nose, but it’s a start. I could smell the witch all over your nightclothes, so perhaps we can track them a while.”
“Good,” Lyra said, managing a half smile. “Where does the smell lead?”
Coco glanced back at her, and tossed her head in the direction of the forest. Lyra’s heart sank. It would be very easy to lose the trail in there, even if Coco was a hunting hound and not a horse.
“How does your nose compare to a regular horse’s?” Lyra asked.
“Better,” Coco said. “But one of your dogs could still do better than me. So I’m afraid it doesn’t count for much.”
“Better than nothing. Let’s go.”
Lyra hopped into the front of the caravan, snapping the reigns, and Coco trotted off in pursuit of the witch’s scent. As the dark forest enveloped them, sticks and old leaves snapping under the wheels, Lyra’s uneasiness grew.
The forest was a strange place. Souls gathered there, attracted by the greenery and life. They’d tend plants, nurture flowers with life they could no longer hold. Overtime, they’d grow fainter and less corporeal, eventually dissolving into the forest itself. It seemed like a nice sort of afterlife, but travelling past the ghosts always felt eerie. Even when none could be seen, Lyra always felt as though she was being watched.
By the time Coco lost the trail, Lyra was just plain lost, with no clue of how to return to the road. They were in a dark stretch of trees sheltering a nearly-obscured stream, and with the canopy dulling the sky it was hard to even know how long they’d been in the forest.
She hopped off the caravan, pulling a few sticks from the wheel spokes. “This was a bad idea,” she groaned.
Coco put her ears back. “You said to follow the scent!”
“I did, and I’m not blaming this on you. I should have thought about what would happen if we got lost.”
She sighed, looking around. “Can your nose lead us back?”
Coco harrumphed. “Not really,” she said sheepishly. “It’s too far away to pick up the smell from here. Human smells fade fast in the forest.”
Lyra climbed onto the front, crouching with her head resting on her forearms. How could this have happened? She couldn’t figure out a way out of this mess, and that was growing more frustrating than the mess itself.
A sharp whinny from Coco broke Lyra out of her reverie, and she looked up.
A glowing blue light floated across to the caravan. Coco put her ears back in alarm as the orb floated past her, landing like a dust mote next to Lyra.
Lyra peered at it, seeing the faint outline of a humanlike body within the light.
“Pixie,” Coco said in a warning voice. “Don’t let it bite.”
“I won’t bite,” a voice like tiny bells rang out. “Not unless you tell me a story!”
Lyra blinked. “A story?”
“Yes!” the pixie called. “You’re a storyteller, aren’t you? I saw your van, the books inside. You can tell stories!”
The pixie jumped into the air, hovering close to Lyra’s face. Up close, she could just see the tiny creature’s beaming face, cherubic smile hiding a mouthful of needle-like, venomous teeth.
“I’m sorry,” Lyra said warily. “No stories. They’ve all been stolen.”
The pixie’s eyes widened. “Stolen? How?”
“We don’t know,” Lyra said, glancing at Coco. “We think it was a witch. We know it had to have been some type of magic. All the books are blank, and so is my head. I can’t even seem to make any stories up on the spot, anymore. It’s like the worst kind of writer’s block.”
The pixie did not bite. Instead, it cooed sadly. “And I was so hoping for a story. Such a shame for you, too. What else can you do?”
“Nothing,” Lyra said, and as she said the word her heart clenched.
She only really had one useful skill in the world. She could do some practical things; drive a caravan, haggle in the market for necessities, count coins and check when she was being shortchanged. She could wash herself and her clothes on the road, fix the vardo’s wheels as they became worn, and many other little things.
All things most people could already do. All things she only did so she could keep doing what she could really do – tell stories.
And now she no longer had that, and she was no longer useful.
The pixie cocked its head. “Magic, you say? Do you know what kind? Perhaps it can be reversed.”
Lyra shook her head. “We didn’t even see the witch, so we can’t know what they did to steal the stories,” she said. “We were hoping to track them, but… we got lost. We don’t really know what to do.”
The pixie smiled. “I know someone who may be able to help,” it said.
The hair on the back of Lyra’s neck stood up.
“My master is a great fae,” the pixie explained. “A lord of the fairy king. He’s quite powerful. Perhaps he could help?”
Coco let out a warning whinny. Lyra swallowed hard.
“Deals with fairies are dangerous,” she said cautiously. “What will your master to do me if I ask for help?”
“You’d have to ask to find out,” the pixie said. “And besides, if your stories were stolen with magic, then you’ll need magic to get it back. Won’t you?”
The pixie was right.
“You can stay here, stay lost, and become one of the forest ghosts,” the pixie said. “And as nice as the ghosts are, I’m sure you don’t want to join the forest just yet. Or, you can come with me, and we’ll see if we can’t negotiate something.”
Coco’s ears remained pulled back, but she didn’t argue.
Lyra took a deep breath.
“Alright,” she said. “Take me to him. But you have to promise me he’ll let me go if I don’t like his terms.”
The pixie grinned, showing all of its needle teeth. “Of course,” it said.
It flew to the door, tapping it pointedly. Lyra quickly opened it, watching the pixie whirl inside.
It held up a small piece of chalk that Lyra hadn’t seen before – something it had to have withdrew out of seemingly thin air. Coco whinnied nervously.
“It’s going to make a door,” she said. “I can’t follow you in.”
Lyra swallowed. She didn’t want to follow the pixie alone; she felt safer with the fairy horse’s warnings.
“Just don’t eat any food, sleep in his home, or accept any gifts,” Coco said. “Not until you strike a deal, anyway. And should you make a deal, be very careful. You know the power of words; make sure they’re chosen carefully.”
Lyra nodded. The pixie drew a white rectangle in a bare space on one of the caravan walls, the chalk scratching unpleasantly on the wood.
The wood within the rectangle shimmered and blurred, dizzying Lyra’s eyes. She blinked hard and struggled to focus, watching the wood morph into the design of an ornate carved door. A vine-like handle curled out of the wall, and the pixie looked back at Lyra with a beaming grin.
“Open it!” it said.
Lyra took hold of the rough knotted handle, opening the door.
As the door swung open, Lyra gasped in surprise.
The door revealed a huge, grand drawing room. Confusion whirled through Lyra’s mind, taking a moment for her to understand that the door had become a portal between her little vardo and some huge fae mansion.
She’d seen mansions, manors and grand houses. She’d been invited to palaces and castles. She’d even slept in a drawing room like this one with many other children, for a time; one that was faded, much dustier and colder. But it was still a shock walking out of her humble wooden home into a vast space that was merely one room of many. Her vardo could have fit into the room ten times over.
It felt as though the caravan was inside the room, actually – stepping out the door felt like stepping out of the vardo. But when Lyra turned around, there was a floral-papered wall behind her, with the wooden door showing a slice of her vardo beyond.
She swallowed hard, trying to contain the growing nerves bubbling in her stomach. She’d never seen magic anything like this before.
“How did you do that?” she asked the pixie.
The pixie twirled the little piece of chalk. “The lord gives this to all of his servants,” it explained. “It’s enchanted. You envision the place you want to go as you draw the door. Of course, you then have to be careful not to envision the wrong place. It takes focus.”
“Our own Ziggy got themselves lost many a time when I first gave them the chalk,” a soft voice echoed through the room.
Lyra flinched, but the tiny pixie just made a face, cheeks turning a darker blue. “I only got lost twice!”
“The first time I had to find you and retrieve you myself,” the speaker said, appearing in the true doorway of the drawing room. Lyra saw a tall figure, pointed ears and a tufted tail before lowering her eyes, scared.
“I wasn’t even sure where you were, until I received an owl telling me you’d gotten stuck in some barren desert,” the fairy said, footsteps echoing as he crossed the floor. There was a joking tone in his voice, and the pixie made a grumbling sound.
“Of course you would have gotten trapped in an environment with no doors. The second time you’d meant to travel to the northern kingdom, and ended up in the south. The king still tells me how bizarre it looked, you dropping in the middle of a court session unannounced demanding to see a queen on the other side of the world.”
“I was thinking of how hot it would be in the north,” the pixie protested. “I was thinking of those southern winter furnaces.”
“Yes, it was a good reminder on the importance of focus, wasn’t it?” the fairy said. Lyra looked up, and saw the fairy was smiling.
He turned to look at her, turquoise-blue eyes sending an electric feeling rippling across her shoulders. “And who is this?” he asked the pixie. “Not another unexpected accident with the chalk? Unintentionally escorting strangers is certainly a new one.”
“Not an accident!” the pixie insisted. “I meant to bring her. She wants help.”
“Help?” the fairy asked. He surveyed Lyra quietly. Lyra swallowed hard, disliking the feeling of being inspected.
Not to say she wasn’t trying to sneak an assessment of the fairy herself, while also avoiding his gaze.
He was taller than her, though somehow more delicate, with slender limbs and fine features that made her feel ungainly. He had long silver hair braided off to the side, laid over his shoulder and reaching his waist.
His skin was a tawny colour, lighter than hers, but dark against his pale hair and bright eyes. She realised he had freckles too, but they were silver, like fine glitter dusted across his cheeks.
The ears and tail were the most offputting. The ears were like hers, except they curved upwards in points that stopped level with his hairline. And the tail was like a lion’s; long and curling lazily from side to side, a tuft of silver fur brushing the floor.
If she were to tell a story about him, she’d describe him as ethereally handsome, in a way that made her feel like a little brown mouse cornered by a sleek, silver cat. She’d make special note of his hands folded politely by his sides, fingers tipped with claws.
His clothes were as fine as the room, soft silk and delicate embroidery. He wore a silver and red brocade vest over a dark silk shirt with long poet sleeves and fitted silver cuffs. A wide red sash wound around his waist over soft loose trousers that matched his shirt’s colour, gathered at the ankle by silver cuffs.
His clothes were casual, yet very fine and miles above the nicest clothes Lyra could have ever owned. She suddenly felt self-conscious in her rough-weaved side-split tunic, leggings and shirt. The leather belt around her waist was probably the nicest thing she wore. Her boots were dirty, she realised; not like the fairy’s clean bare feet on the cream carpet.
The fairy took her in, and out of spite she took him in. Yet in the end she felt worse off for it, somehow.
“What help do you need?” he asked softly.
Lyra glanced at the pixie, who stared at her expectantly.
“I’m a storyteller,” she began cautiously. The fairy smiled, his eyes lighting up.
“But,” she said quickly, “my stories have been stolen. Don’t get your hopes up. I’m here because I need help getting them back.”
“I thought I recognised you,” the fairy said. “I was in one of the palaces where you performed. You and your signing friend.”
Lyra’s chest twinged at the memory of Maggie. That performance would have been a long time ago. “I don’t remember performing for any fairies.”
“You wouldn’t,” the fairy said. “We don’t announce ourselves. But we like to come to the human world to see stories, sometimes.”
The thought of fairies, hiding or disguising themselves among her audiences, surprised her. For some reason, she’d only ever imagined fairies inviting storytellers to their own homes and palaces; never stooping to mingle with human folk. Yet, it made sense. Fairies did love stories.
“It was in the southern kingdom’s palace,” the fairy said. “I was invited by the king. I was accompanying our queen to a diplomatic visit, and it coincided with your travels.”
The southern kingdom was known for actively communicating and negotiating with the fairy kingdom, even while other kingdoms kept a wary distance. Lyra should have known that if there would have been any fairies at any of her performances, it would be in the South.
“You were wonderful,” the fairy continued, eyes shining. “It was like a dream. Your kind talk about our magic, but I’ve never seen a spell like the one you wove over that stuffy court.”
Lyra shuffled uncomfortably. “Well, do you remember the story?” she asked.
The fairy opened his mouth, and frowned. He stared at the floor, almost visibly rifling through his mind to find the memory. One ear twitched.
“No,” he said, sounding affronted. “I always thought, as long as I’d live, I’d never forget it. How could that have happened?”
“It was stolen,” Lyra said. The fairy looked up at her, eyes widening.
“Wiped from living memory,” he said, sounding slightly awed. “All your stories? That’s a clever trick.”
“It’s not one I appreciate,” Lyra grumbled. “I want them back.”
The fairy smiled. “And you want my help?”
Lyra nodded. “They were stolen by magic,” she said. “I think by a witch, though I have no idea who, or why. Your pixie said, since they were stolen by magic, only magic can return them. And, well…” she gestured towards the fairy.
The fairy nodded. “I could try to help you,” he said. “But I won’t do it for free. What are you willing to give to have your stories back?”
Lyra swallowed. “I don’t know,” she said carefully. “I don’t want to make any offers.”
Offering things was dangerous; fairies would always demand more than your first offer. And the worst thing you could do was to offer ‘anything’ – such a declaration would invite a fairy to demand everything.
The fairy cracked a half-smile. “Wise,” he said. “Have you dealt with fairies before?”
Lyra thought of Coco, and Maggie’s stories about entertaining fairy courts. She shook her head.
The fairy sighed. “Here’s a suggestion,” he said. “Open to negotiation. I will help you bring back your stories, if you spend ten years of your life living in my house, telling me stories each night. Make each one a performance. Make each one different, even if it’s the same story again.”
Lyra balked. “No,” she said shakily. “Ten whole years? That’s a large part of my life.”
“If I don’t help you, you’ll never have your stories back again in your whole life,” the fairy said. “That’s a long time to live without them. I wonder, what else can you do aside from telling stories?”
Lyra felt her cheeks flush with fury. Was it possible the fairy knew of what she’d told the pixie?
“Three years,” she said. “Ten is too long. The world will forget about me after ten years.”
The fairy nodded, smiling. “A fair point,” he said. “What’s a story without an audience, after all? Three years it is.”
Lyra’s mind whirled. “Three consecutive years? Or any three years of my life?”
The fairy smirked. “That’s an idea,” he said thoughtfully. “Perhaps a year here and there. Each of your milestone years.”
Lyra snorted. “What milestones?”
“The year of your wedding,” he said. “The year of your first child’s birth, and the year of your first great loss. You must spend those years with me.”
Lyra grinned. She had never seen herself getting married and having children, with her nomadic life. She’d never even dreamed of it, as much as the occasional person along her travels may have caught her eye.
As for her greatest loss; she’d already lost Maggie, and now her stories.
The fairy would never have his three years, because Lyra wouldn’t have them either.
“It’s a deal,” she said.
The fairy smiled widely, and she saw for the first time that his canines were wickedly sharp.
“Ziggy,” he said, turning on his heel and striding out of the room. “Bring my guest into the dining room.”
The pixie smiled at Lyra, gently tugging a lock of her hair to lead her towards the door. Lyra dragged her feet. “I can’t eat any of your food!”
The fairy looked back, giving her a strange look. “Not before you couldn’t,” he said. “But we have a deal now. I can’t keep you here unless it’s one of your three years, remember.”
He smiled. “Besides, you look as though you haven’t eaten in days. And like you’ve been dragged backwards through a forest. Let me treat you as my guest.”
Lyra swallowed, trying not to think of her dirty boots, and nodded. “Alright.”
She hadn’t thought much of her state after realising the stories were stolen, but now she was noticing how tired she was, how disheveled she looked. It was worse in the fine house, clean and ordered and tidy.
“What about my horse?” she asked as the fairy and pixie led her through a corridor with high ceilings, canopied with vines. “And my vardo? They’re still in the forest. My horse will be waiting.”
“They’re already here,” the fairy said. “I arranged for them to be brought once the deal was struck. And you’ll find travel times are not a problem for me.”
Lyra remembered the chalk, and decided to keep quiet. How and when he’d arranged it she couldn’t have known. Had he known all along that she’d visit him and make a deal?
“Does my horse know?” she asked. “About the deal?”
The fairy smiled. “Your fairy horse,” he said. “How did you come to acquire such a beast? She’s a fine thing.”
“My friend, with her hand-signs,” Lyra said, shrugging. “Before I met her. I didn’t even know the horse was fae until after my friend… passed on.”
It may have been her imagination, but it seemed that the fairy’s shoulders sank slightly. “I’m sorry to hear that. She was marvellous too, with her hands.”
Lyra didn’t speak. The fairy didn’t press further.
They walked into a huge room with chandeliers made of raw crystals, glittering by way of small pixies like Ziggy who sat in the fixtures, staring curiously down at them. Below the chandeliers was a great long table with many seats, enough to hold a banquet. Lyra felt very strange when the fairy pulled a chair out for her, inviting her to sit by the head of the table.
He sat at the head, and plates of food appeared as he waved his hand. To her relief, it was just simple fare, not feast – fish and bread and fruit. A pitcher of water appeared too, and he poured her glass.
Lyra swallowed. “The deal is confirmed, right? You can only hold me during the agreed years?”
“Yes,” the fairy said. “You’re quite safe now, and free. You can leave anytime you wish.”
Lyra tried to analyse his words, work out if he was slipping a trick in them. But he was very straightforward, and she couldn’t find anything in his words that might indicate a trap.
She picked up the bread and took a bite.
The meal was quiet, and uneventful. The fairy didn’t eat, just sipping water, and Lyra tried not to be embarrassed as she tore into the food. There was cutlery beside the plate, but she only knew how to use the knife and spoon. Forks were not a common luxury to her, and the silver of the knife and spoon felt foreign in her hands; she was used to steel or horn.
When she’d finished, the fairy stood.
“I know I said you were free, but I can’t let you leave still looking as though you’d travelled a hundred miles,” he said. “Please stay the night, at least. My house staff can arrange a room for you to stay in, wash your clothes. Let me be a good host.”
It was an invitation, not a demand. Lyra took a deep breath and agreed. “But I want to see my horse, first.”
He walked her to the stable where he assured her Coco was being kept.
“You know, she can’t be your horse,” he said. “Fae horses don’t belong to people.”
“I know,” Lyra said. “But she stays with me. And most people don’t know she’s fae, so as far as they’re concerned she’s mine. But really, she’s only mine the way the stories are.”
“Oh?” the fairy asked. “What way is that?”
Lyra twisted her hands. It felt strange, opening up to the fairy. She didn’t quite trust him. Or she was afraid he’d laugh. Perhaps it was both.
“Most of them aren’t mine at all,” she explained. “Maggie first started teaching them to me.”
“Your signing friend,” he said, and Lyra nodded.
“For a long time, I only knew her stories. Then I began hearing stories from other people – audience members, people with their own stories. I asked if I could use them, and they said yes. So I began collecting them. I could remember where each one came from, which village and town, and who told them to me.”
She shrugged. “Only a handful of stories are ideas that I thought up by myself,” she said. “And even then… stories are meant to be shared. Not hoarded, or stolen. Stories are for everyone; that’s why we tell them to any audience, from kings to beggars.”
She frowned. “That’s what really bothers me about my stories being stolen, I think,” she said. “It’s not right. Stories need to be told and shared to thrive and grow. They’re like cats. Not really belonging to any single one of us, but still needing our care and attention.”
“Whoever stole them doesn’t want to share,” the fairy said. “And cats don’t survive if they’re trapped inside and starved.”
They reached the stables, and Coco’s head popped above her stable door. “There you are!” she whinnied. “I was afraid he’d locked you up and you’d gotten yourself trapped.”
“No, she’s a wary one,” the fairy said. “You advised her well.”
Coco snorted. “She’s a foolish one, but she’s mine,” was all she said.
The fairy glanced at Lyra, smirking. “She’s yours the way the stories are hers?” he asked.
Coco harrumphed in confusion, but Lyra smiled.
After feeding and brushing Coco, Lyra returned with the fairy to the house, which from the outside revealed itself as a huge mansion.
It was an odd building, a mix of traditional architectural elements and something very strange. Brickwork melded with crystals, quartz jutting out from the grout. Decorative arches were topped with snarling gargoyles. Gothic windows were half-obscured with ivy and thorns.
The garden at the front of the mansion had the same eerie feeling, with tall, dark hedges and odd sculptures. A large pond revealed itself to be filled with eerie glowing creatures as well as ornamental carp, and weeping willows seemed a staple fixture. The roses were black, and pixies buzzed between the flowerbeds instead of bees.
Around the house, the weirdness continued. Lyra was familiar with sprawling estates, manors perched among wide tracts of open land with the odd smattering of woods. But this house had no land, as far as Lyra could see. The hedges bordering the garden were immediately followed by tall pines, twisted knotting things that obscured the landscape beyond. The house was surrounded with a green curious darkness, but for the odd ghost that peered out between the branches. Lyra had never known such a grand house that was so surrounded by forest.
It looked like a cursed cave dressing itself up as a fine house, and it felt oddly jarring. Lyra didn’t know how to feel about it.
Inside wasn’t much different. Plants grew of their own volition all through the house, winding around fixtures and furniture, canopying ceilings. They were no potted plants; some of them seemed rooted in the walls themselves. Servants peeked through doors with glittering eyes, and the few they passed looked mostly human but for their pointed ears and the intense turquoise gaze they directed at Lyra. Many of the hallways were lit by glowing crystals rather than candles. Lyra learned that this was how the chandelier usually worked – the pixies had just been there to gawk at her.
“What’s there to gawk at?” Lyra snorted when the fairy told her. He just smiled, like he’d told a joke she hadn’t understood.
“There’s not much to it,” he said. “You’re a storyteller. We love stories. If not for the theft, they’d probably be clambering all over you by now, demanding tales.”
He showed her the kitchens, the various drawing rooms, and even the library.
“This isn’t much use to me,” she laughed when he brought her in with a proud flourish.
The fairy visibly deflated. “Why not? You’re a storyteller!”
“And I can’t read,” Lyra said. “All my stories? I memorised them. Tell me a story once and I can commit it to memory like a photograph. Letters, though – Maggie tried to teach them to me, but they were always too confusing.”
The fairy shook his head. “A storyteller who can’t read,” he mused. “I fear most of these books may be blank anyway. You must have known more stories than anyone in the world, and a large chunk of them would have been copied into these.”
Lyra took a book off the shelf, and sure enough it fell open to blank pages. “How is it that the witch only stole the stories from me, yet everyone seems to have forgotten them?”
“Because it’s as you said,” the fairy said. “Stories belong to everyone, not just you. When they stole them from you, they stole them from all of us.”
Lyra fitted the book back onto the shelf, and turned to see the fairy gazing curiously at her. She frowned reflexively. “What is it?”
“Something’s odd with you,” he said. “Not right.”
Lyra frowned. “Aren’t fairies meant to be known for being polite?”
The fairy flushed, tawny cheeks turning a dark scarlet. “I didn’t mean it like that,” he said, holding his hands palm-up. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean you’re odd. I meant…”
He took a deep breath. “Something in you’s been tampered with,” he said. “I’m not sure, but I’m sure Coco could sense it too. I can smell it.”
Lyra flushed now, too. “I smell bad? Well, that’s hardly surprising! I’ve been on the road for weeks, and spent the past day crashing through a forest!”
“No, not like that!” the fairy sputtered. “It’s – like when something’s been burned. It’s been altered, changed. It’s like that.”
His eyebrows knitted together. “Do you mind if I put my hands on you?” he asked. “Just so I can see better.”
Lyra made a face. “Where do you want to put them?”
The fairy was looking thoroughly exasperated. Lyra felt a little sorry for him; he was trying to help, she could see it, but everything he said just came out wrong. “I’m not trying to violate you! Just your shoulders.”
Lyra couldn’t help herself. She smirked. “You’re just going to violate my shoulders?”
The fairy fixed her with a put-out glare.
“Just let me help you,” he finally grumbled, and Lyra smiled and stepped forward.
He placed his palms on her shoulders, and frowned harder slightly, turquoise eyes widening as he stared intently at Lyra.
Lyra couldn’t be sure, but she had a distinct feeling he was looking through her. Beyond her, somehow. Her skin prickled, and then tingled when his eyes focused on her chest. She wasn’t sure if it was magic, or just sheer discomfort at being stared at.
The fairy sucked in a harsh breath. Lyra gulped.
“That’s not right,” he said. He removed his hands, stepping back. His frown had changed into an expression of worry. “I don’t know how, but… the witch did something very dangerous. I think I know how they took your stories.”
Lyra’s heart thudded. “Tell me!”
The fairy shifted uncomfortably. “You won’t like it.”
Lyra clenched her fists. “I don’t like not being able to tell my stories. This can hardly be worse.”
First, the fairy made her sit down. He directed her to a chaise lounge in the library, where she supposed people would take books to read. Here, he told her what he’d seen.
“There’s a shard in your heart,” he explained. “A shard of rock. Enchanted, hence the smell – it’s oozing dark energy, blocking your own power.”
“Blocking power? I don’t have any magic,” Lyra said, confused.
“No, but you have power,” the fairy said. “All creatures do. It flows through us, energising us, an active life force. And this witch has blocked it. He’s interrupted the flow through your heart, and I think that’s why you can’t think up new stories. It’s blocked your creative ability.”
The storyteller had nothing to say. Her mouth fell open.
“What’s worse is the shard can’t sit there benignly forever,” the fairy said. “The energy is going to build up, and it’s going to explode. If you don’t want to die before we can find the witch and have them remove the shard, you’re going to have to be very careful.”
“Careful?!” Lyra snapped, standing up. “We need to find the witch now! We can’t afford careful!”
“See, that’s exactly what you shouldn’t be doing,” the fairy said drily, taking hold of Lyra’s arm and pulling her back onto the couch. “Getting excited, worked up. Strong emotions may overload the shard progressively, building up until it explodes with the pressure. The more emotional you are, the faster it’ll build up, giving us less time to find the witch.”
“I can’t just shut off my emotions,” Lyra protested. “I can’t be heartless. You know I can’t.”
“Of course you can’t,” the fairy said gently. “Nobody can. But you can learn to control them, regulate them. Calm yourself down when you feel yourself being taken over by them. I can help you with that, and that will give you more time.”
Lyra realised her hands were trembling. She clenched them tightly.
“I want to talk to Coco,” she said, and she hated how shaky her voice sounded.