Dawn saw Lyra wake early in the darkness, slipping out of bed and hastily pulling on Sterlyn’s clothes, her boots and scarf, and racing to the stables. The vardo was ready to leave, but that didn’t stop her from checking it over several times, making sure the wheels were oiled, her belongings were stowed away where they couldn’t be thrown about, that the internal fixtures were secured down.
When Coco and Sterlyn emerged from the house, blinking and yawning as the sun rose, they found Lyra sitting on the front of the vardo, steps stowed away so she could swing her legs off the front deck.
“You weren’t kidding about wanting to leave,” Coco grumbled, hauling herself up onto the deck and sitting next to Lyra, yawning. She wasn’t wearing a dress today, which Lyra found somehow both a pity and a mercy. Instead she wore a long shirt over riding leggings and knee-high boots, all in black.
Sterlyn was dressed in his usual loose, fine clothes, though today he wore soft slippers instead of bare feet. They looked impractical, but somehow never scuffed or picked up dirt in the muddy stable yard.
He rubbed his eyes blearily before drawing a new, vardo-sized chalk door in the wall of the stables. “Ziggy is waiting for us,” he explained as the bricks inside the chalk boundary shimmered. “They’re close to finding the witch, they think.”
“Good,” Lyra said, ignoring how her heart thudded.
The door settled, and Sterlyn pushed it open to reveal a dark forest with a narrow track through it, and a little blue light hovering near the door.
He jumped up on to the vardo, and the wheels slowly began to turn. Lyra was surprised by the lack of jolting and bumping – the fairy hadn’t been exaggerating when he said he’d make the wheels run as smooth as if on glass.
The vardo rolled through the door, and into the forest. Lyra saw that, on this side, the door led out of the stone foundations of an old bridge.
The wheels stopped once they were through, and Sterlyn hopped off to ‘close’ the door – something Lyra hadn’t seen yet. She learned it involved him rubbing his hands along the chalk outline, blurring and fading it away. As the chalk was dusted off the stones, the door shimmered and faded, leaving lichen-covered granite.
“Miss Lyra!” Ziggy called, distracting Lyra from the marvel of the disappearing door. “Hello again! You look much well rested since we last met.”
Lyra had no doubt she also looked much cleaner, too. “Hello,” she said. “How has the tracking been going?”
“Very good,” the pixie said, eyes bright. “The witch left a strong trail when he raced away with his thievings. I believe we may trace him to his own lair.”
“He?” Coco asked, craning her neck to stare at the pixie. “How can you be sure the witch is a ‘he’?”
The pixie tapped their cheek. “This nose knows,” Ziggy said. “It knows the witch is a he, and he is young and full of bitter intent. It also knows the witch dabbled in darkest magicks to steal Miss Lyra’s tales.”
“We know that too,” Sterlyn said, hopping back onto the deck of the vardo. “Which is why we need to find him with haste. Off you go, Ziggy!”
The pixie whirled away from Lyra to chase the trail ahead, fading into a blue, glowing light. The vardo’s wheels began to roll, following the pixie as they trailed the witch’s path.
“Can Ziggy really pick up as much as the witch’s gender just from a scent?” Lyra asked. “Coco could barely trace it it all.”
“Ziggy isn’t tracing a scent,” Sterlyn explained. “They’re tracing a distinct magical signature, something Coco can’t quite do. Clearly this witch’s signature is quite unique.”
“I could smell the magic, though,” Coco said. “And while I can’t tell much of the witch from it, I can tell it was wrong. It smelled evil.”
The track soon gave way to a proper road, and Lyra couldn’t help but feel self conscious as the traffic increased and they began to pass wagons and travellers. They made quite a sight – a painted vardo rolling along with no horse to pull it, occupied by two fairies and a storyteller, all with a pixie leading the way.
The trees thinned out too, giving way to paddocks and villages. Lyra inhaled deeply as a faint wind ruffled her hair. She so loved being on the road.
The pixie suddenly jolted, moving erratically. It careered off to the side, making a beeline for another caravan, with crescent moons and crystal clusters painted on the side.
Lyra clutched Coco’s arm. “Is that the witch?” she asked. She hadn’t imagined Ziggy could have meant they were this close.
“It can’t be,” Coco said, frowning. “I don’t smell our witch’s magic. This witch’s magic smells… odd. Different.”
The vardo followed the pixie, pulling to a stop alongside the caravan. Lyra hopped off the deck, running around the caravan, where a woman ran out and nearly collided with her.
She was tall with ebony skin and masses of curly dark hair, waving her arms around her head. She stumbled back upon seeing Lyra, fixing yellow, cat-slitted eyes on her.
“Is this your pixie?!” she demanded in a musical voice. “Call off your hornet!”
“Ziggy!” Sterlyn called from the vardo. “Why are we harassing the wrong witch?”
“She knows!” Ziggy sang, emerging from a tuft of the woman’s hair. “I smell his magic about her. Question her!”
Lyra stared at the woman, who stared back.
She noticed the woman’s hands, which were stained black and clawed. Her mouth was slightly open in a faint snarl, and Lyra saw she had a forked, reptilian tongue. All signs of a human who’d dabbled in magic arts, let it corrupt them and stain them.
The woman was a witch.
“Knows what?” she snapped. “All I know is some pixie flew into my hair and keeps biting me!”
“Ziggy, away,” Sterlyn commanded, and the pixie reluctantly buzzed away from the witch.
Lyra took a deep breath. “We’re looking for a witch,” she explained. “The pixie is just following a trail. A – magical signature, I think. And it traced it to you, for some reason.”
“Well, what witch is this?” the woman asked, patting her hair down and adjusting her many-layered skirts. They were dark shades of several colours – midnight blue, deep purple, rusty crimson. “I know many witches. You’ll have to be a bit more specific.”
“Someone who could steal stories,” Lyra said carefully. “Someone who could put a stone shard in a person’s heart.”
The woman froze. Her catlike eyes burned holes into Lyra’s chest.
“You’d better come inside,” she said, and her voice indicated that she wasn’t giving Lyra an invitation.
Lyra followed her into her caravan, which was larger than her own. She noticed it, too, had no horse. Inside, though, it was a mess – half-cleaned cauldrons stacked up on each other alongside mountains of books, notes on sheafs of paper. Piles of crystals dominated what should have been the sleeping bunk, along with what looked like half made lamps.
“Sit,” the witch said, clearing a space at a built-in table. Cups whirled across to rest on the table, and the woman poured tea into them.
Sterlyn and Coco filed in after Lyra, eyes widening at the mess. The pixie settled next to the teapot, close to the warmth.
The woman sat across from Lyra, and took a big gulp from her own cup.
“So,” she said. “You’re looking for Robin.”
Lyra blinked. “Robin?” she asked.
The witch gasped. “Excuse me,” she said. “You don’t even know who I am.”
She extended a hand. “Tia,” she said. “Tia Lovelock, purveyor of magical-electrical goods and services, supplying the whole north with easily accessible home power.”
Lyra hesitated, before gingerly shaking the woman’s clawed hand. “Nice to, uh, meet you, Tia. I’m Lyra… storyteller.”
She gestured to the fairies. “Coco, my… usual vardo puller. Sterlyn, Lord of Roses.”
“Of the fairy court,” Sterlyn said, extending his own hand to shake Tia’s with no hesitation. “Assisting the storyteller in retrieving her stories.”
“And Ziggy, tracker of witches and biter of other witches!” Ziggy sang.
The witch nodded, staring oddly at each of them. “Right,” she said.
She clapped her hands together. “Right, so, Robin,” she said. “I’m supposing he’s the one who stole your stories.”
“You’d be correct,” Lyra said. “He took them straight from my mind – and it seems if I can’t remember them, nobody else can. He took the heart and essence of them out of the world completely.”
“Impressive,” Tia said with a low whistle. “Dastardly as all hell, but impressive. And the shard?”
“In my heart,” Lyra explained. “It’s there to block me from coming up with any new stories to replace my old ones, I think.” She glanced at Sterlyn, remembering what he’d said. “Blocking my body’s energy. I can’t get any access to my creative ability.”
Tia frowned, rubbing her blackened hands together. “Stone shards,” she said. “I remember that. I remember him. He approached me a while ago, which may explain why your pixie traced him to me.”
“Who is he?” Lyra urged. “Can you tell us about the shards?”
The witch chewed her lip. “It’s not a short story,” she warned.
“Tell us,” Coco said. “We need to know, if we’re going to keep tracking him.”
Tia nodded, taking another gulp of tea. “Very well,” she said.
“To explain, I need to start with my own specialties,” she said. “My magic comes from the moon, and as such waxes and wanes with it. It also means I can manipulate magnetism, gravity, and electricity.”
Lyra hadn’t heard of half those things, but Sterlyn nodded enthusiastically.
“This means I can make things lighter or heavier,” Tia said, noticing Lyra’s confusion. “Pin them down, or make them float. I can also make things stick together, repel each other, attract each other. It also means I can charge objects with energy.”
She pointed at the crystals. “I can use them like batteries,” she said. “Charge them up when the moon is full, then use the power when mine is low during crescent or dark moons. I’ve also found applications for this technique in the use of electrical-powered objects, which…”
She saw Lyra’s eyes widen in confusion again, and laughed. “I’ll explain another time,” she said. “Essentially, though, I make my business selling goods powered with energy, and I maintain customers by selling charged crystals to keep those goods energised.”
“You must make a fortune doing that,” Sterlyn said, and the witch nodded proudly.
“I’m quite well known in the witch order for my work,” she said with absolutely no humility. “My research and experimentation is going to revolutionise this world.”
Her eyes darkened. “Which is why I think Robin approached me.”
“What for?” Lyra urged.
“He had an idea for an… unusual application of my research,” Tia said carefully. “He wanted to use my electrical powers to create a spark of life.”
“To save lives?” Lyra asked.
“To reanimate the dead,” Tia said darkly.
Lyra heard Coco gasp, and felt her face drain of colour.
“To reanimate the dead goes against all of nature’s laws,” Sterlyn said softly. “That’s awful.”
“It was,” Tia said. “And I refused. I won’t have my powers, my research, used to play at being gods.”
Her eyes blazed. “Science and magic has so much potential to transform lives for the better, improve our society and move forward,” she said. “And he wanted to use it to – drag ghosts back from the forests, force them into bodies and lives they’ve long since passed wanting. Reverse the cycle of life. He wanted to make monsters.”
“Before I realised what he wanted to do – before I cut off contact with him, he mentioned his own research into the use of enchanted stone to manipulate the body’s energies,” Tia continued.
“That’s how we began communicating – his research into life energies corresponded well to my research into electrical energy. He’d come up with a way to manipulate and program stone, particularly obsidian, in such a way that it could manipulate the body’s energy.”
She stared at Lyra. “He told me its applications were for beneficial purposes, like improving energy flow and extending life. Not… blocking energy. Preventing flow, slowly killing people.”
She narrowed her eyes. “And if he’s found a way to make his shards this effective, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s found a way to use them to create his reanimated monsters, too.”
She looked at the three of them. “So, how are you going to stop him?”
Lyra blinked. “To be honest, we hadn’t gotten that far,” she admitted. “We were going to find him, to begin with. Then… I don’t know. Ask for the stories back?”
Tia burst into laughter, slamming her hand on the table. “Ask a thief to return his prize! You’re funny. I suppose you tell comedies, storyteller?”
Lyra flushed. “Better than stealing them back,” she snapped. “We would have figured it out.” She felt Coco’s hand on her arm, a warning to calm down. She took a deep breath.
“No you wouldn’t have,” Tia said firmly. “He’s powerful. More so than most witches, even me. He would kick you out on your asses and not pause to watch the door hit you on the way out. He wouldn’t need to. Especially if he’s got his monsters now, to act as bodyguards.”
She steepled her fingers. “If you want your stories back, you need an actual plan,” she said. “And I may have some ideas that could work.”
Lyra sat back, crossing her arms. “What, you’re going to help us?”
Tia’s lips formed a thin line. “Maybe,” she said. “Maybe I don’t want Robin’s backwards research and theft to smear the reputation of witches like myself. We have enough trouble with people seeing us as unscrupulous businessfolk. His actions will only enforce negative perception, and I’d rather not have my business become more difficult.”
She tossed her hair. “And besides, most of us are fair, honest businesspeople, not con artists. I sell truly useful goods and tools, not snake oil. We don’t deserve to have our name tainted.”
“So you’ll help us,” Coco said. The witch smiled.
“Maybe,” she said. “More tea?”
Tia explained that in order to get both the stories back and the shard safely out of Lyra’s body, they had to give the witch something that’d he’d want. Something he needed badly enough to be willing to co-operate with them.
It was a typical businessperson’s solution – bargaining. But it didn’t sit well with Lyra.
“What can we possibly offer him that he’d want?” she asked.
Tia shrugged. “He wanted my power,” she said. “I’m not sure I’m willing to give him that, though – considering he’d probably do much worse than steal stories with it.”
“Perhaps he’d want materials, valuables,” Sterlyn pondered. “More obsidian, or enchanted objects. There’s no shortage of that in the fairy realm. We could part with a few treasures if that would sway him.”
Lyra didn’t want to give the witch anything. He’d already taken enough from her, and the idea of bargaining with a thief put a sour taste in her mouth.
After some time, the group settled on offering materials and treasures from Sterlyn’s hoard. There wasn’t time to argue further – Ziggy was growing impatient, wishing to get back to the trail.
“We must hurry before the trail grows cold!” the little pixie said, stamping their foot on the table. “And time grows short for Lyra.”
The witch and two fairies looked at her.
Lyra blinked. “I feel fine,” she said.
As they left Tia’s caravan, though, she noticed how heavy her legs felt. She was so tired. The pulsing ache in her chest had become a background hum, but she wondered if it was growing stronger.
Tia’s caravan worked by way of her own magic, it turned out. It was a combination of the gravity magic she’d mentioned – lightening the load of her caravan – as well as a complicated trick of magnetism which attracted the caravan to the road ahead. As long as Tia kept the attraction point moving forward along the road, the caravan would roll forward to meet it, like a donkey chasing a perpetually out-of-reach carrot.
Tia’s caravan followed behind Lyra’s vardo, which trailed behind the tireless pixie still chasing Robin’s trail.
“Information was good,” it said as they left. “Knowing more about the witch makes the trail easier to recognise. We should move faster now!”
They followed the road through another village before night began to fall and it was growing hard to see. The pixie became the only bright point in the darkness, along with the faint glow cast by the moon.
At this point, Sterlyn disappeared through the door in the wall of the vardo. He soon reappeared with baskets of food, offering it to Lyra and Coco.
Ziggy stopped, zooming back the the vardo. “Pixies get to eat too!”
As the caravans halted on the side of the road, Tia visited the vardo, bringing her own food and a hot teapot and cups, which floated behind her. Lyra wondered if that was a gravity trick, or a magnetism trick, or maybe some combination of both.
Somehow, the food didn’t taste right. Lyra frowned, inspecting the bread and cheese Sterlyn had given her. It was no different to what he’d conjured days earlier, and she’d thought it wonderful then – soft, fresh bread, tart cheese that crumbled and melted in her mouth.
But it tasted like ashes now. She shuddered and set it aside.
Coco noticed. She nudged Lyra’s shoulder, staring at her with big dark eyes, and Lyra knew what she was trying to say without drawing attention – you need to eat.
Later, when Tia had returned to her caravan and they’d started moving again, while Coco was inside the vardo to find Lyra’s stash of sugar lumps, Sterlyn admitted that he’d noticed too.
“The shard is hurting you more,” he said. “Is it starting to affect your mind, too?”
Lyra stared at him. “What do you mean, my mind? It’s in my heart.”
“But it’s blocking all sorts of energy flow,” Sterlyn said. “That’s going to affect your whole body. This thing, it’s like a poison.”
His hands gestured in abstract shapes as he tried to explain. “It’s effects are leaching throughout your body, starting from your heart – I’m not sure what they’d be exactly, but maybe it’d make you lethargic, tired. Maybe it’d hurt your ability to enjoy things, like food.”
Lyra rubbed her hand across her eyes. “Maybe. I feel very tired. I just wish the throbbing would stop.”
Sterlyn nodded quietly. Lyra couldn’t help but feel relieved, maybe even grateful, that he hadn’t pushed further. Told her she should be eating, or resting.
She knew that was what she needed to do, but other people telling her that didn’t make it any easier. She was glad Sterlyn understood that.
Coco emerged triumphant, waving a glass jar full of sugar lumps. “At long last!” she crowed. “I waited fifty years to find these!”
Lyra snorted. “You could have transformed at any time that Maggie or I was away from the vardo, and looked for it then.”
“And scared the pants off some hapless passing farmer?” Coco retorted. “Maggie always pulled up the vardo in very public places for a reason.”
Eventually, Ziggy grew too tired to continue, floating over to the deck of the vardo and settling heavily on Lyra’s shoulder. “Nicer than a tree branch,” the pixie yawned.
Tia’s caravan also stopped, and she ran across to ask what had happened.
“Our tracker is tired,” Sterlyn said. “Pixies need sleep too. I suppose we should settle for the night.”
He looked at Lyra. “I’ll go back to the house – are you sure you want to sleep out here?”
Lyra nodded. “You and Coco can go, but I’m staying here,” she said.
“House?” Tia asked incredulously, and Sterlyn quickly explained the chalk magic he used for his doors. “You can stay with us as well, if you’d prefer not to sleep in a caravan,” he said.
Tia clapped her hands in delight. “That’s what I call travelling in style!” she crowed. “But I think I prefer my caravan.” She nudged Lyra. “The storyteller knows what I mean.”
Lyra nodded, relieved to find a fellow nomad in Tia. “It feels more secure, somehow,” she said. “The little space feels cosy and small, but I always know the outdoors is just a wall away.”
Tia beamed. “I’m glad I’m not the only one who grew up on the road!”
Lyra had hardly grown up on the road – she’d known the walls of the orphanage and the old man before Maggie’s vardo. But those had been dark, trapping, oppressive spaces. The vardo had always been home. Sterlyn’s house was fine, but it wasn’t home by any stretch, and the size and space was a little too close to her oldest memories for comfort.
Sterlyn and Coco bid them goodnight and went through the chalk door, and Tia returned to her caravan. Lyra carefully took off her borrowed clothes and curled up in her little bunk. Ziggy moved off her shoulder to let her change, but settled in the crook of her neck when she lay down.
She noticed the tiny creature buzzed faintly even as they slept, giving off a warm aura, almost like a very tiny cat. It was a distraction from the pain in her chest, and she slowly fell asleep.
She awoke to screaming.
She sat bolt upright, knocking Ziggy off her shoulder, gasping. Her chest felt like it was ripping apart, but she ignored it, jumping out of the bunk to rip open the vardo door.
Nothing was there.
The morning had arrived, soft orange light filtering through the trees. Birds trilled faintly, and she could hear faint snoring coming from Tia’s caravan.
But there was no screaming.
Lyra looked wildly around, still in an adrenalised panic, but nothing was there. No danger, nobody in distress.
Ziggy prodded her with a finger, surprisingly painful given the pixie’s size. “That hurt!” they exclaimed.
“Ziggy, did you hear someone screaming?” Lyra asked.
Ziggy shook their head. “A dream,” they suggested. “Nightmares of sorts. But you’re awake now, and very much safe.”
The pixie beamed, tugging gently on her hair. “Ziggy can protect you! No harm will come to Miss Lyra as long as I’m here.”
Lyra wasn’t sure exactly how much the insect-sized creature could protect her, but she smiled back nonetheless. Part of her still felt like the scream couldn’t have been a dream. It had felt so real.
With the adrenaline wearing off, Lyra realised she felt exhausted. She hadn’t woken once in the night, but she felt like she hadn’t slept at all. Her head was beginning to ache, hardly noticeable against the searing pain in her chest.
She wondered how much time she actually had left.
There was a loud knock, making her jump. She realised it was coming from inside the vardo, and when she stepped back inside there was another knock, coming from the chalk door.
She opened the door, and Coco and Sterlyn stepped through.
“Morning!” Coco said. She made a face at Lyra. “You’re not even dressed!”
Lyra folded her arms over the nightshirt she’d pilfered from the guest bedroom. “I just woke. Something strange happened.”
“What happened?” Sterlyn asked.
Lyra shrugged. She didn’t want to think about the scream. “I’ll tell you later.”
Coco shepherded Sterlyn out of the vardo, and Lyra quickly changed, wishing she could make some sense of what was happening.
Her chest felt as through a hive of hornets was trapped inside it, though there was nothing to be seen on the outside when she took the nightshirt off. Her skin was unmarked, despite the pain just beneath it.
It had gone so quickly from a benign twinge that she had to focus on to feel, into something she struggled to ignore. It scared her to think of how fast she’d deteriorated.
When she’d changed, Ziggy settled on her shoulder and she emerged from the vardo to find Sterlyn at Tia’s door, arguing with her. She couldn’t hear what they were saying, just indignant shouts. She ran over, stopping next to Coco who had a wry grin on her face.
“We need to keep moving!” Sterlyn said, voice exasperated.
“I’m not finished!” Tia snapped. “I have five more crystal generators to complete, and I am not moving until they’re ready and charged!”
“What’s happening?” Lyra asked.
Coco snorted. “Tia says the next village has some customers of hers who will be needing fresh generators by now,” she said. “She wants to prepare the generators, then stop in the village to drop them off.”
“We can do that, can’t we?” Lyra asked. “It won’t take long, will it?”
“Well…” Coco shrugged. “It’ll take her a bit of time to set them up for each customer, she said. It could take a couple of hours, or an afternoon.”
Lyra sighed. There wasn’t enough time. Not really. But they couldn’t leave Tia behind – she was the only one of them who had even the faintest idea of Robin’s powers, what he was capable of, and how to beat him. If they were going to have any success with getting her shard safely out as well as her stories back, they needed Tia.
Which meant they’d have to slow their pace, if Tia was determined to see clients in every village they passed.
“We can stop,” Lyra called out above Tia and Sterlyn’s bickering. “If Tia needs to stop in the village, we can. It won’t take too long, will it?”
“Just a few hours!” Tia said, demeanour changing completely as she turned to Lyra. She went from flushed-faced and snarling at Sterlyn to beaming sunnily at Lyra. She could understand how Tia might be able to convince an unsuspecting villager to buy one of her lamps.
In contrast, Coco’s face dropped. “Lyra,” she began, but then pressed her lips together.
“Are you sure, Lyra?” Sterlyn asked. He had an odd, concerned frown on his face. “It’s up to you, but… its your time on the line.”
“I’m sure,” Lyra said firmly. She stood straighter, praying she didn’t look as weak as she felt. “I’m alright. A couple of hours won’t hurt.”
Sterlyn didn’t look in the least bit convinced. He looked her up and down – not the appraising stare he’d first beheld her with when they’d met, but a frantic inspection, taking in the bags under her eyes and the tremble in her hands. Lyra swallowed hard and squared her shoulders.
Sterlyn shut his eyes, massaging his forehead. “Alright,” he said. “I’m not going to argue, that’ll just waste more time. Just get those generators finished.”
Tia let out a triumphant cry and disappeared into her caravan. Sterlyn trudged back to the vardo next to Coco, giving Lyra one last mournful look before climbing onto the deck.
Lyra didn’t want to hear Sterlyn or Coco tell her that she had to take more care. She gritted her teeth and instead walked into Tia’s caravan.
The caravan was even more of a mess than when she’d seen it the first time. Huge quartz clusters sat on every surface, some faintly glowing. Lyra watched in fascination as Tia placed her hands on a dull one, humming softly.
“What do they do?” Lyra asked.
Tia looked back to Lyra. “I wasn’t expecting an audience,” she said. “They’re power generators. They store energy to be used.”
“For what?” Lyra asked. She crouched to stare closer at Tia’s crystal – it was starting to glow faintly. Ziggy floated away from her shoulder to tap at the crystal.
“For things that need power to work,” Tia said. “Do you know about electricity?”
Lyra shook her head. Some grander houses and palaces had used it, but nobody had ever explained exactly how it worked. It made less sense than magic to her.
“Electricity is a form of energy,” Tia explained. “You know about our life energy, yes? Well, we also generate other forms of energy – like heat, or kinetic energy. Electricity is just another form. It works like…” Tia screwed her face up, thinking.
“I don’t know how to explain it to you without pulling out a bunch of books on physics, atoms and charged particles,” she confessed. “And teaching you all of that would take all day, probably. But… essentially, electricity can be used to power devices that you’d normally expect to power with heat or light.”
She pointed to one of the lamps. “Hit the switch on that.”
Lyra picked up the lamp and found a small knob on the side. She pressed it, and as it clicked, a light came on inside the lamp, sending out steady, white light. Her mouth fell open, and Ziggy let out a delighted squeal.
“That light is powered by electricity stored in a little crystal in the base of the lamp,” Tia explained. “But… as energy is used up, the crystal becomes depleted. The crystal only stores finite amounts of energy, and it has to be charged back up once it runs out.”
She tapped the huge cluster, which was now glowing properly. “This thing stores enough energy to charge that single lamp nearly a hundred times over. That’s potentially a year of light from that lamp. But people will buy more than one lamp, or they’ll buy other things, like my self-heating frypans, which also need to be charged. So, more often than not, a customer will need their generator recharged every four months.”
“So why do you need to sell these generators, if you already have customers in this village?” Lyra asked.
Tia laughed. “Well, some of those customers do have their own generators which I sold them previously,” she said. “Most buy generators when they buy my lamps or other products, which I recharge when I pass through their towns or villages – for a fee, of course. But this village has several customers who only bought single lamps, no generators, so I’m hoping to catch up with them and sell them some generators. By now their lamps will have run out, so they may be wanting a generator.”
Lyra nodded, mind buzzing. She half wanted to ask Tia if she could buy a lamp, as it seemed much brighter and cleaner than the little oil lamp she’d always used. However, she worried a generator would take up too much space in her little vardo.
Tia pulled her hands away from the crystal, dusting them off. “Alright, four more to go,” she said.
Ziggy settled back onto Lyra’s shoulder, and she left Tia’s caravan, bracing herself for the vardo. She walked over, hearing more arguing from the front deck.
“Your deal was supposed to protect her,” she heard Coco snap, sending a cascade of ice down her stomach. She froze next to the side of the vardo. Ziggy became utterly still, clinging to her hair.
“Yes, but it’s a deal, not a trap,” Sterlyn retorted. “You heard her yesterday, when I wanted us to all stay home. She won’t do it. Even if it’s safer for her. And it’s not part of our deal to stop her.”
“She should never have made that deal to begin with!” Coco said, her voice sounding hysterical. “Stupid – foolish. We should have ignored that pixie and kept going.”
“And gotten further lost in the woods?” Sterlyn laughed. “She wouldn’t have lasted a day. You’d rather she perished in there? Ziggy finding you two gave her a fighting chance.”
“It gave us nothing but trouble,” Coco snapped. “That pixie should have left us alone.”
“I’m rather glad they didn’t. And I’m sorry, but I’m not forcing your human to sit and be fragile and wait for everything to be fixed for her – any more than you’re willing to. Because you know she doesn’t want that. And if she dies –”
“Don’t you dare!” Coco cut off. There was a heavy silence. Something twisted in Lyra’s chest.
“She wouldn’t want to die sitting cloistered up waiting for things to be fixed,” Sterlyn finally said. “She’d rather die in this cramped little vardo. Even I can see that, and I’ve only known her, what, two days? You’ve known her since she was a child. You know this in your bones.”
“Since she was a child,” Coco said bitterly. “And now I’m going to lose her like I lost Maggie.”
Lyra stepped out next to the deck, coming into view. The fairies turned to stare at her, falling silent and wide-eyed in shock.
“Lyra,” Coco said faintly. “How long have you been there?”
“I’m not going to die,” Lyra said. “I refuse to. That’s why I wanted to track the witch with Ziggy.”
“But –” Coco began.
“Because being stuck in that house makes me feel like I’m giving up,” Lyra snapped. “Like I’m waiting to die, not waiting for a solution. I’d rather be out here feeling like I’m doing something to stop that death.”
“Then take care of yourself,” Coco growled, lips pulling back in a snarl. “You’re wasting away. Do you remember how hard it was to watch Maggie slowly die? And now you’re the same. We couldn’t save her, but I won’t let it happen to you.”
“Then help me,” Lyra said, clenching her fists. “Don’t stand around bickering about how best to keep me cloistered from harm.”
Coco made an outraged sound, but Sterlyn held his hand up, motioning for her to fall silent. “That’s what we’re trying to do,” he said calmly. “What we want to do is find the best way to help you. Clearly sheltering you isn’t going to work, and I’m not going to stop you from making your own choices. But we can’t help you if you make decisions that’ll hurt you, like lingering in villages so Tia can make sales. I think your survival is a bit more important than a few profits.”
Lyra groaned. “You just spent the morning arguing with Tia. She won’t be convinced to move faster.”
“I sure won’t,” a voice sounded from behind Lyra.
Sterlyn groaned. “Oh good, you too,” he grumbled.
Tia rolled her eyes. “I’m not just stopping in that village to make profits,” she snapped. “I know things are a bit more dire than that. If that was all it was, I’m sure customers can wait. But there’s something there I know can help us.”
Even Ziggy turned to stare at Tia, the whole group falling silent to hear what she had to say.
Satisfied with their attention, Tia spoke.
“The village of Thornbrook has a legend of a flower that only blooms under the ice of its single well,” she said. “The well is supposed to have been enchanted by an ancient fairy before human memory. It freezes each day at sunset, which is when you’re meant to climb in the well, chip through the ice, and retrieve the flower. All without damaging it, of course. And all before the moon rises, as the ice will then melt.
“After sunset and before moonrise,” Lyra repeated. “That sounds impossible. What’s so important about the flower?”
“Its petals have cooling properties,” Tia said. “Lay one on the forehead of a sick person and their fever will break. Place another on any food you don’t want to spoil, and it will keep for weeks.”
“You think it’ll freeze the shard?” Sterlyn asked.
“Long enough to slow the damage,” Tia explained. “I remember what Robin said about how they work – it blocks energy, and I can’t fix that. But it’s an active force – this shard is designed to slowly deteriorate, growing more and more brittle under the pressure of those blocked energies until it eventually explodes. I’m hoping we can slow that disintegration, keep it from weakening, so it holds out long enough for us to find Robin.”
She looked at Lyra. “You’ve only got about two days, at this rate,” she said. “And Robin could be anywhere – it could take weeks to find him. You can’t bank on him being close enough to find before the shard explodes.”
She turned, tossing her hair. “Sometimes you have to lose time to make time,” she said. “Come with me to Thornbrook, find this well, wait for sundown. Have your pixie fly to the ice, break it, and collect the flower. Then I can use it to freeze that shard and prevent it from exploding too soon.”
She glanced back to her caravan. “Now if we’re done arguing, I’ve got one more generator to complete. Then we’d better get moving.”
With that, Tia strode back to her caravan and climbed inside.
Lyra looked back at Sterlyn and Coco. They both looked gobsmacked.
“I guess that solves that problem,” she said.
Coco made a frustrated sound. “It doesn’t change the fact that we’re trying to help you, and you’re pushing us away! Making it as hard as possible!”
Lyra sighed, rubbing her forehead. She was so tired.
“Coco,” she murmured, reaching up towards the deck. Coco sighed, and took her hand, pulling her up.
“I’m going to go and sleep,” she said. “Let me know when we get moving, and when we reach Thornbrook. Does this count as taking care of myself?”
Coco’s mouth fell open. She looked hurt.
“I’m trying,” Lyra urged. “I promise. I know you’re trying, too. Just…”
“I know,” Coco sighed. “I just… don’t like any of this.”
“Neither do I,” Lyra said. Coco opened the vardo door, and Lyra went inside, collapsing on the little bunk.
Ziggy curled up next to her. “Lyra doesn’t need more sleep.”
“Lyra needs a break,” she grumbled. “Ziggy, can you actually break thick ice? I don’t know how Tia expects you to break the well ice. Even if the legend about the well is real.”
Ziggy puffed up their little chest. “Ziggy can break many things, including well ice.”
For some reason, this didn’t reassure Lyra in the least.
She knew she didn’t need sleep, and she knew she’d just wake up tired. But her eyes were so heavy. She felt herself being lulled by the shadows on the floor, light through the windows filtered and dappled by the moving trees outside. Her eyes closed, and she fell asleep.
When Coco opened the door to tell Lyra that Tia had finished and the vardo was about to move, she found Lyra deep asleep on the bunk, Ziggy sitting on her shoulder and playing guard. She closed the door and let Lyra sleep.