Darcy had had enough of Orren and his pranks. She’d had enough of Mimic and Milkthorn and she’d had more than enough of Bell-O’-Blue. The pixie had spent an hour tying knots in Darcy’s hair, and when that hadn’t seemed to bother her, she’d started pulling the hairs out of her head, one every minute or so, aiming for the sensitive ones at the nape of her neck and around her ears. Darcy had threatened her, chased her, burst into tears and begged her to stop, to no avail. The fairy knew no pity, and Orren had offered no help: he’d laughed at her.
She ran. Blood beaded at her temple where Bell-O’-Blue had pulled out several hairs at once. Tears blinding her, she stumbled as the undergrowth thickened. She had the feeling it had thickened on purpose, and was no longer surprised when a thorny tendril snaked around her ankle. This time she didn’t move, and the thing stopped. Then the thorns disappeared into the stem like a cat’s retractable claws, and were replaced by soft, downy fur. The plant curled a little further up her leg, squeezing gently, like the hand of a comforting friend. Darcy slumped to her knees and cried fresh tears. My only friend in the world is a tornado plant, she thought bitterly. She shifted so that she was sitting on the ground, careful not to move too quickly lest the plant think she was trying to escape, and buried her face in her tattered skirts to cry.
How long she stayed like that was uncertain. It could have been five minutes or sixty, but after a while she noticed that her ankle was strangely warm. The plant seemed to be trembling just a little, a low vibration she would never have noticed had it not reminded her so nostalgically of her cat, Puddles. She reached down and stroked the plant gently, and the purring became audible.
Just like a cat, she thought. A lonely wildcat.
“You just wanted a bit of affection, didn’t you?” she murmured, the way she’d heared Mama talking to strays. The vine rubbed up against her. She wondered if it was capable of meowing.
“I’d cut it off while it’s still loose, were I you” said a raspy voice next to her ear.
Darcy turned her head, but all she saw was a rose bush.
“Don’t be silly,” said another, more feminine voice, “it’d stick the thorns in soon as it smelled the knife. No, tease it off, then run for it.”
Darcy frowned at the roses. The voices had come from there. She looked around to see if maybe it was some other plant, but the third voice definitely came from a rose.
“Running away will never work” it said, “tease it off, and back away slowly, like nothing’s wrong.”
“Have you no meat? Meat would distract it,” said yet another rose with a voice eerily like her mother’s.
“No, I haven’t,” she said apologetically. The roses sighed, murmuring things like “pity” and “ah, well”. Now she could see their petals forming words of commisseration. Beads of cristalline dew danced between them in dextrous patterns as they spoke, petals curling and unfurling, moving in ripples and waves, so much more graceful than human lips and tongue. It was hypnotizing, but not in the way glamour was hypnotizing; rather, it was like watching the tiny silver fish swimming in the shallow pools by the river at home.
“Excuse me,” she said, “I’m lost. Where is Cat’s Court please?”
The entire bush jumped back, raining dew as the roses gasped in horror. “Cat’s Court! Now whyever would you wish to go there?”
“I live there,” she said timidly.
“A human! Here!”
“Why, we haven’t seen humans round here since…”
“It doesn’t matter, because she’s going anyway. Shoo! Get out of here!” rasped a withered old rose at the top of the bush. A thorny branch whipped towards her, stopped short by another.
“We’ll have none of that from you, grandfather!” scolded the motherly rose. “There, child, don’t pay attention to him, he doesn’t like anybody. I’m afraid we can’t help you, although you can take a bit of dew if you’d like.”
“Thank you,” said Darcy dutifully, ” Um, what should I do with it?”
There was a surprised pause. Then one of the roses snorted, and the others all burst out laughing, until the whole bush shook with a dozen giggles, chortles, sniggers, titters and guffaws, there was even one rose who brayed like a donkey.
The motherly rose was the first to recover. “Why” she said, “truly you are young… rose dew is the finest perfume in the world, and very magical, oh yes.” She giggled. “One drop at the base of your throat, and you’ll have all the boys at your feet, whatever court they’re from.”
The bush giggled again. Darcy nodded politely, making a mental note to pour the dew over Lucy’s head. Lucy hated boys.
“If we’re giving her the dew, let her collect it and be gone!” said the one they’d called grandfather, still wheezing.
“But I’ve nothing to collect it with,” Darcy said.
“Nothing?” mocked the grandfather, “And what’s that on your head?”
Darcy lifted a hand to her head, but all she felt was her tangled hair. “Yes, that,” said the grandfather. “That knotty stuff, there, can it hold water?”
“Um…” said Darcy.
“It’ll do,” huffed the grandfather impatiently.
“Leave her be, grandfather,” said the motherly rose. “Don’t worry, pet, as long as you’re in the Glimmerlands, rose dew won’t dry. And it’s very clingy, so it won’t drip either. It’ll just stay there until you find a vial or a jar to put it in. Come now, give us a lock of that hair.” A thousand dew drops ran from all over the bush to the motherly rose, who stretched out towards Darcy expectantly. Darcy wasn’t certain she wanted one strand of her hair to stay wet until she found a vial, but she couldn’t refuse without seeming impolite. She tore at the bird’s nest her hair had become until a large section of it pulled free, and held the end of it out until it gently brushed the roses petals.
The dew flowed off the rose and onto the lock of hair in a stream of cristal beads. It felt cool under her fingers, and by the time it was over, her lock of hair was soaked – but strangely, not a drop spread to the rest of her hair, or slid down her neck, or even wet her fingers. She let the lock drop, and it hung there, soaking wet.
“Thank you,” she said to the rose bush.
“You’re very welcome,” said the motherly rose. “Still, it’s strange that you didn’t know what rose dew is. What do they teach you in Cat’s Court?”
Darcy thought. “They told me that fairies don’t exist,” she said finally.
The bush gasped. Then all the roses started shouting at once.
“The cheek of her!”
“I knew she was the bad sort,” said the grandfather knowingly.
“How dare you!” scolded the mother. “And after we gave you all that dew!”
Darcy didn’t understand. “But it’s true!” she said, scared again.
“The truth, she says!”
“So you believe this nonsense they teach you?”
“Evil child!” A thorny branch whipped across her arm, drawing blood. “Out of here! Out!”
“Out! Out!” The rest of the bush took up the chant, and a second branch whipped across her back, and a third, until they were raining down on her.
Darcy struggled to rise, but the branches caught in her clothes and skin, and she stumbled twice before she managed to take a step, and a third time when she remembered the vine around her ankle. The step had taken her out of reach of the vines, except for her leg, which was still getting a beating, until suddenly the entire bush recoiled, and she heard screams of pain and rage. The vine around her ankle had uncoiled itself, and was lashing back at the rose bush with its own deadly thorns, clinging to her ankle by its unearthed roots.
Freed, she ran gracelessly through the woods until her foot landed in a stream, and she fell flat on her face. She lay on the ground for a moment, stunned, listening to her own heartbeat, until she decided she was probably well out of reach of the rose bush, or any of it’s friends.
She pushed herself up onto her hands, turned around so she was sitting on the muddy bank, her feet still in the water, and inspected the damage. Scratches criss-crossed her arms and legs, and she could feel one or two on her face. Her leg was a bloody mess, with the vine still wrapped around it, thorns biting into her flesh. The sight of it made her panic for a second, but she remembered what Orren had told her and closed her eyes, trying to breathe slowly. She reached out a hand and gently stroked the vine, as she had before. This time it seemed to hesitate, but after a few minutes, the thorns retracted themselves all at once. The pain made her gasp and she opened her eyes.
Some of the cuts were quite deep, and all were bleeding profusely, but the pain was lessening by the second. The vine seemed to be pulsing, somehow, and she could feel it clinging to her…
It was drinking her blood.
Her heart leapt into her throat, but this time she didn’t panic. The pain was almost gone, after all. Fear and curiosity mingled in her chest. She stroked the vine again with a trembling hand, and felt it purr.
Once, a circus had come to town with a whole menagerie of exotic animals. The grand master had shown them lions leaping through rings of fire, elephants that could stand on one leg, seals playing ball, and a “snake-girl”: a girl no older than ten, with skin like midnight, who walked rope with two snakes across her shoulders. Afterwards she asked if someone would like to hold one of the snakes. Darcy had volunteered, and before her father could stop her, the grand master had led her out to the snake girl. Darcy remembered the sparkle in the dark girl’s eyes as she passed the smallest of the snakes to her, and showed her how to hold it, one hand under the head, the other under the belly. The snake was heavier than she’d thought it would be, and its skin had been cool and slightly pebbled, but not slimy like she’d expected. Its tongue tickled her as it slowly wound itself around her arm, but when it had finally settled down, the grand master asked for a round of applause, and then the dark girl took it back, and she had to go back to her father.
He had smiled at the time, but later on he had hit her for it.
A sucking sound brought her back to the present. Her eyes refocussed, surprised: the blood was nearly all gone, and the cuts seemed to have stopped bleeding. She sat up a little, and her head spun. She must have fallen asleep. The vine was still there, leeching on her ankle.
She slipped one finger under what she judged to be the head of the thing and gently unwound it. The suckers – for there were suckers – came off with a series of little pops, and recoiled inwards to reveal the tiny points of thorns. The vine tried to twist its way around her finger, but she kept passing it from hand to hand as she unravelled it, and it couldn’t get a grip on her. Finally she lifted it off, one hand under the head, the other close to the roots, like a snake, and set it in her lap. The vine fidgeted, searching blindly for something to cling to, until she stroked it again, and it settled down.
Her leg was almost clean of blood, and the cuts had clotted, but Mama had said that cuts should be washed, so she took off her sodden shoes and socks, and set them down next to her on the muddy bank. As she bent to clean her ankle, though, she saw that the cuts were covered in a strange, jellyish substance. She wiped one cut clean, and it stung, and started bleeding again. Hissing in pain, she cleaned the cut, but it didn’t stop. Finally she took a little jelly from the other cuts – there wasn’t much to spare – and put it on the cut she’d cleaned. It stopped the bleeding immediately.
Darcy cleaned around the other cuts, and looked for something to use as a bandage. Once they’d been on the road to Cambry, and Kieran had tripped getting into the coach. They’d set off anyway, but it wouldn’t stop bleeding, so Mama had torn a strip off her underdress to tie around his head. She thought of using her apron, but it was a good thick apron and her little hands weren’t up to the task, so she tried with her dress instead – tearing a much bigger hole in it that necessary – and clumsily knotted it around her leg. Mama hadn’t used knots, but she couldn’t remember how the bandage had held without one.
The thing in her lap was fidgeting again by the time she was finished. She stroked it and let it wind itself between her fingers, wondering what to do. It has uprooted itself, and might die if she didn’t replant it. Drink blood it might, but the plant had saved her life.
She dug a little hole with her hands, close to the water, just deep enough to cover the roots. Then she picked the vine up gently, like a snake, and place the roots in the hole.
The plant jumped. It landed back in her lap and wrapped itself around her arm, clutching her. She could feel the thorns pricking at her skin, just the points of them, not enough to hurt, and at the edge of her hearing, she heard a whine.
“But you’ll die if I don’t replant you,” she told it. To her surprise, the plant lifted its leafy head and shook it vigourously. Darcy stared. “Do you understand me?” she asked it. The plant nodded.
Darcy hesitated. “Do you want to stay with me?”
“Are you going to drink all my blood?”
The plant seemed to pause, as if thinking. Suddenly a vine lashed out at the ground, faster than lightning. Then it uncurled to show her a tiny, squealing slug, impaled on a thorn. The thorn retracted into its sucker, and the slug seemed to shrivel, before dropping into her lap. Darcy flipped it away gingerly. She wasn’t used to slugs that squealed.
“Alright,” she said. “You can stay with me as long as you don’t drink my blood.” She grinned, happy with her new friend.
The tornado plant curled itself around her arm, purring, all thorns and suckers well out of sight. When it had settled its head close to her’s, and its roots around her wrist, Darcy stood.
Her shoes and socks were gone.
Her eyes swept the clearing, and she saw one sock, on the other side of the stream, at the foot of a tree. The leaves were rustling, and she was sure she heard a giggle. Darcy was weary, though, and decided it wasn’t worth it. Orren went barefoot, after all, why shouldn’t she?
She opened the pocket watch and nearly dropped it when she saw her reflection in the broken mirror. She had mud and scratches everywhere. One crossed her eye without touching it, a near-vertical red line from chin to hairline. The other crossed it diagonally across her forehead, and ended on her bloody temple. She frowned, examining them in the mirror and touching them gingerly.
They don’t hurt, she thought, so it probably doesn’t matter if I don’t wash them.
“Orren” she whispered. The mirror clouded and cleared again, and his face stared up at her, eyes wide with fear. He shouted, his lips forming her name silently, and suddenly she felt bad for leaving him. “Find Orren” she whispered again, and the hands of the clock moved until the shortest was pointed at her, and the longest to her right, towards a nettle patch. She sighed, skirted well around the patch (which tried to catch her anyway), and set off with the pocketwatch to guide her.