Home > Girl of the Night Garden(4)

Girl of the Night Garden(4)
Author: Lili Valente

How terrible it must be to fall in love, to ache for a man who cares more for his fellows and his horses and his ale than the woman who waits for him at home, heavy with his child, bound to his house and his kitchen and cook fire for all her days.

I wait for no one. I fly, I stretch—I am the consummate gypsy, bound not even to a single set of skin and bones.

It makes it difficult to feel too sorry for myself, even at times like these, when I am wrung out from spelling. When I scarcely have the energy to pull my thinly stretched self together and my raven’s wings are streaked with strands of purple hair and my true form calls so strongly I know I must fall into it and sleep sooner than later.

I am bound to my work, but I have liberty no mortal girl can imagine and the peace of knowing no man will ever take it from me.

There are days when that seems more than enough.

“All to pieces, all to pieces,” Wig clucks as he darts beneath my wing, keeping me airborne for the last few yards to the top of the old clock tower. We slip through the breathing holes left for the bells and glide to the dusty wood floor beneath the carillon with only seconds to spare.

No sooner have my claws brushed timber than the change comes. Bird legs stretch and smooth, becoming creamy limbs so pale they cast their own light. My downy neck becomes a bare throat with a hot pulse beneath hotter skin. I’m always burning up after. It makes the frigid wind rushing through the tower bearable, at least for a few moments.

That’s all it takes for Poke, my cloak clutched tight in his beak, to hop across the room and cover me against the chill.

“Get some sleep, some sleep,” Wig chides as he nudges my rolled-up dress beneath my head.

It makes a poor pillow, but in a moment or two I will be beyond noticing it. We nightmares sleep deeply. Not even the rows of bells above my head chiming the hour will wake me before I’m ready.

It’s a thing that comes in handy when hunting for daylight hiding places. Wig, Poke, and I could sleep through the end of the world, let alone a little human ruckus.

“Wake me before sunset,” I mumble, my plush lips awkward and unwieldy after the sharp efficiency of my bird’s beak. “We’ll start our adventure right away.”

“Adventure! It shall be an adventure!” Poke crows, hopping around the boards, his feet leaving marks like ancient letters in the dust.

“Adventure, adventure, adventure!” Wig joins the victory dance, managing several celebratory circles around Poke before the Skritch stabs him with a toe and trips him with a wing, knocking the Earwig into my knee.

Already, my companions are in a better temper. I smile as I tuck Wig’s warm body against my stomach with a protective hand and close my eyes.

But as I drift off to sleep in the gray morning light, the strangest thing happens…

Visions paint themselves on the back of my lids and fancies dance between my ears. If I didn’t know better, I would say that I…dream.

And the dream is of a heather-brushed island and a boy with eyes like a storm.

 

 

Chapter Two

 

 

Declan

 

 

The Sunday service ran long—Father does dearly love the sound of his own voice on a sunny Sunday morning—and my altar boy duties kept me busy until the clock struck four. By the time I made it to the dining hall, the queue for tea was wrapped around the building twice. By the time I wiped the last of the stew from my bowl with a stale butt of bread, the sun was low in the sky.

There was barely enough time to duck into the tall grass for a moment of privacy before scrabbling down the weedy path to the west lookout.

Every student on the island serves a lookout shift. I take mine on Sunday, the better to get the altar-boying and look-outing done in one fell swoop so I can spend the rest of the week pretending there’s no such thing as Sunday.

Especially this time of year, when the summer wind has become a nippy, sharp-toothed autumn breeze. It’s not so bad in the dorms or the classrooms by the beach, but at the church on the cliff and on the lookout platforms atop the seaside rocks, the breeze is bitter. I’ll be shivering and my ears turned to jerky by the time my shift is through.

And for what, I ask you?

Nothing ever happens on Amaria, the second largest of the Pontine islands, the loneliest, windiest plop of dirt and stone God ever plunked down in the Tyrrhenian Sea.

But that’s the point, then, isn’t it?

My father isn’t a fool. Even if this island wasn’t located on ley lines that make protection spells easer, isolation and monotony work a magic of their own.

There are wards in place all round the island—the blue flash of an activated ward is what I’ll be scanning for during my hours huddled in the warmest corner of the lookout—but they’re rarely challenged. Maybe once or twice a year, and then it’s only some minor nightmare blown out to sea by a storm, looking for a place to rest its bones. It’s never the Night Witch, the reason two hundred of Britain’s most promising young men—and a few charity cases like me—set out for Amaria in the first place.

And why’s that? Because not even a witch wants to visit this blasted island. It’s beautiful as anything, with great gray cliffs and mountains knuckling up from the sea like Poseidon’s fist, but boring.

Brutal.

Boring.

Makes a person wonder if it might not be better to stay in England and risk the curse.

The Night Witch’s kiss makes a man soft in the head and as nervous as a cat near a cook stove when he’s within spitting distance of a woman. After a visit from the queen of nightmares, a bloke’s wrecked for the fairer sex. He can barely look a girl in the eye, let alone head a household. And considering women and girls are just about everywhere, he’s also ruined for work and play and doing much of anything besides sitting in his room alone, drooling in a corner.

It’s a terrible fate, to be sure, but with a little luck—and a knack for sleeping during the day—a fellow could live a good many years, maybe even a whole lifetime, before he fell prey to the kiss of darkness. He’d have the chance to make some memories, at least.

Have a life. An intact family.

It’s a shame that all the boys here have been torn away from part of theirs.

My mum died not long after I was born, so I have no idea what mother-love feels like. But it still hurt to watch the mothers of the other boys standing on the dock with tear-streaked faces as our ship left the harbor, bound for a place where they couldn’t follow.

Not in the beginning, at least.

We came to the island not simply for protection from the Night Witch’s spell, but to grow from boys into men. The priests and professors both agreed that transformation would be impossible with mothers and sisters around, fussing and fretting and coddling us. Besides, women were weak, they said. They might not survive the journey, let alone the grueling task of building an isolated island outpost from the ground up.

I haven’t spent enough time around women to know if that’s true. Growing up, my father and I lived in a small cottage half hidden in the forest and kept to ourselves. It was easier to conceal our eccentric lifestyle than to explain it to the people of our village.

They would have wondered how Father could be so certain that staying awake through the night offered protection from the Night Witch’s curse. From there it could have been a short journey from curiosity to condemnation to a bonfire in the town square.

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