The Thirteenth Tower
The sun was setting by the time the group made it to town, the golden sky growing dark with twilight. Torches had been lit along the road leading to Fallow, creating a path of flickering firelight that the group followed until they reached an open field. Tents and pavilions had been erected out on the grass, illuminated by torches, braziers, and hanging lamps. The fiddler stopped playing and music from the festival drifted over. Mr. Gatwick and Mrs. Bower strolled towards the pavilions, as did Master and Mistress Mansell. Miss Cook, hiking up her skirts, ran through the knee-high grass laughing, while Mr. Witherby shuffled after her.
“Come on!” Tilly grabbed Emelyn’s hand and pulled her towards the field.
Tilly giggled as they ran through the damp grass. Emelyn scrutinized everyone and everything, looking for anything peculiar. There were many familiar faces, though it seemed just as many were unfamiliar. Normally, Emelyn would have been delighted over so many visitors having come to Fallow. Now she only felt suspicious and afraid. She envied Tilly and wished she could share her friend’s enthusiasm.
They passed booths and tables with merchants selling colorful ribbons, pumpkins, pies, and carved wooden figurines. There was Mrs. Troller, selling apples and jars of preserves. Mrs. Gatwick, the dairyman’s wife, had a booth with an assortment of butter, cream, and cheeses on display. A massive keg of ale surrounded by a group of rowdy men marked Mr. Cowan’s booth, as did the heady aroma of meat pies that hung in the air. Tilly hurried by. Looked like she didn’t want a pie, after all. Emelyn might have insisted they stop to purchase one had she not left her money at home.
Tilly turned to Emelyn, a broad smile stretching across her face. “Dancing!” She yanked on Emelyn’s arm and pulled her in a new direction.
Tilly grinned as she pushed her way through a throng of people, elbowing anyone who got in her way. Emelyn, appalled with her friend’s behavior, murmured apologies to those they passed. Not that it mattered. Anyone who found a sharp elbow in their side spared them only a cursory glance before turning away. Emelyn frowned.
They reached the front of the crowd, coming to an open space populated by a group of dancers. Men and women were paired up, holding hands as they danced to a lively tune played by a couple of squat musicians. The women were dressed much like the fiddler had been, with diaphanous dresses of silver and grey that flowed in the wind like woven smoke.
The men were clad in well-tailored black waistcoats, the silvery chains of pocket watches glinting in the firelight. Below the waist the men were unclothed, their erect penises protruding from thatches of thick, dark hair. Both the men and women wore pale bone masks wrought in the likeness of animals—antlered deer for the women, snarling wolves for the men.
Emelyn gasped at the sight of them and turned her head. Looking around, she was troubled that no one else seemed shocked by the dancers’ impropriety, least of all Tilly. The girl looked on with wide eyes while fidgeting with her hands. Emelyn wanted to leave; this wasn’t how it was supposed to be.
The music stopped and the dancers turned to the audience, their hands extended.
“Emmy! They’re inviting people in!”
Emelyn shied away when Tilly tried to pull her forward.
“Let’s join them. It will be fun!”
“No.” Emelyn tried pulling her arm free, but Tilly’s grasp was firm.
“Come on, how often do we get to dance?”
“No!” Emelyn’s voice pierced the air and the dancers and audience alike turned to look at her.
Tilly’s brow furrowed as the haze in her eyes cleared and the color in her cheeks faded. She looked around, her expression puzzled as if she had just woken from a deep slumber. Then, just as quickly, her cheeks again flushed and her eyes glassed over. “Fine.” She turned her back on Emelyn and took the outstretched hand of a dancer.
Others from the audience stepped forward until all the dancers had been paired. The music piped up, the men bowed, the women curtsied, and the dance began. Holding hands, the pairs pranced in circles—the women around the men, then the men around the women. They wove around each other, switching partners before finding, once again, their original mate. They glided and twirled, moving with a fluid grace that was unexpected for such rustic participants. Emelyn had never seen anyone in Fallow dance in such a manner, yet it looked as though they had rehearsed the performance for weeks.
The music escalated, and, on some unspoken cue, the dancers joined hands to form a circle. Around and around the people danced, laughing and singing like children on a summer’s day. Then the music grew louder and the tempo increased. What had been a merry ring of dancing soon degenerated into a fervent and crazed dash. Beads of sweat dripped from foreheads while cheeks deepened their rosy hues. The singing stopped, leaving only the hysterical laughter of those who could spare the breath. Shirts darkened and grew heavy with sweat; hair flew loose in wild, dampened strands. On and on the music droned, ever promising an end that did not come.
A woman collapsed, her laughter crazed and shrill as her cheeks and neck blushed with fever. The masked partners on either side of the woman helped her to her feet and the dancing resumed as fervently as before. Soon others fell and they, too, were pulled to their feet and forced to continue. The music had grown so loud that Emelyn covered her ears, swallowing the bile that rose in her throat. She wanted to leave, but not without Tilly.
Powerless, Emelyn watched as her friend ran in the circle, listening as her hysterical laughter hung in the air. When Tilly fell from exhaustion, Emelyn’s heart stopped. She stepped forward, wanting to help her. But within the blink of an eye, Tilly was pulled to her feet and the dancing resumed.
Emelyn’s stomach lurched as the music drilled into her skull. She turned and pushed her way through the crowd, no longer caring about being rude. Once clear from the throng, she kept walking until she had left the tents and torches of the festival and the music from the dance had faded. She bent over, resting her hands on her knees as she listened to the crickets chirp. Wind stirred the grass, cooling her face and calming her nerves.
Tilly . . . Emelyn felt helpless. She didn’t know what was happening, didn’t understand why no one else seemed to think anything was wrong. In the span of an hour, Emelyn’s simple life in Fallow had tilted, sending all that she knew into a tangle of confusion and fear. There must be someone who could help. They couldn’t all have lost their wits . . . could they?
Emelyn straightened and turned towards the town. Maybe Mr. Hibberly could help, or Mrs. Hibberly. If anyone could keep her senses, it would be Mrs. Hibberly. Emelyn knew it was unlikely they were in town, that they were probably at the festival with everyone else. But she couldn’t bear to turn back. Hope that she could find someone to help her was all that kept Emelyn’s feet moving.
She gave the festival tents a wide berth. The grass swished against her legs, the dew dampening her skirts. She thought of her fine dress, the one she had planned on wearing to the festival. It was just as well. Would have likely been ruined in this grass and mud. The thought was little comfort.
“Hello, darlin’,” a voice said.
Emelyn started, snapped out of her reverie.
A man no larger than a child gazed up at her with bulbous eyes. His hooked nose hung over sneering lips while a tiny white spider crawled within a cavernous nostril. His clothes were mottled green and brown as though someone had woven together a sack of leaves and moss. Bright red berries hung from the hem of his garment as pearls might hang from a fine dress. On his feet he wore two hollowed gourds, the ends removed to allow his long toes—with even longer, yellowed nails—to dangle freely. He grinned at her, showing rows of darkened teeth that looked of rotten wood.
“Care for a dance?” He wheezed as he spoke, his breath dank and earthen like an old, forgotten cellar.
“No, thank you,” Emelyn said as she tried to walk around him.
He grasped her arm with a cold, clammy hand. “Aww,” he sneered. “You hurt my feelings.” He showed his teeth again, accompanied by a rattling in his chest that Emelyn feared to be laughter. The outburst dislodged the spider from his nose, sending it scrambling along a gossamer thread.
Emelyn wrenched her arm but the man held her fast.
Cackling, he dragged her through the field, heading towards a circle of torches.
Emelyn dug her heels into the earth as she struggled. It was little use—the man was surprisingly strong and had only to yank her arm to pull her forward. As they drew closer to the circle, Emelyn saw Mrs. Gristman standing naked in the grass as squat men lathered her body with mud, pressing leaves and moss onto the sticky substance. Mr. Torvel, the alchemist, sat on the ground while several of the imps danced around him, adorning his pate with a crown of berries, leaves, and twigs.
There was even Patrice, a servant girl from a neighboring household, balancing on one leg while one of the men fitted her raised foot with a hollowed gourd. She looked tired, bored, as if struggling to tolerate the imp that scampered about her. There were others in the field—all sitting or standing, some with thinly veiled expressions of annoyance as if they had somewhere else to be. But there was no struggling, no attempts at escape. No one gave any indication of being held there against his will. Except for Emelyn.
She renewed her efforts, scratching at her captor’s hand, but his skin was rough and leathery, and Emelyn’s nails were trim and meager. Realizing she couldn’t pull her arm free, Emelyn stopped resisting and walked close to the man. Holding her breath, she stomped as hard as she could on his exposed toes. She heard and felt the crack as the imp’s long nails broke. The skin around his bulbous eyes tightened and his mouth twisted into a contemptuous grin. His grip on her arm tightened, his nails cutting into her skin. Emelyn cried out as her blood welled beneath his filthy fingers.
He showed his wood-like teeth. “Now there’s a lovely song, that. Maybe we’ve got ourselves a pretty little songbird, after all.” Another rattling, guttural laugh.
His revelry ended when a branch dashed against his head, sending him to the ground in a lifeless heap. Emelyn jerked her arm out of his slackened grasp and put a hand over her cut skin.
“Are you all right?” a young man asked, taking a step towards her. He held a long, knotted branch; stringy strands of the imp’s dark hair clung to the bark.
Emelyn stared at him, not yet understanding what was happening. Behind him the imps gathered, pointing at their fallen companion. In a cacophony of grunts and yelps, they charged through the grass. Emelyn took a step back.
The stranger turned around and put himself in front of Emelyn, brandishing his club before him.
Most of the imps were unfazed by his display, though some slowed to let others charge ahead. As the squat men reached him, the stranger stepped forward, swinging the branch in wide arcs as though scything wheat. The branch met each imp with a dull, sickening sound that made Emelyn’s stomach sink.
The display was an effective one. The imps who had yet to be culled ceased their advance, baring their teeth while hissing from a safe distance. The stranger hissed back, causing the attackers to fidget and glance about. One by one, they shuffled off, growling and sulking into the shadows.
The man watched them leave. Only when the last one had faded from sight did he lower his guard. He turned back to Emelyn.
“Are you all right?” he asked again.
Emelyn tensed, ready to run.
The man smiled, placing a hand on his chest. “My name is Corran.” He glanced around at the bodies strewn about him and cleared his throat. “I know how this looks, but I assure you I’m quite harmless. Unless you are a squat and filthy little man that smells of dirt and attacks young women, that is.” He tried to laugh but didn’t quite succeed.
Emelyn said nothing.
Corran shuffled his feet.
“You’re not from around here, are you?” she finally said.
Corran looked relieved. “Not exactly. I used to apprentice for Mr. Wainwright some years ago. I’m currently looking for work and knew the Harvest Festival would be going on around this time. I thought I’d stop by to see if there was any employment to be had.”
Emelyn looked at him askance. “Mr. Wainwright hasn’t had any apprentices for nearly twenty years. You would have still been in your swaddling clothes.”
Corran frowned, a look of confusion plain on his face. Then he looked hurt. “I would have been much too old for swaddling clothes twenty years ago. I was quite well on my way to wearing big-boy shirts and breeches, thank you.”
Emelyn scowled, not appreciating the joke. “Then how could you have been his apprentice?”
Corran ran a hand through his sandy brown hair and shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe I’ve come to the wrong town. I’m sure there’s more than one carpentry master with the name ‘Wainwright.’ Stranger things have happened than a man traveling astray.” He looked around. “Stranger things seem to be happening right now.”
Emelyn also looked around—she had almost forgotten the squat men, the disturbing dance. “Do you know what’s happening? Who . . . they are?” she pointed at one of the bodies in the grass.
Corran hesitated. “I only just arrived, so I can’t say what might be happening. As for these fellows,” he nodded at an imp, “well, they sort of have the look of a boggan.”
“Foul little men that like to steal children, sometimes leaving a basket of leaves in its place. Quite fond of shiny things, though. Where I’m from, superstitious wives will leave a coin or silver spoon in the crib so that should a boggan arrive it will take that rather than the babe.” He chuckled. “Silly. And yet . . .” He waved a hand at the bodies around him.
Emelyn stared at the man, wondering if he was having fun at her expense. She opened her mouth to ask another question when a man’s startled cry interrupted her.
Corran’s smile faded as he lifted the branch onto his shoulder and ran towards the sound.
Not wanting to be left alone, Emelyn followed. They ran through the darkened field and came upon an elderly bald man in a red robe wielding a staff. He wore a pair of round spectacles, and Emelyn recognized the Magister she had passed earlier on the road. He flailed his staff, struggling to fight off a group of imps that danced around him. They hissed and grunted, baring their teeth as they dodged the staff whenever it swung their way.
Emelyn glanced at Corran, thinking he would step in to help as he had for her. But the man lowered his branch and settled into watching the Magi with eyes that had turned hard and cold. Confused, Emelyn turned back to the Magister. He managed to crack an imp upside the head with his staff, causing the creature to skulk away as others took his place. Emelyn tensed, remembering how one of the little men had tried pulling her into the field against her will. She could not stand idly by and watch as these creatures tormented someone else.
Bending to the ground, she picked up a stone and threw it at an imp. Her aim was off and the stone soared into the darkness. She picked up another and threw it, and the stone thumped the back of a dark, shaggy head. The imp turned, startled over the impact. He bared his brown-stained teeth at her and hissed.
Emelyn stiffened, her heart pounding as she readied herself for the imp’s attack. But before the creature could take a step, the grass beneath his feet glowed red and orange. Blades of grass licked at his toes like flames licking at kindling. Yet for all its similarity to fire, the grass did not seem to be burning. The imp showed no signs of pain, only intense curiosity at the ground beneath his feet. The other creatures soon took notice. Forgetting the Magister, they all crouched to their hands and knees, pressing their long noses to the glowing grass.
Then one of the imps barked and jumped back. Then another. Soon they were all scrambling, yelping, and hopping as if bitten. Or burned. The grass flickered and twined like wildfire; maybe it also burned like fire. Whatever it was, the imps no longer wanted anything to do with it. Like a pack of wild animals they ran off, their yelps and grunts echoing into the night.
The Magister closed his eyes and exhaled.
Emelyn stared at the Magi, her mind tangled with a mixture of amazement and fear as she tried to understand what she had seen. Part of her wanted to turn and run, to hide until daybreak when, she hoped, everything would return to normal. Yet another part of her was strangely curious, and her desire to understand surpassed her fear.
Another Magister stepped from the shadows, his long, white braid almost luminescent in the moonlight. “A shameful display, Aldren, especially for one of your standing. I half expected the vile beasts to carry you off before you finally acted.”
“I was caught unaware. There were so many of them . . . and the smell . . .”
The white-haired Magister smiled, his gaze flicking to Emelyn and Corran. “And what have we here? A pair of lovers out for an evening stroll?”
Emelyn stiffened when the Magister’s gaze fell upon her. From Corran’s sharp intake of breath, she suspected he felt the same.
“I must say, you displayed a fair amount of courage for so young a lady,” the Magister said.
Emelyn grasped for words as everything she knew flew out of her head. “I . . . it was nothing. I only threw some stones.”
The Magi smiled. “You give yourself too little credit. After all, you took action while others stood feebly by.” His gaze shifted to Corran.
Corran bristled. “Magi can take care of themselves.”
The Magister’s mouth flicked into a smile, though there was no warmth in his eyes. “Quite right.”
The other Magister, the one called Aldren, watched the exchange. With wide eyes, his gaze darted from Corran, to Emelyn, to Corran again, his face looking much paler than it had a few minutes ago. He looked as wary of them as she was of the Magisters.
“But forgive us,” the older Magister continued. “We have not been properly introduced.” He turned and extended a hand towards his companion. “Allow me to introduce my friend and assistant, Aldren Keller, High Magister of the Twelfth Tower. I am Percival Lacreld, also a Magister of the Twelfth Tower, one who has been fortunate enough to serve in the grandest of capacities.” He lowered his head and tilted at the waist.
“You’re the Grand Magister,” Corran said, his voice flat.
Percival lowered his head once more.
Emelyn watched the exchange, unsure of what it meant. She had heard of Magisters, even seen a few. Beyond that she knew little else. “My name is Emelyn.” She gave a short curtsey, more from habit than any conscious effort to remember her manners. “Do . . . do you know what is happening tonight, lord Magister?”
Percival regarded her as though weighing whether or not he should answer. “Yes.”
They watched each other in silence. Emelyn wanted to ask him to continue, for him to tell her all that he knew, but she could hear Miss Cook’s scolding voice in her head, telling her to mind her own affairs.
Percival smiled. “Come.” He turned and walked away. Aldren followed.
Emelyn hesitated, unsure if he had been speaking to her. She glanced at Corran. The man had relaxed at the Magisters’ departure and looked to have no intention of following them. If the Magisters knew what was happening, maybe they could help. Taking a deep breath, she gathered up her skirts and ran after them.
They came to the forest’s edge, little more than a wall of shadow in the moonlit night. To Emelyn’s relief, the Magi stopped and sat down in the grass. Emelyn looked back at the festival, to the firelight flickering in the darkened field. Everything was so quiet, so calm. She could almost convince herself that nothing had happened, that everything was as it should be. With a heavy heart, she sat down opposite the Magisters.
Aldren put out a hand, a small stone resting in his palm. He spoke an unknown word and the stone glowed with a gentle light.
Emelyn gasped. “How did you do that?”
Aldren smiled and shrugged, looking a little embarrassed. “We Magisters are trained in such matters.” He set the stone on the ground, the surrounding grass causing the light to throw wild and erratic shadows.
“Is it magic?”
“Some would call it that.”
“What would you call it?”
Aldren remained silent as he gazed at the glowing stone, leaving the wind rustling in the trees to answer.
Emelyn watched the Magisters, looking from Aldren to Percival and back to Aldren again. The light shining from the stone on the ground illuminated the Magi’s faces in an unsettling manner, giving them a gaunt and sinister appearance. Emelyn fiddled with her hands, wondering if anyone was going to speak or if they were to simply sit there in the damp grass, staring at each other in the eerie light.
Twigs snapped and Emelyn turned to find Corran walking towards them. He sat down next to her, glaring at Percival from across the glowing stone. “If you know what’s happening, then tell us and let us be done with it.”
The Grand Magister looked at him, his face void of expression. “A creature of magic, I fear.” He spoke airily, as though discussing the weather.
Emelyn stared at him. Creatures of magic existed solely in the bedtime stories of children, usually as cautionary tales to discourage unwanted behavior. She should have laughed at the notion, waggling her finger at a man who should know better than to spread such nonsense. It’s what Miss Cook would have done. But instead of shock or fear or a number of other feelings Emelyn thought she should have felt, she only felt that strange sense of curiosity. It was like the Magister’s words confirmed that which she already knew in her heart to be true, but could never bring herself to acknowledge.
Corran folded his arms, unmoved. “What do you mean ‘creature of magic?’ We have seen a good many creatures this evening. Which one do you mean?”
“None of the ones which you have seen,” Percival said. “This creature is a great distance hence, far to the north. These other . . . things,” he waggled his fingers towards the distant festival, “are simply here by her will.”
Corran raised his eyebrows. “Her will? It is a female creature?”
The Magister studied Corran with narrowed eyes before replying in a hushed voice, “Indeed.”
Emelyn glanced at the men sitting around the light. “I don’t understand. Why is this happening? Why is this creature tormenting us? How is it even possible?”
Percival smiled, though his eyes tensed. “It would be impossible to explain all the details. It would be beyond your understanding and we simply do not have the time. I cannot say why it is happening, only that it needs to be stopped. That is a task entrusted to Aldren and me.”
Emelyn licked her lips. “My friend, Tilly . . . she was with them . . . the creatures. She . . . wasn’t herself.” Emelyn swallowed the lump rising in her throat. “I need to find her.”
The strain in Percival’s eyes softened, his voice gentle. “You cannot help her, child.”
“I . . . I need to. I can’t leave her.”
“You must understand—she has fallen under the creature’s spell, as have all of Fallow. You alone seem to be unaffected, aside from my brethren and myself. There is nothing you can do for her.”
Emelyn frowned. “Corran isn’t affected, there must be others.”
Percival’s mouth tightened. “Our fellow Magisters have been charged with seeing to the town’s safety. I am sure your friend will be quite all right, as will the others. Aldren and I, however, must see to stopping the creature from causing more harm, and we have no time for delay.”
Emelyn looked back at the festival glowing in the distance. She wanted to go home, but not while those creatures still roamed around. Nor did she trust that all really would be well, despite the Magister’s assurances. “What am I supposed to do? My home is there . . . I have nowhere else . . .”
“You will come with us.”
Aldren shot a sharp glance at the Grand Magister.
Corran bristled. “I think not,” he said, rising to his feet.
The Magisters also rose, as did Emelyn.
Corran turned to Emelyn. “You have your answers. Now let us leave this place.”
“I don’t understand,” she said. “Where would we go? I don’t even know you!”
Corran took a deep breath. “I know you don’t know me,” he said, his voice tight with strained patience. “But you don’t know them, either. I know their kind, and I know they cannot be trusted!”
Emelyn stood dumbstruck, unsure of what she should say or do. Corran was right—she didn’t know the Magisters any more than she knew him. She had no desire to go off with anyone; she just wanted everything to return to normal.
“I know who you are, Emelyn.” Percival’s voice rang clear in the still night. “I know where you come from. I know your parents. You must have wondered about these things. A young woman with no prospects other than a life of servitude, you must have wondered if this is the life you are meant to live, a life in darkness. I can help you find answers about yourself.”
Emelyn’s heart thundered in her ears; she was surprised she could hear anything at all. All her life had she wondered about her parents—who they were, why they had left her. She had grown up shadowed by these questions, never finding any answers, only a sense of incompleteness, of not belonging. Now this man dangled the promise of answers before her like fish before a stray cat.
“Why would you do that?” she asked, her voice barely above a whisper. “Why would you help me?”
Percival smiled. “Let us just say that I see potential in you—potential that is wasted in a life of menial service. Whether or not you wish to realize it is up to you, as is your choice to come with us.” He glanced at Corran. “Can he offer you the same?”
Emelyn blinked at Corran. What potential could she possibly have? She was a servant, her existence revolved around fetching water and scrubbing floors. Her talents were few and the idea that her life could be something more was a desire reserved solely for her dreams.
“Make your decision quickly,” Percival said as he picked up the glowing stone and handed it to Aldren. “We must leave immediately. This field is no place to linger.” With that, he and Aldren turned and headed into the darkened forest.
Emelyn felt a stab of panic as the Magisters disappeared into the shadows, realizing from the quickening of her heart that she had already made her choice. Without looking back, she picked up her skirts and ran into the forest after them.
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