Valiant. Part 19

"Val," her mother said, rus.h.i.+ng down the steps, only to stop at the lower landing. Her eyes were red-rimmed, her face un-made up, and her hair wild. Val felt everything at once: guilt at making her mother so upset, serves-her-right satisfaction that her mother was suffering, and profound exhaustion. She wanted them both to stop feeling so miserable, but she had no idea how to make that happen.

Val's mother walked the last few steps slowly and hugged her hard. Val leaned against her mother's shoulder, smelling soap and faint perfume. Eyes burning with sudden emotion, she pulled away.

"I was so worried. I kept thinking you would come in, just like this, but you didn't. For days and days you didn't." Her mother's voice shrilled and broke.

"I'm here now," Val said.

"Oh, honey." Val's mother reached out hesitantly to stroke her fingers across Val's head. "You're so thin. And your hair-"

Val twisted out from under her hand. "Leave it, Mom. I like my hair."

Her mother blanched. "That's not what I meant. You always look beautiful, Valerie. You just look so different."

"I am different," Val said.

"Val," Luis warned. "The keys."

She scowled at him, took a breath. "I need to borrow the car."

"You've been gone for weeks." Val's mother looked at Luis for the first time. "You can't be leaving again."

"I'll be back tomorrow."

"No." Val's mother's voice had a note of panic in it. "Valerie, I'm so sorry. I'm sorry about everything. You don't know how worried I've been about you, the things that I've been imagining. I kept waiting for the phone call that would say the police had found you dead in a ditch. You can't put me through that again."

"There's something I have to do," Val said. "And I don't have much time. Look, I don't understand about you and Tom. I don't know what you were thinking or how it happened, but-"

"You must think that I-"

"But I don't care anymore."

"Then why-" she started.

"This isn't about you and I can't come home until it's finished. Please."

Her mother sighed. "You failed your driving test."

"Can you drive?" Luis asked.

"I have my permit," Val said to her mother, then glanced at Luis. "I can drive fine. I just can't parallel park."

Val's mother padded into the kitchen and came back with a key and an alarm hanging from a key-chain with a rhinestone "R" on it. "I owe you some trust, Valerie, so here it is. Don't make me regret it."

"I won't," Val said.

Val's mother dropped the keys into Val's hand. "You promise you'll be back tomorrow? Promise me."

Val thought of the way her lips had burned when she hadn't kept her promise to return to Ravus on time. She nodded. Luis opened the front door. Val turned toward it, not looking at her mother. "You're still my mom," Val said.

As Val walked down her front steps, she felt the sun on her face, and it seemed that at least one thing might be okay.

Val drove the car through the familiar roads, reminding herself to signal and watch her speed. She hoped that no one would pull them over.

"You know," Luis said, "the last time I was in a car it was my grandma's Bug and we were going to the store for something on a holiday-Thanksgiving, I think. She lived out on Long Island where you need cars to get around. I remember it because my dad had pulled me aside earlier to tell me that he could see goblins in the garden."

Val said nothing. She was concentrating on the road.

She steered the Miata past the pillars that flanked the entrance of the graveyard, the brick of them covered by looping tendrils of leafless vines. The cemetery itself swelled into a hill, dotted with white stones and burial vaults. Despite the fact that it was late November, the gra.s.s there was still green.

"Do you see anything?" Val asked. "It just looks like any other cemetery to me."

Luis didn't answer at first. He stared out the window, one hand unconsciously coming up to touch the clouding gla.s.s. "That's because you're blind."

Val stepped on the break, stopping them short. "What do you see?"

"They're everywhere." Luis put his hand on the door handle, his voice little more than breath.

"Luis?" Val turned off the car.

His voice sounded distant, as if he were speaking to himself. "G.o.d, look at them. Leathery wings. Black eyes. Long, clawed fingers." Then he looked over at Val, like he'd suddenly remembered her. "Get down!"

She lunged over, throwing her head into his lap, feeling the warmth of his arms coming down on her as air whipped over the top of the car.

"What's happening?" Val shouted over the keening of the wind. Something scratched at the leather roof of the car and the hood shook.

Then the air stilled, dropping away to nothing. As Val slowly lifted her head, it seemed to her that not even a leaf moved with a breeze. The whole graveyard had gone quiet.

"This whole car is fibergla.s.s." Luis looked up. "They could claw right through the roof if they wanted to."

"Why don't they?"

"I'm guessing they're waiting to see if we're here to dump some flowers on a grave."

"They don't need to do that. We're coming out." Leaning into the backseat, Val unwrapped the gla.s.s sword. Luis grabbed Val's backpack and slung it over his shoulder.

Val closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Her stomach churned, the way it did before a lacrosse game, but this was different. Her body felt distant, mechanical. Her senses narrowed to notice every sound, each s.h.i.+ft in color and shape, but little else. Adrenaline called to her blood, chilling her fingers, speeding her heart.

Looking down at the sword, Val opened the door and stepped out onto the gravel. "I come in peace," she said. "Take me to your leader."

Invisible fingers closed on her skin, pinching the flesh, tearing at her hair, pus.h.i.+ng and pulling her into the hill, where clumps of gra.s.s rose up and scampered away from the black dirt. She tried to scream as she fell forward, facedown in the earth, breathing the rich mineral smell as she choked on her shriek. Her arms pushed against the soil as she tried to lever herself up, but the dirt and rock and gra.s.s gave beneath her and she tumbled down into the root-wrapped darkness.

Val awoke in golden chains in a hall filled with faeries.

On a dais of dirt, a white-haired knight sat on a throne of braided birch, its bark as pale as bone. He leaned forward and beckoned to a green-skinned, winged girl who regarded Val with black, alien eyes. The winged faerie leaned down and spoke softly to the knight on the throne. His lips twisted into what might have been a smile.

Above her was the underside of the hill, hollow as a bowl, and hung with long roots that grasped and turned as though they were fingers that couldn't quite reach what they desired.

All around Val a bevy of creatures whispered and winked and wondered at her. Some were tall and thin as sticks, others tiny creatures that flitted through the air like Needlenix had. Some had horns that twisted back from their brows like vines, some tossed back mottled green manes as thick as thread on a spool, and a few tripped along on strange and unlikely feet. Val flinched back from one girl with powdery wings and fingers that deepened in color from moonstone white to blue at the tips. There was no place she could look and see anything familiar. She was all the way down the rabbit hole now, right at the very bottom.

A shrunken man with long golden hair went down on one knee in front of the creature on the throne and then rose as nimbly as if he were a boy. He looked slyly in Val's direction. "They found the entrance as easily as if they were directed, but who would direct a pair of humans? A conundrum for your pleasure and delight, my Lord Roiben."

"As you say." Roiben nodded to him and the faerie man stepped back.

"I can address this mystery," a familiar voice said.

Val rolled onto her back, banging up against Luis's body, and twisting her head toward the speaker. Luis grunted. Mabry stepped over them, the hem of her ruddy gown brus.h.i.+ng Val's cheek. She held out a sculpted silver box and sank into a shallow curtsy. "I have what they seek."

Roiben raised a single white brow. "My Court is not pleased to have sunlight make merry and dance in our halls, even if it is only for a moment's admission of prisoners."

Luis rolled on his side and Val could see that he was chained like she was, but that his face was b.l.o.o.d.y. Each of his steel piercings had been cut from his flesh.

Mabry cast her eyes down, but she didn't look very abashed. "Allow me to settle both the light and its bringers."

"You f.u.c.king b.i.t.c.h-," Val started, but was interrupted by a cuff on the shoulder.

"He asks you nothing," the golden-haired faerie spat. "Say nothing."

"No," said the Lord of the Dark Court. "Let them speak. It is so rare that we guest mortals. I can think of the last time, but then, it was nothing if not memorable." Some of the a.s.sembled throng t.i.ttered at that, although Val wasn't sure why. "The boy has true Sight, if I'm not mistaken. One of us put out your eye, yes?"

Luis looked around the room, fear etched in his face. He licked blood from his lip and nodded.

"I wonder what you see when you look at me," Roiben said. "But come, tell us what it is you came for. Is it truly in Mabry's possession?"

"She cut out the heart of my-," Val said. "Out of one of the Folk-a troll. I've come to get it back."

Mabry laughed at that, a deep, sensual laugh. Some of the throng laughed, too. "Ravus is long dead by now, rotting in his chambers. Surely you know that. What good is his heart to you?"

"Dead or not," Val said. "I have come for his heart and I will have it."

A wry smile touched Roiben's mouth and Val felt dread creep over her. He looked at Val and Luis with pale eyes. "What you ask is not mine to give, but perhaps my servant will be generous."

"I think not," said Mabry. "If you consume the heart of the thing, you consume some of its power. I will relish Ravus's heart." She looked down at first Luis and then Val. "And I will savor it all the more knowing you wanted it."

Val s.h.i.+fted up onto her knees and then stood, wrists still bound behind her back. Blood beat in her ears, so loud it nearly drowned out any other sound. "Fight me for it. I'll wager his heart against mine."

"Mortal hearts are weak. What need have I for such a heart?"

Val took a step toward her. "If I'm so weak, then you must be a real f.u.c.king coward not to fight me." She turned to the faeries, to the cat-eyed, those with skin of green and gold, those with bodies stretched too long or too squat or all manner of unnatural proportions. "I'm just a human, aren't I? I'm nothing. Gone in one sigh from one of your mouths, that's what Ravus said. So if you are afraid of me, then you are less than that."

Mabry's eyes glittered dangerously, but her face remained placid. "You have great daring to speak so, here, in my own court, at the steps of my new Lord."

"I dare," Val said. "As much as you dare to act all high and mighty when you're just here to murder him like you murdered Ravus."

Mabry laughed, short and sharp, but there was muttering from some of the a.s.sembled Folk.

"Let me guess," Roiben said lazily. "I shouldn't listen to the mortal for one more moment."

Mabry opened her mouth and then closed it again.

"Accept her challenge," said Roiben. "I will not have it said that one of my Court could not best a human child. Nor shall I have it said my murderer was a coward."

"As you wish," said Mabry, turning to Val abruptly. "After I'm done with you, I will put out Luis's other eye and make a new harp from both your bones."

"String me in your harp," Val hissed. "And I'll curse you every time you pluck it."

Roiben stood. "Do you agree to the terms of her challenge?" he queried, and Val suspected that he was giving her a chance to do something, but she didn't know what.

"No," Val said. "I can't bargain for Luis. He's got nothing to do with my challenge."

"I can bargain for myself," Luis said. "I agree to Mabry's terms provided she put up something for them. She can have me, but if Val wins, then we go free. We get to walk out of here."

Val glanced at Luis, grateful for his perception and amazed by her own stupidity.

Roiben nodded. "Very well. If the mortal wins, I will give her and her companion safe pa.s.sage through my lands. And since you have not decided the terms of your combat, I will choose them-you will fight until first blood." He sighed. "Do not think there is any pity in that. Living, should Mabry win your hearts and bones, does not seem so preferable to being safely dead. I, however, have some questions for Mabry that I need her alive to answer. Now, Thistledown, unclasp the mortals and give the girl her arms."

The golden-haired man slid a jagged-toothed key in the locks and the manacles sprang open, dropping to the ground with a hollow sound that echoed through the dome.

Luis stood a moment later, rubbing his wrists.

A woman with chin hair so long that it was woven into tiny braids brought the gla.s.s sword to Val and went halfway down on one knee, raising the blade in her palms. Tamson's sword. Val glanced at Mabry, but if she had any reaction to the sight of it, if she even remembered to whom it had once belonged, she gave no sign.

"You can do it," Luis said. "What does she know about fighting? She's no knight. Just don't let her distract you with glamour."

Glamour. Val looked at her backpack, the strap still draped over Luis's shoulder. There was nearly a bottle full of Never there. If glamour was Mabry's weapon, then Val could fight her on those terms. "Give me the bag," Val said.

Luis slid it down his arm and handed it to her.

Val reached in and touched the bottle. Digging down past it, her hand closed on a lighter. It would just take a moment and then Val would be flooded with power.

As she turned, she saw her face reflected in the gla.s.s of the blade, saw her own bloodshot eyes and grime-streaked skin before the roving lights under the hill shot the sword through with sudden radiance. Val thought of the girl, Nancy, hit by a train because she was so full of Never that she hadn't seen the gleaming of headlights or heard the scream of brakes. What might Val miss while she was weaving her own illusions? She felt the weight of the knowledge hit her gut like a swallowed stone; she had to do this without any Never singing under her skin.

Val had to fight Mabry with what she knew-years of lacrosse and weeks of the sword, fistfights with neighbor kids, who never said she hit like a girl, the ache of pus.h.i.+ng her body past what she thought she could endure. Val couldn't fight fire with fire, but she could fight it with ice.

She dropped the lighter and lifted the gla.s.s sword from the girl's hands.

I can't fall, she reminded herself, thinking of Ravus and Dave and dominoes all together in neat little rows. I can't fall and I can't fail.

The court gentry had cleared away a square path in the middle of the court and Val stepped into it, shrugging off her coat. It puddled on the floor, the cool air p.r.i.c.kled the hairs on her arms. She took a deep breath and smelled her own sweat.

Mabry stepped out of the crowd, clad in mist that congealed into the shape of armor. In her hand she held a whip of smoke. The tip dragged tendrils behind it that reminded Val of the way that sparklers burned.

Val took a step forward, parting her legs slightly and keeping them loose at the knees. She thought of the lacrosse field, of the tight-but-loose way to hold the stick. She thought of Ravus's hands, pus.h.i.+ng her body into the right formation. Val longed for Never, scorching her from the inside, filling her with fire, but she gritted her teeth and prepared to begin.

Mabry stalked toward the center of the square. Val wanted to ask if they should start now, but Mabry sent her whip whirling and there was no more time for questions. Val parried, trying to slice the whip in half, but it became insubstantial as fog and the blade pa.s.sed right through.

Mabry shot the whip out again. Val blocked, feigned and thrust, but her reach was too short. She barely staggered out of the way of another blow.

Mabry twirled the whip above her head as if it were a la.s.so. She smiled at the crowd and the throng of faeries howled. Val wasn't sure if they were showing favor or just crying for blood.

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