The first thing he heard was Conrad crying weakly, “Let me through—let me through, I say! Christian. Christian.”
He turned his head, but his glasses were askew, stuck between his cheek and the ground. The crowd before him was a blur of color and movement. He reached up with difficulty and put the glasses on properly.
Several yards away, Conrad had somehow managed to get out of bed and was standing in the doorway of Imelda’s wagon, swaying on his bad leg. His face was grey and shining with sweat. Liza had a grip on his elbow, looking almost as bad as he did, but he did not notice. Rowan’s contortionist, who had Graham Chelsea on the ground in his arms, looked up and said, “You’re going to kill yourself. Go back to bed.”
“Not until I see he’s okay—”
Christian tried to shout out to him, but the spider burst through the portal, almost squashing him beneath its weight. In his hysteria Christian thought for a moment what a turn that would be: a human squashed by a spider. He rolled out of its way with his breathing shallow and quick and his side throbbing.
Then he felt so dizzy he had to put his head in his hands for a moment and concentrate on maintaining consciousness.
“There’s another one!” someone shouted. The dancing bear waddled through the trellis, carrying its dead trainer in its paws and still bellowing when anyone tried to touch it.
Then, for a long while, nothing.
“Book Man,” Carina called from her place atop the trellis. Her blue eyes glowed blindingly. “Are there are any others?”
“Three,” Christian gasped, massaging his chest. The garden gnome crawled out of his pocket and slid to the ground, alive again now that it was back in the park. “Three more.”
Carina shivered, the blue glow wiggling around her, but Aurelia said, “Hold.”
The silence stretched on, minute after minute. Tirion pulled Christian to his feet and asked, “Where is Morrow?”
“Hellhounds,” Christian said. His breath was beginning to return, but his legs wobbled and his palms stung and his hip hurt. He sank back to the ground with a groan. “Hellhounds and imps. They tried to stop us getting through. He said he was coming.”
They waited. Tirion’s fingers curled and uncurled, unconsciously it seemed, and finally he said, “I’m going back.”
But as he stepped toward the trellis, Morrow and the two ringmasters fell through it, shouting, “Close it!”
The air inside the trellis trembled—distant howling issued from it—and then the air stilled, and the howling was cut off, and Aurelia and her sister’s brilliant glow faded to normal. Tirion gripped Morrow by the shoulder.
“Are you alright?” When the Rover did not answer, the elf shook him and said, “Morrow. Are you alright?”
“Fine,” Morrow said between breaths, but his brow was creased and he looked much older than he had before. “We lost more than a dozen.”
Tirion let out a breath. Then he held the Rover back, looked him in the eye, and said, “Never do that to me again.”
Morrow hesitated. “Like old times, eh?”
The elf gave the shadow of a smile. “Like old times.”
Christian leaned against the spider, his heart still pounding.
Are you alright, human? Narodnaya asked him. He felt there was some reason she shouldn’t be there, but he couldn’t remember what it was and he was glad of her presence anyhow.
“Your lands,” he croaked. It was a guess more than anything.
They, at least, are self-sufficient. I had to make sure you were alright, did I not? Her voice was light, almost playful, but beyond it he could sense her concern. Are you alright?
“Fine,” he wheezed. “I’m fine. I’m just—my hip—”
“It’s an imp’s horn,” Morrow said. “Look.”
Christian looked down to see a black horn sticking out of him. The point was buried in his left hip, the other end jagged where it had broken free from the imp’s forehead. His head swam again at the sight. He grabbed the horn with the intent of pulling it out, but Morrow said, “Don’t. Let me look at it first.”
“It hurts,” Christian whimpered.
“I know. But if you’re bleeding much internally then it’s all that’s keeping you from bleeding out. Let me take a look.”
The Rover crouched down and prodded at Christian’s side to ascertain the damage. The accountant grimaced but clenched his teeth to keep from crying out; others had suffered much worse injuries than he, and they weren’t acting like children about it. Across the courtyard, he could see Rowan’s contortionist desperately trying to staunch the flow of blood from Graham Chelsea’s missing fingers. Already the horse-master had passed out from shock or blood loss.
“I think you’re alright,” Morrow said. “It didn’t get in too deep. But I want some bandages before I get this thing out of you.”
“Liza,” Christian said. His voice came out in almost a whisper. He tried to sit up straighter and said again, “Liza.”
She appeared at his side, as ashen as her husband had been. A blood-soaked towel was in her hand. “What is it? I’ve got to get back to Conrad, he’s passed out again—”
“Bandages,” he said weakly. “Please.”
She nodded, disappeared, and was back in a flash with a roll of gauze. Morrow took it from her and said, “Lie back. This is going to hurt.”
He placed a hand on Christian’s side and yanked the horn out of his hip. Christian inhaled sharply and could not help a moan escaping him.
“It’s alright,” Morrow said, digging through his pack for herbs. “The worst is done. You’re lucky it was an imp instead of a hellhound.”
“Hellhounds are venomous. If one of those took a bite out of you we’d have a bigger problem on our hands than a hole in your side.”
Christian shot up, his face whiter than ever.
“Whoa, hey. Lie back down,” Morrow said, but the accountant didn’t hear him.
“Hellhounds are venomous?” he repeated. “So say—say someone was bitten by a hellhound more than a week ago, and say his wound kept opening up—”
The Rover peered at him sharply. “Why?”
“Conrad,” Christian said. Frightened tears coursed down his face, and he felt ashamed but he couldn’t stop them. “Conrad got bitten by a hellhound last week and he keeps getting worse and no one can tell us why—”
Morrow stood up and called for Tirion. The elf appeared at his side. “What is it?”
“Hellhound bite,” Morrow said. “Old one. It hasn’t been properly cared for.”
Morrow turned back to Christian, sniffling on the cobblestones beside him. The accountant looked up, wiped his eyes, and said, “Conrad. He’s in the wagon.”
“You know what to do,” the Rover said grimly. Tirion nodded and headed in the direction of the wagon.
“What’s he going to do?” Christian asked in a high-pitched voice. Morrow returned to bandaging his wound. “Morrow, what’s going to happen to Conrad?”
Morrow looked at him and said, “He’ll live, if we’re lucky. Now quiet down or you’ll make things worse. Come on, now. You’re alright. Just lie still for a bit and I’ll come back and check on you.”
Christian lay back on the cobblestones and watched as the Rover went through the crowd to help bind wounds and calm nerves. Now, from the wagon, he heard Conrad moaning and Liza shouting and Tirion’s curt replies. Their words blurred together; his eyes squeezed shut as he cried again.
“Doing alright, Mr. Abernathy?” a voice asked above him. He wiped his eyes and looked up. Rowan and Finn were standing over him, their faces drawn, but they smiled at him as cheerfully as they were able as he gazed up at them.
“I’m fine,” he whispered.
They sat beside him, and Rowan said, “We’ll just keep you company for a moment, shall we?”
But Finn clutched her sister’s shoulder and said, “Look!”
More trouble, Christian thought, twisting his head to see, but no. The two ringmasters shouted joyfully, “Bartimeus!” and Mr. Catcher shoved through the crowd with his arms outstretched, weeping and crying over and over again, “My sisters! My dear, dear sisters!”
71 THE RINGMASTERS’ TALE
Mr. Catcher, as it happened, was the older brother of Rowan and Finn, a ringmaster himself when Goblin first took over almost two hundred years ago.
“Back then we had a family circus,” Mr. Catcher told Christian as the three siblings sat cross-legged on the ground around him. “The Three Ringmasters, that was what they called us, as if there wasn’t any circus around but ours.”
Theirs was the best traveling circus to be found in England (so they claimed), with the fiercest lions and tigers, the bravest trainers, the most graceful dancing bears, the most daring trapeze artists. They frequently traveled through the wood with their entire troupe, more than a hundred people and animals all together, and so they had been among the first to join the fight against Goblin when Morrow the Elder had rallied the nomads.
“We won, of course,” Finn said. The lens of her monocle had shattered in the attack, but she kept the frame fixed in her eye. “That was the end of our traveling days. Got to set up our circus right here in the park each night and sleep in the Sunforest each day. It was glorious.”
Like the others, they stopped aging, guaranteed eternal youth as long as they spent each day in the Otherworld and each night in the park, where the Good Magic would erase any signs of old age. But after a while, Mr. Catcher (much like Morrow the Elder) became disenchanted with immortality. He began to long for a normal life, a life more settled than what he and his siblings had.
“Poor old Barty,” Rowan said, elbowing her brother. “That was as settled as we’d ever been, but he stopped participating in our shows. We’d find him sitting outside afterward, most of the time. Grumpy old bugger.”
Mr. Catcher grinned and elbowed her back. “I took to wandering through the Fair instead of running the circus, and that’s how I met dear Winifred.”
“How is Winifred?” his sisters chorused. Mr. Catcher’s mustache drooped as his smile faded.
“Dead,” he said sadly. “Almost a week ago now.”
His dear Winifred had been a singer at the Fair, a half-Rover with none of the Rovers’ talent for divination and potions. She, too, had tired of living each day the same, spending each night on Earth in revelry and each day in the Otherworld asleep. She missed daylight and silence and walking through the woods with no purpose other than enjoying them. So, one night, she and Mr. Catcher sat up in Celadon Park until the sun rose.
“We really did intend to go back,” Mr. Catcher said. “Winifred wanted to see the sunrise. We thought we could make it at the last minute. But by the time we reached the portal, it had already closed. And we thought to ourselves, well, this is what we wanted anyway. So we left and never came back.”
Though he did not know it, it was after this that his younger sisters, always bickerers to begin with, drifted apart, each blaming the other for running her older brother off. Eventually they’d gone their separate ways, opening separate circuses, and their troupe had chosen sides and remained as loyal to both as was possible.
“Of course, we’ve made amends in recent years,” Finn said.
“Have you?” Christian asked, not forgetting they had almost torn him in half the first time he’d met them.
“Of course,” said Rowan. “We all decided to come with you, didn’t we?”
“Of course,” Christian said.