Dogleg Hinterland 4

That night was a strange one – her mother came to her as she slept; arriving as the Whispergate Sentinels always arrived: as a rumour of smoke that wrapped itself around an idea, gradually cinching its grey ribbons more tightly until it became solid. Why would she choose tonight of all nights to manifest herself, after so long of being an absentee in her daughter’s life? She did not say anything but it looked as if she was involved in some kind of mummer show, her hands moving in a suggestive manner that Madrigal could not quite decipher. She tilted her head back, held her hand to her mouth and appeared to silently howl; once this act was complete she began to flap her wings and she flew away.

In the dream Madrigal looked down and saw that her mother had left her shadow behind: an inky pool in which a bird seemed to be struggling. What sort of bird was it? Madrigal knelt to lift it from the oily substance, thinking at first that it was dove – the black patches being merely the stains of the fluid. The bird did not coo like a dove however, it let out a cackle like dry twigs breaking, and she knew that it was a Magpie. It spoke: “One For Sorrow,” and then it flew away.

A second Magpie appeared, told her that two stood for joy, and dropped a picture of a strange looking man with two straight blue lines tattooed beneath his eyes. The bird wandered around after making its delivery, which strangely made Madrigal feel more uneasy than the first message.

Why was her dream in this particular form? Birds were no friends of hers – was the Nest playing fames with her? She hoped not. The third Magpie wore a gold chain about its neck with the name Lorelei carved into it. This bird seemed to laugh at her. Three for a girl.

Four for a boy came, and if a bird can be considered solemn, this bird was so. The Myomancer – this was who she was told to expect. A smiling face shimmered for a second in her mind and then dissipated. A Myomancer? She was not sure that she even knew what that meant? Some form of divination? How and where she was supposed to meet him she couldn”t fathom.

Magpie number five landed and reached into the pool of umbra – it withdrew a small silver ring and it told her: “You will pay your way to the moon with this.” This bird dived into the pool – something she would never have imagined a magpie doing, and it disappeared.

Number six merely flew over her head and dropped the ring that it was its duty to deliver – shouting as it passed “This is to pay the sun.” She watched it as it flew into the distance, seemed to reflect the sun upon the blackness of its wings and then, like a coal, ignited and burned away to nothing.

Number seven wished to hang around for a while. “I can’t tell you much,” it said.

“I thought you couldn’t tell me anything.”

“Well, not directly, of course, but I might offer to you a tidbit; a hint; a shiny gew-gaw. There’d be no fun in not getting you a bit worked up, after all, am I not the most important in this charm of magpies? Of course I am.

“Okay, here goes – things in the nest are hatching for you. A sage fool sings the blues but you will be carried away on the back of another harmony. While the cats away the mice shall play. The moon is an egg. The sun is an eye. And lastly, as an extra favour at no extra charge – a wolfskin is worn by one you once knew. Fare thee well, traveller.”

Madrigal then seemed to wake, but she knew that it was not a true waking – just another level of the dream: in one hand she held a canine tooth and in the other a small bird skull. She woke in this strange bed in this strange merchant’s house and she tried to figure out what it all might mean. If the day were as interesting as the night it would definitely be one to remember.

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Dogleg Hinterland 3

Shaking her head free of bad dreams, clutching her empty stomach, she made her way towards her appointment, trying to compose herself as she walked along. The thoughts birthed in the nightmare troubled her like a fishbone stuck in her throat; she attenuated her breathing and repeated a little mantra that was supposed to cage this kind of bad ju-ju. She had to be on top form – it was well known that you couldn’t trust Regrew even if he was your best friend, so casual acquaintances really had to watch themselves.

The walk seemed to take forever, the road doubling back on itself in several places. There were no short-cuts – getting off the fixed direction the road wished you to go in was dangerous – you might snag yourself on some spell-bone left jutting to capture careless burglars. You might break a hold-web and find yourself dropping from the roof paralysed and destined to break apart on the hard ground below. The Inn Spires of this settlement occupied concentric circles which were divided by a complex system of heredity, influence, race, and luck – part of her upbringing in the trade had involved extensive study of the customs which governed the delicate machinery of the society they, as merchants, had to interact with.

Lizardkind tended to occupy the third circle and were said to have a hard time progressing beyond that – the fact that Bartolph Regrew had moved into the second circle and looked likely to move up into the first circle very soon spoke volumes. If she played this right she would be able to eat well for a long time, and if she managed to convince that the merchandise she wanted to sell him was somehow tied into the desired ascent she might be able to ride his coattails to even greater heights.

It was noon when she reached Regrew’s abode, and it was not easy persuading the guard on the door to let her in. They tried to trick you into promising something of yourself in return for entrance, and there was nothing with which she wished to part at any cost, apart from of course the dreamstuff.

Regrew was Geckoskin; not one of the common Lizardkind, and that perhaps explained his rapid rise in a place where being exotic was a definite boon. She looked into his large eyes and muttered an anti-glamour under her breath; he was quite beautiful and she knew immediately that this made him doubly dangerous.

‘So, little girl, where is your mother?’

‘What? I don’t know what you mean.’

‘Hmm, you’ll have to do better than that. Your mother child – what has happened to her. I heard about your father, so that needs no explanation. Please, it must be obvious to you that I can see through the illusion you have tried to weave about yourself. I have farsight; it is one of the gifts that allows me to be a better salesman in this place. Just tell me the truth and we can get it out of the way – try to lie and we might have a problem. I’ll know.’

‘She joined the Whispergate Sentinels.’

‘And you haven’t seen her in a while?’

‘No; I haven’t.’

‘Okay, now that wasn’t so hard, was it? Now the plan is, or at least my plan is – that you eat and then you rest and then we do business tomorrow. I know you were worried that I wouldn’t deal with you because you are so young but, Madrigal, there are very few of your kind left anymore, and I need the services of someone such as you; so, you see, I never really had a choice.’

Dogleg Hinterland Two

The night was bad-tooth black and the fire seemed lazy by comparison to the ones she had set in the past — the light travelled little beyond where she was sat. The nightmare clamped around her like the needle-toothed jaws of the ancient nameless creature that she knew awaited her a long way off in the fade of the future’s footsteps. She knew that the Nest was working to feed her bad thoughts, reaching out across the expanse of the Desert of the Held Tongue to fling its poison, but even they had no power to shape things as vital as that from her dreamstuff. Her nemesis had a life of its own and was drawn to her as she was drawn to it.

She decided that she would sleep where she was perched because she was afraid of catching fire if she moved her bedding any closer. If she had been back home in the Hushlands where she hailed from she would have burnt the Goodwill Weed in the fire and she would have slept soundly. But here the wolf packs tore at the fabric of the night and the tear inched its way towards her sleeping form. She had said a prayer to the Great Heart that asked for a little of the fire pictures’ heat to leap into her sleeping head and keep the bad spirits away. No one had good dreams out here she’d bet.

The birds invaded her sleep as they always did, climbing out of her father’s ragged scarecrow body to peck out her eyes and steal her flesh. Madrigal had a dream catcher tattooed on the back of her skull, the feathers running down her neck – it was to protect her as she slept and was something a lot of those in her trade did. Not that there had ever been many in her trade and not that there were many left. They had been hunted down and despatched swiftly, as were all enemies of The Nest.

Morning came slower than she’d wanted. Sleep provided no rest and today was going to be a busy day. Regrew was bound to be wily and if he saw she was tired he would press home his advantage and pocket any profit she might have been able to garner were she in a better state.

Dogleg Hinterland One

Madrigal had travelled the inner spirals of Cerebellum for longer than she could remember, dodging the bird shadows with their crow-skull heads and the hungry wolf spirits so that she could hawk her dream-spice to the Quiet Sleepers. She had seen more Inn Spires than most and she never tired of the mirror-spun magic and dew-laden threads that hung the small heads of the shrunken from their chameleon-shimmer walls. Her father had left three moons ago, evaporated like a lunar reflection stolen from a shattered pond by a cruel stone. Mother was one of the Whispergate Sentinels now ushering the Inbetweeners into ether-state. It was an interesting life held frozen at points in the daguerrotypes and blueprints of half-formed dreams that the awake called possibility.

She sat down, opened her pack, and removed the jerky she’d lifted from the one-eyed street vendor who looked at her like he wanted to eat her. She was a rare piece of girl candy that she wasn’t eaten by the Souled and the Buyers who shrugged themselves up out of concrete dust to bloom as cobweb-hued flowers that trapped the eyes.

She was hungry: she’d been travelling for three days now and not made a single sale, without a few more thefts she was going to starve and there were dancing skeletons spinning bad luck tales out of rumours stitching the edge of her vision like an horizon. She knew she had to reach the vanishing point and divest herself of these ghouls or that was going to be it. Vultures peeled the sky with their cries and told her she was carrion. She knew it was a lie, but how could she refute what they said when her ribs sang of her hunger?

The jerky tasted good, all her taste buds chattering to her of old times. She stowed the rest, put her pack back on, and started on her way. The sun was hot in the sky, a chromatic shift from lemon to copper made life cheap here. In the distance, where shadows dreamt fingers into their tides, the sound of the birds that had plagued her journey began to sing their cheesewire lament cutting through distance in a hot knife through butter instant. Time to move.

The Inn Spire she was due to arrive at tomorrow morning was owned by Bartolph Regrew, one of the lizardkind out of Midmire, he should be able to hook her straight into the Mara-Mirror trade that her father had been big in. That should be some serious action — feed her for ages. She had the Free-Key tongue-lock to allow her to speak the right language and the mirror-tricks were a cinch to pull off. No one would know that she was the daughter and not the mother. She’d pulled the trick off a thousand times and this would be no different. Still, she had to make it through the night and that was never an easy feat.

The ground was friable under foot, tinder-dry stealthgrass in sparse clumps easing her way slightly. She’d passed here before. A few more hours of travel and she could rest. There was a forest ahead — shelter and firewood. The birds might perch but the firelight and heat-dreams would deter them from attacking. Madrigal would be safe. She felt energetic and decided to run for a bit; at least that’s what she told herself … she most definitely wasn’t scared. Was she? The bird shadows screeched a resonant echo into her palpitating heart. She ran faster …