Page 2

 Sarah Rees Brennan

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The air was filled with the whisper-like rustle of straw. Behind them, Kami heard screams and the sound of people running. She let go of Angela’s arm and grabbed hold of a branch from the Kenns’ yew tree. The bark rasped cold and harsh against her palms, and Kami wrenched at it as hard as she could until it snapped off in her hands.
Angela walked, empty-handed, across Shadowchurch Lane to meet the Thompsons’ scarecrow. She kicked it in the stomach. That did not wind it, or even make its stride falter. Another scarecrow came tottering down the road, bleeding a trail of straw, making straight for Angela. Kami ran out into the street wielding her branch.
Angela whirled and grabbed one of the Thompson scarecrow’s arms. It ripped its own arm off and launched itself at her, so light it seemed like it was flying. Angela launched herself right back, with no finesse or any of the self-defense moves Rusty had taught them, just fury and clawing, as if she planned to shred it to pieces with her bare hands.
The new scarecrow Kami was keeping at bay with her branch was getting braver, its sackcloth feet shuffling in the mess of straw it was bleeding, feinting first one way and then another. It had a turnip for a head, which was wagging obscenely at her as the scarecrow lunged. Kami stared into the dark hollows of its eyes and got an idea. She stepped forward, advancing even though every muscle in her body was urging her to cringe away, and jabbed her branch as hard as she could into its grinning face.
The face shattered, turning into vegetable pulp as she hit it again and again. The scarecrow’s hands touched her, rubber gloves filled with crackling straw fumbling at and catching her throat. Kami forced back a scream and struck until the turnip fell off and the scarecrow tumbled down into an inert heap of straw and cloth.
Kami whipped around still clutching her branch, with a cry on her lips for Angela. But Angela had seen what to do already. She was crouched on the road, ripping at the creature’s neck until the sackcloth gave way with a horrible tearing sound, and Angela rose to her feet with its chalk-whitened head in her fist like a trophy.
Her eyes met Kami’s and she dropped the head. Kami reached out with her free hand to grab Angela’s. It was only when she found Angela’s palm clammy, and Angela held her hand back hard, that she knew Angela was scared too.
Then she heard a choked-off scream, and both their heads turned. Kami thought of the screams and running she’d heard behind them. In the square. She should have known Holly wouldn’t run anywhere but to them.
Holly was still in the square, still in a crowd, but the boys were gone and the crowd she stood in now was a jostling, rushing crowd of scarecrows. Kami saw Holly’s bright crown of hair disappear among them, swallowed up. Angela’s immediate race forward was checked when the scarecrow from the Kenn house lunged in front of her. Kami ducked down and scythed its feet out from under it with her branch.
At least, that was the idea, but instead the scarecrow’s straw legs sagged forward, bowing instead of falling. This still gave Angela plenty of time to dodge around it.
“Go,” Kami said. “I’ve got this.”
Angela hesitated for an instant, then nodded and ran, her black hair streaming behind her.
Kami had told her to go. She had not expected to feel quite so abandoned and alone, the only human left on a street full of horrors.
The light from the Kenns’ windows gleamed in their scarecrow’s eyes, and Kami saw they were marbles that had transformed into something that glistened as if they were made of the same stuff as human eyes but stayed small, swirling colors at their center.
It had a plaster face that had turned waxy and a little flexible. Kami saw its mouth move infinitesimally, its grin stretching. It flexed its hands in black gloves, and Kami heard tiny wooden pieces click inside the leather. Rob Lynburn and his sorcerers had made all these creatures come to some semblance of life. Kami had known as much already. But this scarecrow was specifically designed to last longer, to be more capable of hurting her.
It was horrible that there were lights on in the Kenns’ house. She wondered how many people were awake in the other houses along this lane, knowing nothing or hiding in fear, or standing at the windows watching the chaos they had created.
A hand touched the back of Kami’s neck, so terribly light, like a glove filled with nothing but air. Kami spun, trying to keep both scarecrows in her line of sight and jabbing her branch at the new one.
It was the scarecrow in the pink sun hat. Kami felt a little betrayed.
She hit it and the branch caught on the ruffled material of the scarecrow’s dress. Kami stabbed the branch in deeper and then yanked it out, ripping the scarecrow in two.
The Kenns’ scarecrow grabbed at her arm, its grasp firmer than the other scarecrow’s, feeling slick and strangling-strong on the bare skin of her wrist. Kami wrenched away and saw that there were other scarecrows very close now. One with a little whittled wooden face, its nose a knot in bark, was suddenly at the Kenns’ scarecrow’s side like a henchman.
A couple of houses down, there was a dark shape lying splayed in the grass. Kami felt her stomach turn, cold and sick, as she realized it was a scarecrow so badly made it could not stand.
It was crawling to get her, on its belly like a snake.
Kami dived for the scarecrow with the wooden face. The Kenns’ scarecrow crashed into her, heavier than a scarecrow should have been, as if it had a wooden skeleton buried underneath its straw, and caught her off-balance.
Kami fell heavily onto her side, elbow catching the edge of the pavement. The Kenn scarecrow’s leather shoe slammed down toward her face. Kami rolled to avoid it, and ended up flat on her back in the wet grass of the Kenns’ garden. The scarecrow’s waxy face and living marble eyes glistened above her, impassive and terrible, and Kami lifted her branch in both hands to ward it off.
In the black shadow of the church spire, light was born. First an orange glint ran along the dark wood of her branch; then Kami caught the sharp smell of smoke and heard a crackle nothing like the sound of straw.
Kami kept tight hold of her branch as light raced along it, sparking between the forked ends, and watched it burst into burning life. By the sudden light of fire, she saw there was someone with her in Shadowchurch Lane.
Jared Lynburn, one of the sorcerers. Rob Lynburn’s nephew, the real boy she had once believed was her imaginary friend.
He was standing back, arms crossed over his chest, watching her. His face was mostly shadowed but the stark line of the scar on his face was white as moonlight, firelight catching the sleeping gold in his dark-blond hair and setting twin lights burning in his pale eyes.
The boy who used to live in her head.
But not anymore.
Kami lifted herself onto her unhurt elbow and plunged the burning branch into the Kenn scarecrow’s body. Its coat caught alight, and Kami scrambled to her feet as it scrabbled at the branch with its leather gloves. She shoved the branch into its straw breast and watched it burn from the inside out.
She was not surprised when she looked for the scarecrow with the wooden face and saw its face already a charred ruin. She was surprised when she looked across the street and Jared was gone, twining shadows and moonlight where he had stood.
Firelight burst in the corner of her eye. Kami turned and looked down the street. There he was, a shadow passing through forms bright with burning. Some of the scarecrows writhed as they burned in a ghastly parody of a dance. Jared stopped at the garden where the ill-made scarecrow lay, a humped-up shape in the grass. Kami watched him looking at it, weakly rolling in the grass as it burned, and thought she saw him smile.
She could have followed him. He would not exactly have been hard to track, what with his blazing path of destruction and all. But Jared obviously did not need her help. Angela and Holly might.
Kami turned away from him and ran, clutching her burning branch, down to the town square.
Angela was standing beside the statue of Matthew Cooper. Holly was sitting at the base of the statue, short skirt riding up her purple tights as she put her boots back on. Beside her was a metal sign from one of the High Street shop fronts.
Standing diffidently on the other side of the statue was Ash Lynburn, Jared’s cousin and Rob’s son, his camera around his neck and piles of cloth and straw all around him.
“How’d you do that?” Kami asked. It was the first thing she had said to him in two weeks, since the day she found out his father had persuaded him to spy on her, and almost persuaded him to kill Angela.
Ash blinked and smiled at the sight of her. “It’s easy,” he said. “You just undo the spell put on them in the first place—it’s like undoing a knot in your mind.”
So setting them on fire and watching them burn was an entirely unnecessary and insane thing to do, Kami thought. But she did not say that. Instead, she said, “Everyone all right?”
Angela nodded. Holly looked up and smiled too, her smile shakier and thus more real than Ash’s. “I’m okay,” she said. “I see you are too. I also see you have a weapon that is on fire.”
“I’m badass like that,” Kami said, putting the branch down on the cobblestones. It was still burning. She had no idea how to put it out.
“My mother’s up by the woods, dealing with the gardens there,” said Ash, as if Lillian Lynburn was trimming hedges rather than killing scarecrows come to life. “Jared’s—”
“I saw him,” Kami told him shortly. She jerked her head toward the road past the church, and the burning trail Jared had left. She went to sit at the foot of the statue beside Holly.
Holly linked arms with her. Kami leaned in close, sharing warmth as they looked around the nighttime square and past it to the rest of their town where there were still fires burning and straw men moving through the dark.
They had known it was coming: Rob Lynburn’s first move to terrify the town into submission, to make it a place where sorcerers ruled again, where they could kill for power and nobody would stop them.
They didn’t know who most of Rob Lynburn’s followers were, but some people who didn’t follow him must have seen what was happening. Nobody had come to help. Kami shivered in the night air, and felt Holly shiver too.
When they saw someone walking toward them down the High Street, they both jumped.
Angela ran past them, and when she reached her brother she punched him in the shoulder. Rusty’s shirt was torn; he put an arm around his sister and looked at Kami over Angela’s head. His often-sleepy hazel eyes were bright and intent.
“Cambridge?” he said, using his silly nickname for her. “A scarecrow just tried to choke me. I don’t wish to seem overly inquisitive, but do you have any idea what on earth is happening?”
Kami looked at Holly and Ash, who were both silent and totally unhelpful. “Well,” she admitted, “I might have some idea.”
“You’d better tell me,” Rusty said.
Kami looked around the square at the remains of scarecrows in the moonlight. “We’d better go to your house first,” she said. “It’s not safe here.” She didn’t know if anywhere was safe. She didn’t want to go home, so there was nowhere to go but Rusty and Angela’s place. She wasn’t welcome at the Lynburns’.
Kami lifted her eyes to Aurimere House, which stood outlined against the sky. Its windows reflected the lights of fires burning all over her town.
Chapter Two
The Heir of Aurimere
“So to review,” said Rusty, two hours later. “Magic is real. The Lynburns are sorcerers who founded Sorry-in-the-Vale as an ideal place for sorcerers to soak up nature, which gives them their, ah, magic powers. But not as much magic as they get from killing people. Rob Lynburn killed Nicola Prendergast, and we can’t go to the police because at least one member of the police force is one of Rob Lynburn’s sorcerers.”
“Also because the police might not find our story particularly convincing,” Kami put in.