Authors: Nina Smith
Hippy bowed her head and reached for Fluffy Ducky. His hairy legs tickled her fingers. A hot, fat tear fell onto her tunic.
Leaf’s hand rested on her shoulder. “There now girl.” His voice was gentle. “Don’t take on like this. It’s not your fault you got bamboozled by a muse. You’re not the brightest spark in the bonfire, after all. Why don’t you go off to bed?”
Hippy kicked her father in the shin, cupped Fluffy Ducky in her hands and flounced away. She made it all the way to the door of the hut before Ishtar caught up with her.
Ishtar blocked her way inside. She’d washed her face and hands. Her skin gleamed, no trace of blood on it, and she smelled of bitter herb soap. She struggled to say something.
“Spit it out,” Hippy said.
Ishtar took a deep breath. “Sorry,” she mumbled. Then, louder, “Don’t go with that muse king. I don’t like him.” She disappeared inside.
Hippy sighed, disconsolate, and went in to bed. It was very hard to sleep when the two choices she was faced with chased each other around and around in her head like bearflies on a hot day. Leave for an adventure with a muse who had inspired nightmares? Or stay, fight vampires and be the fairy who wasn’t like a fairy at all because she got dropped on her head as a kid?
Hippy got stuck with scrubbing pots all the next day. The big cauldron that hung over the bonfire to make rabbit stew for the whole camp turned her hands greasy and black. The hot water she boiled in the cauldron to wash all the smaller pots dissolved the grease, but turned her hands bright red and made her skin raw. If this was her punishment for wanting to go off and save Shadow, well, all she could really say was nuts to Bloody Fairies. And a lot of other bad words.
Sometime during the afternoon Ishtar came back from target practice and plonked herself down on an upturned cauldron to watch her. Hippy scowled and ditched a pot at her head.
Ishtar ducked, caught it and wordlessly deposited it back on the pile of gleaming pots and pans.
Hippy stopped scrubbing and stared at her. “What in Shadow’s wrong with you?”
Ishtar shrugged. She put her chin in her hands and continued to watch.
Hippy went back to scrubbing. “You’ve got a pointy head.”
Ishtar’s reply was automatic. “Your toenails smell.”
“You run like a human.”
“You’ve got bearfly breath.”
“You’ve got a nose like a cabbage.”
Ishtar sighed. “You’re not going to run off with that muse, are you?”
Hippy scowled and scrubbed the pot so hard a shiny spot appeared on the metal.
“He’s bad,” Ishtar said. “Really, really bad.”
“They’re just stories. You know half the stories Dad tells aren’t even true.”
“And the other half are. But it’s not that.”
Hippy paused in her scrubbing. “Then what? He’s been perfectly nice to me. Nicer than any of you.”
“See, that’s the problem. People are only nice when they want something. He creeps me out.” Ishtar shook herself.
“What did he say to you last night?”
Ishtar looked away. “Nothing.”
“What?” Hippy gave her sister her full attention. “Tell me.”
“He said if he caught me being nasty to you again he’d send me dreams every night about being dropped in a big black hole, alright?” Ishtar jumped to her feet and walked away.
Hippy dropped her pot and ran after her. “What? Why?”
Ishtar swung around and faced her. “How did he know?”
“How did he know what?” Hippy’s eyes widened. “Oh.” She’d almost forgotten Ishtar’s little secret. Her sister had promised not to tell the other fairies about her fear of blood, and Hippy had promised not to tell anyone Ishtar was deathly afraid of being trapped underground.
“Did you tell him?”
“No.” Hippy slipped her arm through Ishtar’s. “Look, I’m sorry he scared you, but he was really just trying to protect me. He’s actually very sweet.”
Ishtar jerked away. “Sweet? You’re joking, right? He’s way too old for you!”
Hippy blushed bright red. “That’s not what I was talking about!”
“Yeah well for all we know, his big secret mission to save Shadow is all going to take place in his tent. He tell you to leave your clothes behind?”
Hippy’s whole face burned with mortification. “You’re just jealous!” she burst out.
“You’re just a silly little baby with the brains of a bearfly! Any fairy with half a spear’s sense could see you won’t survive a day with him!” Ishtar went scarlet with the effort of shouting.
“Well-” Hippy couldn’t think of a reply. “You are!” She made the rudest gesture she knew at Ishtar and bolted from the camp.
Obviously her eldest brother had been told to keep an eye on her, because he made a flying tackle the minute she got within shouting distance of the gate. Idiot. He knew she was faster. Hippy dodged and he ploughed face first into the ground behind her.
She ducked out of the gate and looked longingly toward the muse camp. No, she couldn’t. She’d end up washing pots until she had grey hair.
Instead, Hippy ran for the outer fortifications and slipped through the first gate she could find. She pelted down the white road until she was quite sure she’d lost anyone dumb enough to chase her, then flung herself down under a tree and buried her head in her hands.
She could have cried. There was nobody there to see her. But her teeth were clenched too hard and her blood rac
ed like ants before a storm. She was so tired of being the stupid one, of everybody else knowing better. She’d show them. She’d go. She’d save Shadow and then they’d stop talking about how she was dropped on her head.
Hippy dropped her hands and took a deep breath of fresh forest air. She scooped Fluffy Ducky out of his pouch and raised him to eye level. “We’re going to Dream, you and me.”
Fluffy Ducky blinked at her. A breeze stirred the hairs on his legs.
“Are you excited?”
Fluffy Ducky raised one leg and waved it in the air.
“Yeah! Me too. You, me and the muse king, who would have thought?” Hippy smiled for the first time that day.
Fluffy Ducky ducked. A cold wind sliced past Hippy’s face and an arrow embedded itself in the tree behind her. She shrieked, jumped to her feet and went for her fairy dust.
But there was nobody in sight.
Hippy said several very bad words. She carefully put Fluffy Ducky away and pressed her back to the tree. “You’d better not do that again, or I’ll send my Fluffy Ducky after you!” she yelled.
Silence. Her voice echoed. Hippy edged around the tree until she came to the arrow. Her eyes widened. There was a piece of paper wrapped around the shaft. She didn’t recognise the arrow at all. It didn’t belong to a muse or a fairy and vampires didn’t use arrows. They relied on swords and fangs.
This arrow was made of thin, pliable metal, not wood, and it had an odd symbol carved into the shaft, a nine-pointed star inside a circle. She yanked the arrow from the tree, unwrapped the paper and frowned at it.
You must not go,
the message said. At least she thought it did, reading wasn’t her strong point. Plus the pictograms were scrawled as though whoever wrote them was unfamiliar with writing in Fairy.
Hippy looked around again, but the road was still empty as far as she could see. Of course there could be anyone in the forest. She slowly folded up the piece of paper and stuck it in one of her bags, along with the arrow. Then with a glance at the sinking sun, she set off back towards the fortifications.
She walked with her head down, deep in thought. How weird was this? It definitely wasn’t one of the fairies playing tricks on her, none of them had ever had an arrow like that. Could it be one of the forest people? Why would they care?
Hippy was so deep in thought she walked head-first into a muse outside the fortifications. She scowled and shoved him. “Watch where you’re going!”
Nikifor reached out to steady her. “Hippy Ishtar?”
scowled. “What?” She took a closer look at him, because he seemed a little bit pale around the mouth. She hadn’t really spoken to him before, but it wasn’t hard to tell he was scared. She softened her tone. “Are you okay?”
“But of course
.” Nikifor shook off whatever was bothering him. “The king sent me to find you. Your family were in the camp demanding your return earlier and wouldn’t leave until he swore you were not there.” Worry clouded his face. “Perhaps you should return to your family first and assure them you are safe and well?”
Hippy squared her shoulders. “No. I want to see Pierus and no fairy can stop me.” She moved closer to Nikifor. “Can you hide me from them?”
He chuckled. “Not on your life, Fairy. Your father is positively frightening. Come on.”
They ducked through a gate in the fortification and set off toward the muse camp. Hippy had to run to keep up with Nikifor’s stride. She watched his fists clench and unclench.
“Seriously, what’s the matter?” she said. “It’s not you my dad’s mad at, so it can’t be that.”
“No, little friend,” Nikifor said. “It’s nothing.
“Are you really a librarian?”
“Pierus called you a librarian.”
Something in the muse sparked. “I could have been. Do you know there are books at the Muse College thousands of years old? I was going to look after them. I would have been the guardian of all the knowledge of the muses.” The spark died away. “But not anymore.”
Hippy trotted at his side, curious. She’d never seen a library. Fairies didn’t write things in books, they told stories. “Why not?”
“Because my father was murdered and I was called to take his place. Come now.” The words were short and somewhat bitter. He guided her in silence down a wide path between two graceful white tents. They skirted the little courtyard, where she attracted curious stares from three muses gathered around the fire pit. Hippy tossed her head and ignored them.
Pierus’s tent was bigger than the others. Big purple and green banners hung down either side of the door. Nikifor struck a gong before they entered.
Pierus leaned over the map on the big table, his hands splayed over the mountains that bordered the Darkness. His hair made a curtain around his face. When he looked up at the arrivals, his brows were knitted together. The corner of his mouth lifted just the slightest bit when he saw Hippy. “Thank you Nikifor,” he said. “You may go.”
“I said go.” Pierus looked back at the map.
Nikifor bowed and left.
Hippy stood for a minute looking at Pierus, but he was absorbed in the map. She shrugged and studied the lady with the mirror instead. Her metallic fingers were very finely wrought. Her eyes were blank and sightless. “If you ask me, something’s bothering him,” she said.
“What makes you say that?” Pierus’s knobbly finger traced a line along the map.
“He’s all twitchy.”
“My dear girl, all that’s
bothering Nikifor is that he’s afraid of his destiny. He’ll get over it soon enough.”
“He’s our new Champion.” Pierus frowned at the mountains. “To every generation is born a Muse Champion to protect Shadow from the Darkness. The gift falls to the eldest child in the line. Our last Champion, Valentin, was perhaps the greatest warrior Shadow ever saw. Until he got himself stabbed in the back by Rustam Badora. So now I have a vampire invasion and an untrained boy on my hands who’d rather have his nose in a book than his sword on the battlefield.”
Hippy scowled. “It’s not easy being scared, you know.”
“I suppose you know. Where were you all afternoon? Your dreadful father was here looking for you.”
“I was out.” Hippy went to the table and leaned over it. “Thinking. The elders have forbidden me from going with you.”
Pierus chuckled, but still didn’t look up from the map. “Surprise
, surprise. Staying home then, are you?”
“Good.” He sounded quite satisfied with the answer. “We leave at dawn. You’d best stay here till then.”
Hippy grinned. She liked that idea. She had no desire to go home and wash more pots or listen to the elders yell again. But at the same time, she really wasn’t impressed with him apparently finding the map more interesting than her. She took the arrow out of her pocket and dropped it
in front of him.
That got his attention. At the very least, it made his forehead wrinkle. “Where did you get that?”
“I don’t know,” Hippy said. “It just kind of smacked into the tree next to my head while I was talking to Fluffy Ducky about whether or not to go with you. This was wrapped around it.” She dropped the message next to the arrow.
Pierus scanned it. Then he chuckled.
“Well? Who’s it from?”
“Nobody you need to worry about.”
“But they shot an arrow at my head.”
“They missed, didn’t they? I’m very much afraid one cannot live for three thousand years without enjoying a little notoriety.” Pierus pushed the map and the arrow out of her reach. “Does that worry you?”
“No.” Actually it really did, but being the absolute centre of the muse king’s attention was far more interesting than a few niggling worries about his misdeeds. “What does the star mean?”
Pierus raised an eyebrow at her. “Star?”
“The star in the circle. It had nine points.” Hippy pointed at the arrow.
“You don’t need to worry about that.” Pierus walked around the table, leaned against it and folded his arms. “What’s this awful knotted thing in your hair?”
“My dreadlock. I got that when I won the running races last year.” Hippy played with the dreadlock, which was decorated with three shiny beads. “Ishtar won the spear throwing. She’s got three.”
“It’s ugly. You should brush it out.”
Hippy scowled. “I don’t want to.”
Pierus tugged on the dreadlock. “You Bloody Fairies
and your knots.”
Hippy was distracted by the tickle of Fluffy Ducky scuttling up her arm. “What are you doing out, Fluffy Ducky?” She grabbed for him, but he wasn’t interested in going back in the pouch. He darted over her shoulder and leaped for Pierus’s face.