Sorcery of Thorns

By: Margaret Rogerson


For all the girls who found themselves in books.


ONE




NIGHT FELL AS death rode into the Great Library of Summershall. It arrived within a carriage. Elisabeth stood in the courtyard and watched the horses thunder wild-eyed through the gates, throwing froth from their mouths. High above, the last of the sunset blazed on the Great Library’s tower windows, as if the rooms inside had been set on fire—but the light retreated swiftly, shrinking upward, drawing long fingers of shadow from the angels and gargoyles who guarded the library’s rain-streaked parapets.

A gilt insignia shone upon the carriage’s side as it rattled to a halt: a crossed quill and key, the symbol of the Collegium. Iron bars transformed the rear of the carriage into a prison cell. Though the night was cool, sweat slicked Elisabeth’s palms.

“Scrivener,” said the woman beside her. “Do you have your salt? Your gloves?”

Elisabeth patted the leather straps that crisscrossed her chest, feeling for the pouches they held, the canister of salt that hung at her hip. “Yes, Director.” All she was missing was a sword. But she wouldn’t earn that until she became a warden, after years of training at the Collegium. Few librarians made it that far. They either gave up, or they died.

“Good.” The Director paused. She was a remote, elegant woman with ice-pale features and hair as red as flame. A scar ran from her left temple all the way to her jaw, puckering her cheek and pulling one corner of her mouth permanently to the side. Like Elisabeth, she wore leather straps over her chest, but she had on a warden’s uniform beneath them instead of an apprentice’s robes. Lamplight glinted off the brass buttons on her dark blue coat and shone from her polished boots. The sword belted at her side was slender and tapered, with garnets glittering on its pommel.

That sword was famous at Summershall. It was named Demonslayer, and the Director had used it to battle a Malefict when she was only nineteen years old. That was where she had gotten the scar, which was rumored to cause her excruciating agony whenever she spoke. Elisabeth doubted the accuracy of those rumors, but it was true that the Director chose her words carefully, and certainly never smiled.

“Remember,” the Director went on at last, “if you hear a voice in your mind once we reach the vault, do not listen to what it says. This is a Class Eight, centuries old, and not to be trifled with. Since its creation, it has driven dozens of people mad. Are you ready?”

Elisabeth swallowed. The knot in her throat prevented her from answering. She could hardly believe the Director was speaking to her, much less that she had summoned her to help transport a delivery to the vault. Ordinarily such a responsibility fell far above the rank of apprentice librarian. Hope ricocheted through her like a bird trapped within a house, taking flight, falling, and taking flight again, exhausting itself for the promise of open skies far away. Terror flickered after it like a shadow.

She’s giving me a chance to prove that I’m worth training as a warden, she thought. If I fail, I will die. Then at least I’ll have a use. They can bury me in the garden to feed the radishes.

Wiping her sweaty palms on the sides of her robes, she nodded.

The Director set off across the courtyard, and Elisabeth followed. Gravel crunched beneath their heels. A foul stench clotted the air as they drew nearer, like waterlogged leather left to rot on the seashore. Elisabeth had grown up in the Great Library, surrounded by the ink-and-parchment smell of magical tomes, but this was far from what she was used to. The stench stung her eyes and stippled her arms with goose bumps. It was even making the horses nervous. They shied in their traces, scattering gravel as they ignored the driver’s attempts to calm them down. In a way she envied them, for at least they didn’t know what had ridden behind them all the way from the capital.

A pair of wardens leaped down from the front of the carriage, their hands planted on the hilts of their swords. Elisabeth forced herself not to shrink back when they glowered at her. Instead she straightened her spine and lifted her chin, endeavoring to match their stony expressions. She might never earn a blade, but at least she could appear brave enough to wield one.