Catherynne M. Valente's crowd-funded novel The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making was an Internet sensation, and then became a New York Times bestseller. And now, at last, the sequel is out, and we've got the first three chapters, exclusively at io9!
What happens to someone who's been to Fairyland, and how do you return to an ordinary life after saving the magical realm? And how exactly does September return to Fairyland, and what sort of welcome does she receive there? Find out in our exclusive excerpt from The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland by Catherynne M. Valente.
EXEUNT IN A ROWBOAT, PURSUED BY CROWS
In Which a Girl Named September Keeps a Secret, Has a Difficult Time at School, Turns Thirteen, and Is Finally Nearly Run over by a Rowboat, Thereby Finding Her Way into Fairyland
Once upon a time, a girl named September had a secret. Now, secrets are delicate things. They can fill you up with sweetness and leave you like a cat who has found a particularly fat sparrow to eat and did not get clawed or bitten even once while she was about it. But they can also get stuck inside you, and very slowly boil up your bones for their bitter soup. Then the secret has you, not the other way around. So we may be very glad that September had the better of her secret, and carried it with her like a pair of rich gloves which, when she was cold, she could take out and slip onto remember the warmth of days gone by.
September's secret was this: She had been to Fairyland.
This has happened to other children in the history of the world. There are many books about it, and for ever so long little boys and girls have been reading them and making wooden swords and paper centaurs and waiting for their turn. But for September, the waiting had ended last spring. She had fought a wicked queen and saved a whole country from her cruelty. She had made friends who, in addition to being funny and brave and clever, were a Wyvern, a Marid, and a talking lamp.
The only trouble was, precious few books about swashbuckling folk have much to say on the subject of how to behave when one gets home. September had changed profoundly from a girl who desperately wanted such things to be real to one who knew they were real. Such a change is less like getting a new haircut than getting a new head.
It did not particularly improve her school life.
Where once September seemed merely and quietly odd, staring out the window during Mathematics lectures and reading big colorful books under her desk during Civics, now the other children sensed something wild and foreign about her. The girls in her grade could not have said what it was about September that so enraged them. If you sat them down and asked them about it, the best they could have managed might have been, "She's just not like us."
And so they did not invite her to birthday parties; they did not ask about her summer vacation. They did steal her books and tell lies about her to their teachers. "September cheats on her algebra," they revealed in strictest confidence. "September reads ugly old books during physical exercise. September goes behind the chemistry building with boys." They snickered behind her back in tones that sent up prickly hedges all around their tight huddles of lace dresses and ribboned curls. They stood on the inside of those hedges, the whispers said, and September would always stand on the outside.
Against all this, September held her secret. When she felt awful and lonely and cold, she would take it out and blow upon it like an ember, until it glowed again and filled her up: A-Through-L, her Wyverary, snuffling at Saturday's blue cheek until he laughed, and the Green Wind stamping his emerald snowshoes in the wheat. All of them waiting for her to come back, which she would — soon, so terribly soon, any moment now. She felt very much like her Aunt Margaret, who had never seemed quite the same after coming home from her travels. She would tell long stories about Paris and silk trousers and red accordions and bulldogs and no one understood her particularly. But they listened politely until she trailed off, looking out the window as if she might see the river Seine flowing by instead of acre after acre of wheat and corn. September felt she understood her Aunt now, and resolved to be specially attentive toward her when she visited again.
Every evening, September carried on. She washed the same pink- and-yellow teacups that she had always washed, minded the same small and increasingly anxious dog she had always minded, and listened to the tall walnut-wood radio for bulletins about the war, about her father. The radio loomed so tall and huge in their parlor that it seemed to her like a terrible door, ready to open at any moment and let bad news in. As the sun set on the long yellow prairie each day, she kept a keen eye out for a flash of green on the horizon, a spotted pelt flashing through the grass, a certain laugh, a certain purr. But autumn dealt its days like a pack of golden cards, and no one came.
Her mother had Sundays off from the airplane factory, and so September fell in love with Sundays. They would sit together comfortably by the fire and read while the dog worried their shoelaces, or her mother would slide under Mr. Albert's miserable old Model A and bang at it until September could turn the key and hear it grumble into life once more. Not so long ago her mother read out loud to her from some book or other concerning fairies or soldiers or pioneers, but now they read companionably, each to their own novels or newspapers, quite as September remembered her mother doing with her father, before the war. Sundays were the best days, when the sunlight seemed to last forever, and September would bloom under her mother's big, frank smile. On Sundays, she didn't hurt. She didn't miss a place she could never explain to a grown-up person. She didn't wish her small dinner with its meager ration of tinned beef were a fey feast of candy and roasted hearts and purple melons full of rainwater wine.
On Sundays, she almost didn't think about Fairyland at all.
Sometimes she considered telling her mother about everything that had happened. Sometimes she burned to do it. But something older and wiser within her said, Some things are for hiding and for keeping. She feared that if she said it out loud it would all vanish, it would never have been, it would blow away like dandelion cotton. What if none of it had been real? What if she had dreamed it, or worse, had lost her mind like her father's cousin in Iowa City? Any of these were too awful to consider, but she could not help considering all the same.
Whenever she thought those dark thoughts, that she might just be a silly girl who had read too many books, that she might be mad, September glanced behind her and shuddered. For she had proof that it had all really happened. She had lost her shadow there, on a distant river, near a distant city. She had lost something big and true, and could not get it back. And if anyone should notice that she cast no shadow before or behind, September would have to tell. But while her secret remained secret, she felt she could bear it all — the girls at school, her mother's long shifts, her father's absence. She could even bear the looming radio crackling away like an endless fire.
Nearly a year had passed since September had come home from Fairyland. Being quite a practical child, she had become very interested in mythology since her exploits on the other side of the world, studying up on the ways of fairies and old gods and hereditary monarchs and other magical folk. From her research, she reasoned that a year was just about right. One big, full turn of the sun. Surely the Green Wind would be sailing back over the sky for her any day, laughing and leaping and alliterating his way back into her world. And since the Marquess had been defeated and the locks of Fairyland undone, this time September would have no awful feats to perform, no harsh tests of her courage, only delight and fun and blackberry trifles.
But the Green Wind did not come.
As the end of spring neared, she began to worry in earnest. Time ran differently in Fairyland — what if she turned eighty before a year passed there? What if the Green Wind came and found an old lady complaining of gout? Well, of course September would go with him anyway — she would not hesitate if she were eighteen or eighty! But old women faced certain dangers in Fairyland, such as breaking a hip while riding a wild velocipede, or having everyone do what you say just because you had wrinkles. That last would not be so bad — perhaps September could be a fabulous withered old witch and learn to cackle. She could get quite good at that. But it was so long to wait! Even the small and gloomy-faced dog had begun to stare pointedly at her, as if to say, Shouldn't you be getting along now?
And worse, what if the Green Wind had forgotten her? Or found another girl quite as capable as September at defeating wickedness and saying clever things? What if everyone in Fairyland had simply dropped a curtsy for the favor and gone about their business, giving no more thought to their little human friend? What if no one ever came for her again?
September turned thirteen. She did not even bother inviting anyone to a party. Instead, her mother gave her a stack of ration cards tied with a velvety brown ribbon. She had saved them up for months. Butter, sugar, salt, flour! And at the store, Mrs. Bowman gave them a little packet of cocoa powder to crown it all. September and her mother made a cake together in their kitchen, the small and frantic dog leaping to lick at the wooden spoon. The treat had so little chocolate that it came out the color of dust, but to September it tasted wonderful. Afterward, they went to a film about spies. September got a whole bag of popcorn to herself, and toffees as well. She felt dizzy with the lavishness of it all! It was almost as good as a Sunday, especially since she'd gotten three new books wrapped specially in green paper, one of them in French, sent all the way from a village liberated by her father. (We may be certain September's father had help in liberating the village, but as far as she was concerned he had done it single- handed. Possibly at the point of a golden sword, atop a glorious black horse. Sometimes September found it very difficult to think of her father's war without thinking of her own.) Of course she could not read it, but he had written in the cover, "I will see you soon, my girl." And that made it the greatest book ever written. It had illustrations, too, of a girl not older than September sitting on the moon and reaching out to catch stars in her hands, or standing on a high lunar mountain conversing with a strange red hat with two long feathers sticking out of it that floated right next to her as pert as you please. September pored over it all the way to the theatre, trying to say the strange-sounding words, trying to tell what the story was meant to be.
They demolished the dust-colored birthday cake and September's mother put the kettle on. The dog set upon a powerfully satisfactory marrow bone. September took her new books up and went out into the fields to watch the dusk come down and think. She heard the radio crackling and talking as she let herself out the back door, the pop and spit of static following her like a gray shadow.
September lay down in the long May grass. She looked up through the golden- green stalks of grain. The sky glowed deep blue and rose, and a little yellow star came on like a lightbulb in the warm eve ning. That's Venus, September thought. She was the goddess of love. It's nice that love comes on first thing in the evening, and goes out last in the morning. Love keeps the light on all night. Whoever thought to call it Venus ought to get full marks.
We may forgive our girl for ignoring the sound at first. For once, she had not been looking for strange sounds or signs. For once, she had not been thinking about Fairyland at all, but about a girl talking to a red hat and what that could possibly mean, and how wonderful it was that her father had got a whole village liberated. Anyway, rustling is quite a common noise when fields of wheat and wild grass are involved. She heard it, and a little breeze ruffled the pages of her birthday books, but she did not look up until the rowboat flew at ripping speed over her head on the tips of the wheatstalks as if they were waves.
September leapt up and saw two figures in a little black boat, oars spinning furiously, bouncing swiftly over the fields. One had a broad hat on, slick and dark like a fisherman's. The other trailed a long silver hand out over the furry heads of dry grain. The arm sparkled metallic, shining, a woman's slim wrist gleaming metal, her hand tipped with iron fingernails. September could not see their faces — the man's back hunched huge and wide, obscuring the silver lady, save her arm.
"Wait!" September cried, running after the boat as fast as she could go. She knew Fairylandish happenings when she saw them, and she could see them bouncing away from her right that very moment. "Wait, I'm here!"
"Better look out for the Alleyman," called the man in the black slicker, looking back over his shoulder. Shadows hid his face, but his voice seemed familiar, a kind of broken, unruly rasping September could almost place. "The Alleyman comes with his rag cart and bone truck, and he's got all our names on a list."
The silver lady cupped the wind with her shining hand. "I was cutting barbed wire before you were cutting your milk teeth, old man. Don't try to impress me with your slang and your free verse and your winning ways."
"Please wait!" September called after them. Her lungs clenched tight and thick. "I can't keep up!"
But they only rowed faster, over the tips of the fields, and the night had its face on right and proper now. Oh, I'll never catch them! September thought frantically, and her heart squeezed. For though, as we have said, all children are heartless, this is not precisely true of teenagers. Teenage hearts are raw and new, fast and fierce, and they do not know their own strength. Neither do they know reason or restraint, and if you want to know the truth, a goodly number of grown-up hearts never learn it. And so we may say now, as we could not before, that September's heart squeezed, for it had begun to grow in her like a flower in the dark. We may also take a moment to feel a little sorry for her, for having a heart leads to the peculiar griefs of the grown.
September, then, her raw, unripe heart squeezing with panic, ran harder. She had waited so long, and now they were getting away. She was too small, too slow. How could she bear it, how could she ever bear it if she missed her chance? Her breath came too tight and too fast and tears started at the corners of her eyes, only to be whipped away as she ran on, stamping down old corn and the occasional blue flower.
"I'm here!" she squeaked. "It's me! Don't go!"
The silver lady glittered in the distance. September tried so hard to see them, to catch them, to run faster, just a little faster. Let us lean in close and nip at her heels, let us whisper in her ear: Come now, you can do more, you can catch them, girl, you can stretch out your arms just a little further!
And she did clamber faster, she did stretch further, she did move through the grass and did not see the low, mossy wall cutting suddenly through the field until she had tripped and tumbled over it. September landed facedown in a field of grass so white it seemed as though snow had just Fallen, except that the lawn was cool and smelled marvelously sweet, quite like a lemon ice.
Her book lay forgotten on the suddenly empty grass of our world. A sudden wind, smelling ever so faintly of every green thing, of mint and rosemary and fresh hay, turned the pages faster and faster, as if in a hurry to find out the end.
September's mother stepped out of the house, looking for her daughter, her eyes puffy with tears. But there was no girl in the wheat anymore, only three brand-new books, a bit of toffee still in its wax wrapper, and a pair of crows winging off, cawing after a rowboat that had already vanished ahead of them.
Behind her, the walnut radio snapped and spit.
SHADOWS IN THE FOREST
In Which September Discovers a Forest of Glass, Applies Extremely Practical Skills to It, Encounters a Rather Unfriendly Reindeer, and Finds that Something Has Gone Terribly Awry in Fairyland
September looked up from the pale grass. She stood shakily, rubbing her bruised shins. The border between our world and Fairyland had not been kind to her this time, a girl alone, with no green-suited protector to push her through all the checkpoints with no damage done. September wiped her nose and looked about to see where she had got herself.
A forest rose up around her. Bright afternoon sunshine shone through it, turning every branch to flame and gold and sparkling purple prisms — for every tall tree was made of twisted, wavering, wild, and lumpy glass. Glass roots humped up and dove down into the snowy earth; glass leaves moved and jingled against one another like tiny sleigh bells. Bright pink birds darted in to snap at the glass berries with their round green beaks. They trilled triumph with deep alto voices that sounded like nothing so much as Gotitgotitgotit and Strangegirl!Strangegirl! What a desolate and cold and beautiful place those birds lived in! Tangled white underbrush flowed up around gnarled and fiery oaks. Glass dew shivered from leaves and glass moss crushed delicately beneath her feet. In clutches here and there, tiny silver-blue glass flowers peeked up from inside rings of red-gold glass mushrooms.
September laughed. I'm back, oh, I'm back! She whirled around with her arms out and then clasped them to her mouth — her laughter echoed strangely in the glass wood. It wasn't an ugly sound. Actually, she rather liked it, like talking into a seashell. Oh, I'm here! I'm really here and it is the best of birthday presents!
"Hullo, Fairyland!" she cried. Her echo splashed out through the air like bright paint.
Strangegirl! Strangegirl! Answered the pink and green birds. Gotitgotitgotit!
September laughed again. She reached up to a low branch where one of the birds was watching her with curious glassy eyes. It reached out an iridescent claw to her.
"Hullo, Bird!" she said happily. "I have come back and everything is just as strange and marvelous as I remembered! If the girls at school could see this place, it would shut them right up, I don't mind telling you. Can you talk? Can you tell me everything that's happened since I've been gone? Is everything lovely now? Have the Fairies come back? Are there country dances every night and a pot of cocoa on every table? If you can't talk, that's all right, but if you can, you ought to! Talking is frightful fun, when you're cheerful. And I am cheerful! Oh, I am, Bird. Ever so cheerful." September laughed a third time. After so long keeping to herself and tending her secret quietly, all these words just bubbled up out of her her like cool golden champagne.
But the laugh caught in her throat. Perhaps no one else could have seen it so quickly, or been so chilled by the sight, having lived with such a thing herself for so long.
The bird had no shadow.
It cocked its head at her, and if it could talk it decided not to. It sprang off to hunt a glass worm or three. September looked at the frosty meadows, at the hillsides, at the mushrooms and flowers. Her stomach turned over and hid under her ribs.
Nothing had a shadow. Not the trees, not the grass, not the pretty green chests of the other birds still watching her, wondering what was the matter.
A glass leaf fell and drifted slowly to earth, casting no dark shape beneath it.
The low little wall September had tripped over ran as far as she could peer in both directions. Pale bluish moss stuck out of every crack in its dark face like unruly hair. The deep black glass stones shone. Veins of white crystal shot through them. The forest of reflections showered her with doubled and tripled light, little rainbows and long shafts of bloody orange. September shut her eyes several times and opened them again, just to be sure, just to be certain she was back in Fairyland, that she wasn't simply knocked silly by her fall. And then one last time, to be sure that the shadows really were gone. A loud sigh teakettled out of her. Her cheeks glowed as pink as the birds above and the leaves on the little glass-maples.
And yet even with a sense of wrongness spreading out all through the shadowless forest, September could not help still feeling full and warm and joyful. She could not help running her mind over a wonderful, thought over and over, like a smooth, shiny stone: I am here, I am home, no one forgot me, and I am not eighty yet.
September spun about suddenly, looking for A-Through-L and Saturday and Gleam and the Green Wind. Surely, they had got word she was coming and would meet her! With a grand picnic and news and old jokes. But she found herself quite alone, save for the rosy-colored birds staring curiously at the loud thing suddenly taking up space in their forest, and a couple of long yellow clouds hanging in the sky.
"Well," September explained sheepishly to the birds, "I suppose that would be asking rather a lot, to have it all arranged like a tea party for me, with all my friends here and waiting!" A big male bird whistled, shaking his splendid tail feathers. "I expect I'm in some exciting outer province of Fairyland and will have to find my way on my lonesome. The train doesn't drop you at your house, see! You must sometimes get a lift from someone kindly!" A smaller bird with a splash of black on her chest looked dubious.
September recalled that Pandemonium, the capital of Fairyland, did not rest in any one place. It moved about quite a bit in order to satisfy the needs of anyone looking for it. She had only to behave as a heroine would behave, to look stalwart and true, to brandish something bravely, and surely she would find herself back in those wonderful tubs kept by the soap golem Lye, making herself clean and ready to enter the great city. A-through-L would be living in Pandemonium, September guessed, working happily for his grandfather, the Municipal Library of Fairyland. Saturday would be visiting his grandmother, the ocean, every summer, and otherwise busy growing up, just as she had been. She felt no worry at all on that account. They would be together soon. They would discover what had happened to the shadows of the forest, and they would solve it all up in time for dinner the way her mother solved the endless sniffles and coughs of Mr. Albert's car.
September set off with a straight back, her birthday dress wrinkling in the breeze. It was her mother's dress, really, taken in and mercilessly hemmed until it fit her, a pretty shade of red that you could almost call orange, and September did. She fairly glowed in the pale glass forest, a little flame walking through the white grass and translucent trunks. Without shadows, light seemed able to reach everywhere. The brightness of the forest floor forced September to squint. But as the sun sank like a scarlet weight in the sky, the wood chill grew cold and the trees lost their spectacular colors. All around her the world went blue and silver as the stars came out and the moon came up and on and on she walked — very stalwart, very brave, but very much without encountering Pandemonium.
The soap golem loved the Marquess, though, September thought. And the Marquess is gone. I saw her fall into a deep sleep; I saw the Panther of Rough Storms carry her off. Perhaps there are no tubs to wash your courage in any longer. Perhaps there is no Lye. Perhaps Pandemonium stays in one place now. Who knows what has happened in Fairyland since I have been studying algebra and spending Sundays by the fire?
September looked about for the pink birds, of whom she felt very fond since they were her only company, but they had gone to their nests. She strained to hear owls but none hooted to fill the silent evening. Milky moonlight spilled through the glass oaks and glass elms and glass pines.
"I suppose I shall have to spend the night," September sighed, and shivered, for her birthday dress was a springtime thing and not meant for sleeping on the cold ground. But she was older now than she had been when first she landed on the shore of Fairyland, and squared herself to the night without complaint. She hunted out a nice patch of even grass surrounded by a gentle fence of glass birches, protected on three sides, and resolved to make it her bed. September gathered several little glass sticks and piled them together, scraping away most of the lemony-smelling grass beneath them. Blue-black earth showed, and she smelled fresh, rich dirt. She stripped off glass bark and lay the curling peels against her sticks to make a little glass pyramid. She wedged dry grass into her kindling and judged it a passable job — if only she had matchsticks. September had read of cowboys and other interesting folk using two stones to make fire, though she remained doubtful that she had all the information necessary on that score. Nevertheless, she hunted out two good, smooth, dark stones, not glass but honest rock, and gave them a mighty whack, one against the other. It made a frightful sound that echoed all through the wood, like a bone bursting. September tried again, and again got nothing but a loud crack that vibrated in her hands. On the third strike, she missed and mashed one of her fingers. She sucked it painfully. It did not help to consider that the trouble of making fire was a constant one in human history. This was not a human place — could she not find a bush that grew nice fat pipes or matchbook flowers or better yet, a sort of enchanter who might wave her hand and produce a crackling blaze with a pot of stew over it for good measure?
Nursing her finger still, September looked out through the thin mist and saw a glow off in the night, in the space between the trees. It flared red and orange.
Fire, yes, and not far!
"Is anyone there?" called September. Her voice sounded thin in the glassy wood.
After a long while, an answer came. "Someone, maybe."
"I see you've something red and orange and flamey, and if you'd be so kind, I could use a bit of it to keep warm and cook my supper, if I should find anything to eat here."
"You a hunter, then?" said the voice, and the voice was full of fear and hope and wanting and hating in a way September had never heard before.
"No, no!" she said quickly. "Well, I killed a fish once. So perhaps I'm a fisherman, though you wouldn't call someone who only ever made bread once a baker! I only thought maybe I could make a mushy soup out of any glass potatoes or glass beans I might happen upon, if I was very lucky. I'd planned to use a big leaf as a cup for cooking. It's glass, see, so it mightn't burn, if I was careful." September felt proud of her inventiveness — several things had gone missing from her plan, namely potatoes or beans or apples, but the plan itself held solid in her head. The fire was paramount; the fire would show the forest her mettle.
The red flamey glow came closer and closer until September could see that it was really just a tiny speck of a little coal inside a pipe with a very big bowl. The pipe belonged to a young girl, who clamped it between her teeth. The girl had white hair, white as the grass. The moonlight turned it silvery blue. Her eyes showed dark and quite big. Her clothes were all soft pale for and glass-bark, her belt a chain of rough violet stones. The girl's big dark eyes showed deep worry.
And in the folds of her pale hair, two short, soft antlers branched up, and two long, soft, black ears stuck out, rather like a deer's, their insides gleaming clean and lavender in the night. The girl looked September over unhurriedly, her soft face taking on a wary, haunted cant. She sucked deeply on her pipe. It glowed red, orange, red again.
"Name's Taiga," she said finally, clenching her pipe in her teeth and extending a hand. She wore a flaxen glove with the fingers cut off. "Neveryoumind that mess." The strange girl nodded at the lovely pieces of September's camp. "Come with me to the hill and we'll feed you up."
September must have looked stricken, for Taiga hastened to add, "Oh, it would have been a good fire, girl, no mistaking it. Top craftsmanship. But you won't find eatables this far in, and there's always hunters everywhere, just looking for ... well, looking to shoot themselves a wife, if you'll pardon my cursing."
September knew a number of curse words, most of which she heard the girls at school saying in the bathrooms, in hushed voices, as if the words could make things happen just by being spoken, as if they were fairy words, and had to be handled just so. She had not heard the deer- girl use any of them.
"Cursing? Do you mean hunter?" It was her best guess, for Taiga had grimaced when she used it, as though the word hurt her to say.
"Nope," said Taiga, kicking the dirt with one boot. "I mean wife."
THE REINDEER OF MOONKIN HILL
In Which September Considers the Problem of Marriage, Learns How to Travel to the Moon, Eats Fairy Food (Again), Listens to the Radio and Resolves to Mend Fairyland as Best She Can
September hugged her elbows. She and Taiga had been walking for some time without speaking. The stars had trudged down toward dawn in their sparkling train. She wanted to talk — the talk boiled inside her like a pot left on just forever with no one minding it. She wanted to ask how things in Fairyland had gone since she'd left. She wanted to ask where she was relative to the Autumn Provinces or the Lonely Gaol — north, south? A hundred miles? A thousand? She even wanted to throw her arms around the deer-girl, who was so obviously magical, so clearly Fairylike, and laugh and cry out, Do you know who I am? I'm the girl who saved Fairyland!
September blushed in the dark. That seemed suddenly a rather rotten thing to say, and she took it back without ever having uttered the thing. Taiga kept on as the land got hillier and the glass trees began to get friends of solid, honest wood, black and white. She said nothing, but she said nothing in a particularly pointed and solemn and deliberate way that made September say nothing, too.
Finally, the grass humped up into a great hillock, looking quite like an elephant had been buried there — and not the runt of its litter, either. Big, glossy fruits ran all over the hill, their vines trailing after them. September could not tell what color they might be in the daytime — for now they glowed a shimmery, snowy blue.
"Go on, have one," Taiga said, and for the first time she smiled a little. September knew that smile. It was the smile a farmer wears when the crop is good and she knows it, so good it'll take all the ribbons at the county fair, but manners say she's got to look humble in front of company. "Best moonkins east of Asphodel, and don't let anyone tell you different. They'll be gone in the morning, so eat up while they've got a ripening on."
September crawled partway up the hill and found a small one, small enough that no one might call her greedy. She cradled it in her skirt and started back down — but Taiga took a running start and darted past her, straight to the top. She sprang into the air with a great bounding leap, flipped over, and dove right down into the earth.
"Oh!" September cried.
There was nothing for it — she followed Taiga up the hill, making her way between giant, shining moonkins. Glassy vines tangled everywhere, tripping up her feet. When she finally reached the crest, September saw where the deer-girl had gone. Someone had cut a hole in the top of the hill, a ragged, dark hole in the dirt, with bits of root and stone showing through, and grass flowing in after. September judged it big enough for a girl, though not for a man.
Much as she would have liked to somersault and dive like a lovely gymnast, headfirst into the deeps, September did not know how to flip like that. She wanted to, longed to feel her body turn in the air that way. Her new, headless heart said, No trouble! We can do it! But her sensible old legs would not obey. Instead, she put her pale fruit into the pocket of her dress, got down on her stomach, and wriggled in backward. Her bare legs dangled into whatever empty space the hill contained. September squeezed her eyes shut, holding her breath, clutching the grass until the last moment — and popped through with a slightly moist sucking noise.
She fell about two feet.
September opened her eyes, first one, then the other. She was standing on a tall bookcase, and just below it stood a smaller one, and then a smaller one again, and another, and another, a neat little curving staircase of books down from the cathedral ceiling of the moonkin hill. Down below several girls and boys like Taiga paused in their work to look up at the newcomer. Some of them wove lichen fronds into great blankets. Some of them boiled a creamy stew full of moonkin vines that smelled strange but not unpleasant, like peppermint and good, thick potatoes. Some had on glasses and worried away at accountants' books, some refilled the oil in pretty little lamps, some relaxed, blowing smoke from their pipes. The coziness of the scene quite overpowered September, whose feet and fingers still tingled with numb coldness. Here and there peeked everything that made a house feel alive, paintings on the walls and rugs on the floor and a sideboard with china in and an overstuffed chair that didn't match anything else. Everyone had very delicate, very bare feet.
"I daresay doors are more efficient." September laughed as she made her way down. "They aren't hard to make, either. Not much more than a hinge and a knob."
Taiga held up a hand to help September off of the last shelf.
"Hunters can use doors. This way we're safe."
"You keep talking about hunters! We didn't see one on the way here and really, I can't believe someone would hunt a girl! I don't think girls make very good roasts or coats."
"They don't want to kill us," Taiga said darkly. "They want to marry us. We're Hreinn."
September bit her lip. Back home, she had gotten used to knowing things no one else knew. It was a nice feeling. Almost as good as having a secret. Now she was back in the country of never knowing anything.
Taiga sighed. She took off her boots and her gloves and her coat and folded them neatly onto the mismatched chair. She took a deep breath, then tugged on her deer-ears. Her whole body rolled up like a shade suddenly drawn — and then standing before September was not a girl but a smallish reindeer with black fur and white spots on her forehead, a big, wet nose, and big, fuzzy, heavy antlers. She was somewhat shorter than September expected a reindeer would be, big enough to look her in the eye, but not to make her feel afraid. Yet Taiga was not cuddly or sweet like a Christmas reindeer in a magazine — rather, muscles moved under her skin, and everything in her lean, graceful shape said speed and strength and a feral kind of thrill in biting things. Taiga turned her head and caught her ear in her teeth, yanking on it savagely, and her sleek reindeer-self rolled down into a dark puddle. The girl with white hair and black ears stood before September again.
And then, slowly, Taiga pulled the puddle into her arms. It was black and furry. She held it lovingly.
"This is my skin, you see," Taiga whispered. "When we're human, we have this little bit of reindeer left over. Not just deer, you know. Deer are gossips and prank-pullers and awful thieves. Reindeer. Hreinn. Reindeer aren't from around here, you know. We come from the heavens — the moon is our motherland."
"But no one can live on the moon!" said September. "It's too cold and there's no air. I'm in the astronomy club, and Miss Gilbert was very specific about that."
"Then I'm sorry for your moon — what a poor, sad planet! We will set a place for her at dinner, out of respect. Our moon is rich and alive. Rice fields and moonkin meadows as far as you can see. And Hreinn like moss spores, so many and scattered so far. And hunters. All kinds — Fairies, Satyrs, Bluehearts, Ice Goblins. Once the moon was generous enough for all of us. In our reindeer-bodies, we ran and hid from pelt traders and hungry bowmen. That was fine. That's how the moon plays her hand — she's a tough, wild matron. We eat and they eat. Grow fleet and clever went our lullabies. Escape the hunter's pot today, set your own table tomorrow. But once they, huntsmen saw us change, they knew our secret, and they wanted more than stew. They stole our skins and hid them away, and when a body has your skin, you have to stay and cook and clean and make fawns for them until they get old and die. And sometimes then you still can't find your skin, and you have to burn the cottage down to catch it floating out of the ash. They chased us all the way down the highway to Fairyland, down from the heavens and into the forest, and here we hide from them, even still."
"You're cooking and cleaning now," September said shyly. A Hreinn boy looked up from kneading dough, his pointed ears covered in flour. She thought of the selkies she'd read about one afternoon when she was meant to be learning about diameters and circumferences: beautiful seals with their spotted pelts, turning into women and living away from the sea. She thought of a highway to the moon, lit with pearly street- lamps. It was so wonderful and terrible her hands trembled a little.
"We're cooking for us to eat. Cleaning for us to enjoy the shine on the floor," Taiga snapped. "It's different. When you make a house good and strong because it's your house, a place you made, a place you're proud of, it's not at all the same as making it glow for someone who ordered you to do it. A hunter wants to eat a reindeer, just the same as always. But here in the Hill we're safe. We grow the moonkins and they feed us; we love the forest and it loves us in its rough way — glass shines and cuts and you can't ask it to do one and not the other. We mind our own, and we only go to Asphodel when we need new books to read. Or when a stranger tromps around so loudly someone has to go out and see who's making the racket."
September smiled ruefully. "I suppose that's my racket. I've only just arrived in Fairyland, and it's hard to make the trip quietly." She hurried to correct herself, lest they think she was a naive nobody. "I mean to say, I've been before, all the way to Pandemonium and even further. But I had to go away, and now I'm back and I don't want to trouble you, I can clean my own floors quite well even if I complain about it. Though I think I would complain even if it were my own dear little house and not my mother and father's, because on the whole I would always rather read and think than get out the wood polish which smells something awful. I honestly and truly only want to know where I am — I'm not a hunter, I don't want to get married for a long while yet. And anyway where I come from if a fellow wants to marry a girl, he's polite about it, and they court, and there's asking and not capturing."
Taiga scratched her cheek. "Do you mean to say no one pursues and no one is pursued? That a doe can marry anyone she likes and no one will leap on her in the night to make the choice for her? That if you wanted you could live by yourself all your life and no one would look askance?"
September chewed the inside of her lip. She thought of Miss Gilbert, who taught French and ran the astronomy club and how there had been quite the scandal when she and Mr. Henderson, the math teacher, meant to run off together. The Hendersons had good money and good things, big houses and big cars, and he only taught math because he liked to do sums. Mr. Henderson's family had forbidden the whole business. They'd found a girl all the way from St. Louis with lovely red hair for him and told the pair of them to get on with the marrying. Miss Gilbert had been heartbroken, but no one argued with the Hendersons, and that was when the astronomy club had gotten started. The Hendersons were hunters, and no mistaking, they'd snuffed out that St. Louis belle with a quickness. Then September thought of poor Mrs. Bailey, who had never married anyone or had any babies but lived in a gray little house with Mrs. Newitz, who hadn't married either, and they made jam and spun yarn and raised chickens, which September considered rather nice. But everyone clucked and felt sorry for them and called it a waste. And Mr. Graves who had chased Mrs. Graves all over town singing her love songs and buying her the silliest things: purple daisies and honeycomb and even a bloodhound until she took his ring said yes, which certainly seemed like a kind of hunting.
But still, September could not quite make the sums come out right. It was the same, but not the same at all. Because she also thought of her mother and father, how they had met in the library on account of them both loving to read plays rather than watch them. "You can put on the most lavish productions in your head for free," her mother said. Perhaps, if hunting had occurred, they had hunted each other, through the stacks of books, sending warning shots of Shakespeare over one another's heads.
"I think," she said slowly, adding and subtracting spouses in her head, "that in my world, folk agree to a kind of hunting season, when it comes to marrying. Some agree to be hunted and some agree to be hunters. And some don't agree to be anything at all, and that's terribly hard, but they end up knowing a lot about Dog Stars and equinoxes and how to get all the seeds out of rose hips for jelly. It's mysterious to me how it's worked out who is which, but I expect I shall understand someday. And I am positively sure that I shall not be the hunted, when the time comes," September added softly. "Anyway I'd never hunt you — I wouldn't even have taken a bite of your crop if you hadn't invited me. I just want to know where I am and how far it is to Pandemonium from here, and how long it's been since I left! If I were to ask about the Marquess, would you know who I meant?"
Taiga whistled softly. Since the reindeer- maid had shown her skin and not been immediately whisked off to a chapel, several of the Hreinn had deemed September safe. They rolled up into reindeer and now lay about, showing their soft sides and beautiful antlers. "That was a bad bit of business," Taiga said, rubbing her head.
"Yes, but ... ancient history or current events?" September pressed.
"Well, last I heard she was up in the Springtime Parish. I expect she'll stay there a good while. Neep and I" — she gestured to the flour- speckled boy, — "we went to the pictures in town once and saw a reel about it. She was just lying there in her tourmaline coffin with her black cat standing guard and petals falling everywhere, fast asleep, not a day older than when she abdicated."
"She didn't abdicate," September said indignantly. She couldn't help it. That wasn't how it had gone. Abdication was a friendly sort of thing, where a person said they didn't want to rule anything anymore so suds to this and thank you kindly. "I defeated her. You won't believe me, but I did. She put herself to sleep to escape me sending her back where she came from. I'm September. I'm ... I'm the girl who saved Fairyland."
Taiga looked her up and down. So did Neep. Their faces said, Go on, tell us another. You can't even turn into a reindeer. What good are you?
"Well, I guess it was a few years ago now, to answer your question," Taiga said finally. "King Crunchcrab made a holiday. I think it's in July." "King Crunchcrab? Charlie Crunchcrab?" September shrieked with delight at the name of the ferryman who had once, not very long ago, steered the boat that brought her into Pandemonium.
"He doesn't like us calling him that, really," Neep hushed her. "When he gets on the radio he tells us, 'ain't a Marquis and ain't a King, and can't somebody get these frippering dresses out of my closet, hang you all.' Still, he's a good sort, even if he grumbles about having to wear the tiara. Folk thought a Fairy should move into the Briary, after everything. He was the only one they could catch."
September sank into a coffee-colored sofa. She folded her hands and braced herself to hear what she suspected would follow, but hoped would not. "And the shadows, Taiga? What about the shadows?"
Taiga looked away. She went to the soup and stirred vigorously, scraping bits of savory crust from the pan and letting them float to the top. She filled a bowl and thrust it at September. "That won't hear out on an empty stomach. Eat, and crack your moonkin, too, before the sun comes up. They're night beasts. They wilt."
For a moment, September did not want to. She was overcome by the memory of fearing Fairy food, trying to avoid it and starve bravely, as she had done before when the Green Wind said one bite would keep her here forever. It was instinct, like jerking your hand away from fire. But, of course, the damage had long been done, and how glad she was of it! So September did eat, and the stew tasted just as it smelled, of peppermint and good potatoes, and something more besides, sweet and light, like marshmallows, but much more wholesome. It should have tasted foul, for who ever heard of mixing such things? But instead it filled September up and rooted her heart right to the earth where it could stand strong. This flavor was even better: like a pumpkin but a very soft and wistful sort pumpkin who had become good friends with fresh green apples and cold winter pears.
Finally Taiga took her bowl and clicked her tongue and said, "Come to the hearth, girl. You'll see I wasn't keeping things from you. I only wanted you to eat first, so you'd have your strength."
All the Hreinn drew together, some in reindeer- form and some in human, at the far edge of the long hill- hall. A great canvas-covered thing waited there, but no fire or bricks or embers. Neep pulled back the cloth — and a radio shone out from the wall. It looked nothing like the walnut radio back home. This one was made of blackwood branches and glass boughs, some of them still flowering, showing fiery glass blossoms, as though the sun somehow still shone through them. The knobs were hard green mushrooms and the grille was a thatch of carrot fronds. Taiga leaned forward and turned the mushrooms until a crackle filled the air, and the Hreinn drew close to hear.
"This has been the Eve ning Report of the Fairyland News Bureau," came a pleasant male voice, young and kind. "Brought to you by the Associated Pressed Fairy Service and Belinda Cabbage's Hard-Wear Shoppe, bringing you all the latest in Mad Scientific Equipment. We here at the Bureau extend our deepest sympathies to the citizens of Pandemonium and especially to Our Charlie, who lost their shadows today, making it six counties and a constablewick this week. If you could see me, loyal listeners, you'd see my cap against my chest and a tear in my eye. We repeat our entreaty to the good people of Fairyland- Below, and beg them to cease hostilities immediately. In other news, rations have been halved, and new tickets may be collected at municipal stations. Deep regrets from King C on that score, but now is not the time to fear, but to band together and muddle through as best we can. Keep calm and carry on, good friends. Even shadowless we shall persevere. Good night, and good health."
A tinny tune picked up, something with oboes and a banjo and a gentle drum. Taiga turned the radio off.
"It's meant to tune itself to you, to find the station that has the tune or the news you want to hear. Cabbage-made, and that's the best there is." Taiga patted September's knee. "It's Fairyland-Below, everyone knows it. Shadows just seep into the ground and disappear. They're stealing our shadows, and who knows why? To eat? To murder? To marry? To hang on their walls like deer heads? Fairyland-Below is full of devils and dragons, and between them all they've about half a cup of nice and sweet."
September stood up. She brushed a stray moonkin seed from her birthday dress. She looked once upward, and her heart wanted her friends Ell, the Wyverary, and Saturday, the Marid with her so badly she thought it might leap out of her chest and go after them, all on its own. But her heart stayed where it was, and she turned her face back toward Taiga, who would not be her friend after all, not now, when she had so far yet to go. "Tell me how to get into Fairyland-Below," September said quietly, with the hardness of a much older girl.
"Why would you go there?" Neep said suddenly, his voice high and nervous. "It's dreadful. It's dark and there's no law at all and the Dodos just run riot down there, like rats. And ... " he lowered his voice to a squeak, "the Alleyman lives there." The other Hreinn shuddered.
September squared her shoulders. "I am going to get your shadows back, all of you, and Our Charlie, too. And even mine. Because it's my fault, you see. I did it. And you must always clean up your own messes, even when your messes look just like you and curtsy very viciously when what they mean is, I am going to make trouble forever and ever."
And so September explained to them about how she had lost her shadow, how she had given it up to save a Pooka child and let the Glashtyn cut it off her with a terrible bony knife. How the shadow had stood up just like a girl and whirled around in a very disconcerting way. She told Taiga and Neep and the others how the Glashtyn had said they would take her shadow and love her and put her at the head of all their parades, and then all of them dove down to the kingdom under the river, which was surely Fairyland-Below. Though she could not quite work it out, September felt sure that her shadow and everyone's shadows were all part of the same broken thing, and broken things were to be fixed, whatever the cost, especially if you had been the one to break it in the first place. But September did not tell them any more about her deeds than she had to. When it came down to it, even if hearing that she was good with a Fairy wrench might have made them more sure of her, she could not do it. It was nothing to brag about, when she had left Fairyland so upset in the doing of it. She begged them again to tell her how to get down to that other Fairyland; she would risk the hunters that ran so rampant in the forest.
"But September, it's not like there's a trapdoor and down you go," insisted Taiga. "You have to see the Sibyl. And why do that, why go see that awful old lady when you could stay here with us and eat moonkins and read books and play sad songs on the root-bellows and be safe?" The reindeer- girl looked around at her herd and all of them nodded, some with long furry faces, some with thin, worried human ones.
"But you must see I can't do that," September said. "What would my Wyvern think of my playing songs while Fairyland was hurting? Or Calpurnia Farthing the Fairy Rider or Mr. Map or Saturday? What would I think of myself, at the end of it all?"
Taiga nodded sadly, as if to say, Arguing with humans only leads to tears. She went to one of the bookshelves and drew out a large blue volume from the top shelf. She stood on her tiptoes.
"We've been saving it," she explained. "But where you're going you'll need it more."
And she opened the midnight covers. Inside, like a bookmark, lay a thin and beautifully painted square notepad with two sheaves left inside, the rest ripped out and used up long ago. Its spine shone very bright against the creamy pages, its edges filigreed with silver and stars. It read:
MAGIC RATION BOOK
MAKE DO WITH LESS, SO WE ALL CAN HAVE MORE.