At sunset in that corner of the world, the daylight unravels thread by thread. The hills darken. Great rafts of fog come to roost in the pine trees, like old birds.
It’s at this time that a hatch opens in a hillside just past a bend in the road and Ezekiel Nightshade climbs from his home in the earth, dusting off his neat black cloak. His hair fans out in dark waves from his skull. The cuffs of his trousers and sleeves are fashionably ragged, their borders as vague as the shapes of trees in the gloaming. A keenness sparks in the dark wells of his eyes.
Behind him, the hatch closes without the aid of any lever: fading to an outline, then a surmise, then to nothing.
The black cloth satchel is where he left it the night before, in the nook of a lightning-blasted oak. He shakes its contents onto the ground: a pile of delicate bones. He doesn’t wait to see them start to dance upon the earth, to rise into a stuttering construction of limbs and hitching motion. But soon, Ezekiel’s bone-hound trots by his side, restored after a long day’s rest, nuzzling its skull into his palm until he scratches its phantom ears.
“Nocturne,” Ezekiel whispers. The hound wiggles its bony stump of a tail, its vertebrae rattling with excitement. He leans down to speak into the ghost-gap of its ear: “Go on, boy. Go fetch them all.”
Nocturne bounds into a joyous gallop. He has no ears to perk, so it’s up to the forceful clamor of his barking to show his ecstasy as he speeds through the hollows.
Nocturne barks, and the shadows rise, obeying their summons. They claw up the banks of creek beds and leach from the trees, pooling on the earth. Some unfold from the branches of the firs to clamber, spider-like, through the grass. Nocturne races among them, urging them from all the crevices where they wait out the daylight, the stones and shrubs and snarls where they take their shade.
Ezekiel waits for them on the stony brow of a hill near the road. Shadow-bears clomp alongside shadow giants. Shadow-men stride forth from the gravel pits, their great hammers swinging at their sides. And above them all, the night dragons in their splendor: wreathed in towers of black flame, consuming and replenishing themselves endlessly.
“Shadowfolk and shadowbeasts and all in the deep of the dark!” Ezekiel Nightshade booms, and the host falls silent. His voice is deep, and earthy as a fresh-turned grave. “Night falls, and we rise. Every dread-knight, every dragon, every wisp of smoke—stretch our shadow dark and strong from this realm to the next!”
He calls out the night’s work. The night-trolls will shore up the slopes where the firs grow, to strengthen their shade for the long days of summer to come. The giants will repair the wall to the south for the next battle with the Paladins. The dragons are dispatched in great swooping arcs across the sky, to terrify late travelers on the twilight road.
The shadow army stomps and slithers and slides away to its various assignments, calling in low hoots one to the next, thumping battered cudgels in the palms of clawed hands. They flow outward from the meadow until there is only Nocturne sniffing the air in their wake, looking up at Ezekiel with his ever-smiling jaws.
“Come, Nocturne,” Ezekiel says, patting the hard dome of Nocturne’s skull. “Tonight, you and I have special business to attend. A visit I have long awaited.”
Nocturne cocks his head. In his master’s voice, he detects a rare emotion: anticipation. Ezekiel wafts down the hillside, his cloak flowing like a plume of smoke. Nocturne, barking, follows.
In the house at the top of the creek, Lyla sits awake in her bed. Mother is still coughing. An ugly sound, deep in her chest. Lyla’s heart thumps harder every time she hears it. It’s been this way for a week: the closed bedroom door, the raw, explosive fits. The doctor has been by twice, all the way from town. Mother hates him for his cold hands and tremulous voice. But she has endured him without complaint, her face thin, the light in her eyes far-off and muffled.
Lyla is seven. Every night, Mother sings her a lullaby until she falls asleep. But Mother cannot sing to her now. Lyla hears her cough again—chuff, chuff—low and deep and painful, and it is worse, she thinks. She should go down the hall to Mother’s room. Lyla should sing a lullaby, to help Mother sleep, perching on the rocking chair by her bed, just out of the fever’s reach.
But she is afraid to walk the darkened hallway, to step into the fever-steam of the room with its desperate smell. Besides, Mother has forbidden it. When Lyla goes to the door, she hears Mother call out in her hoarse, hurt voice: “Stay away.” The doctor, on his last visit, squeezed Lyla’s hand before he left.
Lyla slips out of bed for a drink of water. The kitchen downstairs is hush-quiet-dark, the feeling of a fitful sleep. Mother’s lullaby rises to Lyla’s lips as she crosses the room. A soft, warm hum. Like the rumble of a friendly dog. Lyla pictures it in her mind. A little dog, white, with keen ears and a happy grin, whose yipping barks sound nothing like her mother’s coughing.
Lyla can almost hear it, that friendlier dog. She does hear it. A real sound, crossing the threshold of her mind into her ears, coming closer up the lane. And in that same moment, she notices the shadows.
The moon is in the kitchen window, casting long, black bars of shade onto the floor: the humped shape of the breadbox, the hook of the faucet rising like a curve-necked swan from the sink. The shadows aren’t behaving normally. They’re bending, as though magnetized, toward the man at the door.
He is so tall that he must bend to peer in at Lyla. He makes a sound like a soft cough, and then the man is in the room, stretching to his full height, his boots big and black and trailing dark soil on the linoleum.
Lyla drops her water glass. The man tracks its descent with his eyes. It freezes an inch before it hits the floor; then it rises, slowly, the man gazing in concentration, until it nuzzles back into Lyla’s hand. A scream dies on her lips.
“Good evening,” the man says. “I’m sorry that I startled you.”
Lyla is young enough to know fear, but she has the bright bloom of boldness in her.
She tosses her head. “You didn’t startle me,” she says. Forcing herself to sound brave even as her heartbeat goes like a rabbit in her chest. “I can’t sleep. You shouldn’t be sneaking up on people without permission.”
“I apologize. I did not intend to sneak.”
The man’s black cloak rustles, and a little white dog runs out from underneath it. It’s a dog made all of bones—no soft fur, no pink tongue, like all the other dogs in town. She knows it should frighten her. But the bone-hound nuzzles her palm so gently, and his skeleton’s teeth are bared in such a happy smile, that Lyla isn’t afraid of him at all.
“This is Nocturne,” says the tall man. Lyla sits and takes the hound into her lap, where he settles into a contented pile. She likes the comforting weight of him, the wriggling tremor of his stubby tail as it wags. She doesn’t mind his bony paws that poke at her ribs.
“And I am Ezekiel Nightshade. What is your name?”
Mr. Ezekiel sinks to one knee and shakes her hand gravely. His skin is tight and colorless, his grip without a trace of warmth. But his touch feels dry and honest and somehow reassuring.
Mr. Ezekiel’s eyes are a startling violet color. Little spots wink in the depths of them, like summer fireflies. This close, staring into his hawkish face, feeling the musty darkness that boils in a breeze from the edges of his cloak, Lyla imagines she should feel a great terror gripping her body, cutting off her breath. But she feels curiously calm.
Upstairs, her mother gives a thunderous cough, a mossy sound in her chest. Mr. Ezekiel’s eyes flick toward the ceiling.
“Mother is sick,” Lyla says.
“I know, child. Her illness nears its zenith—its highest point. The pain will be extreme. But not for long.”
Lyla’s hand, stroking Nocturne’s bony flank, freezes.
“Are you here to take her away?”
Mr. Ezekiel gives one slow, solemn nod, and all the fear Lyla hasn’t felt yet takes hold of her at once. Hot spikes drive into her eyes. She thrusts Nocturne from her lap and stands up.
“You can’t,” she says. “You can’t take her. She’s my mother. She’s mine.”
She’s ashamed by the child’s whine she hears in her own voice, the note of pleading. But she doesn’t look away.
“Child—” Mr. Ezekiel begins. But Lyla flits backward through the room, moth-quick, Nocturne at her heels. She retrieves something heavy from a desk drawer.
“Take this instead,” she says. “It doesn’t work very well. But Mother says it was my father’s.”
The watch’s gold shell is turning black with age. It’s heavy, so Lyla believes it must be very expensive. The hasp is loose. As she hands it to Mr. Ezekiel, the cover flips open, exposing its muddy, clouded face, and Lyla stares. The watch’s hands don’t work. They’ve never moved, no matter how much she winds the dial. But they’re pointed at full midnight now, a thing she’s never seen before.
Mr. Ezekiel’s face, as he regards the watch, has no expression. There is only a brief tightness around his indigo eyes, something gentle and almost wounded. With great care, he closes the watch and hands it back to Lyla.
“I have no need for trinkets,” he says. “The moon and stars tell the time for me.”
He straightens, the tall shock of his hair nearly brushing the ceiling, and drifts toward the staircase. Lyla darts to block his path.
“Please,” she says. “You can’t.”
“I must,” he says.
“Then I challenge you.”
Mr. Ezekiel pauses.
“We’ll have a competition, out in the woods. Hide and seek.” Her voice quickens with the force of the idea. “We’ll play, and if you can’t find me, then Mother stays.”
“Hide and seek,” Mr. Ezekiel murmurs in his flat voice, smooth as river rock. “If I win, then she is mine?”
“Yes,” Lyla whispers.
The shadow-man looks at her with keen interest. At her eyes, luminous with pain and determination, tears brimming there. The set of her spine, the stubborn clench of her jaw. He has seen these things before: the same portrait, but in a different frame. He nods.
“We will play,” Mr. Ezekiel says.
He offers his hand, and Lyla takes it, feeling again its dryness, its strange dull comfort. With Nocturne trotting away ahead of them, they walk through the door and into the night.
The moon is a shining sickle over the hills to the west. Lyla has always seen very well in the dark. Her eyes adjust quickly, picking out the hunched shapes of boulders, the frothy rustling of flowered bushes.
They pass by other things. How to describe them? Like shadows against the bigger shadow of night. What can only be a black-and-white-striped tiger drinks at the edge of a pond, raising its head to regard them. Lyla presses into the folds of Mr. Ezekiel’s cloak. When she looks back, there is no tiger. Seeing this fills her with a feeling like broken glass, something achingly familiar that doesn’t quite fade.
They stop in a meadow lit by the moon. Mr. Ezekiel bends and places his hands on his knees to look Lyla in the face. This close, he smells of spices and dry earth. “Are you afraid, child?”
“No,” Lyla says. She is surprised to find that she means it.
“Good. The night belongs to me. All the shadows are our friends here. Go and hide.”
“You first,” Lyla says.
“Very well. Cover your eyes. Nocturne will keep you company.”
There is a tree Ezekiel knows, down the path a ways. It was a seedling when he was Lyla’s size. Now it has grown wild and tangled and dark, moss-hung, a citadel for bats and bees in the summertime.
Ezekiel chooses a stout lower branch no more than ten feet from the ground. He must be fair. He inverts himself, anchored to the branch by the soles of his worn boots, and hugs his cloak tight around his shoulders until he is a pillar of shade, indiscernible inside the deeper darkness of crisscrossed branches and murmuring leaves.
There is greater magic still he could deploy. He could weave an illusion that would swallow the tree from sight. Or let his heartbeat ease down into a shallow nothing—the stillness of the grave—so no sound or motion could betray him. But he resists. Ezekiel is curious. Lyla was sure-footed on the journey, picking over rocks and gnarled roots with ease in the dark. How long will it take for her to learn his hiding-place?
He hears her coming before he sees her. A little tune on her lips, something that runs a finger across the back of his brain but yields no solid memory. Nocturne’s paws scuffle through the dead leaves beside her. Lyla stands for a moment at the edge of the clearing where the great tree lives, scanning its branches. Then she claps her hands.
“I see you!” she calls.
“You have sharp eyes, child,” he says, swinging down. “I counted no more than ten minutes.”
“Now it’s your turn,” Lyla says. “Close your eyes.”
He does, as the footsteps of girl and hound recede through the leaf litter until he is alone. Ezekiel counts to a hundred. Then he departs the clearing, out under the dark open sky, the heavens stretching wide above him in a glittering smear of stars.
He checks the hollow logs and shambling rocks, all the nooks where a young girl might hide. He passes the hobgoblins hauling their timber loads to power his furnaces below the ground. None of the crows have seen her. The grass grows clean and straight on the hillsides, bearing no mark of a child’s steps. He is impressed.
As time goes on, it would be wrong to say Ezekiel worries. The night is his; no thing can pass here that he does not wish. But he searches fifteen minutes, and twenty, and he begins to wish he had the watch Lyla tried to give him, so he’d know how much starlight was left before the dawn.
Ezekiel gathers a knot of jet-black hares to him in a glade. None have seen the little girl called Lyla. He sends them away with a smoky sweep of his arm, chiding their bobbing tails.
“Child!” he calls, finally. Imagining her fear out in this darkness; her mother’s worry, should she wake to find her gone. “Child, I yield!” His heart a little too much like the fluttering of a bat inside him. “Where are you? Show yourself!”
Ezekiel is standing on a low hill beside the dry bed of the creek. In a gully there grows a strident stand of snapdragons, wild reds and yellows, like frozen fireworks. Lyla stands up from among them. She has Nocturne tucked beneath her arm. Her face is smudged with dirt, but she shines with triumph.
“Mr. Ezekiel!” she calls, running up the slope. “I’m here, don’t worry!” Nocturne barks. Ezekiel feels slow, nervous vines uncoiling from inside him, receding into his inner dark.
“I am glad, child,” he says. He reaches out his hand, but Lyla only looks at him.
“Mr. Ezekiel, I won the game.”
“That means you have to leave Mother here with me.”
“I know it,” he says. “A most unexpected turn. But my word is binding. It has kept order in these hills since long before your first birthday.”
“Who are you, Mr. Ezekiel?”
“Merely a shadow. But tonight, I am your shadow, and no one can harm you. Come.”
Lyla’s steps have grown sluggish by the time they reach the house. Nocturne rumbles beside her in encouragement.
“Child,” Ezekiel says, kneeling. He places his hands on her shoulders. “You are brave. May you sleep peacefully tonight, and all nights.”
Lyla regards him with solemn sleepiness. Then she throws her arms around his neck. She is warm, a small engine of life and feeling and care. Ezekiel feels some of that glow, just a little, pass into him before she releases him.
“Good night, Mr. Ezekiel,” she says.
At the stairs she pauses, one small hand on the Newell post. “Mr. Ezekiel. Will you be lonely?”
“I have my shadows for company, child,” he says. “Good night.”
He waits to hear the click of her door. Then he gathers Nocturne to him, rubbing the hound’s hard skull with the heel of his hand.
“Remain here, Nocturne,” he says. “Be her companion. Keep her safe.” Then he whispers other, older words into the hollow of Nocturne’s ear and sets him free to thud up the stairs into Lyla’s bedroom.
It’s only then that Ezekiel finally climbs the stairs himself. He opens the door to the mother’s bedroom, a hothouse gust blowing out at him in the dark, the smell of pent-up sickness and loam and transformation. The cruelty of that smell, he thinks: of the passage, generally, from this world back into the other. Ezekiel sits at the edge of the bed. He reaches a trembling hand to brush a damp lock of hair from the mother’s brow. She stirs, her eyes still shut.
“Ezekiel?” she murmurs. “Is that you?”
Her eyes struggle open then, shutters lifting from a green light that is lovely and fierce. Just as when Ezekiel first saw her, it both transfixes him and blows him apart, all in one shining instant. He sinks to one knee.
“Ezekiel, please. There’s no need here. Rise.” Her hands fumble away the covers, to grip his own. They’re hot with fever. “You’ve come.”
She pushes herself into a sitting position, her arms frail beneath the nightgown. The fever has hollowed her cheek, drawing the flesh tight over her fine bones. But her gaze is steady on his. Sickness hasn’t robbed her of that way she has of turning everywhere she sits into a throne.
For seven years—two and a half thousand nights—Ezekiel has gazed across his narrow chamber beneath the ground. Huddled in his empty, overlarge bed; watching the vacant crib of woven birch, where a girl-child used to lie. Their absences so keen to him that they’ve achieved solidity, like shapes, like shadows.
He cups Catherine’s cheek in one hand, knowing the warmth of her at last. It is all as he imagined, everything inside him as free as running wax.
Only such a fool as he could ruin this so quickly.
“My love,” he says, “I know we agreed. But I cannot take you back with me tonight. Lyla found me in the kitchen. I made a wager with her, and she prevailed.” Catherine is silent, so he presses on, with difficulty: “Who will teach her to keep a vow, when her own father crosses the only promise he has ever given her?”
At this news, it seems she shakes with weeping, a thing most unlike her. But then he sees it’s only laughter.
“Ezekiel. It doesn’t matter. You couldn’t take us anyway.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Lyla,” Catherine says. “It isn’t time.”
Ezekiel grips her hands hard, in spite of himself.
“She’s not ready?”
“Nearly. She sees in the dark better than the both of us. If my time ended tonight, I think she’d rule most wonderfully. She’d wear the birch crown and care for all the shadow-folk, and walk the hills with Nocturne by her side.”
“Good then,” Ezekiel whispers. “She’s ready. I’m ready. God knows I am.”
Catherine’s smile is beautiful and weary, like the smile of the moon, sending its brightness down across a great distance. “I, too, am ready. I miss my crown and scepter. I miss the tromping of the night-things—even their squabbles and suits. But this is the way, my love. This is the law. A young matriarch must dwell with the living until she knows all she needs to rule the shadow-land.”
Ezekiel, shade-born, has known the way of things since birth: how the first Night King married the first matriarch, a living woman, to keep peace between their realms, in a time lost to mortal memory. How each young matriarch must live in the light until her understanding is complete, until the fever calls her mother home, the old matriarch and the new crossing back into the night to rule once more.
“Putting a flower in the shade too early can damage it, curdle its roots,” Catherine says. “She has grown fond of the mortals she has met. But fondness isn’t enough. She needs belief. When she sees the living at their worst—when she takes up arms against the Paladins—she must know mortals’ capacity for good, so she doesn’t turn on them. It must be in her soul.
“She will rule one day, Ezekiel. As I have ruled, and as you do now. She will lead the Midnight Court with vibrance, with the good heart you have given her.”
“And you,” Ezekiel says. He is thinking of the way Lyla carried Nocturne, cradled under one arm like a doll. Of how she barred Ezekiel from the staircase, without a trace of fear: him, the lord of night, the liege of multitudes. “I am very proud of that girl.”
“I’m proud of you both,” Catherine says.
Inside him, there’s a sensation like a tall wave cresting. Memories, hopes, plans, all swirling in its tide. His tears shame him when they come. But he cannot hold them back.
“How can I rule?” he says. He lays his head on the covers, and she strokes it, her fingers warm against his cheek. “The shadows stir, and are unhappy. They need their matriarch. They cannot look past your general to see a king.”
“My best general.”
“Hush,” Catherine says. She coughs, a wretched sound, smoldering with decay. “Don’t think my days have been idle here. I’ve conferenced with the crows. They say the Paladins are driven back almost to the Gray Mountainside. Not since my mother’s mother have we seen such peace here for the dark.”
“So the crows say,” Ezekiel mutters. “The night-trolls, on the other hand—”
“Show them the wounds you suffered for them during the Strife. The trolls have hard heads, but their memories are long. They will follow you.”
“I could stay with her,” Ezekiel says. “Let me take your place.”
“And see you crumble in the light of the first morning?” she says. “Where will our people be then, Ezekiel? Where will Lyla be, or I? Now I see how my mother must have felt, during my years in the light.”
They sit for a moment, not saying anything more, letting the knowledge and weight of what they share fill the space between them.
“It’s good to see you, Ezekiel.”
The fondness in her face inflicting ecstasy and agony in equal measure.
“A few more years,” Ezekiel says, with a firmness that he needs but doesn’t feel. “I will come back for you again. Both of you. And we’ll see what power this childhood of love and life has lent.”
“The sun will be up soon,” Catherine says.
She doesn’t need to say it. Ezekiel senses the gray fingers of dawn probing at the curtains. He dreads them, as he always dreads the coming of the day.
They kiss, and he tastes the fever, hot on her lips. Ezekiel breathes it in as one might a smoke, until he has collected it, crushing it away inside him like a candle flame. When Catherine coughs, it’s a human sound, without pain.
“My queen,” Ezekiel says.
“Goodbye,” Catherine whispers.
Ezekiel melts into the shadows, and becomes them, and is gone.
Cracking the door to Lyla’s room, Ezekiel sees a small, fluffy dog curled up at the foot of the bed, a white dog with soft ears. The spell isn’t perfect. Nocturne will always have a whiff of the earth about him. But he will have a wet pink tongue, and a real tail to wag, and he will be happy here, and the young queen of the nighttime will be happier, too, for his company.
Leaving the house, Ezekiel strides through the hollows, among the straight stands of pines, and the tears come to him again, salt-cold and black as ebony. He thinks of his lonely home underground. Emptiness gnaws his bones like hunger.
But not forever. What is a year, to one such as he? What is two or three or seven-score? Ezekiel has passed many nights in this place. He will pass many more.
He walks, and the direwolves fall into pace beside him, and make their reports. He consults with the heron, and gives the owls and their tribe some last instruction. And then, as pink dawn rises in the east like smoke, Ezekiel Nightshade flings open the hatch to his castle in the earth, then pulls it firmly shut behind him. And by the time the first light fills the hollow by the road, there is no door in the earth at all; and it looks as though it has always been that way.