They all went out afterward, hung around a chip shop with a couple of girls. Sadly, neither of the girls was pretty blond Cassie.
Nick got home after dark, feeling good about the whole group thing being sorted. He thought again that Dad would’ve been proud.
He found Alan in their tiny sitting room, on the floor by the coffee table. The coffee table was covered with papers, and Alan’s head was in his hands.
“Alan,” Nick said, in a command for him to be all right.
Alan lifted his head. “Hi,” he said, and tried for a smile. “I didn’t — I didn’t hear you come in.”
“What’s going on?” Nick barked at him. “What’s wrong? Is that stupid mark hurting you?”
The contented feeling of a job well done evaporated. Nick abruptly wanted to hit something.
Alan sighed. “No.”
The answer came to Nick, inevitable as the tide coming in. Of course it was all Mum’s fault.
“It’s that stupid messenger and what she said to you.”
“I’m just trying to come up with a plan,” Alan told him.
He sounded worn and frayed as an old shirt. Nick hated it; his desire to hit something increased. He walked over to the table instead, to where Alan sat looking tired and rather small.
The papers on the table had magical symbols all over them, drawings of demons’ circles and protective amulets. There were papers covered in Alan’s scrawling handwriting, and then papers with single lines written on them, which had obviously been tossed aside.
“I like this plan,” Nick told him, selecting one of the papers with just one line on it.
The paper read, in large, almost frantic-looking letters: Kill them all.
“It’s a lovely plan, but it wouldn’t work,” Alan said, his voice almost amused. He ran his fingers through his hair. “I need to talk to Merris. I’ve got the numbers of about a dozen people who work for her, and none of them will put me through.”
“Can she help?” Nick asked.
“I don’t know,” Alan said, a note of bleakness creeping in. “God, I hope so. We might have to wait until the Goblin Market; we’ll see her then.”
Nick nodded, and then hesitated. He couldn’t think of a way to say what he wanted to, and for a moment he was tempted to let it go, but he looked down at Alan’s bowed head and tried all the same.
“Don’t—” he said, and stopped. “You’ve got a demon’s mark on you. This isn’t the time to think about—” He thought of Mum and Mae and the girl in the picture. “Don’t worry about anyone else. If it bothers you so much, I’ll do K I&m a something about Mum. I’ll find a way to help her. Whatever you need, I’ll do it. Just make sure that you’re all right. Nobody else matters.”
Alan looked up at him with dark troubled eyes, blue under shadows.
“I know she isn’t good to you, but you’ve lived with her all your life. Does the idea of her dying—” He swallowed. “Do you care at all?”
Nick wondered why Alan was looking at him with those pleading eyes. Nick had said he would help already.
“You care,” he said. “That’s enough. I’ll help her even if I don’t care. What does it matter?”
Alan looked down at his crumpled papers.
“We’ll go to the Goblin Market and get everything sorted out,” Nick said forcefully. “I told you. Don’t worry about anything but yourself.”
At a new school the teachers always took a while to go over Nick’s reading problems, and Nick always took a while to go over the girls. At home they spent all their time going for their weapons at every noise, waiting for the magicians to do what they had promised and come after Alan. Given that he and Alan had to find new jobs, too, for the first week in London, Nick had no time to do anything about Alan’s mark or his secret.
He thought about both, whether he had time or not, and he could not stop uneasily watching Alan in case he decided to bolt. It came as an enormous relief when Alan informed him that the next Goblin Market would be held near Tiverton in a few days’ time.
“It’s the closest place to Exeter they could have chosen,” Alan said. “We can pick up Mae and Jamie on the way.”
Nick rolled his eyes. “Thrill me, why don’t you.”
Perhaps he would find Mae’s hidden picture next. He scowled at the thought, and Alan caught his expression.
“You don’t have to dance, you know,” he said.
“I told you,” Nick answered, still frowning. “I want to.”
He would deal with the mark and the threat to Mum, and find out about Marie. His brother would be safe. Everything would be like it was before.
Alan went off to call Jamie.
They arranged to meet Mae and Jamie outside Northernhay Gardens in Exeter, around back of the old wall. It was quiet and already growing dark by the time they pulled up. Unfortunately, the headlights of the car were bright enough for them to see Mae’s outfit quite clearly.
“Oh my God,” said Nick, and shut his eyes.
Jamie gave a small, nervous laugh.
“What?” Mae demanded. “Alan told us that we were supposed to dress as we truly are!”
The mad girl was wearing a pink silk crop top and a long white skirt that was all gauze and frills. Every inch of her was decked with metal. She wore ankle bracelets on each ankle, had an army of gleaming bangles lined up along both arms, and was laden down with necklaces. They reminded Nick of the charms around his mother’s neck, a metallic tangle linked into chains by the years.
“And you felt that what you truly are is a Christmas tree with too much tinsel.” Nick grinned. “Huh.”
“Stop it,” said Alan, and then blushed. “I think you look very nice, Mae.”
The sudden smile Mae gave Alan was as sweet as it was unexpected. Alan smiled helplessly back, and Nick thought over this new development. On one hand, if Mae was going to start smiling at him, Alan might sink to even greater depths of idiocy. On the other hand, the girl had a nice smile, Alan seemed happy, and soon they would be at the Goblin Market. Alan’s mark could be removed, and so could Nick’s constant irritable feeling that something had gone terribly wrong with the world.
He was beginning to feel cautiously optimistic about this trip.
Nick drove away from Exeter through the narrow, jolting roads toward Tiverton. Alan’s mouth tightened with every bump in the road, and Nick was almost grateful when the tourists in the back started asking questions.
Jamie coughed. “This may be a silly question, but are there, er — goblins at the Goblin Market?”
“No,” said Nick. “Everyone at the Market is human, just like you.”
“Just like me,” Jamie echoed skeptically.
“Well,” said Nick. “Probably smarter than you.”
“It’s named for a market in a poem,” Alan explained. “The poem mentions magical fruit being sold in a market. We have magical fruit as well — we just don’t sell it.”
“Magical fruit? Like…lemons of sorcery? What do you do with them?”
Nick tossed a cold look over his shoulder at Jamie. “You’ll see.”
Jamie pointedly addressed the next question to Alan alone. “So why is the Goblin Market being held in Tiverton? It’s tiny.”
Alan spread his hands over the dashboard as if it was a lectern, and as if he could form explanatory shapes out of the air if he gestured enthusiastically enough. He’d have liked to be a college professor or something of that sort, Nick thought, and would have been, if it hadn’t been for Mum.
“Tiverton means twy ford ton — the town of two fords. The river Exe and the River Lowman meet at Tiverton, and that means it is protected from attack. Possessed bodies do not like to cross running water.”
The Goblin Market was not being held in the town center, of course. People might have asked a few questions about selling amulets and calling demons in the streets.
It would take place in the old Shrink Hills, past the point where Cranmore Castle stood. Nick and Alan had been to Tiverton before, when the Goblin Market was held there nine years ago. Nick had danced in those hills before. It had been his second Goblin Market, and Dad’s last.
“It’s supposed to be lucky to hold the Goblin Market in a place with some history attached to it,” Alan went on happily. “It’s one of the Goblin Market mottoes: ‘Our world, claimed by our kind.’ Cranmore Castle was a hill fort in the Iron Age, and in 1549 one of the battles of the Prayer Book Rebellion was fought here. It was a battle over whether a child should be christened in the new religion or the old.”
“Who won?” asked Mae.
“What does it matter?” Nick inquired. “All anyone knows is where the bones were found.”
Tiverton was in view on the darkening horizon, a gray mass in the night, dominated by a church and castle that leaned together in a fellowship of crumbling stone and decayed glory in the midst of small streets and tall trees.
They stopped on a dirt road a few fields away from Cranmore Castle, which was now nothing but a mound, gray in the night but green under a daytime sky, a lump in the ground where people had once lived, and lived no longer.
“I expected something a little more castle-shaped,” said Jamie.
“Nothing lasts forever,” Nick said. “Except demons, of course.”
“Has anyone ever told you that you’re a charming conversationalist?” Jamie asked.
“No,” Nick replied honestly.
“I cannot tell you how much that surprises me,” Jamie told him, and Nick gave him a half smile. Nick’s blood was already racing.
There was always a chance that someone had let slip the location of the Goblin Market. Everyone came to the Market prepared for a fight. Everyone was aware of the possibility that magicians might descend upon them on Market night and try to wipe them all out with one blow.
The air on Market nights was always strung tight with nervous excitement. The Market was always balanced on the edge of destruction.
Nick looked out into the night and let his smile spread. That was why he liked it.
“Where is this Market?” Mae asked.
Alan spoke before Nick could tell her to hush. “It’s all right,” he said. “I’ve got directions. The Market is left of the crooked tree, outside the beaten path, and straight on to the moon.”
Jamie blinked and said, “Thank you for clearing that up, Alan.”
His face was pale in the moonlight as they climbed out into the darkness of a country road, fields and trees massed around them on both sides. Nick had not looked at Jamie particularly, except to note with gratitude that he was not dressed up like Mae, but now that he did look, he was sure the boy was thinner than he had been a couple of weeks ago. He and his sister were both shaking, but Nick thought that with Mae it was excitement. With Jamie, it looked like fear.
Of course, once Alan noticed that, he was drawn to Jamie like a mother hen to the littlest chick in the farmyard.
“I know the way,” he said, and offered up the warm, sweet smile that always made people believe he wasn’t carrying six concealed weapons. “Walk with me.” He paused and added, “I see you’re not dazzling us all like Mae.”
“Well, I thought — I thought that I usually look like what I really am.”
Alan’s smile became less reassuring and more genuine. “I’ve always thought the same.”
Nick was glad that Alan felt no need to complement his shirt and jeans with a little earring, but on the whole he approved of Jamie’s decision to look halfway normal. His approval must have been obvious, because as he followed Alan up the hill, Mae fell into step with him and spoke in a combative tone.
“You’re dressed up,” she said. “You’re all in black and you’re carrying a sword. How is that different?”