Though I have said any number of times that I would not go back and make substantial changes to previous chapters before the novel was finished, I have made myself a liar. In order to continue the story as I wanted it, I felt that some changes were necessary, so parts of Chapter Seven and Chapter Eight have been significantly enough rewritten that readers may need to reread them, particularly the last bit of Chapter Eight. As always, those who are new to the story can find the beginning at Chapter One.
In Which Lindy Makes A Decision
The place where Lindy found herself was very dark. It smelled of damp and mould and rotting things, like the crawlspace under the house across the street where the bravest of the children would go when they played hide and seek. She could hear water splashing whenever she moved her feet, as if the whole room was filled with a thin puddle, but the only other sounds were the whispering of her breath and the creaking of the house and the scurrying of small feet. Even the house was quiet now, and Lindy was so frightened that she began to cry.
Now, I have said at least once before that Lindy was a brave girl, and I have said this because there was truly nothing much that frightened her. She was not at all afraid of the dark, for instance, and not afraid of small spaces. She was not even afraid of bugs or mice or rats or snakes or things like that, so long as there were not too many of them at once. But now she had to endure all these things together, and she had to face them alone without any idea of where she was or if she would ever find her way home, so it is no wonder that she cried, and I hope that you will forgive her for it, because I know that you and I have sometimes cried over a great deal less.
In any case, she stood there for a very long time, crying, and the longer she was in the cold and the damp and the dark, the more frightened she became, and the harder she cried, and the more panicked she grew, and then she found that she was running along the wall, or at least stumbling along it as fast as she could manage on the slippery and uneven floor, and then she caught her toe on something and fell and scraped both her hands on what seemed to be a worn stone floor, and then she started to cry like she never had before.
When she had finally cried all the tears that she had to cry and had began to think about things a little more calmly, she found that she was half-lying against a damp and uneven wall and half-sitting on a wet and uneven floor. She began brushing her hair back from where it had fallen onto her face, which she thought was the best way to start pulling herself together, but her hands soon discovered that Alisdair’s crown still sat on her head, though it seemed to weigh nothing now. She took it carefully in her hands and set it in her lap. It grew heavy again, the moment it left her head, and there was a comfort in its warm weight. Her fear and panic vanished all at once, and she sat, cold and wet and hungry, waiting for whatever it was that would happen next.
As if The Crofts had been waiting for just this moment, it suddenly filled her mind again, and Lindy could feel its pain and fear and anger. “I’m glad you’ve finally stopped your blubbering,” it said, and there was a harshness in its voice that Lindy had never heard before. “It never becomes a Queen to blubber.”
The Crofts sounded so full of disdain that Lindy could hardly believe how comforting it had been to her only a few hours earlier, and she had to stop herself from crying again. “Why are you so angry?” she cried. “I didn’t do anything.”
The house laughed sadly, but it seemed suddenly more resigned than angry. “Maybe not, but you will certainly have to do something now, and you will fail, and Khurshid will claim me, and I will become an evil thing, twisted and foul.”
“I don’t understand. What do I have to do with Khurshid?”
“Do you know where you are?” The Crofts demanded, ignoring her question. “You’re in what was once one of my most beautiful rooms, the map room. I took it into me from one of the Keepers, but it has fallen now, as the Keeper from whom I drew it has also fallen, and it is now beyond my power or anyone else’s to recover it.” The house paused, and Lindy felt its sadness deepening. “There are countless more like it. Would you like to see them?”
Lindy started to say that she would rather not, but she was already sitting against a very different wall in a very different room, with jagged holes in its plaster and with cobwebs on its furniture and with dust lying thickly on its floors. “This,” said the house, “was Keeper Aulden’s study. Countless people came from among the worlds to sit here and listen to his wisdom, until Khurshid struck him down at the bridge, and everything that Aulden gave me began to fall into ruin.”
The room changed again, becoming darker and filled with a smell like rot. Things opened their eyes in its corners, and small creeping creatures began working their way stealthily toward Lindy across the garbage strewn floor. She gave a little scream and scrambled to her feet, but the house seemed unhurried. “This was the old chemistry laboratory,” it said, “a place of great learning and discovery, the pride of Keeper Dennison until she chose to give her crown to Khurshid. Now it’s full of unspeakable things.” The little lizard-like creatures had come almost to Lindy’s feet now, but The Crofts whisked her on again.
They were now in a long paneled room, littered with debris and pitted on its walls and floors and ceilings, as if it had suffered a terrific explosion. Lindy was so frightened from the creatures in the previous room and so confused by everything that The Crofts was saying and showing that she felt sick to her stomach, as if she had been on one of the big rides at the amusement park after eating too much candy. She tried to clear her mind, but everything was too overwhelming. Her whole body wanted to be sick, or to run away, or just to lie down and sleep. “This was the sculpture gallery,” the house said, breaking into her mind with its sad, lost voice. “Keeper Woods once…”
“Stop!” Lindy cried. She felt as though she would begin to scream or vomit or even cry again if The Crofts said another word about the broken and rotting rooms. “I didn’t do any of this,” she pleaded. “It’s not my fault. Why are you showing these things to me?”
“Because,” said The Crofts, quietly now, but full of a fierce anger, “you need to know that I was once much more than I am now. I grew up from the homes of the twenty-four Keepers, drawing into myself what was best in them, and I became a house that was truly fit for kings. But all the Keepers who were killed by Khurshid’s sword left their rooms to fall into decay, and all who were seduced by Khurshid’s promises allowed theirs to become something far worse than decayed, and sometimes the rooms have even fallen away from me altogether, so I am a fraction of what I was, a husk, full of rot and maggots.
“I still don’t understand what this has to do to me.”
“Then listen more and question less. Alisdair was the last of the Keepers, the last of the Crowned, and his will was a strong will, so he and I and Penates, we strove to hold together much that was good in me, the libraries and the kitchens and the cottages and the great hall and much else that you have not yet seen, or these too would have fallen into decay. I was broken, but because of Alisdair’s strength, I was no longer breaking further. And now he is gone.”
The house paused, but Lindy said nothing.
“You are now the sole remaining Keeper. Alisdair granted you his crown because there was no other choice, because his crown was the crown of your world and must be worn by someone of your race. So now it falls to you to turn Khurshid back at the bridge on Midsummer, and you will most certainly fail, for you have neither the strength of arms nor the strength of will to resist him, and so I will fall to Khurshid. And even if you somehow succeed, I will still diminish, become smaller and darker, more ruinous and more haunted. You lack the will to hold me to myself, and you lack the memory of how I once was. Perhaps Penates will be able to keep the kitchens as they were, but all else will fall into ruin, and all that will remain of me is what you have added from your own poor house.”
The house laughed mournfully. “Would you like to see what would be left of me?”
Before she could answer Lindy found herself in her very own cubby, with her books, and her radio, and the old Christmas decorations, only she knew right away that it was not really her cubby. The window looked out onto the trees of The Weald now, not onto Mister Hat’s yard, and she knew that her own cubby in her own house was still far away. She did not cry again, but she wished that she could.
The house had left her alone again, and everything was very quiet, like in her real cubby at home. She sat on the old couch cushions with the orange fringes, turned her back to the window, and pulled her sleeping bag up over her legs. Then she took her crown off again, which had somehow found its way back to her head, and she laid it in her lap and tried to think what it was that she should do next.
As she was sitting there, propped in the comfort of her cubby, a strange sensation began creeping over her, as if she was no longer entirely awake but not yet entirely asleep, and it seemed to her that she began drifting through the attic window, out across the huge bulk of The Crofts, and over the fields of The Weald, until she came to the bridge that crossed the great river. She hung there for a moment, and she could see a shining figure far below her walking along the stream, the same figure she had seen when Alisdair had been talking to her in the great hall, only now she could hear what he was singing, a strange song, a mixture of sadness and hate. Then she was moving again, over the tops of the trees, following the path that led away from the bridge, and she flew for what seemed like miles and miles, until there arose a tremendously tall and peculiar tree beside the path, its leaves shimmering gold-green in the sun, taller and brighter than any other in the forest. Lindy paused again in her flight, hovering above the tree, then and swooped down through the forest to her left, weaving her way through the trees, and then the trees came to a sudden end, and a small clearing opened in front of her, with a stone cottage in its very centre. Lindy began to settle toward the front door of the cottage, and she was filled with an overwhelming need to know what was inside it, but her dreaming ended just then, and she was back sitting in her cubby once more, and she knew now what she had to do.