Quiver of Cobras – Helen Harper

If you play a role long enough, sometimes you become that role. I reflected on that unfortunate titbit as I watched the bar from the building opposite. It was a reasonably busy night with all sorts of patrons milling around inside. I wasn’t particularly interested in any of them, however; it was the bar’s owner who fascinated me. From time to time, I’d catch a glimpse of Morgan’s face through one of the windows, my heart tightening every time. He looked relaxed and happy, which was more than I could say for myself. It wasn’t as if I had much choice in the matter, though. I’d been with Rubus for too long to appear that way. Method acting the Madhatter way – act like an evil bitch until you actually become one. The lines between my true self and what I was pretending to be were now so blurred that I was virtually a Robin Thicke song. Most of the time I convinced myself that it was worth it. I took another drag of my cigarette and blew out smoke, watching it cloud into the air over my head. ‘I thought you’d be here,’ said a quiet voice at my shoulder. I half-turned, spotting the familiar features of Charrie, the bogle who ostensibly worked for Rubus too. My mouth twisted in brief acknowledgement before I asked, ‘Does Rubus know I come here?’ He snorted.

‘What do you think?’ I grimaced ruefully and stubbed out the cigarette. Yeah, fair enough. If Rubus had any inkling that I popped over here from time to time and quietly stalked his brother, there would be serious consequences. I shook off the unpleasant thought. ‘Were you looking for me?’ Charrie’s expression tightened and he raked a hand through his hair, revealing his scalp. He had to be careful not to do that around humans; his skin was always tinged faintly with green but where his hair covered his head the colour was dark jade. ‘I am. There is a problem, Madrona. A big one.’ I was used to big problems but something about the look in the bogle’s eyes gave me pause.

‘Go on.’ ‘Chen is dead.’ Ice dripped down my spine. ‘The dragon?’ He nodded, the gesture taut with the same tension I was suddenly experiencing. ‘Rubus sent me to negotiate for the sphere. I had it all planned out – not that we need have worried. There was no way Chen was going to give it up. But when I got to his lair…’ His voice drifted off in a cloud of unhappiness. ‘Did someone…’ I swallowed. ‘Did someone kill him?’ Charrie shook his head.

‘No. I’m no doctor but it looked like he died of natural causes. He was old. It’s not unexpected.’ Gasbudlikins. Unexpected or not, this was the last thing we needed. ‘You need to hide his body. Make it seem as if Chen just left the country. We can’t let Rubus get his hands on that damned sphere.’ ‘Rubus already knows that the dragon is dead.

’ I hissed, my hands curling into fists. ‘How?’ ‘Amellus was with me.’ For a moment all I could hear was the beating of my heart. It thudded in my ears. Blue lights flickered. Perhaps this was it, this was the moment my life flashed before my eyes— Then I realised it was a police car zooming off to attend whatever petty crime it had been assigned to. I exhaled. ‘Does Rubus have the sphere?’ My voice sounded as if it were coming from a long distance away. Charrie’s fingers twitched, dancing in the air nervously. ‘I spotted it and grabbed it before Amellus noticed.

But there are Fey swarming all over the old dragon bastard’s lair. It won’t be long before they realise the sphere is missing. And it won’t take a genius to work out I’m the one who’s got it.’ He raised baleful eyes to mine. ‘This is it, Madrona. This is why we’ve been with Rubus all this time. This is what we’re trying to stop. If he gets his hands on the dragon sphere, this demesne is lost. There are seven billion human souls. We can’t…’ He choked, unable to finish.

I thought quickly. ‘Okay. Do you have the sphere now?’ ‘No. I put it somewhere safe.’ I growled under my breath. ‘All Rubus has to do is find you and use one of his damned Truth Spiders. You can’t guard against the sort of pain they create. You’ll tell him whatever he wants to know.’ ‘I know that,’ Charrie snapped. ‘That’s why time is of the essence here.

’ ‘Get the sphere and bring it to me. I’ll think of a way to hide it. If I keep moving, I might manage to fool the magic. I might be able to keep it safe from Rubus.’ ‘Might being the operative word. There are no guarantees.’ ‘You think I don’t know that?’ Charrie shook his head again. ‘It won’t work, Madrona. You know that. Deep down, you know it as well as I do.

Even if you take it, Rubus will still use the Spiders against me. Against my family. We had a chance while Chen was alive because the sphere was bound to him as its creator. Now that he’s dead, all bets are off.’ I rounded on him, nostrils flaring. ‘Do you have a better plan? We can’t just roll over and let Rubus take the sphere! I’ve not stuck to that bastard’s side for all these years so that when the manure finally collides with the windmill I step back and let him do whatever he wants! The things I’ve done to stay in his good books would make a mass murderer flinch. I am not giving up now.’ The bogle’s eyes dropped. ‘Actually,’ he whispered, ‘I do have a better plan.’ With fluttering hands and even more nervous twitches, he outlined his idea.

I stared at him. ‘There has to be another way.’ ‘There’s not.’ ‘Why don’t we just take the damned sphere and drop it in the deepest part of the deepest ocean?’ ‘Because Rubus will catch up to us before we get there! You know this is the only way.’ I pressed my palms against my temples. ‘It can’t be. If you let me think—’ ‘Madrona, I have a family. Rubus’ll use them against me if he thinks I’m hiding the sphere from him.’ I threw my hands up. ‘Exactly! You have a family! Give the sphere to me and we’ll switch places.

I’ll take the fall and then you—’ ‘No.’ Charrie was adamant. ‘I was at Chen’s lair. Regardless of what happens next, Rubus will know I’m the one who betrayed him. This is the only way it can go.’ He sighed. ‘There’s something else you should know.’ ‘What?’ ‘I’ve got cancer. I’m already dying. This way is less painful.

It’s better for everyone.’ ‘Cancer is a human disease. You can’t…’ ‘I belong to this demesne, Madrona. I can get cancer just as easily as any human. Obviously. It’s already spread from my lungs to my stomach.’ Horrified, I gazed at him. ‘I’m so sorry.’ Never had those words sounded so inane. ‘It is what it is.

’ ‘I still can’t do it,’ I whispered. ‘I won’t.’ The bogle’s answer was simple. ‘You have to.’ He glanced down the street, his spine stiffening. I followed his gaze, inhaling sharply when I saw what he was looking at. ‘The Redcaps. What are they doing here?’ Charrie grabbed my hand, pulling me down so that we were both out of sight. We watched the hulking trio shuffle towards the Metropolitan Bar before pausing about twenty feet away from it. They started to argue.

‘Do you think Rubus sent them here to take care of Morgan? They’re not bound by the truce like you. They’re like me.’ Charrie’s voice wasn’t as bitter as it should have been. ‘They could do it. They could get rid of him once and for all.’ I watched them with narrowed eyes. ‘No,’ I said finally. ‘If that were the case they’d just go in and get the job done. They’re here for another reason.’ I continued to observe the byplay.

Despite the public setting, the Redcaps were nearly coming to blows. ‘Maybe,’ I said slowly, ‘they’re planning to switch sides.’ Charrie drew in a breath. ‘Do you really think…?’ I shrugged. ‘Does it matter? Does anything matter right now?’ ‘Only preventing Rubus from getting his grubby Fey mitts on that magical sphere.’ Charrie glanced at me. ‘You know that.’ I ran a hand through my hair. Unfortunately I did. *** An hour later, with my game face on, I stalked into Rubus’s latest hideout.

He moved around on a regular basis, which I suspected was for no other reason than to annoy everyone who worked for him. Still, at least here of all places I could let my true mood show on my face. I stomped through the dark corridors. The heavy weight at my back aided my grim march and meant that most of Rubus’s minions took one look at me and skedaddled out of the way. Unfortunately my unnatural posture and gait, together with my stony expression, wasn’t enough to keep everyone away. ‘Mads!’ Lunaria called out. ‘Hold up!’ I kept moving. Maybe if I pretended not to have heard her, she’d get the message and stay clear. The tall Fey woman ran up to me. I cursed inwardly and turned to her.

‘I’m busy.’ ‘Have you heard?’ Her eyes shone. ‘Chen is dead. That arse of a dragon oaf just keeled over, probably from a heart attack. Serves him right. Not that I thought he even had a heart. If he did, he’d have given us his magic sphere long ago.’ For a supposedly intelligent faery, Lunaria could be a total zounderkite. Honestly. Rubus had well and truly hoodwinked her – and everyone else – with dreams of how the dragon’s sphere could send us all back home to Mag Mell.

What he neglected to dwell on was what would happen to this demesne if that happened. The sphere was a magically bound object, designed to suck magic from other places. Using it would flood this land with magic – and in the process effectively destroy it. But why should we care? We’d all be back home, hugging our families and exulting in our return after ten long years of exile. I rolled my eyes. As if returning to our hearths was more important than the lives of seven billion people. I quashed the flood of guilt I suddenly experienced. ‘Keep your voice down, you towering arsebadger,’ I snapped. ‘You know anything to do with Chen and his sphere is on a need-to-know basis.’ Lunaria didn’t blink at my words or my tone.

‘None of that will matter when we get our hands on it. We’ll be able to crow from the rooftops that Rubus is going to save us all.’ My hands itched to slap her. ‘He’s such a hero,’ I said flatly. ‘Isn’t he?’ she breathed, not noticing my sarcasm. She beamed at me. ‘Anyway, our hero wants to see you.’ My heart sank. The last thing I needed was to be confronted by Rubus when I was on a mission to prevent him from achieving his heart’s desire. I tried – and failed – to think of a decent excuse to avoid him.

I couldn’t do anything that would make him suspicious. I gritted my teeth and glanced at her. ‘Where is he?’ ‘In the throne room.’ I sighed. Of course he was. *** Regardless of where Rubus was staying, he always commandeered the largest and best room as his ‘throne room’. This place was no different. He’d set it up with his favourite purple velvet chair at one end and a clashing red carpet leading up to it. Frankly, it was a miracle he didn’t put a crown on top of his stupid head, something of which I repeatedly reminded him. ‘You’re not wearing your tiara yet,’ I said as I approached.

He was leaning back lazily with one muscled leg hooked over the left arm of the chair. Early afternoon sun filtered in from one of the high windows, casting a halo around his head as if he were some kind of angelic force. That’d be the day. ‘And I’ve told you, Madrona, that when I find some jewels to decorate a tiara that are as pretty as you, I’ll happily wear one.’ He displayed sharp, white, even teeth as he smiled. ‘When I do, I’ll expect you to curtsey.’ My bottom lip curled. I made a point of not kowtowing to anyone, not even Rubus. He knew that – he even expected it. ‘I hear Chen has died,’ I said in a bored voice.

I gestured around the room. ‘So where’s his little sphere, then?’ Rubus’s jaw tightened, the only sign that he was a seething mass of insane fury behind his carefully cultivated mask of handsome blandness. ‘We don’t have it.’ I evinced surprise. Meryl Streep had nothing on me. ‘Really? Did the dragon pass it on to a friend before he passed away?’ ‘That ornery old bastard had no friends. He was only interested in his treasure. No,’ said Rubus coldly, ‘I rather think that our little bogle friend has taken it for himself.’ ‘Charrie?’ I scoffed. ‘I doubt it.

He’s too scared of you and what you’ll do to his family to step out of line.’ ‘He abandoned Amellus at Chen’s place and hasn’t been seen since. There’s no other explanation.’ Gasbudlikins. Part of me had hoped I could persuade Rubus that there was another reason the stupid sphere was missing but, even after all this time, he didn’t trust me enough to pursue this line of conversation. ‘So I presume you want me to locate the bogle?’ I asked. ‘I think it’s better if you don’t get involved. No,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘What I need you to do is ramp up the sales of pixie dust. We need as many Fey with us as possible when I use the sphere.

I can’t have my brother getting wind of what I’m up to and trying to stop me before I save us all. It would be just like him to steal the sphere from me because he wants to steal my thunder. He’ll want to get all the adulation for re-opening the border. Drop the dust prices and bring as many Fey as you can into our fold. I’ll create an army of addicts before I let Morgan take my glory from me.’ I was sure part of Rubus realised that Morgan would take the sphere from him because he wanted to save the humans from the chaos which flooding this demesne with magic would cause, not because he wanted to be worshipped as the supposed Fey saviour. But there was no point in mentioning this – and at least being sent out on a pixie-dust mission would grant me enough leeway to disappear for a while without raising suspicion. I didn’t want Rubus to think I was too eager to leave the dragon sphere and Charrie alone, though. ‘I’m good enough to locate the bogle. And I’m strong enough to take the sphere from him.

’ ‘That’s probably true,’ Rubus answered. ‘But do you really think I’d trust someone who hates me with such an important task?’ He laughed at my expression. ‘I’m not as stupid as you think, Madrona. I know how you feel about me. You might follow my every command but I still feel your hatred every time you look at me.’ I sniffed. ‘I don’t hate you, I’m just not necessarily excited by your existence.’ Rubus laughed and clapped his hands in delight. ‘You’re still pissed off that I forced you to leave Morgan. You know he despises you now, even more than you despise me.

And don’t forget that the reason we’re all stuck here is your fault.’ My whole body went still. ‘As if I could,’ I muttered. As if Rubus would let me. Rubus unhooked his leg from the chair, stood up and walked towards me. He reached out and brushed a tendril of hair from my face. I was getting good at not flinching when he touched me but I still had to suppress an internal shudder. ‘You’re too nasty for my brother, Madrona,’ he said. ‘Spend time with him and he’ll realise what a bitch you’ve become. You think he hates you now? Wait till he meets the real you, the new improved version of you.

He’ll drop you faster than he’ll drop his trousers to get into your pants. You’ll only disappoint him.’ Rubus smiled. ‘You and I are alike. You and I are the ones who should be together. You’re mine, Madrona,’ he said softly. ‘Not Morgan’s. Don’t forget it. You know what I’m capable of … and vice-versa.’ I curved my lips and smiled back at him.

‘You are impressive,’ I breathed. I’d resort to whatever was necessary to get Rubus off my back. Today of all days, I needed the freedom to move around the city unhindered. ‘And you don’t have to worry about me. I’m here, Rubus. I’m on your side. I want to get home as much as you do.’ His eyes danced. ‘One of these days, I’ll trust you fully,’ he said. ‘But not today.

There are still plenty of Fey in Manchester who’ve sworn off dust or who haven’t tried it. By the end of this week, I want every damn one of them to be desperate for another hit.’ ‘Then your wish is my command.’ Rubus licked his lips. ‘Oh Madrona,’ he said huskily, ‘if only that were true.’ He reached out again, his fingertips brushing against my breast. ‘One day.’ I forced another smile. ‘I’ll just nip to the apothecary and get more dust,’ I said. ‘Then I’ll be on my way.

’ ‘Does my touch repel you so much that you have to sprint off like that?’ I opened my mouth to answer but he pressed his finger against my lips. ‘Don’t protest. Neither of us will enjoy it if you lie to me. Run off, then. You’ll come round when I have the dragon sphere.’ He stepped back and turned away, heading back to his chair. I watched him, wishing for the umpteenth time that the truce wasn’t in place and I could slide a dagger between his ribs and be done with all this. The truce was immutable, though; no Fey could harm another, regardless of how much they might want to. I sighed inwardly then I turned on my heel and left. Pushing away my not inconsiderable antipathy to Rubus, I flew to the apothecary’s laboratory.

Carduus was a creature of habit and I knew he’d be having his afternoon tea at this time. I only had a small window of opportunity to grab what I needed without him knowing. I banged open the lab door and darted inside. Fortunately his shelves were well stocked and he was unlikely to miss any magic potions for a few days, if at all. Without wasting any time, I went over to the far wall. It took scant seconds to locate both the vials of liquid rowan and the white baneberry. Part of me was tempted to leave the latter behind and tell Charrie that I’d not been able to find it, but he’d only find another way to get it. Besides, I’d promised him that I’d do my best. Right now he was my only real ally and I couldn’t let him down, regardless of the consequences. Double-checking that the coast was clear, I shrugged off my coat.

I carefully slid Charrie’s sword from its hiding place at my back, untying the ribbons that held it tightly in place, then I grabbed the rowan and coated the blade. I rubbed it down and made sure no edge remained untainted. I shoved the glistening blade back, secured it and adjusted my coat so that there was no sign of the weapon. That would have to do. I twisted left, searching the rest of the shelves until my gaze snagged on a dusty, red-hued bottle. I stared at it as if it were one of Rubus’s damned Truth Spiders. A moment later I grabbed it. Considering how much depended on its damned contents working, it felt lighter and smaller than it should have done. With tense shoulders, I reached for a small empty vial and hastily decanted half of the bottle’s contents into it then I refilled the bottle to the brim with water so it appeared untouched. I even took the time to grab a handful of household dust and blow it gently onto the red bottle after I’d returned it to its place on the shelf.

No one would ever know I’d gone near it. With that perilous deed completed, I swallowed and carried on, picking up as many vials of pixie dust as I could. I needed to take as much as I could carry so it appeared that I was following my orders. I crammed a bag full of the vials. I’d dump them somewhere safe as soon as I could. Once I was out of Rubus’s den, the pixie dust would only slow me down. *** We needed plausible deniability at every step of the way. Charrie and I had already synchronised our watches, something that would have made me smile if our situation hadn’t been so serious. At precisely 5.23pm, Charrie strolled out of the east exit of Stretfort Mall and headed down the street, just as I wandered past ostensibly on the way to sell some pixie dust to the Fey who worked in the nearby opticians.

In case someone was watching me, I jerked my head as if I were surprised to see the bogle. Then I took off after him, maintaining a decent distance between us. Although I knew where he was heading, I made a show of keeping well back. By the time I reached the fringes of the forest surrounding the golf course, dusk was falling. As I started moving uphill, the sword at my back chafed at my skin. Unwilling to risk scratching and poisoning myself with rowan, and convinced that no one was following me, I unfastened the ribbons so I could hold the sword instead. Then I continued upwards, weaving in and out of the trees. It took longer than I’d anticipated to get to the rendezvous point. Charrie was already waiting next to the eighteenth hole, hopping from toe to toe as his nervousness gave him away. I raised a hand to him in greeting and walked forward.

‘Is it coated?’ he asked, jerking his head towards the sword. I nodded. ‘Yes.’ He exhaled. ‘Good. That’ll put you in the clear if a Fey comes across it. The only reason I’d scrub it with rowan would be to kill a faery.’ ‘I’ve been thinking,’ I said. ‘If you take the memory-loss potion instead of me, then you’ll be able to escape the Truth Spider. You won’t need to go through with this dreadful plan.

’ Charrie scowled at me. ‘We’ve been through this. Rubus will still take his revenge on my family. My children, Madrona. We’re bogles, we’re not protected by the truce,’ he reminded me for the umpteenth time. ‘The only way my kids will survive into adulthood is if Rubus has nothing to gain by hurting them. If I’m not around to be upset by their pain, he won’t bother to hurt them.’ ‘Your children need their father.’ ‘It’s my life versus seven billion humans, Madrona. And I’m already dying.

’ ‘But…’ ‘Just give me the white baneberry.’ I stood my ground. ‘No. There has to be another way.’ ‘You got it, right? You got the baneberry?


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