On Wednesday, we brought you Part One of Kelly Barnhill’s magical prequel to her forthcoming middle grade novel, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, and now, it’s time for Part Two: Below, continue reading the story of the lost girl who mistakenly becomes “enmagicked.” The Girl Who Drank the Moon hits shelves Aug. 9.
“In Which a Lost Girl Discovers Bees”: Prequel to The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill
Back in the castle, the other magicians had worked themselves into a frenzy.
“It isn’t that we wanted to lie to you, old friend,” Lady Tenyik said after cornering Zosimos in the archive room. “It’s just that we knew that you’d tell us not to do it.”
The old wizard paused a moment to glare at her. Then he gathered the documents he needed into a large leather portfolio and hurried out of the room.
“What on earth have you done with her, you ridiculous old man,” the Estimable Fitz fumed as he followed the old wizard through the corridors of the oldest library. Though Zosimos out-aged the Estimable Fitz by several centuries, the young magician had trouble keeping up with the elder wizard. He stumbled and huffed and kept having to readjust his spyglasses as they hurried past stack after stack. Every once in a while, Zosimos would spy a book that interested him and, with a flick of his left wrist, magick it off of the shelf and onto the growing tower of books that floated and bobbed behind them like an oddly shaped balloon.
“I am talking to you, wizard. I will not tolerate this perpetual ignoring!” the magician said, gesticulating widely until he knocked his hand hard against a wall.
Zosimos continued to ignore him, keeping his own eyes on the ancient spines in the long rows of bookshelves and muttering to himself—often in languages that the magician did not know. Volume after volume skittered from shelf to floating stack.
“You bury yourself in books, but here we have a living, breathing specimen that we may—”
Swifter than the Estimable Fitz would have thought possible, Zosimos turned on his heel, knocked the magician’s spyglass off his face with the heel of one hand, and grabbed him by the throat with the other. Using the force of his body (and some magic, too) Zosimos pinned the younger man against the bookshelf.
“Well,” the Estimable Fitz gasped. “There is no call for—”
“If you ever call that child a specimen again, you’ll get worse than this,” the old man said. “She has a name.”
“Yes, but I do not know what it is,” the magician said. He gave the wizard a narrowed look. “Do you?”
“She has a name,” the wizard repeated, letting the magician fall to the ground. “And it doesn’t belong to you.” He motioned for the stack of books to follow him as he exited through the back door.
Lady Ignit was waiting for him there. She was a good head and shoulders taller than the wizard, and her curved gait made him think of a tiger when it prowls. She was all muscle and hunger and predatory pounce.
“She belongs to me,” Lady Ignit said, her voice so low it was almost a whisper. “I found her. I saved her. She is mine now. That is the way of things.”
“And then you put her in harm’s way. Or perhaps you, dear lady, are the harm. In any case the magic binding you to her was disrupted. She belongs to no one. Only herself.” He hoped this was true.
Lady Ignit showed her teeth. “You can’t keep me from her. You know you can’t. The cord that binds me to her is stronger than your paltry magic.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Zosimos said, skirting from her grasp and hurrying down the hall.
He checked over his shoulder. Again. And again. She wasn’t following him. He was sure of it.
The girl still did not know her name.
Strangely, this didn’t seem to bother her.
The old man had come and gone for two weeks. Ennyn explained that he was kind. The girl wasn’t so sure. He was cranky. He liked to bark orders too much. And fuss at her for not learning. And not knowing. How could she learn and how could she know? The world she came from was all a muddle. Her few memories were fuzzy and barbed—they hurt if she grasped too tightly.
“Surely you must have some recollection,” Zosimos said. He kept looking over his shoulder. “Were you named for a bird, for example? Are you Heron or Crow or Wren? Are you Feather or Claw?”
“No,” said the girl.
“Are you Ocean or Meadow or Glen?”
“I don’t think so,” the girl said.
“Useless,” the wizard said. And the mother dragon scooped her up again and cradled her in her great wings.
“Enough,” the dragon said.
“You’re coddling her,” the wizard fumed. “Do you realize what we’re up against?”
“Do you realize that you’re a cranky old toad?” For a creature of her size, Ennyn had surprisingly dexterous talons. She picked delicate blossoms from a flowering tree nearby, weaving the petals into the girl’s dark braids.
“If she doesn’t know her own name, then one of those idiots will name her. Harness her or drain her or bore her to death with their insufferable presentations. They are making it up as they go along.”
“Last I checked,” the dragon said mildly, “so are we.” She uncurled her neck to its full extension and lifted her head to the sky. All those fine movements had given her a crick in her shoulder. “You don’t know that anything bad will happen. Perhaps she will drain them. Did you think of that?”
The egg on the bed of moss gave a little shiver and a shake. The mother dragon scooped the egg in her other wing, and held both girl and egg close to her chest.
“Of course I thought of that,” Zosimos snapped. “I think of everything.” And it was true: he had no idea what would happen. That was just the trouble. How could he protect her from things that he didn’t understand?
I want to protect her, the wizard noticed himself thinking. More than anything in the world.
Zosimos jumped. “Did you hear that?”
“I heard nothing,” the dragon said, laying her neck around the girl in a hoop, and offering her cheek as a large, warm surface for the child to lean upon.
“Someone knows,” Zosimos muttered. “Someone’s been following me. I can feel it.”
“I felt nothing,” the dragon said.
But the girl did. There was something in the forest—a dark, prowly something. Like a wolf. Or perhaps a tiger. The girl kept one hand on the dragon’s neck and stretched the other toward Zosimos.
“I’ll try harder,” the girl whispered.
But it was no use. Other than the tree and the blossoms and the bees in her dream—other than the vague faces of the man and woman she assumed must be her parents—whoever she was and wherever she was from were nothing more than a formless darkness in her mind. And she could not penetrate it. She climbed out of the protective embrace of the dragon’s wing and onto the ground. She held out her hand to the wizard and closed her eyes.
A tulip, large and lurid, grew from the center of her palm. She smiled at the old wizard. “You see? I’m learning.”
“Very good, child!” the dragon enthused. “Very clever!”
“Am I supposed to be impressed with this?” the wizard fumed. “None of this matters.”
“Don’t you like my flower?” the girl asked.
“No,” Zosimos said. “Do you have a name?”
“But I worked so hard on it,” the girl said, pretending to be crestfallen, but Zosimos could see it was a sham. Plucky little thing, he thought, trying not to be pleased.
“The flower is irrelevant. The only thing that matters—” But Zosimos didn’t finish his sentence.
The magicians emerged from the curtain of green. They looked at the girl. There was hunger in their faces.
Bees, the girl thought. Bees, bees, bees. Though she didn’t know why.
Her mind jumbled.
She had memories that she couldn’t remember and knowledge that she didn’t know. She’d had a name once. She’d had a house and a family and parents once. They slipped in and out of her knowing—a glint here, a corner there, and here an edge, but never all at once.
She had magic now, but her name was nowhere to be found. She’d never imagined she’d miss it.
Despite the girl’s annoyance at the magician, she understood what he meant. There was a power in a name, in the possession of one’s own name. Just as the word bees was powerful and the word tree was powerful, her name would be powerful, too. She could own herself outright.
The magicians picked their way through the forest. Only one moved with any kind of nimble grace—the rest stumbled as though they hadn’t walked outside in years. The girl watched them come.
“There she is,” said the magician with the metal leg extensions. “There in the flowers. Isn’t she lovely?”
Flowers, the girl thought. And the flowers enlarged themselves. They lifted her from the ground. The dragon began to hiss, but the magicians didn’t notice. Instead they smiled, raised their hands, and began to clap, delicately, at her. They were quite pleased. Well, most of them were.
“Well done!” said the man with spyglasses attached to his face.
“Marvelous!” said the woman with green skin and a third eye below her throat.
“You are ever so much more advanced than we would have thought,” said the man with jewels in his mustache. “I am sorry that we frightened you before. You have so much to teach us. You don’t even have to do a thing. I’m fairly certain our experiments won’t hurt a bit. You are a very special child. Do you know that?”
The dragon couldn’t stand another second of this. She lowered her head, extended her neck, and uncurled her wrath between the girl and the magicians.
“Away,” she snarled. “All of you.”
Dragons, of course, are mostly immune to magic, but they are not immune to rocks hurled by magic. The tall magician with the predatory walk stepped forward. The girl felt a great wave of sorrow crash over her. I don’t like that woman, she thought. And the more sorrow she felt, the more the magician began to smile.
“Move along, all of you,” Zosimos said. “The child is not for you, and she’s not for your experiments, neither. You can stuff your scholarship in a sack and drown it in the river for all I care. The child belongs to herself.”
“She’d have died if I hadn’t saved her. She was drowning in a sea of sorrow,” the tall woman said. “She already belongs to me.”
“The day I take your words as anything resembling the truth, Lady Ignit, is the day I eat my cloak for supper.”
Lady Ignit rolled back her shoulders. She smiled as boulders launched themselves into the air and hovered just overhead. Trees, too.
“Move back, dragon. You do not want us as enemies. There will be much sorrowing if you are dead.”
The magicians edged away from Lady Ignit, alarm on their faces.
“Well,” huffed the magician with the mustache “I say.”
“This is a bit much, dear lady,” said the man with the metal points on his hand.
“This is not what we agreed,” said the woman with the third eye. “Dragons are rare. It is a sin to harm one.” She turned to the old wizard. “Zosimos. Please. There is no need for any of this.”
If the girl could have done so, she would have named herself already. But she couldn’t. Just as she couldn’t speak the names of things until the time was right. Just as all words were gone from her—until they weren’t. She looked at the tall woman.
“Bees,” she said. “Bees, bees, bees, bees.”
And just like that, the woman was bees. Or bees were the woman. A woman-shaped swarm hovering in the midst of everything. Arms of bees touched a face of bees. A mouth of bees opened into a buzzy scream.
The magicians gasped.
“Take it back,” they shouted at her. “Take it back.”
“I don’t know how,” the girl cried.
She tumbled off her enlarged flower and fell hard on the ground, cutting her hands and knees. Panic burned her throat. “I don’t know what to do,” she said, clutching the wizard’s long cloak the way she once had clutched her mother’s skirts. “Give me a name,” the girl pleaded. “If I have a name, I’ll know what to do.”
The old wizard tilted his head. He could leave Lady Ignit in this state. Of course he could. The bees remained in their woman-shape, a mask of terror pressed upon its face.
Zosimos closed his eyes.
Bees, the girl thought. Bees, bees. She couldn’t stop. The flowers became bees. The stones became bees. The baubles in the mustache of Master Ulf. And then his entire mustache. And then his hands.
Zosimos had buried what was left of his family eons ago. Before any of these magicians were born. Before even Ennyn was born. Ever since he made his way to the castle, through wave after wave of scholars and mages and magicians and hangers-on, he had been separate. A codger among codgers. A grump among grumps. If he named her she would be—
He could hardly bear to think of the word.
Master Ulf screamed as his arms became bees. Then his shoulders, then his chest.
“Xanthippe,” Zosimos said. “Your name is Xanthippe. But I shall call you Xan.”
It was his sister’s name.
His sister was troublesome, too. Belovedly troublesome. He hadn’t thought of her for centuries. Now the memory of her nearly broke him in half.
“Xanthippe,” he said again. “I claim you, child. I am responsible for you. You are as family to me as my first family was. Now. Try hard, dear. Your magic is beholden to you, not you to it. Tell it what you want it to do.”
The girl was not entirely sure if she wanted the cranky old wizard as family, but she knew what he said was true. Her name was Xan. She felt it in her bones. Just as bee belonged to bees and tree belonged to trees, so Xan belonged utterly to her. The magic in her bones and her skin and her blood and hair and eyes all moved in the same rhythm. Xan-thip-pe, Xan-thip-pe, Xan-thip-pe. Like a heartbeat. She saw the bees. The bees that were the tall woman. The bees that were flowers. The bees that were stones. The bees that were the hands and the shoulders and the mustache of Master Ulf. And she knew what to do.
She raised one hand. And then the other.
There was magic all around her. And it harmonized with the magic in her bones. She felt herself draw it inward, with her own strange gravity. It was dizzying, this magic. Satisfying, too, taking that which was wrong and making it right.
The bees hummed, the old man sighed, and the woman who had been transformed howled in shock and relief and rage.
Though how much rage, the girl did not know. Not for a long time.
Though Zosimos remained wary of his colleagues’ motives, Xan was quick to forgive. She grew to trust Master Ulf and Magister Lynia and the Estimable Fitz, and seek their knowledge and research and company, though she never was able to warm to any one of them. And this was only partially her fault.
Xan could not forgive herself for what she had accidentally done to Lady Ignit. And Lady Ignit, for her part, could not forgive the girl for being the one to reverse the spell. The woman had saved the girl, so a favor had been owed. And then the girl saved the woman, fulfilling the debt. Xan now owed Lady Ignit nothing, and Lady Ignit couldn’t forgive her for it.
“There,” Zosimos had said at the time. “Now you’re even.” The woman spat in his face.
There are some people, Xan decided, who will never be your friend. And that was that.
Sometimes at night, when Xan’s dreams were particularly heartbreaking, she would wake up convinced that something waited outside her door. A hungry something.
“Sorrow is dangerous,” she told herself. It was a thing she knew was true, though she couldn’t say why.
One night she woke to a strange dream. She realized with no small amount of relief that there was no sorrow anywhere to be found in the dream—but it was unsettling all the same. And curious. There were birds. And poetry. And a dragon so small it fit in her pocket. And a creature in a swamp.
She was about to call out for Ennyn but thought better of it when she heard the dragon nearby, speaking in low tones to Zosimos. Xan pricked up her ears.
“Are you sure?” the dragon said.
“Quite.” The wizard sighed. He sat down. His joints cracked and creaked as he bent. Had they always done that?
“How much time?”
“Unknown. This sort of thing isn’t well covered in the literature. It was warned against for a reason. All this magic. And she’ll have to learn how to use it on her own. I just hope I have enough time to teach her a little bit. I just hope she’ll have the sense to listen. I just hope she’ll be ready.”
“And then she’ll grow up,” the dragon said, a great weight in her voice. “As they do. Is anyone ever ready for that?”
Xan waited and waited for Zosimos to answer. He didn’t. He said nothing; the dragon said nothing. Xan pulled her knees to her chest, listening to the silence between wizard and dragon, silence as big as a mountain, or the ocean, or the sky. She laid her cheek on her knees as the wind pushed through the trees, swirling past the rumbling sky and the bright flashes in the clouds promising rain.