He still wasn’t back.
‘I won’t stay long.’ Fox wiped the rain off her face. With Jacob, this could mean anything. Sometimes he stayed for weeks. Sometimes months.
The ruin lay deserted as usual, and the silence between the scorched walls made her shiver nearly as much as the rain. The human skin warmed so much less, yet Fox now shifted into the vixen ever more rarely. All too clearly she had begun to feel how the fur stole the years from her – even without Jacob reminding her.
He’d held her so close before he left, as if he wanted to take her warmth with him into the world where he was born. Something was frightening him, though he didn’t admit it, of course. He was still like a boy who thought he could outrun his own shadow.
They’d been way up in the north, in Sveriga and Norga, where even now the forests were still buried in thick snow and where hunger drove the wolves into the towns. Before that they’d travelled so far south that the vixen still found desert sand in her fur. Thousands of miles . . . cities and countries she’d never heard of before, and all supposedly to find an hourglass. But Fox knew Jacob too well to believe that.
At her feet, the first wild primroses were springing up between the shattered flagstones. She snapped off one of the delicate stalks, and the dew rolling off the flowers was still cold. It had been a long winter, and Fox could feel the past months like frost on her skin. So much had happened since the previous summer. All that fear for Jacob’s brother . . . and for Jacob. Too much fear. Too much love. Too much of everything.
She tucked the pale yellow flower into her lapel. Hands . . . they made up for the chilly skin her human body came in. Whenever she wore her fur, Fox missed reading the world with her fingers.
‘I won’t stay long.’
With a quick movement, she grabbed a Thumbling who’d pushed his tiny hand into her jacket pocket. He only let go of the gold coin after she shook him as hard as the vixen would a captured mouse. The little thief bit at her fingers before he dashed off, muttering insults. Jacob always tucked a few coins into her pockets before he left. He hadn’t adjusted to the fact that she now managed quite well in the human world – even without him.
What was he afraid of?
Fox had asked him, after they’d ridden for days from one wretched village to the next, only to end up standing beneath some dead sultan’s dried-up pomegranate tree. She’d asked him again, when Jacob had got himself drunk three nights in a row after they’d found an overgrown garden with nothing but a dried-up well in it. ‘It’s nothing. Don’t worry.’ A kiss on the cheek and that careless smile she’d been able to see right through since she was twelve. ‘It’s nothing . . .’
She knew that he missed his brother, but this was something else. Fox looked up at the tower. The charred stones seemed to whisper a name. Clara. Was that it?
Her heart still tightened whenever she thought of the brook and the two dead larks. Jacob’s hand in Clara’s hair, his mouth on her mouth. So ravenous.
Maybe that was why she’d nearly gone with him – for the first time. She’d even followed Jacob up into the tower, but in front of that mirror her courage had deserted her. Its glass seemed to her like dark ice that would