I always have a hard time picking out excerpts from my stories, but I’m fond of this scene overall – I always enjoy writing my antagonists – and I hope that there’s enough information to make sense.
Shroud considered following him and hurrying him along, but the commotion at the other end of the big room was beginning to really draw his attention. Even after a captain of the King’s forces and the prince had turned up and reclaimed one of Snow White’s bones, there was a crowd over at the other end that seemed to have noticed none of it. He moved closer, looking for the center of the knot.
To his shock—and a surge of revulsion that sent him a pace back—it was a child-eater, sitting on the edge of a table with a cup in his hands, sallow skin flushed with excitement. Although disgust had sent him back, curiosity immediately drew Shroud forward. To his knowledge, not even such creatures as frequented the Milk and Cherry would treat the child-eaters with anything but bare tolerance.
“I did not look much further,” the child-eater was saying, in response to some question. “But in the place I stood it was quite gone, I put my hand right through and I saw the forest growing outward, the flowers and vines swallowing the grass. And the twin-flowers were blooming gold.”
Shroud started, and pushed his way to the front of the crowd. The child-eater saw him and flinched back, but collected himself before actually moving; as Shroud approached him he narrowed his eyes and tugged his scarf up to cover his mouth once more.
“Are you saying,” Shroud said, “that the barrier has vanished?”
The child-eater nodded. “It is gone. Do you not feel it?” He was truly excited, Shroud realized, bubbling over with joy—an emotion you rarely saw in a child-eater in public, which made it all the more unnerving. “Do not you all feel as if you’ve woken from a long sleep?”
Shroud drew in a deep breath, focusing, and realized that he did. His disgust at their task had blocked it out before, but there was a new lightness in his lungs, a clarity to his thoughts. Once more the moments seemed to pass naturally, tick-tick-tick and no doubling back to get in line again. When Gut Forest had been confined, it had hoarded its stories; kept every creature living in the forest at the time alive and well, ageless as the trees, waiting for its lost children to come back. With no flow of travelers, simpletons, princes and milkmaids in and out of the woods, everything seemed lost in a dream, like the room of a dead queen kept just as she’d left it. Shroud truly did not know how long it had been since the forest borders had closed. Grayven had been old then, and he was old now, although he had grown more and more paranoid and cruel as time—oddly as it did—went past. Shroud had to wonder how he, with his great fear of death, would take the news of time progressing once more.
“We’ll have more stories coming,” a young witch said, chewing thoughtfully on a strip of bloody bark. “I’ll have a chance to earn my own house.”
“I might get a name.” The child-eater was actually grinning, his eyes creased at the corners. “It’s been overlong.”
“Maybe I’ll find a new slavey for the scullery,” the bartender huffed, going past with the barrel of blood. “My old girl’s not been the same since that fairy made her spit thorns.”
“What’s all this?” Hal approached, wiping his hands. He glanced over the group, and his eyes lighted on the child-eater. “What’s going on?” he asked him.
The child-eater stared at him. His wide, fish-dull eyes made Shroud feel sick, and he had to remind himself that both his and Hal’s fifteenth birthdays were well past. “You’re the prince,” he said, his voice wondering. “Aren’t you?”
“I am. What’s the news, good fellow?”
Shroud frowned, but refrained from stepping in.
“The barrier around the forest is gone. We’re all free.”
Hal stopped in his tracks, crumpling the cloth he’d been using in one hand. “Truly?”
“I saw Wrenblood—saw its lights going out. I put my hand through where the barrier was.”
“Wrenblood.” Hal’s face was usually the dry-grass brown his mother’s had been, but now it was rivaling the fabled Snow for paleness. “And can you tell me how many years have gone? Or—no, can you tell me whether the twin-flowers in the field bloomed in gold, or lay still?”
“They bloomed gold.”
Hal pressed the back of his fist to his mouth, and his free hand drifted to his chest. Shroud tensed, ready to spring forward, but it must have been a phantom pain; Hal did not fall or cry out. Instead he lowered his fist, and said in a hoarse voice, “You have brought me to best news of my life, and for that I am thankful.”
The child-eater stared at him, head inclined slightly to the side, as if trying to figure out whether he was joking. No, just dimwitted, Shroud wanted to say. “All right,” he said uncertainly. “If you’ll excuse me…”
He slid down off the table, preparing to disappear into the crowd that was beginning to chatter amongst itself and ignore all three of them. Hal put out a hand to stop him, and Shroud finally moved forward.
“Prince Hal, if this is true we should inform your father—and we were already meant to hurry back.”
“Wait a moment, Shroud.” Hal actually laid a hand on the child-eater’s arm, and Shroud frowned. He and Grayven had grown to disagree on many things, but their opinion of child-eaters was in accord—there was nothing more disgusting. The child-eater looked down at Hal’s hand, then slowly back up his arm, a gesture childlike and almost comical.
“You were the one to discover this,” Hal said. “And I would dearly like to hear more. If it were worth your time…”
The child-eater frowned. “I doubt you wish to hear it from me when you could go look for yourself.”