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Sister Of The South

Sister Of The South

    DELTORA QUEST 3 The Sister of the South Emily Rodda

    For Reuben Jakeman

    Title Page
    The story so far …
    1 Bad Tidings
    2 The Dream
    3 Del
    4 Attack
    5 A Sad Reunion
    6 Life and Death
    7 Old Friends
    8 Fearful Discoveries
    9 The Yellow Notice
    10 Voices of the Dead
    11 The Dare
    12 Creeping Darkness
    13 The Sister of the South
    14 The Battle of the Pit
    15 The Hidden Enemy.
    16 Shocks
    17 The Trap
    18 The Revenge
    19 Dragon Night
    20 Full Circle


Dragon’s Nest
Isle of the Dead
The Sister of the South


    The story so far …
    Lief, Barda and Jasmine are on a quest to find and destroy the Four Sisters, evil Shadow Lord creations which have been poisoning Deltora for centuries. They learned of the Four Sisters plot through the Enemy’s crystal, left in the palace in Del after the Belt of Deltora was restored and the Shadow Lord’s tyranny over Deltora ended.
    To succeed in his quest, Lief must wake Deltora’s last dragons from their enchanted sleep, for only when the power of a dragon joins the power of a gem in the magic Belt of Deltora can a Sister be destroyed.
    Centuries ago, Deltora’s dragons, fierce protectors of their land, were hunted almost to extinction by the Enemy’s seven Ak-Baba. When only one dragon from each gem territory remained, the explorer Doran the Dragonlover persuaded the beasts to sleep in safety until a king, wearing the Belt of Deltora, called them to wake.
    Too late, Doran learned of the Shadow Lord’s plan to use the Four Sisters to starve Deltora’s people. Now that the dragons had gone, there was nothing to stop the Enemy from putting the Sisters into place. Doran tried to warn of the danger, but was not believed. Leaving a map showing where he thought the Sisters were, he set out to find proof. But the Enemy wreaked a hideous revenge upon him on the Isle of the Dead, and his map was torn into four parts, and hidden.
    Despite terrible dangers, Lief, Barda and Jasmine have managed to find all the fragments of Doran’s map, and to destroy the Sisters of the East, North and West. They have also found Red Han, the lost keeper of the magic Bone Point lighthouse, raising hopes that trading ships loaded with badly-needed food may now sail to Deltora across the western seas.
    But the companions cannot rest. To their amazement and horror, the final map fragment has shown that the last Sister, the Sister of the South, is in their home city of Del. This is very bad news. Jasmine’s father, the legendary Resistance leader, Doom, is already struggling to prevent Del’s starving people from sinking into despair. Lief’s mother, Sharn, who might bring the people comfort, is still in Tora, Del’s magic sister city in the west. Messages from Josef, the old palace librarian, are increasingly confused and frantic. And wherever they are, whatever they do, it seems the Shadow Lord’s eyes are upon them.

    Now read on …

    1 - Bad Tidings
    The grave of Doran the Dragonlover contained only his silver flask and a strange, gleaming many-coloured stone. These ancient objects were all that remained of Deltora’s greatest explorer.
    The grave was in as wild a place as Doran could have wished—looking over the windswept rock that pointed to the Isle of the Dead, where the Sister of the West had been destroyed.
    Lief, Barda and Jasmine stood at the graveside. With them were Ava the fortune-teller and Red Han, the lost keeper of the Bone Point Light. There were also two dragons—Veritas, dragon of the amethyst, and the orphaned baby dragon of the diamond, who was as yet unnamed. And it was these two, Lief thought, whose presence would have pleased Doran the most.
    After careful thought, Veritas had scratched the lettering upon the grave marker.
    ‘It is fitting that we used his true name,’ Veritas said quietly. ‘For dragons, to know a true name is to have power over that name’s owner. But Dragonfriend is at peace. Nothing can harm him now.’
    As Lief turned away from the grave, his heart was very full. He knew that the many-coloured stone was Doran’s soul-stone, filled with the great explorer’s memories. When Lief had placed it in its final resting place, his mind had been flooded with pictures.
    Wild and beautiful places. Thousands of faces. The secret seas of the underworld. Flying with dragons …
    And through it all ran Doran’s voice, whispering in a strange language. Whispering, it seemed, of Veritas.
    Veritas hopian forta fortuna fidelis honora joy eu … Veritas hopian forta fortuna fidelis honora joy eu …
    No doubt Veritas would know what the words meant, but Lief could not ask. The soul-stone had shown him the secrets of Doran’s heart. He felt he had no right to speak of them.
    ‘You were always in Doran’s mind, I think,’ he contented himself with saying to the grieving dragon, when it, too, turned from the grave.
    ‘As he will always be in mine,’ said Veritas. ‘That is why, though I long to return to my own territory, I will stay here for a time. The diamond infant must be taught to know her own land, and the ways of dragons. Dragonfriend would have wished it.’
    An hour later, the companions set off along the broad coast road, with Red Han striding eagerly before them, and their horses, Honey, Bella and Swift, trotting no less eagerly behind.
    Kree had left hours earlier, carrying a message for Zeean that all was well, that Red Han had been found, and that the companions, and the lighthouse keeper, wished to be sped to Tora.
    Plainly the message had been safely delivered, for already the travellers could feel the faint tug of Toran magic. By nightfall they would be in the white city of the west.
    There, Red Han would find the help he needed to return to Bone Point, where he longed to be. And there Lief, Barda and Jasmine and the horses would find food, rest, and then safe, quick passage to Del, their final goal.
    ‘How I long for a hot bath and a comfortable bed!’ Barda exclaimed.
    ‘It is fresh fruit I long for,’ sighed Jasmine, and Filli, riding on her shoulder, chattered fervent agreement.
    The magic strengthened, and they began to move faster. Crisp, salty wind beat against their faces. They exclaimed and pointed at the sea birds swooping over the waves close to shore, feasting on the tiny fish that swarmed just below the sparkling surface.
    Only twenty-four hours had passed since the destruction of the Sister of the West, but already the land and sea were coming to life.
    So it will be in Del, Lief thought. So it will be in the whole of the south, if we can find the last Sister.
    Plainly Jasmine’s thoughts had been running along the same lines.
    ‘I cannot think where the Sister of the South might be hidden in a bustling place like Del,’ she said. ‘Could it be buried deep on the shore, perhaps?’
    ‘It is hard to imagine it,’ Barda frowned. ‘At the time the Sister was hidden, Del harbour was a busy port—always crowded with boats and people.’
    ‘I was thinking of the maze of drain tunnels beneath the city,’ Lief said.
    ‘Of course!’ Barda’s face lit up. ‘One of those tunnels begins in the palace. Doom knows of it—has even used it. It would have been simple for the Shadow Lord servant Drumm, the king’s chief advisor in those days, to creep out through that tunnel and put the Sister somewhere in the maze.’
    ‘And easy for him, and all the chief advisors who followed him, to visit it in secret, and protect it,’ Lief added.
    ‘But there are no longer chief advisors in the palace,’ Jasmine put in. ‘Who protects the Sister now?’
    ‘Indeed,’ Barda said heavily. ‘Who is the new guardian? It could be anyone. Del is a large place.’
    ‘It is,’ Lief said. ‘But very few people in it have any way of finding out where we are or what we are doing. Yet time and again the Shadow Lord has known where to find us.’
    ‘That may have nothing to do with the guardian of the south,’ Barda said. ‘I have begun to wonder whether something we are carrying helps the Enemy track us. I suggest we leave our packs—even our garments—behind us when we depart for Del.’
    Lief nodded agreement. He was remembering Ava’s voice hissing in his ear as he bid her farewell.
    ‘Beware, Lief of Del!’ the blind fortune-teller had whispered. ‘You might have faced the Kobb of the Isle of the Dead and survived, but I see creeping darkness in your future. The way upon which you have set your feet leads to disaster. Heed my warning, and turn aside from it!’
    ‘I cannot do that, Ava,’ Lief had said gently.
    And Ava had stumped away from him in anger, muttering and hunching her shoulders.
    Jasmine’s voice broke into Lief’s thoughts. ‘We have almost reached the border,’ she cried. ‘Soon we will be caught in the magic of Tora, and we will fly!’
    In Tora, a great crowd was waiting to greet them. The horses were led away to be cared for. Red Han was escorted to the feast that had been prepared. And soon Lief, Barda and Jasmine were alone in the great marble square with only Zeean, Marilen, Ranesh and Manus the Ralad man.
    Surprised, Lief looked around for his mother.
    ‘Sharn returned to Del,’ Zeean said quietly. ‘It seems that the city is being besieged by a golden dragon. The people are arming themselves, and demanding that the dragon be hunted down.’
    ‘No!’ Lief exclaimed in horror. ‘The dragon of the topaz must not be harmed!’
    ‘Sharn seemed to know that,’ said Manus, his black eyes grave. ‘She believed she could calm the people. She left for Del the moment she heard the news—the same day we heard that you were safe in the Sleeping Dunes. But—’
    ‘But what?’ Lief cried, in a fever of impatience.
    ‘You must prepare yourself for a shock, Lief,’ Zeean said bluntly. ‘Almost as soon as she arrived at the palace, Sharn fell ill. And I fear it is no ordinary illness. It is a deadly infection, now spreading very fast through the city. Your mother still lives, but hundreds of others in Del have died.’
    Lief stared, aghast. Jasmine put her arm around him.
    ‘Does not the diamond in the Belt of Deltora protect from pestilence?’ she said. ‘And it gives strength, as well. Never fear, Lief. Sharn will recover as soon as you reach her, I am sure of it.’
    ‘What is this illness?’ Barda demanded. ‘Does it have a name?’
    Zeean’s lips tightened. ‘It has been given a name,’ she said curtly. ‘Because Sharn was the first to fall ill, your people appear to believe that she was the one who carried the disease to Del. They are calling it the Toran Plague.’
    She thrust two notes into Lief’s hands. ‘The bird Ebony brought the one from Doom an hour ago,’ she said. ‘The other came on the day Sharn left us.’
    ‘It is from Josef, by the hand,’ Ranesh muttered. ‘He is becoming more and more desperate. I should go to him, but—’
    ‘But your place is with your wife, who is with child, and needs you,’ Zeean broke in. ‘Josef has more than enough people to tend to him.’
    She turned to Lief, Barda and Jasmine. ‘Manus and I must go,’ she said. ‘Red Han wishes to go to Bone Point at once, so the Light can shine this very night. Food awaits you in the dining hall, and your chambers have been prepared. Rest well.’
    She swept away, her back very straight, with Manus trotting after her.
    ‘Zeean grieves for Sharn. And it hurts her that Tora is being blamed for the plague,’ Marilen said in her soft voice.
    ‘Ah yes,’ said Ranesh drily. ‘For, of course, only good can come from Tora.’
    Marilen glanced at him. ‘Let us go and fetch food from the dining hall,’ she murmured. ‘Our friends will prefer to eat in a quiet place, I am sure.’
    The moment Marilen and Ranesh were gone, Lief opened Doom’s note.
    Slowly, following the code, Lief read out each sentence backwards, leaving out all words that had anything to do with plants.
    “‘Your mother would not want you to come into danger. Stay away from here. Complete your task.’”
    Barda gave a mirthless laugh. ‘To complete our task, we must go to Del. But, of course, Doom does not know that.’
    Slowly Lief opened the second, older note—the note from Josef.
    Frowning, Lief passed the paper to Barda and Jasmine.
    ‘His mind is failing, I fear,’ Barda said, after a moment.
    Lief sighed. It seemed that Barda was right. And yet …
    ‘Someone has read this before us!’ Jasmine exclaimed, tapping the note. ‘Look! There are two sets of fold lines on the paper. It has been opened, then folded again in haste.’
    ‘That is no mystery,’ said Barda. ‘I have no doubt that Doom reads every note sent from the palace, in case it might be helpful to a spy.’
    ‘Then he wasted his time with this,’ Jasmine said, handing the letter back to Lief. ‘It says nothing at all.’
    Lief read the note again. He could not rid himself of the feeling that there was something strange about it. The words seemed hasty and confused. Yet the old librarian’s handwriting was just as usual.
    He glanced at the lines below the signature.
    So many dashes! … I pray you will understand. The message, after all, comes from my heart …
    Lief’s skin prickled.
    … dashes … the message, after all …
    Lief went back to the beginning of the note, but this time he read only those words that came after a dash.
    —I … —must … —see … —you …—urgent … —fearful … —news …—tell … —no-one.
    I must see you. Urgent. Fearful news. Tell no-one.

    2 - The Dream
    Lief felt the blood rush into his face. What news was so fearful that even Jasmine and Barda were not to know of it? Or Doom? For plainly Josef had written his message in code so it would escape Doom’s notice.
    The news could not be about the plague, or about Sharn’s illness. The letter had been written before either of those things had happened.
    Possibly Josef’s mind really was failing and his ‘fearful news’ was just some foolish fancy. But what if it was not? What if he had discovered where the Sister of the South was hidden?
    ‘Does any of the Kin’s Dreaming Water remain, Jasmine?’ Lief asked abruptly.
    ‘A little,’ Jasmine said. ‘It should be enough for you to see Sharn.’ She pulled a small flask from one of her pockets and held it out.
    Lief took the flask with a muttered word of thanks. He disliked allowing his friends to believe he wished to see his mother, when in fact he wanted the Dreaming Water for something else. But he had no choice. He had to keep faith with Josef—at least until he had seen how things were, and had made up his mind what to do.
    Later, alone in his cool, white Toran bed chamber, Lief drained the flask of Dreaming Water, and thought of Josef. He crawled into bed and lay still, but his mind was too active for rest. It seemed hours before exhaustion finally overcame him and he slept.
    Almost at once, he began to dream.
    He found himself standing just inside Josef’s room at the back of the library. Josef was hunched over his desk, his back to the door, working by the light of a candle. To his left was a stack of paper neatly tied with blue ribbon. To his right lay an open volume of the Deltora Annals and a clutter of paint pots, brushes, pens and empty tea cups. His body hid whatever was directly in front of him.
    Lief’s heart began to thud as he moved further into the room. He found himself treading softly, though he knew he could not be heard or seen. With every step, he became more shocked and grieved. Even from behind, it was easy to see that Josef was sadly changed.
    The old librarian’s white hair was dull, and much of it had fallen out so that patches of pink scalp showed between the long strands. The warm rug draped around his shoulders could not disguise how frail he was.
    As Lief watched, Josef pushed aside a metal ruler with which he had been working. The hand clutching the ruler was like a blue-veined claw.
    But Josef was not like this when we left Del! Lief thought in dismay. How could he have weakened so quickly?
    He jumped as Josef groaned.
    ‘No, there is no doubt,’ the old man mumbled. ‘I have made no mistake. Oh, what wicked trickery is this? If only I had seen it before! If only I had remembered! Fool! Fool!’
    Lief moved closer. He was just about to peer over Josef’s shoulder when there was the sound of loud footsteps outside in the library.
    Josef started violently. His bony hand shot out and grasped the open volume of the Deltora Annals. Paint pots and cups overturned as he dragged the book to the centre of the desk, covering whatever lay there.
    Doom strode into the room, dragging Josef’s assistant, Paff, by the back of her collar. He was scowling ferociously. Paff’s eyes were bulging with fright.
    Josef turned to face them. His face was gaunt, his eyes were dark hollows. But still he straightened his shoulders and climbed to his feet, making a pathetic attempt to appear in control of the situation.
    ‘What is the meaning of this?’ he quavered.
    ‘Lindal of Broome caught your assistant trying to creep into Sharn’s room, Josef,’ Doom said coldly. He shook Paff like a puppy, and a choking sob burst from her lips.
    Josef’s hand tightened on the back of the chair. ‘Release her, if you please,’ he said in a high voice. ‘She was only doing my bidding.’
    Doom’s eyes seemed to flash. ‘So it seems,’ he said. ‘She was carrying this.’
    He held a paper out in front of him. Lief read it, his heart sinking.
    ‘Did I not tell you, Josef, that Sharn is gravely ill?’ Doom said through tight lips. ‘And did I not tell you that the Toran Plague is highly infectious? By the heavens, can you not smell the funeral fires of those wretched souls who came in contact with her before her illness was known?’
    Lief felt cold with dread.
    Josef lifted his chin. ‘I must see the lady Sharn,’ he said stubbornly. ‘You have no right to keep me from her, Doom. If Lief were here—’
    ‘Lief is not here!’ snapped Doom. ‘I am. You cannot see Sharn, Josef. If you have something of importance to say, you can say it to me.’
    Josef pressed his lips together and did not speak.
    Doom made a disgusted noise, and released his grip on Paff’s collar. She darted away from him and scurried to Josef’s side.
    Together the frail old man and the fluffy-haired girl faced Doom—strange allies in a very unequal battle.
    ‘Keep your secrets, then, Josef!’ Doom said angrily. ‘But I warn you, the next time you feel like sending Paff on such a mission, think again. She was panting so loudly with fear as she crept up the hallway to Sharn’s bed chamber that Lindal heard her through the door!’
    Josef glanced at Paff irritably. She flushed pink, and her lips quivered.
    ‘I am sorry, Josef,’ she whispered. ‘I waited, just as you said, until Lindal of Broome went out for more hot water. She was carrying a jug. I heard her footsteps going away. But it was all a trick! She must have crept back. I had taken but one step into the room when she was upon me!’
    Her eyes filled with tears. ‘She twisted my arm—treated me like a criminal,’ she whispered. ‘I am so ashamed.’
    ‘Josef is the one who should be ashamed!’ barked Doom. ‘Let him do his own dirty work in future!’
    Paff looked up. Suddenly her tear-filled eyes were angry.
    ‘Josef can hardly walk!’ she cried. ‘He cannot go up to Sharn’s bed chamber without guards to carry him, you know that! How can you taunt him with his weakness!’
    ‘I did not mean—’ Doom began impatiently. But now that Paff had begun speaking, it seemed she could not stop.
    ‘And in any case, Josef did not force me to help him,’ she said. ‘I agreed gladly. His old assistant, Ranesh, would have done it in a moment. And I—I am sick to death of being compared to Ranesh and found wanting. I was not going to refuse my one chance to prove myself!’
    ‘I daresay Josef knew that only too well,’ said Doom drily.
    Lief saw a flicker of shame cross Josef’s haggard face, and groaned inwardly.
    ‘Josef, I can waste no more time with you,’ Doom said to the old librarian. ‘You must cease your troublemaking. You must accept once and for all that you cannot see Sharn.’
    ‘But why should he not see her?’ shrilled Paff. ‘Why should Lindal of Broome, who is almost a stranger here, sit with the lady Sharn, while Josef is kept away? Is it because Lindal is your ally in all things, and Josef is not?’
    Doom’s scarred face darkened. His eyes narrowed.
    ‘Paff, go to your room,’ Josef muttered urgently.
    Red-faced and silent, Paff left his side, edged past Doom and disappeared through the open doorway into the darkness beyond.
    Josef watched her go, swaying slightly where he stood.
    ‘I have given you all the news I have, Josef,’ Doom hissed. ‘Sharn could tell you no more, even if she could speak. I showed you the message from Zeean saying that Lief, Barda and Jasmine had succeeded in the west. Can you not be satisfied with that, and be at peace?’
    Josef put a trembling hand to his brow, but said nothing.
    ‘You are not well,’ Doom went on in a level voice. ‘Your mind is clouded. That girl Paff is too weak-headed to see it, but I see it. And you yourself must know it.’
    He looked keenly at the swaying figure before him, and shook his head as if to clear it.
    ‘If I have been impatient with you, Josef, I beg your pardon,’ he added. ‘But I have not slept more than an hour or two at a time in more days than I can count. And even at the best of times, soft words are not my way.’
    For Doom, this was a generous apology. Lief willed Josef to understand. But the old man kept stubborn silence. He stood gripping the back of the chair, his knuckles white, his gaunt face as rigid as a piece of gnarled wood.
    Doom cursed under his breath and left the room.
    Only when the sound of his footsteps had died away did Josef move. His face sagged with exhaustion. Trembling, he lowered himself into his chair.
    ‘Oh, why does Lief not come?’ he whispered. ‘Lief must speak to me—he must—before anyone else knows he is here—before anything else is done! Did I make that plain enough? I cannot … remember.’
    Again he put his hand to his brow. ‘I did send the message, did I not?’ he mumbled. ‘It was not just a dream? Oh … why can I not think?’
    He buried his face in his hands.
    ‘Josef!’ Lief exclaimed in frustration. ‘What do you want to tell me? Say it aloud!’
    The old man’s head jerked up. Slowly he turned in his chair. But the next moment his face had vanished, and Lief was back in bed, blinking up at a white ceiling flooded with moonlight.
    He lay still for a moment, gathering his thoughts. Then he jumped out of bed and made for the door.
    He regretted having to wake Barda and Jasmine from the first peaceful sleep they had enjoyed in many days. But he could not leave them behind, and they would think his feeling of urgency had been caused by a dream of his mother, and ask no questions.
    He had to see Josef. And he could not wait.
    In less than an hour, three shadows were speeding towards Del. Only the birds and beasts of the night saw them pass. A few villagers, stirring in their beds, thought they heard the beat of flying hoofs. But the sound passed so quickly that they told themselves they had been dreaming.
    Following Barda’s plan, Lief, Barda and Jasmine were wearing Toran garments and carrying only their weapons. Their bright robes fluttering in the wind, they bent forward over their horses’ necks, lost in a dream of speed.
    Back in the white city of the west, Zeean alone was awake. But her will was enough to speed them along the well-worn path to Del.
    Kree was flying far behind the horses. The old wound at the back of his neck still troubled him, but he had refused to ride tamely with Filli in the crook of Jasmine’s arm. Perhaps he had once or twice allowed himself to be carried on the back of a dragon. But, sped by Toran magic or not, Honey, Bella and Swift were ordinary horses of Del, and Kree was far too proud to ride with them.
    He knew Jasmine and Filli were safe, wrapped in Toran magic. So he flew alone beneath the slowly sinking moon, enjoying the night and the silence, taking his time.
    Neither he, nor the riders ahead of him, sensed the moment when an evil presence stirred and woke to knowledge of them. None of them felt the explosion of hatred that erupted at the warning of their approach.
    They sped, untroubled, through the night as a liquid black shadow filled with malice slipped beneath a door and began its secret, oozing progress through the darkened palace of Del.

    3 - Del
    The moon had set and the sun had not yet risen when the companions reached the city gates. The four guards on watch held up their lanterns, saw the horses and the Toran robes of their riders, and drew back, quickly pulling scarfs over their mouths and noses.
    ‘What is your business here, people of Tora?’ one of the guards called. He sounded far from friendly.
    ‘We are here to advise Doom on the matter of the Toran Plague,’ Jasmine called back, as planned. ‘Our presence was requested.’
    ‘We were told of no such request!’ snapped the guard.
    Jasmine pulled a paper from her pocket. ‘I have the message here,’ she said. ‘Do you wish to see it?’
    She urged Swift forward, holding out the paper.
    ‘Halt! Come no closer!’ the guard bellowed, taking a hurried step back and pulling his scarf more tightly around his face. ‘You may pass. But be aware that if you do, you cannot leave the city again until it is declared free of plague.’
    ‘We understand,’ Jasmine said.
    ‘So they will die here, trapped like rats, with the rest of us,’ Lief heard one of the other guards growl to his neighbour. ‘There is some justice in that, at least.’
    The gates swung open. The guards shrank back as far as they could, and waited till the visitors were well past before venturing out of the shadows to close the gates again.
    ‘Disgraceful!’ fumed Barda under his breath. ‘They did not even look at the paper!’
    Jasmine shrugged. ‘It is fortunate they did not, since it was only a note from Marilen to Sharn, and they would certainly have recognised us if they had looked at us closely.’
    Barda scowled. He knew that what she said was true, but his pride in his well-trained guards had been sorely shaken.
    ‘Do not be too hard on them,’ said Lief in a low voice. ‘They would have faced an enemy without flinching, but disease is fearful to them. It troubles me more that they greeted us with such suspicion—even anger.’
    And as he spoke, Jasmine drew breath sharply. She had pulled Swift to a halt, and was staring at a yellow notice stuck to a wall beside her.
    ‘Look at this!’ she breathed.
    ‘All its “truths” are lies!’ Jasmine exclaimed.
    ‘There is enough truth in most of them to deceive frightened people,’ Barda answered grimly. ‘There is food in Tora. Sharn did go there partly to assure the Torans that their friendship was valued. The Torans did once break their oath of loyalty, and Lief did forgive them—’
    “‘In the innocence and generosity of his youth”,’ Lief quoted bitterly. ‘The writer might as well have said “his ignorance and foolishness”, for that is what is meant.’
    He shook his head. ‘This notice is so stupid! It says it is going to prove that the Torans sent the plague to destroy Del. Then it says that the plague itself proves that the Torans are plotting to destroy Del. Where is the logic in that?’
    ‘There is none,’ said Barda, ripping the notice from the wall. ‘But those looking for someone to blame for their misfortune will not see that, I fear. We had better move on. The sun will soon be rising. If we are seen in the streets wearing Toran garments we could be attacked before we are recognised.’
    They rode on, growing more and more uneasy. The air was hazy with the smoke of funeral fires. Fear and strangeness haunted the familiar streets. Now and again they came upon another copy of the hateful yellow notice, stuck to a fence or pole. Plainly the city was full of them.
    As they drew nearer to the palace, many of the doors they passed were hung with charms that the owners hoped would protect their homes from illness. An increasing number were nailed shut and marked with a red X to show that the people who had lived there had died of the plague.
    At last they reached the bottom of the palace hill. The palace loomed above them. Lief could not see the guards standing by the entrance doors, but he knew they must be there, as they were every night.
    It is almost time to make my move, he thought. But before he could speak, Jasmine pulled Swift to a halt once more.
    ‘I will wait here for Kree,’ she announced. ‘He must not enter the palace alone. The last time he was there, he was poisoned.’
    ‘He slept through a night and a day, and believed he had been drugged,’ said Barda. ‘But he may have been merely exhausted. Who can say?’
    ‘I will wait,’ Jasmine said firmly. ‘You and Lief go on.’
    ‘No,’ Lief said, swinging down to the ground and thrusting Honey’s reins into Jasmine’s hands. ‘You two wait here for Kree. I will meet you inside.’
    And ignoring his companions’ startled, furious whispers, he darted off the road and almost at once was swallowed by the darkness.
    Toran robes were more suited to strolling along marble pathways than to toiling up a rough hill in the dark. But at last Lief reached his goal—the huge rock in the shape of a sleeping bear that marked the secret way into the palace.
    Memories flashed into his mind as he pulled away the grass that masked the tunnel entrance.
    The last time he had done this, desperate fear had been driving him. The last time he had done this, the Shadow Lord ruled in Deltora, and Doom, Jasmine and Barda were prisoners, about to be condemned to death.
    That time is long gone, he told himself, as he wormed his way into the narrow stone passage. It is foolish, no doubt, for me to be creeping into the palace like a thief. I have been infected by Josef’s fancies.
    But fear grew in him as he crawled through the black silence of the tunnel. And he did not know if the fear was remembered, or real.
    By the time he emerged in the palace chapel, his teeth were chattering. He replaced the floor tile that had sealed the tunnel, wincing at the small, grating sound it made as it slid into place.
    Close beside him was the high marble platform that dominated the small room. Lief brushed against it as he stood up, and twitched aside instinctively.
    For centuries, the honoured dead of the palace had lain in state on that platform. Lief’s own father had rested there for a full day after he died, and Lief had kneeled with his mother in the chill silence of the chapel for a long, sad hour or two. The ritual had brought him no comfort, and he had never visited the chapel since.
    Trying to shrug off the feeling of dread that seemed to hang upon him like a heavy cloak, Lief felt his way to the door. Opening it cautiously, he climbed the steps that led up to the huge, echoing space of the entrance hall.
    All was silent, but he knew it would not be silent for long. Kree must have joined Jasmine and Barda by now. Soon his companions would reach the palace. There was no time to waste.
    He ran lightly past the stairs and on to the library. He let himself in, and moved quietly through the dimness. Dark shelves towered around him. The familiar smell of old books filled his nose. At the end of the long room, feeble light glimmered through Josef’s half-open door.
    Lief moved quickly towards the light. When he had almost reached it, he saw another splinter of light to his right, at floor level.
    He remembered that Paff also slept in the library, her bed chamber separated from Josef’s by a storeroom and the tiny kitchen where she and Josef could heat soup and make tea. Paff’s door was closed, but it seemed that she, too, was awake.
    Silently, Lief slipped into Josef’s room. Josef was slumped over his desk, his head pillowed on his arms. In front of him the candle flickered in a pool of melted wax.
    He has fallen asleep over his work, Lief thought. He approached the desk and put a hand on the old man’s shoulder.
    ‘Josef,’ he whispered. ‘It is I, Lief.’
    ‘Lief …’ The voice was slurred, and very faint. Josef’s eyelids fluttered open, but he did not move.
    Lief’s heart gave a great thud. His grip on Josef’s shoulder tightened.
    ‘Lief?’ the old man murmured. ‘Or … another vision?’
    ‘No!’ Lief whispered, falling to his knees by the chair. ‘No, Josef, this time I am truly here!’
    The old librarian blinked. ‘Keep away,’ he slurred. ‘Lief … Keep away!’
    With an enormous effort, he raised his head. Lief caught his breath as he saw the familiar, wrinkled face gleaming with sweat and hideously disfigured with swollen scarlet blotches.
    ‘The Toran Plague,’ Josef murmured. ‘Ah, I … did not dream there was real danger. Never … would I have sent the girl to Sharn if I had known.’
    His glazed eyes focused on Lief and flamed with sudden panic.
    ‘Cover your face!’ he groaned. ‘Get out of this room! Ah, Lief, I beg you! Do not make me a murderer twice over!’
    Lief scrambled up and backed away, aghast. ‘I—I will fetch help!’ he stammered.
    ‘No time,’ Josef mumbled. ‘I must warn you. The Four Sisters. You … the sorcerer … you must stop …’
    ‘I will, Josef!’ Lief said, tears burning at the back of his eyes. ‘Three of the four are destroyed already. Do you know where the last is? Is that why you summoned me?’
    ‘Plot,’ the old man breathed. ‘Treachery. North … to south, east … to west … lines … map …’
    His head drooped as though his neck was too weak to support it. ‘Danger,’ he whispered. ‘Fearful … Must warn—Lief.’
    ‘I am here, Josef,’ Lief cried. ‘I know that the Sister of the South is in Del. But where in Del? Where—?’
    Josef’s dry lips writhed as he struggled to speak. Lief strained to hear. His ears caught a single word. His eyes widened in disbelief. Could Josef possibly have said ‘Here’?
    ‘“Here”, Josef?’ he gasped. ‘In the palace?’
    The crease between Josef’s brows deepened. ‘Beware, Lief … evil … the centre … the heart … the city … of …’
    The sighing voice trailed away.
    Lief turned and ran to Paff’s room. He knocked frantically, calling Paff’s name, but there was no answer. With a feeling of dread, he tried the door. As he had expected, it was locked.
    Lief drew back and kicked. The door shuddered, but held. He gripped the diamond in the Belt and kicked again. The lock burst, and the door swung open.
    Paff sat in her bed, propped up on two pillows. She was wearing a long-sleeved pink nightgown. Her yellow hair was neatly braided into two skimpy tails. A book lay open on her lap and the stub of a candle burned low on the bedside table beside a half-drunk cup of tea.
    At first glance it looked as if she had simply fallen asleep while reading. But Lief knew this was not so. Paff’s head lolled backwards. Her face was shining with sweat. Her limbs were as rigid as if they had been carved out of stone. Saliva dribbled from one corner of her open mouth. Beneath her fluttering eyelids, the whites of her eyes gleamed.
    Lief backed away from the doorway, his heart thudding violently.
    Then suddenly, shockingly, the silence of the palace was shattered by a hideous chorus of sounds—the high-pitched squeals of terrified horses, Jasmine’s scream and Barda’s roar, the wild screeching of Kree and, rising over all, a ferocious, ear-splitting wail that chilled the blood.

    4 - Attack
    Drawing his sword, Lief plunged through the darkness of the library, out into the hallway and on into the entrance hall. As he threw himself against the tall front doors and heaved at the iron bar that sealed them, he heard shouts from deep within the palace.
    Help was on its way, but he could not wait. He sprang heedlessly outside, almost tripping over the bodies of the night guards sprawled lifeless at the top of the stairs.
    The sun was rising, casting a weird red glow over the palace lawn where Honey, Bella and Swift reared, squealing, their eyes rolling in terror. All three horses were lame, and covered in wounds that streamed with blood.
    And shoulder to shoulder, stumbling backwards up the stairs, Barda and Jasmine were fighting for their lives.
    A vast, hideous beast was lunging at them from below, driving them upward step by step. Its face was the face of a huge, snarling dog, but hideously smooth and glistening. The shapeless black mass of its body rippled like water, and from it writhed hundreds of long, razor-edged stingers that whistled like whips as they slashed at their prey.
    Barda and Jasmine were defending themselves as best they could. Stingers cut through by sword and dagger pattered like ghastly rain on the stairs at their feet. But as the wriggling fragments fell they melted into puddles of oily black liquid that joined together, then rapidly returned to the beast, becoming part of its body once more. And every moment more and more stingers budded from the heaving flesh.
    Screeching wildly, Kree was diving at the thing’s head, driving his sharp beak into the glossy black surface again and again. Plainly he was annoying it, but still it surged forward.
    As the beast turned its neck to growl at the attacking bird, Lief’s stomach turned over. For at the back of its head was another face, narrow and ridged, with a cruel hooked beak and burning red eyes.
    Pointless, then, to try to attack it from behind—or indeed, to do anything but try to escape. For even as Lief leaped down the stairs, raising his sword, he knew that ordinary weapons could not defeat this horror.
    It was a thing of sorcery, like the false dragon at Dragon’s Nest, like the phantom that had hunted them on the way to Shadowgate.
    The guardian of the south had been expecting them. Again, their movements had been known. Again, they had been betrayed.
    ‘Barda! Jasmine!’ he roared. ‘The doors are open! Get up to the doors!’
    But as the words left his lips, he saw Jasmine fall, blood welling from a wound in her side. The stinger that had struck her held her fast, while a dozen more whipped forward to finish her. The dog face howled and snapped in triumph, flecks of foam spraying from its jaws. The beaked face behind it gave a wailing, unearthly cry.
    With a roar, Barda slashed savagely at the attacking stingers. Their tips dropped and melted into puddles of oily liquid where they fell. Lief bounded recklessly down the last few steps, cut Jasmine free and began to lift her.
    ‘Get her inside, Lief!’ Barda panted. ‘I will try to hold—’
    He grunted in agony as three stingers whipped around his neck. Blood began to flow freely from the wounds. The stingers tightened and pulled. As Barda staggered, choking, the beast lunged at him, its two faces howling, stingers hissing through the air like striking snakes.
    Leaving Jasmine where she lay, Lief sprang forward, his sword sweeping in great arcs before him. Fragments of stingers fell, squirming, beneath his blade. The severed tips of the stingers that had been throttling Barda dissolved into trails of black slime. As Barda bent double, clutching his throat and drawing in great, rasping gulps of air, the trails joined into one and slid rapidly to the ground.
    The beast shuddered and drew back. The blazing eyes of the dog face met Lief’s eyes, then dropped to the Belt at his waist.
    ‘Yes!’ Lief shouted, wild with rage and loathing. ‘I am the one you were told to destroy! But it is not so easy, is it? It is not so easy to face the Belt of Deltora. Get back—back to whatever foul place you came from!’
    The foam-flecked lips of the dog face writhed back from its teeth in a snarling grin. And Lief’s heart seemed to leap into his throat as the hideous mound of flesh before him swelled to twice its size, and hundreds more stingers erupted from its rippling black surface.
    And the next moment, it was upon him.
    He was engulfed in oily, quivering darkness. He could not breathe. He could not see. Pain racked his body as stingers whipped around him, binding his arms and legs, squeezing him in a death grip.
    But worse, far worse, was the sickening sound, the ghastly rippling, sucking sound that filled his ears as he was pulled further and further into the cold, jelly-like mass of the beast. His stomach heaved with the vileness of it. He wanted to scream, but his mouth was sealed.
    He could feel the beast’s flesh twitching and quivering. The Belt of Deltora was burning it. But it did not release him. The blood was roaring in his ears. His chest ached with the need to breathe. His mind was growing hazy. Pictures of the past drifted in a sea of red behind his sealed eyes.
    So this was what Ava meant, he thought dimly. This was the fate awaiting me. Death …
    Not yet, king of Deltora. I am with you …
    The voice of the topaz dragon whispered in his mind, echoing like a voice in a dream. At the same moment, he felt a jolt, as if the beast enfolding him had shuddered all over. And then he heard a roar like distant thunder, and knew—
    Again the beast shuddered. There was a spitting, sizzling sound, like fat falling into a fire. And then Lief felt himself falling onto the hard stairs. He felt the cold, clinging flesh slipping away from him, sliding from his nose and mouth, from his arms and legs.
    Air rushed into his aching lungs as he took great, sobbing breaths. The air was hot, and smelled of burning. It hurt him. But it was glorious, glorious!
    He opened his eyes. He was lying on his side. The air was dark with smoke. A mighty wind beat on him, pinning him down. There was a blaze of golden light, a thunderous roar, and a wave of heat.
    He could do nothing. He could only lie gasping like a stranded fish, staring wildly at the trail of oily black liquid snaking into the shadows at the side of the stairs and slipping out of sight.
    Painfully, fighting the buffeting wind, he turned on his back and looked up. The topaz dragon hovered above him, wreathed in smoke, its vast wings glittering in the rising sun. Again he heard its voice in his mind.
    What was that foul two-faced thing? In all my long life, I have never seen its like.
    Lief tried to speak, but could not. So he thought his answer—the answer he knew to be true.
    It is the guardian of the evil presence called the Sister of the South.
    The dragon’s golden eyes narrowed. And this time it spoke aloud. Its voice was very cold.
    ‘When you awoke me, king, I felt evil in my land. But you told me that the centre of the evil was in the land of the ruby where I could not go.’
    Lief wet his cracked lips. ‘I did not mean to deceive you,’ he managed to croak. ‘I told you there were four Sisters in all, and that we only knew the whereabouts of one—the Sister of the East, in Dragon’s Nest. Since then we have circled the land, and three Sisters have been destroyed. But one remains, and we have just learned that it is in Del.’
    ‘I knew it was so,’ hissed the dragon, dropping a little lower. ‘Its song has been tormenting me. I hear it now. It is here, hidden deep in the city’s heart.’
    … the centre … the heart …
    Josef’s voice echoed in Lief’s mind.
    ‘You feel the evil in the palace, dragon?’ Lief rasped urgently.
    ‘I do,’ growled the dragon. ‘Why else have I haunted this place, braving the weapons of your guards? I do not care for cities, where the air is foul, and humans run about shrieking at the sight of me, like granous in a trap.’
    And as it spoke, there were frenzied shouts from the top of the stairs. The next instant, an arrow had flown through the air and buried itself in the dragon’s soft underbelly.
    The dragon bellowed and rose into the dawn sky. Its dark red blood splashed to the stairs, spattering Lief’s face and hands.
    Lief cried out in horror, struggling to rise, to shout to the guards to stop, stop! But the pounding wind of mighty wingbeats pinned him down, and his croaking voice could not be heard above the dragon’s roars.
    The dragon flew clumsily away, slowly gaining height. Spears sped after it, but could not reach it, falling uselessly to the ground. Blood dripped from its wound as it flew. Lief watched helplessly, racked with pain, filled with dismay.
    He heard the sound of feet clattering down the stairs. Then someone was crouching beside him. Through the haze of smoke still drifting in the air Lief saw a square, sharp-eyed face surrounded by a frizz of brown hair. He saw the well-worn bow slung over one sturdy shoulder, and knew whose arrow had pierced the dragon’s hide.
    ‘Gla-Thon,’ he croaked, trying to sit up. ‘How—?’
    ‘Be still,’ the gnome said gruffly. ‘You have lost much blood. Jasmine and Barda too. That vicious yellow beast nearly made an end of you.’
    ‘No,’ Lief mumbled. His head was swimming. Shadows were flickering at the edges of his vision.
    Desperately he tried to hold the shadows back. He needed to explain. He needed to tell Gla-Thon, tell them all, of the two-faced beast, of the dragon’s rescue. But there was something even more urgent.
    ‘Josef. Paff,’ he whispered. ‘The Toran Plague …’
    He saw Gla-Thon’s small eyes widen. He saw her lips move, as though she was speaking.
    But the shadows were closing in. Lief could not stop them. They moved faster, faster … And at last all was darkness.
    When Lief woke, he was lying in his old palace bed chamber. A feather quilt covered him. There was a soft pillow beneath his head. The faint scents of soap, clean linen and healing herbs drifted in the air. Sunlight was streaming through the barred window, turning the swirling dust motes into flecks of gold.
    For a moment he was still, his mind lost in a pleasant haze. Then memory came flooding back and instantly every nerve in his body was jangling.
    He sat up abruptly, drawing a sharp breath as pain shot through him. He looked down and saw that the torn, blood-soaked Toran robe was gone, and he was wearing a crisp white nightshirt. At the same moment he realised that while he had been unconscious someone had bathed his wounds, bandaged the worst of them and smeared the rest with healing balm.
    With a jolt of panic he felt for the Belt of Deltora. But it was there, around his waist, gleaming against the white of the nightshirt.
    He looked around the familiar room. His sword lay in a corner near the bed. Beside the sword was the pack he had left in Tora.
    Who had brought it from Tora? How long had he been lying here unconscious? Half a day? More?
    Suddenly the silence in the room was no longer peaceful, but ominous.
    Lief thought of his mother. He thought of Jasmine and Barda, bleeding on the palace steps. He thought of Josef, his face disfigured by scarlet weals, and Paff, her eyes rolled back in her head …
    In terror he glanced down at his hands and in shamed relief saw that no red lumps marked the skin.
    The Toran Plague had not touched him. Or—not yet.
    Painfully he swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood up. The room seemed to spin around him, and he grasped the edge of the bedside cabinet for support. He fumbled his way to his pack, found his clothes and began to pull them on.
    His heart lurched as he heard the click of a lock and saw the door handle turn. Without quite knowing why, he seized his sword and stood with his back to the wall, waiting.

    5 - A Sad Reunion
    The door opened and Doom came silently into the room. He froze when he saw that the bed was empty. Slowly he turned his head till he saw Lief standing in the corner, sword in hand. The corner of his mouth tightened.
    ‘So you have become cautious at last, Lief,’ he said. ‘Better late than never.’
    Lief grinned shakily and threw down his sword.
    ‘Doom,’ he said, holding out his hand. ‘I am very glad to see you.’
    Doom stood where he was. ‘I am sure you will understand if I say that I am not glad to see you,’ he answered coldly. ‘Did I not tell you to stay away from here?’
    Lief fought down a flare of anger. ‘You also told me to continue my quest,’ he snapped, letting his rejected hand fall. ‘Whether you wished me to see my dying mother or not, I had to come to Del. The Sister of the South is here.’
    With bitter satisfaction he watched Doom’s face change. Then he saw his old friend’s shoulders slump, and felt ashamed.
    ‘Forgive me,’ he said quickly, holding out his hand again. ‘You could not have known. And no doubt I would have come even if the Sister were not in Del.’
    This time Doom moved forward, and took the outstretched hand in both of his.
    ‘No doubt you would, Lief,’ he said. ‘Your heart has often ruled your head. It is one of the many things that make you a better king than I could ever be, for all your youth.’
    As if fearing he had shown his feelings too plainly, he cleared his throat and abruptly released Lief’s hand.
    ‘Barda and Jasmine are still sleeping,’ he said, in something far more like his normal tone. ‘According to Gla-Thon it is a miracle that you are all still alive. Dragons can be deadly allies, it seems.’
    Without waiting for an answer, he held out a piece of red cloth like the one loosely knotted around his own neck.
    ‘I know there is no hope of persuading you to keep away from Sharn, however much I might wish to,’ he said. ‘Tie this mask around your face. It will give you some protection from the infection.’
    ‘Before I see Mother, I must go to Josef,’ Lief said hurriedly.
    Doom stared at him in angry astonishment. ‘You must do as you please, Lief,’ he said curtly. ‘But if you wish to see Sharn alive, there is no time to waste.’
    Fear swept through Lief like a cold wind, driving everything else from his mind, chilling him to the bone.
    Minutes later, Lief was standing by his mother’s bed, his breath coming hard and fast beneath the stifling cloth mask that covered his mouth and nose.
    ‘Do not venture too close,’ warned Doom, who had remained by the door. ‘And do not touch her.’
    Angry-looking scarlet lumps covered Sharn’s face and neck. Her brow was beaded with sweat. Her lips were dry and cracked. Dark grey shadows smudged the skin beneath her eyes. Her breathing was very faint.
    Lief’s throat tightened. ‘How long has she been like this?’ he managed to say.
    ‘This is the third day,’ Doom answered. ‘She reached Del at sunset, three nights ago, bearing the glad tidings that you had been found safe and well, and were travelling on to find the Sister of the South. A troop of guards escorted her to the palace. She spoke to every one of them … as is her way.’
    He paused, then continued in the same level tone.
    ‘Her belongings were brought here, but she remained below, though she was tired and windswept from her journey. She greeted the crowds of the hungry gathered in the entrance hall and with her own hands served the soup that had been prepared for them. Afterwards she went to visit the stables, then she and I ate in the kitchen with the cooks. At last she admitted to weariness, and went directly to bed.’
    Again he paused. Lief waited, his eyes fixed on his mother’s face.
    ‘By morning she was burning with fever and the red weals were already showing on her face,’ Doom went on after a moment. ‘The guards who had escorted her to the palace, many of the people she had served, the horse-master who greeted her in the stables and the cooks who sat with us at table, were in the same state. Most of them died the same day. Then those close to them began to fall ill. And so it went on.’
    ‘How many are dead?’ Lief forced himself to ask.
    Wearily, Doom rubbed his brow with the back of his hand. ‘Many hundreds,’ he said. ‘I have lost count over the past days. I have given orders that the dead are to be burned. The citizens have all been told to cover their faces in the streets, and while nursing the sick. But still the deaths continue.’
    He sighed. ‘The only thing I seem to have achieved is to stop the plague spreading beyond Del. No-one is permitted to leave the city. That is why Gla-Thon is with us. A Kin carried her from Dread Mountain, to bring me news of you. The Kin returned at once, but Gla-Thon remained, and she was still here when the plague broke out. Gers the Jalis and Steven were trapped in the same way.’
    ‘Gers and Steven?’ Lief repeated stupidly.
    ‘Gers came asking for food for his people,’ Doom said. ‘Steven arrived a week ago, with the boy Zerry. They told me of your journey to Shadowgate, and your encounters with the Masked Ones, and Laughing Jack.’
    Lief nodded, his mouth suddenly dry.
    ‘To me the Masked Ones were just one of Deltora’s many curiosities,’ Doom went on sombrely. ‘I have never known their history, or cared to find it out. I was astonished when Steven told me that the troop was founded by Ballum, the younger brother of King Elstred.’
    He saw Lief’s eyes widen, and nodded.
    ‘Did Steven not tell you?’ he said. ‘You share a bloodline with the traditional leaders of the Masked Ones, Lief. No doubt that is why Bess saw a resemblance between you and her son. Steven told me that Ballum was a magician and juggler—much loved by the people, and by his brother, the king. Then a trick went wrong and Ballum’s face was badly marked by fire.’
    ‘So he began wearing a mask to hide his injuries,’ Lief said slowly.
    ‘He did,’ said Doom. ‘But not long afterwards he was accused of attempting to kill Elstred out of bitterness and jealousy, and was forced to flee.’
    He shrugged at Lief’s muffled gasp. ‘Yes, it is likely that Elstred’s chief advisor planned it all, to ensure that Elstred listened to her alone. Your father and I were separated by the same trick, centuries later. The Enemy forgets nothing, it seems.’
    ‘Ballum was hunted, no doubt, supposedly on the king’s orders,’ Lief said, remembering how bitterly the Masked Ones had spoken of the king in Del.
    ‘Of course,’ Doom said. ‘But he kept to the wilder parts of Deltora, earning his bread as a travelling entertainer, and was never caught. Gradually a loyal troop gathered around him. They moved around constantly, and they all wore masks, so that if ever they were attacked, the guards would not know at once which one of them was Ballum.’ He raised a tired hand, and dropped it again. ‘Whether Ballum had discovered the secret of making the masks permanent by that time, or found it out later, no-one can know,’ he added.
    Lief shuddered and turned his head away.
    ‘Forgive me,’ Doom said awkwardly. ‘This is not the time to be speaking of such things.’
    He cleared his throat. ‘Steven’s story of what nearly befell you filled me with horror, but I was glad to see him—more glad than I can say. Now I wish with all my heart that he had stayed away. If he and Nevets fall victim to this accursed plague—’
    ‘They will not,’ said a quiet voice. ‘Did you not tell me that Steven and the boy had taken the horse-master’s place? They will be safe in the stables, surely.’
    Lief looked up and with dull surprise saw Zeean of Tora standing by a second bed on the other side of the room. Like him, and like Doom, Zeean was wearing a mask of red over her mouth and nose. Her hands were covered by close-fitting scarlet gloves of some shining Toran cloth.
    She saw him staring at her, and her eyes warmed in a sad smile of greeting. Lief saw with a shock that there was a large, darkening bruise on her cheekbone, just beneath her eye.
    ‘As you see, I decided that I had to come after you, to bring Sharn what comfort I could,’ she said. ‘Marilen dearly wanted to come also, but her father persuaded her to remain in safety, and I am very glad of that. Del is no place for Marilen now—and not just because the risk of infection is so great, either.’
    She moved away towards the wash stand, revealing the person lying motionless in the bed. Lief stared in horror at the strong, handsome face branded by the terrible marks of the Toran Plague.
    ‘Lindal!’ he whispered. ‘But only last night she was—’
    ‘The Plague works quickly once it strikes,’ Doom said grimly. ‘Consider the guards on the door last night—healthy when they went on duty, dead before dawn. I found Lindal like this when I came to tell her that you were here, and injured, and that Josef and Paff had been struck down.’
    He grimaced. ‘And now Zeean has come to take her turn in this chamber of death,’ he added. ‘She insists upon it, though neither Sharn nor Lindal would want her to risk—’
    ‘They cannot be left alone to suffer, Doom,’ said Zeean calmly, dipping a cloth into a bowl of water and wringing it out. ‘And you cannot be here night and day. Who is seeing to Josef and Paff?’
    ‘Gla-Thon was willing,’ said Doom briefly.
    Zeean nodded and crossed the room to Sharn’s bed with the wet cloth in her hands.
    ‘There is little enough that can be done,’ she murmured, beginning to sponge Sharn’s hot face. ‘Cool the face and hands. Be there to comfort, and give water. Hope and pray that the body will have the strength to throw off the pestilence.’
    Lief wet his lips. ‘I had hopes that the diamond in the Belt might help Mother,’ he said huskily. ‘Now, I fear the help may have come too late.’
    Zeean hesitated. ‘You may be right,’ she said gently, at last. ‘Sharn has clung to life far longer than anyone else, but it is a cruel illness, this thing they call the Toran Plague.’
    Lief saw her mouth tighten beneath the mask.
    ‘Doom himself came to the city gates to escort me through the city,’ she said. ‘I think that if he had not, harm would have come to me. The very sight of me—of my Toran robe—seemed to inflame the people in the streets. They called and jeered. Some threw stones.’
    Thoughtfully she lifted a gloved hand to the bruise on her cheek.
    ‘Oh, Zeean!’ Lief muttered in dismay. ‘I am so—’
    ‘I do not mind for myself,’ Zeean broke in, moving back to the wash stand, putting aside the cloth and picking up Sharn’s silver-topped jar of soothing cream. ‘I mind only that your people believe that this evil has come to them from Tora, when I know it cannot be so.’
    ‘It must be so, Zeean,’ Doom said firmly. ‘Sharn came here directly from Tora, and there is no doubt that the plague came with her. Perhaps she was protected from its effects while she stayed within the magic city’s walls, but once she left—’
    Zeean shook her head, her eyes fixed determinedly on the lid she was removing from the jar. ‘If the seeds of such an evil had been within Sharn in Tora, we would have known,’ she said.
    ‘I beg you not to say that outside this room,’ Doom answered gravely. ‘From what I hear, it is exactly what the people of Del suspect.’
    ‘What can you mean?’ Zeean demanded, looking at him at last.
    In dismay Lief saw Doom draw a yellow notice from his pocket and hold it out to her.
    Zeean was certain to find out at last, in any case, Lief told himself, as with sinking heart he watched Zeean take the yellow paper and begin to read. I can only hope that she can be persuaded not to tell her people. If food ships do begin arriving on the west coast now the Bone Point Light is restored, Del will desperately need Tora’s goodwill.
    Gritting his teeth, he turned his back on his companions and shut their voices from his mind. Slowly he unclasped the Belt of Deltora.
    Zeean was frowning over the yellow paper. Doom was watching her. Neither of them saw Lief take the Belt from his waist and place it on his mother’s chest, with the great diamond over her heart.
    And neither of them saw him stare, astounded, at what happened then.
    It was as if a thunderbolt had struck him. He stopped breathing. The blood rushed to his face. For a moment he stood motionless, unable to believe what he was seeing. Then, slowly, he lifted his arms.
    ‘Lief!’ bellowed Doom, suddenly looking around. ‘Lief, no! What are you doing?’
    For Lief was pulling the red mask from his face.

    6 - Life and Death
    Lief glanced at Zeean and Doom, who were both rigid with shock. Then he turned back to his mother and put his fingers to her wrist. Already the faint pulse was strengthening.
    ‘Do not fear,’ he said. ‘There is no infection here.’
    ‘Are you mad, Lief?’ exploded Doom. ‘Replace your mask! Make haste!’
    Lief did not move. Doom ran his fingers through his hair in despair.
    ‘What have you done?’ he groaned. ‘Paff was in this room without a mask for only a moment, but still she caught the plague—and passed it on to Josef!’
    Lief shook his head. ‘I saw Josef,’ he said softly. ‘I knelt by his chair and spoke to him. Yet I have not fallen ill with the thing you call the Toran Plague.’
    ‘But when did you see Josef?’ cried Doom, astounded.
    ‘Before the beast on the stairs attacked,’ Lief said. ‘No-one knew of it, Doom. And that is why I have not fallen ill.’
    ‘What do you mean?’ Zeean asked sharply.
    ‘I mean that there is no such thing as the Toran Plague,’ Lief said. ‘All the illness, all the deaths, have been caused by poison.’
    Zeean gasped. Doom snorted in disbelief. But Lief knew he was right. The evidence was before his eyes.
    ‘You know that the amethyst in the Belt pales in the presence of poison,’ he said quietly. ‘Look here!’
    He pointed to the great gem, which was pale as lavender water, and saw Doom go white to the lips.
    Zeean hurried to the bed and bent over Sharn. ‘The red marks are fading!’ she exclaimed.
    ‘They always fade as death approaches,’ Doom said tightly. ‘An hour or two after death, there are no marks at all.’
    Zeean shook her head. ‘Sharn is not dying. She is recovering! The fever is cooling. How …?’
    Her eyes turned to the Belt. ‘The emerald,’ she breathed. ‘Antidote to poison.’
    Lief nodded. ‘It saved Barda once. Now it will save Mother. Lindal, too. And Josef. And all those others who suffer, if I can reach them in time.’
    Slowly Zeean straightened. Then, very deliberately, she set down the jar of cream, pulled the red mask from her face and stripped the gloves from her hands.
    ‘This is much better,’ she murmured. Briskly she picked up the jar again and began smoothing cream on Sharn’s lips.
    ‘You are both making a terrible mistake,’ Doom said harshly. ‘Sharn cannot have been poisoned! She ate and drank nothing I did not share. She did not touch her water jug in the night—that was the first thing I looked at when I could not wake her in the morning. And everyone close to her has fallen ill!’
    ‘Except you, Doom,’ Lief said in a level voice. ‘Why are you still standing?’
    He would not have thought it possible for Doom to become paler, but it happened before his eyes.
    ‘What are you suggesting?’ Doom whispered.
    Lief smiled ruefully. ‘Only that you are so wary, sleep so little, and are so careful of your food and drink, that it would be almost impossible to poison you. Others who spent time with Mother are a different story.’
    He shrugged. ‘A troop of guards shares the same water vat. Families eat together. Groups of the hungry are served from the same pot. Such people were easy victims for a killer who wanted to mimic the effects of a plague. As were Josef and Paff, who both use the same tin of tea in the library kitchen.’
    Doom was shaking his head. ‘How could a poisoner enter so many homes and move around the palace—even into this room—without being seen?’
    But Lief was remembering a trail of liquid evil sliding into the shadows of the palace stairs. He was imagining it oozing beneath doors, slipping through keyholes, pooling like a living shadow in dark corners unnoticed, unsuspected.
    ‘Something evil is living in the palace,’ he said in a low voice. ‘A thing of sorcery. I have seen it.’
    Doom and Zeean stared at him, then looked at one another uncertainly. Perhaps they wondered if he had taken leave of his senses.
    And, indeed, Lief’s head was spinning. The urgent thoughts that were flashing into his mind one after the other were threatening to overwhelm him.
    Drawing fresh power from the Sister of the South, the guardian would recover and try to kill him again, that was certain. And the killing of others would continue at the same time. The false ‘plague’ had begun for one, simple reason, Lief was sure of that. But the guardian had quickly seen that it served other purposes as well.
    There was no doubt: while the fearful, secret song of the Sister of the South rang on unchecked, its guardian would remain a threat to every living being in Del.
    I must get the Belt to Josef so that he can tell me what he knows, Lief thought. Then I must call the topaz dragon back, so we can face the Sister together. I must act quickly, before the guardian regains strength. But what of Lindal, Paff, and all the others who need the emerald’s power? Must I leave them suffering and dying?
    He grew ever more panic-stricken as his thoughts ran on and on.
    He had to warn the people of Del to beware of poison. Food would have to be thrown away—precious food, while people were starving! He had to make the palace guards understand that the topaz dragon was not a threat …
    So many things to be done at once! And there was no time to waste—no time!
    He looked down at his mother. The red marks on her face had still not faded completely, but she was breathing evenly. The power of the emerald had been working upon her for many minutes. He was sure that Barda had recovered in less time. Was it safe to remove the Belt now?
    It will have to be, Lief thought grimly. Smothering his doubts, he snatched up the Belt of Deltora and hurried across the room to Lindal’s bed.
    As he bent to put the Belt down, however, he became aware that something within him had changed. His racing heart had slowed. The feeling of panic was ebbing away.
    He glanced at the Belt, heavy in his hands, and saw that his fingers were gripping the golden topaz, the water-pale amethyst.
    He had not thought he needed their help. He had thought he was simply facing the truth. Now he saw that the most important truth of all had been driven from his mind by fear.
    This was a puzzle, like any other, he thought in dull surprise, as he spread the Belt over Lindal. I almost failed to solve it. Panic almost conquered me. But now I know what must be done—or at least how to begin.
    ‘Not I, but we,’ he said aloud. ‘I am not alone.’
    ‘Of course you are not!’ exclaimed Zeean. ‘What—?’
    She broke off with a startled cry as the door crashed open. Barda strode into the room, his throat bandaged and his eyes wild. Jasmine was behind him, vainly trying to hold him back.
    ‘Lindal!’ Barda said huskily. ‘Is it true—?’ He caught his breath as he saw Lindal lying unconscious in the bed.
    ‘She will survive, Barda,’ Lief said quickly. ‘Josef, too. The Belt—’
    ‘Josef is dead,’ Barda said, his lips barely moving.
    A chill settled on Lief’s heart. Zeean gave a low cry. Doom’s face darkened.
    ‘Dead?’ Lief whispered. He could not believe it. Somehow he could not imagine a world without Josef in it.
    ‘Steven told us of it, just now,’ Jasmine said, tears shining in her eyes. ‘Josef died peacefully, not long ago, with Ranesh by his side.’
    ‘Ranesh is here?’ Zeean murmured.
    Jasmine nodded. ‘Manus came with him. They had no trouble in the streets, for no-one could tell by their looks that they came from Tora.’
    ‘But I warned them to stay away!’ exploded Doom, clenching his fists. ‘Are they mad?’
    ‘Only if love and loyalty can be considered madness!’ Jasmine said sharply. ‘If you did not want Ranesh to come to Del, why did you tell him that Josef was ill?’
    ‘I did not tell him!’ Doom answered, just as sharply. ‘I, at least, have not lost my senses!’
    ‘I fear the fault is mine,’ Zeean said.
    Doom swung round to her. She met his furious eyes calmly.
    ‘My heart was heavy after my arrival,’ she said. ‘Torans share their thoughts, but the distance between us now is too great for that to be possible. So I wrote to Marilen telling her of Josef’s illness, the attack on Lief, Barda and Jasmine and … everything else.’
    Doom scowled, and Lief could well understand why. He knew that his own face must show his dismay.
    Plainly, all in Tora now knew that the people of Del blamed them for the so-called ‘plague’, and that Zeean had been attacked in the streets.
    ‘And how did you send your letter, may I ask?’ Doom asked coldly. ‘The messenger birds are kept under guard.’
    The corners of Zeean’s mouth tilted in a thin smile. ‘You have forgotten, I think, that the bird Ebony came with me from Tora. She carried my message.’
    Doom cursed under his breath.
    Zeean lifted her chin. ‘It seems you would rather my people were kept ignorant of things they have every right to know,’ she said icily.
    ‘Stop this, I beg you!’ Lief exclaimed, unable to keep silent any longer. ‘Do you not see? This is what the guardian of the south wants! The guardian wants distrust between Del and Tora—perhaps only to create fear and confusion, perhaps to stop supplies coming from the west, should food ships ever arrive.’
    Neither Doom nor Zeean answered.
    Lief flung out his hands desperately. ‘While we fight we can do nothing,’ he said. ‘And we must act quickly, before the guardian regains strength enough to stop us. We know that the Sister of the South is somewhere in the palace—’
    Jasmine drew a quick breath, Zeean’s eyes widened, and even Barda looked up, suddenly alert.
    ‘The Sister is in the palace,’ Lief repeated. ‘Josef knew where, I think, but he is beyond telling us now. He may have left us a clue, and the topaz dragon will aid us also. I will summon it as soon as—’
    ‘Summon that menace?’ Doom growled. ‘You cannot—’
    ‘Listen to me!’ Lief begged. ‘There is much you do not understand. We must meet with Gla-Thon, Steven, Ranesh, Gers and Manus at once. When they are with us, I will explain everything.’
    He saw Doom’s face harden into the familiar, stubborn lines of suspicion and leaned forward urgently.
    ‘Once, Doom, when we knew each other far less well than we do now, we stood together in the Valley of the Lost and heard Zeean say, “the time for secrecy between friends is past”. Those words are as true now as they were then, I know it!’
    The scarred man’s eyes met his own. Memories flashed between them. Memories of distrust and heroism, pain and triumph. Memories of plans, of daring, of hope—and even of laughter.
    ‘Secrecy is pointless now,’ Lief said quietly. ‘The attack this morning proves that the Shadow Lord knows full well where we are. How, I cannot imagine, but clearly it is so. Fate has decreed that the friends we trust the most are here. We must ask them to help us.’
    Doom bowed his head. He did not look up as Zeean stepped forward and placed her hand on his arm. But, slowly, he nodded.
    ‘I will gather the others,’ said Barda gruffly. ‘Where is the meeting to be?’
    ‘Here, old bear, or it will be the worse for you,’ said a slurred voice from across the room.
    They whirled around. Barda gave a choked cry.
    Lindal’s eyes were open. She turned her head on the pillow and looked at them.
    ‘The gathering must be here,’ she repeated. ‘For you leave me out of it at your peril and I fear that—just at the moment—walking is quite beyond me.’

    7 - Old Friends
    Not long afterwards, a strange meeting was held in the lady Sharn’s bed chamber. As Sharn herself lay lost in sleep, the Dread Gnome Gla-Thon, Steven of the Plains, Zeean of Tora, Manus of Raladin, Gers of the Jalis, Doom, Barda and Jasmine gathered around the bed of Lindal of Broome and listened as Lief told them everything.
    Only Ranesh had failed to join them. He had flatly refused to leave Josef’s side. No entreaties could move him, and at last Barda had been forced to leave him where he was.
    When Lief had finished speaking, there was a long silence. Everyone had believed in the Toran Plague so completely that it was hard for them to accept the truth. And all except Barda, Jasmine and Zeean found it even more difficult to accept that an evil presence prowled the palace.
    At last Steven cleared his throat. ‘Are you saying that this guardian of the south is an Ol?’ he growled, his golden eyes flickering dangerously brown. ‘I thought the Belt had rid Deltora of those slimy, shape-changing creations of—’
    ‘The guardian is no Ol,’ Lief cut in quickly. ‘The guardian is a human with powerful gifts of sorcery. The two-faced beast, and the black slime I saw sliding away into the palace, are merely forms the guardian finds … convenient.’
    There was another moment’s silence as his audience took this in.
    ‘If what you say is true, Lief,’ Gla-Thon murmured, ‘no food or drink in Del is safe.’
    ‘The guardian has been leaving the palace under cover of darkness, but I do not believe the Sister would be left unprotected for long,’ Lief said. ‘I think the homes closest to the palace are in the greatest danger.’
    ‘Certainly most of the deaths have occurred either in the palace itself, or nearby,’ Doom said, frowning thoughtfully. ‘It seemed only natural, when we thought of this curse as a plague brought to Del by Sharn. Palace workers who go to their homes each night usually live quite near.’
    ‘Then a circle must be drawn around the affected area, with the palace as its centre,’ said Lindal, pulling herself up on her pillows. ‘All food within the circle must be taken away. The people there must eat only food given back to them after it has been tested.’
    ‘Folk will not give up their private food stocks without a fight,’ muttered Gers.
    ‘I think I could persuade them,’ Steven said cheerfully. ‘They have grown to know me and my caravan over the past days. The children like my horse and Zerry entertains them with magic tricks.’
    He grinned. ‘If I load the caravan with food that has already been tested, and offer to exchange it for their private stores, the people will agree in good spirits, I am sure.’
    Lief felt a warm wave of relief that was almost joy. Now ten minds instead of one were working on the problems Del faced. And each one of the ten had something useful to offer.
    ‘I do not understand why, after months or years of remaining hidden, this enemy—this guardian of the south—would suddenly begin poisoning innocent people,’ Manus said suddenly.
    ‘It did not poison just anyone,’ Lief pointed out, taking care not to look at Doom. ‘It poisoned Mother, immediately on her arrival in Del. And then it poisoned all those who had come in contact with her, so that it seemed she was carrying a plague. Plague victims are always isolated from others. People who wish to talk to them are kept away.’
    ‘Are you saying that all this began to prevent Josef from seeing Sharn?’ Doom demanded.
    Lief nodded uncomfortably. ‘I fear so. Josef had discovered something of great importance. He would have passed it on to Mother if he could. He trusted her completely.’
    ‘While I was not worthy of trust,’ Doom said sourly.
    ‘Josef was addle-headed,’ said Gla-Thon. ‘I have seen it often in Dread Mountain. Some old ones remain sharp as Boolong thorns till death. Others become filled with fancies. Josef was such a one. He took against you, Doom, because you were firm with him.’
    Barda shrugged. ‘Addle-headed or not, Josef plainly had important knowledge in his keeping. And now he is dead, and his assistant, in whom he might have confided, is gravely ill.’
    ‘I doubt Josef would have told Paff anything,’ Doom muttered. ‘He disliked her.’
    ‘If Paff survives, she can tell us one way or the other,’ Gla-Thon said. ‘And she may well survive, in fact. She drank only half of the brew that Lief says poisoned her, and she has the strength of youth. If she has the aid of the great emerald as well…’
    ‘She will, as soon as we have finished here,’ Lief said. ‘And until she can speak, she must be closely guarded. No harm must befall her.’
    Gla-Thon nodded. ‘I will see to it,’ she said, turning quickly to leave as if pleased to have something practical to do.
    ‘Wait, Gla-Thon!’ Lief called. ‘There is something else I must ask of you—and of your people.’
    ‘Name it,’ Gla-Thon said, her hand on the door knob.
    Lief looked at her steadily. ‘I need every large emerald from the Dread Gnomes’ treasure cave. Every emerald, and every amethyst, too.’
    Gla-Thon’s small eyes widened, and for a moment everyone in the room could see, flaring in those eyes, the Dread Gnomes’ natural suspicion, and love of treasure.
    Then Gla-Thon blinked, and the greedy, suspicious light disappeared.
    ‘Certainly,’ she said calmly. ‘The emeralds to help those who have been poisoned. And the amethysts to test food.’
    ‘Indeed,’ said Lief, very grateful for her quick understanding. ‘There are some jewels here in the palace, but not enough. Naturally the Dread Mountain gems will be returned as soon as the crisis has passed.’
    ‘Naturally.’ Gla-Thon bowed slightly. From one of her pockets she pulled a small bag. She tipped the bag’s contents into the palm of her hand and held out a small pile of emeralds, gleaming like green fire.
    ‘I had hoped to purchase food to take home at the end of my stay,’ she said. ‘Things on Dread Mountain are improving, but the crops are still young. I soon realised my hope was foolish, but now I am glad I brought the gems with me. They will help us make a start.’
    ‘But surely only the gems in the Belt can—’ Lindal began.
    ‘Lesser gems are only shadows of the seven in the Belt of Deltora, but still they have some power, especially in large numbers,’ said Gla-Thon. ‘The Dread Gnomes have always known this. It is one of the reasons we value gems so highly.’
    ‘My plan is to gather all the sick into one place, and the emeralds with them,’ Lief said. ‘But the place cannot be the palace, which must be cleared of as many people as possible. I am not sure where else—’ He glanced at Doom uncertainly.
    ‘The great food store house near the square is almost empty,’ Doom said. ‘There is space there for hundreds of beds. Gers, perhaps, can begin the work while I fetch the palace jewels. I will join him as soon as I can.’
    Gers grunted agreement.
    ‘Very well,’ said Gla-Thon. ‘I will see to the gems. I need only a bird to send the message, and the thing will be done.’
    ‘I will fetch a bird,’ Jasmine said, moving eagerly to join Gla-Thon at the door.
    ‘Fetch two,’ Lief called after her. ‘Zeean must write again to Marilen.’
    ‘Must I indeed?’ murmured Zeean. ‘And what am I to say?’
    Lief glanced at her. She had lowered herself into a chair. Her hand was raised to the darkening bruise beneath her eye as if it pained her.
    ‘Your people must be told that the Toran Plague is a lie, and that soon everyone in Del will know it,’ he said.
    Zeean nodded slowly. ‘And what else?’
    Lief hesitated. He had planned to speak further to Zeean in private. Plainly, however, she had already guessed the second part of the message and was not going to permit him to keep any secrets.
    Perhaps she is right, he thought. Everyone should understand what may be ahead.
    ‘Marilen must come to Del without delay,’ he said reluctantly. ‘She is the heir to the Belt of Deltora. When I face the Sister of the South Marilen must be here, standing in readiness to put on the Belt should I not survive.’
    He paused. The room was utterly still. Zeean had closed her eyes. Everyone else was staring at him in shock.
    ‘Barda and Jasmine will be with me,’ Lief went on, without looking at either of his companions. ‘It will be their task to take the Belt from me and deliver it safely to Marilen, if they feel the time is right.’
    ‘You have faced three Sisters before this, and three guardians too, Lief,’ Barda said, almost angrily. ‘Why do you now—?’
    ‘This is the last Sister, and I fear it will be the most terrible, for all the rage of the Shadow Lord will be focused upon it,’ Lief broke in. ‘And—’
    He looked down at his hands. And I have felt disaster ahead ever since I set foot in the palace, he thought. The feeling grows stronger with every step I take towards my goal.
    ‘And the topaz dragon is not merely exhausted, as the dragon of the amethyst was, but injured,’ he said aloud. ‘It will try with all its might to rid its land of the Shadow Lord’s evil. But the effort may destroy it, and without it, I too, am lost.’
    Gla-Thon gave an agonised groan. ‘Then if you die, the fault will be mine, for it was I who shot the beast!’
    ‘No blame can be attached to you, gnome,’ growled Gers. ‘You thought you were saving Lief’s life. I would have done the same, in your place.’
    ‘And I,’ Lindal put in. ‘No-one from Broome, which is built on the ruins of Capra, could doubt the treachery of dragons. And so I have been telling all who ask me, ever since I came here.’
    Lief did not argue. There was no time for a long discussion about the faith of dragons now.
    ‘All the more reason, then, for Barda to warn the guards that the topaz dragon is to be protected, not attacked,’ he said, instead.
    ‘They will not like that,’ growled Gers. ‘They think they saw the dragon savaging their king. It will be hard to persuade them differently.’
    ‘They will believe what they are told, and do as they are ordered!’ snapped Barda. ‘If they had responded to our calls for help in proper time, they would have seen the real attacker for themselves.’
    He shook his head, scowling. ‘I thought I had left them in good hands with Corris, but it seems that discipline has grown very slack.’
    ‘Corris died on the first day of the plague,’ Doom said. ‘Dunn, his second in command, is in charge now.’
    Barda grimaced, but whether this was in regret for Corris or disdain for Dunn, Lief could not tell.
    ‘I suggest we end this meeting now,’ Doom said abruptly. ‘There is much to be done, and little time to waste.’
    There were murmurs of agreement, and soon only Lief, Zeean, Lindal and Manus remained in the room with the sleeping Sharn.
    ‘There are tasks for all but me, it seems,’ said Manus softly. ‘Is there nothing I can do?’
    Lief put his arm around the Ralad man’s shoulders. His heart was heavy, but he kept his voice steady as he spoke.
    ‘You, Manus, have the most important task of all,’ he said. ‘You are a builder of Raladin. Your ancestors built this palace, stone by stone. If anyone can help me find where the Sister of the South is hidden, it will be you.’

    8 - Fearful Discoveries
    Leaving Zeean to write her letter to Marilen, Lindal to fume at the weakness that forced her to remain in bed, and Sharn still sleeping, Lief and Manus hurried downstairs to the library.
    Lief went to the storeroom and quickly found the large, flat wooden box which held the original plans of the palace drawn by the builders of Raladin for King Brandon long ago. As he lifted the box from its high shelf and took it to a work table, he felt a pang.
    Josef had often pointed out this box to him, plainly hoping that he would ask to see the plans. But Lief had never asked. He was bored by the whole idea. Josef had only managed to capture his interest once, when he told Lief that the palace had taken forty years to build.
    ‘Forty years!’ Lief had exclaimed.
    ‘Indeed!’ Josef had said, beaming. ‘Brandon moved in as soon as the ground floor was completed, but he did not live to see the work finished. His son, Lucan, had that honour. Now, if you would just lift the box down for me, I will show you …’
    But Lief had hurriedly made excuses and left the library, promising to examine the plans another day.
    Now, it seemed, that day had come. But Josef had not lived to see it.
    Manus began taking out the ancient parchments one by one, exclaiming over them in awed fascination.
    ‘Look for secret spaces, especially in central rooms, Manus,’ said Lief. ‘Josef said the Sister was in “the centre”, “the heart”. He may just have meant the palace itself, in the centre of Del. But he could have meant that the Sister is hidden somewhere in the centre of the palace.’
    Manus nodded vaguely, his eyes fixed on the plans.
    Lief left him and went quickly to Josef’s room. He tapped the door lightly, looked in and was startled to find the room empty.
    For a moment he simply stared in astonishment. Then he realised that Ranesh had almost certainly carried Josef to the chapel, where he could lie in state as befitted a Deltoran hero.
    Fighting down the lump in his throat, Lief hurried to the desk. As he reached for the open Deltora Annals volume that Josef had pulled over his secret work, his eye was caught by the stack of paper tied with blue ribbon lying on the left of the desk.
    He glanced at the top page.
    So Josef had finished his book at last. Again the lump rose in Lief’s throat. He took a breath, and looked back at the heavy open volume in front of him.
    It was Volume 1 of the Annals, where all the old folk tales were recorded. Lief’s heart lurched as he noted that it was open at the tale of the Four Sisters.
    Sickened afresh at the thought of the gloating pleasure the Shadow Lord must have taken in naming his own vile creations after the sisters in the old Jalis tale, Lief lifted the book aside.
    And there was nothing beneath it at all. Josef, or someone else, had moved or destroyed whatever had been there.
    The disappointment was like a blow. But Lief was shamed to find that deep within him, below the disappointment and frustration, there was a tiny glow of relief. The room would have to be searched—every book and paper in it examined. But for now, the Sister’s hiding place remained unknown. He did not yet have to take another step towards the darkness.
    He felt numb as he turned away from the desk and left the room.
    Manus was still absorbed in the plans and Lief did not hail him. Instead, he walked rapidly to Paff’s chamber.
    The door hung open, sagging on its hinges. Lief called softly, and went in. Gla-Thon was standing at the end of Paff’s bed, bow drawn.
    ‘Ah, Lief, it is you,’ Gla-Thon said, lowering her bow and moving aside.
    Lief could see at once that Paff was much better. Her body had relaxed. Her eyes were closed in what seemed a natural sleep.
    ‘All the emeralds I had are beneath the covers, close to her heart,’ Gla-Thon whispered. ‘I put them there the moment I returned. And here is the message to be sent to Fa-Glin.’
    She held out the note. Taking it with a nod of thanks, Lief approached the bed. It seemed to him that as he drew closer Paff stirred a little. He felt for the clasp of the Belt.
    ‘If we leave her to recover with the aid of my emeralds alone, we will learn much that will help in the treatment of others,’ Gla-Thon murmured. ‘It would be a very useful experiment.’
    Lief hesitated, then shook his head. ‘Josef may have told her something,’ he said. ‘It is a small chance, perhaps, but the sooner she can speak, the sooner—’
    He broke off and swung round as he heard the sound of running footsteps and voices outside in the library. He saw from the corner of his eye that Gla-Thon had raised her bow again.
    Jasmine appeared at the door. Her face was deathly pale. Kree was fluttering on her arm, and Filli was whimpering piteously on her shoulder. Behind her Manus hovered, his small, blue-grey face creased in distress.
    Lief’s heart began to pound. He strode to Jasmine and she reached out for him blindly, clutching the front of his jacket.
    ‘I went to the bird room,’ she said in a small, tight voice. ‘The guards were gone. And the birds … all the birds—’
    ‘Dead?’ Lief exclaimed.
    ‘Dead or—or dying,’ Jasmine whispered. ‘Lief, you must come. You must help me. If they cannot be cured, they must be put out of their misery. They—they are suffering.’
    ‘Stay with Paff!’ Lief called over his shoulder to Gla-Thon. And putting his arm around Jasmine, he hurried with her out of the room.
    In the centre of the bird room was a living tree, its branches stretching almost to the high, netted roof. Bright sunlight filtered through the tree’s leaves, mercilessly lighting the scene below.
    All the perches were empty. The straw that covered the floor was littered with black, feathered bodies, some fluttering and twitching horribly, some deathly still.
    Kree hunched silently on Jasmine’s arm. His golden eyes looked glazed.
    ‘We will help them, Kree,’ Jasmine said. But her face was haunted as she gazed at the birds, many of which she had raised from chicks, and all of which she had trained.
    ‘Poison,’ Lief muttered, overturning the water trough by the door with his foot. ‘The guardian must have crept in here last night, as we approached Del and while the birds were still sleeping. No doubt the plan was to stop any messages being sent from Del.’
    ‘Where is the keeper of the birds?’ Jasmine hissed. ‘Where are the guards? Doom promised me the birds would be safe. He swore it!’
    ‘Doom cannot be everywhere,’ Lief said in a low voice, unclasping the Belt of Deltora. ‘And he has to sleep, like any mortal.’
    He knelt by the nearest living bird, and gently pressed the emerald to its breast. Instantly the bird’s piteous struggles ceased. It opened its eyes and clucked feebly.
    Jasmine made a small, choked sound. She fell to her knees and touched the bird’s head.
    ‘There, Blackwing,’ she crooned. ‘There …’
    Quietly Lief moved on to the next fluttering body. Briefly he remembered Paff, then pushed the thought from his mind. Paff was recovering without his aid. If she had anything to tell, it would have to wait.
    Half an hour later, the sun shone down on twelve occupied perches in the bird room. The dozen birds Lief had saved were ruffled and quiet, very aware of the empty spaces all around them.
    ‘Not one of them is strong enough to fly to Dread Mountain,’ Jasmine said in a low voice, as she and Lief stood watching the survivors.
    Kree squawked and flapped his wings.
    ‘No, Kree!’ she exclaimed. ‘You have just flown from Tora. You must—’
    Kree screeched, and snapped his beak. Clearly he was determined to go to Dread Mountain, whether Jasmine approved or not.
    Lief held out the folded paper. Kree plucked it neatly from his hand and held it fast.
    ‘Go and bid him farewell, Jasmine,’ Lief said gently. ‘I will not leave the birds until you return.’
    Jasmine took a deep breath, then nodded and left the room with Kree riding serenely on her arm.
    Lief pushed his hands deep into his pockets and began slowly pacing the room, kicking at the straw with the toes of his boots. Around him, the recovering birds crooned and clucked.
    He jumped violently as there was a noise behind him. He swung around, reaching for his sword, as the door of the room opened.
    Barda walked in, grim-faced. Close behind him was a stocky guard with a balding head and an anxious expression that sat oddly on his red, good-natured face. Lief recognised him as Dunn, Barda’s new deputy. A red mask hung around Dunn’s neck, as though he had only recently pulled it down.
    ‘Manus told us what had happened,’ Barda said grimly. ‘We have discovered Jarvis, the keeper of the birds, dead in his bed. The bird room guards have been found further down the hallway here. They have not a mark on them, but they, too, are dead.’
    ‘Zon and Delta crawled away seeking help, no doubt, sir, and died where they fell,’ Dunn mumbled.
    Barda’s lips tightened. ‘No doubt,’ he said curtly. ‘But that must have been well before dawn, for their bodies are already cold and stiffening. Why did you not discover before this that the bird room was unguarded?’
    Dunn’s red face deepened to dull scarlet. ‘I have been forced to abandon inspections in this area, sir,’ he said. ‘We are short-handed, sir, because of the Toran Plague. And the bird room is very out of the way.’
    ‘That,’ said Barda through gritted teeth, ‘is exactly why inspections are needed here, Dunn. And how many times do I have to tell you? There is no plague! Stop using the cursed word!’
    Dunn wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. ‘Indeed, you said there was no plague, only poison, sir,’ he muttered. ‘The guards on the city gates have been told, as you ordered, and all of us have removed our masks.’
    Unhappily he fingered the red cloth around his neck. ‘But Zon and Delta are dead, sir, just like Airlie and Wax, the men who were at the entrance door last night. And none of them were poisoned, I will take my oath on it.’
    He met Barda’s furious eyes, and glanced away quickly.
    ‘You left the strictest orders, sir, that no guard was to accept food or drink while on duty, for in the past guards have been given sleeping potions by enemies,’ he mumbled. ‘Zon and Delta were not the sort to disobey, and neither were Airlie and Wax. ‘
    ‘Nevertheless, somehow they all took poison,’ Barda said firmly. ‘Get that into your head, and make certain that the other men do the same.’
    Dunn’s ears were very red. Plainly he thought Barda was wrong. He blinked rapidly, but said nothing.
    Barda hesitated, then turned to Lief. ‘It is true, however,’ he said, looking directly into Lief’s eyes, ‘that those men were good soldiers. They would not have disobeyed my instruction unless … they had very good reason.’
    Lief understood what Barda was telling him. He understood only too well. But the thought was hateful to him. His mind did not want to accept it.
    Dunn was shifting from foot to foot.
    ‘Can I go now, sir?’ he asked nervously. ‘The men watching over Zon and Delta will be growing impatient, waiting for me.’
    ‘Be off, then,’ Barda sighed. ‘But Dunn, try to remember that you are my deputy now. Be considerate by all means, but do not fear the men’s displeasure or they will not respect you.’
    Dunn ducked his head and hurried towards the door, pulling out a large white handkerchief to mop his brow.
    ‘He will have to be replaced,’ Barda muttered under his breath. ‘He is far too anxious to be liked to make a good leader of the guards.’
    But Lief was not listening. He had darted forward and picked up something that had fallen from Dunn’s pocket when the man pulled out his handkerchief.
    It was a folded yellow paper. Lief unfolded it and his stomach turned over.
    ‘Dunn!’ he shouted. ‘Where did you get this?’

    9 - The Yellow Notice
    Dunn stiffened and turned reluctantly. When he saw the yellow paper in Lief’s hand, his own hand flew guiltily to his pocket and his blue eyes widened.
    ‘Th—There was a whole pile of them on the table in our eating quarters this morning,’ he stammered. ‘I did not think there was any harm in taking one.’
    ‘There was no harm in taking one,’ Lief said, making a tremendous effort to keep his voice level. ‘No harm in reading it, either. There would only be harm in believing what it says. It is all lies, Dunn.’
    ‘If you say so, your majesty,’ said Dunn. But he did not meet Lief’s eyes.
    ‘Is that the Toran Plague rubbish we saw pinned all about the city when we arrived?’ Barda exclaimed, glaring at Dunn.
    ‘No, this is something new,’ Lief said. ‘Very well, Dunn. You may go.’
    Gratefully, Dunn escaped from the room, and they heard him almost running down the hallway.
    Lief held the yellow paper out to Barda. ‘You had better read this,’ he said grimly.