Либрусек (книги fb2)
The Golden Door
1. The Brothers
2. The Challenge
3. The Parting
6. The Keep
7. The Chamber of the Doors
8. The Fell Zone
10. The Fellan
11. Under the Stars
12. Nine Powers
13. The Kindness of Strangers
14. The Road to Oltan
16. The Gifters
17. The Capture
18. City of Nightmare
19. The Flying Fish
20. The Fortress
21. The Chieftain
22. Midsummer Eve
23. Dark Waters
24. The Rock
25. Now or Never
Sneak Peek of The Silver Door
About the Author
It was the season for skimmers, and this year more skimmers than ever were coming over the Wall of Weld.
From dusk till dawn, the beasts flapped down through the cloud that shrouded the top of the Wall. They showered on the dark city like giant, pale falling leaves, leathery wings rasping, white eyes gleaming, needle teeth glinting in the dark.
The skimmers came for food. They came to feast on the warm-blooded creatures, animal and human, that lived within the Wall of Weld.
On the orders of the Warden, the usual safety notices had been put up all over the city. Few people bothered to read them, because they were always the same. But this year, in Southwall, where Lisbeth the beekeeper lived with her three sons, they had been covered with disrespectful scrawls.
No one knew who was writing on the notices — or so the people of Southwall claimed when the Keep soldiers questioned them. Like everyone else in Weld, the Southwall citizens were very law-abiding. Most would never have dreamed of damaging one of the Warden’s notices themselves. But many secretly agreed with the person who had done so.
Rye, the youngest of Lisbeth’s sons, had the half-thrilled, half-fearful suspicion that his eldest brother, Dirk, might be responsible.
Dirk worked on the Wall as his father had done, repairing and thickening Weld’s ancient defense against the barbarians on the coast of the island of Dorne. Brave, strong, and usually good-natured, Dirk had become increasingly angry about the Warden’s failure to protect Weld from the skimmer attacks.
Sholto, the middle brother, thin, cautious, and clever, said little, but Rye knew he agreed with Dirk. Sholto worked for Tallus, the Southwall healer, learning how to mend broken bones and mix potions. The soldiers had questioned him when they had come to the healer’s house seeking information. Rye had overheard him telling Dirk about it.
“Do not worry,” Sholto had drawled when Dirk asked him anxiously what he had said in answer to the questions. “If I cannot bamboozle those fancily dressed oafs, I am not the man you think I am.”
And Dirk had clapped him on the shoulder and shouted with laughter.
Rye hoped fervently that the soldiers would not question him, and to his relief, so far they had not. Rye was still at school, and no doubt the soldiers thought he was too young to know anything of importance.
As the clouded sky dimmed above them, and the Wall darkened around their city, the people of Weld closed their shutters and barred their doors.
Those who still followed the old magic ways sprinkled salt on their doorsteps and window ledges and chanted the protective spells of their ancestors. Those who no longer believed in such things merely stuffed rags and straw into the chinks in their mud-brick walls, and hoped for the best.
Lisbeth’s family did all these things, and more.
Lisbeth sprinkled the salt and murmured the magic words. Dirk, tall and fair, followed her around the house, fastening all the locks. Dark, lean Sholto trailed them like a shadow, pressing rags soaked in the skimmer repellent he had invented into the gaps between the shutters and the crack beneath the door.
And Rye, red-haired and eager, watched them all as he did his own humble duty, clearing the table of Sholto’s books and setting out the cold, plain food that was always eaten at night in skimmer season.
Later, in dimness, the three brothers and their mother huddled around the table, talking in whispers, listening to the hateful, dry rustling of the skimmers’ wings outside.
“Folk at the market were saying that there was a riot in Northwall this morning,” Lisbeth murmured. “They said that the Warden’s signs were set on fire, and the crowd fought with the soldiers who tried to stop the damage. Can this be true? Citizens of Weld acting like barbarians?”
“It is true enough,” Sholto said, pressing a hardboiled duck egg against his plate to crack the pale blue shell as noiselessly as he could. “Skimmers killed three families in Northwall last night. It is only the first riot of many, I fear. When people are afraid, they do not think before they act.”
Dirk snorted. “They are sick of the Warden’s excuses. And they are right. Everyone on the Wall was talking of it today.”
“And you most of all, Dirk, I imagine,” said Sholto drily.
Dirk’s eyes flashed. “Why not? It is obvious to everyone that a new leader must have risen among the barbarians — a warlord determined to conquer Weld at last. Every year, more skimmers come. Every year, we lose more food and more lives, and work on the Wall falls further behind. The Enemy is weakening us, little by little.”
“We do not know there is an Enemy, Dirk,” Sholto muttered. “For all we know, the skimmers come here of their own accord. For skimmers, Weld may be nothing but a giant feeding bowl, in which tender prey are conveniently trapped.”
Rye’s stomach turned over.
“Sholto!” Lisbeth scolded. “Do not say such things! Especially in front of Rye!”
“Why not in front of me?” Rye demanded stoutly, though the bread in his mouth seemed to have turned to dust. “I am not a baby!”
Sholto shrugged, carefully picking the last scrap of shell from his egg.
“We might as well face the truth,” he said calmly. “A wall that cannot be climbed, and which has no gates, is all very well when it keeps dangers out. But it works two ways. It also makes prisoners of those who are inside it.”
He bit into the egg and chewed somberly.
“The skimmers are being deliberately bred and sent!” Dirk insisted. “If they were natural to Dorne, they would have been flying over the Wall from the beginning. But the attacks began only five years ago!”
Sholto merely raised one eyebrow and took another bite.
Dirk shook his head in frustration. “Ah, what does it matter anyway?” he said, pushing his plate away as if he had suddenly lost his appetite. “What does it matter why the skimmers invade? They do invade — that is the important thing! Weld is under attack. And the Warden does nothing!”
“His soldiers fill the skimmer poison traps,” Lisbeth murmured, anxious to restore peace at the table. “He has said that orphaned children can be cared for at the Keep. And he has at last agreed that the end-of-work bell should be rung an hour earlier, so people can arrive home well before —”
“At last!” Dirk broke in impatiently. “That is the point, Mother! The Warden has taken years to do things that a good leader would have done at once! If the Warden had not delayed cutting the hours of work, Father would not have been on the Wall at sunset in the third skimmer season. He would still be with us now!”
“Don’t, Dirk!” whispered Rye, seeing his mother bowing her head and biting her lip.
“I have to speak of it, Rye,” said Dirk, his voice rising. “Our father was just one of hundreds of Wall workers who fell prey to skimmers because of the Warden’s dithering!”
“Hush!” Sholto warned, raising his eyes to the ceiling to remind his brother of the skimmers flying above. And Dirk fell silent, pressing his lips together and clenching his fists.
Like all the other citizens of Weld in skimmer season, Lisbeth and her sons went to bed early. What else was there to do, when sound was dangerous and the smallest chink of light might lead to a skimmer attack?
Rye lay in the room he shared with his brothers, listening to the rush of wings outside the shutters, the occasional scrabbling of claws on the roof.
He prayed that the wings would pass them by. He prayed that he, his mother, and his brothers would not wake, like those ill-fated families in Northwall, to find skimmers filling the house, and death only moments away.
He crossed his fingers, then crossed his wrists, in the age-old Weld gesture that was supposed to ward off evil. He closed his eyes and tried to relax, but he knew that sleep would not come easily. The closely shuttered room was stuffy and far too warm. Sholto’s words at the dinner table kept echoing in his mind.
Weld may be nothing but a giant feeding bowl, in which tender prey are conveniently trapped….
From Rye’s earliest years, he had been told that inside the Wall of Weld there was safety, as long as the laws laid down by the Warden were obeyed.
Certainly, the laws were many. Sometimes even Rye had complained that they were too many.
He had nodded vigorously when Sholto had sneered that the citizens of Weld were treated like children too young to decide for themselves what was dangerous and what was not.
He had laughed when Dirk had made fun of the Warden’s latest notices: Citizens of Weld! Dress warmly in winter to avoid colds and chills. Children of Weld! Play wisely! Rough games lead to broken bones….
But at least he had felt safe — safe within the Wall.
Lying very still, his wrists crossed rigidly on his chest, Rye thought about that. He thought about Weld, and its Wall. Thought about the history he had learned and taken for granted. Thought, for the first time, about what that history meant.
Weld had existed for almost a thousand years, ever since its founder, the great sorcerer Dann, had fled with his followers from the savage barbarians and monstrous creatures that infested the coast of Dorne.
Turning his back on the sea, Dann had taken his people to a place where the barbarians dared not follow. He had led them through the dangerous, forbidden ring of land called the Fell Zone, to the secret center of the island. And there, within a towering Wall, he had created a place of peace, safety, and magic — the city of Weld.
After Dann’s time, the magic had slowly faded, but his Wall had remained. More than half of the city’s workers labored on it every day, repairing and strengthening it. Every rock and stone in Weld, except for the stones that formed the Warden’s Keep, had vanished into the Wall’s vast bulk centuries ago. The workers used bricks of mud and straw to mend and thicken it now.
And as the Wall had thickened, little by little, it had crept ever closer to the great trench at its base — the trench from which the clay for bricks was dug.
The trench now circled Weld in the Wall’s shadow like a deep, ugly scar. In the past, houses had been pulled down to make way for it. Soon, everyone knew, more would have to go.
The people did not complain. They knew that the Wall, and the Fell Zone beyond it, kept Weld safe. They had thought it always would.
Then the first skimmers had come. And now, after five years of invasions, it was clear to everyone that the days of safety were over.
The barbarians had at last found a way to attack Weld. Not by tunneling through the base of the Wall, as had always been feared, but by breeding creatures that could do what had once seemed impossible — brave the Wall’s great height and fly over it.
And we are trapped inside, Rye thought.
Tender prey …
“This room is stifling!” he heard Dirk mutter to Sholto in the darkness. “I cannot breathe! Sholto, this cannot go on! The Warden must act!”
“Perhaps he will,” Sholto whispered back. “The riot in Northwall must have shaken him. Tomorrow may bring some surprises.”
The following day was the day of rest in Weld, but Dirk was up and dressed before the waking bell. He told Lisbeth that he was going to the square to hear the latest news, but Rye was sure that his brother planned to meet his friends to discuss the Northwall riot. Perhaps they were hoping that the people of Southwall could also be roused to protest.
Sholto must have thought as Rye did, because as Dirk was leaving, he casually said that he would walk with him.
“I will come, too,” Rye said instantly.
He could see that Dirk and Sholto did not want his company, but he knew that they could not refuse to take him with them without raising Lisbeth’s suspicions.
The brothers left through the back garden, where the bees were already humming around the honey hedge, and the bell tree, heavy with ripening fruit, basked in the early morning sun.
Keeping well to the right, as Weld citizens always did, they began walking briskly through the maze of short, straight streets that led to the square.
Every street was just wide enough to allow two goat carts to pass one another. Every street was closely lined with identical houses — small, mud-brick houses like Lisbeth’s house, and every other house in Weld.
At this early hour, most people were still busily unsealing their doors and windows, and checking the crops in their tiny back gardens for skimmer damage. Most looked tired and strained after a night of little sleep, but as was the Weld way, they looked up from their work and exchanged friendly greetings with the young men as they passed by.
They all knew and admired Dirk. They all knew that Sholto would one day be the Southwall healer. And they all bought honey and bell fruit preserves from Lisbeth in the market.
Two of Dirk’s friends, Joliffe and Crell, were just leaving Joliffe’s home when the brothers reached it. It seemed they, too, were going to the square. By the way Joliffe and Crell glanced disapprovingly at him, Rye could tell he had been right about a planned meeting.
He hung back a little, and after a while, as he had hoped, the other four half-forgot he was there, and began to talk freely. Sure enough, the talk was all about the Northwall riot.
“The Northwall people were quite right,” Joliffe muttered as they passed a skimmer poison trap and skirted the few dead skimmers lying in their path. “The Warden is a pompous fool. Why should we put up with him?”
“His family has governed Weld since ancient times,” Crell said anxiously. “Ever since —”
“Ever since the Sorcerer Dann died, leaving Weld’s care to his friend, the first Warden of Weld …” Dirk chanted in a mocking, singsong voice.
“… who was great in magic, and so on and so on,” Joliffe finished for him impatiently. “We all know the story, Crell, you ninny! We have heard it a thousand times. But what of it?”
“What of it indeed?” Dirk snorted. “The first Warden was only appointed caretaker of Weld, Crell — caretaker, not king. There was no reason at all for the title to be passed on from father to son as it has been. If a drop of magic blood runs in the present Warden’s veins, I am a — a —”
“A Weld goat?” Joliffe suggested, raising his eyebrows, and Crell and Dirk laughed.
“The present Warden has no sons,” Sholto put in quietly. “He only has a daughter.”
He shrugged as his companions stared at him.
“People are strange and set in their ways,” he said. “Of course there is no reason why the Warden should not be female. But once the father-to-son tradition has been broken, people may listen to us when we call for change. If we bide our time, we may get what we want peacefully.”
“I never thought of that!” Crell exclaimed. He, at least, plainly found the idea of a peaceful solution very appealing.
Rye felt a rush of admiration for Sholto. Sholto was not easy and affectionate, like Dirk. He was sometimes impatient — even cold. Rye often suspected he preferred books to people. But he could be trusted to think things through, coolly and carefully.
Dirk shook his head. “You may be right, Sholto, but it would take too long. Weld needs change now if it is to survive, and the Warden has plenty of life in him yet.”
“Quite so,” said Joliffe with the trace of a sneer. “Fine plans for the future might suit those with their heads in the clouds, but we who are practical must deal with the present.”
Rye had noticed that Joliffe often made sly digs at Sholto. Perhaps, Rye thought, Joliffe was a little jealous of Dirk’s loyalty to his clever brother.
“Shh!” Crell hissed. “Soldiers!”
Sure enough, three figures in the crisp white tunics and red leggings worn by the soldiers of the Keep had rounded a corner just ahead and were marching toward them in single file. The heavy gold braid on the soldiers’ sleeves and shoulders glinted in the soft morning light. The white plumes on their helmets nodded and swayed.
Fancily dressed oafs … Sholto’s contemptuous words whispered in Rye’s mind, and for the first time in his life, he stared at Keep soldiers without respectful admiration.
“What business could soldiers have had in the square so early in the day?” Dirk muttered.
“They must have been expecting trouble,” said Joliffe, sounding gleeful.
Sholto shook his head. “If that were so, they would not have left so soon. And there would be more than three of them.”
Joliffe shot him an annoyed glance but said nothing.
The soldiers passed by, nodding politely, as Keep soldiers were trained to do to show they were no threat to law-abiding citizens.
Dirk, Sholto, Joliffe, and Crell returned the greetings casually. Rye muttered and ducked his head. Something unusual had happened; he was sure of it. He could feel the soldiers’ excitement — kept well under control but radiating from them like heat.
“Perhaps there was skimmer damage in the square overnight,” Crell said. “Maybe there have been more deaths!”
Everyone but Sholto crossed fingers and wrists.
But when they reached the square, they found that the soldiers’ errand had been something completely unexpected.
A large new notice had been fixed to the wall of the long, low meetinghouse that took up one side of the square. A small knot of people stood before the notice, chattering excitedly. Dirk, Joliffe, Crell, and Sholto ran to look, with Rye hurrying behind them.
Rye gaped at the notice, his head reeling.
All his life he had believed that the Wall of Weld was an unbroken circle, with no way in or out. He had never doubted it for a moment. It had been more than belief. It had been something he had known, as surely as he knew his own name. And now, suddenly …
“Ha!” Dirk breathed. “Sholto, do you see that? Do you see it?”
“I can read,” Sholto murmured. “So … old Tallus’s tale of the Sorcerer’s secret way through the Wall is true after all. Who would have believed it?”
Rye looked up at him and felt a chill.
Sholto looked quite calm — even slightly bored — but no one who knew him as well as Rye did could miss the fact that his dark, clever eyes were glowing as if lit by a flame from within.
Rye knew that Sholto was thinking of what he could learn beyond the Wall. He was imagining himself tracking the skimmers to their source in the Fell Zone, where he was sure they bred, and finding a way to destroy them.
The glow in Sholto’s eyes was the thirst for knowledge. And it was strong — strong enough to smother his natural caution.
Sholto is not yet eighteen, Rye told himself feverishly. I do not have to worry about him. He is too young to accept the Warden’s challenge.
But then he looked past Sholto to Dirk, and fear gripped his heart. Dirk, a head taller than Sholto and broader in the shoulders by far, was almost twenty. And Dirk was punching the air, his face alive with excitement.
“At last, Joliffe!” Dirk cried, clapping his friend on the back. “At last, a chance to do something to help ourselves! By the Wall, I cannot believe it!”
“Dirk, no!” Rye burst out. “You must not go!”
“Are you mad, Rye?” snapped Joliffe. “How can we turn our backs on an offer like this? Do you not see the prize for success? Did you not read the sign?”
“Did you?” Rye retorted angrily. “Did you not see that each volunteer must leave the city alone? How can one man defeat the Enemy who is sending the skimmers? It would take an army!”
Joliffe snorted. “Dirk, Crell, and I will join up outside the Wall, never fear.”
“And as for an army, Rye,” Dirk put in, “well, for once, the Warden is in the right. In a quest such as this, a small band, moving stealthily, is better than an army. It can find out the Enemy’s secrets and weaknesses without raising the Enemy’s fears.”
His eyes were shining. “Even one man could do it, if he was brave and determined enough. Look what the Sorcerer Dann did in ancient times! He saved his followers from the barbarians single-handed.”
“But that was then!” Rye burst out. “This is now! And the Sorcerer Dann had magic to aid him! Powerful magic! You have no magic, Dirk.”
“None of us do,” Crell said dismally. “Magic is dead in Weld, or so my grandmother says.”
“Magic is dead in Weld because it never existed in the first place,” Sholto drawled. “When will you people accept that the old tales are just that — old tales, that have no foundation in truth? Dann’s so-called ‘magic powers’ were simply a mixture of quick wits and good sense, with a few ingenious inventions thrown in.”
“Inventions like your famous skimmer repellent, no doubt.” Joliffe smirked, nudging Crell in the ribs.
“No doubt,” Sholto said, unruffled. “Ignorant people often call things magic when they do not understand them.”
Joliffe decided to ignore him. He puffed out his chest and stretched out his arms to embrace Dirk and Crell.
“So, comrades! Tomorrow we go to the Keep to volunteer! Agreed?”
“Agreed!” Dirk and Crell both shouted, though it seemed to Rye that Crell looked uneasy.
“Excellent!” Joliffe declared, rubbing his hands. “Now, I see that the tavern has opened. Let us go and drink to our success!”
Dirk hesitated, glanced at his brothers, then shook his head. “It is a little early for me,” he said.
Joliffe laughed. “Oh, of course,” he jeered. “Sholto and Rye are too young to enter the tavern. But surely they can find their own way home?”
“It is a little early for me,” Dirk repeated with a smile. And seeing that he would not be persuaded, Joliffe shrugged and made for the tavern himself, with Crell trotting by his side.
“Dirk, you cannot go beyond the Wall,” Rye whispered, the moment they were alone. “It is too dangerous! Think what Mother will say!”
Sholto looked disdainful. But Dirk ruffled his youngest brother’s hair affectionately.
“Of course I must go, Rye,” he said. “There is danger, yes, but nothing is more important than saving Weld — nothing! Besides, think what it will mean to us if I succeed!”
And think what it will mean to us if you never come back, Dirk, Rye could not help retorting in his mind, though he did not speak the words aloud, and felt disloyal even thinking them.
Surely, if anyone could find and destroy the Enemy of Weld, Dirk could. His strength and courage made him a natural leader. He had been made a Foreman after only two years on the Wall and, young as he was, he was respected by his men. How many times had Rye heard his mother say that their father would have been proud to see how closely his eldest son had followed in his footsteps?
“Our home and our people would be safe!” Dirk was rushing on. “And in time I would be Warden!”
“On condition that you marry the present Warden’s daughter,” Sholto reminded him drily. “Oh, our Warden may be a coward, terrified of new ideas, and slow to act. But he is cunning.”
“What do you mean?” asked Rye. He was so troubled that he was finding it hard to think clearly.
Sholto laughed shortly. “Why, do you not see it? By offering his daughter’s hand in marriage to the hero who becomes his heir, the Warden has ensured that his descendants will continue to rule Weld!”
“I admit that the Warden’s daughter is the fly in the honey,” Dirk said ruefully. “I have no wish to marry someone I have never seen. But perhaps it would not be so bad. Perhaps the Warden’s daughter is kind, clever, and beautiful!”
“Perhaps she is spiteful, stupid, and ugly!” Sholto smirked. “What then?”
Dirk laughed. “Then I will say that I will become the heir but will not take the daughter! If I come home triumphant, the Warden will not dare to refuse me.”
Again he ruffled Rye’s hair, his broad, handsome face alive with hope.
“Imagine it, Rye! Imagine if I was Warden of Weld! Think of the good we could do! Think of the changes we could make! How often have we talked of it?”
Rye felt hot, treacherous tears burning behind his eyes. “But that was only … talk!” he cried. “I never thought it was real!”
Dirk’s hand dropped from Rye’s head onto his shoulder.
“Then you did not understand, Rye,” he said soberly. “It was very real. Mother knows this. She will understand that I must go.”
And so it proved. The next morning, with his mother’s blessing, Dirk marched away from Southwall, his father’s skimmer hook over his shoulder and the cheers of his neighbors ringing in his ears. Joliffe, Crell, and a handful of other brave men went with him.
The volunteers were singing as they swung along the broad, straight road that led west to the Keep. Those they had left behind stood watching until they were out of sight.
“We should feel very proud,” said Lisbeth, putting her arm around Rye’s shoulders. “Dirk is doing what must be done, to save us all.”
But watching the small band of marchers disappearing into the distance, Rye felt only terrible fear, and an aching sense of loss.
A few days later, Crell slunk back into Southwall with a rag tied around his leg. He said he had hurt his ankle at the Keep, so had been forced to come home. He was certainly limping, sometimes more and sometimes less, but he refused to see Tallus the healer. Few believed in his injury, though no one said so aloud.
Shamed and sullen, Crell said little in answer to the townspeople’s eager questions. The Keep had been crowded with volunteers from every part of the city. The group from Northwall had been the largest and noisiest of all. Crell had lost sight of Dirk, Joliffe, and the others from Southwall. He had not been shown the secret way out of Weld.
He retreated to his home and stayed out of sight for days. His mother, who was Lisbeth’s friend, clearly felt disgraced. But Rye could see, deep in her shadowed eyes, a flicker of relief.
The house seemed very empty without Dirk. His cheerful whistling no longer brightened the early mornings. Dinners around the table were dull without his whispered talk, teasing, and laughter. And at night, Rye lay listening to the sounds of the skimmers with only the silent Sholto for company. Dirk’s empty, neatly made bed seemed to dominate the hot, still room.
Lisbeth and Sholto went on with their lives just as they had before Dirk left. Lisbeth tended her bees and sold the honey at her market stall. Sholto continued grinding powders and mixing potions for Tallus the healer, examining dead skimmers in Tallus’s workroom, and studying his books in every spare moment.
Rye did not understand how they could. He missed Dirk so much! He dreamed of him every night, and every morning woke to the misery of his brother’s absence. It was as if a great hole had been torn in his world, and it changed everything.
School lessons seemed pointless. Games seemed pointless. His friends talked constantly about the adventures Dirk, Joliffe, and the others must be having beyond the Wall. Their chatter seemed to rasp on Rye’s nerves like sandpaper, and he began to spend more time alone.
“You must have courage, Rye,” Lisbeth murmured to her youngest son when she found him moping in the shade of the bell tree one afternoon. “We all miss Dirk, my dear, but what must be, must be.”
Rye looked up into her face and saw how pale she was. He saw the shadows beneath her eyes, and a line between her brows that he had never noticed before. With a pang, he at last understood that Lisbeth was suffering even more than he was, but was bearing her pain bravely, for all their sakes.
He nodded and forced a smile, suddenly feeling much older.
“There will be news of Dirk very soon, I am sure of it,” his mother told him.
“I am sure of it, too,” Rye replied as firmly as he could.
But the weeks slipped by, and no news came.
The fruit on the bell tree ripened. Rye picked the juicy yellow bells, Lisbeth preserved them, and the pantry filled with jars of golden sweetness.
Usually, Lisbeth kept some jars for the family’s use, and took the rest to the market. This year, all the jars would have to be sold. Sholto earned very little from Tallus because he was still learning the healer’s art, and now that Dirk’s wages were no longer flowing in, the family needed every coin it could get.
The skimmers kept coming. More crops were lost, more beasts perished, and more people died.
Then, as the heat slowly became less, the attacks became fewer, and at last, stopped altogether. In Lisbeth’s garden, the leaves of the bell tree colored and fell, and the bare, pruned branches were stubby and stark against the white of the beehives.
And still Dirk did not return. Nor did any of the other men who had marched, singing, away from Southwall. Lisbeth’s eyes grew more shadowed. Sholto became more silent than ever.
The Warden’s notice remained on the wall of the meetinghouse in the square like a memorial to those who had gone, growing more faded with every passing day.
At last, the air began to warm once more, and the sun shone strongly in the misty skies of Weld. The bell tree sprouted and became a glorious umbrella of yellow blossoms, humming with bees. Then the blossoms fell to form a perfect golden circle on the ground and tiny green fruit began to form.
And as the fruit swelled and ripened, the skimmer invasions began again.
Just over a year after Dirk left, Rye and Sholto came home to find Lisbeth sitting in her chair by the fireplace, staring at the cold ashes in the grate.
Her hands were on her lap. In one, she held a gold brooch in the shape of a flower. The other clutched a small scroll. Tight-lipped, Sholto freed the scroll from her fingers. As he unrolled it, Rye pushed close so he, too, could read what was written upon it.
“Our precious Warden must have sent out many of these today,” Sholto muttered, looking down his nose at the scroll. “So many, indeed, that it would have taken too long for him to write each note individually. Most of this message was written for him. He has simply filled in the spaces and signed at the bottom!”
Lisbeth snatched the scroll back. With trembling fingers, she fastened the gold flower to the bodice of her plain brown dress.
“Dirk was a hero,” she said, her voice shaking. “He died like his father, doing what he thought was right. If you wish to sneer, Sholto, please sneer where I cannot hear you!”
Sholto turned away, his face expressionless. He began walking to the back of the house, where his supplies of skimmer repellent were kept.
“We had better begin locking up,” he said to Rye over his shoulder. “I will fetch the rags.”
Rye knelt by his mother’s chair and put his hand on her arm. A terrible ache was swelling in his throat and chest, but he made himself speak.
“Mother, Dirk may come back to us yet, whatever the Warden says,” he whispered, trying to make himself believe it. “He has been away a long time, but there is no proof that — that he is lost.”
Lisbeth covered his hand with one of hers. Her fingers were very cold. With the other hand, she fingered the delicate brooch pinned to her dress.
“And — and Sholto was not sneering at Dirk, Mother,” Rye rushed on. “He was just … trying to shut out the pain.”
He had not planned what he was going to say, but as the words left his mouth, he knew that they were true.
“Yes,” Lisbeth murmured through dry lips. “I should not have spoken to poor Sholto so. But … oh, Dirk, my tall, laughing Dirk! My firstborn! How can I bear it?”
She began to weep bitterly. Rye stayed crouched beside her for a while, but at last, he crept away to help Sholto seal the shutters. By the time they had finished, Lisbeth had gone to her room.
As the sun went down, Sholto and Rye ate in silence.
No one sprinkled the salt before we sealed the house, Rye thought. No one chanted the spells of protection.
But he said nothing aloud. He knew that Sholto would scoff at the idea that magic did anything that the skimmer repellent did not do a hundred times better.
That night, Rye lay awake for many hours. He thought that Sholto did, too, though there was no sound at all from Sholto’s bed.
He was just drifting into an uneasy doze when he was jolted awake. Distant crashes and screams were mingling with the muffled beats of the skimmers’ wings. He gasped and sat up, his heart pounding.
“Be still, Rye!” he heard Sholto hiss in the darkness. “They are not attacking us. But it is somewhere very near.”
Rye sat rigidly, blinking in the dark, trying to resist the ghastly images of what must be happening just a few streets away.
After a few long minutes, the awful screams abruptly ceased. But the dry rasping of the skimmers’ wings went on and on and on….
In the morning, when Rye and Sholto went out together to hear the news, they found the streets of Southwall seething with a tale of horror. The mother, father, sister, and grandmother of Dirk’s friend Joliffe were all dead.
A back window of the family’s home had been found yawning open, each of its shutters ferociously clawed and dangling from one twisted hinge. Five dead skimmers lay among the ravaged bones in the main bedroom, showing how valiantly Joliffe’s parents had fought for their lives, and the lives of the others in the house.
The neighbors had heard it all and were numb with shock. They were also plainly filled with shame because they had not tried to save the doomed family, though no one blamed them for a moment. Everyone knew that to open one’s doors when skimmers were overhead meant certain death.
The neighbors said that on the day of the tragedy Joliffe’s parents had received a letter from the Warden. The letter, enclosing a gold badge in the shape of a flower, had declared that Joliffe was now officially believed to be dead.
Joliffe’s parents had never lost hope until that moment. Who could wonder that the family, distracted by grief, had failed to seal the shutters properly, so that the hunting skimmers found a gap through which to attack?
We would have suffered the same fate if it had not been for Sholto, Rye thought, glancing at his stony-faced brother. It was Sholto who thought to seal our doors and windows last night. It was Sholto who put aside his grief to do what had to be done. It is because of him that he, Mother, and I are alive today.
But he knew better than to try to thank or praise Sholto for what he had done.
Sholto was filled with rage. Rye could feel it. Not a muscle of Sholto’s face moved, but Rye knew that his mind was burning with thoughts of Dirk, his lost brother; of Joliffe, though Joliffe had never liked him; of Joliffe’s family, horribly dead.
“This must stop,” Sholto muttered as he and Rye turned for home. “There must be a way.”
Rye knew that he required no answer. He was speaking not to Rye, but to himself.
So Rye was grieved but not wholly surprised when, the next morning, he woke to find Sholto’s bed empty and a letter for Lisbeth lying on the table in the living room.
Rye stared at the note — at one line in particular.
As you will remember, I turned eighteen two weeks ago.
Sholto had turned eighteen! But there had been no party, with all the neighbors invited in to feast and celebrate, as there had been for Dirk when he came of age. In the fear for Dirk’s fate, and at the height of skimmer season, Sholto’s eighteenth birthday had passed almost unnoticed.
Except by Sholto himself, Rye thought.
The note seemed so cold. It said nothing of love, or regret at parting. For a moment, Rye was tempted to tear it up and throw the scraps into the cooking fire.
But of course he could not do that. The note was for Lisbeth, and Lisbeth had to read it.
He heard a sound behind him, and turned. His mother was standing in the doorway of her room, a shawl thrown over her nightgown, a long braid hanging down her back. Her tired eyes searched Rye’s face, then fell to the note in his hand.
“Sholto …” Rye managed to say.
He went to his mother and awkwardly held out the paper, but Lisbeth made no attempt to take it.
“He has gone, then,” she said dully.
Stunned, Rye nodded.
“I knew it would be so,” said Lisbeth. “But I had hoped it would not be so soon. Ah, Sholto …”
“They may not let him go, Mother,” Rye burst out, desperate to comfort her. “Sholto can fight in his way, but he is not very strong. They may send him home again, like Crell.”
To his surprise, the corners of Lisbeth’s mouth curved in a wry half smile. “Sholto is not Crell,” she said. “Sholto wants to go. And he will get what he wants, by trickery if he has to. It has always been the same, from the time he was a tiny child.”
She sighed. Her eyes were far away. “So quiet, he was, my dark, determined little Sholto. But in his way, he was more of a handful than Dirk. At least I always knew where Dirk was. He made noise enough for two children and could not keep still for a moment. But Sholto …”
The smile faded, and for the first time, her lips trembled.
“Sholto will get what he wants,” she repeated. “By fair means or foul, he will go beyond the Wall.”
It was strange, Rye thought, that the house seemed so silent without Sholto. Sholto had said so little. Yet somehow, now he had gone, the very walls seemed to echo, as if they missed his calm, watchful presence.
At night, Rye now dreamed of Sholto as well as Dirk. The faces of both his brothers loomed at him out of the darkness, first one and then the other. Sometimes their mouths moved, but he could not hear their voices because of a rhythmic, pounding sound that echoed through every dream like a gigantic drum.
The bell tree marked the changing of the seasons, and Sholto did not return. At school, Rye’s friends no longer bothered to ask him to join their games. They knew he would refuse.
Rye spent his lunch hours reading. He had begun borrowing history books from the book room, hoping to learn something — anything — about the land outside the Wall, the land that had swallowed his brothers.
But he found very few facts that he did not already know. The story of Dann was like a fable, told always in the same way and with very little detail. It was as if all history had begun when Weld was made, and everything before that was darkness.
The only maps of Dorne that Rye could find were all exactly the same as the one that hung on the wall of the Southwall schoolroom, beside the Warden’s portrait. Rye could probably have drawn this map by heart, having stared at it so often during boring lessons. But still he spent one lunch hour copying it carefully.
He carried the scrap of paper home with the sour feeling that he had been wasting his time. But the following morning, he woke early and looked again at the map he had drawn.
As Rye stared at the map, really seeing it for the first time, his heart sank. He understood why the Warden had been so sure that Dirk, Joliffe, and the other volunteers were no more.
None of the volunteers could have simply lost his way home. Weld dominated the island. Its wall had to be visible from every part of Dorne.
I must accept it, Rye thought fiercely. Dirk is dead. And by now, Sholto is probably dead, too.
But he could not accept it. And as he ran his finger over the map, tracing imaginary paths from the Keep of Weld to the sea, he felt a growing certainty that Dirk and Sholto were alive — alive somewhere beyond the Wall.
Rye knew that he would not be able to explain this feeling to anyone, even Lisbeth. There was no logic to it, no sense. But it persisted, burning in the center of his being like a small stubborn flame that would not go out.
Skimmer season arrived again, more terrifying than ever before. The beasts flew over Weld in such numbers that the walls and roofs of the dark, sealed houses seemed to vibrate with the sound of their passing. It was very hot, and there were wild tales of folk who had run mad in their stifling rooms, throwing open their windows and taking great gulps of night air before skimmers overwhelmed them.
As Sholto had predicted, attacks became more frequent in Southwall, especially in the streets near Joliffe’s home. Deaths were now so commonplace that they were barely noted except by those close to the people who had been lost.
The Warden’s skimmer warning signs had gone up on every corner as usual, but no one touched them. The citizens of Southwall had lost the taste for protest, it seemed.
“And there have been no more riots, in Northwall or anywhere else,” Lisbeth said one evening when the house had been sealed as tightly as a jar of bell fruit preserves, and she and Rye had sat down to eat. “That is something to be grateful for, at least.”
Rye nodded absently. That afternoon, he had counted the buckets of skimmer repellent remaining in the storeroom. He thought there was enough repellent left to last until the end of the present season. But what of the next?
Sholto will be back before then, he told himself.
But a few days later, he came home from school to find Lisbeth wearing two gold flower badges instead of one. Lying on the table was the scroll bearing the Warden’s seal and declaring that Sholto was officially regarded as lost.
“Do not believe it, Mother!” Rye cried fiercely. “Sholto is not dead! And neither is Dirk!”
Perhaps Lisbeth had wept when the Warden’s letter first arrived, but she was tearless now. She shook her head and turned away.
“Stop hoping, Rye,” she said. “We have our home, and we have each other. Let that be enough.”
That night, Rye dreamed more vividly than ever.
He saw Dirk crawling through a dark, narrow space, his face blackened and running with sweat. He saw Sholto sitting in what appeared to be a cave, writing furiously in a notebook. He saw vast, scaled bodies beating water to foam. He saw monstrous feathered shadows flying through cloud. He saw the trunks of trees melting into the shapes of men and women with hair that flew around their heads like flames.
And rising above the rhythmic pounding sound that he had learned to expect, there were harsh cries and the deep, vibrating music of a vast bell or gong.
He woke, shaking, in the darkness and stayed awake till dawn. It was far better to lie listening to the skimmers than to risk dreaming again.
He left home at his usual time, but he did not go to school. Instead, obeying an impulse he could not really explain, he went to the house of Tallus the healer.
No patients were waiting. A scrappy note had been pinned to the door of the healer’s office.
Rye ventured down the hallway and hesitated outside the workroom door.
He had not seen Tallus face-to-face since, as a small child, he had fallen from Dirk’s back and dislocated his shoulder. He had never forgotten the experience.
“See this, young Rye?” Tallus had barked, pulling at the fluff of white hair that ringed his bald scalp. “Once it was as red as yours. Can you believe that?”
Openmouthed, Rye had shaken his head, for a moment quite forgetting the pain in his shoulder.
“Red hair means luck, they say,” Tallus had said. “Luck — and other things.”
For some reason, he had then glanced at Rye’s mother, who had looked worried and shaken her head, very slightly.
“But white hairs,” Tallus had gone on smoothly, “mean old age. And as you can see, I am very old indeed. If you can count the red hairs I have left on my head, you will know how many years I have to live. Will you do that for me? I should like to know.”
And while Rye, fascinated, was trying to find even one red hair in that mass of white, the healer had made a quick movement, and suddenly the arm that had been twisted out of shape was straight again, and the pain had gone.
Remembering, Rye smiled, and knocked at the door.
“What is it?” a gruff voice shouted.
“It is Rye, Sholto’s brother, Healer Tallus!” Rye called. “I need to speak to you … if you please.”
“Oh, very well,” the voice replied ungraciously. “Come in.”
Rye opened the door. He saw a large room lined with shelves of labeled jars. Pots bubbled on the stove in one corner. The room was filled with steam and reeked of skimmers.
Tallus, a small, crabbed figure wrapped in a stained white apron and wearing thick eyeglasses, was standing at a bench vigorously sharpening a thin-bladed knife.
“Shut that door!” he yelled, swinging around and brandishing the knife. “Do you want to stink the whole house out?”
Rye made haste to do as he was told, took two steps through the billowing steam, and stopped dead.
A dead skimmer, the largest he had ever seen, lay on a long table in the center of the room. Foam clotted its snarling jaws and ratlike snout. Its eyes were open, glazed in death so they looked like chips of white china. Its body, covered in pale, velvety fuzz, was as big as the body of a half-grown goat. Its leathery wings, spread wide and pinned flat, covered the table from end to end.
“Yes, they are larger this year,” Tallus said, seeing his visitor’s eyes widen. “And this one is still quite young, by the looks of the wings, which tend to become ragged with age. See how strong the spurs have become, too!”
He limped to the table and with the point of the knife he lifted one of the spines that jutted from the monster’s legs, just above the razor-sharp claws. The spur was half as long as the knife blade and twice as broad.
“The eyes,” Rye murmured, gazing in fascination at the skimmer’s blind white stare. “I have never seen them open before. I did not realize they were so —”
“Yes, this is a perfect specimen!” said Tallus, looking down at the skimmer with satisfaction. “Almost undamaged and very fresh. I found it only this morning in the water trap your brother made for me. A clever piece of work, that trap. You simply float spoiled goat meat in a tank of water, and —”
“Sholto has been declared lost,” Rye blurted out, and to his horror, he felt sudden tears burning behind his eyes and heard his voice quaver.
“Indeed?” Tallus murmured absently, moving the knifepoint to a swelling beside the skimmer’s spur and probing gently. “Has he been away a year already? Bless me, where has the time gone?”
Rye bit back a furious retort. What sort of master was Tallus, to encourage Sholto to go into danger and then care so little about what happened to him?
He took a deep breath to calm himself and was relieved to find that his anger had driven away the threatened tears. The blood rushed into his face as he realized that perhaps this was exactly what Tallus had intended.
“There, you see that?” Tallus said, adjusting his eyeglasses and nodding down at the skimmer.
Rye looked and saw the dribble of pale green fluid oozing from the swelling beneath the knifepoint.
“These spur venom pouches are at least twice the size of those I have seen on other young skimmers,” said Tallus. “That proves what I have been saying for years. As a species, skimmers adapt very quickly to conditions.”
“What … conditions?” Rye asked weakly.
“Why, a reliable source of nourishing prey!” Tallus exclaimed. “Prey that fights back, but which can be paralyzed almost instantly by skimmer venom.”
“By ‘nourishing prey’ you mean us, I suppose,” said Rye, feeling sick.
“Certainly!” cried Tallus. “Venom has become an important weapon for skimmers who prey on us. So, if my theory is correct, more and more young with large venom pouches will be born over the next few years.”
He straightened and wiped his knife blade on his apron.
“Sholto and I think that whatever creatures the skimmers fed on before they discovered us were slower and more defenseless than we are, so rarely had to be paralyzed before being consumed,” he went on enthusiastically. “Sholto goes so far as to suggest that the previous prey might have been a species of turtle because of the powerful grinding back teeth we observed in all the early skimmer specimens. Such teeth would be ideal for reducing hard shell to powder, you know.”
Rye nodded again, feeling sicker than ever.
“Well, we shall soon know the truth of it,” Tallus said confidently. “Sholto will certainly have settled the question by the time he returns.”
Rye’s heart gave a great thud.
“Healer Tallus!” he gasped. “You believe that Sholto is still alive?”
“Why, of course!” exclaimed the old man, gazing at him in astonishment. “Do you not think so?”
“Yes, I do,” Rye said breathlessly. “But the Warden —”
“Oh, the Warden!” Tallus flapped his hands contemptuously, the knifepoint missing Rye’s arm by a hairbreadth.
“I — I am sure that Dirk — my other brother — is still alive, too,” Rye stammered. “I do not know why I am so certain, but …”
“I daresay you can feel it, if you were fond of him,” the healer said vaguely, his eyes straying back to the skimmer on the table. “You and I are two of a kind. I knew it the first moment I saw you years ago. Sholto jeers at the idea, of course. Poor Sholto believes in nothing he cannot see.”
He tore his eyes away from the skimmer and looked back at Rye. “So — both your brothers are out there, beyond the Wall. And you plan to go and find them. Is that it?”
Rye’s breath caught in his throat. He gaped at the healer, unable to speak.
“If you have come to ask my opinion, I believe it is an excellent idea,” Tallus said, nodding vigorously. “I had not realized how you had grown, or I would have come to you to suggest it. I thought of going after Sholto myself, of course, but I hesitated to leave Southwall without a healer. Not to mention that it is unlikely a limping old man could do a pinch of good out there in the wilds.”
He clapped Rye on the shoulder. “But you, my boy, are a different matter. Go, with all speed! My thoughts will be with you.”
Rye swallowed and found his voice. “No! Healer Tallus, that is not why I came. I cannot go beyond the Wall! I am too young. And even if I were of age, I could not leave Mother alone.”
Tallus’s eyebrows shot up, and his mouth turned down at the corners.
“Indeed!” he growled. “Then why are you here?”
“I — I need to make more skimmer repellent,” Rye stammered. “So we have supplies for next season. I have Sholto’s recipe, but the ingredients —”
“Nonsense!” Tallus snapped, shaking his head irritably. “You could have come on the day of rest to ask me about that! Why hurry here today?”
Rye wet his lips. “I — I felt I could not wait,” he said feebly.
“Exactly!” Tallus cried. “You were drawn here because something in you knew I would understand you. Face it, boy! Stop deceiving yourself!”
“Healer Tallus, I cannot go beyond the Wall!” Rye almost shouted. “They would not let me!”
Tallus grinned at him, put down his knife, and drew on heavy gloves.
“Go and find your brothers, young Rye,” he said, picking up the knife again and bending over the skimmer. “You are young and strong, and your hair is as red as ever. You are just the man for the task. And it is what you want, even if you do not know it.”
“I think you should go quite soon,” the old man went on without looking up. “Dirk and Sholto are alive for now, but plainly they are in danger. The very fact that you have come to me today is proof of that. Now be off with you!”
His mind in turmoil, Rye escaped from the evil-smelling room and ran from the house.
Fate is strange, and our destinies can be shaped by very small decisions. If Rye had simply run home by the shortest way after leaving the healer’s house, the whole course of his life might have been very different. Possibly, as time passed, he would have been able to push Tallus’s disturbing words to the back of his mind and continue as before.
But he did not go home by the shortest way. Instead, upset and confused, he obeyed a sudden impulse to go home the long way, along the path beside the Wall trench.
Turning down the side road that led to the Wall path, passing houses reduced to rubble by skimmers, Rye told himself that it was sensible to avoid streets that by now would be thronged with people who would wonder why he was not at school.
But as he reached the path itself, and the Wall loomed before him, rising sheer into the clouds from the cavernous trench, he faced the truth. The Wall itself had drawn him.
The Wall of Weld had always been part of Rye’s life, yet now he gazed at it as if he had never seen it before. He stared, transfixed, at the workers swarming over the scaffold that crisscrossed the lower sections of the smooth, mud-brick surface.
They reminded him of bees crawling over a frame in one of Lisbeth’s beehives. They were so many that it was hard to see exactly what each one was doing. But each, Rye knew, had a special task and did it diligently, for the sake of Weld.
For the sake of the hive, Rye thought. And he stopped and looked back the way he had come, past the ruins of the side street, toward the row upon row of small, identical houses that stretched away from the trench as far as the eye could see.
He imagined the thousands of dutiful citizens working in and around those little houses, cleaning, mending, making, building, gathering food, caring for their young, without a thought of what might lie beyond their Wall. And again he thought of bees.
Then a faint sound broke through his thoughts. It was a tiny, piteous bleat — the sound of a very young creature in trouble.
If Rye had not been standing still, thinking about bees, he might have missed hearing the sound.
But he did hear it. And Rye was not one who could ignore the cry of a creature in distress.
So it was that he went searching. And so it was that at last he found, in a hole covered by a heap of rubble in one of the ruined houses, a baby goat. Somehow this baby alone had survived a skimmer attack that had wiped out its owners and its family. The stinking goat bones that lay scattered among the shattered bricks showed only too plainly what had happened to its mother and father.
When Rye had pulled away the rubble and lifted the little creature free, it bleated, and butted feebly at his chest. It had clearly been trapped for many days. It was very weak and almost dead of hunger and thirst.
The need to save it drove everything else from Rye’s mind. He found an old washing basket among the ruins and put the goat gently inside it. Then, clutching his burden, he made for home.
The goat was small, but Rye’s arms were aching by the time he pushed through the gate into his own back garden.
The bees were humming around their hives, and the bell tree’s lowest branches hung almost to the ground, weighed down by ripening fruit. Gratefully, Rye left the basket in the shade of the tree and let himself into the deserted house. Weld doors were never locked in the daytime. A locked door was, in fact, a shameful thing, because it was a sign that the householders had secrets to keep or did not trust their neighbors.
It took no time at all for Rye to warm some goat’s milk. It took much longer to coax the little goat to suck the milk, first from his fingers and then from a clean rag dipped into the bowl.
Only when all the milk was gone and the little animal had fallen asleep in its basket did Rye realize how tired he was. He left the basket where it was and went into the house.
The citizens of Weld did not sleep in the daytime unless they were very young, very old, or suffering from an illness, but Rye had had an almost sleepless night and an exhausting morning. The house was empty. There was no one to see what he did.
The urge to lie down on his bed was too strong to resist. He planned to close his eyes for just a little time, but the moment his head touched the pillow, he fell deeply asleep. And he did not wake.
If that day had been a day like any other, Lisbeth would have returned home from the square in the early afternoon. In skimmer season, most shoppers bought what they needed in the mornings. The afternoons were very slow, and most of the stallholders left the square not long after lunch.
But on this particular day, after she had closed her stall, Lisbeth decided to go and visit Crell’s mother, Ritta, before going home.
Why she did this, she could not afterward tell. Perhaps it was because she now wore two gold brooches, instead of one. Perhaps it was because she wanted to urge Ritta to rejoice that her son was safe, instead of feeling shamed because he had come creeping home. Perhaps she simply wanted to lose herself for a time in bittersweet memories of the days when Ritta’s husband and hers worked together on the Wall, when Dirk, Sholto, Crell, and Joliffe were schoolboys together, and when life was safe and unchanging.
Whatever the cause, she spent a long time drinking tea and talking to Ritta. She only realized how much time had slipped by when the end-of-work bell sounded. So it was that she hurried home very late, as the light began to fade. So it was that she burst through the front door very flurried, shouting for Rye, calling that they must seal the house quickly, quickly!
And Rye, woken with a shock from a sleep fathoms deep, leaped from his bed and ran to help her, still half caught in a vivid dream of Dirk peering down into a dark pit of stone.
He worked automatically, doing what he had done so often. His head felt as if it were stuffed with rags, but his hands knew what to do.
The house was secured just in time. His heart thudding, his hands stinking of skimmer repellent, Rye sank down at the table. Even now, the last shreds of his dream clouded his mind like spiderweb.
Only when the first flapping sounds of the skimmers began did he remember the baby goat in its basket beneath the bell tree.
With a thrill of horror, he heard a high, terrified bleating begin in the back garden.
“What is that?” Lisbeth hissed, turning from the fireplace. “What —?”
She froze as the sounds above the house abruptly ceased. It was as if the skimmers had suddenly paused in midair. There was a split second of silence pierced by another single plaintive bleat. And then there was a mighty flapping rush, and the awful sound of branches splintering under a great weight.
The little goat’s cries stopped almost at once. But having tasted blood, the skimmers began searching for more. In terror, Rye and Lisbeth clung together as claws raked the shutters of the little house, and bodies thudded like giant fists against the door.
The locks held. The rags soaked in skimmer repellent sealed every gap. Try as they might, the skimmers could not enter the house. But their frenzy became no less, and outside, in the garden, the sounds of tearing and smashing went on, and on, and on.
In the morning, Rye and Lisbeth opened their door on ruin. The bell tree was nothing but a jagged stump. Torn branches, the bright leaves already limp and fading, lay on the ground in a litter of gnawed golden fruit and fragile goat bones, picked clean.
The beehives had been reduced to splinters. A few bees that had survived the attack crawled aimlessly among the broken roots of the shredded honey hedge. Rye knew they would soon die. They could not live without their hive.
A burning lump rose in his throat. He wanted to cover his eyes, to block out the terrible sight. But he made himself look. He had to look.
He had done this. He had brought the poor, doomed little goat home. He had left it, forgotten, under the bell tree, to cry out and attract the skimmers.
He would have given anything — anything — to turn back the clock. But what was done could not be undone.
Hardly knowing what he was doing, he began trying to move a branch that was blocking the path to the back gate.
“Leave it, Rye,” Lisbeth said quietly.
She went back into the house. When Rye followed her, he saw that she was calmly making tea.
He could not speak to her. Over and over again, during the long night, he had said that he was sorry. There was no point in saying it all again. Yet what else did he have to say?
Lisbeth poured tea into two cups and set them on the table. Then she sat down, glanced at Rye, and patted the bench beside her, inviting him to join her.
“Rye, you are not to blame yourself anymore for this,” she said. “Your warm heart led you to it, and your warm heart is what I love in you.”
“I should not have slept,” Rye whispered. “I should not have forgotten. Dirk would not have forgotten. Sholto would not.”
“Perhaps.” His mother’s lips tightened. “But Dirk and Sholto are not here. Since they … went away, you have shouldered burdens that a boy your age should not have had to bear. You have shouldered them bravely, Rye. We have managed, alone together here, though we have had little enough. But now …”
For the first time, her voice trembled. She cleared her throat impatiently and went on.
“But now everything has changed. The beehives and the bell tree were our livelihood. Now they are gone.”
“I can work, Mother,” Rye said quickly. “I can work on the Wall!”
Lisbeth shook her head. “You are too young to work on the Wall, Rye. Even if you were not, the pay of a Wall apprentice would not be enough to support us. And there is no work for me here. No one in Southwall can afford to pay someone else to clean or cook for them these days.”
Rye stared at her helplessly. She was gazing down at her cup. Her hands were clasped tightly around it, as if for warmth.
“And the skimmers will be back,” she murmured.
“Now they have tasted blood here, they will be back.”
“So what are we going to do?” Rye asked in a small voice. He had the sinking feeling that he knew.
Lisbeth shrugged. “It is part of the Warden’s duty to give work and shelter to citizens in need. So we will do what many others have been forced to do before us. We will go to the Keep.”
A few days later, Rye and Lisbeth left the little house in Southwall, taking with them only what they could carry on their backs. Their neighbors watched them go. Some wept a little. Others stared listlessly, too numbed by trials and tiredness to feel very much at all.
Lisbeth had used the last of their coins to pay for seats on the cart that carried passengers to the Keep.
“We could save the money and walk,” she told Rye. “But I have heard that the best jobs are given to those who look tidy and clean when they arrive. Besides, if we have no money at all in our pockets, it will be clearly seen that we are in real need.”
She spoke briskly — even cheerfully. But there was a new hardness in her eyes that made her seem almost like someone Rye did not know.
The cart, smartly painted with yellow and gray stripes, was drawn by six plump Weld goats and driven by a woman in a yellow uniform and peaked cap. Rye had always thought that to ride in it would be a great adventure. He had always envied its passengers when he saw it setting off from the town square.
But after half a day of smooth traveling along the broad, straight road, squeezed between his silent mother and an old Eastwall man who quickly went to sleep, he grew bored and restless.
There was nothing to see but square fields, clipped hedges, skimmer traps, trees rigidly pruned to the legal height, and signs — many, many signs giving information, warnings, and advice to travelers.
The signs reminded Rye of Dirk. The memory of Dirk reminded him of where this journey was going to end.
One step closer, he caught himself thinking. He glanced quickly at his mother, as if somehow she might have sensed his thoughts. But Lisbeth was staring into space, rocking slightly with the movement of the cart.
Rye looked down at the bundle of clothes pressed against his knees. A smooth, sturdy stick was threaded under one of the bundle’s fastening straps. It was a stick from the ravaged bell tree. He had picked it up and carried it away with him out of his need to keep some remembrance, some small part of home.
Only now did it occur to him that it could be a weapon.
He slid the stick from beneath the strap and felt its weight. He felt how well it fit into his hand. A nervous fluttering began in his stomach.
Do not think of it, he told himself. They will not let you go. You are too young.
He thought the same that night as he lay trying to get to sleep in the small, hot room of the roadside inn at which the cart had stopped just before sunset. And waking at dawn, hearing his mother turn restlessly in her narrow bed on the other side of the room, he berated himself for even thinking of leaving her alone, for any reason.
You are all she has left, he thought. The Warden would never allow you to be separated.
But about this, at least, he was to find that he was quite wrong.
They arrived at the Keep when the sun was high in the milky sky. The ancient fortress bulged from the Wall like a blister of stone. Towering over the little houses of Westwall, it looked exactly like the pictures Rye had seen of it, right down to the two huge brown animals standing on either side of the gateway with Keep soldiers perched on their backs.
“Mother, look!” Rye whispered in awe. “Look at the horses!”
But Lisbeth had seen the famous Keep horses as a girl and could not spare a glance for them now. She was carefully reading the sign that stood before the gateway.
The great paved courtyard was a confusion of people. Some were rushing about importantly with folders under their arms. Most seemed to be standing in line or just milling around aimlessly. Children clad in shabby red — the “Keep orphans,” no doubt — ran in and out, looking very much at home.
In the center of the courtyard was a bell tree, very old and gnarled and bearing only a few dry, speckled fruit. A fence of metal railings surrounded it. The label on the railings read:
Lisbeth and Rye turned away from the tree, their hearts aching with sad memories of home. In silence, they joined the other needy citizens standing in line before the door marked “Information.” The line was long and moved slowly.
When at last they reached the pleasant-faced woman at the desk beyond the door, Lisbeth told their story and showed the two gold badges.
The woman filled in a form while they waited in silence. Then she filled in another. When she had finished, she looked up brightly and told Lisbeth that she could have work in the Keep kitchens and a bed in the women’s dormitory. Rye would be sent to Welds Center to work in the fields.
“The Center!” Lisbeth gasped, drawing Rye closer to her. “But surely … surely we can stay together?”
“Sadly, that is impossible,” the woman said briskly, smiling and shaking her head. “There is no suitable work for your son in the Keep. But do not fear. He will have all the care and discipline he needs in the boys’ camp in the Center. It will be the making of him!”
“If Rye goes to the Center, I must go there, too,” Lisbeth said.
The woman behind the desk suppressed a sigh. Her smile stayed in place, but Rye could feel her irritation.
“There is no work for you in the Center, Citizen,” she said patiently. “You must understand that we do our best to help all those in need, but they cannot be a burden to others. They must work for their keep.”
“I know that!” Lisbeth cried, color mounting on her cheeks. “We are very willing to work, but —”
The woman’s voice hardened, very slightly. “Did you not say you had no means to support yourself and your son, Citizen?” she asked, tapping her fingers on the forms she had just completed.
“Yes,” Lisbeth breathed. “But —”
“Then there is no more to be said.”
And it seemed there was not. The woman gave them a few moments for a tearful farewell. Then a Keep orphan was summoned to guide Lisbeth to the kitchens, and Rye was given his own form to deliver to the duty guard in the courtyard. A group marching to the Center was to set off that very afternoon, it seemed.
But Rye went nowhere near the duty guard. Instead, he lined up for the public lavatories. When he was safely inside a cubicle, he tore the form into tiny pieces and disposed of it.
Then he washed his face and hands, shouldered his bundle, and crossed the courtyard to the door marked “Volunteers.”
Rye had expected that it would be difficult to get what he wanted, but he found the task was strangely easy. All he had to do was lie.
Normally, this would have been hard for him. Like most Weld citizens, he was usually very truthful. But the helpless anger roused in him by the smiling woman at the Information desk seemed to have burned away his finer feelings. He did not even change color as he told the man at the Volunteers desk that he had just turned eighteen.
The man, who had very little hair on his head and had tried to make up for it by growing an enormous gray mustache, had clearly been very bored before Rye came in. He was delighted to have someone to talk to.
He insisted that Rye take a glass of barley water with him while he filled in the application form, saying that Rye was the first volunteer he had seen for months. On hearing Rye’s lie, he looked him up and down and merely commented that he was a little small for his age. But then, he said, he had often heard that people with red hair tended to be puny.
Rye merely smiled and nodded.
In no time at all, he was being led through a maze of corridors and into a dim waiting room. Comfortable armchairs lined the room’s walls. In the center, there was a polished table on which stood a large carved chest, a pen, and a crystal inkwell.
Rye’s guide presented him with a small, flat box which he said contained volunteers’ supplies, wished him luck, and regretfully left him, telling him that the Warden would be along presently.
Having stowed his supplies in his bundle, Rye began to prowl the room nervously.
The Warden! He had not expected that he would have to face the Warden in person.
He paced past the yawning fireplace, which was dusty with ash. He circled the table, peering at the carved chest. He twitched aside a red velvet curtain to reveal not a window, but a small padlocked door. Then he had the strong feeling that he was being watched.
He dropped the curtain as if it had stung him, and went to stand beside the table.
He thought of what Dirk had always said about the Warden being just an ordinary man, and a timid, stupid one at that. This calmed him a little, but not enough to allow him to stand still. When a door snapped open on the far side of the room, he nearly jumped out of his skin.
A very handsome, dark-haired young woman looked around the door, quickly surveyed the room, and frowned.
“Lyon is not here!” she snapped to someone behind her.
“He must have gone to his meal, then, ma’am,” a deep male voice answered meekly. “He was there, I am sure!”
“Filling the inkwell, he was,” another man put in.
The young woman clicked her tongue. She pulled back her head, not bothering to shut the door.
“It is not good enough!” Rye heard her exclaim.
“I ordered a new sketchbook two days ago! Lyon promised faithfully to bring it this morning. It is outrageous that the Warden’s daughter should have to beg for her needs. See to it at once!”
Rye made a face. If this was the Warden’s daughter, it was no wonder the Warden kept her out of public view. She would make a very uncomfortable wife.
“Yes, ma’am,” the deep voice muttered. “Sorry, ma’am.”
“Sorry, ma’am,” the other man echoed.
There was an impatient snort and the sound of rustling silk. A door slammed.
“Why should I run her messages?” grumbled the man with the deep voice. “Do I look like a lady’s maid? It is time someone told her that Keep soldiers work for the Warden of Weld, not his useless daughter!”
“Shh!” his companion hissed.
A door creaked. Two pairs of heels snapped smartly together.
“At ease, men,” a rather hesitant, mumbling voice said. “And how are you both today?”
“Very well, Warden, sir,” the two men replied together.
“Good, very good,” the newcomer said. “Now, I understand we have a new volunteer — the first for quite a while. Quite a surprise! Dear me, yes! I will just go and …”
Rye heard shuffling footsteps. He stepped back a little.
A plump man wearing the Warden’s traditional long red robe came into the room. He had a mild, slightly vacant-looking face with sagging cheeks and watery blue eyes. He was clutching a large sheet of paper in his stubby fingers.
He stopped abruptly when he caught sight of Rye. His mouth fell open a little, and his eyes bulged. Rye stood up very straight, making himself look as tall as possible, and held his breath.
But the Warden’s hesitation, whatever its cause, did not last. He recovered himself almost immediately and bustled forward again.
“Ah!” he said. “Greetings, Volunteer!”
And now it was Rye’s turn to stare. The Warden looked only vaguely like the official portrait that hung on the schoolhouse wall. In the portrait, he was younger and slimmer, his chin looked firmer, his hair was browner and thicker, and his eyes were bluer. Also, in the painting, the Warden was mounted on a Keep horse, which made him look far more important.
In some confusion, Rye realized that the Warden was waiting expectantly, his sparse eyebrows slightly raised.
Hurriedly, Rye bowed. The bow felt clumsy, but it seemed to satisfy the Warden, for he nodded, shuffled forward, and put the paper down on the polished table.
“This is your Volunteer Statement,” he said, taking up the pen and dipping it fussily into the ink. “Read it very carefully before you sign. You can still change your mind at this point, and no harm done. But once you have signed, there is no turning back.”
Rye crept to the table, took the pen the Warden was holding out to him, and looked down at the paper.