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The Hidden Coronet #3
Table of Contents
Cage of Stories
The Great Hoard
An imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Published by The Penguin Group
Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014, U.S.A.
Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) • Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England • Penguin Ireland, 25 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd) • Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty Ltd) • Penguin Books India Pvt Ltd, 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi - 110 017, India • Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, Auckland 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd) • Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty) Ltd, 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa • Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
First published in the United States 2011
by Dial Books
an imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
First published in Great Britain by The Bodley Head Children’s Books 2000
Copyright © 2000 by Catherine Fisher
All rights reserved
The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Fisher, Catherine, date.
The hidden Coronet / by Catherine Fisher.
p. cm.—(Relic Master ; 3)
Summary: Sixteen-year-old Raffi and Master Galen continue to evade the
Watch as they seek the Coronet, a potent ancient relic that could be their only hope for defeating the power that is destroying Anara.
ISBN : 978-1-101-51702-4
[1. Fantasy. 2. Apprentices—Fiction. 3. Antiquities—Fiction.] I.Title.
PZ7.F4995Hid 2011 [Fic]—dc22 2010039315
In rumor and strange sayings the truth
Snow will fall, the heart freeze over.
We will come when no one expects us.
Apocalypse of Tamar
TWO MEN SAT ON A BENCH ON THE ICE.
Between them a brazier glowed with hot coals, its metal feet sinking into a pool of meltwater.
They sat silent, in the heart of the Frost Fair; in its racket of bleating sheep, barking dogs, innumerable traders calling their wares and, above all, the ominous hammering. Meats sizzled on spits, babies screamed, jugglers threw jingling bells, fiddlers played for coins, and in cushioned booths Sekoi of all colors told spellbinding stories, their voices unnaturally sharp and ringing in the bitter cold.
Finally the older man stirred. “Are you sure?” he muttered.
“I heard it in Tarkos. Then again last week in Lariminier Market. It’s certain.” The cobbler, still in his leather apron, stared bleakly out at the black Watchtower in the center of the frozen lake, as if afraid its sentinels could hear him from there.
“He’s been seen?”
“So they say.” The cobbler’s dirty heel scratched at a fish skeleton frozen in the ice; its wide eye stared up at him. “There’s been a lot of talk. Prophecies and odd rumors. What I heard was, that on Flainsnight last year there was an enormous explosion. The House of Trees split wide and out of it, on black wings, a vision rose up into the sky, huge over Tasceron.” He glanced around, making the sign of honor furtively with his hand. “It was him. The Crow.”
The old man spat. “Incredible! What did it look like?”
“Huge. Black. A bird and not a bird. You know, like it said in the old Book.”
“I might. And it spoke?”
“So the woman who told me said.”
A scar-bull clattered by pulled by two men, its hooves slipping on the glassy lake. When they had gone the old man shrugged. “Could be just rumor.”
The cobbler glanced around, worried. Behind them a peddler was hawking ribbons and pins and fancy lace, a crowd was watching two men come to blows over the price of geese, and a boy was turning cartwheels among the stalls, a few coppers in his cap on the ice. The cobbler drew up closer and dropped his voice. “No. Why do you think the Watch have doubled their patrols? They’ve heard; they have spies everywhere.”
“So what did it say, this vision?”
“It said, ‘Listen Anara, your Makers are coming back to you; through the darkness and emptiness I call them. Flain and Tamar and Soren, even Kest will come. They will dispel the darkness. They will scatter the power of the Watch.’”
The words, barely whispered, seemed dangerous, charged with power, as if they sparked in the freezing air. In the silence that followed, the racket of the fair seemed louder; both men were glad of it. The peddler had spilled his tray and was kneeling on the ice, picking up pins awkwardly with numb fingers. The wind scuttered a few closer to the brazier, like silver slivers.
The old man held gloved hands to the heat. “Well, if it’s true . . .”
“. . . Then it will change the world. I pray I live to see it.” He looked ruefully over the tents and stalls to the Watchtower, glinting with frost. “But unless the Makers come tomorrow, it’ll be too late for those poor souls.”
From here the hammering was louder. The half-constructed gallows were black, a rickety structure of high timbers built directly onto the ice, one man up there now on a ladder, hauling up the deadly swinging nooses of rope. Above him the sky was iron-gray, full of unfallen sleet. Smoke from the fair’s fires rose into it, a hundred straight columns.
“Another black frost tonight,” the cobbler muttered.
The old man didn’t answer. Instead, he said, “I hear one of the prisoners is a keeper.”
The cobbler almost sat upright. Then he relapsed onto the rough bench, biting his thumbnail. “Dear God,” he whispered. “To hang?”
“To hang. Tomorrow, like all the rest.”
Over the lake the hammering ended abruptly. The nooses swung, empty, frost already glinting on them.
The peddler picked up the last needle. He straightened with a groan, then limped over. “Goods, gentlemen?” he whined. “Samples of ribbon. Beads. Bright scarves. Something for the wife?”
The cobbler shook his head sourly; the old man smiled. “Dead, my friend. Long dead.”
“Ah, well.” The peddler was gray-haired; he eased the crutch wearily under his arm. “Not even a brooch to put on your coat?”
“Nothing. Not today.”
Indifferently, as if he was used to it, the peddler shrugged. “It’s a raw day to walk down a long road,” he said quietly.
They looked at him, bemused.
“Fellow’s drunk,” the cobbler muttered.
THE PEDDLER HOBBLED AWAY between tents and around a pen of bleating sheep, their small hooves scratching the frozen lake, down to the stall of a pastry-seller, where he bought a hot pie and ate half of it, crouched by the heat of an open oven. Grease scorched his fingers through the torn gloves. He bent forward, his long gray hair swinging out of his hood, but as he pulled himself slightly upright on the crutch a close watcher might have glimpsed, just for an instant, that he was a tall man, and not as old or as crippled as he seemed.
Someone squeezed in beside him. “Is that for me?”
The peddler handed over the remains of the pie without comment; the boy who had been cartwheeling wolfed it down ravenously, barely stopping for breath.
The peddler’s eyes watched the crowd intently.
“Nothing. I tried the password on a woman and she told me to get lost or she’d call the Watch.” Raffi licked every flake of pastry from his fingers, still uneasy at the memory. “You?”
“Not our contact, no. But I overheard an interesting conversation.”
“A certain black bird.”
Raffi stared up, alarmed. “Again?” He rubbed his greasy hands nervously on his jerkin, then almost as a reflex unfurled a sense-line and sent it out, but the noisy crowd made him giddy with all their sensations and arguments and chatter; and under them was only the impenetrable glass-blue barrier of the ice, the vast lake frozen to its depths, the tiny creatures down there sluggish, only half alive.
“Rumors are spreading,” Galen said grimly. “Perhaps we have Alberic to thank. His people could never keep secrets.” He glanced around. “Though such stories may be useful. They’ll make people think. Stir their faith.”
Raffi rubbed his cold arms, frowning as the oven door was slammed shut. Then he smiled. “What would they say if they knew the Crow was right here?”
Galen’s rebuke struck him behind his eyes—a mindflare—so that he winced. The keeper stepped closer, his gaunt face hard. “Will you keep your mouth shut! Don’t talk to me unless you have to. And stay close!”
He turned, pushing through the crowd. Eyes wet, furious, Raffi glared after him.
They were both so tense they could barely talk anymore. They had been at the fair since yesterday. Every hour they spent here was a sickening danger; there were Watchmen everywhere, and Raffi had been searched once already at a checkpoint. That still made his skin crawl. But Galen wouldn’t go until the contact came. And they had no idea who it would be.
All afternoon he tried to keep warm. The cold was numbing. The stalls and awnings were brittle with ice; long, jagged spikes of it that dripped for a few hours at midday and then hardened again in the terrible nights, so that the whole fair was encased in a glassy splendor, like the Castle of Halen must once have been.
Despite himself, Raffi thought of Sarres. The hall would be warm there; the Sekoi would be telling some story, with the little girl, Felnia, curled up on its lap and Tallis, the Guardian of the place, stoking the fire with logs. And Carys. What would she be doing? He wanted to be back there so much that it hurt.
Earlier, someone had thrown a few coppers to him; now to ease his depression he spent it on a small slab of sticky toffee. Twisting off a corner he sucked it with delight, trying not to chew, to make the incredible sweetness last. It had been years since he’d tasted anything like it. Five years. Since he’d left home. He saw Galen watching him darkly across a pen of sheep, but he didn’t care. Someone jogged his elbow, almost shoving him into the pen.
“Sorry,” the woman said.
“It’s all right.” Raffi pocketed the toffee before he dropped it.
She smiled at him. “Cold makes me clumsy. And it’s a raw day to walk down a long road.”
He froze, swallowing the whole lump without tasting it. He glanced at her sidelong; a big farm woman, fair hair scraped back, a bold, red face. For a moment he had no idea what to do; then he sent a sense-line snaking over to Galen, saw the peddler’s head turn instantly, his hasty limping through the crowd.
Raffi took a breath. “Not if there’s a warm welcome at the end of it,” he managed.
Relief flickered in the woman’s eyes, brief but unmistakable. “Is he here?” she muttered.
Raffi caught her arm. “Beads?” he said in a normal voice. “Here’s your man.”
He dragged her over to Galen. Their eyes met; she picked up objects from the tray at random, examining them.
“Thank God,” she whispered. “I thought I’d never find you! We have to get home now, while the place is empty.”
Galen glanced around; Raffi knew he was wary of a trap.
“Three miles. Over the hill. I have a cart outside the west checkpoint.”
“Then we go separately. Different exits. Meet outside.”
The woman nodded. She looked resolute.
“What’s your name?” Galen asked quietly.
“Caxton, Majella Caxton. You will come?”
“Have faith, woman. We won’t fail you.”
Dumping the lace, she strode away. Galen watched her, then said, “Go ahead of me. No contact, whatever happens.”
THERE WAS A LINE AT THE CHECKPOINT. All the entrances to the fair were thronged, because the Watch took a third of all profits, or more if they disliked your face, and everyone had to be checked in and out.
Raffi folded back his sleeve. This was the worst part. Despite the cold, he was sweating.
He crossed to the table and showed the number painted on his wrist. The Watchman perched there flicked through his list. Glancing back, Raffi saw Galen among a group of men carrying wool-bales.
“Performer. Ha, I know what that means. Pickpocket. Beggar.”
“No!” Terrified, Raffi looked up. “I tumble, juggle.”
“So where are they?”
He shrugged. “I ate them.”
“You must think I was born yesterday.” The Watchman was young, with a cruel, thin mouth. “Turn out your pockets,” he said.
Raffi hadn’t expected this. After all, he had no profits. But if they even suspected he was a thief he would lose a hand, and the thought of that made him turn cold.
He dumped two small coins and the toffee.
“Is that it?” The Watchman grinned. “Come here.”
The search was quick, but thorough. It left him hot with fear and embarrassment, and it found nothing. The Watchman’s snort was derisory. “Hardly worth your coming, was it?” He scooped up the toffee and shoved it into his own pocket. “Now get lost.”
Trembling with anger and relief, Raffi turned.
He had only taken two steps when the man said, “Wait.”
Raffi stopped. His heart thudded like a hammerbird. Slowly he turned; the Watchman smiled coldly, arrogant on the slippery ice. He had a different list in his hand. Glancing down at it again he muttered, “Come back here.”
Fear is our greatest weapon. Always the agent should look for it. If it is not there, he should create it.
Rule of the Watch
EVERYTHING SEEMED TO GO QUIET.
Raffi barely breathed; his whole body was a rigidity of terror, so that for an instant there was nothing else in the world.
Then, as if from a long distance, he heard Galen at the other table, grumbling to the harassed Watchman there about the cold, and even the sound of his voice brought Raffi a sliver of courage.
He walked back. “What?” he muttered, his voice shaky.
The Watchman thrust the paper in his hands. “Look at that,” he said in a bored voice. “Have you seen any of them?”
Raffi turned it around.
It was a list of outlaws. Each one was pictured—a brief sketch—and underneath their names, a sum of money for their capture, a list of crimes. He looked at it quickly, then gave it back.
“I can’t read,” he lied.
“You can see, can’t you! Do you know any of them?”
The man leered, his breath smelling of sour beer. “Well, keep your eyes open, bright boy. It’ll pay you more than juggling apples.”
Hurrying away, Raffi bit his lip.
Carys’s name had been on the list.
The drawing of her had been incredibly accurate; her sharp look, the short, straight brown hair. Underneath it had said:
CARYS ARRIN. FORMER WATCHSPY. INS. 547 SILVER. MARN MOUNTAIN.
WANTED ALIVE FOR ABDUCTION, TREASON, COUNTERESPIONAGE.
A PRIORITY TARGET.
It was a fortune! But then, it would be. She’d betrayed the Watch, kidnapped one of their children, walked out on Braylwin. They’d hunt her down till they found her.
He stumbled, barely noticing, thanking God and the Makers that she was safe back on Sarres. She’d wanted to come with them, but Galen had refused absolutely, ignoring her anger. She was like Galen. Though they both loved Sarres, they grew restless there.
The big woman was waiting on the cart, her sacking sleeves rolled past her elbows. Brawny arms controlled the fidgeting marset in the harness.
Raffi climbed up beside her.
“Where’s your master?”
“Behind,” he said wearily.
She looked at him shrewdly. “You got through, didn’t you? Must be a tough life though.”
He rubbed his hair with his hands, silent, annoyed she could see he was scared, annoyed with himself.
They watched the gate. When Galen came through it he hobbled away up the road ahead of them, ignoring them. The woman whipped up the reins and the marset stumbled off, Raffi grabbing tight. They soon passed the keeper. On the ice the cart ran smooth, but when the wheels hit the rough track the lurching began, a giddy swaying up the treeless slopes, down splintering ruts. The road was bleak, all its vegetation seared to blackness by the relentless frosts, except that halfway up, a small, bent patch of bramble thicket clung on. The woman stopped the cart there, and they waited for Galen.
He walked easier now, the limp reduced to normal, and when he came up he dumped the peddler’s tray and the pack with relief among the wool-bales, brushing ashpaste out of his hair in disgust.
Then he looked up at her.
“You must be in sore need of a keeper, Majella Caxton.”
“I am, master. Believe me.” She said it calmly, her shrewd gray eyes on his. “Or I’d never have run the risk. Yours or mine.”
For a moment he studied her. Then, as if a question had been answered, he nodded and climbed into the back, stretching his legs out among the wool-bales. “Is it a relic?”
“God knows.” She started the marset moving. “It terrifies the beasts, fills me with dark horrors I wouldn’t try to describe. We’re haunted by something, master. We can’t even live in the house anymore. And if you don’t get rid of it, it will surely kill someone.”
Galen didn’t answer, though Raffi knew he was intrigued. But the woman was busy now with the driving; ice made the rough track treacherous. Twice the marset slipped, its hooves clattering, and she had to urge it on. “Come on, my darling,” she crooned. “Up you go.”
Turning, Raffi saw the Frost Fair already far below them, a squalor of stalls and pens and smoke darkening the pure lake, and beyond it at the northern shore the quenta forest, dark and ominous, its strange tangled trees forming impenetrable thickets.
He also saw the gallows.
Galen was looking at them too. The keeper’s black eyes were angry and thoughtful; as Raffi watched he fished among the trinkets of the peddler’s tray and brought out the awen-beads, jet and green, slipping them on over his head. He held out Raffi’s and Raffi took them, the two blue and purple strands of the scholar, wishing Galen would say something about the gallows. When he was silent he was planning, and Raffi feared that.
Slowly, the cart rocked to the top of the hill.
The way down was less steep; the woman took a breath and said, “Now. You want to hear all about it.”
“It would help.”
She glanced over her shoulder at him as he leaned among the soft bales.
“Well, we moved here two months ago. We’re Watchtenants. We had a farm up north, but then out of the blue they moved us. No explanations. When I saw this place I was amazed. It’s old, you’ll see that. Far too good for me and a dozen farm men. Lots of the rooms are empty.”
“What’s it called?” Galen interrupted.
“Halenden.” She flicked the reins. “For a fortnight it was all right. Then the trouble started.”
She shrugged, uneasy. “Hideous sounds. First time it brought us all hurtling out of our beds. I thought some beggar-band was burning the place around our ears. Howling, echoing deep down. Max—the foreman—swears it’s some Kest-ghost, trapped under the place. He’s a loudmouth, and I’d sack him, but I need him. Most of the others have left.”
The cart jolted; Raffi clung on, feeling sick.
“What else?” Galen murmured.
“Things move. Around the place. They’re never where you left them. Doors won’t open; then they open on their own. Plates smash. Voices talk in rooms where no one is. But last week, that was the worst.”
She stopped the cart suddenly and turned to face him, her broad face red with the cold. “I’m not a woman who scares easily, master.”
“I can see that,” he said.
“Then you’ll know that I’m scared now.” The wind gusted sleet in her eyes; she rubbed it away. “Last week, on Agramonsday, I was alone in the house. The men were in the fields. I was sure I heard something moving down below. There’s a cellar, a deep cellar. It sounded like . . .” She shook her head, impatient with herself. “Flain knows what. I’m not good with words. A dragging sound. Cold. Heavy.”
The wind was icy. Raffi shivered, tugging his hands up into his sleeves. In all the bleak land around him nothing stirred, the hedges gnawed down to bare thorn.
“You went down?” Galen asked, his face intent.
“Not many would have.”
“Keeper, I don’t like mysteries. I’m a plain woman; I trust what my senses tell me. I took a lamp and went down the cellar steps.” She paused. Raffi felt a threat of terror break out in her, the shock of it stirring the small hairs on the backs of his hands.
Then she said, “I saw it. A shadow. Something evil. A terrible . . . venom seemed to come from it. I knew it was alive.”
The marset whinnied, impatient. Sleet was coming down heavily now, a white sheet of weather slanting out of the west.
Galen didn’t move.
The woman turned back to the harness. “That’s all I can tell you. It vanished. I was outside, shivering, when the men came back; can’t even remember how I got there. None of us will stay in the place now—we’ve fitted up a barn a few fields off and even the dogs creep in with us at night.”
The cart’s wheels began to turn, crunching down into the ruts and up again. “Can you help us?” she asked quietly.
Galen leaned back. “Is there anything else you want to tell me?”
“No,” she said, too quickly.
He gazed at her broad back. Then he said, “I can only do what the Makers wish.”
For the rest of the journey he was silent, and glancing back Raffi knew he was meditating, gathering strength, sending sense-lines out into the frozen land, waking stones and soil and the bare trees, searching for any Maker-life, any energies.
Raffi was quiet too. After the strain and racket of the fair, weariness washed over him like a wave. Despite the cold he dozed, slumping against the woman. As the cart hit a stone he jolted awake, muttering, “Sorry.” She grinned at him. “My lad was like you once. Eat and sleep. That’s all boys are good for.”
He smiled, wan.
The evening closed in. Above in the darkening sky the seven moons brightened, the crescent of Cyrax far off on the horizon; glinting through torn cloud above the black land. Stars were suddenly there too, vast scatterings of light, brilliant in the frost-cold.
The road ran down, into a hollow. Raffi felt trees, dark shapes on each side, old hollies and some yew, the faint turpy smell of their needles crushed under the wheels.
The track ran smoother. The trees closed in, became a dim avenue, their branches tangling overhead. Bats flitted in a narrow strip of sky.
And then he felt the house.
His eyes widened; the skin crawled on his neck. Behind him, he heard Galen scramble up.
Halenden was dark; a cluster of roofs and gables rising above the trees. He could see windows, most of them boarded up, and a great mass of ivy and spidervine that sprawled over half the façade, smothering walls and chimneys.
As they drove up to it, the house seemed to grow. Owls called in its leaves; a skeat answered in the woods, and then a whole pack of them was howling, the farm dogs barking furiously in return.
The cart creaked to a halt.
Galen climbed out, stiff, then stood tall in his dark coat, looking up at the building, noting the battered, rainstained door, the high windows, some with broken glass, glittering with reflections of the climbing moons.
The dogs went quiet with a yelp, as if he’d ordered them to.
Raffi stood behind him. The stillness of the place made him wary. The woods were infected by its gloom; the house had eyes inside, and for a second he looked through them, seeing himself and Galen and Majella from some high place.
“Come around the back,” the woman said, climbing down awkwardly.
But when Galen turned, her face went suddenly still because there was something changed about him, some power that crackled in the air; his face was gaunt and his eyes dark in the shadows.
“I know,” he said.
Barely breathing she mumbled, “Keeper?”
He stepped toward her. Now he was the Crow, the dark energies moving in blue sparks through his fingers. “I know. The Makers have told me. The very trees have told me. Do you believe you could really hide this from me?”
The woman gasped. For a moment Raffi thought she would kneel down in the mud, her fingers making the half-forgotten signs of honor. But then she looked up boldly, her face set.
“You’re right. I should have told you.”
“Told us what?” Raffi blurted out. He couldn’t bear it. “Is this a trap? Are the Watch here?”
Galen grinned sourly. “In a manner of speaking. What she hasn’t told us is that this is the house of a Watchman. Her son’s house. Isn’t that so?”
She nodded bleakly.
Raffi was aghast. “We’ve got to get out!”
To his horror Galen just laughed. “Oh, I don’t think so. I don’t think he even knows.”
“He doesn’t.” She looked up at him, her small eyes measuring his anger. “He’d have us all killed if he found out.”
“Your own son!” Raffi couldn’t believe it.
“My own son.” Watching Galen she said, “The keeper knows. He knows we don’t stop loving our children, however they turn out. Yes, my son is a Watchman. He wasn’t taken as a child; he joined them of his own will. He enjoys power. He hates the Order. You’ve even seen him, lad. He was the one who searched you back at the checkpoint.”
Raffi’s chest was tight with fear. “We have to go. He’ll recognize me!”
But Galen was watching the woman, his face unreadable. Finally he asked, “Will he come here?”
“Unlikely. Not while the fair is on. He’ll want to see the hangings.”
Galen nodded. “Then listen to me. Tonight, if I can, I will break your house of its spell. But in return, if I survive, I want your help. Your son has a spare uniform, insignia, papers. I want them.”
“What!” Raffi grasped the keeper’s arm. “Why?”
Galen shook him off ferociously. “Because if we do nothing, there are ten people who’ll hang on those gallows. And one of them is a keeper. I intend to get him out.”
Chilled, Raffi stared at him in despair.
And instantly, from behind them in the house, an eerie, throaty cry rose up, as if it were his own fear given voice, an echoing howl from some creature trapped in unendurable darkness and pain, so terrifying that Raffi’s hands went cold and all his sense-lines stirred in a web of dizzying sickness.
It lasted long seconds. When it had ebbed, all three of them were still, shadows among shadows.
Then the woman nodded, white-faced.
“All right,” she said. “Anything.”
One day Soren was walking in the Fields of Eldaman when she saw a tiny flower under her foot. “What are you called?” she asked. The flower said it had no name. Soren picked it and wove it into a crown. She took it to Flain. “In our work,” she said, “we have overlooked the least and smallest of lives.”
Flain ran his fingers over the flowers. “From now on,” he said, “all men will know you. You will teach the highest how to be humble.”
Book of the Seven Moons
THE ROOM WAS VERY DARK. Galen would have only one lamp, and that was standing in the middle of the floor. Its yellow glow threw a great shadow over the keeper’s shoulder, edging his face with slants of light. Around it he was arranging the awen-beads, seven circles of green and jet, a peculiar formation new to Raffi.
Squeezed into the corner, his back against the dusty paneling, Raffi sat hugging his knees, then laid his forehead on them wearily.
The woman had fed them. A good meal—soup, mutton, and cheese, the best he’d had since they left Sarres, and despite his worry he had been hungry for it. She’d cooked it in the old kitchen below, where broken spits hung askew under the vast sooty throats of the chimneys, and she’d waited while they’d eaten it. But even Raffi had sensed the stifled fear in her, heard the small, impatient creaks her chair had made. She was desperate to get out.
At last Galen had cut a slice of cheese with deliberate care and said, “When you go, lock the doors from the outside. Whatever sounds you hear, whatever strange sights you may see, you stay away. Neither you nor anyone else is to come back to this house until full daylight. Do you understand that?”
Relieved, she had nodded, but at the door had turned and said, hesitating, “I could take the boy with me. Is it right to put the boy in danger?”
Galen hadn’t even looked up. “The boy is a scholar of the Order. How else will he learn?”
When she’d gone, they’d come up here, to the highest rooms; Galen had taken his time choosing this one. Raffi broke mud-clots off his boots nervously. He wished he were back on Sarres, or anywhere, even at the fair. At least that had been out in the open; he could breathe or run. Here he felt as if the ancient house was stifling him, all its shutters tight, the carpet of dust, the webs, the mildewed walls. It was quiet, all the sense-lines were still, but there was something wrong with them, bizarrely wrong—they were warped, as if something else was here inside them, bulging them out.
He wondered if Galen could feel it too.
Now the Relic Master sat back on his heels, the hook of his nose shadowed. Without looking at Raffi he said, “You knew a keeper was among the prisoners, didn’t you?”
Raffi clenched his fists. He’d been waiting for this.
“I heard something,” he muttered.
“And you didn’t tell me.”
“I thought you’d have heard it too.”
Galen glared at him. “And if I hadn’t? You’d have waited till they were dead, would you, before you cared to mention it?”
Raffi looked away, hot.
“For Flain’s sake, Raffi, when will you learn to have faith!” Galen’s fury was always sudden, an explosion of temper. “All the study you’ve done, all the things you’ve seen! Can’t you understand yet that the Makers are guiding us? We weren’t called to this place by accident! It’s not coincidence that one of the few keepers left alive is one of their prisoners. This is Flain’s will, as clearly as if he appeared and told us “Rescue them!”
He tugged the dirty string out of his hair angrily. “And you try and ignore it!”
“Because I never know what you’ll do,” Raffi said despairingly.
Galen laughed, scornful. “Rubbish. You know very well. And that’s what scares you.”
He rubbed a dusty hand through his hair, scattering the remnants of ash. Raffi was silent. He knew it was true. Bitter shame broke out in him. “Perhaps I’m not fit to be a keeper,” he snapped, his face hot.
Galen snorted. “That’s for me to say. I haven’t wasted all this time on you for nothing. You’ll be a keeper if I have to beat it into you. Now pick up that lamp. We need to look at this house.”
Raffi scrambled up and snatched the lamp. He wanted to march out with it boldly, down the stairs, into all the dark corridors, flinging open the doors, as fearless as Carys would have been. But he knew he’d falter at the first corner. In some ways learning the powers of the Order, sensing Maker-life in the land, the energy fields of people’s dreams, of trees and stones and creatures, just made things worse. Carys couldn’t feel all that. Perhaps that was why it was easy for her not to be scared.
Though Galen never was either.
As the keeper walked out onto the dark landing, Raffi followed him close. Together they looked over the banister, seeing the vast stairwell curl down into blackness, its walls stained with slow-growing lichens and the velvety mounds of mold that spread like vivid green stars.
Below, in the emptiness, nothing moved.
They could hear water dripping. Then a shutter banged. The house seemed immense, a labyrinth of rooms and courtyards and sculleries, buried in drifts of dust and memories, its timbers worm-gnawed and decaying. Raffi sent delicate sense-lines into it, infiltrating the whole tilted structure, scaring the slender-legged harvestmen that scuttled from its ceilings. Two floors below, a rat sneaked from a sooty hearth into a hole. The farther down his third eye searched, the uneasier it made him. Just as he was getting dizzy Galen said, “Stay close. Keep the lines out.”
They went down, step after step. The lamp sent vast wobbling shadows up the walls. On each floor, Galen walked stealthily along the corridors, opening doors, gazing into chambers that were empty but for a fireplace and high windows, mostly patched and shuttered. But outside a room on the first floor he paused, his fingers on the handle. Raffi felt it too, the faintest shiver of Maker-power. Galen glanced at him.
Then he went in.
The room was black. In the doorway, Raffi held up the lamp.
To his astonishment a small circle of flowers lay on the bare boards. There was nothing else. No one stood in the shadowed corners, though as he moved the lamp, vast darknesses flickered and jerked.
After a second, Galen went and kneeled over the garland, Raffi close behind, glad to shut the door.
The flowers were yellow; they were the sort known as Flainscrown, as bright and fresh as if they’d just been picked. Raffi stared in amazement. “Where did they come from? It’s winter!”
Galen turned a frail stem in his fingers. “They’ve been put here in the last few minutes.”
Rooms below, something slammed. Raffi froze, listening so intently it hurt. Then he whispered, “What if it gets upstairs?”
“That’s what I want. The awen-beads will draw it to the top room . . . Haven’t I taught you the spiral yet?”
Raffi shook his head.
Oddly stiff, Galen’s voice said, “Shine that light back here.”
The Flainscrown was withering. Even as they watched, the leaves dried up, the petals turned brown and flaked into dust. Galen held nothing but a dry stem. He snapped it thoughtfully.
“What does it mean?”
The keeper gave him a sidelong look. “I don’t know. Yet.” Outside, Galen turned left, but as Raffi closed the door his eyes caught a scuttle of movement on the stair.
The lamp shook, sending shadows flying. Galen grabbed his shoulder fiercely. “For God’s sake, keep quiet!”
Around them the house rang with the cry, agitated, like a still pool broken by a stone. All the ends of Raffi’s nerves quivered; he felt cold, instantly cold.
After a moment Galen said, “What was it?”
“A . . . small thing.” Raffi gripped the warm handle of the lamp with both hands to steady it. “It . . . crept.”
“Bigger.” His heart was thudding like a pain. Galen didn’t move, as if part of him was reaching out, sensing. Then he said, “It’s coming. We’d better get back up there.”
Quietly they ran up the broad wooden staircase, and all the way Raffi felt the stirring in the house, the slow gathering of something far below, its energies twisting up the smooth balustrades, the invisible carved cornices high above his head.
In the top room Galen propped the door open, snatched the lamp, and put it in the center of the beads, its light opening a complex net of seven spirals, jet and green, small emerald sparks glinting in the dark. He pulled Raffi close, inside the pattern, and the raw tension of the Crow scorched, so that Raffi jerked away, breathless.
“Keep still!” Galen hissed.
Far below, something was coming. They couldn’t hear it but they could feel it; a pulsing energy, unformed yet, gathering itself out of cellars and deep courses of brickwork. It rose up along passageways, through halls, all the time knitting together, clotting into a swirling flux that crowded Raffi’s sense-lines so that he could barely breathe, and had to crouch down over the sharp stitch in his side.
Closer. Now the whole house creaked with it, as if it drew itself in filaments of darkness out of all the wooden stairs and warped doors, ran in trickles down the damp walls. And it breathed; he could hear its breathing, and its footsteps as it climbed. Staring in dread at the black rectangle of the open door he clutched his coat in tight fistfuls, feeling Galen draw himself up beside him.
The keeper was intent. A soft, rich scent filled the room, the muskiness of decay.
Then, in the doorway, a shape moved. Raffi saw it through the glow of the awen-spiral, a presence lurking out there in the dark.
“Closer,” Galen said. “Come closer.”
Slow, reluctant, it slid into the room, huge and dark, all the desolation of the house held in a loose human outline, featureless and blurred, as if it might break down at any time, might flood out.
Galen held his hand up. “Enough.”
Shivering, Raffi pulled back, shook off sense-lines. He didn’t want to feel it; the stink of it in his nostrils sickened him.
“Why are you still here?” Galen asked softly.
The outline blurred. A gap like a mouth opened in the smooth face. “This is unfair,” it hissed. Its voice was hoarse and crude; a patchwork of echoes and creaks and overheard whispers. “I wanted to go. He awakened me.”
“Who awakened you?”
“Do you want to be at peace?”
“Let me. Let me go. Into the dark.”
It squirmed, its outline breaking down, the body running and dissolving suddenly into a black pool, trickling and spreading over the floor to the very edge of the spiral. Small black fingers touched the beads and jerked back.
“In the name of Flain,” Galen said quietly, “I dissolve you and absolve you. In the names of Soren and Tamar I release the pain from you . . .”
The pool bubbled. Out of it rose a great mass of tentacles that soared and groped high over their heads. Raffi ducked with a yelp of fear but Galen’s voice went on, relentless. “In the name of Theriss I draw out your dark dreams. In the name of Halen I unfasten you, atom by atom. And in the name of Kest—”
The creature screamed. It slithered itself up into manshape and howled, arms overhead, bending and swaying as if in agony. The beads crackled and spat. Galen glanced at them anxiously.
“Not that name!” The voice broke into hisses of static, barely understandable. “Not him! He started it! The terror, the decay!” It squirmed into separate flames of blackness, wordless moans, then hurled itself forward at them, hands out.
Raffi leaped back; Galen lashed out and grabbed him.
“Still!” he snarled.
The awen-beads sparked. Smoke filled the room, blurring the light. The creature impacted on the invisible barrier and spread like a blot. It swarmed around them, hung over their heads, a black mass of despair. Raffi could feel its agony like a weight. He was dizzy, his chest ached.
“Let me finish!” Galen said.
“No! Not that name!”
“The Litany . . .”
“You must do it,” the voice howled. “I know who you are. I know the Crow. Let me go to them through you!”
Astounded, Raffi turned. The voice was everywhere—in his head, filling his veins. Back to back with Galen they were both swallowed in blackness, the lamplight gone as if some great beast had devoured it.
“It’s too dangerous,” Galen muttered.
“Please! Trust me!” It squirmed piteously. “I have been evil, done evil. Let me have peace, keeper.”
Galen cursed bitterly. Then he dropped Raffi’s arm. In the darkness his face was gaunt, eyes black. “Stay in the spiral,” he hissed.
It was useless. The keeper pushed him aside and stepped over the beads, into blackness.
Evil is a shadow.
Without light it could not exist.
Litany of the Makers
THE ROOM LAUGHED.
A deep, devilish chuckle. Raffi felt dismay well up in him; he shuddered, saying blind, meaningless phrases from the Litany over and over.
For a second he couldn’t see Galen at all; the keeper was eaten by the murk. And then, gradually, it rolled up, dragged back, shriveled into the vast shadow of a man, face-to-face with Galen, fingertip to fingertip.
The keeper stood tall; he had the crackling stillness about him that was the Crow; his hair dark and glossy, the very air about him riven with sudden threads of energy. He spread his hands; the shadow-hands spread too, as if the creature were somehow the reverse of the keeper.
“Come to the Makers. Let yourself come.” It was a harsh voice, barely Galen’s, making Raffi think of vast distances, the emptiness between stars. But to his surprise the creature’s reply was calm and amused.
“No,” it said. “You come to me, keeper. Come to the dark.”
The featureless face stared back.
In the bare lamplit room they confronted each other, both charged with power. Catching the awen-beads at his neck Raffi saw the invisible struggle between them, knew the shadow-creature was growing, swelling into strength.
“Come to me, keeper,” it said again, and now its fingers were locked in Galen’s, trapping them tight, pulling him close. “You’ve always wanted to. Deep into the dark.”
Galen didn’t answer. Silence raged between them, as if their souls ebbed and flowed in a bitter tussle channeled through fingertips and sense-lines. When Raffi tried to reach out to help, the ferocity of it flung him back.
“Galen!” he cried.
The keeper was fading, flooded by darkness.
“Darkness is stronger,” the creature hissed. “It was first, and will be last. Enter it with me.”
“Who . . . awakened you?” Galen had to force the words out.
“He did. The one you fear. The Great One.”
“The Great One? Who is that?”
Suddenly the creature tried to jerk away. Galen gripped it tight. “Is it the one called the Margrave? Does he control you? Did he send you here?”
“Let me stay!” It was a howl, a scream, and with sudden panic the shadow fought, but Galen pulled it closer.
“I can’t go to the Makers,” it sobbed. “I’ve been evil.”
“No one is turned away. No one.” Galen’s fingers merged into the black hands, warm as fire. He hugged it into himself. “Come to us,” he said.
And to Raffi’s astonishment the creature’s blackness had stars in it, distant suns and tiny nebulae, and then it was fading, passing into the keeper’s fingers, into his body and beyond him, far out to somewhere else, streaming into the sense-lines and the stars, still crying out, still sobbing.
Until it was gone.
THE LAMP FLICKERED. Galen was alone.
For a second he stood there; then he muttered, “Raffi,” and staggered back. Raffi grabbed him; together they crumpled breathless onto the bare boards.
Galen dragged in breath. His hair was soaked with sweat, his face white as if in pain. Raffi looked around for water but there was none.
“The beads,” the keeper croaked. “Give me the beads.”
The spiral was broken, all its green and black crystals scattered, as if something had blasted them wide. Raffi gathered up a handful and pressed them into Galen’s fingers; the keeper held them tight, bending over, forcing himself to breathe, to be calm, and as his eyes opened, just for an instant, Raffi was sure he saw the echoes of tiny stars fade out of their blackness.
Unless it was the lamp.
“What did you do?”
“I don’t know.” Galen leaned back against the wall, his breathing ragged. He looked exhausted.
“You asked it about the Margrave.”
“Yes.” The keeper looked up. Rubbing his cheek with the edge of his palm he said, “Something’s not right here. That was no ghost, no trapped relic-power. That was real, malevolent, a creature woken, maybe even made intentionally.”
“To do what?”
Galen shrugged. “To get us here.”
Raffi went cold. “Us?”
“A keeper. Any keeper. Bait.”
Raffi chewed his nails. “If that’s true, we ought to get away.”
“Not before we stop those executions.”
There was silence a moment, a hostile, worried silence. Then the keeper said, “I need some water. Go and get it. And anything she left to eat. Bring the pack up too.”
Reluctant, Raffi scrambled to his feet.
“You won’t need the lamp,” Galen said wearily, watching him reach for it. “The house is empty. Feel it.”
And all down the stairs he could feel it, a silence raw and astonished.
When he came back they ate the rest of the cheese. Galen drank heavily and then spread the blanket over his legs and leaned back, closing his eyes.
“I don’t understand,” Raffi muttered. “Why did it put the flowers there?”
Puzzled, he chewed the hard rind. “We saw them.”
“We saw them. But that creature didn’t put them there.”
“So who did?”
But Galen did not answer.
BANGING WOKE HIM. A hard, insistent banging that seemed to go on and on, until Raffi rolled over with a groan and heard Galen unbolting the doors below. Echoes of a woman’s voice murmured in the house.
He sat up.
Bleak gray light was seeping through the boarded windows. He yawned and scratched and rubbed his face with dry hands. Then he pulled his boots on and went downstairs.
In the kitchen they were talking.
The woman had a bundle in her arms; she laid it on the table. “Are you sure?” she said, dubious, looking around.
Galen was tired and bad-tempered. “It’s gone. It won’t be back.”
Raffi was amazed she couldn’t feel that. The whole house was calm around him, as if it had slept for the first time in weeks. He knew that was why he felt so bleary.
She nodded. “I’ll have to take your word. I’ve brought these, but if anyone asks me, mind, they were stolen. I never saw you or want to know anything about what you do with them.”
Galen opened the bundle. It contained dark clothes, a few small silver discs on a chain, and some papers.
“They may not fit you,” she warned.
He looked up. “I’ll take a chance. We’ll leave now. We need to get there in time.”
“But what about food? I have to thank you, and the boy looks famished.”
“The boy always looks famished,” he snapped, going out. They heard him limping up the stairs.
Majella turned to Raffi. The morning light showed the wrinkles in her skin, the graying hair. “What happened?” she asked, fascinated. “He looks worn out. What was in here?”
He knew better than to say too much. “A sort of . . . energy. Probably left over from some relic. Galen said the incarnations and we prayed. It just faded out.”
He was poor at lying. She looked at him closely. “I see. And now, what does he want these clothes for? If it’s for what I think, then he’s crazy! He’ll never get away with it!”
“The Makers will help us,” Raffi muttered.
“If he’s killed,” she said, “and you’re on your own, come back. I’ll hide you.”
Astonished, he looked at her.
She glanced away. “My lad used to look a bit like you. When he was young.”
Galen shouldered his way in, the pack in his arms. He dumped the peddler’s empty tray on the table. “Burn that.”
“Don’t worry.” She pushed a small sacking roll at Raffi. “That’s food. Eat it in the cart. And thank you for coming here, keeper. Now we can make something of the place.”
He looked at her. “Did your son know about this haunting?”
“Not from me. The men may have said something. Now, are you certain you want to go back to the fair?”
Galen did up the straps of the pack. “Certain.”
He looked up. She was watching him anxiously.
“I don’t ask. But if there’s . . .” She shook her head. “I mean, you have weapons, powers. I don’t understand them. But I have only one son, and all I ask is that he’s not hurt.”
Galen looked at her in surprise. Then he said, “Mistress, you have great faith. Far more than you think.”
Be public. Be brusque. Let the criminal choke slowly.
If the people feel a thrill they are ashamed of, so much the better.
WP6/489: Notes for the
Guidance of Executioners
EVERYONE WAS WAITING.
Shoving his way through the crowd, Raffi could feel the tension. Today the fair was full, crammed to bursting, and the noise was intolerable—loud talk, forced laughter, intense bargaining—as if people tried to drown out the fear inside themselves or argue it away. Music seemed sharper in the cold air. He was lightheaded with it all, his own terror a chill down his spine. Even the animals, sheep and marsets and boshorns, bleated and fidgeted and racked their stalls with restless energy, hooves chipping the frozen floor into tiny drifts of snow that the wind gusted into corners.
Out in the center of the solid lake the gallows waited too, black and gaunt. Around them stood a ring of armed Watchmen, faces muffled against the icy wind. One of them, he prayed, must be Galen.
They had separated outside the checkpoints, and Raffi had come in first with the pack—easy enough, as the crush had been fierce. Were they all so keen to watch people die? he thought in disgust. Or was it that the Watch would notice anyone who stayed away?
Already the front row of the crowd was pressing against the ropes, finding good places. Sellers of sausages and ale and hot cakes were doing a fast trade. Raffi chewed his thumbnail, anxious. Had Galen gotten in? Or had he been arrested already? He narrowed his eyes against the sleety wind and tried to see, but each Watchman was tall and dark and he could feel nothing from them. They all had crossbows too. Where would Galen have gotten one?
If the keeper was captured, then it was up to him. He squashed that thought away. There was nothing he could do on his own.
Then, like a cold touch, he felt something. A brush of knowledge, the edge of it like a feather against his mind.
Someone was watching him.
He turned. Around him the stalls were busy. He saw coopers, blacksmiths, singers, all sorts of peddlers and hucksters and hawkers, a man with a dancing bear, a gang of girl beggars. None of them seemed to have noticed him. He walked away quickly, weaving in and out of the crowd, anxious to lose himself, his heart thumping. It might have been Galen. That thought washed over him with relief, but still he sent a few sense-lines out, feeling instantly only the confusion of the crowd, its dizzying desires and anxieties and laughter.
Then the drumming began.
At once people surged forward, Raffi pushed along with them. Bargaining was abandoned; men and women elbowed for position, a better view. He tried to worm his way out, edging down the rope toward the nearest point to the gallows, as Galen had told him to.
The prisoners were coming out. They were filthy and bruised. Ten of them. Five men, two women, and three bedraggled-looking Sekoi, all with their hands tied loosely in front.
The crowd went quiet. Only the drums thudded like a heartbeat. Raffi looked carefully along the stumbling line, seeing an old woman, a young, white-faced boy. When he came to the third man, his gaze fixed, all the hairs on the backs of his hands stirring. He knew this was the keeper.
He was an elderly man, straight-backed, silver hair swept back to the nape of his neck, his face calm, despite its dirt and bruises. A smooth, noble face. He wore a long, ragged gray coat. Power was all around him; even Raffi could sense it. The others were terrified, yet this man felt nothing but compassion; Raffi saw how he turned to a bald, thickset prisoner behind him, obviously injured, and put an arm around his shoulders. Ignoring the angry yell of the Watch commander, he supported the man across the slippery ice, speaking to him quietly.
Raffi bit his lip. He had no idea what Galen was planning. It would be reckless; Galen always was. But how could they ever hope to get away, unless it was to try and lose themselves in the crowd?
The drums stopped.
The prisoners gathered in a huddle, the silver-haired man looking out at the crowd. His eyes seemed to scan their faces, as if he was alert, sensing something. Raffi ducked under a woman’s arm and crouched in the front. The Watchguards held their bows ready, facing the crowd.
The first to be hanged was a woman; young, barely out of her teens. As two Watchmen dragged her forward she turned to the silver-haired keeper, arms stretched out. He put his hand out and gripped hers, then blessed her, the sign of Flain made clear and proud.
Around Raffi, the crowd seemed to become stiller, totally silent. The nearest Watchman fidgeted with his bow, his eyes nervous over the dark scarf that covered his face.
The woman was forced to the gallows. Above her the black ropes swung in the icy wind; she glanced up at them once. Raffi felt sick and panicky. He wanted to turn away, not to see. Where was Galen? What if he wasn’t even here?
Someone in the crowd yelled something. A guard aimed his bow ominously. The girl was pushed up onto the first step. She cried out, a great gasp of terror.
And at that instant Raffi felt a quiver under his feet, a faint vibration in the frozen lake growing quickly, forcibly; a tension building up like the pressure of a blocked waterspout. He glanced down, sensing with sudden amazement what Galen must be doing; then he was running, ducking under the ropes, dodging the guard, racing over the ice toward the gallows.
The crowd sent up a yell. Crossbows swiveled. One bolt shot past him and skittered over the frozen lake, but he was already at the gallows, almost with the prisoners.
And the ice heaved!
He fell, sliding on hands and knees, sprawled.
Behind him, the lake shattered with an earsplitting crack. Plates of ice tilted up, sharp-fanged. The Watchmen toppled, grabbed each other to stay upright. Between them and the prisoners a vast crevasse was opening, a gaping black chasm in the ice, and the whole surface under the fair was shuddering up. Booths and stands went crashing; terrified bulls trampled out of their stalls. People were shouting, screaming.
The prisoners stood as if in shock; then the silver man whirled suddenly, barging into the guard behind, knocking him off his feet.
Raffi tried to stand.
“Galen!” he yelled.
“Get him, Raffi! Get him to the forest!”
The voice was close, in his head. Scrambling up he raced over and shoved the other guard hard in the back, sending the raised crossbow out of his hands and whirling across the ice. One of the Sekoi dived after it.
The keeper had the guard’s knife; he was slicing the ropes. Crossbow bolts clattered around him. From the Watchtower a brazen horn rang out.
The keeper looked up. “Where?” was all he said. “The forest,” Raffi gasped.
The keeper caught the bald man, who waved him off feebly. “Leave me! Just get clear!”
“Oh no, my son. Not while there’s a soul to save.” With an effort he heaved the man up. “Go on!” he yelled.
Raffi ran. The lake was slipping away under him; the fringes of the forest seemed miles away. Furious yells behind them terrified him. The chasm must be wide, he knew, but he could already hear stalls being torn down, wood slammed on the ice. And still the lake buckled, splitting with enormous cracks, so that he went sprawling with the aftershocks, the surface crumpling beneath his feet.
He glanced back. The two men were close. All the other prisoners had already scattered; he saw a Sekoi firing a crossbow and another lying still on the ice. Panicstricken sheep were rampaging among the wreckage of the fair, but that was far away. And where was Galen?
Ahead, the forest loomed, the vast quenta trees spreading their roots far under the frozen water. Raffi scrambled through frosted reeds and turned to help. “I’m all right,” the bald man snapped, but the pain in his arms and shoulders shimmered out of him; Raffi caught the edge of it and gasped.
They fell over tree roots, the gloom of the forest enclosing them. A little way in, the keeper stopped. He eased the bald man down and spun around, breathless.
“Followers,” he gasped. “Need to deal with them.”
A twig cracked. Someone was close on their trail, and rounding the trees a Watchman came, low under the branches, the crossbow armed in his hands. He stopped instantly and said, “It’s all right. It’s me.”
Raffi grinned with relief.
Galen pulled the dark wrappings off his face.
“Can you still run?” he asked quickly.
The two men nodded, silent with surprise. Then the tall one said, “My name is Solon. This is Marco. Who are you?”
“That can wait.” Galen grabbed the bald man and hauled him up. “We have to get farther in,” he said anxiously. “They’ve got razorhounds.”
Raffi went cold.
Far back over the shattered lake, terrible snarls rang out.
The hardest thing to keep will be trust. When a man may be an enemy, to trust him may lead to disaster. And yet God works his purposes in strange ways.
Third Letter of Mardoc Archkeeper
THE QUENTA FOREST was said to stretch for miles, but only after a few minutes the tangle of vast trunks became impassable. Branches knotted together, split and interlaced. There was no way through. Paths led in circles back to the lake.
The fugitives ran till they were breathless, then crouched against the bole of a king-quenta, the man called Marco clutching his shoulder in agony.
“How far have we gone?” Raffi gasped.
“Not far enough.” Galen threw down the crossbow, dragged the black gloves off, and hurled them angrily into the knotted darkness. “We need to speak to the trees. Get them to let us through.”
He turned quickly to Solon. “Will you do that?”
The older man stared back, his face calm, his blue eyes shrewd and deep. “I would be able to, if I were one of the Order.”
“There’s no time for that,” Galen snapped. “I know you are.”
“So am I. You can feel that, can’t you?”
Solon’s stare was even. Then to Raffi’s horror he said, “No. What I sense about you is strange and utterly dark. Not like any keeper I may ever have met. I’m sorry,” he said, half turning. “I can’t take the risk.”
What he did Raffi barely saw. There was a crack of light. Galen staggered back with a gasp of pain. Then he was down, crumpled against the tree roots. Still.
“Galen?” Raffi whispered.
A rustle made him turn. The bald man, Marco, had the crossbow. Painfully he aimed it at Galen’s head.
Raffi ran forward, right in front of the tense bolt.
“How can you do this?” he yelled, wild with fury. “We got you out of there! We helped you to escape!”
“The ice cracked. And we ran,” Solon said.
“But Galen did that! He cracked the ice!”
“I’m not a fool, my son,” the man said mildly. “No keeper, not even the most learned, could do that on his own. He’s part of some Watchplan. For all I know, so are you.”
“I’m his scholar!”
“I’m sure you are. Keep the other one covered, Marco.” Briskly, almost kindly, he came and tied up Raffi’s hands and feet with the ends of rope, then with a strip torn from his shirt gagged him gently and pushed him over. Raffi sat down hard next to Galen.
Solon crouched. “I’ve been a prisoner of the Watch for a long time,” he said, his voice strangely quiet. “I’m never going back alive. You might be spies—I can’t take the risk. You may also be what you say. If so, I pray to Flain to forgive me. And that they don’t find you.” Turning, he said, “Come on.”
He took the bald man’s arm over his shoulder, sagging a little with the weight. “You should leave the bow.”
Marco grinned. “Good try, Your Holiness. Maybe later.” He clutched it tight, like a crutch.
Then they were gone, lost in the tangle of quenta trees like shadows, the only sound a rustle and a cracked twig.
Raffi kicked and struggled. Furiously he squirmed around onto his side and nudged Galen with his tied feet, then shoved harder, trying to call the keeper’s name. Only stupid muffled sounds came out.
Far off, where the lake must be, a razorhound howled. Another answered it. Galen didn’t move. Raffi tugged his wrists frantically, feeling the tight bonds scorch his skin. Then, deliberately, he lay still and opened his third eye.
He was tired and scared, and it was an effort. But after two minutes’ forced concentration he managed to make a small circle of light and let his mind crawl through it, into a room. Dimly he recognized it, the lamp, the bare, dusty floorboards. Galen lay here, crumpled and still, one arm flung out. But now there were flowers scattered on him, over his back and hair and all around him, the fresh strange yellow flowers of Flainscrown. Raffi brushed them off hastily, grabbing the keeper’s shoulder.
“Galen!” he said. “Wake up!”
Galen’s eyes snapped open. He rolled over, looked around at the room and the flowers, picked one up. “These again?” he muttered.
And suddenly they were back in the quenta forest, and in his fingers there was only a shriveled leaf.
“Raffi!” Instantly the keeper was on his feet. He rolled Raffi over, whipped off the gag, and fumbled for a knife. “What happened?”
“Solon. He used the Third Action. Thinks we’re Watch.” Raffi wriggled out of the ropes hurriedly. “They can’t have gone far. Are we going after them?”
“Of course we are!” Galen’s eyes were black with annoyance. “He’s a keeper! We need him!”
“But if he won’t believe us . . .”
“I’ll make him.” Galen hauled him up roughly and grabbed the pack. “Go on! Quickly!”
They hurried, following broken leaves, branches. There was no need for anything more; the trail was only too obvious. Behind them the razorhounds snarled and spat, answering each other across the lake, always closer.
Galen burst through a hanging curtain of leaves, Raffi breathless behind. The keeper stopped dead; peering past him, Raffi saw why.
Solon was kneeling, deep in the leaves. He wasn’t touching the tree, but they could feel his contact with it, his struggle to reach its deep intelligence.
Galen stepped forward. To his left, a crossbow swiveled up.
“My God, you’re persistent!” Marco muttered.
“He needs me to help him. Or none of us will get out of this.” Without moving from where he stood, Galen sent sudden sense-lines of energy flickering between the trees, their power raw and sharp. Instantly Solon glanced back. He looked amazed, then afraid.
“Who are you?” he breathed.
But Galen spoke to the forest. “Let us through,” he said quietly. “Make a way and close it after us. The men behind us are despoilers, burners of trees. We need to escape from them. Will you do this for us?”
Like the stirring of many leaves the forest answered him, its voice rustling and multifold. It has been many years.
“I know that. But you see who we are.”
We see. You are Soren’s Sons.
Raffi was surprised. It was a name for the Order rarely heard now, written only once or twice in very old books, like the Prophecies of Askelon.
Something dragged and slithered next to him, so that he turned in fear. Branches and leaves were drawing back. Beyond them was a dim green darkness.
We make a way for you, the wood whispered. Go through.
The hole led deep into the forest. It was a network of spaces, the knotted boughs easing apart, leaving gaps to scramble through and over; far in front of them Raffi could see it unfurling, a dim tunnel of branches. He went in front, pushing and climbing. Galen came next with Marco, Solon was last, and behind him with scarcely a sound the trees closed their mesh again, the giant branches sprouting and interlocking.
Down here the gloom was so deep nothing else grew, only pale toadstools and ghostly threads of fungus fingering up from the accumulated springy mattresses of a century’s dead leaves. Stumbling, Raffi remembered Galen once telling him that the quenta forest was supposed to be all one tree, a vast, sprawling entity. If that was the case, they were deep inside its body now, miles inside, the smooth green-lichened trunks rising above him into rustling canopies.
After what seemed an age Galen gasped, “All right, Raffi. This is enough.”
It was a small clearing, musty-smelling. When Raffi sat down he sank into leaves to his waist, dry and crumbling.
Galen, limping now, eased Marco down. The bald man still held the crossbow. Leaning over, one hand on a tree bole, Galen dragged in deep breaths. He looked haggard, as if his old leg wound ached, but his eyes were sharp with that reckless triumph Raffi knew only too well. When Solon caught up, they were all silent a while, recovering. Raffi lay on his back and listened to the forest, the cold wind making an endless whistling in the high leaves above him, though down here everything was still, as if it had never moved. Lichen grew thick on trunks and bark; hanging green beards of it, as if snow or wind never penetrated, never disturbed it. Only the slow drip of the rain would reach this place.
Slowly the terror died in him. They were safe here. No one else might ever have come this far in, not since the Makers walked the world.
Solon must have thought so too. He sat down wearily and looked up at Galen, rubbing one hand through his smooth silver hair. “It seems we have much to thank you for.” Then he stood up abruptly and held out his hand.
Galen took it, their fingers tight in the sign of Meeting.
“Another keeper,” Solon breathed. “I hardly believed there were any left!”
“Flainsteeth,” Marco muttered. “More fanatics.”
Solon smiled at him. “Excuse my friend. He is something of an unbeliever. But still I have to say I don’t understand how you could do all this.”
Galen looked at him sidelong. “When we get to Sarres, I’ll explain everything. Not before. We may still be captured.”
“Sarres!” Solon’s eyes went wide with intense curiosity.
“Sarres is a lost place! A place in legend!”
Galen smiled a wolfish smile. “That’s what you think,” he said.