1712 – Second Arruvvian Calendar
The city only looked as if it were burning, and even that was only at first glance. In the second glance it looked as if its walls, its streets, its houses were made of gold – a deep, red, terracotta-gold that radiated above the tiled roofs like mist.
Jerach watched from the safety of a gargoyle’s shadow, the sun melting quickly and violently against the far horizon, its colours lending bronzed, gleaming shadows to the dull, yellow-brick labyrinth that he counted almost like his own shadow.
His streets. His walls. His crooked, vibrant, endless city.
He smiled at the thought of it: a man who could ever, really, truly boast at owning Namriethe. That was not to say that men hadn’t tried – rich, small, great, mad, desperate men; the dark and hardly seen force that scratched these days at the walls, and sent its angry black mists streaming out over the city.
“Do your best.” He scorned them, squinting to even make out the smudgy shape of their tents and massed armies, so silent, and without campfires. So alien. “But they’re not staying, are they, Stonesgrasp?”
It could hardly be the gargoyle’s true name – although surely once, very far away once, it had had such a name – but he named it that, knowing no-one else was there to do so: Stonesgrasp. And he thought that his silent, mossgrown friend approved.
Jerach had chosen this vantage point carefully, a number of years back. It was still within the shelter of the walls, but was no longer really part of the living city. A shipwreck of old stone instead, a ruined place where little enough could be coaxed into growing, and where the earth was weak and broken, somehow humbled in death. Where there had once been grey, stone houses – blocky and low-weighted, in the old way of building – there was only now the tumbled remains of both time and anger. A brief flare of uprising, followed by years of weather and erosion, of grass growing, and mushrooms, and patchwork colours of moss. And now this was the home of some few straggling herdsmen, some beggars, some runaways, some troublemakers.
But they made little trouble for Jerach. For one thing he was fast, and he knew how to blend into shadows, how to move making barely any sound. The only time he stayed still was when he sat at Stonesgrasp’s feet, and he’d never been bothered there. He imagined that the old gargoyle protected him – subtle, in his state of frozenness, a quiet, old, deep-thinking guardian.
And he liked it here. Both beautiful and strategic. His position afforded him a wide view of the city, encompassing most of the streets where he lived and worked. He could see from their colours where the town guard, and where the king’s guard, patrolled. He could see the ebb and flow of people hurrying home from the market, slipping out into the streets to find a tavern, or a soft-voiced girl. Darker meetings as well – grim, sharp men in the shadows of alleyways. The silver traces of wet mist, which might lurk in low, quiet streets and could sometimes kill someone unwary.
Unwary, He patted Stonesgrasp’s knee, not for as long as I live.
He saw now that his first glance had been wiser than his second. The walls, now bloodied by the setting sun into a deeper, bronzer colour, had never been made of gold: in the fifth circle, near one of the main wells, a fire had broken out. A smudge of dark and red smoke hovered over five or six buildings, and its frayed edges left a haze over another two blocks. There were hints still of orange flame, darting out now and then from the smoke. Jerach strained his eyes, trying to see more: the civic ovens were further to the west, but he knew of a bakery that was near there, and a tavern a few doors down. Or perhaps just a widow’s cookfire. The houses in that part were smaller but sturdy, the homes of simple people, of older folk, but not of the true poor.
Who, of course, lived everywhere.
But whose main haunt was the older part of the city, where the walls were duller, maybe smudged with smoke and dirt, and where the city streets were winding and tiny, some of them hardly more than alleys, too small for a cart, barely wide enough to encourage a horse through, and often dark. The houses there were crooked teeth, built of the same yellow stone, tiled in the same clay, subject to the same burning and bloodying that transformed the city at sunset. Except that there were pieces missing, dark holes and jagged edges, and the houses were smaller, shrunken against the ground, untidily massed together. Their people streamed through them and over them like insects, so that even from a height the streets and roofs were never still.
And then the city smoothed out into the newer sections, where the snakelike little streets gave way to wider, straighter roads, set out in a loose grid-pattern, enshrining in stone that point in history when the city had really come into its own – when the great lords had placed the bridle on it, reined it into greatness and order. Here, the respectable merchants lived, bordering the respectable artisans, and the better shopkeepers. Then to the south, metalworkers and tanners lived beneath grey and blue smoke, and then the poor folks again, amidst the soldiers, amidst the builders and the lads who laboured for them.
Closer to the centre the houses grew – they rose up like small hills from rocky tussock. Here they were grander, and the colours of their people were like insects, like butterflies – flaring their bright colours as weapons, flourishing their silks and velvets dyed like the feathers of exotic birds.
Amidst them the darkness: the obsidian walls blazing red while the rest of the city was already losing its sunfire. The terrifying, polished complex where the High Lord’s residence radiated smaller, dark support buildings, barracks, the blue sparkle of fishponds, the mushrooming of little yellow huts that clung on the outer edges.
Beyond them again, the Protected. Whose homes were said to be spidersilk, a whitish fibre spun in and around the stone buildings, transforming them into small hillocks of newly spun thread. But Jerach knew no-one who’d ever been inside.
Beyond them. And everywhere. The poorer folk took up their place again, and the free folk, the wild ones like he was. They lined the walls, scattered alongside the widow gardeners, and the transients, and the travernkeepers and alewives, the warehouses where cloth was woven, or the courtyards where men broke stone. Women walked past them in bright dresses and beckoned them out as the sun fell.
Beyond that. The walls. Thick and yellow, greyed and grubbier, pitted with age. And still standing. It was hard to see from here, but he could just make out the location of the besiegers. They were dark against the pale tussock and grey rocks of the landscape, their black tents and the silver of their mist and magic made them seem like something more than human. And men said so. Men whispered of demons, of creatures with long teeth that reached out of their mouths and moved of their own accord, of glowing eyes sunken into folded, greyed, silver-prickled skin. Of scales. Of horns. Of complex, overjointed limbs and sharp, venomed claws. Jerach had never seen one of them up close. From here they were only a bruise on the landscape, shiny where they were silver and blue, black and dull grey where they weren’t; thick against the ground, unrelieved by the campfires their kind seemed to have no need for. The faint, ever-crackle of their magic in the air above the tents.
As the sun fell deeper and redder into the low hills, the guards were coming out in force. It seemed that they would be a heavy presence in the city tonight: the king’s red and grey, the city’s gold and green. Jerach marked their paths and locations in his mind, watching to see what formations and patrol patterns they’d take. And he looked for other groupings of men, maybe crouched within the alleys, some perched along rooftops, all of them meaning some harm.
The sun was almost set, and in places the streets had quietened. Jarech took Stonesgrasp’s great finger in his hand to lever himself up. He looked for a moment into the moss-covered face, trying to see a hint in there that he talked to more than just soul-starved stone. Then he took his leave, heading down the hill and into the living part of Namriethe.
For a young thief, the day was just beginning.
Because he’d seen a clot of kingsmen along the west side of Raisin Street, Jerach worked his way into town along the east ridge instead, cutting over a couple of abandoned yards and taking the steep path that widened at its bottom into Tail Street. He was at home in this part of town, with its tight slopes, and densely packed little houses, some of them perched on top of one another. A few were topped with thatch – with its ensuing little burst of bright flowers amongst heather – but the most of them were reddish-dun tiles, with walls made of cracked and stained yellow stone. A few doors and shutters individualised the homes in long-faded colours, a few pots of flowering herbs on ledges, or patched blankets hanging out to catch the sun.
At this time of night the girls would sit in the windows and watch the young men going past. A few of the bold ones called out to men they knew, the others just watched through the shutters, a few of them waving at a handsome or familiar face. Where he saw one he always waved back, he blew her a kiss if he thought her father wasn’t there to see. If a girl called out to him he called back to her, and usually with wild promises or exaggerated claims of manhood. Yes, he had fought the grey dragons of Yalthroth; certainly, he’d ridden out with the army against the massed forces of Saluthron – had seen their blue-eyed soul-stealing beasts up close and seen their claws. Yes, he had fought a king’s son in tournament. Once: yes, he was a king’s son, a spy in disguise, a half-acknowledged bastard; and at least it brought a laugh out in some of them, and the laugh would transform their eyes.
He cut across Tail Street towards Westbound Road, through a half-blocked-off alley that dipped into almost darkness before it emerged again on the wide road. He walked along, humming to himself, excited for the beginning of the night, until a warning sensation, and a half-seen shape made him stop. It was dark down here, even before the sun was fully set, but he could see something ahead of him, a bundle, traced with harsh and brilliant lines of silver.
He looked up. Always up. Because he knew that the magic drove the mist away from the ground.
He could see how he’d missed this from the hilltop, submerged as it was in this sheltered little alleyway. Mist had fallen last night across the city; and where there’d been gaps in the magic’s net, some had fallen through. Spells pushed it up again, or dissolved in where it settled. But this one scrap of it survived, lodged amidst the gables of a ruined boarding house, buried amongst overhanging roofs and layered shadows. Demonsbreath they called it. Or shadowsbreath. This black-and-silver mist the besiegers sent flowing over the city each night.
Which meant that he knew what the dark bundle was too.
Stories on the street told that the mist was a conjuring of souls, the angry, sacrificial dead, chained and hungry, and straining at the magic, starving for warm flesh, and in pain. Jerach had decided some months ago that he didn’t think he believed them. But here in the alley, he wasn’t so sure. He could all but hear their cries – a tiny, stinging sound that trailed the mist – popping, cold sensations barely felt against his skin. And he’d seen men who’d been touched by it – or fools who’d touched it on purpose – he’d seen what it could do. The awful carnage of the early days.
He kept his back to the wall, his eyes on the mist. He wanted to be away from it as quickly as he could, but what if that body were still alive? He approached slowly. A man, he saw as he got closer, an old man, and probably a poor one – his clothes were dulled and patched, and his shoes were in need of mending. His dead eyes were open, filmed over with the silver sheen he’d seen on other dead men. It was his hand that had touched the mist, leaving the fingers bright like newly polished mirrors, with liquid silver running down over them and hardening; cracks radiated out over his skin, oozing a pure light. A gash in his half-exposed chest was infected with the same silver, with rotting and darkening flesh around its edges. Dead. Thankfully. Jerach tried to form something like a prayer in his mind, not daring to touch the eyes to close or seal them.
Someone will come for you soon. But that someone would burn him.
There were coins in the man’s pockets, but Jerach couldn’t bring himself to touch them, to risk their ill luck, to risk being burnt by it.
And the mist hovered.
He hardly dared not look at it. He could feel it tugging at his eyes, tiny hooks sinking in….
….. words. voices…..
……we know you….
Jerach turned away sharply. This man had listened to them. There’s nothing you can do for him now.
He backed away across the few remaining yards, over the old bricks and beams that half-blocked the alleyway, and onto the firm brightness of Westbound Road. The sun had almost set, but the street felt bright; it felt warm in sudden contrast to the cold breath in the alley. There was a lively crowd out here already tonight, and that made it easier to forget about the mist, and the stranger it had killed. The road was one of the few in Namriethe to be lit after dark by smoky, sputtering torches. They gave off a flame that was red – fading to blood-red by the middle of the night, when its fuel began running low. For now it rusted the air, and brightened the faces of passersby. There were girls out here already, offering their trade. But his pockets were empty when he felt in them for coins.
He was hungry besides. And he was thirsty.
There were kingsmen leaving a tavern a block ahead of him. Six of them. Wearing their colours in direct challenge against the city, against the world at large. Larger and louder than life – their beards trimmed to points, their hair worn long to the shoulder.
Jerach didn’t like them. He hadn’t since they had first come here six months ago, boasting of their military prowess, their importance in the shape of the world. It was their arrogance he didn’t like, expectations of deference and gratitude, the assumption that other men would step aside for them when they walked – when they strutted – along the street. They who had come here, to this antique, walled backwater, to fight for it and lay down their lives for its citizens.
And a lot of good it’s done us so far.
But he didn’t want trouble, so he cut into another alley, up a handful disused steps, and over some jutting bricks that would lead him onto the rooftops. Which was his true home anyway. He opened his hand only slowly, crouched behind a chimney, to see what he’d gained. A man’s purse had only contained coppers, or he’d just been unlucky in the small handful he’d risked grabbing. Still, he counted eight, and he’d taken a little wooden fan from a girl, and a tiny pair of crooked scissors from another. They weren’t worth much, but the coppers would at least buy him supper, and maybe Schulka would like the fan.
He’d need more though. And he glanced up over the roofs and into the alleys he could see. He was looking for open windows, or shutters left unhooked. He remembered the time he’d found a blackberry pie left on a windowsill to cool, and how he’d crept away into a dark little bolthole to feast on the whole thing himself. He’d been so young then. And older now, he’d take the same chance again. No. I’d share it these days if I could.
The rooftops were like another whole network of roads, like a secret bridge over the city. And he knew them at least as well as he knew the ordinary roads. He knew where the shadows were, and what could be seen from where.
There was a window just a few houses down, the shutters were left wide open, and he could see from here two candlesticks left in the open. They were haloed in the light coming from inside the house, metallic enough to shine, but in the darkness he couldn’t be sure if they were bronzed or silvered – certainly not gilded, not in this neighbourhood.
He inched along the tiles until he could see them, and see beyond them into the kitchen. A girl worked at an oven – a big enough oven that she might be a baker’s girl – with her back to the window. Of course she might turn around at any moment. And there were two other windows where a person standing might see him.
So he moved quickly, one eye on each of the overlooking windows, a third – just a glance – to be sure that the girl was still looking away. He was back in the shadows again within seconds, back pressed against a chimney, candlesticks one in each hand. Grinning. Because the thrill was more of it than the living. Because he loved it. He supposed that one day he would take the wrong chance, that one day he might yet hang for it. But he imagined, instead, the girl turning just in time to see him – the story he’d have told her of the candlesticks about to fall, and the service he’d done her in catching them just in time.
Jerach held his prize up to the light to see it better. They were only bronzed after all, but well-crafted, in a complex design of fern fronds and sharp-petalled flowers. He slid them beneath his jacket.
He wasn’t the only one working these roofs tonight. He never was. But his companions were like he was – shadows, too quick and true to be spotted, never still enough to crept up on, too wary to be surprised. Every now and then he saw a glimpse of one. At times he smelled cooking, an apple pie, or a roasted bird, a stew oversaturated with pepper. It reminded him of his hunger.
He took most of his route by rooftop – glancing in houses, reaching once for a small jar, once for a thin scarf left too close to a window – and jumped down into the street again when he was nearly there. The crowds didn’t see him. He was invisible, brushing up close to them, sneaking a small handful of coins, a pouch or two, when one of them looked the other way.
He could smell the smoke of the fire he’d seen. He could smell the sweat and the spice of men and women who walked past. In the air there were patches of darkness, fuzzy around the edges, pockets of high mist. Even so far below, he thought he sometimes felt them calling, or their breath, sharp-cold behind his neck.
The cityguard addressed him that way. Even though he knew they knew his name. He knew all of theirs, and he knew whose voice hailed him. Frergrith – older than most of the others, with too much thick, greying hair, whose face wore the heavy creases of near to sixty years. From the corner of his eye Jerach knew that it was Aldron with him, and Yarnac, who was young, and freshly trained.
He turned around. “What will you do when I get older? Will you have to start calling me ‘man’?”
“I might at that. Or “fool”, or just “you” or “scum”. You’ll not want to be knowing me for trouble.”
“No trouble. And the name is Jerach….”
“Boy will do.” But he wasn’t so bad. His gruff manner never finished with a blow, and always stopped a little bit short of threatening the gallows. “What do you got for us?”
Spywork. Thiefwork. It was all part of the same. What he snatched from pockets could be sold, and so could the things he took with his eyes and ears. At least the Guard paid well. Jerach scratched his head, watching the paving stones, or pretending that he was.
“Well, out with it.”
It was worth what they said it was worth. You lived with that. But he started small. “There’s talk about the price of bread again. Too much for the soldiers – not enough for us – when will it end? – that sort of thing.” He looked up at Frergrith suddenly, meaning to disarm him, “When will it end?”
It was Aldron who answered “When will what?”
“The siege. The war. Is there help on the way?”
Aldron glanced west, gesturing loosely with one hand. “We have them. They’re our aid.” He looked as if he wanted to spit on the ground.
No army then? No spellwall? Galloping at full speed to relieve us?
And Frergrith said “The king will send more. In the end, if Namriethe falls…”
Never. Not in a thousand thousand of years. His city. As old as its stones.
Aldron fixed him with a hard stare, “Boy?”
He didn’t want to talk about the dead man. Or he couldn’t. He said “There’s been fighting or something hasn’t there? A friend saw them bringing men in.”
Aldron fingered the hilt of a fine city blade.
Try again? All right then. “Well, who is Grufford?”
“A guard. On the north side. What of it?”
“Jeelsa wants to have him beaten when he next goes back to the Wild Hare.”
“For the sake of one of her girls. He broke her nose, and maybe left her blind.”
Frergrith looked sorry, or at least resigned. Aldron’s face formed an exaggerated sneer. “Blind? She’s faking it. Of course she is.”
So it was Frergrith who asked “Will she go through with it?”
“She’s wild enough. I think she might do. I think she will.” I hope. But if Frergrith and his kind warned this Grufford off, it might be for the best. The Wild Hare didn’t need trouble with the Guard – especially if something went too far.
“Will she go to the courts?” Frergrith pressed.
“How can she?”
“When she’s lying.” Aldron finished harshly.
“How can she anyway?”
“A whore. She won’t.”
“I haven’t had supper tonight.” Supper. Breakfast. It all depended on your perspective.
Frergrith gave him a full cacian silver. “You watch them that work for the king. Tell us what they get up to.”
“That’s worth more than a silver.”
It was worth what they said it was.
And the last of the markets had closed. Coloured awnings were collapsed in on themselves now, wheeled away on little carts. Jerach could only find one that wasn’t empty. A girl had stowed her flowers back in her baskets and covered them again. But she stopped when Jerach flashed his coppers her way.
“For your girl?” She uncovered the baskets to show him what she had left unsold.
“I’m working on that. How much for this one here, the pink and purple?”
“A Tigerseye. Two copper tingals.”
It was late. She gave in with a sweep of her head. It would wilt by the morning anyway. She told him “I miss the outside. It’s been over a year since I’ve walked in the grass. I used to go out there looking for seeds. And I’m tired of looking up and seeing that.” She was pointing at the patches of demonsbreath that hung between city and sky.
“At least it isn’t falling tonight.” He said it for something to say. It was either that or ‘it can’t be much longer now’, and whoever said that anymore?
“Some of it fell two nights ago. Over some of the old houses in Third Circle. There were people found dead in there, like silver coins. And still screaming.”
Superstition. Just rumour. He wrestled the image of it quickly from his mind. “Slow day?” Her baskets seemed almost still full.
“Folks have money for bread now and not much else. The lucky ones do.”
He heard the deliberate inflection in her voice, but he gave her a second coin anyway. For luck, he told himself, and for her thin, bare shoulders. If we all end up starving, what’s another piece of metal?
The Wandering Stag.
It was smoky; and the smells of spilled ale, mixed with grease and sweat, were stronger than cooking smells from the kitchen. It was crowded, and the singing was badly off key. Two renditions of the same song ran in tandem and out of time. The beams in the far corner were rotten, and the roof sagged dangerously over the crooked little tables underneath them. Already he’d been jostled, already quick fingers had come out for his coins.
If it wasn’t for her he wouldn’t look forward to coming in here.
Fire-haired. Eyes like full moons. Dark, pin-prick freckles that darkened her ginger-red cheeks. Her smooth skin the colour and sheen of polished wood. He was scanning the room for her as soon as he stepped in. There. She hovered beside the entranceway to the kitchen, her apron stained with wine, and bowls stacked up in her arms. Her red hair was dulled beneath a coating of grease and smoke, but he still saw the fire in it, banked, just itching to leap out and burn. He saw the way she moved like a dancer, her slim, lithe body that haunted him in his sleep, one brown shoulder bare above a frayed, green dress.
She probably saw him. It was hard to be sure. She smiled, at the same time turning to listen to somebody shouting at her, at the same time dodging the men who grabbed at her in passing. Jerach had to wait by the kitchen doorway until she’d gone in again and argued with the cook, and come out with a fresh tray of drinks.
He dodged in front of her, blocking her way.
She smiled first, and he copied it. She seemed glad enough to see him – it shone in her pearl-pale eyes – but she was tired as well. She waited while he twined the tigerseye into her hair just above her ear. “These belong on third table. Do you want to take them or something?”
“I want a kiss.”
“These.” She thrust the tray firmly into his arms.
And the loud men at third table didn’t much care if they were served by a man, or by a serving girl. They spilled their drinks in reaching for them, laughed, and he drew away from their foul breath.
Schulka chided him “You know I’m working. Maybe I can get you a loaf or something from the kitchen.”
“I’ve got coin today.”
“And something for you.”
“They all do.”
He held out the fan. Painted in bright colours, and representing a ship when spread out all the way. Each sail on the ship was a different colour.
She said, always “You should be more careful.”
“Probably. Would you come to the hanging?”
“No. Yes. That’s no thing to say.”
There were men waving to her, and she had to shrug an apology, had to go to them to take away their mugs and fill them again from the barrel. Jerach felt like the only still point in a storm of voices and bodies.
“Can’t you come? Can’t you walk for a while?”
Schulka chided him again. “I’m working.”
“So am I.”
“He isn’t in yet.”
“Then I’ll have my supper. Remember? I can pay this night.”
She reached, brushing his cheek with her finger, smiling in a way that he couldn’t fathom, which seemed affectionate but too sweet to be quite flattering. “There’s only one table, and it’s a gamble. But I’ll fetch you something.”
It was the table in the far corner. In a hollow where it was dark, and where the smoke gathered, where the roof sagged almost to touch the head of a man who risked sitting beneath it. There was a candle on the table, which she lit when she came back with bread crusts and gravy, baked mushrooms and a baked, spiced onion. The gravy had chunks of beef in it, which above the grease and sweat smelled good. He remembered: he’d been hungry.
Schulka brought a brimming mug of ale, leaning over him as she laid it on the table.
“Three coppers?” He asked her.
“Today’s prices? Try ten.” And following his expression: “But for you it’s six.”
“He’ll know nothing. He’ll drink. He’ll know nothing but the floor until morning, until someone picks him up and carts him away.”
“You’re so bitter. You hate it here.”
She looked at him as if to say: what’s not to hate? But her sudden, brittle smile spread quickly to her eyes. “At least you see the world.” In the faces of customers who came and went, in the gossip, in the things they didn’t dare say but which were written anyway on their faces. “Is it all your coin?” she asked as she took his six coppers.
He could feel the guilt of the Guard’s silver coin in a sealed pocket. He’d be lucky to find a room for the night with it these days. What he really wanted was to save it all up and buy a house for them both, where they could raise children, and he could come home to a supper where it was quiet and the room didn’t smell of other men’s sweat and piss. Dreams….
He dreamt about sharing a blackberry pie with her, huddled, on the rooftops, in the shelter of a chimney or an overhanging roof.
Schulka warned him “I can’t stay. I have to get back to work.”
“I know. But later….”
“Later.” When she smiled, even sadly, it made the whole world recede before it. She leaned closer “You be careful tonight.”
“All night. Every night.”
“Ubdor’s men were in here. Starting fights, just gone. They’ll probably be back later looking to start some more.”
“Don’t tell me that. Now I’m worried for you.”
“For me? I’ll shrug my shoulder, I’ll toss my hair a little. No-one’s going to hurt me. Eat up.” She pressed a bread crust into his hand, a kiss to his mouth, and was hurrying away again with her tray held up against her chest.
Halfold came in an hour later.
It wasn’t such a long hour. Jerach amused himself watching Schulka while she worked. When he caught her eye he made faces, or blew kisses, tried to make her laugh. They had developed a series of signals to communicate over the tavern room’s noise and distance. When he picked up on some trait in a customer he signalled it to her, or improvised something descriptive, and laughed watching her try not to laugh in response. And when she was out of sight he listened to the singing, he watched the men at their tables. In spite of Schulka’s warning they all seemed relaxed and convivial; there was no sign that any of them had been in a real fight, no smell of blood beneath the myriad of other smells.
Then Halfold walked in.
His entrance always caused the noise to dim a little, even as men kept talking and drinking. Few of them turned, but most of their eyes moved to follow his passage. Men drifted away from his preferred table as if casually, and as if they’d been intending to head somewhere else all along.
Jerach waited a little, before he approached him, until he’d begun drinking and his stew had been ladled fresh into his bowl. And then hovered, waiting for the gesture that he could sit.
“What do you have for me tonight?”
He didn’t answer back when it was Halfold. He took the candlesticks out and placed them side by side on the table.
Halfold took a few mouthfuls of his stew, scooping it up with the Stag’s best bread. He swallowed it down with ale before looking at the offering. And when he did, his eyes changed. They were narrow, brown eyes, marked with little cracks of green that made Jerach think of mould when he saw them. Except when he looked at loot, when it seemed as if an amber fire was suddenly lit behind them, something keen and gold. His Appraising Eye. And it revealed little until Halfold was done. He said “They’re only bronzed. Not bad. But nothing special.”
“There’ll be more.”
“Hmm.” He rolled the candlesticks over in his hands a few more times. The Appraising Eye was a red, wary fire. It was said to have never been tricked, to have magic to help it. Jerach had heard younger boys talking, whispering that Halfold’s eyes were truly enchantments, crafted out of glass to know the exact worth of anything they saw.
“There’ll be more later. Tonight.”
“Yes. Yes. And I’ve a liking for gold. Did you know that? The shine of it. The way it reminds me of the morning sun.”
Gold? He knew only a few places and knew them all guarded but-
“I’ve work for you.”
“Oh?” He looked up. He met the Appraising Eye head on. Appraising him.
“Yes. I thought you’d be pleased.”
Like playing with snakes. He’d had a lifetime of seventeen years to practice a look of innocence. “I’ll take what work I can.” And hope very much it comes with pay.
“But only from the right sources.”
“Yes.” I know who I work for. I know who can kill me if I step out of line.
“A good boy. I told your father you were. Here.” He laid a scrap of parchment face down on the table. It was old. It had been withered and lined with the years like bark, and was tattered and blackened around the edges.
Jearch resisted the urge to snatch it up off the table. He knew Halfold was testing his patience. He knew from the feel of her eyes that Schulka was watching, that her face held a worried frown.
“It’s a map” Halfold said by way of invitation. He turned it over himself and stabbed the tavern’s location loosely on the image with his finger. He stabbed a second location “Here. That’s where you’re to go. It’s beneath the ground. I want a scroll case, it’s silver, but the worth is what’s inside it. There are five letters. Be sure to check that. You’ll find a wooden box on a shelf containing documents, and the case should be in it or near it. You’ll know it by the crest, an old family, Yithsierrin – their crest is an eagle in flight with a man’s face. It’s a dark blue on red, although the colours may have faded – but you’ll know the eagle.”
“Is that it for the night?”
Jerach slid the scroll off the table top. He imagined the job would take him somewhere that was crawling with trained guards, and probably with warning spells and trigger traps beside. Halfold’s job usually did. The man leaned back in his chair now, smiling just slightly. He was little more than thirty, dressed too well for this part of town, with his dark hair oiled and tied back, beneath a fashionable triangular hat. There was no mistaking a hardness about him – he’d lived and prospered on the same streets that daily killed fools.
“You look hungry.” He said now. And he was beckoning Schulka over to refill his cup.
Jerach shook his head “I ate before.”
Schulka filled his cup carefully. Her lovely shape was unmissable, and a light kindled in Halfold’s eye as he watched her pour. “What did you eat?”
“Gravy. Bread. Some mushrooms and an Onion.”
“Was it good?”
He caught Schulka’s wrist, lightly enough that it didn’t disturb her pouring. “Some of that for me as well then, if it’s as good as he says it is.”
“Sir.” He didn’t expect them to call him m’lord, not quite yet. But it seemed naked to Jerach that the older man fancied such a position. He wouldn’t be the first man to fight his way up there from crime. He’d been told the histories of a few great families.
“It’s tonight’s work.” Halfold reminded him.
“Is there anything I should look out for?” As if you’d tell me.
“A thief should like surprises.”
“Are there going to be some?”
Only a shrug. And no mention of payment. It was worth what he said it was worth – sometimes just the privilege of going on breathing. Jerach started to rise, assuming he’d been dismissed, but his patron’s expression caught him as neatly as a grip. He was looking at Schulka as she walked away back to the kitchen. He smiled at the sway of her hips. “That’s a fine one. A nice choice.”
“Do you think you might marry her?”
“She isn’t…. I’m not really with her.”
“Not for lack of wishing for it. I approve, mind you.”
And it’s none of your business! One day. When everything was different, and he had the power or the secrets, or the fast hands with a knife – one day when he could speak his mind to the faces of men like this.
“Hunt well, boy.”
It’s Jerach. And you all know bloody well that it’s Jerach!
But the night air cleared his head. There were always going to be men like Halfold. Somebody always had to rise to the top. Walking along, he imagined that it was him, an older man than Halfold, some forty or more years, but still quick and wily as a youth. Looking over a lad such as he was now, and evaluating his worth with bright, clear, keen eyes. Unspelled, he thought. He’d never get weak enough to need his instincts buttressed by magic.
There was snow in the air. And the faint, thrumming magic of the Protected at their work – shoring up the defences, driving away the mist. At least in theory. Jerach could still see traces of it in the upper air, and its faraway breath added to his sense of snow. It had yet to snow in earnest while the mist was over the city – he wondered idly as he walked what would happen once it did. He brushed a fat man casually as he passed him, sliding a thick ring easily from his finger. If he could still afford to be fat in these siege days then he was better off than most.
Beneath a streetlight he stopped to read over the map Halfold had given him. The Stag was marked in one point, and a rectangular building in another. Jerach’s knowledge of the city put that somewhere in a section of town called Rubble – a cluster of blocks where the servants of great men lived in their shadow. It was said to be named for the fact of its houses: built from the leftover stone of nearby mansions.
To get there he’d need to walk through some of the better suburbs – where the city guard could be counted upon to pay continued and solicitous attention. It would mean skirting close to the eerie suburbs bordering them – to where the Protected reigned, and did their secret, saviour work.
It could be death for the likes of him to be found in either place.
“Thanks Halfold,” he muttered to himself.
Schulka had been right, he realised as he made his way through town. There was trouble brewing on the streets after all. It was mostly subtle – a furtiveness in some of the people he passed, a hush in places where there was usually more noise, clots of hard-faced men whose loose clothes concealed blades. Women who might otherwise have come into the streets to approach them – or him – stayed back in the shadows and doorways. Lookout boys and errand girls were nowhere to be seen.
He was walking by now through the heart of the second merchants’ quarter. The houses here were good. Built on into the ground, with cellars sunk beneath them, and stones steps leading up to painted doors. The shops and common rooms on the bottom floors warmed the bedrooms up above, and the attics full of half-smoked grain where the excess children could sleep if the family had too many. Their rooms huddled around a central, stone chimney, and their upper floors overhung the road, making something like a tunnel in the smaller sidestreets. Built from the same yellow stone that rampaged through the whole city, many of them asserted their individuality: a mix of stone and stained timber on one upper floor, pale stone cladding on another, the newest ones brandishing a mix of stone chips and red clay in the latest fashion for bricks.
The thrum of Protected magic seemed stronger here. It wasn’t a sound so much as a sinuous vibration that crept up into his blood and quietly charged the air around him. It left an uneasy sensation against Jerach’s spine. What price were they paying every day to keep the besiegers’ magic repelled? But he remembered too, the early days, before the Protected had been assured of their status, when the mist had come surging through the streets unopposed. He remember those days of killing – when almost no-one had known what it was and had learned the hard way that it was deadly. The weeks after, when the only defence was quick feet, or to huddle in a bolted, boarded cellar, hoping that it could not find its way in.
He came to Rubble. Quiet here too, with only a handful of the city’s youth moving about the streets.
A large building on one corner, heavy and of good stone, cast a shadow on the little houses, even in this late dark hour. It was square, two floors high, with thick doors, and its windows shuttered or bolted. On one of the doors he could just make out the symbol of an eagle, faded, its wings outspread, and a fierce, man-face sunken into its head.
Who’d have such a crest on purpose?
Jerach waited for a lull in the passing traffic before clambering up onto the roof. Up here, he was invisible, pressed against the tiles and consumed by the roof’s shadows. Even though they continued to pass, laughing and shouting beneath him, some looking up at the sky every now and again; still nobody saw him as he worked the latch apart with his wires. And none of the passing figures looked up or exclaimed as he rolled quickly and expertly in through the small window.
Inside, it was darker than out. Grimacing a little for the cost of fuel, he reached into one of his pockets for his lantern. It was maybe a third the size of his fist, and burned a mixture of salts and crystal called ‘brightfire’, cleverly constructed to be clipped against a man’s clothing so that it left both hands free. In miniature, and with finely etched spiralling decorations, it was something he owned with a secret pride. The clean white light it produced once the brightfire sputtered into life held the dark back only an arm’s length or two, but in the tight pool around him he saw floorboards thick with the dust of disuse, and stacks of crates that had long since despaired of ever being traded.
It was the siege he supposed. Merchants who traded with the outside world had no longer any means of getting their products out into that world.
Downstairs he discovered much of the same. More dust. More crates. More sense of fading hopes and fading profits. Jerach worked his way along the walls until he came to a spot where a few of the stones bore a different colour and texture to those around them. When he pushed experimentally against a couple of them he found one that moved easily, leaving behind it a dark, not really man-sized socket.
Jerach sucked in a deep breath. I’m not afraid of the dark, or of small, unlit paths. But it was going to absolute pitch black in there, and tiny. He reassured himself with the steady light pinned to his jacket before he crawled inside.
Inside was not quite as bad as he’d feared. The tunnel was taller than its entrance if not any wider. It began as a series of crudely cut steps that took him steeply down under the city streets. At bottom it levelled out into a straight, clinging passage, a little less wide than he was. He could stand upright without touching the ceiling, but would have to move along it sideways. It was just as well Halfold hadn’t chosen a fat thief for this. Why did you choose me anyway? A few coins and trinkets every night or two used to be enough. Jerach hoped he wasn’t going to come in for too much more attention.
The tunnel had not been used in many years, maybe not in hundreds of years. It was thick with cobwebs, and with the crawling sounds of insects that seemed to magnify themselves along its walls. He could hear the distant scrabbling and squeaking of rats. His light poured down the walls, stretched by the narrow spaces, but seeming only to reflect back on itself, to show him an endless, featureless brightness. It took a little time for his eyes to adjust to a choked passage of webs and nests, with rubble crunching on the ground and a few tough roots and vines pushing their way in through the stone.
It was at least fairly dry, and he moved along it quickly, trying to keep a sense of time in his head, and a sense of where, beneath the city, he was.
He was ten or so minutes along when the ground gave out suddenly beneath his feet, as if the stone itself had rotted away along so many years. It shouldn’t have taken him by surprise, but his mind had been elsewhere for a minute – with Schulka – and he had to throw himself backwards, scrabbling at the walls to keep from falling in with the stone. He heard the sound of it falling – or the eerie, waiting, lack of sound, and then a faint, far-below splash.
Jerach could feel that his face and knuckles were scraped from the sudden dive. And certainly his pride. The darkness was absolute, as he levered himself up to his feet again. It was a close, encroaching darkness, that made him think of dead men, of bones buried long ago in the deep to hide a secret murder. It didn’t help that the sticky, dry feeling of cobwebs and dust against his face felt like dry, bone-fingers stroking his unprotected skin. Not afraid. Of the dead. Or the dark. Or how tiny it is. But his fingers brushed quickly over where his lantern was pinned.
There was only ragged wool. And his fingers found nothing on the ground except dirt and dead insects. He searched again, and then once more, before he forced himself to admit that the lantern had fallen away with the floor and splashed into the water uncomfortably cold and far beneath him. “Thanks Halfold.” It came out just above a whisper, and not as steadily as he felt it should. Only the dark. Unafraid. It was just that he didn’t belong here. It wasn’t his habitat – he was made for the open rooftops, for daring to jump between them, maybe slipping down a chimney now and then in one of the greater houses. Here was where rats belonged – no, not even rats – spiders, beetles, cockroaches – and he could feel them, some of them, crawling against his back or along his arms.
So far this job had done nothing but cost him. As well as being a fine little piece of craftsmanship, the lantern had been expensive, along with the crystals packed inside its glass. Even if Halfold paid him for the work – which by no means a given – it probably wouldn’t cover the cost of replacement.
And now, hemmed in and threatened all over the by the dark, he had no hope of seeing where to go. Instead, he was left to feel his way along a mental map of the area. That at least, was something he was good at – his feeling for position and distance, as well as direction, were something almost born to him. The tunnel had been narrow so far, straight and unbranching – if he was lucky it would stay that way until he reached his goal. But he’d have to go slowly now – threading his way over such dangerously eroded stone, and to keep from missing any secrets Halfold probably hadn’t warned him of.
Traps. For certain. Waiting guards and gargoyles for all he knew. But a lot he could do about that now. So he edged his way along. As he did, he tried to imagine what the point of this tunnel had once been. A secret escape for a great lord in case of invasion? Had it been larger and easier to walk, a short-cut maybe between his two residences? Had a king had a mistress in here? Yes. He smiled. And it lead to her hidden chamber, where he kept her and no-one else knew.
The sounds around him were almost comforting at first, the scurrying of rats, the carried sound of voices, even crawling insect feet – they all spoke about civilisation, about being not so far from the world outside, and maybe getting close to where he was going. But as he went on, the darkness pushed in on him more insistently. It seemed to get thicker and darker, but at the same time seeming to have shapes and faces in it. And the idea of dead men would not leave his mind. The thought of murdered bones left lying here, still bound, stilling brimming with their anger and their secret. He felt as if he could feel the cold dead fingers brushing his face, sometimes touching his lips. It felt smaller and smaller, tighter, as if it were actually closing in and pinning him…
He felt wrong here. He felt like somebody else. Someone easily frightened by small, formless shadows.
Stop. It’s only the dark. This is still the city.
Nor did he think he liked this job too much. It was not just the edging his way through dark, narrow spaces – he’d done that before when he’d had to – or being so far, quiet, cold underground. It was the job itself. It felt wrong. It felt like a trap. Jerach knew well enough that he couldn’t put it past Halfold to send him into a trap or to sacrifice him. But to what?
The walls along this way felt cold. And they were getting narrower, he could feel the one wall brushing against his back – with ice patterns forming on his skin beneath his clothes – and the other brushing up against his face. There was nothing moving around him anymore, only the darkness – which seemed to grow thicker and thicker with each couple of steps. It clung to him, sticky and suffocating, growing heavier the further he pushed on in – pressing against him as if it could push its way into his flesh with its weight alone. There was no sound here, just the crushing ring of too much silence, just his breath barely visible in the air, and the patterns in the walls too much like screaming faces, the bones glowing out of his hands through transparent, melting skin….
His instincts saved him. He did what most of his years had trained him for: he froze in place, doing nothing but look.
He didn’t know what exactly it was that had warned him. A hint of silver, a hint of glitter in otherwise pitch black air; a piercing cold along wall and against his back; the same prickling cold when he breathed. The mist, demonsbreath, was in here with him. Up ahead – and by what must be the mist’s light – he could make out a ragged stretch where the ground had given away again – heavy, hard stone as it was – and fallen into the water below. Mist bled through in the gap it had left, black and formless, a different shade of black from the ambient darkness – a purer one, and painted by a subtle light from within.
Jerach forced himself to breath again. His skin was crawling all over with cold fear, and he could feel his heart trying to smash its way through his ribs. The sensation, the wanting to shrivel into a tight ball and cry, the wanting to run wildly: that was the mist. And it was the mist that had transformed the ordinary darkness into something with a predator’s claws. But it didn’t help much knowing it. The fear was as rampant, and as deep down in his bones, as if it had been his own.
Turn back. Shit, turn back.
But he already knew he wouldn’t. Even knowing absolutely that he should. Halfold was only a man, he could only kill you, at worst only torture you to death if he was in a bad mood. And over one scroll case? One job? He was nothing compared to what the nightmare tales on the street told of demonsbreath.
His voice in his head – or was it his? – You can do this.
With his heartbeat finally stilled to a near-normal pace, Jerach could see that mist floated mostly beneath the surface, that only small tendrils had drifted through the broken ground onto his level. The walls were narrow enough that he could climb between them, or at worst step across the gaps. As long as he didn’t touch it….
As he approached the mist he realised that it was bigger than he’d at first thought, and that the mercury heart of it was brighter and less steady, sending its corrupting light out through the darker parts of itself. He saw too that it was deeper than he’d guessed at first, with even less of it having reached all the way up to his tunnel.
He would still have to be careful. Life or death so. He might be able to pick his way across the remnants of stone floor, but if any part of it were less stable than he imagined, merely stumbling would probably be enough to ensure his death. As he started crossing, he gripped the opposite wall with both hands, feeling carefully and testing the ground with his first step before he made it.
Another twenty or so. Maybe thirty. That’s all. And then I’m through this.
The mist knew he was there. He could feel it reaching up at him, he could see it move, shifting in position, maybe drawn to him. He hadn’t intended to look down but in the end he couldn’t help it. More than just the call of the mist, more than sighing, indistinct voices. He wanted to know what it was.
It looked like a stormcloud, only darker, and finer, with its edges frayed so finely that they almost dissolved in the air. They were edges he could barely detect, even up close. No more than a distillation of the already-dark into something less dilute, but with shape to it, almost brightness. The core was a ball of almost liquid silver, humming with black patches and striated with black veins. A tangle of silver and black strings tumbled out of the centre as it thinned and darkened into mist. And further beneath, the colours changed – in the centre of silver was blue. And amber. Those colours cast shadows into the body of the mist that gave the illusion of form – faces, claws, hands reaching – the embodiment of not-quite-dead souls.
And he: he was a spider, scuttling along the edge of the walls, sometimes lifting his feet and into crevaces or onto stones where the ground was too unsteady, or where threads of mist glistened over it. His hands found gaps of their own accord, and his feet followed them, close enough to the mist to feel the stark cold emanating out of it, to feel a stinging frost seem to seize his flesh. It felt as if it could cut through his bones, slice his feet away from under him.
And one mistake, one slip….
He was right above it now. Flickering specks of over-dark mist enveloping that roiling, shining core. Blue shadows. Reddish. Their interplay gave faces to the dead. He could feel them all yearning at him, he could feel their thoughts raging around in the air and trying to seek dominance over his own. A warm, soft, living body: they remembered. He could feel the hooks of their desire floating out. He could feel the dark parts drifting up at him, see twinkling blacks specks in front of his eyes. And if it touched him…. Or maybe he was punctured already, all over, with their touch; how long before his skin gave way to all these holes in him and let the deathlight shine out in earnest?
No. That was the mist talking. Calling.
….. let go. come-come-come-come-…..
…..so-so-so-so-tired. aren’t you?…..
He was. His fingers could barely keep their grip. For a moment he imagined the mist surging up from the space between his tunnel and the water, enveloping him completely in itself, and the cold pain turning quickly into warmth, into cushioning, warm, calm light, into never being alone again. At the same time a fear that was older and emptier than his own soul gripped him and pressed itself inside.
In another three steps he was through it. His feet were on firm ground. But he could still feel the cold against the soles of his feet. He struggled on until he couldn’t feel it anymore, and only then let his legs give way under him.
He couldn’t take his eyes off what he’d left behind – now just a faint, eerie almost-glow in the otherwise dark. Its presence was still something that hummed and stabbed in the air, it still sought him out, was still maddened by the endlessness of its time in here. I’d be too, he thought, standing up, brushing the dust and dirt away. He’d taken on dragonsbreath and lived, but he’d never again doubt the stories about it: Died screaming. Died screaming and as bright as polished silver. Kept screaming for some days after being dead. He tried not to think about crossing it again to get back out.
He discovered that his trail kept going, the same, straight narrow way it had started. He was reassured by the increasing darkness, by the fact that he could hold his hands out in front of him and not see them. It was still all by feel, but at least he was untouched by mist, nothing glowing, nothing killing him even as he walked. His eyes kept straying backwards, half-waiting to be pounced on and suddenly dragged back in.
The passage turned, and then turned again, branched and then widened out. It was so dark that he knew nothing of a door until his probing foot kicked against it. Old, thick wood reinforced with iorn. As he felt along its surface he lamented again the loss of his fine little lantern. He knew where to get another, but he’d have to take chances, or take the time to save…. His fingers ran over a keyhole. It was rusted and degraded, but still functional and still locked. So what? This was his trade. Jerach wondered if the door would be heavily bolted from the inside as well. He hoped not – although with patience, there were ways to deal with bolts too. He fished the lockpicking wires from one of his pockets and set to work on the door by feel. It creaked and scraped when it opened slowly inwards.
Of course it was just as dark inside. Just as dark as it was on the outside. It smelled different, musty, like old dust and old leather. A library maybe. Which was a good place to store old documents. And it certainly smelled as if nobody had come down here in a while, so he wouldn’t be surprised by a guard or a serving girl.
Jerach had developed a pattern for searching a room by feel. He followed it in the same strip pattern that peasant folk used to plough their fields, beginning at one corner and following the wall along, running his hands up and down, from floor to ceiling, as he went. Then, at the end, moving out, incrementally onto the floor, and searching low. He found that he rarely missed anthing important.
Luck was with him again tonight. A milder thing than his survival of the mist, but in this uninterrupted dark it was almost as great a pleasure. Under his fingers was a smooth, ceramic brightfire lamp. Jerach felt along the rim of the bowl for the small, dangling lump of flint. He pulled it downwards, sharply, knowing that the carefully blended salts and crystals would be there, excited to be called to flame again, and igniting at the first touch of the flint. It always took a few seconds for the fire to kick in, and it was unsteady in the first instance, but then white, clean, calm and smokeless.
The lamp was a good one, using bigger and better crystals than his own lost treasure. It illuminated the large room almost to the far wall, revealing a cavernous room, tiled along the floors and walls, and striped in all directions with high shelves. The floor was set out in mosaic tiles that formed double-coloured spirals all blending into one another. It was a majestic pattern but much of it was lost beneath the shelves, the dust, the books and other clutter that peppered the floor. A long time ago this had been a rich man’s library. Perhaps he’d been scholar or the like, as he’d collected such an impressive roomful of books. The shelves, as untidy and cobwebbed as they were, were stuffed with them. Between them, and in spite of their age and probable condition, they were likely worth a fortune – at least by Jerach’s standards – to someone who knew what to look for.
And for Jerach himself: well, there were other kinds of treasures he cared more for, and he set about searching the room for them. There were none of the old, ornate chests overflowing with gold coins and gemstone that his imagination leapt first to, but there were plenty of smaller trinkets. The contents of an ink-jar had well and truly dried up now, but the the jar itself was made from thick, decorative glass, and the lid from silver; a quill-case with ruined quills, but the case itself was silver, and a coiled gold ring had been left inside- which if he were truly lucky might have tiny jewels and not glass twinkling through it.
On a corner shelf he found a locked wooden box. It must be what Halfold had sent him for. It was sturdy and only thinly adorned, and with a good – if old – lock. It was no match for Jerach or his skill with the wires, and he sat down next to the shelf to sort through the muddle of parchments and scraps of cloth he found inside. He thought that some of the cloth had been used to wrap bundles of letters, and there was velvet ribbon in there tying others. He took a couple of lengths and rolled it up into his pocket with the intention of gifting Schulka. The parchments were all just scratches and unintelligble symbols to Jerach, but he went through them piece by piece, not exactly sure what was looking for, but wanting to know that he hadn’t missed anything that might mean something to him later. And under them all, a silver scroll-case engraved with an eagle-crest. The thing he’d been sent for.
When he opened it he felt a jolt go through him, starting from the head and tumbling down to his feet. He felt a sensation of falling. He saw a sharp flicker of light run over the length of the case. It occurred in a little bit less than a second, but he knew it for what it was: the disturbing of some magical energy and protection. Jerach held the case close to him, held his breath, waiting for the roof to fall in. When it didn’t, and when ropes of pure light didn’t leap out of the floor to bind him in place, he breathed slowly, and looked inside.
It was as Halfold had said. Five letters. Old, on stiff parchment, and thick with dried and peeling ink. It was difficult to judge what they might be about, the writing in several colours, with some of the letters made large and decorative, from a paint that caught the light. And yet the writing seemed wild, too large for itself, scrawled so that the words collided with ones below and above them. He couldn’t decide if they represented official documents, rambling personal letters, or some odd territory in-between.
And he told himself it didn’t matter. All that mattered was the hope of pay, and the chance of getting Halfold off his back for a few days.
He searched the library thoroughly before he left – for more treasure, always, but also for another way out. Even with a light to guide him, and knowing what to expect, he didn’t relish the prospect of going up against that mist again. A man could push his luck too far. But the library offered him little in the way of better ideas. There was another door, at the top of a few steps, but it had been blocked off long ago – either by intent or collapse – and there was more dirt and stone holding it closed than Jerach could push through. He thought about searching the roof as well, but he was getting seriously cold now. He’d been here too long, and the dust was beginning to make him cough.
The lamp was a lot heavier and bulkier than his lantern had been, but its light was welcome, and it was too good a prize to leave behind him in the dust. The loss of a spare hand was made up for by the familiarity of a path already travelled. He pictured warm soup, and a crust of fresh, cheese-drizzled bread, warm blankets on a soft mattress. His finds would buy him at least that much.
With light to hand he could see the walls of the passageway now – they were made from tidy, worked stone, old and heavily encrusted with dirt and cobwebs, with the debris of insects that had lived and died along them. He thought that some of the stones bore inscriptions, and that they were a patchwork of colours – the yellow shades that made Namriethe twice daily a city of amber and gold, but also lighter colours, and greys. He could hear again the scurrying and snuffling of the city’s rats – and that was good too – it had been too quiet at the place he’d encountered mist.
As he worked his way along he was beginning to really feel both the cold and his tiredness. He’d not known at first how much this night had taken out of him. With the danger behind him, and also in front of him again, he began to feel shaky. Unready. The scratches on his face and hands hurt far more than they had, far more than they should.
I need bed, he thought, I need sleep, and Schulka. Or some combination of those.
The image of hot soup flared up at him again. He told himself he would have it soon. He thought about that, he thought about his next meeting with Schulka; and not about the way the dark pressed in on him, or how close it got to him, even when his new lamp should have kept it at bay.
Something was wrong.
It took maybe twenty minutes to be sure of it. For one thing, he felt dizzy beyond anything he could account for. For another, his vision was blurring, and the cold had taken on a sharper, deeper quality. But the absolute proof: he was lost.
And he’d never been lost, not once in his memory, never in his life.
Until now. And it had taken him too long to realise it. By the time he understood that the passage was the wrong shape, the wrong stone, had taken too many turns, he already didn’t know where he was.
Just find the surface. Just find the streets.
But that was in doubt now too. He knew that he should have been able to retrace his steps, but when he tried to think his way into doing so he could no longer remember which way he’d come.
There was no help for it but to keep going. When he stopped and tried to think his way through, the world just flew at him, it turned him in circles until his mind fogged up and he was useless to himself. His eyes could hardly stand the light he carried. But his arms and legs still worked – more less – so he let them guide him. Poisoned, he guessed, a trap on the scroll case, or a touch from the mist. The one was maybe irreversible, the other one certainly so. And the risk of falling dead here in this tunnel, undiscovered, the murdered dead of his earlier imagination…..
But if he kept moving he would come to a way out. Or he would come to a dead end, turn around, keep walking and come to a way out. Or a dead end. And he would start again: because he knew a way lead out. He’d been out. He’d tasted the fresh, still living air. He knew….
….. the need to focus….
……for one step to follow the next……
The light was becoming so painful to him that he’d had to smother the lamp beneath his cloak. It was cumbersome in his clammy and unsteady hands – but it was worth too much to let go of just yet. And the prospect of having light, should he need it, was better than the thought of unmitigated dark.
Because he wasn’t alone in here.
At times there were footsteps behind him, and sighs that seemed to be carried on a breeze; or soft breathing; or snuffling; or a faint sound of scraping. Sometimes. Except when he listened for it – and then there was nothing.
When his sense of balance gave out, it coupled with an acute, almost breathless exhaustion. He had little choice but to sag against the wall, concentrating to breath. The quiet came in all around him, quickly, as if it’d been waiting for him. There was only the sound of his laboured breathing. And another sound, a breathing that echoed his own, almost breath for breath, but higher, sharper, silent again when he held his breath to listen for it.
And one other sound, a faint thread of music. It came from no particular direction, but his heart latched onto it desperately. The surface. If he could listen, if he could follow the sound, and if his legs would still hold his weight. Yes. North. A little bit north-west. The way he’d already been going. Maybe close. And then there’d be help at hand.
His legs barely managed. They did only what he bullied them to, and then only clumsily, slowly. But he followed the music like a thread drawing him in. Until it died away again in only a few minutes, replaced with the sounds of old stone, and deep water, the occasional scratching, a footstep or two out of place. The tunnel had widened out again, or the darkness had gotten stronger – he wasn’t sure he could still tell the difference. His senses were as muddled as his instincts.
He was ready to despair before he found the gap. A patch along the wall where the darkness changed, and when his hands reached out blindly for it, the surface was rough, hard and soft earth, sturdy small roots, rubble. Scraps of it yielded against his scrabbling fingers. Jerach fumbled for the lamp, braving the sting of its brightness to see the corners of a small opening. It was jagged with time, grown over with moss, dirt and mould, but he could hear brief snatches of music again, the interweaving of a low, steady hum, with a soft, drum-like thudding.
He was jubilant. Until something bowled him over, sent him spinning and crashing into the wall.
Jerach rolled onto his knees, dropping the lamp for his knife, and kneeling to face…. nothing.
But he’d felt it: soft, musty, powerful, full of creeping fingers and dry, ugly, dead cold. He’d felt it. And now his head swum with sensations that flickered between sharp, pinpoint pain and an enveloping numbness. When he looked down at his hands he could see the bones beneath suddenly transparent skin.
And the feeling, the surety, of something still staring and silently breathing behind him.
Jerach chanced the lamp, grabbing it with one hand and sheathing the knife in his belt with the other. He scrambled into the gap and shoved what dirt and rubble he could manage back into the hole behind him. It could stay in there, whatever it was!
After a few gasping seconds of adjustment he realised that there was light in here beyond what he carried with him. He smothered the lamp for a moment in his cloak to be sure. There was light, coming faintly from a place above him – it had the flicker of firelight, and maybe could presage more danger, but anywhere was better than everything he’d just left behind him. Jerach stowed the lamp beneath his arm and crawled toward the surface.
He emerged where he’d never been before. He knew that at once. And knew that it carried a whole new hazard of death with it.
But for the first few moments he was still grappling too hard with the shocks running over his body to notice properly. He stood bent over, with his hands on his knees, retching and gasping while his vision swung and cascaded with too much light. It was hard to adjust, his eyes didn’t want to, and his arms and legs were going into new rounds of shaking.
When he could, Jerach stood upright. For a little while his amazement overtook his pain and disorientation. Without the slightest sense of direction he knew where he was – and that if he lived to tell about he’d likely never be here again. The area had once been rows of yellow-brick houses, built along the neat grid of the inner city. They were big houses, if not the domain of the truly elite, at least housing those who’d been well-off enough. Paved roads bisected them, and there had been street lights once. Now, it was like encountering the aftermath of a sudden snowfall, or a giant nest of spiders. Which maybe it was. The entire area was enveloped now in sinuous, almost-white thread. The shapes of the houses were lost in it, baring only a limited resemblance to what they’d once been. A few chimneys still poked out, the iron tips of a few gates, and the corners along walls and roofs. These smooth hillocks of thread flowed down into the streets, softening the line between wall and road, so that the whole area had a rolling, organic feel to it, as if a great mane of coarse, white-and-grey hair had been combed and sculpted into this shape.
It was were the Protected lived. It was where their magic was carried on, even into the depth of the night, beyond it, bordering the sunrise. That was the music he’d heard from beneath the ground, and it was going on still, getting louder, and more distinct. He held his breath: closer.
With the music came the magic. He’d not felt it at first, but he did now. It played out in contradiction to the mist – hot where the mist was cold, a dull vibration against the mist’s sharp needles, beating inside his blood, warming and thickening. Up close it was no more reassuring that the mist – a combination of threat and luring that marked it out as the shadowsbreath’s cousin.
How close were the Protected to the besiegers? Old enemies borne of close kinship?
Jerach found himself captivated by the approaching music, by the way it rolled into his flesh, heating up inside his blood, and pulsing awkwardly, at odds with his body’s rhythms. He could feel it thrumming along his skin – almost all vibration and barely any sound. But the sound was there too – a low, even, beat that danced in perfect step with a highter, lilting, almost raindrop sound. The sensation of it fizzed inside him, drenching his vision in unexpected colours, drawing rich red-purple-blue flares out of the edges of his perception.
It was something he wasn’t supposed to see, and something that he’d put his life in danger to watch. He didn’t truly think about fleeing. Not yet. He was in some odd limbo between the magic and whatever else it was that ravaged his body. If it was the mist taking a slow hold of him, then he was already as good as dead, and perhaps it was only the Protected magic, so close, that was keeping him alive this long.
And anyway, just to have seen….
He crouched within the shadows of this landscape of spidery yarn, at the same time as a procession of singers glided into the street. They walked over the enveloped roof of twin houses as if they’d been only a natural hill, their faces raised up into the night, releasing with their voices a music that encompassed drums, flutes, hailstorms, and rain falling into deep water. The Protected. Jerach had only ever seen these folk at a distance, or enveloped in white, green-rimmed hoods that left their faces and form in absolute shadow. Up close they were even less human than he would have imagined. As insect-like as the highest-strung rumours. The creatures spilling into the street were tall, white, long-limbed, and they walked with a stride that would have seemed awkward on a human body. They were naked in the freedom of this sanctuary, and he saw that their skin was a grim white, but splotched with traces of grey or gold, covered in a segmented armour of rectangular, hard scales. Their faces were smoother, white, with lines of gold creased into a streamlined flow of scales. Their heads had more of the insect in them that their bodies – tall, top-heavy, bulging at the crown, and tapering rapidly in towards their tiny, pinched mouths. Their eyes were huge, and raised, gleaming in a dark maroon colour, segmented, and infilled with dark gold.
Jerach had never before seen the supple, single file spines that progressed from the top of their heads all the way down their backs, nor had he known these could glow red as they did now. Just along the tips, but there was a sense of power in it – an intensity of warmth infused into the colour that was all about magic. The spines vibrated visibly, and when two tips came close to touching there were black sparks that snapped in the air.
He wondered idly if it hurt them.
They were entitled, here, to kill him on sight. And he wondered, without real fear, how they would do it – if their bodies had an energy in them that would unravel him with a touch, or would they simple cut his throat as if they were ordinary men?
That was the deal. Or so he’d heard it. The Protected had been a tiny and hidden minority in the days before the siege. And they had not been protected, but had largely hidden in the underground, isolated parts of the city, or in the hills around. And then when the pangentian army swept in over the plains, with the conquest of cities already at their back…. The siege had changed everything. Now they had the city’s governors almost at their mercy: and that was the deal: protection for magic. They bore a status that forbid any harm to them, on punishment of death, that protected the safety and sanctity of these parts of the city they had taken over, that allowed them absolute dominion here – the right of life or death, the secrecy of their magic which they guarded like rare gemstones.
And all in a couple of seasons.
No-one had known there were so many of them. And none knew how they had been able to populate the area so quickly.
What they knew, and what counted, was that their magic worked. And a promise that was vague and untested: they’d fight at humanity’s side when it came time to save the city.
Jerach crouched amidst the thread they used to make homes. It was both silky and sticky to touch, invoking again the image of spiders. He wondered what it was like inside these swirling nests.
The Protected passed his position, close, but giving no sign of noticing his presence. As they did, they followed a pattern that he supposed was some kind of dance – they bobbed and crouched, raised their arms into the air, drew close to one another, bodies linked, and then slid away. He couldn’t tell, in spite of their nakedness, which were the males or females. They were simply so alien. But there was a beauty in them as well, a slow elegance in the way their bodies moved, and an almost plant-like quality to the way their muscles pressed beneath their hard skin. Sometimes when they moved their scales clinked together in a dull, stonelike way. The overall effect was hypnotic.
And the music, infused as it was with their strange spellcraft, was nearly overwhelming at this closeness. Bright colours streamed through his head, almost blurring out his sight, and an unfelt pain sliced through his head, driving him into a tinier ball. Vibrations shook him all the way through. He couldn’t have run so much as a step if he’d wanted to. If he could have even thought about running.
As the procession passed him, as the sounds faded enough to give him his wits back, Jerach started to back away. As entranced as he’d been by what he’d witnessed – as utterly without regret about it – he was aware again of the danger. This was one place he wouldn’t survive being found. His feet struggled with the steps – he didn’t know if that was the ambient magic still playing with his senses, or the other thing still chewing at him from within. As he moved away he was beginning to sense the cold again, and to feel the small injuries to his body flare beyond their strength. He could imagine the small cuts and grazes had blades still embedded in them.
He could see from here where the fibrous suburb he’d unwittingly invaded began to give way again to stone walls, and bared streets. When he was on them – even in this state – he’d know where he was again – he’d know how to reach help.
For all the good it’ll do.
His skin bore no signs yet of silver, not even in tiny specks, but he couldn’t deny the way his body was failing him, the effort it took to keep his legs moving.
He was nearly to the edge of the Protected zone, before something knocked him down again. And this time he saw it. It was only for a second, the last moment before it struck him and sent him rolling. It was a grey thing, and white, insubstantial, frayed, skeletal – it was all but transparent – grey bones wrapped in grey, trailing cobwebs, its shape blurred and trailing, its face…. almost his own – a grey, degraded, shimmering copy of what he recognised from the mirror, distorted and roaring in an anger that displayed a mouth of curved, cluttered fangs.
Jerach scrambled for his feet. His lamp was gone, and his cloak torn off. Which was fine, it left his arms free to reach for his knife. Dizziness washed over him, but he pushed it back, darting with his eyes for what he’d seen. There was only the grey-and-white expanse on one side, the dull yellow blockiness of the city on the other. But he’d seen it. If only for a second, he’d felt the sharp edges of its breath. A tiny, wailing cut on his left shoulder testified to the main point: this thing was real and capable of hurting him.
But where was it?
It came at him again, suddenly. And this time he didn’t see it at all. It struck him invisibly from the side, sending him sprawling with a clingy, scraping force. His knife slashed only through air as he tried to fight it off.
Jerach rolled, only making his knees, before his vision smeared into meaningless lines of white light. He kept his knife out ahead of him, spreading his knees for whatever little balance he could achieve. Could the mist do something like this? Certainly a poison couldn’t. But something had followed him up here from the depths.
He waited for it. Afraid that when his sight cleared it would be there with him, inches away, eye to eye; and he braced himself to strike suddenly when it happened. But when the world came back it was empty. He looked in every direction for…. anything, for a movement, or an odd shape, for a shadow with nothing casting it. He would have called out for it – in a whisper -if he’d been anywhere else.
It was gone. Except: moments at a time: the feeling of sharp, heatless breath against the back of his neck.
He staggered on. He was getting weaker, and his vision was dimming. If he was going to collapse it couldn’t be here. A rich lady or her passing servant might take pity on a dying boy – the insect creatures in this place…. it was beyond even a guess.
His feet echoed on solid stone again. Good. He kept going, hardly noticing the grand houses that lurched by him, but appreciating their high walls, which he could run his hands along to maintain his balance, which, he admitted, were holding him upright. It was quiet hereabouts, and for once when he would have welcomed the presence of a guardsman, there was nobody in sight.
But not yet. Jerach patted his chest. He still had the scroll case to deliver to Halfold. A part of him didn’t care, let the bastard take it off his dead body after claiming him out of a prison cell. But another part of him was still ready to live, and had a job not yet done. He told himself, a little bit desperately, that he’d fought his way through the worst of this – seen things that would turn into stories to impress men twice his age or more – of course he could manage the rest. Of course he’d survive to boast of this night later.
As he walked he could hear the quiet giving way again to the noise of the older, rougher parts of the city. Where there was never really quite such a thing as nighttime. It was as Schulka’s warning earlier in the night had predicted – there was fighting. Not the full-bodied, almost organised pitch of a riot, but something more chaotic. If Ubdor’s men were starting fights all over the city, then they wanted to make a point, mark something as territory. The sounds of running and shouting carried in the air.
And as he walked he was still hunted. He could feel it at his back. Only sometimes. At times with a needling breath, at others with a brush of sharpened fingers, or maybe a sound that was not voice or breath, not quite the wind, or the scrape of claws on stone. A few times he tried stopping suddenly, and turning as sharply as he could manage, trying to catch a glimpse of it before it melted away. There was nothing, and each time he did it the motion was enough to knock him almost off his feet.
But he was almost there. This was something too specific for Halfold to chance dropping off beneath a rock on in a gap between stones. He would have someone waiting at the closest drop-off points, and he’d send someone trustworthy down to collect it. And maybe pay me. And maybe help me. He wouldn’t be surprised at all if Halfold had known there’d be a poison, that he might even have a cure for it. But then it wouldn’t surprise him either to hear that that was his night’s payment.
Except. The touch of invisible fingers, the invisible sweep of rotted, dry-dead fabric, against his skin. He was followed, not poisoned. Maybe followed and poisoned…. And maybe no-one would help at all. He had tears on his cheeks and didn’t remember when he’d begun to cry them.
He reached a narrow road that ran parallel to the street that marked the next drop-off point. It had been louder in this part, but eerily quiet in the section he walked into. Crouching behind the cover of a low wall, he understood why. The aftermath of a fight had left blood on the streets, and there were bodies curled and sprawled, uncared for. The city guard were teamed up in brief and unwilling alliance with the king’s men. From this distance it was hard to read their faces for sure, but he thought they looked grim, their hidden expressions set into their faces, and from the way they moved, some had been injured. There was no sign now of the uninjured brawlers they’d torn from each other’s throats, only the slow and wounded, who were being picked up and beaten some more, slammed up against walls for the sake of questioning, or dragged by their hair through the streets to wait for justice. There were knives on the ground beside the dead.
Faces reappeared in the windows, men and women and crept into doorways to see a little better what had been going on. They hung there, braced like rabbits to dart back into their burrows, if it seemed like the guardsmen would notice them.
Jerach lay his head against the wall – his body was all stone-weight now, it felt as if the ground sought to embrace him. Shivers ran up one side of him, and then the other. He wondered what had gone on down there – something that another night he might have been caught up in – maybe something he would have steered clear of, waiting it out on the rooftops, but watching every step, and preparing the story in his head for when the guard and their coin found him next. But it was clear, anyway, that he could not go down there with Halfold’s prize – he could not risk their searching him and finding that.
He resolved instead on going to the Wandering Stag. It wasn’t that far, and the silver coin he’d earned earlier, with some of the night’s treasures, would at least get him a bed and a hot meal. He’d get another glimpse of Schulka’s face.
When he tried to stand again – both arms braced against the wall to lever himself up – he was knocked down, hard. It felt like falling three or four floors, like the hard ground going right through him. He was winded and gasping out for breath, and the thing, still close, sweeping down on him again. It took most of his concentration and all his strength to draw his knife, and to slash at the blur of grey movement, to feel no resistance to his blade but to see for a moment a line of black blood which dissipated again on the air.
“Fight me properly! Finish it here!” He wasted his energy shouting at something that was no longer there.
But it was close. Always. And he realised that he couldn’t take a thing like that back to Schulka.
There was only one other place. It was closer, but he didn’t know if he’d be welcomed there, much less in the middle of the night, dishevelled and bleeding. But it had been a night for long shots, and any destination seemed better than having to think again. He was cautious in finding his feet – afraid that as soon as he’d gained his balance something would crash into him again. His ankles buckled when the tried to stand on them, and it took three tries and the closest wall to gain a proper footing. It occurred to him, only dimly, that he was putting his life in the hands now, of a man who might not want to even acknowledge him.
The house he recognised. It was tall, stone, with an imposing facade of wide pillars built into smooth, limewashed walls. The windows were glazed and curtained, and flowers grew in tiny walled enclosures around the edges. The roof – above three storeys of silent, unlit rooms – was made from dark tiles and overhung the street. Only one window still bore a hint of firelight.
Rathshorn. I knew he didn’t sleep.
Only the top two rooms belonged to his old friend and mentor, and a small door around the back gave access to them. Jerach dragged himself up to the door, leaning heavily against it to be able to knock. He thought, but he didn’t know, that he’d called out to Rathshorn by name.
His friend had to almost catch him when he opened the door. He was a man of nearly thirty years, the image of respectability, with his hair combed back, and an embroidered tunic secured with a low, leather belt. There were rings on his fingers. He said “You look like shit.”
Jerach wanted to come back with something witty – that he felt at least as bad, and thanks for asking – but instead he could only manage a croaking sound, the words “Help me. Please.” He could no longer hold back a shocked sob. He really would die tonight.
Rathshorn helped him up the stairs – almost carried him – and sat him down next to the fireplace with blankets over his shoulders. He warmed some milk with honey and brandy, and pushed it firmly into Jerach’s hands, waiting while he struggled to swallow some. Jerach tried to explain: “I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right.”
“I…. I don’t…. I mean…”
He obeyed. It helped to ease his shaking. “I think they’ve killed me, Rath….”
“I don’t know. There was a job…. I…. This.” He put the scroll case down beside him.
Rathshorn said “May I?” Picking it up before waiting for an answer, he ran his fingers over it carefully before twisting open the lid.
“It was following me. I got sick. And this thing, attacking me. It…. it was invisible.”
Rathborn said “You’d better tell it all. Beginning’s as good a place as any.”
“This is killing me. I think, really-”
Rathshorn clamped two hands down on his wrists, he locked eyes with him in the unbreakable way he’d done in Jerach’s early years as a cocky, eager thief. He had the look that meant business. He said “Maybe. Maybe it is. Do you want to die blubbering, or can you tell me what went down?”
The story came out in fits and starts. Not by his intent, but just because his memories were so scrambled, and he wasn’t sure he still knew what had happened before what.
“So Halfold sent you for this?”
“Yes. What does it mean?”
“That you’ve been cursed.”
He mouthed the word silently in response.
Rathshorn said briskly “Yes. Cursed. And I’d say that the curse was in the magic protecting this scroll-case, enspelled to go off at anyone opening it without invitation.”
“Oh it’s gone now. I’m not the amateur that you are. It’s not engraved into the case, and there’s no trace of magic still left. That sort of spell’s a once-off, and the first careless hands are the ones to wear it. Where was my training, boy?”
Not boy. Jerach. But what did it matter?
A stifled sob slipped out of him again before he could prevent it. He felt as if the next wrong word, or true thought, would set him off crying in earnest. Here. In front of Rathshorn, who he’d admired for so many years. “I wasn’t sure you’d let me in. I thought, with your new life…”
“Boy. Jerach. I’ll always let you in. Damn idiot. And drink that milk, it’s good for you.”
The broken-down laugh was close to being a sob. He could taste the salt of tears and was too tired to properly feel shame. “Will you help me get him back for this? I just want to have vengeance. Will you?”
“Oh, come off it! There’s a cure for this.”
“Yes. It’s magic. It can be undone by someone else’s magic. That’s the way it works.”
“How much will it cost me?”
“Everything you’ve got, and a favour. But I’d take it. It’s a bargain.”
For his life. Which was what Rathshorn had given back to him. He drank hot wine, sitting on the edge of his friend’s narrow bed, taking in the fact that he was no longer dying. He was given still a little bit to shaking; and he found that he could not eat enough. Rathshorn was patient, plying him with hot soup and bread, waiting quietly while he finished it, and refilling his bowl.
It had been a close call. Maybe Rathshorn was a little bit shaken as well.
Jerach could remember only snatches of the last two hours.
He remembered that the woman his friend had taken him to had been beautiful. Almost too beautiful to be human. And he’d wanted to ask her about it at the time, but had thought better of it: she being the one person in all the world he could least afford to piss off right then.
Her house was mostly hidden, small and built from old wood amidst the taller, stone houses of neighbouring merchants, and did not open out onto the street. Instead he remembered – probably – stumbling down a narrow path to be confronted with a strange, low cottage. The wood it had been built from reminded him of shipwrecks – the patchwork of colours, and the bright riot of herbs that grew all around it. The roof was of old, wet thatch, and the heavy foundations were sunk deep. It was almost more of a cellar than a house – accessed by steps that plunged into the ground, leading to a lower floor – smoky and windowless, lit only by odd colours of fire in an iron grate. There were herbs hanging everywhere, and patchwork blankets.
And the lady herself. Even with his wits still about him he wouldn’t have tried to guess her age. She was exotically dark, with flowing, glossy black hair. She wore it loose, and it coiled thickly around her shoulders. Her skin was a dark, olive colour, supple and hazelnut warm, with a sheen like polished stone. Her eyes were huge, dark, but also red, and her lips were a colour of red that rivalled blood, fire and sunset all at once. Along her cheeks he could see red stripes. And the odd upturn of her chin, the jutting, bony shape of her cheeks, a strange, glowy flatness to her forehead.
Are you fairy? Are you part dragon?
If he hadn’t been dragged, nearly unconscious, into her house, he might have asked her something like that, or dared flirting. Instead, it was all he could do to breath, to slump where Rathshorn laid him down, and stare enraptured, terrified, into her eyes.
She told him, “Yes. Those are the the bones of dead ships.” Perhaps he’d asked her about her house – he’d no memory of that. Nor any true memory of the magic she’d done. He’d been aware of her voice, and of a heat that ran through him, a tingling, and a serious look in her eyes – exchanged expressions between her and Rathshorn that seemed in his blurring mind to condemn him.
Her hands running over his skin, a feeling like needles and heatless burning.
Rathshorn’s voice: “It’s over. It’s done. It turns out you’ll live.”
He remembered the agony of getting there. Having to walk on what felt like two broken ankles. Rathshorn’s voice in his ear, “A little further. We’re nearly there now.” Time and time again.
He thought what was coming for him had attacked him again. He thought he’d been scratched by it – along his back, again along his chest, that he’d fought with his knife, slashing too wildly to be hitting anything. Afraid that the thing had attacked Rathshorn too. Afraid that he had, with his knife, in his frenzy and confusion.
“Did you see it? Did you see it’s face?”
But his friend had seen less than he had. “It’s a curse, and it’ll hunt you till it kills you.”
So they had to push on.
He remembered being cold. And the way long, narrow cuts dug into his flesh – a searing, burrowing pain, that made him bite at his clenched knuckles, tearfaced, trying to bear it. And the way the whole world just kept falling. And rocking. And spinning. He couldn’t feel Rathshorn holding him up, but he knew – in sheer faith, and in not falling flat on his face – that he must be.
He could remember somewhat better the walk home. There was still plenty of shivering and stumbling going on, but he felt as if he had most of his mind back. He’d been hours lying in the woman’s house, recovering; and Rathshorn had sat with him most of the time. The woman had been there too, coming over now and then to check on his progress; he’d seen them whispering together once or twice.
The night air was still cold, and it still had that promise of snow in it. But it felt good now, after the smoky room, clearing the murky thoughts out of his head. He said again “I’m sorry.”
“Oh, give that up. What on earth for?”
“For bringing this on you.”
“Nothing? It was at least sharp.” He looked down unwillingly at the bloodstained lines on his shirt. “I’m sorry I brought you that. How could I have known that it wasn’t going to kill you too? And I’m sorry for crying like a baby.”
The softness of the response told him a fair bit. “It’s all right.” Rathshorn didn’t look at him directly.
“That bad huh?”
“I saw her face. And yours. The way you looked at each other.”
“You were in a bad way then. The curse was killing you. It was too early then to know if she could break it.”
“You sound like you care.” Jerach quipped, and immediately regretted the tone of it, recalling Rathshorn’s voice in the edges of his consciousness, tugging him on, holding him together.
“I’d punch you in the face for that, if I thought you could take it right now.”
“At least remind me that I didn’t hurt you.”
“You think I can’t get out of the way of a knife?”
“Well, tell me you did.”
“Of course I did.”
He was one the few success stories. Rathshorn. Having been born into a life of thievery, much the way Jerach had been, orphaned fairly young in life, and having lived by his wits ever since. He’d been a young man in his twenties, and Jerach a boy of just twelve. It was Rathshorn, second only to his father, who’d taught him everything he knew, who’d watched out for him in the early days of grief, and who’d had his back for so many years, so many times.
He’d been the one willing to take the great risks, but the one was well, willing to make the right choices with his luck. A boy who liked books. A man now, with his own little shelf of them. He’d conned and saved his way into a state of respectability – lending money now and then, taking jobs where his life had dangled by less than a thread.
He was an archivist these days, and a scribe to men who didn’t know he’d once robbed them or played them. He had only the two rooms, but in a fine neighbourhood, with a small chest of coins well hidden, and scattered careful investments.
Jerach wanted to ask him if he was happy, but it didn’t feel like the right time or the right question. Instead he came out with, “So, you and her?”
“She was pretty wonderful.”
He shrugged “Well, she did save your life.”
“Objectively speaking as well.”
“Mm. So she is.” He had plainly no intention of revealing more.
They passed a huddle of guardsmen, the second they’d passed during the night. He thought he had a memory of Rathshorn talking to them on the way to Ishwalthia’s house, reassuring tense men that he was only carrying home his very drunk friend. There was the smell of smoke in the air now, the traces of it in clouds overhead. The street were calm, but they still bore the tension of conflict. There were still whispers being passed from mouth to mouth. Jerach asked Rathshorn what he knew about that.
“Precious little. I make it my business these days to see that it’s not my business.”
“Really? That straight?”
“I’ve a calling, boy. Books. That was always my real soul.”
“But you must…. Those instincts never get old.”
“If someone yells duck I’ll duck first, and then I’ll ask him why. You hear rumours, sure, and you know when to keep the door locked, and the shutters bolted tight.”
“Maybe. I’ve heard fights in town. I don’t try to hear more.”
Maybe he did envy Rathshorn a little bit, a certain peace and pride that came with an ordinary life. But how did he keep it from becoming boring? He wanted to ask him that too, did he ever want to dive back into it? Didn’t he miss the thrill? But this wasn’t the time for that, there was too much gratitude on his shoulders, and too much a nearness of death.
Rathshorn reminded him, asking him, “How are you feeling?”
“That’d be no challenge. I’m asking you honestly.”
“Like still falling. And as if I’m still being cut open. But I can manage it now. I’m me. I know which way’s north again.”
Rathborn chuckled, he put his arm around him, shaking him a little bit. “Well, take this as it comes. It’s been a razor-sharp night.”
So now, he sat on the bed, glad of the warm soup, and the fire, watching his hands take their time in steadying. Rathshorn sat at a table nearby, reading over the documents Jerach had retrieved from the library.
In between times he talked about the curse. “I’ve read about things like this before. They bind some demon of the air into the spell, it latches onto the first person to break the protection. And then it’s like an attack dog, it builds its strength up again from the life energy of victim, and gets strong enough to kill him. Death energy, that’s stronger, again. Usually enough to set the thing free.”
“You read a lot.”
“A good thing I do. I told you the value of books.”
He laughed unsteadily, “And I told you it was whatever I could get for them in an alley.” He put his cup down, taking a slow breath: “Halfold knew.”
“Of course.” Unspoken: he sent you there to die.
“He probably thinks I’m dead. He’ll have men out looking for the body.”
Rathshorn ran his fingers over the letters. “Looking for these at least.”
“What are they?”
“Funny you should ask that. They’re a mixture of letters and genealogies.”
“So they relate to some important men. And some seriously rich inheritances.”
“And Halfold wants in?”
Rathshorn shrugged, “Could be.”
“I still want to get him back for this.”
“Oh yes? How much?’
“Maybe all the way.”
“That’s brave talk. Jerach, you’ve just crawled out from under death’s gaze. Are you sure you want to crawl back in?”
“What else can I do? Just walk back up to him and hand this over, and say thanks so much for the work, what else do you got?” But he could. He could do just that. And he could go on with living his life, hunting on the streets and rooftops – at least until Halfold chose to throw him away again.
Rathshorn said “Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing you can do he hasn’t got coming. I’m only saying: think; because you’ll be playing with fire.”
“Yes, I know.” And if he stopped to think about it he would lose his nerve. But Halfold had taken something out of him tonight, exposed him to a level of fear and weakness that he wasn’t sure he could ever completely put behind him. Plotting his revenge made him feel stronger again, it reminded him: be a step ahead of the game, make sure they dance to your music, don’t dance to theirs.
“All the way then?”
“Will you help?”
“I’ll always help.”
Rathshorn walked with him as far as Old Hangman’s Corner. He asked again how he was feeling.
“Like making history.”
Rathshorn smiled. “Watch your back out there.”
“Not just Halfold. The curse tells its caster when it’s triggered. On the off-chance he’s still alive he’ll be looking for you as well.”
“I know where to send him.”
“You know, you took your time in coming to me.”
“I didn’t know…. You’ve got a proper life here.”
“And you’re as daft as a twelve-year-old milkmaid. What if you’d died on the streets because you didn’t have enough sense left in you to know where to go to for help?”
Point taken. He realised that it had been close to a year since he’d even spoken with Rathshorn, blithely assuming it was his old friend’s preference. He almost said: I think you’ll want to avoid me again for a little while now, but that really would have been the heart of ingratitude. He said “Could you really not see that thing attacking me?”
“It looked like you were fighting thin air.”
“It had… almost, my face…”
“It was feeding off you. That’s all.”
“Dead. It’s dead. And that’s good. They’re evil things.”
“You’ve read that?”
“Yes. And I think one day I’ll try writing something. Maybe you’ll be in it.”
On the corner, in the quiet, he looked down at the blue-black cobbled streets he was probably going to change tonight. “Are you going to wish me luck?”
“I always say, if you need wishing luck you’re as good as dead already. But this is a whole other night. So, consider your luck wished. Just don’t make me have to see you dead. You know I’ll know.”
Jerach waited in the quiet, sunken alley, knowing that his distress signal would have been detected by now. The poison he’d taken was beginning to take effect. It’d been hard to make himself drink that, after what he’d already been through tonight – but it had to look good: he was supposed, by now, to look like the walking dead; that’s what Halfold’s men would be expecting.
He sat waiting, with his head against the wall. It felt as if it wanted to roll right off, but he supposed that was just to be expected. The image of it, popping suddenly into his mind, made him want to laugh. But really, this was serious business.
Rathshorn’s rumour – passed through twelve different sources to disassociate itself from its author – would have reached the right ears by now. The distress call as well. There was only the waiting to do.
Sure enough, he saw the quick flashfire of a signal. And saw the approach of five men. It had been too much to hope for that Halfold might show up himself to claim this. Too much. And yet perfect. Because now, here he came, one of the five figures, the others being his bodyguards. Jerach could feel the acid stir up in his blood – the man who’d carelessly sacrificed his life for a few scraps of parchment.
I’m here to kill you. He could actually picture himself saying so. He had his knife. But he knew the bodyguards would be faster. And anyway, he had this plan.
“Jerach. Poor Boy. I’ve come to your call.”
It didn’t take much to sound like he was near death. Jerach levered himself to his feet. “I couldn’t… the drop off, there were guards around everywhere… and something’s happening to me. Something’s wrong.”
“Do you have it? The scroll case.”
Jerach nodded, “Yes. Here.”
Halfold took it. He said “Good.” His voice was like syrup. “You can go now.”
He knew. The sound of that dismissal, he was a dead man already in Halfold’s mind, unlamented at that. He said, stalling him “Can you help me?”
Halfold said “Find somewhere warm to rest, boy. See that girl of yours again.”
For the last time. “I’m hurt. I’m really sick….”
“You did well. A night of rest should set you right.”
He risked it “What’s in there?”
Halfold smiled “You know better than that.”
And the alleyways erupted. It was perfectly timed, and neatly done. There were maybe fifteen men in all, and they came from multiple directions at once. Jerach thought he managed to look as shocked as anyone, making a show of reaching for his knife, but instead stumbling backwards, crashing awkwardly against a wall and falling down. Blades were being drawn in all directions. He was beaten and kicked on the ground himself – perhaps just to make it look good, or did these minions have no way of knowing he’d sold Halfold out to them?
Well, you deserved it. You know you did. You’ve already done worse to me.
He rolled into a ball, watching as the bodyguards were cut or beaten down, watching men converge on Halfold, disarm him, mob him into submission. His was too great a value to kill outright – and still, things were in freefall – even Ubdor couldn’t have yet worked out all he would do. Jerach waited until he was sure they had Halfold, that he was secured and not dangerous, before crawling away into the dark of the alley, into the streets, then the roofs, until he could make for home unobserved.
There was one more stop to be made on the way. That one was a gamble. There had been spies out looking for him already tonight, and there’d be more by now, even if his role in the ambush hadn’t been guessed. There rooftops were his habitat, but he wasn’t the only one, he was competing against his own kind, and he was damaged while they weren’t. His balance had all but gone, and there were shooting pains starting at his head and running up and down his body.
It’ll only last a few hours. That’s what Rathshorn had said. Enough to convince them, but not to incapacitate you too badly, and not enough to do you any real harm. That part of it had seemed to worry him. His friend explained: You didn’t see a mirror all night. I’m not sure you’ve any idea.
And so it was best to lay low, to play dead, until he saw how events were going to unfold. That was what he should have been doing. But instead he crouched on a roof, opposite her window, judging his timing. The house was amongst a row of identical and near collapsing houses. They were all made from the city’s yellow stone, but many had been patched with rubble or bore gaping holes and long, branching cracks. Windows were left open, or boarded, or left with hanging, wounded shutters. The tiles bore their share of mosses and moulds.
Am I even going to make the jump? But the fact that he had to ask himself that was half of the reason he tried. He landed heavily, the pain of it flaring through his ankles; and he had to catch himself against the tiles to avoid sliding down onto the road. Schulka had only the one little room here, tiny, with no fire and no proper bed. Knocking on the shutters he was reminded of all the times he had promised himself one day he’d take her away from all this – and of the fact that he’d never made that promise to her.
Schulka came to the window, with her hair ragged and burning all around her face, and her eyes wide in the dark. Jerach couldn’t have imagined her more beautiful, not dressed in all the jewels and finery of a queen.
“Jerach.” She kept her voice to a whisper.
“Jerach. You’re hurt?” The same bare whisper, her face pressed close against his.
“Not so badly.” He promised, “Not really.”
“What are you doing here?”
He couldn’t help the grin: “I’ve made some changes.”
Schulka stared. There was something wild in her eyes, but also fear.
“There’s been trouble. Or at least I think there’s something going on that’s big.”
He wondered how much of that was him, and how much had already been in play before he’d made his choice.
She asked him “What changes?”
“I don’t even know yet. I don’t even know what I’ve done. I may sound a little bit drunk, but really I’m not. I just don’t know what tomorrow’s going to bring.”
“You’ve been bleeding.”
“Oh, I know. But not badly.” He kissed her suddenly, softly, not having planned to do it.
She said, “What are you doing here?” But a halfway smile played across her lips.
“I’ve come to ask you this: would you wait for me? If things get complicated, or however bad it looks, and maybe I can’t come back for you for a while. Maybe you hear that I’m dead. Would you wait for me anyway?”
“Would you wait?”
“But what have you done?”
“Nothing. Or everything. But will you? Maybe for a long time.”
“I can’t give you anything. Not yet.”
“Yes.” She returned his kiss quickly. “You’re in it up to your neck aren’t you? Whatever it is. I doubt you should be here.”
“I shouldn’t. But I heard you say yes.”
“You heard me. Now go on. Go.”
She was right of course. It was later in the night than he’d realised – later in the morning: he could see the red stripe of the sun rising beyond his ragged hideout. Even that wouldn’t keep him safe for long, but he’d need some sleep, he’d need a fresh mind and good ears to think his way through things. He squeezed her fingers quickly, and crept away, low, along the roofline. The stark, red outline of the hills was his beacon. There was a heavy guard presence out along Harrow street, so he’d make his way back along the north routes today. Poisoned or not, he was still quick enough to be back under Stonesgrasp’s shadow before the sun was in the sky.
That would bring what it would.