Read The Margrave Online

Authors: Catherine Fisher

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The Margrave (6 page)

BOOK: The Margrave
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The castellan’s room was warm in the sunlight that slanted from its windows; in the daylight Carys saw they were thickly glazed with the unbreakable Maker glass.
Scala had her hair loose. It brushed her small shoulders as she looked up from a file of papers. “Sleep well?”
Carys didn’t bother to answer. Instead she leaned on the desk with both hands and said, “I’ve made up my mind. These are my conditions. I want an assurance from you—countersigned from Maar—of my reinstatement and I want copies of it sent to every Watchhouse and Tower. I want a third of all rewards and promotions. Up front, I want two thousand marks, my own armed patrol, and a permanent suite of rooms in the Tower of Song.”
“I see.” Scala didn’t even blink. “Fairly extensive demands for a prisoner. And in return, what?”
Carys took a breath. It was a simple sentence, but it cost her a great effort to say it.
“In return I go with you to the Pits of Maar and together we inform the Margrave—face–to-face, if he exists—exactly where he can find this Raffael Morel.”
There was a long silence. Then Scala smiled. “It seems fair.”
“Oh, it is.” Carys sat in the nearest chair. She leaned back and blew hair out of her eyes, wondering what Scala really thought.
“We’ll leave as soon as possible.” The castellan looked at Quist. “Get things ready.”
He shrugged. “It’ll take three days.”
Carys thought of the spotty boy’s blurted secrets. “Make it two,” she said thoughtfully.
6
Are these the-ladders that lead to heaven?
Who has ever climbed to their top?
 
Poems of Anjar Kar
T
HE YOUNG WOMAN ROCKED the crying child. “I suppose you’ve come for the babies and the lame ones now,” she said savagely. “No one else is left! Who’s supposed to sow and harvest? Who’s supposed to milk the cows? Don’t you people have any sense?”
The Watchsergeant was hot and thirsty. The hut was dank. In one corner an old woman rocked, dribbling and mumbling to herself, spitting into the fire and then giggling with an odd, manic glee. It gave him the creeps. And the place stank—the pile of marset dung outside the door was huge and fresh. His stomach heaved. He took out a rag of handkerchief and pressed it over his nose.
“I’m not taking anyone, woman. It’s a search. There have been reports of bandits. A lot of them, gathering in the hills.”
“Bandits!” The woman snorted and waved her free arm. “Oh, yes. Here they are, look, hundreds of them. All crammed into this luxurious palace!”
The Watchman shrugged. It was true he could see the whole of the inside of the hut and had no desire to go farther in; it was sooty and smoke-blackened, with lumps of what might be meat hanging from the rafters. One cupboard, a hearth with a dull fire, two box beds. Not much else. The floor was trodden mud. A real hovel.
The old woman cackled and looked at him suddenly with the white of one eye. Her face was filthy, her long gray hair tangled. “Beware,” she said. “The owl and the kraken, the cold shadows of the moons.” She spat solemnly and the fire crackled. “Death is looking for you. He has long fingers.”
“Don’t mind her,” the young woman snapped. “Her mind’s gone.”
But the Watchman had had enough. He backed out, trying not to breathe the stink. “All right, but if you see anyone . . .”
“I’ll stay in and bar the door.”
The giggle from the dark corner chilled him. He walked quickly back to the horse, leaving the door to slam behind him. Job for one man, they’d said. No one had told him the place was a madhouse.
After the Watchman had ridden away, the farmstead was silent for at least five minutes. Then the door burst open; the two women ran out, long spades in their hands. They cleared the great pile of dung aside quickly, then heaved up the trapdoor. Alys peered down. “Are you alive, keepers?”
Galen’s hands came up; he hauled himself out. “We are. Though half choked.”
Raffi was pulled out next. He had never been so glad to breathe fresh air in his life; he crouched and coughed it in till his eyes watered. The Sekoi gasped and spat and sniffed its own fur in disgust. “An ingenious idea, ladies, but I think I almost prefer capture.”
“Inside,” Alys said. “Quickly.” The hut was almost as unbearably stuffy as the dark pit had been, but the fire cheered it. While her daughter-in-law built up the blaze, Alys smiled proudly. “Cara was superb. And you should have seen me as a madwoman.”
“I’m sure it was most realistic.” The Sekoi sat, stretching its long legs with a purr of relief. “But now you are safely home, we should go as soon as possible. Let the keepers see these relics.”
A cheep startled Raffi. In one dim corner a cage hung, with a green markeet in it. It eyed him beadily through the smoke. Galen had seen it too; he frowned. “There should be no caged souls in a free house.”
The young woman said, “Keeper, the bird is happy here.”
“Set him free. If he’s happy, he’ll stay.”
She looked down. Finally she said, “Tomorrow I’ll do it.”
“Tomorrow,” Galen said sourly, “is never . . .” He stopped. Rigid. The red light was tiny and it burned them both like a coal. Raffi almost hissed with the sudden pain of it; with his third eye he saw it, sharp as a star, like the point of a heated sword, searing him.
The Sekoi was asking something, concerned, but all he could feel was the Maker-light. It faded, then pulsed again. When it was gone he felt abruptly cold. The Sekoi watched, intent. “Can you speak?”
“Yes.” Raffi turned to Galen. “It had to be a relic! Something still alive.”
Galen nodded. He stood up and went to the door and opened it, looking out to the jagged hills.
“The relics are here.” Alys went to the bird’s cage and put her hand in. “Jem pecks any strangers, so we feel it’s the safest place.” The bag she pulled out was small and covered with sawdust; hastily she brushed it clean, then emptied the contents out onto the table and made the sign of honor over them reverently. “These are all we have.”
From the door, Galen didn’t turn. “Look them over, Raffi,” he said morosely.
A little disappointed, Alys stared at his back.
Raffi fingered the objects. Already he knew there was no energy left in them; none of these could have produced that point of power. The Sekoi, always curious, leaned over his shoulder. There was a small bracelet and a cube that opened and was empty inside. Beside them lay a smooth black object with many buttons, each with a Maker-symbol. He had seen several of these. Galen thought they had been used to control larger relics. He pressed a few buttons. Nothing happened.
The Sekoi’s long fingers turned the rest; a broken silver disc, and a blue-lidded object with strange devices, which opened to show a cracked screen and more buttons.
“Anything?” Galen asked.
“No.”
The keeper turned, came over, and looked down at the sorry collection. “How are the things of the Makers lost,” he muttered, as if the sight chilled him. “All their power, all their greatness. Dwindled to this.”
Raffi glanced up. It was unlike Galen to show doubts; his faith was always fierce and restless. Or had been, until they had lost Solon. That treachery had devastated him, perhaps even more than Galen knew. Now he said, “Put them back, Mother. Keep them safe. They’re only empty shells now.”
“Something made that signal.” Raffi slid the relics into the bag.
The keeper turned away, his face dark. “But not from here. We must get to the castle! And before nightfall.”
Raffi sighed. He’d been hoping for a good meal, a wash, maybe even some extra sleep. From its wry grin he guessed the Sekoi had too. But both of them knew Galen had made up his mind.
They left the dilapidated farm within minutes, Alys and her daughter waving them off, after cramming the packs with all the food they could spare. Galen had given them the Blessing solemnly, as if he sensed the old woman’s disappointment; she kneeled in the mud to receive it, tears running down the wrinkles of her face.
“When you find the girl,” she called now, “give her my thanks.”
Raffi turned, walking backward. “We will. Take care of yourself.”
 
 
GALEN WAS SILENT. All the way back to the road he went at a ferocious pace; Raffi scrambling after him, too breathless to complain. The Sekoi strolled behind, its long legs keeping up effortlessly. “Our friend is troubled,” it said after a while.
“Guilty,” Raffi gasped.
“Indeed? About what?”
“I don’t know what. And he can’t forget . . . about Solon.”
As they climbed, the Sekoi was silent. Then it said, “Raffi. Did you believe what I told you about Carys?”
“No.” And he threw himself up the slope, bending back the thorns. He didn’t want to think about Carys. Not now.
For hours they climbed into the Broken Hills. The air grew colder and the road narrowed to a track winding along mountain ledges, skirting dizzy drops into the green valleys below. Finally they were so high, the mist closed in, slowing them; once Raffi only realized he was too close to the edge when his foot dislodged a stone that rattled over into silence. The wind whistled strangely, and the broken rocks confused the sense-lines; in all the ravines and arches he had the feeling of silent movements, as if the hills were busy with sly gatherings, watching eyes. His legs ached with the long effort; his lungs were raw with the damp.
Night was falling before they saw the castle. It loomed up suddenly, a blackness in the mist.
Galen stopped, then crumpled onto a stone, white-faced. He eased his stiff leg with a hiss of pain.
The Sekoi flung itself down on its back and dragged in breath, its whole body quivering. When it could speak it gasped, “Even if Carys is in this place, Galen, we cannot just walk in and ask for her. We must not rush headlong into danger. We need a plan.”
“The Makers will send a way in,” Galen growled.
The creature’s mew of impatience was slight but audible. “Maybe. But we need—”
“We need to trust them.” The keeper turned to Raffi. “Did you feel that?”
“Someone’s close by.”
“More than one.” Galen stood wearily. “Let’s get closer. Keep as quiet as you can.”
The Castle of Halen was a great black wall in the dark. A deep ditch had been hacked outside it from the rock, and the Wall rose out of that, built of strange shiny black stone, glossy and volcanic, buttressed by wedges, each block as tall as Galen and smoothly fitted. Vast towers swelled out along it. Far above, linking them, a wooden palisade rose against the stars.
“Unclimbable.” The Sekoi squirmed under a yewberry bush and looked up. “Unless you’re a suck-foot rat.”
“Perhaps we should work our way around to the gates,” Raffi whispered. Familiar as his own smell, fear was churning in him, the ominous black hulk of the castle hanging over him, heavy as dread.
But then the Sekoi’s fingers closed on his arm. “See there,” it hissed.
A movement. Up on the parapet. Something rippling, rattling, unrolling fluidly down the Wall; two of them, no three, four, the end of the nearest flapping to and fro just in front of where they were hiding.
Ladders?
Rope ladders?
It was the Sekoi who broke the astonished silence. “If this is luck, I don’t believe it.”
“I told you.” Galen’s voice sounded choked. “You should trust Flain.”
“Galen, this has to be some trap!”
“Does it?” The keeper turned. “Look.”
Suddenly the night was alive. Men were running from the rocks, scrambling down into the spiked ditch, hauling themselves hastily up the swinging, twisting ladders. From the parapet someone yelled. Swords clashed. A trumpet blared inside the castle.
“An attack?” Raffi breathed.
“Come on!” Galen was out, running; he plunged down into the ditch, staggered, and hauled himself up. Then he grabbed the nearest ladder. And climbed.
7
Defense is a first priority. Take any steps
necessary to keep key personnel out of
enemy hands. If important prisoners
cannot be evacuated, shoot them.
 
Rule of the Watch
T
HE CELL DOOR BANGED OPEN. Carys jumped down from her desperate squeeze into the window embrasure. “What’s going on out there!”
“The castle’s under attack!” Quist grabbed her and hustled her out into the corridor, shoving her under a flickering light. “Did you know about this?”
“Me!” Her heart jumped, but she laughed coldly. “I’m hardly likely to mess up the deal of a lifetime. They can’t get in, can they?”
“They’re already in.” The corridor was full of men, hurrying; arms were being given out, orders snapped. “The gates are open; the lower barbican’s been taken. They had help from inside.” Quist looked flustered; he pushed her on.
“Who are they?”
“Outlaws. We’d had reports.”
“It would take an army!”
Quist banged through a door and thrust men aside. “That’s what they’ve got. Scala’s livid. She’d hang every prisoner if she had time.”
Flainsteeth! Carys thought. The spotty kid had been telling the truth. Grabbing a crossbow from a pile, she looked wildly around for bolts.
“Come on!” he yelled. “Now!”
Scala’s room was empty. Quist ran to the window. “Wait here. Touch nothing.” In seconds he was gone, into the noise.
Carys barely paused. She flung down the crossbow, grabbed a quill and dipped it, then scrabbled desperately for some small piece of parchment that wouldn’t be missed. Anything! There was a roster for prisoners; she flipped it over and began to write hurriedly, the ink sputtering into little sprays as she rushed. It was the old code—her own. He’d worked it out once, so he could do it again. She managed barely half a dozen words; then Quist was coming back, and as he burst in with Scala running behind him, she dropped the quill and turned, blocking them from seeing it, her fingers cramming the stiff wet sheet into her pocket.
BOOK: The Margrave
9.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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