“This is unbelievable!” Scala went straight to the window. “The whole of the outer court is overrun. Most of the prisoners are armed. There are fires in three quadrants. I’ll have the head of every Watchsergeant left alive after this.” She was furious, but it didn’t overwhelm her; even now she was planning. “Sound the retreat. I want the fourth and fifth patrols to regroup at the inner gates. We’ll hold them there.”
“There are ropes down every wall.” Quist’s voice was almost a whisper. Carys pushed in beside him and looked down.
The castle was in ferment. Fires burned everywhere; cressets and fiery torches bobbed in the dark. There were swarms of men coming over the north parapet; as she watched, a whole group came out of a turret and along the Wall-walk yelling; they cut down four astonished Watchmen and sliced the ropes of the great artillery machines with precision. Then they were gone, swinging down into the fight. The courtyard was an inferno of noise. Arrows thwacked against the stones; the clang of swords was deafening.
“Whoever they are, they’re experts,” she muttered.
Directly below them there was a roar and a great yell of triumph. The inner gates crashed in; horses and men rampaged through them, the last Watchmen hacked down as they fled.
Carys turned. “This place is finished.”
“Not so,” the castellan said icily. “We can defend the keep for as long as it takes.”
“You won’t get all your men in here.”
“Then we won’t. Those left outside will die.”
“But we’ll be trapped! Maybe for months! Have you got that sort of time to waste?”
“She’s right,” Quist muttered.
“You think I should leave my command? Desert all our men?” It was impossible to tell whether she was angry now, or teasing them.
“Listen to me.” Quist caught her elbows. “Horses are ready at the secret gate. We can ride straight to Maar. Whatever report you put in, I’ll back it. We can’t afford to be trapped here, not now we’ve got this chance. Someone else might find the boy, and we’ll have lost everything!”
Scala stared at him. She seemed amused; her lips curled in suppressed laughter. “You’ve changed, lover. You’re getting as ruthless as the best of us.”
“I’ve had a good teacher.”
They were silent, till Carys snapped, “Well? Or we’ll never get out.”
For answer Scala swung to the desk; she grabbed a packet of papers from one drawer and a strongbox from another. Quist caught a dark cloak from a hook and swung it around her. Then they were running.
The corridors were deserted now, and shadowy. Flame light reflected through arrow-slits and the acrid, choking stench of smoke was everywhere. They raced down the stairs, past the prisoners’ cells, then turned a corner and stopped. All the doors were unlocked.
And barring their way, with a sword far too big for him and a bunch of keys, was the spotty boy.
GALEN DUCKED as a fire-arrow slashed over his head. “Hurry!” he said, reaching down. Raffi felt the strong grip on his sleeve, hauling him rapidly over the battlements. Breathless, he crawled to the inner edge and looked down.
It was a battle. The gates were wide, and as he stared another set of inner gates crashed down. The invaders were hard to see in the dark confusion of flame and shadow, but they were well-armed and seemed to know exactly what they were doing. Fire-arrows fell like rain; the noise of yelling and the clatter of metal almost deafened him.
The Sekoi flung itself down behind him. “Now what! She could be anywhere!”
“She’s important.” Galen pointed up through the smoke. “She’ll be in there.” The keep stood like a solid rectangular outcrop of rock. From all its battlements and galleries, parapets and arrow-slits, a hail of bolts was flying, and every few seconds a whistling wave of arrows slashed down into the turmoil below. Beacon fires blazed from its top. Huge wooden artillery fired with fierce discipline.
Raffi’s mouth was dry. “We can’t get in there.”
“We’ve gotten this far.” Galen scrambled up. “There’s one entrance—that narrow bridge.” He ran along the walkway; two Watchmen turned, but he shoved one aside ruthlessly and the Sekoi caught the other and had cracked the man’s head hard against the wall before Raffi could move. After that they were lucky. The fight in the courtyard was fierce; all the defense was concentrated there. Racing down a spiral staircase they forced open a door at the bottom and came into some dark kitchen entry, slippery with fat. All the torches had burned away except one; the Sekoi grabbed it as they passed, then flung it down with a snarl as it went out. At the end was an archway; they took a breath, then ran across the trampled mud, to the bridge.
Raffi was terrified. The battle was raging all around; just behind him a Watchman fell with a screech and instantly had his throat cut by a tall man with a sword who swiveled on the Sekoi. The creature leaped back. “I’m no Watchman, friend!” The man spat, and swore, and vanished into the throng.
Galen hauled Raffi away from the corpse. The bridge was only wide enough for one at a time; one torch burned on it. At the far end the portcullis was raised.
“Something’s wrong. Why isn’t it watched?” The keeper sent a swift sense-line across. Then he said, “Wait.” Grabbing both rails, he crossed quickly, then turned. “It’s safe. Come on.”
The Sekoi shoved Raffi on. He took three paces and then stopped.
“Hurry!” Galen yelled.
Raffi couldn’t move. A point of danger churned in him; he couldn’t tell what it was, but he was sweating and gray.
He put his foot down, on the central slab.
“LEAVE THIS TO ME,” Carys muttered. Without hesitation she ran down and flung her arms around the boy before he could move, pinning him so tight, he dropped the keys with a squawk. “It’s . . . it’s all right,” he spluttered. “I said I’d save you. I’m here.”
In his ear she whispered, “Shut up. Give this to the keeper.” Paper was shoved into his pocket.
He stared over her shoulder, appalled. “Isn’t that the castellan?”
Carys jumped back. “Where?”
“There!” He turned.
Instantly she hit him hard, in the stomach, and again, in the back of the neck. He collapsed like a sack, splayed in the straw.
“Sorry,” she whispered.
Quist leaped over him. “Who was that?”
“Just a prisoner. Lead on.”
Scala had her own keys. They unlocked a tiny postern door near the guard room and beyond it was an icy stone tunnel with a wooden gate at the end. Bursting through that, they found the horses, three already saddled.
Scala gave Quist a haughty look. “That sure I’d come!”
Carys had climbed onto the best horse. She realized now they were down in the dry moat; high overhead, the keep’s defenses roared and smoked; the fiery moon Pyra burned above. Behind her, Quist wheeled his mount. Then a shout made her look up. On the bridge, directly above her, she saw Raffi.
HIS FOOT CAME DOWN, the slab seemed solid . . .
“For Flain’s sake!” Galen raged.
Raffi barely heard him. All his instincts were crawling with horror; as his weight pressed harder, second by second, he seemed to himself to be already falling, plummeting into some great pit in his mind. Then, with a click that jarred his very heart, the trapdoor crashed open.
The word leaped into Carys’s throat; she choked it to silence.
He seemed to hang a moment; then as he fell, she gasped, the Sekoi lunging vainly after him, Galen grabbing at air.
For Raffi, the black square of darkness rose up like a great mouth; with a scream, he reached out, grabbed, slid, grabbed again, and Galen’s hands had his sleeves, but the whole of his body was swinging in the dark, a sick giddiness.
“I can’t hold him!” Galen was yelling. His hands slipped. Something dark leaped right over Raffi’s head; then the Sekoi’s seven fingers hauled powerfully on his arms, the cloth tearing. He looked down. Under his feet, far below, Raffi saw Carys.
Her face was white, tiny. And then she had turned away and was galloping, the horse clattering right under him, and as Galen hauled him up he lost sight of her in the smoke, and collapsed on the bridge, weak with shock, shivering. The Sekoi pulled him upright and held him. “We have to get inside!”
Arrows were bouncing from the rails. One fell through the trapdoor; Raffi saw how it plummeted into the dark. Then they were dragging him into the keep. He wanted to shout that it didn’t matter, that she’d gone, but somehow the despair of that knowledge kept him dumb; he didn’t want to say it, because that would make it real.
They raced down the corridor of cells; from above, wooden boards were being slammed down on the bridge; the invaders hurrying across. The cells were all empty. Galen paused in the last, glancing around. “She was here.”
“Not anymore.” The Sekoi looked up nervously. “This castle has been captured.”
“And so have you!” The words were fierce; the sword that came out of the shadows so sharp against the creature’s neck that it breathed in alarm. Out from behind the door stepped a bruised lanky youth, his face pocked with spots.
“You’re my prisoners.” He grinned, his teeth black.
“We’re looking for a girl,” Galen snapped. “A prisoner. Carys Arrin.”
“Her!” The boy scowled. “She’s gone.”
“With the castellan.”
Galen said nothing. Men were trampling down the corridor, a bodyguard of at least ten, hefty and threatening. “Uncle!” The boy turned, almost swelling with pride. “Uncle, it’s me! It’s Milo!”
“Milo.” The voice was dry and resigned. “You had to still be alive.”
“Yes I am!” The boy waved the sword, flushed. “And I’ve captured these prisoners, look. They’re not Watch, either.”
The bodyguards were shoved aside. Out from among them came a tiny man, his face narrow and sly, wide-lipped, his clothes masterpieces of gaudy show. Behind him, a girl in silver armor and a broad-chested bearded man stood, stock-still with amazement.
The dwarf saw the Sekoi, and he paled. When he saw Raffi his face went ashen. Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes. Then he turned around, and opened them.
“Hello, Alberic,” Galen said quietly. The silence was terrible. Until Alberic snatched the sword from his nephew’s hand and began to beat him with it, mercilessly, viciously.
“You useless, weak-kneed lump of clinker!” he howled. “You brainless, addle-headed flea off a rat’s back!”
“What have I done!” the boy squeaked.
“What have you done! You’ve brought me the one man I never, ever want to set eyes on as long as I live!”
The Sekoi folded its arms. “You can see the family resemblance,” it said thoughtfully.
The Mirrors of Halen
“What do you want?” the Emperor said.
The great keeper, Imalan, bowed.
“Mercy on your captives, lord. Let the
Sekoi prisoners go free.”
The Emperor stroked the small blue
lapdog. “I am not in the mood for
mercy,” he said quietly.
Imalan answered, “It is the Makers
who will persuade you, not I”.
The Deeds of Imalan
HE SLIVER OF SUNLIGHT was like a wand—Soren’s wand, when she struck the flame trees and made them burn.
Raffi lay with his eyes open, watching it. He was supposed to be making a dawn meditation, but the light distracted him; it had slid between the shutters and was glowing, a beautiful red, on the stones. Outside he could hear voices, the clatter of a bucket. After its exhausted night, the castle was waking.
Galen had found this room. When Alberic had stormed off last night in a black fury, the keeper had only laughed and turned away. When the Sekoi had wondered innocently what they should do, he had said, “Sleep. Since we seem to be old friends of the new owner.” Now the creature still lay curled in its nest of stolen blankets, snoring softly.