The Perilous Realm Online Part 13

Book One: The Endless Road

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

The next morning the companions set out again on the raft, and crossed in a short time to the far shore of the lake. Other than the occasional glimpse of birds, or small animals darting through the tussocks, nothing moved except themselves. They kept careful watch for the shrowde but saw no sign of it.

 Before noon they reached drier ground and came across a track that wound up through the bare stony hills they had glimpsed from the other side of the lake. The day was cold and sunless, but the raw air was a relief after the damp and stench of the bog. They walked on, and near midday the track joined a wider road, which ran along a swift stream flowing down from the hills. They met no one on the way, but passed silent farms and homesteads that looked to have been abandoned.

As evening fell, the road took them through a steeply descending ravine. On either hand lay a deep, shadowy ditch filled with thorn bushes. They followed the road around a last rocky outcrop and before them, at the far end of a long narrow valley, rose the grey walls of Skald. Beyond the city loomed the sharp peaks of high mountains, silhouetted by the setting sun. As the wind streamed across the valley toward them, Will caught a cold, familiar scent and realized it was snow.

Even in the twilight Will could see that this city was not at all like Fable. Its outer wall was high and seemed to have been carved out of the stony hillside. The final approach to its gates was a narrow, arching bridge across a dark chasm. The bridge was made of translucent stone and lined with torches burning yellow, red, green and blue, so that the stones themselves seemed to glow with many-coloured light. What could be glimpsed of the city was not as welcoming. The battlements and towers looked huddled and lifeless. The only other illumination was a sullen, bluish-green flickering that rose here and there among the spires and rooftops.

 

“What is that, Grandfather?” Rowen asked. “It looks like fire, but …”

 

Pendrake seemed lost in thought, and did not answer.

 

“This is worse than I imagined,” he said finally, his voice weary and grave. “Yes, that is a kind of fire, Rowen, but it gives no warmth. I wonder what has happened to the mages who had the guarding of the city. A dangerous force has been let loose here.”

 

“Then we should stay away,” Finn said. “This city is as unsafe as the land that surrounds it.”

 

“The power of the sword has been growing as we neared the city,” Moth agreed. “If nightcrawlers and shadowfolk now roam free in these streets, they will be drawn to the gaal. And not only that, but the fire obscures my sight, and Morrigan’s, too. Evil could be nearby and we might not sense it in time.”

 

 “If it came to a choice between Skald and the thing hunting us,” Pendrake said, “I prefer our chances here. However, it is not my decision to make.”

 

He turned to Will, who gave the eerily glowing rooftops of the city another look. Did it really matter what he chose? So far they had fled from one danger straight into another. All he wished for now was to stop running.

 

 

“We’ll go to Skald,” he said, just to end the silence.

 

“Morrigan and I should remain outside the city, then,” Moth said, “at least for now. We came here once before and we were not welcome. Besides, we will be of more use to you out here. While you’re in the city we can scout out the road ahead and keep watch for any sign of Lotan or his hollows.”

         

“Very well,” Pendrake said. “Should we choose a place and time to meet?”

 

“We will find you,” Moth said. “We’ve done it before, after all.”

 

Just then Finn raised a hand in warning, and a moment later from out of the bushes along the road rose a group of cloaked figures. Naked steel flashed in the twilight. The companions quickly gathered into a circle and drew their weapons.

         

“Who are you?” a low, gruff voice demanded. “Why have you come to Skald? Speak.”

 

“We are travellers stopping here on our way to other parts,” Pendrake said in a calm, unhurried tone. “The last time I visited this city the reception was more welcoming.”

 

Will peered at the shadowy figures surrounding them. In the gloom he could not be sure how many there were, and the terrifying thought struck him that these were not living people but fetches.

 

“Have you not heard?” the voice said. “No one comes to this city now. No one with good intent, anyhow.”

 

“If we had known— ” Finn began.

 

“Silence,” the voice commanded. “Where is the other? The tall one with the bird of the slain. He was here only a moment ago.”

 

Will looked around. Somehow Moth and Morrigan had melted into the evening shadows, though he felt sure they were nearby, ready to strike if it came to that.

 

“They were companions of ours for a while, but they went their own way,” Pendrake said. “You needn’t be concerned about them.”

 

“You will not tell me what I need be concerned with. Turn around now and go back the way you came, or by the black hound you will regret it.”

 

To Will’s astonishment, Pendrake burst into laughter.

 

“The black hound,” he echoed, stepping forward. “Only one man I know swears by that particular animal. Is this your new occupation, Ragnar Harke, waylaying innocent travellers in the road?”

 

There was a brief silence, followed by a murmured consultation among several of the shadowy figures. Then a lantern appeared from underneath a cloak and lit the faces around it. One among these faces held Will’s gaze: it was half-hidden by a bushy beard and so broad and ruddy that it was almost troll-like. The tangled hair that framed this strange face was coal black but streaked with threads of silver. One of the eyes was murky and apparently sightless, while the other stared hard at the toymaker in apparent disbelief.

 

“Pendrake?” this man said cautiously, his strange face now going through a swift contortion that took it from deep suspicion to surprise and dawning delight. He drew back his hood and stepped forward. “Nicholas Pendrake of the Bourne, or hang me.”

 

“The first of the two, let us hope,” said the toymaker. “I take it hard that you didn’t know my voice, Ragnar. Has it been that many years?”

 

“Too many,” the bearded man said, coming forward to grasp the toymaker by the hand. Over his shoulder rested a huge, long-handled axe. His rough face beamed with pleasure, but in the next instant his good eye had taken in the rest of the companions, lingered on Shade, and a shadow passed over his features.

 

“What has happened here, Ragnar?” Pendrake asked. “The last time I was in Skald, you were working at your smithy crafting shoes and ploughshares, not standing guard outside the walls in the dark.”

 

“What has happened here indeed,” the man called Harke said bitterly. “Our own folly has much to do with it. Allowing a pack of madmen to beguile us with fine words….”

 

Will thought Harke was about to say more, but the blacksmith broke off abruptly and seemed to be weighing something in his thoughts. He turned to his companions and in an undertone conversed with them. Will could not hear what was said, but there seemed to be some disagreement between them. Finally Harke turned back to the toymaker.

 

“For your own good I shouldn’t allow you to take another step nearer to this city,” he said. “But I know you well enough, Master Nicholas, to guess that it is for someone else’s good that you’re here at all. I don’t know what your errand is, and I don’t care to know, but if you wish to stop in Skald for a while, I won’t hinder you.”

 

“Is that wise, Ragnar?” one of his companions said in a whisper that was audible to everyone.

 

“Wiser than most of the choices we’ve made lately,” Harke muttered. “Yes, I will take you into the city myself.”

 

“But not the wolf,” said the man who had spoken before.

 

“The wolf is no threat to Skald,” Pendrake said. “He has been our faithful companion on the road.”

 

“It is a creature of darkness,” the man said, and there were murmurs of agreement from the others.

 

Ragnar shot a stern look at his companions, then turned to Pendrake.

 

“Such beasts haunt our oldest nightmares. We may have left our homeland ages ago, but we brought our tales with us.”

 

Will had been listening to this exchange with anger growing in him, and now he could not contain himself.

 

“Shade is my friend,” he said hotly, stepping forward. “He saved our lives in the bog. He fought for the Stewards against Malabron.”

 

“Will— ” Pendrake began warningly.

 

“If you don’t trust Master Pendrake’s word,” Will went on, not heeding the toymaker, “then why are you letting any of us into the city?”

 

Ragnar’s good eye went wide. He studied Will for a moment, then something like a grin creased his weathered face.

 

“A fair question,” he said at last. “There is no one’s word I trust more than Nicholas Pendrake’s. And you will all enter Skald with me.”

 

He turned to his companions with a look that silenced the murmuring.

 

“By the black hound you will.”

 

***

 

The blacksmith led them across the translucent, many-coloured bridge to the gates of the city. Will noticed that he walked with a limp, and sometimes grunted from pain or effort. The gates were shut, but after Harke showed his face by the lantern’s light to some unseen watcher and called out a strange singsong password, a rope ladder dropped down the stonework in front of them.

 

“The doors are barricaded every night,” Harke said. “Not that it does much good. There are things dwelling in Skald now that can slither through wood and stone like it was broken netting.”

 

“I’ve never climbed one of these before,” Shade said, eyeing the ladder askance. Harke started at the unexpected voice.

 

“I forgot about your werewolf,” he mumbled, then put his fingers to his lips and whistled. After a brief delay a large wicker basket was lowered down beside the ladder on a rope sling. Shade gave this contraption a disdainful glance and then, muttering “werewolf”under his breath, he began awkwardly but determinedly to climb the rope ladder. Harke gaped at this astonishing sight, then he and the others followed Shade up the ladder. The basket was hauled up empty beside them.

 

At the top of the wall they were met by several men with pikes and bows, with whom Harke spoke in low tones. Harke did not introduce Pendrake or the others, but led them on along the battlement until they reached a flight of steps.

 

As they descended, a cold wet flurry of sleet began to fall. At the bottom of the stairs Harke hurried the companions into the shelter of a long, low-roofed wooden building beside the wall, which Will guessed was a guardhouse. There were several men inside, gathered around a small fire burning in a metal drum. They sprang up when Harke and the others entered, but after a word from the blacksmith they sat back down again. Harke led the companions into a second room where another, smaller fire of coals was fitfully burning. There was a table here and several benches and chairs, as well as bare shelves that looked as though they might once have been used for stocking provisions.

 

“We have little to offer guests these days,” Harke said with a rueful shrug. “And what we have is meagre fare. Most of the outlying farms have been deserted. Our lakes have been spoiled with the filth of the Nightbane and there are no fish.”

 

When they were all seated, one of the men from the other room brought in tea in metal mugs. Will and the others accepted the hot drink gratefully, and sipped it while the sleet pattered on the windows.

 

“Even the weather is unnatural these days,” Harke muttered. He stirred restlessly, then got up and went out. By the time he returned, shaking the water from his hair, his guests had finished their drinks.

 

“Seems to be a quiet night out there,” he said. “I’ll take you up the street to the smithy. Though it’s more like an armed camp than a smithy these days. Still, it’s as safe as anywhere in Skald, and besides, Ulla and the children will be glad to see you.”

 

“What has happened here, Ragnar?” the toymaker asked.

 

“You know about the League of Four,” the blacksmith growled.

 

“They had come to Skald not long before my last stay here,” Pendrake said. “I had my misgivings back then, but other business took me away, and I heard nothing more about them.”

 

“Well, there is no cursed League anymore,” Harke growled, “and the back of our hand to them. When those four so-called mages first came to Skald, they promised to protect the city and bring prosperity. We were so desperate after the last few mordog raids that we believed them, and we welcomed them in.”

 

Will glanced at Rowen, who was staring at the blacksmith, her tea forgotten. Harke saw her look and nodded.

 

“You’ve heard of them, I see, child.”

 

“This is my grand-daughter, Rowen,” Pendrake said.

 

Harke bowed his head.

 

“Honoured to meet you,” he said. “Though I wish for your sake it was anywhere but here.”

 

“Do the mordog still prowl this country?” Finn asked. 

 

“They didn’t, after the mages came. The League delivered on its promises at first, I’ll grant them that. Nightbane were not seen in these parts for a long time, and there was peace, and crops grew well, and folk were happy. But the cost was higher than we had reckoned. Much higher.”

 

“From what I can already see,” Pendrake said, “I would say the League practised their art poorly, or with wicked purpose.”

 

“Both,” Harke muttered. “Maybe they had good intentions, at first. But after a time they thought only of their own power, and how to make it grow. Some said they even began to traffic with ambassadors of the dark powers. What is certain is that their conjuring brought shadows, not light, and the safety of the city was forgotten. Finally we went to them, a delegation of the townsfolk, and demanded answers, but they would not see us. Instead they barricaded themselves in the keep with their eldritch arts. Then one night, while the city slept, the werefire first blazed out, and it has never stopped burning. And worse, it has acted like a beacon to all the evil for miles around. Foul things have crept here from the bog and every other festering hole they hide in. We were overrun before we knew what was happening.”

 

“Didn’t the mages try to stop the fire?” Rowen asked.

 

“Ah, the brave League,” the blacksmith sneered. “They’ve slithered off and left us to our fate. I suppose it’s what we deserve for letting them in to begin with.”

 

The blacksmith lapsed into a string of muttered words Will did not catch.

 

“What of the keep?” Pendrake asked. “It had the strongest walls in the city. Is it no longer used as a refuge?”

 

“The keep is a refuge all right, but not for Skaldings,” Harke said bitterly. “Even in the daylight, that place is best left alone. It was the home of the League, and few have dared set foot in it since. It seems to be the source of the werefire, and something evil dwells there now. A demon, some say.”

 

“Do yousay that?” Finn asked.

 

“I say little about things I haven’t seen for myself,” Harke said. “A large party of us went there one night to drive this thing out or kill it. We discovered that over the years the League had transformed the keep, turned it into a treacherous maze. The thing that dwells there had no trouble staying one step ahead of us. Since then no one goes near the wretched place. We hear the creature almost every night. The sounds it makes can chill the very blood in your veins.”

 

He wrapped his cloak more tightly around himself and said nothing more. No one else spoke. In the silence Will noticed that the sleet had stopped. Finally Harke stirred, and after a few words with his fellow watchers he led the way from the guardhouse, across a deserted square, and up the winding curve of a narrow street. The city was uncannily silent. Most of the windows in the houses they passed were shuttered and lightless.

 

Harke went along at a swift pace, and then halted abruptly at an alcove in a wall. Will could just barely make out the shape of a door in the shadows. Harke took a large iron key from his belt, unlocked the door, and opened it. He gestured for the others to enter before him. They did, and found themselves in a walled court. On their left stood a long, low-roofed building that Will guessed was the smithy itself. A wavering reddish light came from its wide doorway, and Will could hear the sound of a hammer ringing from within. On the right was a small, rickety-looking house of stone and timber, three or perhaps four storeys high.

 

“We have guests, Freya,” the blacksmith called to someone in the smithy. Will saw a figure silhouetted by the glow of the forge, a figure that turned and came at a jog out into the courtyard. It was a young woman about Finn’s age, Will thought, with plaited white-blonde hair and a streak of soot across her brow. Her face was ruddy and glistened with sweat. In her hands was an iron hammer.

 

“You’re back early, Father,” she said, glancing warily at the strangers. “Will you come and look at the work?”

 

“Damp the fire, Freya,” Harke said. “That’ll be all for tonight. Is your mother within?”

 

“Yes, she’s with Thuri.”  

 

The girl studied the toymaker’s face for a long moment and then broke into a smile. To Will’s astonishment she ran up to the old man and hugged him.

 

“Father Nicholas,” she cried, burying her face in his shoulder. “It is you.”

 

“Freya,” Pendrake said with a laugh. “You’ve grown, my child.”

 

“Father said you would come back some day,” Freya said, stepping back with a wide smile.

 

“You were hoping I’d bring toys, like last time?”

 

Now it was the young woman’s turn to laugh.

 

“No, just yourself,” she said. “I’ll see you inside when I’m finished here.”

 

She gave the rest of Pendrake’s party another quick, curious look, then returned to the smithy. Harke led his guests to the house. As they climbed the steps, the door opened and a woman appeared, the warm light from within at her back. Her hair was only a little less grey than Harke’s, but Will could see where Freya’s good looks had come from. The woman surveyed Will and his friends with a keen eye, and then, like her husband and daughter, her face beamed with happy surprise when she recognized the toymaker. She hurried forward to embrace him.

 

“We thought you had forgotten us, Nicholas,” she said in a trembling voice.

 

“Never, Ulla,” Pendrake said. “I have been kept busy.”

 

He turned to Rowen. The toymaker introduced her to Harke’s wife.

 

“A lovely girl,” Ulla said, and embraced Rowen, who stammered a polite reply.

 

“And this is Will Lightfoot, and his friend Shade,” Pendrake went on. “And Finn Madoc of the Errantry.”

  

Now that she had welcomed the toymaker, Ulla seemed not to notice or care what a strange company the five of them made. Without hesitation she invited them all into the house, and led them to the kitchen. A boy of three or four was playing on the floor with several wooden toys—horses and other animals, it looked to Will—that had once been brightly painted but had lost most of their colour. The boy looked up at the strangers with startled, haunted eyes. Then the boy saw Ulla and as if nothing had happened he returned to his play.

 

“Good to see those toys still getting use,” Pendrake said with a smile.

 

 

“Children still play,” Harke said with a nod. “Despite the dark. We can be thankful for that.”

 

The room had a stout brick oven and a domed ceiling, and was bright with a multitude of metal pots and pans that Will guessed had likely been made by Harke and his daughter. It was a cozy, welcoming room, but a sword hung within easy reach by the door.

 

Ulla sat them all down on benches around the room and served them broth and hard bread, with a few thin slices of cheese.

 

“It is all we have now,” she said apologetically.

 

Pendrake beamed at her.

 

“Your meals are delicious,” he said. “As always.”

 

Like her husband, Ulla seemed unwilling to ask too many questions, but made up for the awkwardness by talking about the way things were in Skald now.

 

“When the werefire first broke out, Ragnar and I wanted to leave,” she said. “For Freya and Thuri. We even began packing, but in the end we stayed. We thought of all those who gave their lives for this city over the years. They never despaired, and neither will we.”

 

“We didn’t know about this in Fable,” Finn said. “I heard that when riders of the Errantry came to Skald, they were …”

 

He hesitated.

 

 

“Made unwelcome,” Harke said. “The mages didn’t want anyone else interfering with their plans. And fools like me decided it wasn’t any of our business, and did nothing.”

 

“Ragnar and I have lain awake many a night, listening to the foul things that haunt our streets,” Ulla said to Pendrake. “We wondered if our old friend Nicholas would ever return…”

 

She broke off and her eyes filled with tears.

 

“Harke has told me about the dweller in the keep,” Pendrake said. “It sounds as if that is the source of the werefire, and most of the trouble.”

 

“You’re right, I’m sure,” Harke said. “But what can we do about it?”

 

Pendrake stroked his beard thoughtfully but said nothing. Freya came in to sit with them and share the meal. She was introduced to everyone and soon began asking questions about their journey and why they had come, but when she saw that no one was willing to tell very much, she turned to speaking of other things.

 

“I help father make the armour for the Watch,” she said when Pendrake asked. “And sometimes I go on watch, too.”

 

“They let you fight?” Rowen asked eagerly.

 

“She’s one of our fiercest,” Harke said proudly.

 

When the companions had finished eating, the blacksmith showed them upstairs to a narrow loft where they could spend the night. There were no beds, but several thick blankets and bolsters were ranged along the walls. A small round window in a deep alcove looked out onto the street.

 

“We often have guests these days,” Harke said. “Folk driven from their houses and farms by the cursed hellthings that prowl ever closer to our gates. The mordog and others can smell the city’s dying.”

 

“What isthe werefire?” Will asked after he had taken a long look out the window. The blacksmith’s good eye fixed upon him. He knows I’m the reason we’re here, Will thought.

 

To his surprise, Rowen answered his question.

 

“It’s innumith,” she said with a startled look, as if she had just realized it herself. “The same thing Moth’s sword is made of.”

 

Pendrake nodded, studying her carefully.

 

“The fathomless fire. Mages can draw it out of the Weaving like raw ore, not yet refined into the stuff of stories. If this is done with care, good can be accomplished, but there are dangers. If done recklessly, the fire runs wild. It cannot harm you as a real flame would, but it can dazzle the eyes and mislead the mind. When there is no guiding hand to shape it, the fire creates illusions that flicker and change like flames. And worse, blood-hobs and deathdancers and other shadowfolk are attracted to the fire and feed on it. Until it dies down, these creatures are sure to stay.”

 

“How long does it take for the fire to die?” Harke asked the toymaker. “Months? Years?”

 

“That depends on many things, especially the fire’s source.”

 

“There are only vague rumours of what happened,” Harke said. “We know that the Four often left the city. They were looking, it was said, for some lost magical thingthat would give them even more power. Not long before the werefire broke out, they returned from such a journey, but one of them, the mage Strigon, was not with them, and the other three were very troubled. Then one night the werefire was suddenly everywhere, and soon afterward folk began to speak of the dweller in the keep. We went to demand answers of the League, but by then they had fled the city.”

 

Harke was about to leave them for the night when there was a shriek from the street below, followed by the sound of raised voices and running feet. Will and Rowen hurried to the window and looked out: they were in time to see a group of cloaked figures with torches running up the street.

 

“Another band of the nightwatch,” Harke said, joining Will and Rowen at the window. “After something that just slithered out of its lair.”

 

Will was about to turn away from the window, but he lingered, looking across the rooftops at the distant battlements of the keep, lit by the eerie green glow of the werefire. The flames were stronger there than anywhere else he looked.

 

For an instant the small window was filled by a face, white as a ghost’s, with huge bloodshot eyes. Even as Will shouted and leapt back, the face was gone.

 

“Roofcrawler,” Harke said. “A kind of large bat. Or something in a bat’s shape, with a man’s face. They look in windows a lot, but they never try to get in. The only trouble they make is stealing dogs and cats for food. You should keep your … friend indoors with you tonight.”

 

He nodded toward Shade, who bristled.

 

“For their sake,” the wolf growled.

 

“Grandfather,” Rowen said, and her voice was so weak they all turned in alarm. She had sat down on one of the makeshift beds. Her face was pale and gleaming with sweat, as it had been in the storyshard. Pendrake hurried to her side.

 

“I’m just a little dizzy,” she said. “Tired.”

 

“It’s the werefire,” Pendrake said. “It affects some more than others. This happened to me the first time I was exposed to the fire. You need rest.”

 

“And I’ll try to see you get it,” Harke said, and once again he gave Will a quick, uneasy glance. “I will post sentries from the Watch at my gate.”

 

He wished them a good night and went out. Will turned to Rowen and was alarmed to see terror in her eyes.

 

“What is it?” he asked, sitting beside her.

 

“I can see things,” Rowen said. “Shapes. People. At the corners of my eyes. I can’t stop them. They’re there and then they vanish.”

 

“They can’t harm you, Rowen,” Pendrake said. “They are only shadows, created by the werefire.”

 

“But why? Why am Iseeing them, and no one else?”

 

“Just let them come and go, Rowen,” Pendrake said, running his hand gently over her brow. “Don’t try to stop them. They’re like dreams. Possible stories that haven’t come to be.”

 

“Is this what you see, as a loremaster?” Rowen asked, her eyes wide. “Is that what’s happening to me?”

 

Pendrake studied her with concern.

 

“When I was very young, younger than you,” he said, “I stumbled upon an outbreak of werefire. I was foolhardy. I thought I could step unscathed into the Weaving, learn the secrets of the fathomless fire. It almost destroyed me, but it taught me who I am. To be a loremaster is more than a choice, or a duty. It is in my blood. And so it is in yours. ”

 

Rowen stared at him, her face white.

 

“You knew this would happen….”

 

“I didn’t know, not for certain. Your mother never displayed the gift.”

 

“The gift …” Rowen said in a hollow voice, then she looked up at Pendrake, her eyes burning. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

 

Pendrake placed a hand on her shoulder.

 

“I’m sorry, my child. I wished not to burden you, if this day never came.”

 

Rowen’s eyes filled with tears.

 

“Will it … will it get worse?”

 

“I can’t say. This outbreak of werefire is the worst I’ve seen, and that is probably why you have been affected so powerfully. In time, with me here to guide you, you should be able to control the visions.”

 

Rowen wiped her eyes. She stared fixedly in front of her, not looking at anyone. Then she lay down on the bed, shivering, and turned away from them. Will watched her anxiously, wishing there was some way he could help, then he gathered with the others by the window.

 

“That creature that looked in at us,” Finn said. “Another servant of the Angel?”

 

“I don’t believe so,” Pendrake said. “It looked as startled as we were. Still, with this city in such a state, it would not be difficult for Lotan to find allies here. We need to be wary, and ready to flee at a moment’s notice.”

 

“Then we should leave this house now,” Finn said. “Before we bring worse trouble to these people. And there’s Rowen to think about. What this place is doing to her.”

 

“I’ve considered all that,” Pendrake said, and Will heard anger in his voice. “But I also have faith in Moth and Morrigan. If danger threatens, they will know, and find a way to warn us. We will leave in the morning.”

 

          ***

 

After he lay down, Will deliberately kept himself awake. A suspicion had entered his mind when Pendrake had looked at him, and he wanted to confirm it. He was not sure how long he waited, but after what seemed hours of listening to the steady breathing of the others, he finally heard a sound, opened his eyes, and saw the old man rise, don his coat and take up his staff. Before he left he bent over Rowen and stroked her hair.  Shade, who was resting beneath the window, raised his head, but made no sound.

 

Will sat up. Pendrake turned from Rowen and saw him.

 

“You should be sleeping,” he chided.

 

“You’re going to the keep, aren’t you?” Will asked in a whisper.

 

“To look around, yes. That’s all. You’re safe here with Shade and the Watch. Get some rest, Will. I’ll return as soon as I can.”

         

“What about Rowen?” Will asked. “What if something happens to her while you’re gone?”

 

“She is sleeping quietly now, thank goodness.  If I can do something about the werefire, perhaps it will help her.”

 

Will looked at the wolf, who was silently watching this exchange with his calm, penetrating gaze.

 

“You should take Shade with you,” he said. “You’ll need him … out there.”

 

“I go where you go, Will Lightfoot,” Shade said quietly.

 

“And you are notgoing to the Keep, Will Lightfoot,” Pendrake said emphatically.

 

“No, Grandfather,” Rowen said, and they all turned at the sound of her voice. She was pulling on her cloak. “Will shouldgo to the keep.”

 

Pendrake gave her a searching look, his brows knitting.

 

“Rowen, you’re not well. You don’t know what you’re saying –”

 

“I do know what I’m saying. You know I do. Will should go to the keep. And so should I.”

 

Her eyes met Will’s. He took a deep breath.

 

“Then I’ll go,” he said.

 

“And so will I,” Shade said.

 

“Listen to me now, Will,” Pendrake said, his face darkening. “This city is dangerous. I cannot let you take that risk.”

 

“I’m coming with you,” Rowen said firmly. “If I do have this gift, then you should let me try to use it. Maybe I can help you.”

 

“Rowen, you need to rest…”

 

“I won’t stay here without you.”

 

“We may be heading straight to the source of the werefire. It could be too much for you…”

 

Please, Grandfather.  I have to do this.”

 

Pendrake stared at the three of them, his jaw working. At last he sighed and shook his head.

 

“And I thought I’d slip out of here unnoticed,” he muttered. “I’ve gotten clumsy in my old age. Soon I’ll be huddled in an armchair somewhere, babbling to myself.”

 

“Not for a while yet, I hope,” Finn said. He was standing on the other side of Will, already slipping on his coat. Pendrake laughed softly and shrugged.

 

“Well, since stealth is now out of the question, we had better wake Ragnar and tell him what we’re up to. We don’t want to go blundering around his house in the dark.”

 

As it turned out, the blacksmith met them at the bottom of the stairs. He carried a lit candlestick in one hand and a sword in the other.

 

“I thought it was you, but I had to be sure,” he said with an embarrassed sideways look. “Now, Master Nicholas, I want you to know there’s no blame at all. This city is best kept away from, I know that, so please don’t think twice about leaving …”

 

He broke off, and Will saw understanding come into his face.

 

“You’re going to the …”

 

“We are,” Pendrake growled. “And by the time we get there, clearly the whole town will know about it.”

 

“You would do that for us…” Harke faltered. He coughed loudly and rubbed his good eye. “Well, then, you’ll need something to eat before you set out …”

 

Will and the others followed him to the kitchen and found Ulla there, already cutting bread and setting out bowls.

 

“You’ve got a fox’s ears, my love,” Harke said.

 

“Of course you’re going with them, Ragnar,” she said as she dished out porridge.

 

“No he’s not, Mother,” said Freya, standing the doorway. She wore a tunic of chainmail over her clothes, and bands of steel at her wrists. Her hammer, and a long knife, hung at her belt.

 

“Freya…” Ulla began. “Taking watch duty is one thing, but the keep…”

 

“Father, you know I should be the one to go. You’re not –” She caught herself, and her ruddy face grew even more crimson.

 

Harke’s hand went to the thigh of his bad leg.

 

“I know, Freya,” he said quietly.

 

“You should stay with your family, Freya,” said Pendrake. “They need you here.”

 

“Let her guide you, old friend,” Harke said. “The streets are treacherous, and not only because of the nightcrawlers. The werefire has collapsed pavements and walls in many places. There are cracks and holes everywhere, and more open every night. Freya knows her way better than anyone.”

 

When they were all ready to leave, Ulla went up to Pendrake and her daughter and silently embraced them in turn. She gave Will and Rowen a look of concern, and appeared to be about to say something, when a faint cry from another room drew her attention.

 

“Thuri often has bad dreams now,” she said, hurrying from the room.

 

“And wakes to find most of them true,” Harke muttered under his breath. Will thought about the dreams both he and Jess had had after their mother died. How they would dream she was still alive but had gone away somewhere, and they couldn’t find her. And when they woke up they would remember she was really gone and cry as if they had just been told for the first time.  

 

Will and the others, with Freya before them, left the house and crossed the courtyard. When they were all through, Harke shut it behind them without a word. They heard the bolt grate across and fall heavily into place.

 

When Freya had lit her lantern, they pulled their cloaks about them against the night’s chill, and set off along the deserted street. Dawn was not far off, but a thick pall of fog or smoke sat over the rooftops like a lid. As they hurried along they heard noises from dark nooks and alleyways: sudden shuffling and skittering, like small animals bolting for cover, that made Shade growl and lunge at the shadows, and sometimes low muttering and other, more eerie, unidentifiable sounds. Freya’s light, however, never picked anything out of the darkness.

 

The young woman’s route through the city seldom went in a straight line for long, and Will guessed that Freya was avoiding the worst-affected areas. Eventually she led them across a half-collapsed bridge over a dried-up canal, and on the far side the companions had their first close sight of the werefire.

 

On their left was a terrace of houses, the nearest one clearly no longer inhabited. Part of its wall had caved inward and the gaps showed only blackness inside.

 

A heap of various objects lay on the street just outside the door, as if they had been carried there and suddenly abandoned by people fleeing the building. Tongues of pale green fire flickered here and there amid the heap: on the leg of a chair, along the rim of an overturned cauldron, across the page of a splayed-open book. The flames darted and danced strangely, in slow, flowing movements and sudden wild spasms, unlike any fire Will had seen before. At times a spear of flame would turn pale and transparent, and then flare into brilliance again. And strangest of all, Will could see shapes forming in the fire. Shapes that seemed to be about to become something he could recognize, a sword, a horse’s galloping hooves, a face turning toward him, before dissolving again.

 

To his surprise Will discovered he was unwilling to look away from the werefire. The relentless dance of almost-shapes held his gaze. He expected Freya to hurry them past, but she slowed and went toward the fire.

 

A shape rose from behind the heap, with a clink of glass.

 

“Get away. I found it. It’s mine,” rasped a quavering voice.

 

“You should be at home, Master Fenric, with your family,” Freya said calmly.

 

The figure moved warily into the light. It was a small, haggard-looking man, with long matted hair and smoky spectacles that hid his eyes. He held two large glass bottles in his gloved hands. Other smaller bottles and vials hung from his belt.

 

“Ah, the blacksmith’s daughter,” the man said, with a grimace that might have been an attempt at a smile.  “Ragnar has always been a friend. A good friend. He wouldn’t drive me off like the others. They’re jealous of me. Always have been.”

 

“My father would tell you the same thing,” Freya said warningly.

 

“I trust him,” the man said. “Ragnar understands the sacrifices one must make for a good cause. He sends his own child out into the streets at night. I applaud that. Tell him I’m close to success, so close. Tell him I’ve found a fine new batch of the stuff, just erupted tonight. I’m on the verge of understanding, you see, how to keep it bottled safely, so that it won’t eat through the vessel. And when I’ve achieved that, when I’ve achieved that …”

 

He broke off, seized by a cough that doubled him over.

 

“It can’t be kept safely, Master Fenric,” Freya said. “It will only destroy you. The nightcrawlers will be here soon, anyway. You’re in danger.”

 

Fenric’s eyes darted wildly around.

 

“You … you and your friends can hold them off,” he rasped. “While I finish. It requires delicate, painstaking work, you see, to induce the base of the flame to move in the direction you wish it to…. And the eyes get tired, they start to sting and burn. Difficult to work with these spectacles and gloves on but there’s no other way. I need time. Time. No distractions. Someone watching my back. Yes. Yes. Do this for me and … and I’ll share the profits with you and your father. Tell Ragnar that. Yes. The profits will be substantial. Beyond any expectation. You’ll see. They’ll come flocking from miles around for my bottled werefire.”

 

“We will not help you go down this road,” Pendrake said firmly. “Freya says you have a family. They need you to protect them. Go home to them now, before it’s too late.”

 

The hands holding the bottle shook violently. Fenric’s eyes opened wider as he stared at the toymaker. His cracked lips trembled. For an instant it seemed he might give in and heed Pendrake’s advice. Then he shook his head violently and turned away.

 

“May the shadows take you,” he snarled, staggering back to the burning heap, where he crouched, his glassware clinking.

 

Shade suddenly gave a start, and to Will’s surprise, Freya raised her hammer and hurled it in the direction of the crouching man. It flew over his head and smashed into the shadows beyond. Something gave a piercing shriek, then they could hear whimpers and scuffling noises that quickly faded away. Shade bounded in their direction a short distance, then returned.

 

Fenric whirled with a choked gasp, then turned and gaped at Freya, his face white.

 

“Go home,” she said.

 

With trembling hands Fenric gathered his loose bottles. Then he fled down the street, with many backward glances, before vanishing around a corner.

 

“He was a healer once, a good man,” Freya said sadly. “We’ve seen many decent folk seduced by the fire. It gives them visions of greatness, even as it drains their strength and weakens their minds. I’m afraid he’ll be back here, as soon as we leave.”

 

“Let’s keep going,” Rowen said, and everyone turned to her. She was gazing into the fire with wide eyes. Pendrake gently touched her shoulder.

 

“Rowen?”

 

She stirred and turned to him with a blank look.

 

“You’re going back to the smithy,” the toymaker said firmly. “Freya, please take her.”

 

“No, Grandfather,” Rowen said, and she drew away from him. “I need to do this. Like you did, when you were young. I need to know who I really am.”

         

Freya retrieved her hammer and they went on. As they walked through the silent streets, Will had the eerie feeling that the city had been deserted, and that only he and his friends remained. Then came a sound that stopped everyone in their tracks. A long, chilling scream of rage and agony, that rose as if out of the last shadows of night and trailed away. The echo seemed to come from every direction at once. Will and his companions stared at one another with grim faces, then kept on, but more slowly.

 

After threading their way through the narrow, rising streets, they came out at last into a large, deserted square. Before them lay a wide moat or canal that was almost empty of water, so that the ancient stonework at the bottom was laid bare, except where it was covered by a few stagnant, murky pools.

 

“Most of the filth hide in the sewers during the day,” Freya said. “We’ve gone down there a few times to rout them out, but the sewers are a maze, and these nightcrawlers are good at hiding.”

 

Rowen leaned forward to look down and pulled back suddenly as Will grabbed her cloak.

 

“Isn’t there a bridge?” she asked.

 

“The mages used a ferry, but there is another way now.”

 

 

Freya led them to a short flight of stone steps that descended from the street to the floor of the moat. The companions followed her carefully down the steps, which were crumbling and slick with slime, until they reached the bottom.

 

“Everyone stay together,” Freya said, when they were ready to go on, “and watch where you tread.”

 

They set out across the floor of the moat, which was made of huge uneven slabs of stone that sloped down from the wall toward the centre. The stench of rot and stagnant water was so strong that Will gagged and had to keep the collar of his cloak over his nose. When they reached the lowest part of the moat, they were forced to walk round a long, narrow pool of still, greenish-brown water.

 

Shade sniffed the air and made a disgusted face.

 

“Keep close to me, Will Lightfoot,” he said. “There are foul things in this place.”

 

On the far side of the pool the moat floor, now rising toward the far wall, was heaved and cracked into a jagged ridge, leaving only a slim gap through which they would have to climb in single file.

 

As Freya reached the top of the ridge, one of the broken slabs of rock beside her moved. To Will’s surprise, it shivered like a live thing and began to flow, as if it had suddenly begun melting. Freya gave a shout and stumbled backward. With a grating sound the rock, or whatever it was, slithered out of sight into a crack in the moat floor.

 

“Slimestone,” Freya said, picking herself up from the ground. “Pretty harmless, compared to most of what we might run into down here.”

 

As they approached the wall, a bright gleam caught at the edge of Will’s sight. Turning to find the source he saw something red and shiny near a small grating over a drain. He bent forward and squinted for a better look. The grating was hoary with encrusted filth, but wedged between two of its bars was an apple.

 

A big, red, shiny, juicy-looking apple.

 

After days and days of bannog and thin broth, an apple would be…. Will moved away from his companions and crouched down. The apple looked perfectly good, despite being utterly out of place down here in the muck and slime. Someone must have dropped it on the way home from the market, and then it rolled down here. No need for it to go to waste.

 

His fingers were just touching the cold skin of the apple when he heard Freya shout, “No, Will!”

 

In the next instant the grating dropped away and a thick pale arm, like a slab of bloodless meat, shot up and clutched the hem of his cloak. Before he could even cry out he was pulled down into darkness.

 

 

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