This is one section of a serialized novel presented by Black Gate magazine. It is offered at no cost and appears with the permission of Mark Rigney, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2015 by Mark Rigney.
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or current events is purely coincidental.
This is Chapter Nine. To read Chapter Eight, click HERE.
For hours, they’d caught nothing, but when Cullen reeled in the mid-afternoon net, it was so laden that he was forced to add the extension bar to the winch, a tool he used only as a last resort. He considered calling for help, but Felson was below, doing who knew what, and besides, Cullen took it as a point of pride that he could manage whatever needed doing by himself. So he hauled and winched and puffed and groaned, and he thanked God and the salt-wave deep that the day hadn’t turned too hot or the water too choppy, and at last his efforts were rewarded. The net and its voluminous catch wriggled over the side and spilled across the deck with a wet and mighty sloshing sound.
Cullen, knee-deep in flopping, slimy fish, stared toward his vanished boots, and found himself caught midway between euphoria and dejection. It was a tremendous catch, the sort of haul that fishermen could spend years dreaming of. Felson would be ecstatic. He’d always had an eye for the big score, and now that their boat had gone rogue and the steady paychecks of the State had dried up, this catch would mean more to him than a dozen pretty tavern girls. But, to Cullen’s way of thinking, life was one long double-edged blade, and while he couldn’t see the why of it just yet, he was convinced that an event as unusual as this bounty of fish would not come free of consequences.
“Hey!” came Felson’s voice, having just come up to the bow. “Do you see what I see?”
“Fish,” Cullen replied, still staring at his catch. The endless fish, goggle-eyed and gasping, fanned their gills and stared back, dying as he watched.
“No,” said Felson, “on shore. Look.”
Cullen swung around. It took him no time at all to register what Felson had seen: smoke and flames shooting up from multiple neighborhoods all around the Middle Isle. He shaded his eyes to get a better view, and strode through the fish as if he were pushing his way through deep, slippery snow.
“I see it,” he said. “That’s the whole southwest harbor going up.”
“And the Academy.” Felson pointed. “What in the Circle is going on?”
To Cullen’s way of thinking, it didn’t much matter what was happening, only that he was on the water while Doss was on shore––and if Doss had also discovered that the Academy was on fire, then there was about to be serious trouble. The question was, was Felson aware of the captain’s ties to the Academy? Probably not, or he’d have already made the connection. Felson had been with Doss longer, but their relationship was uncomplicated, strictly professional. Between Doss and Cullen, the strands that bound them came laced with confessions and secrets.
“Felson,” he said, “we need to get back.”
“I guess,” said the first mate, but without conviction. “The Compound looks all right, though. And with fire, I don’t know. We’re safer out to sea.” He glanced past Cullen, and at last took in the heap of silver-scaled fish that now covered most of the forward deck. “God and Pelger,” he said, deeply impressed. “Where’d you find all that?”
A rhetorical question, Cullen knew. He considered answering with, “In a net,” but settled for a sigh, instead.
“Oh, this is brilliant,” Felson went on, hurrying closer. “We need to get these to port double-quick.”
As Felson passed him, Cullen said, “We do need to get to port, yes. But not to the port you’re thinking, and not because of the fish.”
“Are you kidding? We need to unload these right away. Fengreth, I don’t even know if the hold’s big enough, but we’ve got to try, get them out of the sun quick as we can.”
Cullen glanced again at the burgeoning fires on shore and the Academy domes in particular, then rounded on Felson. The problematic aspect of his bounty was becoming more apparent by the moment. “Listen,” he said, “this’ll sound odd, I know, but if the captain finds out the Academy’s been torched? He’s going to try and help put it out.”
Crouching at the edge of the scaly landslide, Felson spread his hands and said, “Why? What would he do that for?”
“Trust me. He’s going to go play hero, and he might need our help.”
Felson laughed, an uneasy sound, almost a giggle. “My take on fires, it’s keep your distance.”
Shaking his head, Cullen said, “Not today.”
“Come on. You think the captain’s got some reason to rush a burning building? In the Academy?”
“Help me turn this tub around.”
The first mate’s expression turned sulky, belligerent. He stood up. “Now hang on. With the captain gone, I’m the one giving the orders, and right now, we’ve got a catch to store.”
“Let ‘em rot.”
“Cullen, what’s got into you?”
This was a question Cullen might have found compelling, on a day with more time and no burning buildings. The problem of why he’d come to care for Doss, not to mention Maer, as he’d taught the both of them to spar, dodge, and feint, was one that he wrestled with daily now, for he’d long ago sworn off compassion and empathy and relationships of any kind––at least those that ran any deeper than what was required to make a living. Walls, those were what life on the Free Rim had built for him, walls around his heart, walls in all directions. Walls were the price he’d paid (or so he always told himself) for the simple bad luck of having been captured by the pirates in the first place. But now? Now that Doss had put such trust in him (as surely he should not have), now that Maer had risen to his every challenge? To his unending horror, he’d found his vows of self-enforced isolation to be more porous than he’d ever imagined, and the smoking domes of the Academy were the final, incontrovertible proof that like it or not, he’d once again found people to care for. His heart, it seemed, was still not his to rule.
And so, by way of answer to Felson’s born-of-frustration question, Cullen grabbed the first mate with his huge gloved hands and lifted him high in the air. Before Felson could do more than kick and splutter, Cullen tossed his startled crewmate smack into the middle of the mountain of fish. Felson landed with a cry and a thick wet slap, and the fish skittered and slid, then closed over top of his midsection, leaving only his arms, legs, and head free.
“Are you out of your mind?” Felson demanded, as he struggled to gain his feet. “What was that for?”
Cullen stood with his feet planted, hands on hips. “You’re going to help me get this boat to shore, to the docks closest to the Academy. If you won’t, I’ll break your arms. Clear?”
“Cullen! We’re friends!”
No, thought Cullen, we’re not. Even if we ought to be.
Aloud, he said, “You like to name the captain as your friend. Well and good, but if you mean it, then do what I say. I swear to you, I know what I’m talking about.”
Without checking to see if Felson would obey, Cullen wheeled around and shucked off his gloves. He never used gloves when working with the sails, and it was the sails and the rigging, not fish, that had his full attention now.
Behind him, he heard Felson stomping his way through the fish, saying, “All right, all right! I’m helping. Do I still get to give a command, if it’s to help the Star go?”
“If it’s about the boat, yes.”
“Well, thank you.” Felson paused to wipe fish slime off his trousers and shirt, a futile endeavor, and he quickly gave it up. In genuine disbelief, he said, “We’re really going to let them rot?”
Cullen was already at work, unwrapping a rope from a cleat. “If we’re quick, maybe we can roast a few in a house fire once we dock. Looks like there’ll be plenty to go ‘round.”
To Urnua, Mother Sand’s apartments had never felt more desolate. As the old priest’s absence had drifted from hours to days and then into weeks, as the rest of the Mothers began whispering about the need to elevate a replacement, she had given up on her own apartment and taken to living in Mother Sand’s, instead. They were more spacious, certainly, and in every way more luxurious. She told those who questioned her decision that she simply wanted to be there to welcome Mother Sand upon her return, and to make sure all was in readiness. If more than a few of her fellow novitiates gossiped behind her back that she had lost both her sense of station and her actual senses, well, she didn’t mind. This, too, served her purpose.
Plots and plans aside, the apartments really were too big for her, and as she worked her way from deserted room to deserted room, tidying and dusting, engaging in what few administrative projects she could think to do, she came to realize just how lonely a church mother’s life must be. No live-in companions, no prospects for marriage. No parties, either, not for the Most Devout. For the first time, she came to see how a life of the mind, so attractive when seen from the vantage of discombobulated youth or the hubbub of city living, might be a stark, dreary place in which to live out one’s days, a shuttered aerie which the rest of life’s parade made sure, like a river navigating an island, to avoid.
Not that she was bored. She had Durnian’s trial records (voluminous and damning) to keep her busy, along with the triplicate copies of arrest warrants for Maer (filed with some of the relevant State-sanctioned departments, but not all). There was a great deal to learn, and many secrets to file away for later use. In this regard, she knew that Mother Sand would be proud of her snooping, and Mother Coal even more so.
Aside from her investigations, she lived out these days with a rising expectancy, one that had caught hold the moment she’d learned of the common market explosion, of Mother Coal’s narrow escape and Mother Sand’s disappearance. It is beginning, that was the exact thought she’d had, and she remembered it perfectly. She even remembered how she’d held her hands (clasped) and the position of her feet (turned slightly out) at the moment she’d heard the news. It is beginning, and sooner than expected. And now, with the flames from the southwest harbor advancing up the hill (all too visible from Mother Sand’s bedroom where she now sat at the window), she felt again that same frisson of keen anticipation. The work that she’d thought would take a lifetime to make even the slightest headway was happening right this moment, and she burned like a bonfire, all but consumed with the desire to play her part.
So far, her part seemed to require nothing more than interminable patience. Waiting.
And then she heard it, the slight popping noise that indicated the secret pegs were being withdrawn. This was followed by the chalky rasp of stone scraping stone, and Urnua hurried to Mother Sand’s parlor, where she knew in advance what she’d see: the hidden door swinging wide, and Lelanarshik Ferrasan of House Lelan Shandor stepping through the gap.
Amazing, she thought, as she hurried down the steps from the bedroom, that Mother Sand, in all her sour over-confidence, had left her (of all people) in charge of “discovering” the means by which Lelanarshik had gained entrance to her apartment. How remarkable and yet fitting that such a mission had been entrusted to the one woman in the whole of the Unified Church who already knew of this masked, hidden entrance––and who had made use of it, more than once.
By the time she reached the parlor, Lelanarshik had emerged, together with four retainers, each at least as bulky as he, but younger, stronger, and wearing copper-colored helms and dull chain shirts, a style of armor Urnua had never seen in person. She stopped in the doorway, dropped a curtsy, and said, in her best Sindarin, learned long ago from her fiercely proud Sindarin grandmother, “Your arrival, a pleasure. Your presence, a blessing.”
Lelanarshik smiled, though whether he did so because he was pleased to see her or because he found her accent amusing, she could not tell. Whatever the case, he responded, though not in Sindarin. “You’ve heard the news?”
She shook her head. “Only what I see. That you’ve attacked the harbor.”
His laugh was derisive. “We’ve done no such thing. No, this is mere happenstance––good fortune of which we hope to take full advantage.”
Bewildered, she said, “But if those aren’t Sindarin ships, or at least ships commandeered by Sindarin…”
“Urnua, near as we can ascertain, they’re a bunch of lunatics from Aylis. Something about a prophet and Sister Blue.”
“Oh! So they’re here for Maer?”
“How should I know? Do I look like I just sailed from Aylis?”
“No, my apologies. Sir.”
With a sigh of impatience, Lelanarshik said, “Whatever they’re here for, we can’t waste the moment, no matter what our over-cautious friend on Farehl might say. My sources tell me that all but a handful of the Devoted are down in the city, managing what sounds like a very sloppy rear-guard action.”
Urnua nodded. “I’ve mostly been in here, because I was sure you’d come, or at least send a messenger, but yes. The Complex is all but deserted.”
“I’m not sure. But the rest? Ripe for the taking.”
Lelanarshik regarded her with a look that made her think of Mother Coal, that judging look she had. That look that always and forever found her wanting.
“What?” she demanded. “The armory’s what you’re here for, isn’t it?”
The Sindarin made a rumbling noise deep in his chest, a sound she took to be one of assent. She felt hot, miffed. Was this all the enthusiasm he could muster? She’d gone to real trouble for him, taken absurd risks. She’d been the one to find the passageway in the first place, the one to discover how to access and unlock it; she’d been the one to search him out, tell him its secrets, and drop the right hints about her provenance, her sympathies, and how the passage might be put to use. And here he was, strutting like a senatorial guard on parade, and no more grateful than a sow at the trough.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I was under the impression that the Lord of the Foundering Reefs would be more pleased.”
He inclined his head. “I am pleased, and grateful besides.” He looked to the nearest of his retainers. “Summon the rest.” As the other man ducked back into the dimness of the passageway, the three remaining guards glowered at her, and Lelanarshik said, “My dear, all Sindar thanks you for your service this day. But…”
“We have no more need of you.”
She blinked, fast. “What?”
“You’re a traitor and a turncoat, a viper among your own people. You think I would trust you in turn?”
She gaped at him, a score of protests welling in her throat, but then some wiser voice caught hold, begging her to register the sincerity in Lelanarshik’s tone, his obvious readiness to commit violence at a moment’s notice. Go, it said. Don’t protest, don’t even speak. Just run.
Urnua turned and fled, slamming the parlor door as she did. It had no bolt, so she wasted no time trying to bar it but kept on, running with fleet steps through the living area, past the sunken bathing pool with its comforting bubbles and pacifying steam, and all the way to the apartment’s grand front door. She didn’t dare look behind her, for her ears told her all she needed to know: they were after her, two at least and probably all three, and they were likely gaining.
She threw the door wide, burst into the hall, and all but ran down a pair of Devoted who were themselves sprinting in the opposite direction, armed and mailed and furious to have been caromed into by anyone or anything.
“Sindarin!” she cried, as she scrambled for balance. “In there!”
Her rigid pointed finger wasn’t necessary. Lelanarshik’s three retainers charged through the doorway as she spoke. Both sides drew weapons, but the Sindarin never stopped pressing forward, while the Devoted, startled, unready, were outnumbered and forced to give ground. Urnua ducked behind the two Devoted as the first blows fell––a clash of ringing metal, the grunts and yells of angry men––and, taking full advantage of the corridor’s straightaway, ran as fast as she’d ever run in her life. As she fled, she hollered a warning to whoever could hear, “Soldiers, Sindarin! We’re under attack! We’re under attack!”
Other novitiates and priests poured out of doorways, leaned through windows, appeared in portals leading to peaceful, somnambulant courtyards. They tendered questions, demanded explanations, but Urnua kept running. Behind her, judging by the sudden shrieks of those who’d appeared at the sound of her warnings, the Sindarin were coming, and they were coming first for her. So much for the two unlucky Devoted. Had they lasted even a minute?
The same tiny voice––of reason? Of conscience?––that had spurred her to flee in the first place was telling her now where to go, and telling her, too, the fastest way to get there. She was getting close: a left, then a right, and across the Courtyard of the Gulls. One short corridor beyond that and she’d be at the wide iron doors of the armory.
That voice told her also that she now numbered among the greatest hypocrites who’d ever lived, a person who’d betrayed her order only to flee from the very person she’d betrayed it to. Where are your loyalties now, asked the voice? To whom, if you’re honest, do you run?
She was at the armory doors almost before she knew it, and she arrived at the same moment as three Devoted in the company of Mothers Driftwood and Fog, all of them panting with exertion, fearful and wide-eyed.
“Get inside!” Urnua cried. “Get inside and seal the doors!”
The ranking Devoted stared at her, then looked past her, at the three Sindarin just now barreling into the sunny Courtyard of the Gulls. She realized she knew this man, a captain and perhaps the oldest of the active Devoted. Trudek, was that his name? He was injured, bleeding; his face was blackened, bruised, and filthy.
“Open up!” he cried, pounding with one gloved fist on the doors, but even as he did this, he remained facing the onrushing Sindarin.
“Who says so?” called a faint, bored voice from the doors’ far side.
“Captain Trudek,” came the reply, “and if you don’t open up, I’ll have you gutted, fried, and served for my supper. Do it, and do it now!”
Like much of the Church Complex, the armory was built into the hillside, but this particular section was a natural rampart of gray-black stone, and the two enormous metal doors set in its sides were tall, heavy, and not easily shifted. Urnua had been inside only twice, but she knew what the men stationed there would have to do to budge the doors: they’d be pushing a huge cogged wheel and, by means of that, forcing another to rotate in turn such that eventually, through a clever interlocking of monumental gears, the two doors would creep outward, swinging wide one reluctant inch at a time. To open them fully was a process that might well take several minutes, and Urnua, glancing back at the charging Sindarin, knew they didn’t have that long.
Trudek evidently felt the same. “Form up,” he ordered, planting his feet. His two cohorts, one armed with nothing more ferocious than the broken leg of a splintered chair, took up positions on either side. The two mothers huddled behind, quaking and whimpering.
The Sindarin bulled closer, dark shapes in a dim corridor, their bodies turned to silhouettes by the bright portal of the courtyard behind.
“Don’t panic,” said Trudek, his voice quiet now. With his free hand, the one not gripping his sword, he gave his mustache a quick pet. “Urnua, get behind me, please.”
She slipped between him and one of his men, surprised that he knew her name. She wondered if, in the future, everyone in the Six Lands would know it. If so, she’d be Urnua the Traitor, Urnua the Unconscionable. Urnua, who’d first let the Sindarin into the Complex, then led them, for selfish reasons, for the sake of her own survival, straight to the armory.
Behind her, the massive doors slid outward, the gap between them six inches wide, now seven. Mother Fog had gotten a grip on the right-hand door, and was hauling at it with all her octogenarian might; on the left side, Mother Driftwood, the youngest of the mothers but still a crone, was doing the same. It didn’t seem to be helping.
“Steady,” said Trudek, allowing his sword to inscribe a tight, threatening circle in the air. “Steady…”
“Die!” yelled the lead Sindarin, as he flung himself at Trudek, and the captain, parrying and sidestepping, knocked into Urnua, sending her sprawling forehead-first into the nearer of the two cracked-open doors. She bounced off, clutched at her head, and rolled to the floor. One of the Devoted fell, too, and landed on top of her; a gash in his belly spat blood and worse, and she screamed in fright and clawed at the floor to get out from under. Somewhere nearby, a sword clattered to the floor and skittered away; she heard a snarl of frustration followed by a grunt and a gasp. Trudek’s voice sounded, “People, get through the doors! Go!”
Urnua smelled iron. The force of it quirked her nostrils and spurred her to greater efforts, until at last she shed the weight of the dead man on top of her and crawled sideways through the gap between the doors, following Mothers Driftwood and Fog, who had just made it in themselves. At her heels, the Devoted with the chair-leg club tried to leap for safety, but he was too big, too wide with his mail and shoulder plates, and he caught in the gap, stuck like a lobster in a net, and the Sindarin he’d been fending off loomed up behind and rammed his blade through the man’s back. Urnua screamed with the dying man as he slumped, slid to the ground, and lay still, leaving the diabolical visage of his blood-spattered Sindarin opponent to fill the space. He, too, stuck, but the doors were swinging wider, and by turning sideways, the Sindarin managed to bring his sword arm to bear.
Before he could finish reorienting, Urnua grabbed at the fallen man’s broken chair leg, snatched it from his hand, and drove the shattered end into the Sindarin’s face. With a horrified shriek, the Sindarin staggered back, and as he did, Mother Fog cried to Trudek, who was the only Devoted still standing, “Captain! Come through! Hurry!”
With a deft sidestep and hop to clear the dying Devoted on the floor, Trudek cleared the doors and took up a defensive position just inside. The Sindarin he’d been fighting lunged at him, but didn’t dare try to follow him through. The gap was still so narrow that Trudek, with room to work, would have had all the advantages. For the moment. The doors were still opening.
“Other way!” Urnua screamed, and Mother Driftwood took up the cry. “Close the doors! Get them closed!”
Behind her, off to one side, she heard the groans of the two armory guards as they fought to stop and reverse the action of the cogs. Trudek remained in the doorway, doing just enough to fend off his remaining opponent, while in the distance, Urnua could now make out an entire phalanx of Sindarin bearing down, jogging along through the Courtyard of the Gulls and closing rapidly.
“It would be good,” Trudek observed, as he leaned away from an incoming sword thrust, “in regards to these doors, to pick up the pace.” He swatted at his opponent’s sword and hit it from above with a ringing blow, but it wasn’t enough to force the Sindarin to drop it. “In fact,” he went on, his tone dry as salt, “closing that door just about now might be the most important concept remaining to us.”
But now, at last, the doors were visibly closing, the gap between them narrowing, until at last, the Sindarin gave up lunging with his sword, took a step back, and leered through the remaining sliver of space.
“Good luck in there,” he said. “I hope you have food. And water. Because we’re not going anywhere.”
The doors boomed home with a low, funereal echo, and Trudek, with help from the two guards who’d been turning the gears (both Devoted), set its half-dozen locking bars in place. That done, he turned to survey the three women, the two mothers in their ebony-embedded headbands and their black-as-night robes, and Urnua, whose novitiate’s robe had been white and was now a mucky reddish-brown, so bloody it was sopping. Trudek himself looked little better, and his sword slithered out of his hand and fell to the ground with a bracing, defeated clang.
“Good,” said Trudek. “Welcome to the armory.” Having managed that much, he leaned against the nearest of the cogs, breathing hard, then slumped across it. For a moment, no one spoke. Around them, the vaulted, lantern-lit entrance hall gave way to a half-dozen branching passageways leading out, each hinting at aisle after aisle of weaponry.
“Dear God,” said Mother Fog. “Is he dead?”
“Not quite,” Trudek responded, without looking up or opening his eyes. “But I do wonder, you men who’ve been on duty? Please reassure me that we are in fact supplied with food and drink? That our siege regulations have been followed, to the letter?”
The looks the two Devoted gave each other were nervous and unwilling, the expressions of men who’d rather be asked almost any other question, and Urnua, with a sinking heart, realized their collective predicament. The armory was a dead end. For so long as the Sindarin remained in control outside, there was no way out. And now, there was no food.
“We’ve got some ale,” one said.
“And drae,” said the other. “Just made a fresh pot.”
Trudek allowed himself to slide all the way to the floor. “How much water?” he asked. “In total?”
Again, the two men looked at each other, and one spread his hands in a helpless gesture. “The next shift, they were supposed to restock,” he said. “That’s what the duty-sergeant said. Next shift. Next shift for sure.”
“Ah,” sighed Trudek, and he stretched out, exhausted, and closed his eyes. It had been a hard morning, the worst of his long career, but cuts and bruises and all, he felt relaxed, at peace. Justified.
Mother Driftwood’s eyes darted around the wide, open room, never settling. Down each of the radiating hallways, and lit by flickering, lively torches, racks of weapons greeted her at every turn, their long rows martial and forbidding. “Now just a moment,” she said. “If we’re stuck in here, and we don’t have water…”
“Prayer,” said Mother Fog. “What we have now is prayer.”
In the end, getting off the Compound Wall and into Vagen involved descending the Sindarin side via a handy staircase and purloining a long, rickety ladder and a coil of stout rope. After returning to the wall and anchoring the ladder’s near end with the rope as best they could, Doss dropped the far end into the branches of a verrel tree that no one had thought to cut back. Once the ladder seemed at least somewhat stable, he and Maer enacted a heart-stopping high-wire act, crawling one at a time, Doss first, from the top of the wall and into the tree. The drop below was dizzying, and the ladder sagged as if begging to split in half. Every time it let out one of its many sharp, splintering sounds, Maer gasped, froze, and gripped its sides tighter; she was convinced that at any moment she’d be dropped into space, and likely dead on impact.
Somehow, the ladder held, but the verrel tree was hardly less of a challenge. The ladder couldn’t be retrieved, and the limbs of the full-grown verrel were far apart, especially for Maer’s shorter legs. With their hearts in their throats and pulses racing, the pair of them shimmied down the swollen trunk, working from foothold to foothold until they reached the lowest of the tree’s limbs, still a good ten feet off the ground. They managed this final descent by hanging off the lowest branch, then letting go, rolling on impact, and hoping for the best. Amazingly, neither broke an ankle.
The Academy was a mile distant, and neither knew the streets’ layout, but by and large, the city did the work for them: simply by keeping the smoking domes in sight whenever possible, they made good progress. The streets were far from empty, however; the island’s central mesa had prevented the denizens of these northern slopes from any view of the southwest harbor fires, and only now was news beginning to trickle in that trouble had come calling, not just at the Academy but all across the city, all at once. Many were already heading to the Academy to help battle the flames, carrying buckets and whatever else they thought might be handy. The notion that they were under attack seemed to be the farthest thing from their minds.
Maer was struggling to keep up with Doss who shouldn’t have been as fit as he was. How, she wondered, did working a supplies boat keep his legs and lungs so strong? No doubt about it, the man was a gifted athlete. Seeing him run was like watching him spar and wrestle with Cullen; he was cat-quick, and had first-rate instincts. As Cullen had put it, “Fengreth, Captain. If you’d gone out for training in your teens, you’d be downright dangerous now,” to which Doss had replied, “Aye, well. Maybe that’s why I never did it.”
But it wasn’t just his height and speed that kept him in front, it was Maer’s stubborn suspicion that maybe she shouldn’t be following him in the first place. How was it that Doss had a wife? And had never bothered saying so? And now here they were rushing halfway across the city to save this intrusive, unwanted stranger from a building that would surely be a deathtrap by the time they arrived.
Worst of all was knowing that if she stopped running for even an instant, she’d burst into tears. She could just imagine how Elsbeth would respond to that. “Weak and typical,” she’d have said. “Child, listen to one who knows the world better than you. Put a lock on your heart and get on with what needs doing.”
Drudgery and chores, that had been what needed doing at the Spur. But what needed doing here on the Middle Isle, in the midst of a siege that half the population seemed only dimly aware of? Rescue, that was what needed doing, the drudgery and chore of rescuing Doss’s wretched wife.
They swung around a final corner and into an avenue blocked with the flotsam of at least a hundred gawking people; they had to shove and shoulder their way through the throng. At the front, a cadre of the city watch were trying to hold people back, shouting explanations that it was too dangerous, the flames were already out of control. When Doss and Maer pushed through anyway, refusing to take no for an answer, others followed at their heels, shouting encouragement to one another and waving their buckets and pails like flags.
Ahead lay the first of a series of open, manicured terraces, each laid out with smooth lawns and long, black-tiled pools, some with statuary fountains, and one featuring the Twins. Flanking these terraces were blocky octagonal and circular buildings, some only two stories high, others three or four, and each one quite separate from the rest. The nearest structures were untouched by either smoke or flame, but farther up the slope, the smoke was roiling, intense. Maer wondered what the buildings contained that they could burn with such heat––their stone sides looked positively impregnable––and then she remembered where she was. The Academy. Inside, it would be like Elsbeth’s rooms at the Spur, one pile of papers after another. Books everywhere, ready tinder for a hungry fire.
“Which building?” Maer called, as Doss took the polished black steps two at a time and reached the lawn of the first terrace. “Where do we go?”
“Third on the left,” he called back. “Unless she’s moved offices.”
“Oh, I see. Been a while, has it?”
Doss shot her a harsh look, and kept moving. “Not now, Maer. Not now.”
It struck Maer that while a steady stream of willing helpers was pouring in behind them, there appeared to be no exodus whatsoever from even the most engulfed of the Academy’s buildings. Where was everyone? Surely the various custodians and academicians couldn’t all be trapped inside?
As they passed the second building and clattered up the steps to the next terrace, a voice from high above yelled, “Look out below!” and she glanced up just in time to dodge a rain of falling books, heavy tomes and loose papers, all sailing down from an upper story window. One of the largest volumes hurtled to the ground just ahead of her, and she had to jump back to avoid it. On looking up again, she saw a man leaning out of the window and hurling a second armload groundward.
“Idiots,” muttered Doss, without slowing. “They’ll save the books before they’ll save themselves.”
Maer swiveled her gaze to take in the buildings on the far side of the terrace. These edifices were more obviously ablaze, and sure enough, papers and scrolls and documents of all kinds were raining down from upper windows, some dropping like stones, others sailing along, swaying this way and that like a scatter of falling leaves. Useless, thought Maer. There was no one down below to pick them up.
On impulse, she whirled around and called to the many would-be firefighters behind her. “Help with the books!” she cried. “Get them somewhere safe!”
To her amazement, several people diverted from their course to gather up the fallen manuscripts, and others spread out to the more distant buildings, clearly intent on doing the same there. Maer could hardly believe it. They’d listened to her. They’d obeyed.
“Who are you?” one woman asked, in a tone that suggested the answer might somehow matter.
“Maer,” she answered, although she nearly answered with, “Ayvin,” instead. Then she added, as an impromptu afterthought, “Maer of the Spur.”
The woman, her arms already laden with fluttering, wrinkled sheaves of paper, paused, blinked at her, and said, “I’ve heard of you.”
Nodding emphatically, the woman said, “One of my neighbors, just the other day. Said you’d sent mail about how there’ll be news. News in two years’ time, when Sister Blue comes ‘round.”
“Maer!” It was Doss, now well ahead. “What in the deep are you doing?”
Still wide-eyed with surprise, Maer turned and raced to catch up with Doss, who was hovering at the doorway to the highest of the buildings so far, a fat octagon of a structure with only one obvious door, open, and no lower story windows.
As Maer dashed up, Doss said, “What was all that?”
“Does it matter? Why’d you even wait for me?”
Doss licked his lips. “God only knows. Come on.”
He ducked inside, and Maer followed. The smell of smoke was stronger, but she saw no sign of flames, and the air was breathable––more or less. She kept on, pounding after Doss and trying to ignore the tremors in her legs, her undeniable exhaustion. The Sea Steps had been stern taskmasters, but had she ever run so far in her life?
The rooms were a blur, and Doss never lingered; he seemed to know where he was going. The first rooms were high-ceilinged, full of heavy chairs and ancient desks, but the interior was so dimly lit (where were the windows?) that it was all she could do not to trip on the furniture and go sprawling headlong to the floor. Then there were tight little corridors and cramped little offices and at last a stairway zig-zagging up, and light spilling in from an upstairs window. She realized, as she prepared herself for a climb, that they hadn’t passed a single living soul.
The fire waited on the next level. It was popping and burning with cheerful abandon through a maze of book-stuffed, floor-to-ceiling shelves, all painted midnight blue. Coils of smoke were racing along the ceiling and charging out through several arched windows in great bursts of blackened cloud. A number of greying scholars in Academy robes, rich brown with red sashes, were doing their best to beat the flames into submission, but their only weapons were sections of deep blue carpet, most too large and unwieldy to work with. Not one of them had water or buckets.
In one corner, two librarians stood guard over a scrawny, underfed man whom they’d pushed against a wall. He kept trying to scramble up, and they kept pushing him back down, levying a kick now and then for good measure. The firestarter, Maer decided. It was amazing they hadn’t thrown him out the window along with the books.
Doss had paused, shielding his eyes against the heat of the flames, and looking to see who the various robed figures were. One of them, a D’rekaani woman, turned long enough to recognize him. “Doss!” she cried, coughing. “Get over here and help!”
He shook his head. “Where’s Kryssa?”
The woman paused in her efforts long enough to jab a finger at the ceiling. “Up!” she shouted, and then she was back to work, flailing away with a heavy-looking rug that might well have put out a cook-fire, but was no match for the conflagration at hand.
“Doss,” Maer said, as he made a beeline for the next stairwell, “this whole floor––what if we can’t get back down?”
“Turn around if you like.”
“That’s not––! Never mind.”
The next floor wasn’t burning––yet––but from the way the flames had been licking along the ceiling of the level below, she knew it was only a matter of time. Like the gallery from which they’d just come, the entire space was done up in one color, maroon, and dedicated to shelving and manuscripts. Several dozen narrow pillars, also painted maroon, supported the warped, painted-but-peeling white ceiling. Thanks to the billowing smoke blowing up from the stairwell, the air had turned hazy and gray. Maer could hardly draw a full breath without choking. Three librarians, their brown and red robes flying, were dashing back and forth to what few windows there were and hurling out armloads of books and paper. Two were men, and the third––
“Kryssa!” Doss shouted. “You have to get out!”
Kryssa, younger than her cohorts and very tall, stopped dead in her tracks. To Maer, she looked as if she hailed from all the Six Lands simultaneously, and had somehow retained only the best features of each.
“Doss?” Kryssa said, in genuine disbelief. “What are you doing?”
“Rescuing you, what’s it look like?”
Kryssa jerked her long, prominent chin at Maer. “And who’s that?”
“Does it matter, right now?”
Kryssa turned away, grabbing up more manuscripts from the nearest shelves. “I’m not leaving,” she said, trying to force down a cough, “so you can either vanish or help.”
Doss threw out his arms to encompass the building at large. “Do you not know what’s happening one floor below?”
With an armload of books already clutched to her chest, Kryssa made for the window. “Of course I know. So what?”
“The floor’ll go any minute––and you with it!”
After chucking her burden out the window, Kryssa threw him a passing glare as she hurried back to the shelves. “You know what’s on this level?”
“Other than us?”
Maer, who’d been gathering up an armload of her own, had seen enough to know the answer. “Science,” she said, and she wiped her watering eyes with one sleeve. “Astronomy.”
Surprised, Kryssa said, “That’s right. Everything our culture knows of the stars and the planets, and it’s all going to go up in smoke”––she paused to grunt as she hoisted a series of particularly heavy tomes––“unless we save them.”
Maer followed her to the window, and chucked her armful out in the wake of Kryssa’s.
“Thank you,” the librarian said, “whoever you are.”
Doss clapped a hand to his forehead. “You can’t stay here!”
“I leave when we’re done, and if you want that to be sooner rather than later, then help me.”
With a shake of his head, Doss gave in and marched to the nearest shelf of books. “We’ll never get them all,” he said, then gave in to a fit of hacking. When he’d recovered, he said, “There’s what, a hundred shelves in here?”
“You know you’ll cough less if you shut up.”
“Sure, hey, for you? Anything.” He hoisted a terrific load of loose papers, some of which swished to the floor as he staggered to the nearest window. “And what’ll Marlie do when she’s got no parents, hey? When we’re both burnt to a crisp, she heads off to the nearest orphanage? You’re comfortable with that?”
“I said it once, I’ll say it again: shut up.”
Maer could hardly believe her ears. The shock of hearing that Doss had a wife was bad enough, but now to discover that he and this willowy, long-limbed librarian had a child, a daughter? She felt faint, and she paused, leaning on a pillar for support.
“I’m fine,” she said, waving Doss away as best she could with her paper-laden hands. “Learning a lot, that’s all.”
“Oh, with me and Kryssa, there’s lots to learn.” He was darting back from the window, having just hurled the latest armload into space. “And none of it simple.”
A resonant groan echoed around the room, a deep and windy sound like a giant disturbed from sleep. Doss froze, and so did the librarians. Only Kryssa and Maer kept to their task.
“What was that?” Doss demanded.
“The floor,” said Kryssa. “Timbers.”
“Right, then.” He turned and flung his latest armload out the window. “Time to go.”
Looking to Maer for sympathy and understanding, Kryssa shook her head. “He doesn’t listen, never did. Is he this bad with you, too?”
Maer, winded by the smoke and wheezing, blinked at the librarian and said, “I’m not––I wouldn’t––” and then had to turn away, coughing so hard that she bent double and dropped half her rescued books.
“The walls are talking!” Doss crowed, as the building groaned again, louder than before. “Time to go!”
From a distant aisle, a section of flooring gave way with a crack, and a jet of orange flame shot through, driving right to the ceiling. Kryssa, in the act of gathering a next armload, hesitated. Pointing, she indicated two bays of shelving a few yards distant. “We empty those,” she said, “and then we go.”
For once, Doss didn’t argue. He raced to the shelves she’d pointed out and seized as much as he could manage. Kryssa did the same, and Maer, after gulping fresh air from the window, rushed to follow. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted the other two librarians hastening down the stairs, their red sashes flying.
“Why these?” she asked Kryssa, as they passed each other. “There’s so much more…”
“Recent work,” Kryssa replied, without slowing. “Synthesis, summation––if we’re lucky, we don’t need the rest.”
Back and forth, back and forth, running and gasping, their eyes watering to the point where they could hardly see, they kept on. When the floor groaned again, it did so with a booming that started like tympani and then extended, stretched. To Maer, raised so near to the sea, it sounded like a cresting wave washing its way around the walls.
“That’s the lot,” said Kryssa, from the shelves. She had the last armload clutched to her chest. Maer and Doss were just turning back from the window. “Get to the stairs, I’ll follow––oh!”
The floor gave way beneath her, a massive and deafening subsidence that stretched to the far wall. As the floor sagged and splintered downward, it tore free of what solid timbers remained with mighty cracks and rending sounds. Kryssa flung her books toward Doss and scrabbled for a purchase; Doss dove headlong to capture Kryssa’s outstretched hands.
“Maer!” he yelled. “Grab my ankles!”
She was already doing exactly that, and in a flash, she’d gotten hold of both his boots, but she had nothing against which to anchor her own legs. Even so, she was able to tug hard enough that she held him in place––for a moment––and then his boots began to peel away, victims of Kryssa’s weight at one end and Maer on the other, with not enough friction to hold them. As Maer tried for a better grip, she slid along the floor, and Kryssa dropped lower. Her feet kicked over the roasting fire below.
“Climb me!” Doss ordered. “Hand over hand!”
Teeth gritted with the effort, Kryssa let go with her left and reached higher, seizing Doss by his bicep. The force of it jerked Maer across the floor, and Doss craned his neck around, glaring.
“Fengreth, I said hold me, not let me go!”
With a furious kick, Maer rolled herself sideways and managed to get the toes of her boots hooked around a support pillar. As Kryssa clambered higher on Doss, Maer stretched her torso as she’d never stretched before; with one last tremendous effort, she got her ankles and then her knees locked around the narrow column.
“Come on, come on!” Doss grunted as Kryssa clawed at his shoulders. Her fingers kept slipping. “Hurry up!”
“What do you think I’m doing?” she gasped, as she heaved herself over his head––his face wound up pressed to the floor––and at last to safety.
“Right,” said Doss, rolling onto his back. “Told you it was time to go.”
Kryssa staggered to her feet, and again looked for sympathy from Maer. “Always the last word with him. Always.”
And then they were off, all three of them, grabbing up the last of Kryssa’s fallen books and bursting toward and down the stairs, Kryssa in the lead. Maer thought they’d never get past the floor below, but somehow the stairs had survived, and in another minute, they were outside on the lawn, each down on hands and knees and coughing helplessly. Strangers came to check on them, to pat them reassuringly on the back, and between coughs, Maer could see bucket brigades forming, long chains of neighbors and city-folk lining up to haul water from the terrace pools in what looked like a doomed effort to fight the Academy’s many active fires. Still, it was something. Heartening. The best the people could manage.
Those that weren’t fighting the flames were gathering up the flotsam of fallen books and manuscripts, the ones that had been tossed from upper floors, and still more people were drawing up carts and wagons to store them. It was an extraordinary operation––improvised and sloppy, to be sure, but full of corporate good will and rousing community spirit.
Only Doss appeared to be having none of it. He got to his feet, hands on his knees, and glared at Kryssa. “Just so you know, hey,” he said. “You and your books? Not worth it.”
Kryssa made a scoffing noise, coughed again, and swung her eyes to Maer. “For him, nobody ever is,” she said, “and that’s the truth.”
Not worth it.
Hearing Doss say this to Kryssa, as he’d once said it to her in the cove beneath the Spur, sent an ugly shock of recognition through Maer, and she felt her eyes welling, not from the smoke this time, but from the sense that she’d just been slapped. When Doss looked her way, she averted her eyes, and concentrated instead on the clamor of the firefighting efforts, the shouting and orders, the cries of encouragement and the hollered warnings. The complaints, too: more than a few people were demanding to know where the fire department had got to. Were they so busy that they couldn’t be bothered with the Academy, of all places?
Too little, too late, she thought. All those buildings, all that knowledge, lost. Centuries of work, gone in an instant. The cinders and ash now raining down across the terrace might once have been papers of Elsbeth’s, or Durnian’s, or perhaps their mentors before them. And what now was left? Charred tatters, illegible nothings. All that effort, for nought.
Not worth it.
All at once, she was angry. Furious.
“Who did this?” she said, jumping to her feet and addressing Kryssa. “You had someone caught, inside. Who was it?”
Kryssa sounded contemptuous. “A nobody. Some kind of cult.”
“A cult? What cult?”
The librarian sighed, as if explanations could only make the day worse. “A doomsday cult, that’s what. The kind we never took seriously. Something about Grandfather Mountain, all the recent eruptions. ‘The end of the world!’ I guess there were fires, earlier, on the other side of the island, and they took that for a sign. Decided to light a few flares of their own and hurry the ends times along.”
“Show me one,” said Maer, casting around and reaching for the dagger at her belt, a gift from Cullen for lessons well learned.
“Show you an arsonist?” demanded Doss. “And you’ll do what, hey? Kill him?”
“Why not? He’d deserve it.”
Doss shrugged, and Maer almost charged him on the spot. “Whoa, now,” he said. “He might deserve it, aye. But plenty of people deserve to die. Who says it’s your job to carry out the sentence?”
“Who says it’s not?”
Kryssa barked a laugh. “Doss,” she said, “you’ve got yourself a feisty one.”
Frustrated, Doss rounded on his wife. “She’s not––!”
“Oh, she’s not? Not what?”
“Kryssa, for Fengreth’s sake, I’m married to you!”
The gravity of Kryssa’s look silenced and stilled him. “You are, yes. And Marlie’s at school, three blocks over. Good of you to ask.”
Doss looked to the skies and let out an exasperated groan. “God above! She clearly wasn’t with you, and it’s not like we didn’t have enough to contend with!”
“Still and all. She’s your daughter.”
“Aye, she is. And if you hadn’t sent me away…”
“Sent you? Please.”
“You pulled strings, Kryssa. Don’t deny it. You married a ship’s captain, and you knew you’d married a ship’s captain, and then when you got your sash, suddenly that didn’t look so attractive.”
To Maer’s astonishment, Kryssa again sought her out for support. “It wasn’t like that. The library position was an honor, no question, but if you think I cut him loose…”
In beseeching tones, Doss said, “Maer, here’s what she did. She got me transferred.”
“That is such an exaggeration.”
“No more local fishing jobs for old Doss, no, no. Next thing I knew, I was on a tub working Aylis. Aylis, of all places! Damp and wet and…God.” He paused and rubbed at his eyes. Once he’d cleared them, he glared again at Kryssa. “Time was, I was more than good enough for you, you and your books, all your scholar friends. What happened, hey? When did I become just some boor with a boat?”
The argument would surely have gone on, but then all three––Maer, Doss, and Kryssa––became aware of a gaggle of strangers approaching, an assemblage led, Maer realized, by the woman she’d spoken with on her way into the Academy grounds. This woman, a baker to judge by her clothes, now led a whole group of others in her wake.
“That one,” said the baker, pointing at Maer. “Maer of the Spur, she called herself.”
Maer stiffened. Granting herself that appellation had only been an impulse, a stupid giving-in to pride. She didn’t have a title. She was Maer, and Maer only. Titles were for history, or maybe Sindarins.
“Maer? The one who forwarded Elsbeth’s letters?”
The man who spoke had wild, salt-gray hair and tufty eyebrows; his spine forced him to a perpetual stoop. As with several others in the band, his robes marked him as a member of the Academy.
For a moment, Maer was tempted to tell him he’d made a mistake, that her name was Ayvin, and she’d never known an Elsbeth, ever. But then she swallowed––her mouth was dry as rice paper––and managed a nod.
“I was one of your recipients,” the man said. Others in his little group nodded, and one caught her eye, then added, “There were other letters, saying you’d gone to the Sindarin Compound,” and again, others nodded, as if this, too, had become common currency, public knowledge. The first man spoke again, saying. “Long years ago, I knew Elsbeth, and knew her well. But what you sent––what she discovered––it’s miraculous. Can I ask, did you see? With your own eyes? Is it true, what she says?”
All around them, the bucket brigades stuck to their hopeless task, and above, from the great domed rooftops, the plumes of black smoke billowed up to the cheerful bright blue sky. In the distance, Grandfather Mountain peeked around the top of the Middle Isle’s mesa, and from there, too, smoke issued in a tidy, silent column of ash that rose, then leveled off, and at last streamed northward like a long gray ribbon.
Seeing all this, and shaking still from her long run and the intensity of the fire, Maer held her hands before her and ducked her chin and wished that she’d somehow known these strangers were coming so that she could have washed her face, scrubbed clean the smudges of soot that stained her brown skin black. No matter, she told herself. No matter. A catchphrase of Elsbeth’s, one of dozens she had at her fingertips, one or more for every occasion, and each more exacting than the last: what’s done is done; pick yourself up and move on; die in your sleep or keep on living.
“It’s true,” she said at last, raising her eyes but not her chin. “It’s all true. And in two years’ time, less, we’ll have the proof.”
The tufty-haired man shook his head, and so did several others besides. “Not if things keep on like this,” he said. “The Academy had just begun building a spyglass to rival Elsbeth’s, but now, after today? Gone. And Bethanian––I think you know that name––she’s gone, too. Missing, and with her all her wares.”
“We don’t have the craft,” broke in a woman farther toward the back, a Lemphieri with olive skin and long, luxurious hair. “We know the theories, the physics, but without Bethanian…”
The tufty-haired man smiled as if the entire day added up to nothing more than a harmless, sunny joke. “It’s a sad fact,” he said. “A few pieces of glass and a nice long tube can change the world, but only the right pieces of glass. Only the exact right tube. Demand for such things has heretofore been limited. Specialists hard to come by.”
Maer looked to Doss, and he held her gaze, waiting her out, inscrutable. Waiting, she realized, for her to make a decision. Kryssa looked from one to the other, an expression of faint surprise on her dirty, ash-blackened face. It really was a beautiful face, Maer decided. No wonder Doss had fallen for her.
Looking back to the little throng of strangers, Maer said, “What if I told you I could find Bethanian?”
The Lemphieri woman shook her head. “It wouldn’t help. In the current climate, anything we did, anything she built––it’d be dismantled just like that.”
The wild-haired man nodded his agreement. “In certain arenas, the church prefers mystery to answers, and in recent weeks, their attitude toward the Academy––to the stars themselves, even––has become very hostile indeed. There’s rumors all ‘round the town that it’s the church that’s been propping up this whole doomsday cult.” He hesitated, his face apologetic. “Fanning the flames, as it were. Driving them on.”
Maer felt as if someone were slowly binding her with invisible, twining cords, cords of duty and expectation. “Fine,” she snapped. “What would you have me do?”
The man hesitated, then said, “If you really know where to find Bethanian––if you really can get at her––then take her away. Take her somewhere far, far from here, and then put her to work. Have her make enough spyglasses that when the Sister returns, so many people will witness the truth that denials will be impossible. That way, we’ll all have the truth, and the truth will have us––whatever it turns out to be.”
Maer glanced at Doss, and this time, he nodded his chin. Just once, down then up.
“All right,” she said, “but you come, too. To help build. To construct the spyglasses.”
Everyone in the assembled band shook their heads and muttered protestations. Everyone except the Lemphieri woman, who looked sidelong at the ground, as if Maer had just proposed the most unseemly and sickening of ideas.
“I won’t be joining you,” said the tufty-haired man. “Really not my specialty, and I doubt I’d be much help, but Rinehl, here,” and he half-turned to take in the Lemphieri, “she could be of great service.”
“No,” said the woman. “I can’t.”
“You’re the best astronomer the Academy has,” said the man. “That’s why Elsbeth wrote you. You have her designs, her specifications. You understand her work.”
“My place,” Rinehl burst out, “is here!”
“Not any more. And if you did stay? Not safe.”
Doss broke in. “Enough chatter,” he said. “Maer and me, we’ll get Bethanian. Not only that, we’ll take anyone who cares to come, since God knows that Maer can use the help. But first,” and he rounded on Kryssa, daring her to argue, “first I get to see our daughter.”
To read Chapter Ten, click HERE.
Mark Rigney has published three stories in the Black Gate Online Fiction library: ”The Trade,” “The Find,” and “The Keystone.” Tangent called the tales “Reminiscent of the old sword & sorcery classics… once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. I highly recommend the complete trilogy.”
Away from Black Gate, he is the author of the supernatural quartet, The Skates, Sleeping Bear, Check-Out Time, and Bonesy, all published by Samhain and featuring his semi-dynamic duo of Renner & Quist. His short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Lightspeed, Unlikely Story, Betwixt, Black Static, The Best of the Bellevue Literary Review, Realms of Fantasy, Witness, The Beloit Fiction Journal, Talebones, Not One Of Us, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and many more. In other work, Rigney is the author of the plays Ten Red Kings, Acts of God and Bears, winner of the 2012 Panowski Playwriting Competition, as well as the non-fiction book Deaf Side Story: Deaf Sharks, Hearing Jets and a Classic American Musical (Gallaudet). Two collections of his stories (all previously published by various mags and ‘zines) are available through Amazon, Flights of Fantasy, and Reality Checks. His author’s page at Goodreads can be found HERE, and his website is markrigney.net.