1. By the same author
  2. Title Page
  3. Dedication
  32. Acknowledgments
  33. About the Author
  34. Imprint Page
Freya Robertson
To Tony & Chris. My Kiwi boys.
Procella leaned on the parapets of the gatehouse known as the Porta and looked down on the Heartwood estate.
The Baillium bustled with people and animals. Knights practiced swordplay in the Exerceo arenas, pages ran errands, horses stood patiently while stable boys tightened their stirrups, and chickens pecked amongst the flagstones fronting the central Temple. The early morning sun had warmed the building’s amber stone to a rich gold, and Procella’s heart warmed too at the familiar sight of her beloved home.
The Quintus Campana tolled, the bell echoing throughout the complex to mark the end of weapons practice. Usually she barely heard it, the hourly knell as much a part of the background noise of everyday life as the birdsong in the oak trees scattered in the grounds. But this time the resonant peal vibrated through the stone, up through her feet and into her bones, making her teeth ache and her head throb.
Unease rippled through her. The light was too bright. The figures moved too slowly, as if underwater. On the top of the Temple, the glass of the domed roof glimmered, reflecting not the green leaves of the Arbor beneath it but instead a reddish-orange, like the flicker of firelight. The skin prickled on the back of her neck and her stomach churned.
Then she felt a presence at her back, and she turned her head to see Chonrad standing there, looking down at the Baillium. His brown hair fluttered in the light wind. The sight of his handsome, bearded face brought a smile to her lips, and his hand on her hip, a protective gesture that would have irritated her were it any other man, only made her glow.
She blinked. Twenty-two years had passed since the day he had asked her to marry him. So where was the grey in his hair, the scar at his temple he had received in a brief raid on his home town several years later?
An icy coldness slithered down her spine. How come Heartwood – which had been razed to the ground after the attack by the Darkwater Lords – was still standing?
Chonrad raised a hand and gripped her jaw, forcing her to look into his eyes. They burned fierce and intense, as if he wanted to convey something important to her. She shivered and tried to pull her chin away, but he was too strong.
“You should not be here,” she whispered.
His blue gaze burrowed into her. Was he about to make some declaration of love? They had never been a romantic couple, but he had always been careful to tell her he loved her every night, to tell her what she meant to him.
Instead, however, he commanded in a low, deep voice, “Bring her.”
Growing angry, she pushed at his chest. “Let me go.”
His fingers bit into her flesh. “Bring her, Procella.” He spoke insistently, both his tone and his stare demanding she listen. Then, finally, he let go of her chin.
She opened her mouth to say something, but a glint of light to her left caught her attention, and she glanced around, the words unspoken.
The windows of the Temple flickered once again with red and orange. Fire was engulfing the building. Heat seared her face and she smelled ash and burnt flesh on the wind. Screams filled the air, and horses panicked and stampeded through the grounds. The crackle of burning wood filled her ears.
The Arbor!
Procella’s eyes flew open. Her heart pounded and her chest heaved as she struggled to work out where she was. Gradually, she recognised the master chamber in Vichton – Chonrad’s bed, as she thought of it. Chonrad’s castle. Even though she had lived there for over twenty years and borne three children there, she still struggled to think of it as home.
She sat up. Stars twinkled through the arrowslit windows, the sun not yet arisen from its bed. A candle guttered, burned low. Early morning, then; dawn a few hours away.
She swung her legs over the bed and pulled on a pair of fur-lined boots, then wrapped herself in a thick cloak. The oak door squeaked as she pulled it open, and she hoped it hadn’t awoken anyone. She wanted to be alone, to think about her dream.
She climbed the curving staircase to the top of the keep and stepped out into the cold air. It bit into her lungs and cleared the final dregs of sleep from her mind. She nodded to the guard on duty, who smiled and then politely looked the other way, used to the mistress of the house appearing at all hours of the day and night. Before she entered the army, she had spent years as a Custos, patrolling the walls around Heartwood, and she felt comfortable up high like this, looking down across the land.
The town was quiet; the only sound the occasional bark of a dog from a sleeping household. Rooftops of all shapes, sizes and colours spilled out from the foot of the castle, the streets a tangle of paved roads close to the wall, mudded lanes on the outskirts. A couple of guards walked the streets, distinguishable by their flickering torches, but it was too late for drunks, too early for even the most hardworking shopkeepers. The air smelled of salt from the sea a few miles to the east, as well as the usual aromas of horse from the stables and smoke from the dying fire in the Great Hall.
That made her think about the fire in her dream, and the way it had consumed the Temple. She had been there twenty-two years ago when the Arbor broke through the stone, causing it to crumble. She had been stunned at its sudden destruction, but it had not filled her with the foreboding and fear that the sight of the flames had.
She wrapped her arms around herself, remembering the press of Chonrad against her back in the dream. Never had she missed him so much. His death a year before almost to the day had been sudden and shocking, and yet somehow she had known he wouldn’t return from his journey to Heartwood the same man. The Arbor had needed him, as it had needed him all those years ago before they were wed, and just as she had dreaded, he had returned a shadow, practically on his death bed. He had tried to tell her what had happened down in the labyrinth beneath the Arbor, and she knew it was something to do with the tree taking his energy once again, but he had died before he had been able to explain it fully.
Now, she missed and resented him in equal measure. He had put the tree first, before her, before their children. Their children may be full grown, but they still needed their father, and she still needed her husband. But as soon as it had called him, he had gone running, and she hated him for that.
A tear rolled down her cheek. Hated and loved him. “I miss you,” she whispered to the wind. But nobody heard.
The voice behind her made her turn and hastily wipe her cheek dry. Her daughter – the youngest of her three children – stood there, wrapped in a thick cloak over her nightdress, her feet clad in a small pair of leather slippers, her blonde hair snapping around her face in the breeze that had sprung up out of nowhere. Just seventeen, she looked little more than eleven or twelve; small and slight, slender as an arrow.
“You will freeze without your fur boots,” Procella scolded, glad nevertheless of the company.
Horada shrugged and frowned. “What are you doing up here?”
“I had a dream.” A wisp of the uneasiness that had stolen over her in her sleep returned to flutter in her stomach.
Her daughter clutched the cloak at her throat. “What about?”
Procella shook her head and smiled. “It matters not. It was just a dream.”
Horada looked out across the town. Again Procella marvelled at how slight she was, how fragile. So unlike her parents or her siblings. True, Julen was slight too, but he was over six feet tall and dark like his mother, and Orsin was built like Chonrad: broad-shouldered and brown-haired. Horada was almost ethereal, a dreamer who seemed continually in another world. Where had this delicate flower sprung from?
“I had a dream too.” Horada pushed her hair behind her ears. “About the Arbor. It was on fire…”
Procella stared. Her daughter had never seen the Arbor – Chonrad had always refused to take her there, even though both their sons had visited it at varying times. “Fire?”
Horada nodded absently. “I could smell it in the air, and feel the heat on my face.” She turned concerned eyes back to her mother. “I think…” She hesitated. “I think it meant something.”
Words failed Procella. In her head, she heard Chonrad say, “Bring her.” Had he been referring to his daughter? But it had just been a dream, she reminded herself. It wasn’t an omen or a portent or a glimpse of the future. It couldn’t be.
Procella had never experienced a spiritual moment in her life. Like all good Militis, while in the army she had carried out her evening rituals and worn her oak-leaf pendant around her neck, and she still bore the oak-leaf tattoo on her outer wrist, a constant reminder of her past life as Dux. But although she loved the Arbor and would have defended it with her life, it had always been others who’d had the spiritual connection with the tree.
So why was she dreaming about it now? And Horada too? Had her daughter somehow inherited Chonrad’s strange connection with it?
“What do you think it means?” she asked.
Horada moistened her lips. “I think it wants me to go there.”
Cold filtered down through Procella as if she had drunk a cup of water from a mountain stream. “That would not be wise.”
“Your father refused to take you there,” Procella said sharply. “I have always wondered why, but now I am starting to think he was right. You saw what the Arbor did to him, and maybe he worried it would do the same to you.”
“If the Arbor calls, we should answer regardless.” Horada’s midnight-blue eyes shone with idealistic fervour.
Procella refrained from yelling the sort of swear word she would once have uttered to her fellow Militis in the training ground. She had gained more control over her language since having children and finding out they copied every word she said. But still her back stiffened with resentment. “Should we? Why so?”
Horada frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Why should we go running? The Arbor killed your father, remember?” She clenched her fists, fighting the surge of emotion.
Horada looked up at the stars. “I wish I could have spoken to him about it before he died.”
“Yes, well, so do I, but we were not given that luxury.”
“I know. And I know that you resent him and the Arbor for that. But he would not have wanted it any other way.”
Procella saw scarlet. “Do not presume to tell me what my husband would have wanted. I know he would have been glad to help, but he did not enjoy being at the Arbor’s beck and call. The tree revolted him – did you know that?” Horada’s startled gaze told her that no, she did not. “He hated the way the tree took sacrifices each year. He could not bear to watch it consume them – it sickened him. Yes, he had a special connection to it. But that did not mean he had to like it.” Her voice was sharp enough to chop an oak tree in half.
Horada’s bottom lip trembled. “Do not be angry with me. I cannot help it – I can hear it. I can feel it. It is calling me. I must go – I do not have a choice.”
“You are not going,” Procella said flatly. “Go back to bed.”
Horada studied her for a moment. Then, without another word, she turned and walked down the stairs.
Procella smacked her hand on the stone parapet, earning herself an alarmed stare from the guard in the corner who had tried unsuccessfully to ignore her raised voice. It was time for Horada to marry, to have children of her own, to throw off these fanciful dreams and come back down to earth.
But the taste of ash lingered in her mouth, along with the feel of heat on her face. And Chonrad’s words, “Bring her”, were to echo in her mind for the rest of the day.
Demitto roasted slowly in his ceremonial plate armour like a chicken in a pot.
Sweat ran down his back, soaking the tunic he wore under it, and beneath his helmet his hair stuck to his head and his eyes stung. He would have given anything to strip off and dive into the moat surrounding the castle in front of him, even though a layer of scum that covered the surface looked as if it would have dissolved the top layer of his skin if it came within contact.
But he was a trained knight, used to spending hours in the saddle, and his role as ambassador had meant a lot of waiting around over the years. So he sighed and contented himself with shifting into a more comfortable position, and passed the time by keeping an eye on the palm trees and ferns in the bush around him as they rippled in the warm breeze.
He would never have admitted it, but the lush greenery made him nervous. Born in Lassington, a coastal town surrounded by wheat and barley fields, the jungle areas on the southern and western edges of Laxony were alien to him; so different to the oak and beech forests to the east. Every year, it seemed the vines and creepers covered more of Anguis, a slow encroachment, which was nevertheless transforming the countryside he travelled through regularly. This was his first journey so far south, though, and here the thick, dense bush to the west had grown right up to the old castle moat, where surely once the building had stood proud and free, able to look down on the surrounding countryside like a superior nursemaid.
A huge dragonfly flew in front of him, and his horse danced nervously. He patted its neck, looking at the giant pink flowers lining the path to the castle, their leaves as big as his hand. He missed the daisies and buttercups in the meadows, the bluebells and daffodils. It was time to return home, he thought. He had been gone too long.
How long was he going to have to wait out here in the sweltering, moist heat? Mosquitoes were eating him alive wherever they could find a bare patch of skin beneath all the armour. Surely it couldn’t be much longer before the castle guard came out to get him? He was from Heartwood, after all. As a royal emissary of the holy Arbor, he was rarely kept waiting for long.
But the sun continued to beat down, and he was just starting to think that he didn’t care if the future of the kingdom depended on it – he wasn’t going to fry for another minute, when the drawbridge lowered, colour flashed beneath the portcullis, and a small party emerged carrying the blue and silver flag of Harlton.
He straightened in the saddle, watching as the horses approached the waiting party. He had wondered whether the Prince himself would be among them, but the leader was a woman, and she didn’t look happy. Tall in the saddle, slender in an embroidered blue and silver tunic over plate armour, she had long dark hair braided back off a severe face, with piercing eyes that turned him to ice in spite of the hot weather.
Even before she introduced herself, he was pretty certain he knew who she was. He had dreamed about this ever since the Nox Aves had given him his quest; had built it up into a historic meeting of great significance; had expected trumpets to ring and stars to fall out of the sky at the momentousness of it. He held his breath, waiting for the speech he was certain would go down in history.
She reined in her horse, rested her hands on the pommel and glared at him. “Come with me.” She turned the horse and started back for the castle.
Demitto’s eyebrows shot into his hairline. Disappointed, he glanced across at the four knights who had travelled with him from Heartwood, seeing his own resentment reflected in their hot faces.
He kicked the horse forward to walk beside her. “Good morrow to you too,” he said as he raised his visor, also irritated that he had been baked like a bun and yet no apology seemed forthcoming.
She cast her dark glance at him again, studied his face and then visibly softened, as if the sun had finally thawed her. “I am sorry. It has been a long day.”
Indeed it had, and she had not been sweltering in a steel suit. He didn’t say that, however, slightly mellowed by her apology. “You do not seem particularly pleased to see us,” he observed.
“It is not you as such,” she clarified. “More the situation.” She shook her head. “Perhaps we should start again. I am Catena, Chief of the Guard at Harlton Castle.”
I know. He didn’t say it, though. “Demitto,” he returned. “Ambassador to Heartwood.”
It was a title that usually made people gasp with admiration. Catena, however, merely rolled her eyes.
He chuckled. “I can see you are a difficult woman to impress.”
“Ambassador to a tree.” She waved a hand in the air. “I am in awe.”
That made him laugh out loud, a reaction she obviously hadn’t expected, judging by the way she looked at him with startled eyes. “By the oak leaf,” he exclaimed. “Someone must have really stoked your fire today. The Prince, maybe?” Her wry glance told him he had guessed right. “What did he do to earn your ire?”
She slowed the horse and surveyed him with interest. “You are very direct.”
“I am interested.”
“Do you really think this is an appropriate conversation? Considering that the Prince has been Selected, and I am to accompany him to Heartwood?”
Demitto shrugged. “As ambassador, my role is to improve communication between Heartwood and the neighbouring realms. Besides…” he said, smiling, “I am a good listener.”
She let out a long, slow sigh and looked at the rustling ferns. “It is a long story.”
“I have been here for hours. Clearly, there is no rush.”
The horses’ hooves echoed across the wooden drawbridge. Catena nodded at him. “Maybe later. Although I believe you will probably understand the problem very shortly.”
Leaving him with that mysterious comment, she dismounted, and he followed suit, handing the reins to one of the pages who had run out to greet the party.
He looked curiously around the outer ward. The castle lay just outside the mysterious Komis lands. Built a hundred years before, its design mirrored the concentric castles found throughout Laxony, but the carvings above the doorways were not the natural patterns he was used to, like leaves and flowers, but instead consisted of geometric shapes – triangles and spirals and dots in the Komis fashion.
Although trade relations in Anguis had improved a hundredfold over the five hundred years since the historic Darkwater attack, and Komis men and women had integrated with Laxonians to a certain extent, there was still something exotic about them that fascinated Demitto. He knew King Gairovald had married a Komis, and supposedly their son – Prince Tahir, soon to be that year’s sacrifice to the Arbor – had a very Komis look about him, but Demitto had yet to meet him.
Come to think of it, Catena herself probably had Komis blood in her, Demitto thought, watching her direct the household to secure the rest of the horses of the Heartwood party. Although she didn’t have the distinctive golden Komis eyes, her black hair and swarthy complexion suggested an ancestor of that description somewhere in her heritage.
“Come with me.” She jerked her head at him, and, removing his helmet, he followed her through the gatehouse into the castle proper.
Like the outside, the castle interior consisted of an intriguing blend of cultures. Demitto recognised the layout: the large central hall, the jumble of rooms, cool out of the heat of the sun. But the large tapestries on the walls depicted geometric shapes rather than the usual landscapes and battle scenes he was used to. Some he recognised as faces and animals and objects like trees, but they were composed of circles and squares, filled in with tiny colourful dots in the Komis fashion. He found them slightly disturbing, like something out of a dream.
Harlton kings had grown rich on the ores mined from the quarries to the west. Thick jungle now hampered the mining operations, but it would be a long while before the wealth they had accumulated vanished. Even in the castle, Demitto could smell the blacksmiths’ fires on the air, overriding the usual castle smells of cooking food and ash from the fire, and a strange tang of metal in his mouth set his teeth on edge.
Catena walked forward, gesturing for him to follow, and led him toward the dais. The King and Queen of Amerle sat in elaborate chairs side by side and watched him. Next to them, in a smaller chair, sat a young man who looked down his nose at the Heartwood party. Like his mother, the thirteen year-old Selected had raven hair braided back off his face with gold and jewelled clasps, dark brown skin, and eyes that – even from a distance – were a startling, bright gold. A large hunting dog sat by his side, and the Prince’s hand was clenched in its fur, the only sign that maybe he wasn’t as relaxed as he appeared.
Demitto approached the dais, stopped a few feet away and bowed. He closed his eyes for a moment and concentrated, remembering his purpose for being there, thinking of the Arbor, the way its leaves rustled when there was no wind, the soft beat of its heart beneath the bark. Then he opened his eyes and stood to face his curious audience. “Greetings from Heartwood.”
The King stood and gave him a soldier’s salute. Demitto returned it, then stepped forward and the two men grasped wrists and rested a hand on each other’s shoulder.
“You are most welcome,” Gairovald said. He looked relieved. That puzzled Demitto. “And we are sorry to have kept you waiting. My son was keen to look his best for the Heartwood party.”
Demitto’s gaze slid to the Prince. He didn’t look as if impressing his guests was of particular importance to him. He looked bored and impatient, as if this was all a huge waste of his time. An interesting attitude for a person who was about to dedicate his life to a holy cause.
Demitto glanced at Catena. Undisguised impatience flitted across her face before she caught him looking at her and wiped her expression clear. He filed that look away to think about later.
The formalities continued. Gairovald introduced him to the Queen, then to other members of the court. There were lots of them, people having travelled from far and wide to see the Heartwood party and to say their last goodbyes to the Prince – officially, at least. Demitto noted that nobody paid any interest to the Prince at all. He sat to one side, flipping through the pages of a book, seemingly removed from the festivities.
After the introductions, they all sat down to eat, Demitto and the rest of the Heartwood followers at the high table, everyone else on benches that ran the length of the hall. Servants placed elaborate dishes of stuffed swans resplendent in their feathers, whole roasted pigs and hundreds of cooked chickens on the tables, along with pitchers of ale and large bowls of fruit.
Demitto had a headache after sitting too long in the sun and was desperate to remove his armour and have a long soak in a bath, but he ate politely, made conversation and watched the entertainers, conscious all the while of Tahir’s bored and detached demeanour, his superior manner to those around him. Demitto looked longingly at the ale, but purposely steered clear, wanting to keep his wits about him, at least until he had performed his official duties.
Finally the meal ended. Tahir tossed a half-eaten chicken leg onto his plate, got up and walked off behind the dais to the upstairs rooms without a word to anyone, his dog close behind him, earning him a glare from his father, who nevertheless did not rise to go after him. Catena – who’d eaten sparingly at the end of the table near Demitto and answered any questions asked of her in monosyllables – watched the Prince go, then stood and said, “It has been a long day for the party from Heartwood, my liege. They have travelled far and we have to start a long journey soon too. Perhaps we should excuse them for now?”
Gairovald waved a hand, clearly as relieved as his captain of the guard that the day was over. “Yes, yes, of course. Please, show our guests to their chambers.”
Demitto rose, bowed and followed Catena out of the hall.
“Thank you,” he murmured. “I am exhausted. It was only my armour keeping me upright.”
She laughed – the first time she had done so – and it lit up her face like the sun. “I am presuming before you go to your chamber you would like a bath?”
His answer was immediate and heartfelt. “Oh, roots of the Arbor, would I.”
“Follow me, then. I think I will join you. This cursed heat has melted my patience.”
She led him outside to the bath house – a separate stone building with a hypocaust system under the tiled floor to keep the baths hot. She, Demitto and the other Heartwood knights stripped and sank into the water with a collective sigh.
“Bliss,” Demitto said, leaning his head on the back of the bath and closing his eyes. They had added the usual rose petals to the water but it also had a strange smell he couldn’t place, something like cinnamon or cloves, sharp on the nostrils. Komir spices no doubt. He didn’t like it particularly, but he was too tired to complain and ask for a separate bath.
For a while they soaked in peace, and he let the heat of the water dissolve away the aches in his bones. Heartwood to Harlton was a good ten or eleven days’ ride, and he was glad of the brief respite before the return journey.
After a while, Catena spoke. “Following your bath, I expect you will want to retire?”
He opened his eyes and rolled his head on the tiles to look at her. She looked younger without the heavy armour, and strands of her black hair curled around her neck where they had escaped the knot on the top of her head.
“After this I expect to visit every inn in town,” he corrected. “I have not had a decent ale all journey.”
Her lips curved. “You drink ale? I am shocked!”
“You did not have any at the table. I presumed it was because you had taken holy orders?”
He shrugged and closed his eyes again. “We swear to protect the Arbor, but we are not monks. Those days are long gone.”
She fell quiet for a few minutes and they soaked in companionable silence. Then she said, “How long have you been escorting the sacrifices to Heartwood?”
“I have been ambassador for eight years,” he said. “I do not escort every year. This is my fifth time.”
“And are all sacrifices spoilt brats?”
He opened his eyes again, amused this time. He studied her for a while, long enough to make her shift uncomfortably in the water and say, “What?”
“Did it cross your mind that maybe the Prince is nervous?”
She thought about it. “Honestly? I do not believe that is the case. He is arrogant and thinks he is better than everyone around him because he has been Selected. But he has not won this honour through good deeds, for winning a battle or for being a champion among men.”
“It has been a long time since a Selected was picked in such a manner.”
“I know.” Her brow furrowed. She leaned forward and spoke in a low voice. “Once, those who wished to give their life to the Arbor went to Heartwood to study, and only those who truly understood the nature of their sacrifice were allowed to offer themselves to the tree. Now rich families proffer sons and daughters like produce at a market. Pay the highest price and you can win a place in Animus’s kingdom! It disgusts me.” Her eyes blazed. “How glorious it must have been for a while, at the beginning of the Second Era, when the land was renewed and everyone’s faith was restored. Do you really think Teague and Beata gave their lives so that boys like Tahir would think themselves superior to the rest of us?”
Demitto frowned, still hot and irritated by the strange herb that made his nose itch. “I am no philosopher. I leave the studying to others. As far as I am concerned, these names you mention could just be characters in a story. How do we know the tales are all true? I judge the world based on what is before me – by what I can touch and see. The Arbor needs to consume a living person each year – what does it matter whether the Selected reads scripture or not, whether he or she is holier than you or I? What does that even mean, anyway?”
She stared at him. “You are the ambassador to our holy city. I am aghast that you should speak in such manner.” She looked at him as if he had stated that he ate live babies to break his fast each day.
He studied her, watching the way a droplet of water ran from her hair behind her ear and down her long neck. “Have you ever been to Heartwood?”
She glared. “No.”
“Then you know nothing about that of which you speak. You have never seen the Arbor, or the city that surrounds it. I expect you envisage it as some shining settlement with streets paved with gold, and holy men and women in white robes singing its praises day and night?”
Her cheeks reddened. “Of course not.”
“Perhaps it was that way, in the early days – who is to know? Now it certainly is not. It reeks. Stinks of animal dung and rotting food and sulphur from the smoking mountain behind it. And at night the torches fill the streets with smoke. It is difficult to get near the Arbor itself because of all the pilgrims who stand in line for hours to file past and get one brief touch of its trunk. The King of Heartwood is a fat oaf who is the son of another fat oaf who was no doubt the son of another fat oaf before that, and I doubt they could even spell Oculus or Animus or if any of them would have even heard of the Darkwater Lords. They take money from those who wish to offer their offspring to the tree, and they spend that money on scarlet gowns and golden crowns and venison for their tables. So please do not criticise my faith or my loyalty to that place. It does not deserve it.”
He finished, breathless, fists clenched as he sat upright in the bath, back rigid.
Catena studied him wordlessly. For a moment he thought she might knock him out with a fist to his chin and wondered whether he should find something to hang on to. But then, to his surprise, her lips curved.
“Some ambassador you are,” she said.
His eyes met hers, and they both started laughing.
“Tell me,” she said as they both settled back into the water and stretched out their legs. “Is it true what they say – that Anguis is stirring across the land, not just here?”
Demitto nodded and rubbed his face tiredly, glad she had seen the funny side of it. He really needed to get some sleep before he insulted someone who would really take offence and cause a national incident. “Yes. The weather grows warmer by the day. Throughout my journey I have felt the rumbles beneath the ground. But none as bad as in Heartwood. The mountains behind the city emit smoke and ash on a daily basis.”
They fell silent. Demitto surprised himself by wishing he could tell her what he knew and lighten the load a little. But the secret he carried with him could save the world, and he did not have the luxury of sharing it with others.
Instead, he stretched his arms above his head, glad to feel his muscles finally softening, his bones loosening. “By the Arbor, it has been a long day.”
Catena pushed herself up out of the water, accepted a towel from one of the waiting pages and began to dry herself off. “Come on. Get dressed and I will take you into the town. The Fat Pig has twelve different imported ales for sale at a reasonable price. I wager I can drink more than you before you slide under the table.”
“Done,” he said wryly, rising to join her. He needed sleep, but the opportunity to drink himself senseless was too much of a draw, and besides, after what he had had to put up with that day, he felt as if he had earned it.
It was difficult to walk, stumbling in the darkness with a cloth sack over her head.
Sarra kept her complaints to herself, however, determined not to make a fuss. In spite of her irritation at being treated as if she were untrustworthy, she understood how imperative it was that their destination remain a secret, and that the members of the group remain anonymous. Their lives depended on it, and if she discovered who they were and where they were going before she had established their trust, she had no doubt what that would mean. She would be found floating in the Great Lake with the turtles, and nobody would come forward to claim her. Her body would be taken to the depths of the Secundus District and burned, and nobody would mourn one less mouth to feed. So she remained silent, even though she occasionally stumbled and twisted her ankle or stubbed her toe on a rock, thinking instead of the future, clinging to the hope of better things to come.
Presumably, they thought she had no idea where she was. From their starting point in Pisspot Lane in the Primus District, their course had twisted and turned through the streets until eventually she had lost all sense of direction. But she was able to follow their route by the smells that penetrated the cloth.
The acrid stench of urine and leather from the tanners was gradually replaced by the smell of peat as they skirted the river banks and the weavers’ houses, distinguishable by the aroma of dried mosses and pungent dyes. When the tang of fish assailed her nostrils, she knew they were crossing the quay around the Great Lake. Here they moved slowly, keeping to the shadows of the houses – after all, if the Select caught two people escorting another in such a manner, with her head covered, there would be questions to answer and her chance would be over. So she trod carefully over the fishermen’s nets and tried not to rattle the turtle shells as the men escorted her along the western edge of the quay.
Their path twisted and turned some more and she lost her sense of direction again. They paused frequently, her guards pushing her into alleyways as voices came towards them. The bustle of people and the stink of perfume oil announced the presence of the whorehouses, which meant they were travelling into the Secundus District. Her heart rate increased even more. She rarely entered the area, preferring to keep to the trade regions and the relative security of the family caverns in Primus. Everyone knew the Select had less control over the inhabitants in Secundus. Overcrowding, poverty, starvation and murder were all commonplace. She clutched hold of Geve’s hand, and his tightened on hers in response, comforting her.
The aroma of berry pie told her when they had reached the playhouse. At this late hour, the shows had concluded, but the aroma of baked pastry and cooked fruit still pervaded the air and made her mouth water. The smell made her smile, in spite of her nerves. Rauf had loved pie. He had introduced her to all kinds, brought into the palace from across the sectors, flavoured with fruits and herbs she had never even heard of, let alone tasted before. He had even given her some of the legendary whiskey brewed in the Tertius Sector, although she had not liked it much. He had laughed heartily at the faces she pulled before he took her in his arms and stifled her complaints with kisses.
She pushed the thoughts of him away from her mind. Rauf was gone. The tears she had cried over him could have filled the Great Lake three times over, but she was done mourning. She had to fend for herself now.
They were entering deeper into the Secundus District now. It was late, the alehouses would be full, and she could hear men fighting, the bellow of voices and the crunch of fist meeting bone. In the distance, a woman screamed, abruptly cut off. The air smelled sour and fetid, of unwashed bodies, vomit and other bodily fluids. The men with her moved more quickly, apparently as keen as she was to pass through the troublesome area.
They must be nearing the southern edge now, she calculated, shivering at the thought that one day her body might be disposed of here, the ash washed away over the Magna Cataracta to who-knew-where. But even as she wondered if that was their destination, her feet hit cool water, the shock making her inhale and clutch Geve’s hand. They were crossing the river, which meant their destination was away from the waterfall, to the south-western limits of the city. Geve steadied her, guiding her across to the other side, the splash of their feet ringing in her ears. They were heading for the forgotten caves. She had never been this far south. Here the air smelled stale, and sound echoed without people and belongings to soak it up. Most of these caves had been deserted since the White Sickness. The palace insisted the disease had long since died out, but even the poorest in the city refused to cross the banks, in spite of the overcrowding in many areas.
The avenues changed to streets, the streets to lanes, and then they were in alleyways so narrow she could stretch out her hands and brush her fingers against the stone walls on either side. Were there still bodies here? Rumours abounded that the Select had left the sick here to die and just chained off the area. She sniffed cautiously. The air smelled clean with no sign of the sickly sweet smell of rotting flesh. Perhaps it had been too long, and the flesh had turned to dust, and only bones remained. No wonder the group met here – who would ever think to look for them in the forgotten caves?
She shivered, although whether from having wet feet, from the thought of the dead lying abandoned, or from the knowledge that nobody knew she was there, she wasn’t sure.
Finally, the men in front of her slowed, and her fingers brushed against a woven door that had been pulled back to let her through. Her shoes scrunched on matting. Whispers and the occasional scuff of feet told her there were other people in the room. Judging by the acoustics, the room was small, but she couldn’t make out anything more than that.
Someone led her to a chair and pushed her gently into it, and she sat. She was thankful the journey was over, but her heart continued to pound at the thought of the interrogation she was now going to have to endure.
“Sarra?” It was a voice she recognised. Geve, her friend from the Primus Caverns, the man she had approached in the first place.
She cleared her throat. “Yes?”
“Are you all right? Are you comfortable?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“I am sorry that I cannot yet remove the hood, but you understand that secrecy is imperative here.”
“I do. I am hot and my nose itches, but I am not distressed by it – please do not worry.”
There was a light ripple of laughter. Her chest rose and fell with her rapid breaths, but she forced herself to keep calm. The next few minutes would possibly be the most important of her life. Comfort was the last thing on her mind.
“Tell us why you are here,” Geve said. His low voice was gentle and encouraging. He liked her, she reminded herself – he was on her side.
“I wish to know about the Veris,” she said.
“Who are the Veris?” he asked.
“A secret society.”
“What sort of secret society?”
“You worship the Arbor. You believe in the Surface – a world above the Embers.”
There, she had said it. The words were out – there was no going back now. She was either leaving this cave a member of the society or wrapped up in a death blanket.
The room had grown silent, and she had visions of the men and women exchanging worried glances.
“How do you know about the Veris?” a woman asked.
She nibbled her bottom lip. She had thought long and hard about how to answer this question and had decided truth was the best option, although it would not make it easier for them to trust her. “Rauf told me.”
Hushed whispers travelled around the room. She waited, letting them process that information.
Eventually, Geve spoke again. “What did Rauf tell you?”
“He heard talk at the palace. The Select know about you.”
More hushed whispers. “What do they know?” the woman asked.
“Rauf told me they had heard of a secret group of people who studied the forbidden histories and who believed another world exists on the Surface. He seemed to think it was just a rumour.”
“He told you of the Arbor?” Geve asked.
“No.” Sarra hesitated. “I… I saw that.”
“Saw?” said a man.
“I… see things sometimes. Flashes, like dreams.” She took a deep breath. Time to play her trump card. “Of a land, the ground covered in grass. A blue sky and a bright sun. And a tree – a huge tree, arching above me, its leaves fluttering in a warm breeze.”
Silence fell. Sarra swallowed. Voices whispered and fell quiet again.
“Search her,” a woman commanded.
She waited to feel hands on her clothing, although what they were searching for, she had no idea. But instead someone moved to her side and crouched next to her. “I am going to take your hand,” murmured a male voice she didn’t recognise. He clasped his hands around hers.
Puzzled, she waited. His hands grew warm, then fiery hot. The heat flooded her veins and sped around her body, and within seconds she broke out in a sweat, burning as if she had a violent temperature. She gasped, but just as she was about to exclaim that she couldn’t bear the heat any longer, he stood and released her.
“She is clean,” he said. His hands touched her head, and then he lifted off her hood.
Sarra blinked, dazzled for a moment by the bright flame of a single candle that Geve held nearby. Gradually, her vision cleared. The room was small, maybe ten feet square, and there were seven people in it, including herself and Geve with his dark, curly hair, all watching her intently.
The man who had held her hand spoke. “Greetings, Sarra. My name is Turstan.” He was slim and dark-skinned with intense eyes but a friendly smile.
She returned it as she said, “You can control fire. You are a member of the Select.”
He nodded and lifted the sunstone hanging around his neck on a leather thong from his tunic. It absorbed the light from the candle, glowing a deep orange. Rauf had been a Select too, so she had been aware of the way the palace guardians used the sunstones to channel fire to light the darkness of the caves they lived in.
“And you are a bard,” Turstan said.
And this was the bit she had dreaded most. She lifted her chin and shook her head. “No.”
He blinked. “I thought you had the dreams?”
“I have not always had them,” she said. “Only recently.”
They look confused, suddenly wary, even Geve. She had not told him everything, and in his eyes she saw his distrust, his fear that he had brought a traitor into the group. “What do you mean?” he demanded.
She rested a hand on her abdomen. “I am pregnant.”
Their faces registered shock and pity. Now they understood why she wanted to escape. And by making such an admission, they would also know she was placing her complete trust in them.
Turstan frowned. “You think the child is why you have the ability to see the Surface?”
“Yes. I think the baby is a bard.” She splayed her hands on her stomach. It had just started to swell, although her clothes hid it for now. But it would not be long before the pregnancy became obvious. “He… speaks to me. He shows me scenes of another life on the Surface, of a land rich with growth, where everyone is free.”
They nodded, unsurprised. All of the people here, she knew, would have had similar dreams. That was what had brought them all together, except perhaps for Turstan, whose position as a Select would have earned him his place in the society. Could he be trusted? She was surprised he had been allowed in the group. How could they be sure he wasn’t reporting everything back to Comminor, the hated Chief Select?
Turstan dropped to his haunches in front of her again. She studied his fine clothing, the silver clasps studded with tiny gems in his braided hair. His sleeveless tunic fit snugly across his broad shoulders and, like Rauf, his arms and thighs were impressively muscled. His bright eyes and strong teeth reflected his better diet, and he smelled of herbs, which meant he had bathed that morning in the clean, fresh waters near the palace.
She shifted in the chair, conscious – as she had used to be with Rauf in the early days – of her shapeless tunic, her unwashed body, her tangled hair. She never wore the silver clasp he had given her; too afraid someone would steal it. And here was this man, reminding her of everything she had once had, and then lost.
Why did Turstan want to escape so badly? He could have whatever woman he wanted, and if one of them got pregnant, he would likely be granted the right for the child to be born. Resentment surged through her, and she let it show in her eyes.
Turstan nodded. “I know,” he murmured. “And I understand. I am sure you are wondering why I am here – why I want to leave so badly.”
She nodded curtly.
“Two years ago, I fell in love with a girl from Secundus. She was a bard, although I did not know it at the time. She used to tell me stories, late at night when the palace was dark and we were curled in our bed, stories about a green land, about the sun and the way it made the plants grow. About rain that fell from the sky, and wind that blew across the fields. About a tree – a tree so wonderful it made everything else pale in comparison.”
Turstan’s eyes were far away, seeing not the dim light of the cave and the people around him, but the pictures this girl had painted in his mind of a better life.
“For a long time I thought these were just stories, but as time went by and she began to trust me more, I realised she was not making these tales up in her mind – she was describing another world, where people live on the Surface, in the sun and wind and rain. Where they are not confined to caves and told whether they can and cannot have children, but where they are free to love and marry and have babies with whomever they chose.”
He turned his dark eyes back to Sarra, and she swallowed as she saw tears in them. She had suspected the truth from the visions the baby had shown her, but it moved her to have another confirm what she had wondered in her mind.
“And I want that freedom,” Turstan said fiercely. “I may have privileges here in the Embers but it is not the same as being free.”
“I understand,” she whispered. It was what they all wanted. To be free. To live their lives the way they chose.
It was time to reveal her final secret. “There is something else,” she said. She glanced at Geve. This bit he did know about, and he nodded now, encouraging her to speak.
“The baby,” she said. “He has also shown me the way out.”
Julen pushed open one of the hall doors and walked inside. A blast of hot air from the fire in the hearth washed over him, and he stood there for a moment, drinking in the warmth, feeling comforted and welcomed after a morning out on Isenbard’s Wall. In spite of it being the height of The Shining, the wind was always brisk across the high hills this end of the Wall so near the sea.
He cast his eye around and saw his mother and siblings eating by the fire, much of the rest of the household dotted around them, the steward directing some of the servants to carry fresh fruit to the tables, maids carrying pitchers of ale from person to person.
Everything seemed normal and in place, from the huge tapestries depicting various battle scenes from his family’s past, to the light laughter that rippled around the room as people chatted and relayed the events of their day, to the smell of the fresh rushes on the floor, scattered with lavender and mint, and the aroma of roasted meat that drifted up from the kitchens.
And yet, once again, a frisson of warning ran up his spine.
He put his hand out automatically and Rua’s head appeared underneath it, as he had known it would. She stood close to him, cautious and quiet as they both surveyed the room. Could she feel it too? Or was she just picking up on his apprehension?
As before, he couldn’t place the problem, so he mentally pushed it away, walked forward and crossed the hall to his family. “Good afternoon,” he said, bending forward to kiss his mother on the cheek.
“You are late,” she said, running her gaze down him. “And please tell me you are not joining us looking like that.”
He glanced down and surveyed his mud-splattered breeches and boots, scratched at the stubble on his face and tugged at his untidy beard. Then he shrugged, climbed onto the bench and sat. “I would not want to deny you a second of my company while I bothered to change,” he said as he reached for a loaf of bread and winked at his mother.