P ART ONE
Tiaan had been carrying the dead child for the best part of a day before she realised that something was following her. She was being hunted through an abandoned city.
She scanned her surroundings, but nothing moved in that vast chamber. An oval ceiling, carved from the solid heart of Mount Tirthrax, arched high above. Caverns ran off in five directions, though none were lit. She was somewhere inside Tirthrax, the Aachim's most magnificent city, though she had no idea where.
Her life lay in ruins. Tiaan had trekked halfway across Lauralin to save Minis, her lover-to-be, but he had cast her aside. The Aachim people had callously taken advantage of her soft heart, but in saving them she had betrayed her world. And little orphan Haani, her adopted sister, was dead – killed by an Aachim javelard in a terrible, senseless accident.
Laying Haani on the dusty floor, Tiaan sat beside her, but felt so weak she had to lie down. Her whole body was trembling. In the distance, a walkway of wires and crystal spiralled through floor and roof. She had climbed several like it in her dismal trudge through the empty city. Each time she encountered a stair, Tiaan had gone up. There was no reason for it; her feet had just taken her that way.
Haani's cheek was waxy pale; her striking, lime-green hair had gone limp. The clothes she had dressed in so carefully were filthy. Feeling a tear welling in one eye, Tiaan ground it away with her fist. If she allowed that, she might never stop.
First she would find a suitable place to lay the child to rest. Somewhere pleasant, by a window, if there was one in this accursed city. Then she would lie beside Haani and they would sleep together, forever. A noise roused Tiaan; a footstep on one of the crystal treads of the stair. Had the invading Aachim come back to finish her and seize the amplimet, the magical crystal that had allowed her to open a gate from here to Aachan? Let them have it. She never wanted to see it again. Though Tiaan had left the amplimet behind, she felt no withdrawal. She had felt nothing since the gate had opened.
Tiptoeing across to the hole through which the stair passed, she peered over the rim. Far below, she saw the top of a man's head. Further down on the looping staircase, no more than crystalline treads strung on taut wires, crouched a woman with a black band over her eyes. She had a small, pale face and hair like colourless silk. Her arms were wrapped around the side wires of the stair.
The man went down to her. It was Nish from the manufactory! Cryl-Nish Hlar, her enemy. Tiaan had once rejected his advances and he had never forgiven her. He must know about the gate and the Aachim. If he caught her, it would mean a death sentence.
Tiaan pulled back from the edge, out of sight. How had he found her here, hundreds of leagues from the manufactory? It did not seem possible, yet here he was. The manufactory must be determined to get her back.
Haani's body lay like a rag on the dusty floor, as cold as the glacier that had broken through the side of the mountain when the gate opened. Her hair was now covered in feathery frost. Tiaan picked the child up and for the first time felt her weight. She was so tired.
She looked around despairingly. Far off to her right Tiaan spied another stair, this one a ribbon of metal swirling up to what, in the dimness, appeared to be a landing. She slogged across to it, and up a dozen steps before grinding to a stop.
She forced her foot up one step, then another, but halfway to the landing her strength and courage failed. Why should she go on? Nothing mattered any more. Why not plunge off the stair, the child in her arms, and put an end to it? Their bones would lie together in the empty city for as long as it endured.
Sagging on the treads, Tiaan stared sightlessly through the supporting meshes. Such a handsome man Minis had seemed when he called her from across the void; and so lost; and in such pain. His world, Aachan, was being torn apart by volcanic eruptions. She had trekked across the continent of Lauralin to save him; risked her life to make the gate. She had done it all for him.
But he had come with a host of Aachim in thousands of constructs, mighty engines of war – the greatest army ever assembled on Santhenar. The rustic battle clankers built by human manufactories could never match such sleek, deadly machines. The Aachim must have been preparing for war long before Minis sent out his call. They had used her, betrayed her, and she had betrayed her world. Now she was paying for it.
'She went that way, Nish!' A high, colourless voice echoed in the great room.
Tiaan scrambled to her feet and the stair rocked as she took up her burden. Every step hurt. Three-quarters of the way to the top she looked down. Nish was running straight for the base of her stair. Letting out an involuntary gasp, Tiaan climbed harder. The triumph in his eyes, his crowing over her downfall, would be unbearable.
Finally, when she could not go another step, Tiaan reached the top. Glowing spheres lit up, pointers that would not allow her to hide. She was in an empty chamber with seven sides of unequal length. Aachim designs were often asymmetric. Small archways led through each side, though all the passages were dark. To one side of the centre was the most extraordinary set of stairs Tiaan had ever laid eyes on.
Five separate staircases arose from a slab of polished crystal one step high. Each stair spun out and up in irregular whorls, carving arcs through the air before looping back to the centre, coiling about the others and exploding out again. It was a ludicrous extravaganza, architecture for the sheer delight of it. The stairways were built of shining metal and faceted crystal, each different, and at the top they spiralled up into darkness.
It mattered not where they went; Tiaan could not have climbed them even if a nylatl had been at her heels. She did not think of laying down her burden. 'I will never leave you,' she had promised the dying child.
Below, Tiaan could hear Nish's feet on the treads, his gasping breath. It was inconceivable that anyone could have found her here, but somehow he had. Why? She had been a fine artisan, the best in the manufactory, but not so brilliant that they would chase her halfway across the world. It had to be the amplimet: the strange, glowing crystal that had allowed her to reach across the void to Minis in the first place.
She became aware, deep down, of faint stirrings. Not withdrawal, just an indefinable longing for the crystal. She had been parted from it too long. Tiaan put the feelings out of her mind. If Nish wanted the amplimet, let him have it. It had been the cause of all her troubles. Dear Joeyn, the old miner who had been her first and closest friend, had died getting it for her.
The footsteps came closer. Taking up Haani, Tiaan staggered into the archway directly opposite. Spheres lit up, revealing a stone passage that curved away into darkness.
On she trudged, along a passage that seemed to have been curving forever. Tirthrax was unfathomable. It was as if she was inside an exuberant work of art, built solely for the pleasure of mastering its materials.
Her mouth was powder dry. She had not had a drink since opening the gate, a day and a night ago. Another passage slashed across the first and she turned left into it, but some twenty or thirty paces along, the passage ended in native rock. Or did it? As she headed back, from the corner of her eye the rock seemed to shift sideways into a cavity darker than black itself. She moved towards it, thinking it might be a place to hide. The blackness went back to rock.
Tiaan reached out with her free hand. Rock, unquestionably, but again as she moved her head came that flash of blackness, like a tunnel extending into the mountain. The moment she looked directly at it, it changed back into wall.
She turned her head back and forth. Blackness, wall, blackness, wall. Could she get through? There was an enchantment here and since Nish had no talent for the Art he probably could not follow.
Tiaan touched the crystal hanging on a chain around her neck – just an ordinary hedron – thinking it might help her to see more clearly. The rock vanished and a black tunnel opened up before her. She edged inside.
After several minutes, the blackness gave way to a faint glow which had no particular form, but quivered gently. It felt more like a soap bubble, but gave before her, sliding wetly over her fingers.
Any refuge was better than none. Tiaan pushed into the clinging stuff, its resistance broke and she was through. It was even colder here, and so dark that she could see nothing but the shimmering edges of a second bubble, a cube with curved faces that contained within it another, smaller cube, and inside that another, and another, and another. The hair stirred on her head. Infinity blocked her way – infinity and nothingness. This was a forbidden place.
She spun around but behind her now felt like rock, even when she touched her hedron. Tiaan moved toward the cubic bubble. Its walls began to wobble, and so did the inner cubes, vibrating faster and faster until she could no longer see them.
Shifting Haani on her shoulder, Tiaan lowered her head and pushed at the bubble. The wall parted but inside was like the previous one, though smaller. Her head touched the upper face of the cube, which was freezing. The nested cubes extended to an infinity that frightened her.
Since there was no way back, Tiaan pushed through the wall of the next cube. The first breath burned her lungs. With the next, she felt frost forming in her nostrils. She tried to back out but the wall resisted her. Panicking, she kicked the face of the cube in front of her. It was much more solid – more like flexible glass than bubble – and her sandal bounced off.
Steadying Haani, Tiaan lifted the hedron over her head. At once she saw the coloured energy patterns of the field swirling around her like a psychedelic tornado. She drew power into the hedron and reached out. As her fingers touched the wall, it thinned, so she scored the crystal across and back. The bubble vanished with a faint tinkle and a blast of freezing air. One by one, the other cubes popped until the tunnel lay open before her. Unfortunately it was also open behind. The illusory barrier had disappeared.
Some distance along, she emerged in an open cavern of rough-hewn stone shaped like a cone standing on its base. It was strikingly different from the rest of Tirthrax, where the stone had been carefully polished and intricately decorated. The rock here looked deliberately unfinished.
The cavern was dimly lit by something circular, high on one wall. Her eyes adjusted. It was a shaft that ran up through the mountain at a steep angle. Icicles hung from its lower lip and the light was daylight, deep blue as if filtered through ice. It must be morning outside.
Moving on, she passed through a blue corona like illuminated mist, though more solid. She distinctly felt its resistance. It was one of a series of concentric coloured rings lit by the light from the upper shaft. Each ring was a deeper hue than the one surrounding it. A circle of indigo, almost black, filled the centre. Tiaan pushed through the rings and almost fell into another shaft, a continuation of the first.
Laying Haani beside it, she peered down. The shaft was a smooth bore through the rock, its sides as polished as glass. She could not tell how far it went, though wisps of dark mist coiled lazily around the walls, and in the depths it had the look of a frozen whirlpool. She wondered what it would look like if it unfroze. Taking up a chip fallen from the ceiling, she dropped it in. It clicked off the sides a couple of times, she heard nothing for thirty or forty heartbeats, and at last a frosty tinkle. The shaft was deep. It would do.
The sounds came echoing back in reverse order: the tinkle, and a long time later the clicks, greatly magnified. The last click thundered out, whirling the coloured rings about, and silence fell once more.
The child looked to be sleeping but her little chest was sunken, the broken ribs driven into her lungs by the blow from the javelard. A smear of blood tinged her lower lip. Tiaan wiped it off, smoothing the pale hair with her fingers.
Taking Haani in her arms, she sat beside the shaft, rocking. A tear trickled down one cheek. Little Haani had been the happiest of children, living a carefree life with her mother and aunts by the lake, until Tiaan came. Until the nylatl – a creature of mad savagery – gorged itself on Haani's mother and aunts. The awful memories went round and round. 'There she is!'
Nish's cry of triumph reverberated from the tunnel. Tiaan was still cradling Haani and, before she could move, he threw himself at her.
Haani fell beside the shaft. Nish forced Tiaan's arm up behind her back so hard that she cried out. She kicked with her heel, striking him on the shin. He yelped but did not let go. As she tried to pull free, one foot went over and a pain sheared through her guts at the thought of falling. No, dying was all she had left. Tiaan threw herself into the bore.
Nish landed hard on his knees and cried out. She made no noise, nor tried to save herself, as she swung on his arm. He was a small man, not much taller than she. He could hardly hold her for long.
Her wrist slipped. 'Let me go, Nish.' Tiaan forced herself to speak calmly. 'I want to die.'
Nish's hard fingers bit into her wrist. 'I'm sure you do!' Perspiration beaded on his eyebrows, freezing even as she watched. 'You've betrayed your friends, your family, your manufactory and your world. I won't let you die.'
'Please, no,' she begged.
'I'm taking you back – for justice!'
'Revenge,' she gasped. 'That's all you care about.'
'Whatever!' He strained with all his strength.
Terror seized Tiaan. She could imagine the nightmare trip back to the manufactory, Nish tormenting her all the way. She would be paraded before her thousand former workmates, and down in her home town of Tiksi in front of her vindicated mother. After a public trial she would face a drawn-out execution, a gruesome and grisly spectacle by some method officially prescribed for the artisan she had once been. All would be lovingly recorded in the Histories and a hired teller would turn it into a cautionary tale, that the whole world know of her crime and its punishment. The Council of Scrutators required everyone to know their justice, and to fear it.
Thrashing her legs, Tiaan tried to make him drop her. Terror twisted his face as he was dragged closer to the edge. One knee slipped over. She would never have expected such desperate courage from Nish. Why didn't he let her go?
'Ullii,' he gasped. 'Help!'
The tiny woman flitted back and forth like a butterfly, her colourless hair streaming out behind her. She caught at Nish's arm, let out a piercing squeal and disappeared again.
'Ullii!' he bellowed. 'For pity's sake. I'm going to die!' He was on the brink now, so precariously balanced that a child could have pushed him over.
Ullii danced back, plucked at his arm then let go. Her mouth was wide open. She still wore the mask over her eyes.
'Help me!' he screamed, his terror echoing off the rough stone walls.
Lightning quick, Ullii darted forward, caught him by the belt and heaved. They swayed on the edge. It was touch and go whether they might all fall; then, with a mighty wrench, Nish had Tiaan up and over to safety. He collapsed beside Ullii.
Tiaan scrambled to her feet. He threw out an arm but she wove to one side and, letting out a cry of anguish at leaving Haani behind, fled into the darkness.
'Stop her, Ullii,' Nish wailed, but Ullii did not move.
Tiaan wept as she ran, for abandoning Haani, but she had to. Nish would never give in. She ran on, to nowhere in particular. All directions led to the same end.
She kept going for as long as she could. Always she took the central way, if there was one. Whenever she came to a stair, and she encountered many, Tiaan climbed it. Finally she could run no further. Her legs felt as if they were cooking in their own juices. She slowed to a walk, to a slack-kneed stumble. Her tongue felt like a leather strap.
She must be high in the city now. Tiaan felt dizzy and her head was throbbing. She could not seem to draw enough breath. After crawling to the top of that stair, she pushed herself onto the next floor and collapsed. Her limbs felt like glue. The outfit she had chosen for Minis was reduced to filthy, bloodstained rags. She laid her head on the floor, looking sideways at the top of the stair, awaiting her fate.
It was not long in coming. Nish walked like a man in the last throes of exhaustion. Thump-clump, thump-clump, he came. His round head appeared, capped with dark curls that clung to his skull; his spotty, unhandsome face; his strong shoulders. His jaw was set, his mouth compressed into a scar, but when he saw her lying there he gave a wolfish grin.
'Oh, Tiaan, how I'm going to enjoy your trial.'
Nish looked like a general who had snatched victory from the abyss of ruin. His triumph turned her stomach. Only her eyes moved as he stalked toward her.
Nish took no chances this time. Rolling her over, he put one foot on her wrist, the other across the back of her neck, and pressed hard. She did not resist. He tied her wrists behind her back and bound her to him with a length of rope.
'You'll pay!' he snarled. 'You evil, vicious traitor. You'll never stop paying until the day you die. Get up.'
Tiaan was incapable of moving. She was a traitor. She had betrayed her world.
He nudged her in the ribs with a boot toe. 'Move, artisan.'
She heaved, gasped and fell down. Whatever he had once felt for her, it was long gone. All she could see was contempt.
'I loathe you, artisan,' he said through clenched teeth. 'With every bone of my body I despise you. My father is a mutilated horror because of you.'
She could never forget that terrible battle on the edge of the plateau. Nish's father, Perquisitor Jal-Nish Hlar, had been struck down by a lyrinx, his face, arm and chest torn apart by its claws.
Nish lifted her to her feet by the ropes, then had to hold her up. To Tiaan's shame, her breasts were exposed through the rags of her blouse. When Nish did not even glance down, she truly knew she was finished.
'Don't try to play on my better side.' He thrust his face against hers. 'After seeing the doom you brought upon our world yesterday, I have none. Move!' He prodded her toward the stairs.
'I can't go down,' she said, staggering. 'I'll fall.'
He looked around, spying another stair in the dim distance. 'That way then. It'll give you time to recover.'
'Hadn't you better warn your companions?' she croaked, hoping to discover how many there were.
'I have none, only Ullii -' He broke off. 'My first thought was for my duty. I've already sent a message to the manufactory, by skeet, warning the scrutator of the invasion.' He calculated. 'It's two hundred leagues as the skeet flies. And it flies fast: the message should be there tonight.'
'I'm glad,' she said, not that they could do much about such a mighty force of Aachim. So, she only had these two to deal with. There must come a chance, on the long journey back.
'Bah!' Nish prodded her again.
Tiaan was getting her breath back, though her knees were still wobbly. 'How did you find me?' she said, hoping Nish could not resist displaying his cleverness.
'Ullii can see the Secret Art in all its forms. Irisis and I taught her to hunt you down.'
Beautiful Irisis, Tiaan's rival at the manufactory. She might have known. Tiaan considered what Nish had said. He was clever and liked people to know it. Perhaps she could learn more.
'How did you get here so quickly?'
'We floated all the way on an enormous balloon, and it was I who first thought of it.'
'A balloon?' Even speaking hurt.
He described the device and how it worked. Tiaan listened with one ear only. Having spent her life making controllers for the eight-legged mechanical war carts called clankers, she saw the potential of flight at once. She also saw the danger, in a world where the technology of magic seemed to be escalating out of control.
Clankers were powered by the field, a nebulous aura of force surrounding naturally occurring nodes. That power was drawn through particular crystals called hedrons, which artisans like Tiaan shaped, woke and tuned to the field. But clankers required so much power, and there were now so many of them, that they had been known to drain a node of its field. One node, not far from Tiaan's manufactory, had simply failed. Hundreds of soldiers had died.
But that was not the worst. Not long ago, a convoy of racing clankers had drawn so much power that it had turned the field inside out. A thousand soldiers had been struck unconscious and when they revived, a squadron of clankers and all their crew had vanished, never to be seen again. Now the war would take to the air. How much power would that require, and what would the consequences be? Could the field survive? But if it did not, could humanity?
'Get moving, artisan.'
Tiaan took one shuffling step, attempted another, and her knees collapsed.
Ullii, who had been flitting back and forth in the shadows, crept to her side. 'She is ill, Nish,' Ullii said in a strange, empty voice.
'She's pretending. Get up, artisan.'
'You are unkind, Nish. She is very ill.' Taking a flask from her belt, Ullii held it to Tiaan's lips.
A few drops spilled onto her lower lip. Trying to lick them off, Tiaan could hear the dry rasp of her tongue. Ullii sent a small surge of water into Tiaan's mouth. Half went down her windpipe; she coughed the rest out again. Another surge; she held it this time. After running and walking and climbing leagues inside the vastness of Tirthrax, she could have drunk a bucketful.
When she'd had enough, Nish passed a wrapped food packet to his small companion. 'Give her this. I can't bear to touch her, much less waste our precious food on her.'
Ullii broke a kind of sweet, rich bread into pieces, feeding them to Tiaan with her fingers. Tiaan wondered about the small woman. She wore a black silk mask over her eyes, her ears were covered with padded muffs, yet she seemed to hear everything and know where everything was.
All too soon, Nish pulled Tiaan to her feet. She let out a faint cry as the rope tore her wrist. He only jerked it harder. Tears formed on Tiaan's lashes as she stumbled after him. She blinked them away.
'You are cruel, Nish,' said the small woman.
'No more than she deserves!' he snapped, and kept going.
Ullii stopped dead, crouched and slowly began to curl up, covering her face with her arms. Nish was slow to realise that she was not following. 'Ullii?' he said, looking around.
There was no reply. Tiaan expected Nish to fly into a rage but he hurried back, dragging her by the rope, and fell to his knees beside Ullii. 'I'm sorry,' he said softly. 'I'm really sorry.'
Ullii remained curled into a tiny ball. Nish took off his pack and Tiaan was amazed at the change in him. She had always thought him a lecher and a layabout, and today, a monster; but he genuinely cared for Ullii.
'It's nine in the morning. We'll camp until four.' He tossed his cloak at Tiaan's feet.
She rested on it. It was cool on this level, though not unpleasantly so. Tiaan was desperately tired but there was too much in her mind for her to sleep. The past day contained a lifetime of trauma and tragedy. Minis's betrayal, and the Aachim's treachery from the very beginning, she could not deal with.
Haani's broken body still lay beside the shaft, abandoned. I promised that I would never leave you, but I was too afraid, Haani. I had the chance to do the honourable thing. If only… The day passed. Tiaan dozed but woke as tired as before and aching in every muscle. Ullii had not forgiven Nish. She did not even look in his direction when he spoke to her.
They ate in silence. Nish tied Tiaan's rope to the stair and disappeared with the water bottles. Ullii squatted, watching with her masked eyes. Tiaan did not think the seeker was doing sentry duty. What would Ullii do if she tried to escape? Tiaan did not attempt it. No doubt Nish was not far away.
After he returned, Ullii gave Tiaan a generous swig from her bottle. They headed off, Nish leading, Tiaan stumbling at the end of the rope, Ullii padding behind her. Tiaan closed her eyes. This was worse than anything she had endured in the breeding factory; worse than being held captive by the lyrinx and forced to aid them in their ghastly flesh-forming.
She sank into a dazed daydream. Tiaan had always been a dreamer, her escape from a miserable childhood in the clanker manufactory. Her daydreams arose from romantic tales her beloved grandmother had told her.
She conjured up the image of her mother's mother. Tiaan thought, and remembered, in pictures, so Grandma Aaloe's face was as clear as if she was walking beside her. A small woman, almost as wide as she was high, Aaloe had a face as round as the moon and an embrace like a warm pillow. Her man had been killed in the war when Aaloe was nineteen and Tiaan's mother, Marnie, had just conceived. Aaloe had not partnered again but her tales were full of handsome young men rescuing beautiful maidens, or as often, maidens going to the aid of lost lovers.
Minis had been Tiaan's personal dream, but within minutes of meeting him that had been destroyed. She hated him for his treachery, but despised him for being so weak. He had said he loved her, but could not stand up to Vithis. Vithis ordered Minis to repudiate Tiaan. And Minis had.
'Get a move on, artisan!'
Nish jerked the rope so hard that she fell to one skinned knee. She gave him a hate-filled glare. His returning smile reminded her of a jackal.
It had been her dreams, and her longings, that had got her into this trouble in the first place. All her life she had been a misfit. Everyone was required to mate but, being so shy, she had found one excuse after another to avoid that duty. Why could she not have settled down at the manufactory like the other artisans, taken the best partner she could find, produced the required number of children, and worked hard at the craft she had come to love?
The evening dragged on. They made slow progress, the thin air barely enough to sustain them. No one knew where to go. Nish had tried countless ways but all doubled back on themselves as if enchanted.
Long after midnight they stopped for dinner and a nap, after which Tiaan's hands were untied and she was permitted to go into one of the bathing rooms to relieve herself. As he followed, she snapped, 'Still a little pervert, Nish?'
He went scarlet. 'Go with her, Ullii,' Nish said coldly. 'Don't take your eyes off the traitor.'
Obediently, Ullii followed Tiaan into the room but took no further notice of her. Ullii wandered about, touching everything with her fingertips. She pulled down a lever and water gushed from a device like an upside-down funnel. The small woman jumped, began to curl up, then unfolded with all the grace of a ballet dancer. Creeping back to the tap, she wiggled her fingers under the flow, entranced.
Tiaan slipped around the corner to a washing trough, beyond which she spied another door. Could it be this easy? Ullii was paying her no attention. Edging it open, Tiaan found herself in a set of chambers like many she had seen in Tirthrax. She went through the bedchamber, out the far door and tiptoed around a gentle curve. Passages led three ways. Straight ahead lay a stair entirely made of glass. More extravagant than any she had looked at so far, it looped back and forth across the room like the flourishes on the end of a queen's signature. She would be seen on it from top to bottom. But it led up, and that felt right.
As Tiaan reached the first loop of the stair she heard Nish's bellow of rage. She bolted.
'There she is!' He took the glass treads three at a time, shaking the stair with every step.
She fled up and up. Nish gained slowly. At the top she encountered another stair, made of obsidian, then a third, a simple spiral barely wider than her hips. It was so steep that to look down caused sickening lurches in her stomach.
Light appeared above her. Daylight – a way out. She hauled herself up by her arms. A cavern opened out before her, a hemisphere scooped from the native rock of the mountain. The floor, walls and roof were like polished granite, the flat side a single sheet of glass five spans high. Outside lay a platform with a high-backed stone seat, and beyond that a sea of peaks and snow and ice went all the way to infinity. The sun was rising.
Tiaan ran up to the glass and stopped. It was inset into the stone on all sides. She pressed her hands against it but had to snatch them away – the glass was bitterly cold. If there was a door she could see no sign of it, nor any other way out. Putting her back to the glass, she waited. Nish was scarlet in the face, his step as unsteady as hers, but he drove himself on.
'Don't move!' He lashed at her with the rope. One end caught her on the cheek. She cried out, he jerked her to him and swiftly bound her hands.
'Call me what you like,' he gritted, 'I'll not untie you again until we stand inside the gates of the manufactory.'
Ullii came creeping up the steps. After slowly circumnavigating the room, she looked out through the glass with her masked eyes.
When Tiaan was so bound that she could move neither hands nor arms, Nish ran a length of rope from her to him. 'Go down!' he croaked, harsh as a raven.
Dead inside, Tiaan obeyed. Should she take the first opportunity to fall and carry him with her? She had just set her foot on the top step when, with a whirr, the glass wall slid into the stone.
Nish spun around. 'What's that, Ullii?'
'I can see the Art,' Ullii said softly.
Someone rose from the seat. The figure turned, tossing back her hood. As she approached, the sun caught her hair, illuminating a few flame-red strands among the grey. Her hands were bare, the fingers remarkably long, almost twice the length of her palm. Aachim! Chills fizzed up and down Tiaan's backbone.
The woman stopped inside the door. She was taller than Tiaan, about the height of a human man. Her pale face was lined, though that took nothing away from an austere and ageless beauty. Large grey eyes held just a hint of green. The red eyebrows were fluffed with grey. Her small ears were perfectly circular.
'What are you doing here?' she said in the common speech. Her voice was soft, low and without accent.
No one spoke. Tiaan glanced sideways at Nish, who was staring at the woman, brow furrowed.
'Who are you?' he burst out.
The woman turned those ice-grey eyes on him. 'I am Matah. I am Tirthrax.'
'What are you doing in this lyrinx nest?'
The Matah laughed, which made her young again. Tiaan found a smile. Nish was not as clever as he thought.
'Tirthrax,' the Matah said, 'is the greatest city of the Aachim on Santhenar. It is more than three thousand years old. No lyrinx has ever come through its doors. Nor has any human, uninvited, until this day. I am Matah of Tirthrax. You will explain yourselves.'
Nish jerked Tiaan's lead rope so hard that she fell. 'What's going on?' Flecks of spittle spattered Tiaan's face. 'Who have you betrayed us to, artisan?'
'Release her,' said the Matah, in a tone cold as chips from the glacier.
'Keep out of it, old woman!'
Ullii let out a squawk as the Matah spread her arms then slowly brought her hands together in front of her. A tiny golden bubble drifted from one fingertip. Floating through the air, it struck Nish on the forehead, bursting with a spray of sparkles. He went rigid, arched his back and gasped. His teeth snapped closed on his protruding tongue. With a muffled grunt, he fell to his knees. A scarlet bead formed on his lower lip.
'I asked you to release her,' the Matah said mildly. 'Please do so.'
Ullii hooked her fingers into claws. Her breath simmered in her throat and she looked set to spring on the Matah. Despite her anger with Nish, Ullii would not tolerate any attack on him. How had he come to inspire such loyalty? Tiaan could not fathom it.
The Matah turned to Ullii, reached out with an open hand, and smiled. 'I will not harm him, little seeker.'
Ullii went still, confused. She looked from the Matah to Nish, to the Matah again.
'Ullii, help me,' he gasped.
'Give me your hand,' said the Matah.
Ullii was a mixture of emotions: delight and terror. She slowly extended her tiny hand. The Matah's fingers wrapped all the way around it, holding the grip for a long interval. Ullii let out an extended sigh and bowed her head, smiling enigmatically.
'Ullii!' Nish wailed, but she paid him no heed. He strained against bonds he could neither see nor feel.
The Matah flicked those long fingers and Nish was himself again. She inclined her head towards Tiaan. Moving as if he ached in every bone, he untied Tiaan's ropes. He looked frightened and she took fleeting pleasure from it.
'What is this talk of betrayal?' the Matah asked.
'Ask her!' Nish spat. 'She sold our world. Tiaan brought an army of constructs here through a gate.'
For an instant the Matah's self-possession left her. She clutched at the glass to support herself.
'Constructs? Through a gate? Is that why the mountain shook yesterday? Explain, humans! Who are you and where did you come from?'
Tiaan gave their names, then began on a halting explanation. 'I was an artisan at the manufactory near Tiksi -'
'You're a long way from home, artisan.'
Tiaan acknowledged that. 'I made controllers for battle clankers, which are armoured war carts driven by eight iron legs -'
'I know what clankers are. What about your controllers?'
'Mine were the best.' Tiaan said it without pride. 'I could see the field more clearly than anyone, and I was better at tuning the hedrons. I began to have strange crystal dreams. I dreamed that a young man cried out for help, because his world was exploding with volcanic fire. His name was Minis.'
'Minis!' the Matah said sharply. 'That is an Aachim name. An ancient one.'
'Aachan was dying,' Tiaan said, 'and Minis with it.'
'And so will we because of your folly,' said Nish. 'Why could you not do your duty like everyone else?'
'I was doing my duty,' she replied coldly, 'until you and your slut Irisis had me thrown out of the manufactory, and all because I refused to bed you.'
Again the Matah turned those glacier eyes on Nish, who tried to stare her down, flushed and had to look away.
'It is the duty of every one of us to mate,' he recited, 'to replace those who give their lives in the war.'
'Not against her will, surely?' The Matah's voice was frosty.
'The population is falling,' said Nish. 'Will has nothing to do with it.'
'In the breeding factory they kept a bloodline register,' cried Tiaan. 'A stud book!'
'Is this what the world has come to?' said the Matah. 'What happened to the great romance?'
'Romance has nothing to do with mating,' Nish said loftily. 'Mating is duty, love mere unruly passion.'
'And you had a passion for Tiaan, or was your lust mere duty? Go on with your tale, Tiaan.'
Tiaan explained how Joeyn had found that strangely glowing crystal in the mine, one that had seemed to be drawing power from the field all by itself, without ever needing to be woken. And she told how she had fled with it.
'Minis called to me,' said Tiaan, 'when I was trapped in a blizzard, dying of cold. He taught me about geomancy, the greatest magic of all.'
'A most foolhardy young man,' said the Matah. 'A wonder it did not kill you.'
'He taught me just enough to draw power into the crystal and save my life. The Aachim called it an amplimet and -'
'An amplimet?' The Matah gripped the edge of the glass.
Tiaan nodded. 'In return for my own life, I promised to help the Aachim. They asked me to bring the amplimet here to Tirthrax. After many trials, including being captured by the lyrinx and forced to help them with…' Her voice cracked. She shuddered. 'I suffer dreadfully from withdrawal when the crystal is taken away. At least, I used to before the gate was made. Using that weakness, the enemy forced me to channel power for their flesh-forming.' She told that story, including the tale of the nylatl. 'Eventually I managed to escape, using the crystal, and brought it here.'
'Here?' the Matah asked hoarsely.
'Minis told me to give it to your people, but I found Tirthrax abandoned.'
'Not abandoned,' said the Matah. 'My people have gone, en masse, north to our other city, Stassor. The war comes ever closer and they are meeting to see what may be done about it. They won't be back until next year. It is a long and hazardous journey.'
'By the time I arrived,' Tiaan continued, 'the Aachim were too weak to do anything with the crystal.' She glanced at Nish, then away. 'I had to save them. They told me how to assemble a gate-making device, which I called a port-all. I put the amplimet into the core of it, followed their instructions and created a gate.'
'You made a gate, from here to Aachan?' cried the old woman. 'Alone?'
'Yes,' Tiaan said faintly.
'Where is the port-all now?'
Tiaan moved close and whispered in the Matah's ear, watching Nish all the while. 'It is in the hall by the great glass gong.'
'Ah!' said the Matah. 'Continue, if you please.'
'I did all the tests and called Minis. The gate opened but the Aachim began to come through, in constructs.' She described the sleek metal machines and the way they hovered above the ground.
'I know all about constructs,' the Matah interrupted. 'I saw the first one ever built. How many were there?'
'I don't know,' said Tiaan. 'Thousands, certainly, and each contained ten or fifteen people.'
'There were more than eleven thousand constructs,' said Nish. 'I counted the ranks as they passed. They have gone down to the lowlands to wage war against Santhenar. You have betrayed your world, Tiaan.'
The Matah looked wan. 'I must sit down.' She slumped on the floor with her head resting on her knees.
'As I was betrayed,' said Tiaan bitterly. 'They must have been planning this invasion for a long time, for such a fleet of constructs would have taken decades to build. They used me and killed little Haani, who never hurt anyone in her life.' Tears ran down her cheeks. 'Vithis offered money in exchange!' She glared at the old woman. 'That was the grossest insult of all.'
'Reparation must be paid,' the Matah replied. 'How did it happen? Did you threaten them?'
'How could I threaten eleven thousand constructs?' Tiaan raged. 'She died because they were afraid. The Aachim are liars and cheats, and as timid as rabbits.'
The Matah tightened her lips. 'You may call them cowards if you dare, though it sounds like an accident to me. But know this, Tiaan: to impugn our honesty is a mortal insult that every Aachim will fight to avenge.'
'They callously and deliberately deceived me about their intentions, and about the gate. They said they were just a few thousand. A lie. They said -'
'I will leave it to them,' said the Matah hastily. 'But tell me – have they mastered all the secrets of Rulke's lost construct? Did the machines fly?'
'Not that I saw.' Tiaan dashed her tears away. 'They just hovered above the floor. Vithis called me an incompetent fool, after all I had done for him. Minis turned his cheek to me, and then they went away.'
'We can be arrogant,' said the Matah, 'but Aachim are rarely rude, unless unbearably provoked. Who were the leaders?'
'I met three,' said Tiaan. 'Tirior of Clan Nataz, Luxor of Clan Izmak, and Vithis. Are you related?'
'We Aachim of Santhenar broke the clan allegiances long ago. My house was Elienor, named for our most famous ancestor, though it was always the least of the clans. Many of Clan Elienor have red hair, as I did once.'
'I did see people with red hair,' said Tiaan.
'That is good. I would see my lost house again. What of Vithis? Did he name his clan?' The Matah looked as if she already knew.
'He named it Inthis – First Clan,' said Tiaan.
'But the gate went wrong and his entire clan was lost in the void, save for Minis. Vithis blamed me. He is a hard, cruel man.'
The Matah's eyes sparked. 'Inthis was ever the greatest clan – and in excess, too. We have been led by them more than by any other clan, sometimes to disaster. Tensor was such a man; a great leader driven to folly. Yet he strove for the good of all Aachim, not out of clan rivalry which ever held us back on Aachan. The gate went wrong, you say?'
'Vithis said I had built the port-all the wrong way around, left-handed instead of right, and that made the gate go awry. But I built it exactly as I was instructed. I still have the image in my mind. I will never be rid of it.'
'Left-handed?' said the Matah. 'I recall something about that, from our Histories. Yes, what is left-handed on Aachan is right-handed here, and that includes crystals that bend a beam of light one way or the other. Handedness cannot be discerned from afar, but the matter was known to the ancients. Vithis should have checked before he instructed you in the making of the gate. Even so, that should not have made it go wrong.'
Tiaan searched for a memory of that terrible day. She had a feeling there was something else, but it would not come. Had she blundered, condemning thousands to death in the void?
'I'll take a look at the port-all later,' said the Matah, shaking her head at some thought. 'The loss of First Clan is a cataclysm for Vithis and a blow to every clan, for all their rivalry. I fear what will come from it. Did he take the amplimet?'
'Vithis said it would have been corrupted by the gate, or by me. I think he was afraid of it.'
'He showed sense, in that at least,' said the Matah, her mouth down-curling. 'And then?'
'Vithis said, "We have a world to make our own," and they went out the side of the mountain.'
The Matah sat, thinking. 'Peril hangs over us and only I to stop it. I felt the ripples in the field, even before the mountain shook. I tried to ignore it. Ah, and I was so close. I was on my way.'
Eventually it was Nish who asked the question. 'Where were you going?'
'I was on my way to the Well.'
'The Well?' he echoed.
'The Well of life and rebirth. The Well of fate. I was going to The Well of Echoes.'
'You were going to kill yourself?' Nish said sneeringly. 'How pathetic!'
The Matah sprang up, looking, for all her age, rather sprightly. 'How dare you thrust your twisted values on me, old human! You are not even my species.'
Nish backed away.
Tiaan shivered, for it was freezing. The Matah placed a hand against the wall and the glass slid closed. 'Alas, I cannot go now. Neither can I be in three places at once.' She paced across the hemispherical chamber. 'How came you here?' She addressed the question to Tiaan.
'I walked from Itsipitsi,' Tiaan replied. 'Before that, I sailed by iceboat upriver from the sea.'
'And you, artificer?' said the Matah.
'By balloon,' he said proudly. 'All the way from the manufactory near Tiksi. And it was my idea.'
'A gasbag ten spans high, filled with hot air from a stove.'
'Do you still have it?'
'It lies on the slope of the mountain, directly below us.'
'Take it back to warn your people.'
'I sent a skeet the day before yesterday.'
'It may not get there. Hurry! This is urgent, artificer.'
'I can't find the way out.'
Taking a piece of paper from her pocket, the Matah sketched swiftly. 'This point, here, is the stair behind you.'
'First I have to gather fuel,' said Nish. 'There are no trees where the balloon is hidden, only bushes. And the winds -'
'I'm sure you'll find a way. After all, it was your idea. Go at once!'
He did not move. He was still looking for a way to get Tiaan away. 'But -'
'Begone!' roared the Matah, 'or you shall feel real power.' She swept her hands together and more of those golden bubbles quivered there.
Nish held his ground. He was brave enough, Tiaan thought grudgingly.
'Take food from the lower storerooms, should you require it,' said the Matah.
'Now!' She hurled the bubbles at him.
One struck his cheek and a yellow blister swelled there. Nish cried out, dashed the bubble away and bolted down the stairs.
'And you?' the Matah said to Ullii. 'What will you do, little seeker?'
Ullii came to her. The Matah put her fingers around the small woman's head. A golden nimbus shimmered like a halo, lifting her colourless hair into drifting tendrils.
'Go, child,' said the Matah. 'Follow your mate, and beware.'
'Nish will never hurt me,' Ullii said serenely.
The Matah searched her face, then touched her on the shoulder. 'I pray that you are right, though I fear otherwise.'
Ullii went after Nish. The Matah turned back to Tiaan. 'What will you do with your life?'
'I ought to end it, to make up for all the evil I have done.'
'You know nothing about evil, Tiaan. I pray you never will.' The Matah held her gaze until Tiaan looked down.
Pressing her palm to the wall, the Matah went outside to stand at the edge of the platform. Tiaan followed, shuddering in the cold. Her bare toes began to ache. The mountain towered above them, for they were barely a third of the way up it. Ahead and to either side stood peaks and glaciers as far as the eye could see, and that was very far in the crystalline air. Below lay a vast ice sheet, breaking away into glaciers all along one side.
'It's lovely,' she sighed.
The Matah glanced at her. 'I never tire of it. I come here every day that the weather permits. But you are cold.' Taking the coat from her shoulders, she wrapped Tiaan in it.
Tiaan took it gratefully and shuffled to the edge, looking down on a sheer drop of at least a thousand spans. The great horn of Tirthrax hung directly above her. She had never been this high before, and her lungs strained at the thin air. 'It would be so easy,' she said aloud.
Tiaan expected the Matah to talk her out of it, but she sat on the stone seat, saying nothing. The eyes were penetrating, though Tiaan could read nothing in them.
'Do you not care if I live or die?' Tiaan asked, trying to provoke a reaction. Why had the Matah saved her from Nish, only to ignore her now?
'I care,' said the Matah, 'for I see you have much to offer. But if you really did plan to take your life, and I convinced you not to, you would do it as soon as my back was turned.' She stared at the ice cap. The wind whistled around the edge of the platform.
Tiaan regarded her blue, throbbing toes. Better get inside before she got frostbite. She was not going to end it after all.
'I have a great deal to put right.' Tiaan turned away from the edge.
'I hoped you would think that way,' said the Matah, 'since I foresee that you have a part to play in the coming war. Come in out of the cold.'
Tiaan made no reply, but as the glass closed and they headed down the stair, she was thinking: I will have my revenge on Minis and all his kind. I will bring them down if it takes the rest of my life. Her gaze settled on the grey head below her. The Matah was also Aachim. Must she destroy her as well?
The Matah waited for her at the bottom. 'Anything else you'd like to tell me, Tiaan?'
Tiaan flushed. 'No,' she said softly. 'I don't know what's going on. Why do folk do the things they do?'
'Because they must.'
'I've never been able to understand people. Machines are so much easier, and more reliable.'
'That would appear to be your problem.'
They went down, then up on the other side, to a small set of chambers simply furnished in metal and fabrics as smooth as silk. They ate together. It was plain fare – black grainy bread, preserved meat so hard that the Matah shaved curls from it with a knife, cheese layered with mustard seeds and something yellow that had the crispness and pungency of onion. The meal was settled with a glass each of a sublime green wine.
The Matah rose. 'You must excuse me. Thanks to you I have urgent business to attend to.'
Tiaan quaffed her wine. The fumes went up her nose, her head spun, she had a vague memory of the Matah laying her on a pallet and drawing a cover over her, and that was all.
When she woke, the sun was streaming in through a glassed porthole high on the western wall. It was mid-afternoon. Tiaan stretched aching limbs and rose. Food had been set out on a stone table and a set of clothes laid over the end of the bed. Nearby was a bathing room. Pressing down the levers for water, she tore off her stained rags – clothes selected so she would look her best for Minis. Tiaan looked back on that morning, only two days ago but a lifetime away, contemptuous of the naive trembling girl she had been. She had been a girl, though it had been her twenty-first birthday. That person, that life was over.
With a shudder of disgust, Tiaan hurled her rags into a refuse basket. Taking off the plaited leather bracelet Haani had made for her birthday, she laid it carefully on the bed. It was her most precious possession now. She stood under the warm water, brooding. She despised Minis for his fickleness, his treachery, but most of all because she had loved him with all her passionate heart and he had been too weak to stand up for her. Love was for fools! She would never love again.
On the way back, she caught sight of herself in a metal mirror mounted on the wall. Tiaan stopped to stare. Mirrors were rare in her part of the world and she had never seen a full-length one.
Neither tall nor short, Tiaan had a slender yet womanly figure which the matron of the breeding factory had rated well enough. Her skin was her best feature – it was silky smooth and the colour of honey dripping from a comb.
Pitch-dark hair, cut straight just below her ears, framed a neat oval face whose most striking feature was a pair of almond eyes, so deep-brown that they were almost purple. In better times they'd had a liquid sparkle; now they were fixed in a hard stare. Her mouth, full enough to be called sensuous, was compressed into a ridge that hid most of her remarkably coloured lips, the reddish-purple of blackberry juice.
Tiaan jerked away from the image. Neither face nor figure had moved Minis in the end. Dressing in the blouse and loose pants the Matah had left, she took enough food and drink to satisfy her. There was a kind of bread, or cake, stuffed to bursting with dried fruits, nuts, seeds and candied peel, then sliced so thin that she could see through it. There were roses and other flowers crystallised with solutions of honey. The flavours were so subtle and the creations so delicate that Tiaan could scarcely bear to touch them. There were exotic vegetables, none of which she recognised, preserved in oil as red as cedarwood.
Having eaten her fill, she was at a loss. Her dreams of revenge were foolish; futile. That armada of constructs must be twenty leagues away by now. Feeling her resolve fading, she went looking for the Matah and eventually found her on the frigid balcony.
'Good afternoon, Tiaan,' she said, without looking around.
Tiaan stood there, uncertainly. The Matah patted the stone seat. Tiaan perched uncomfortably on it, for the cold went right through her trousers.
'What will you do now?' the Matah said softly.
'I must lay Haani to rest.'
'Where is the child?'
'I left her beside a great shaft that plunges down toward the mountain's heart.'
'What?' The Matah sprang to her feet. 'How came you to the Well of Echoes?'
Tiaan scrambled off the seat. 'N-Nish hunted me there. I meant no harm.'
'Be calm, child. You could do no harm there, though it might well have harmed you. How did you get into that place? It should not have been possible.'
Tiaan explained what she had done, and why. Coming up close, the Matah lifted the hedron on its chain but let it fall. She put her palms on Tiaan's cheeks, thumbs resting on either side of her nose, the long, long fingers wrapped around her head. She stared into Tiaan's eyes for a good while, then let go, shaking her head.
'There is something about you, Tiaan…'
'What?' Tiaan said uneasily.
'I cannot say, though it rings alarms. You are in peril. Either that, or you are peril. Come, I will take you to the Well.' The Matah dissolved the re-formed cubic barrier with a gesture and they entered the tunnel. Tiaan had forgotten the cold of that place, even worse than outside. The smooth-as-glass walls of the tunnel were networked with feathery patterns of ice crystals. The whole tunnel felt to be breathing cold, for little whooshes of wind would rush past, ruffling her hair, only to turn and blow down the back of her neck.
Even when the breeze blew from behind, Tiaan found it difficult to move forward. Each step proved more difficult than the last. How had she entered so effortlessly the previous time? The Matah, who had been only a few strides ahead, had now disappeared around the corner. Tiaan forced herself on. It felt like the time she had tried to put the crystal into the port-all, before she opened the gate and brought her world to ruin.
She had done too much and could do no more. When the Matah came back, Tiaan was on the floor, hunched up against the cold. The Matah lifted Tiaan to her feet, taking her hand, and at once the opposing force was gone. Tiaan followed her to the room and the Well.
Though the room was a simple cone of rough-cut rock, its magic was manifest. Deep blue light from the shaft cut through the dark space, highlighting mist that drifted in lazy coils centred on the Well. The air was so fresh and crisp it tingled with every breath. Scattered snowflakes floated above the shaft. One landed on Tiaan's sleeve and it was a perfect, six-pointed star, a crystal so lovely that she wished Haani could have seen it.
Haani lay beside the shaft as if sleeping. There was frost in her hair. Tiaan took her icy hand. The Matah went to her knees, probing Haani's chest with her fingertips. 'Poor child. Why is it always the young ones?' She seemed lost in some tragedy of her own.
Tiaan stood with head bowed, waiting silently.
Eventually the Matah turned to her. 'Is there a death ritual you wish to observe?'
'I don't know the customs of her people,' Tiaan said. 'As for my own, we bury our dead, but I can't dig a hole through rock.'
'Nor should she lie in the catacombs filled with our dead. Her spirit could not dwell comfortably in such a culture-haunted place.' The Matah circled the shaft.
Tiaan looked in. Blue tendrils rotated down as far as she could see. The Well seethed with power, like a spring under tension.
The Matah put one knuckle against her lip and gnawed at it, then bent to stroke the hair out of Haani's eyes. As abruptly, she stood up.
'Wait!' She strode off along the further extension of the tunnel.
Tiaan sat beside Haani, holding the frigid wrist, not thinking at all. After a long wait, the Matah reappeared with a basket in one hand and a roll of fabric in the other. Placing it on the floor, she offered the basket to Tiaan. It contained small bunches of cuttings from a black, glossy-leaved plant, at the tips of which were small flowers, purple outside and white within, crimped in the form of five-pointed stars.
'We Aachim cleave more to metal and stone than we do to gardening,' she said, 'but there are one or two among us who care for growing things. These are the best I could find in this part of the city.'
'They're beautiful,' Tiaan said. 'Haani loved trees and flowers.' Folding the child's arms across her broken chest, Tiaan placed a bunch of flowers in her hand.
The Matah unrolled the cloth, woven of a thread like metallic silk in subtle patterns of green and gold. They wrapped the child in it, leaving just her face exposed.
'I would, if you see fit,' said the Matah, 'send Haani to the Well. It is an honour accorded to the greatest of us after death, and occasionally taken before that, if we so choose.' She looked sideways at Tiaan. 'I do not know…'
'She is dead!' Tiaan said more harshly than she felt. 'She does not care.'
'The ritual is for the living as well as the dead. But only if you judge it fitting.'
'I would honour her to the limit of my ability.'
'Just so.' Again the Matah went up the passage, returning with a metal object like a sled with three runners. Of blue-black metal, it was chased all over with intricate, interwoven patterns.
They lifted Haani onto the sled, binding her there with silken cords. She looked tiny. 'Make your farewell,' said the Matah, 'then push her to the centre. The Well will take her in its own time.' She walked away.
Tiaan stood over the child, thinking of all that might have been. Tears spotted Haani's face, forming frost marks there. Tiaan murmured a prayer, remembered from her childhood, and then could stand it no longer.
She thrust the sled into the shaft. It sat in mid-air as if resting on a sheet of glass. Scooping a handful of flowers from the basket, Tiaan sprinkled them over the body. Errant petals moved about as though on a current of air. Some drifted around the shaft.
The sled moved down, almost imperceptibly at first. Staring at the little pinched face, Tiaan felt such a pang in her heart that she thought it was going to tear apart. Letting out a great cry of anguish, she leapt into the Well.
She landed on an invisible barrier that would not let her through, no matter how she screamed and clawed at it. The Matah had anticipated her. Tiaan went still, watching the sled drift down. The Matah, hands out, drew her back. They looked at one another.
'The Well is only for those at peace with the world.'
'And if you are not?' said Tiaan.
'I made sure it would not take you.'
'You were going to the Well.'
'I felt my time had come. Did you not say that you have much to put right?'
'I'm sorry. I don't know what came over me.'
The hand released her. 'Don't stand too close,' the Matah said.
Haani's body drifted down and out of sight. A long time later there was a bright flash in the depths. A shiny bubble came rolling up the shaft. Tiaan ducked out of the way as it burst with a set of silver rays and a faint scent of flowers.
'The Well has taken her,' said the Matah. 'Come.'
Rubbing her eyes, Tiaan followed the Matah back to her chambers, where she unsealed a flask of turquoise liquor, so thick that it oozed. Pouring a hefty slug into two goblets, she passed one to Tiaan.
'Thank you, Matah.' Tiaan picked up her goblet but did not taste it.
The Matah smiled. 'Matah is a title, not my name.'
'What does it mean?'
'It's hard to say in your language. "Flawed" or "ambiguous" hero, perhaps.'
Tiaan's curiosity was aroused. 'Why flawed?'
'My people are in two minds about my role in the Histories.'
'What is your role?'
'Was,' she corrected. 'It was a long time ago. I have outlived my own expectations. My people felt that I worked too hard for humanity, in all its forms, and not hard enough for my own Aachim kind. I am venerated, yet an outcast. That is why I remained in Tirthrax when everyone else went to Stassor last year. I was not welcome at their meet.'
Tiaan took a sip of her liquor and immediately regretted it. Its thickness clung to her tongue, trickling pulses of a burning floral pungency up her nose and down her throat. She would not have been surprised if steam had burst from her nostrils. It cleared her head though, blasting the last hours clear away.
'Who are you?' she said raspily, feeling the hot passage of the liquor all the way to the pit of her stomach. She put the goblet aside, searching through her memories of the Great Tales, and the lesser, for clues to the Matah's identity. Many were the brave, and noble, and ultimately futile deeds done in the struggle with the lyrinx. Four Great Tales had been made in the last hundred years alone, though the Matah must predate them.
'I played a part in what was once known as the greatest of all the Great Tales,' the Matah said. 'The Tale of the Mirror. Sadly, that tale has fallen out of favour with your scrutators.'
That reminded Tiaan of something old Joeyn the miner had once said to her. He'd said that the Histories had been rewritten. A question for another time.
'I've heard that tale,' said Tiaan. 'Who are you?'
'My name is Malien.'
Malien! A famous name from the Histories. The Aachim could be long-lived, Tiaan knew, but she could hardly take it in. She was in the presence of a legend. 'You always seemed to be strong, yet kindly.'
Malien met her eyes. 'I can be hard as stone if I must.' In the early hours of the morning, growing feelings of longing for the amplimet, and growing unease, drew Tiaan down to the chamber with the glass gong. It was not exactly withdrawal, for she had not felt that since putting the amplimet inside the port-all and opening the gate.
She had often thought that the amplimet had some purpose of its own, developed over the thousands, if not millions of years it had lain in that cavity in the mine, after it had woken. Had she freed it to work on some purpose as aged as the very bones of the mountains? And what care would such a mineral awareness have for petty humans and their transient lives and deaths? Maybe it had been using her. How could she hope to understand the purpose of something that could, with perfect patience, wait out a million years? Tiaan was afraid of the amplimet now, yet she could not give it up.
She approached the hall tentatively, for it reeked with bitter memories. It was as cold as outside. An icy wind, whistling down the glacier from the ice cap, whirled in through the side of the mountain, frosting everything in its path.
Tiaan had entered from a stair that ended near the outer wall. As she paced toward the port-all, every step was a nagging reminder. Over to her right was the pile of rubble and ice Haani had sheltered behind. Before her lay one of the bags of platinum Vithis had thrown to her, wealth enough to buy the manufactory and everything in it. The bag had burst open, scattering slugs of precious metal across the floor.
Her boot struck something that tinkled. She bent down, then drew back. It was the ring, woven of precious metals, she had made so lovingly for Minis. Every strand held a wish or a dream. Impossible to identify with those girlish longings now.
Picking it up, Tiaan drew back her arm to hurl it out onto the glacier, but stopped in mid-throw. 'I will use it against him,' she said aloud. 'I will see him beg for it, then spurn him the way he did me.'
Putting the ring on the chain about her neck, she gathered up the platinum. It might also be useful in her quest to bring the Aachim down. After some minutes she reached the place where the gate had opened. The stone floor was scorched and the three constructs that had locked together in the gate were nearby. One lay on its side, its skin of shining blue-black metal crushed. The second was upside down. The third sat on its base but the front was smashed in.
A little thread of curiosity tugged at her. How did the constructs work? Were they like clankers, or completely different? Tiaan wondered if they might be repaired. She walked around the machines but kept going. The call of the amplimet was stronger.
She continued to the room where she had assembled the port-all. Scattered mounds of rubble had been blasted out of the wall as the gate formed. Tiaan expected to find the port-all a slaggy heap of metal and glass but it looked exactly as she had built it.
Memories of using the port-all, and opening the gate, stirred her hackles. Why, when she had built it exactly as shown, had it gone so wrong? She ran through the memories. Could it have been the wrong-handedness of it? She tried to reconstruct her recollections but again something eluded her.
As she hurried forward, longing for the amplimet etched molten tracks across her heart. She ran around the side of the machine, trying to see through the network of glass, metal, wire, ceramic and shaped stone. She was looking for the soapstone basket that held the amplimet. There it was, inside that deformed doughnut of glass that Haani had called the twisticon.
With trembling fingers Tiaan reached out to open the basket, already seeing the amplimet in her mind's eye. It was a bipyramid of quartz, inside either end of which were radiating balls of needle crystals. Single, extended needles ran down the long axis of the crystal, separated by a little central bubble half-filled with liquid. Most unusual of all, the crystal had glowed, faintly when it was a long way from a node, strongly when close. Here in Tirthrax, radiance had positively flooded out of it.
There was no resistance this time. Her fingers went straight to the catch. She flicked it and the soapstone basket sprang open.
Tiaan let out a cry of anguish.
The amplimet was gone. Malien! Earlier, the Matah had not been able to control her desire for it. She must have come for it in the night. A pang of rage twisted Tiaan's insides. Despite her vow, she could not bear anyone else to have it. Joeyn had died getting it for her.
Malien was not in her chamber. Tiaan searched her rooms but the amplimet was not there. Sinking on the bed, she put her throbbing head in her hands. Malien might have hidden it anywhere.
She became aware that Malien was standing in the doorway, staring at the mess. Tiaan felt an irrational surge of rage. Keep calm; don't give yourself away. All in vain. She threw herself at the older woman, beating at her with her fists. 'What have you done with it?'
Malien held her easily. Aachim were strong, even old ones. 'What is the matter, Tiaan?'
'The amplimet is gone!'
Malien turned and ran.
'Where are you going?' Tiaan ran after her. The old woman was moving faster than Tiaan's weary legs could run. 'Wait.'
Malien allowed her to catch up. 'I haven't taken it, which can only mean one thing.'
Nish, of course. Tiaan felt such a fool.
'I should never have left it there,' said Malien. 'What if it falls into the wrong hands?'
'What do you mean by the wrong hands?' Tiaan panted.
'Any hands but yours.'
'Even when I was young, I never wanted power. Besides…'
'You had the crystal for months, and used it to do mighty works. By now it will be so imprinted with you that others may only use it at their peril.'
That was not as convincing as it sounded. Tiaan had seen the look in Malien's eyes when first the amplimet had been mentioned.
At the door to the port-all chamber, Malien checked, as if afraid to go in. 'If only this were a dream and I could wake from it.' She passed a hand over her eyes and pushed through the door. 'After the Forbidding was broken, we thought we were free of gates and what they brought. Only one man knew how to make them – old Shand – and he swore he would take the secret to his grave. I'm sure he did. We never thought that knowledge would return from across the void. Who would have thought it could?
'Ingenious,' Malien continued, walking around the port-all, giving Tiaan curious looks as she did. 'You are quite a mechanician, Tiaan.'
'I just put it together from a pattern Minis sent to me. I don't claim to understand it.'
'Few Aachim could have built this from a mental image.' Malien sat on a piece of fallen stone, deep in thought.
Tiaan fretted. 'He's getting away, Malien.'
'Let me think this through. It has to be your friend, Nish. Take this.' She handed Tiaan a rod, about the length of a sword, made of black metal, though it was comparatively light.
Tiaan handled it as if it was about to explode. 'What is it for?'
Malien chuckled. 'To whack him over the head, if necessary. Have you clothes for outside?'
Tiaan ran to the room where she had left her pack, days ago, and dressed in her old down-filled pants, coat and boots. When she returned, Malien was standing by the crashed constructs. She wove her long fingers into a knot, tore it apart, then began to make another, which she also wrenched undone.
'These things are just like Rulke's machine. I'm afraid, Tiaan, as I have never been before. Afraid of my own kind.'
'Were you not afraid of Rulke?'
'Very. But he was only one man with one construct, and we knew his character, for we had the Histories to guide us. Rulke, within his own strange code, was an honourable man. This is different. Vithis, embittered by the loss of his clan, now leads a mighty force. It will tip the balance.'
'What are you going to do?' Tiaan said anxiously, yet glad Malien was taking charge.
'I don't know.' Malien stepped back, eyeing the constructs. 'I wonder if these might be repaired…'
'Are you a mechanician too?' Tiaan cast anxious glances at the entrance.
Malien smiled thinly. 'The least among my people, though I am not entirely without talent.' She cocked an eye at the construct which was smashed at the front. 'This one does not seem to be badly damaged.' She gave Tiaan a long, assessing glance. 'Maybe later.' Malien headed for the entrance.
Among the tumbled columns and heaps of rubble and ice, they looked down. Just below, the glacier had gouged out the side of the mountain in a curving scar, forming a surface like a road, though the broken, up-jutting slate would be difficult to walk on. Beyond ran a river of blue ice a good league across, scarred with crevasses large enough to swallow whole villages. The glacier, the fastest in the world, could be heard plucking and grinding at its bed. Every so often a crevasse would crack open, the sound echoing across the valley. How would they ever find Nish in this wilderness of rock and ice?
Malien began to climb down. 'Are you coming, Tiaan?'
'He's probably floated away in his balloon already,' she said miserably.
'He'd have to gather fuel first and that could take days.' Malien picked her way down the side of the mountain as if she knew exactly where she was going.
'Can you sense the amplimet?'
'I wish I could.' Malien looked more at ease now. 'He said the balloon was directly below us and the only fuel was bushes, so it must lie above the tree line. It can't be more than a few hours down the slope, and a gasbag ten spans high will be visible from a long way. We'll find him.'
They rested every half-hour. The downhill walking was unexpectedly tiring. On their second stop, as Tiaan was sipping from her flask, there came a monumental crash that shook the rock beneath her. She dropped the flask and scrambled for it as the water gurgled out.
'What was that?' The start of an avalanche, she imagined.
'Icefall,' said Malien. 'The glacier runs over a precipice. See, just there. Every so often, the overhanging ice breaks off and falls a thousand spans to the plain.'
They continued, more warily now, though the jumbled rocks here provided plenty of cover. Shortly Malien stopped. 'Ah, this is hard on my old knees. Creep up onto that rock, Tiaan, and see if you can see anything.'
As Tiaan put her head over the top she saw a black, swelling mushroom, not a third of a league below. 'It's just down there,' she hissed.
Malien climbed up beside her. 'Ingenious design.' She shaded her eyes as she stared at the balloon. 'It looks nearly inflated. We'd better hurry.'
They had not gone far when Tiaan felt a pang in her right temple, a stabbing pain that disappeared as quickly as it had come. She let out a gasp.
Malien stopped at once. 'What's the matter?'
'Just a headache. It's gone now.'
'Take some more water,' Malien advised.
Tiaan took another few sips, though she knew dehydration was not the problem. The pang reminded her of something she had put out of mind a long time ago and did not want to think of now.
A little further on, Malien crouched down between the boulders. 'I don't like this,' she muttered.
'What is it?'
'We're being watched.'
Tiaan scanned the sky. 'I can't see a thing.'
'I can. Come, quickly! There are three of them, and since they're flying…' Malien pointed high in the western sky, where Tiaan now discerned a speck, and then two more.
Nish slammed his way down the stairs, so angry that he dared not speak, lest he take out his frustrations on Ullii. One minute he had succeeded against all the odds and made up for his previous follies. The next he had lost and was good for nothing but to be sent to the front-lines in the hopeless war against the lyrinx. Nish was a proud and ambitious young man who took failure hard.
At the bottom he waited for Ullii. The little seeker moved confidently, despite the mask. Nish never ceased to marvel at her agility. It would be easy to fall off, which would be fatal, but she made not a single misstep.
'You are sad, Nish,' she said as she reached the floor, not even out of breath.
Another wonder: how someone who took no exercise could be fitter than he. Nish's heart was still pounding. 'What am I going to say to the scrutator, Ullii? He'll have my head for this.'
'No one could fight the Matah, Nish.'
Ullii could see the Secret Art in all its forms, as knots in a lattice she created in her mind. It was her special talent, one that made her worth a thousand of him. 'You were very friendly to her,' he said harshly, and immediately regretted it. He moderated his tone. 'What did you see, Ullii?'
'Matah is old. She is wise and kind, but sad too. She has lost a whole world.'
That was food for thought, though not what he was looking for. 'What kind of knot does she have, Ullii? Is she a powerful mancer?'
'Matah is very strong, but she did not use her strength against you. Be careful, Nish.'
'Ha!' He headed down the next set of stairs, which were made of alabaster. Nish was no coward, but he knew which battles to fight and which to keep away from.
At the bottom of the next set of stairs, as Nish was consulting his map, Ullii said, 'I can see Tiaan's crystal.'
He dropped the map, just managing to catch it before it fluttered through the hole to the next level. He'd assumed that the Aachim would have taken the amplimet. 'You mean it's still here?'
'I can see it.'
She meant in her lattice. Of course she could; she had tracked it all this way from the manufactory. And Tiaan too – Ullii had found her after Tiaan had been missing for months. 'Where is it? Quick, before they think of it.'
Using the map, it took less than an hour to regain the level where the gate had been made. Nish looked around him. They were in an oval chamber, so large that a good-sized town could have been built inside it, with doors and subsidiary chambers everywhere.
'Over there.' Ullii pointed.
Nish ran, looking over his shoulder all the way. There had been too many failures; too many disappointments. Inside the room he was confronted by a strange-looking machine, all glass and crystal, ceramic and wires, ghostly in the dim light. He roved around, trying to make sense of it. Nish did not know what the amplimet looked like. He had never seen it, and the port-all contained dozens of crystals.
'Ullii?' he shouted. The sound echoed back and forth for ages. That made him afraid, too.
She came creeping through the door as though trying not to attract attention. Her life was avoiding people. Ullii looked troubled, as if expecting him to yell at her again.
'I can't find the amplimet,' he said softly.
She walked up to the port-all, reached out and took the crystal from a soapstone basket. Nish was amazed that it could be so easy.
She held it in her hand, gazing curiously at it. The amplimet resembled other hedrons Nish had seen in the manufactory, except for one small detail: it glowed.
'It's different now.' Ullii turned it over in her hand.
Alarm choked him up. 'What do you mean? Is it damaged? Ruined?'
'No,' she said softly. 'It's just as strong, but it has a different knot.'
'What can you tell about it?'
She put her hand over the mask as if to block out the least glimmer of light. 'It is as old as time. It is dreaming at the core of the world.'
Ullii's pronouncements sometimes bordered on the mystical and he could make no sense of this one. Further questioning proved useless. She could not put what she sensed into words. It did not matter. He had the amplimet, more important than Tiaan now. If he got it back to the manufactory, that would make up for everything.
He reached for it. Snap! It was as if a spiky ball had embedded itself in his palm and was gouging its way through. He wrenched his hand away and the amplimet went flying through the air. 'No!' he cried as it fell toward the stone floor.
Unerringly, Ullii snatched it out of the air.
'I think you'd better carry it,' Nish said. It felt as if the amplimet had rejected him.
She packed it in her little chest pack and fastened up the straps.
Casting a last look behind him, Nish said, 'Come on.' They hurried out of Tirthrax. After some hours of scrambling down the mountain, Nish realised that Ullii was no longer behind him. He called her name but she did not answer.
He set down his pack, rubbing the palm of his hand. The pain still lingered and the centre of his palm had gone white in the shape of a spiky star. 'Ullii!' he roared, and knew that could only make things worse. If she was close by, the racket would make her retreat into herself and he might get nothing out of her for hours. Retracing his path, he found her fifty paces up the slope, huddled under a rock. She did not look up as he approached.
'What's the matter?' He squatted beside her. She did not answer and he had to give her his hand to sniff before she would rouse. Whenever she was distressed, the smell of him seemed to comfort her. He did not understand that either.
'Tired,' she whispered. 'Feet hurt.'
She had thrown off her boots and socks, and her feet were resting on a patch of snow. The little toes, as small as a child's, were red and one heel had a large blister. He clicked his tongue in vexation.
'I'm sorry, Nish,' she wailed. 'I tried really hard.'
Ullii never lied or exaggerated, and was so sensitive that walking in those boots must have been agony. There was no possibility of her wearing them again. Nor could she go any distance in bare feet. It was too cold.
'Climb onto my shoulders, Ullii. I'll carry you.' She probably would not like that either but there was no choice.
She did so willingly enough, and once up there she smiled. 'I can smell you, Nish.' Lifting the blindfold, she peered down the front of his shirt.
'Whatever makes you happy,' he muttered. She was no heavier than a ten-year-old but even that was a hefty burden to carry down the mountain.
By the time they reached the balloon, whose basket was wedged between two boulders, he was drenched in sweat and Ullii's smile was broader than ever. Setting her down in the weak sun, he lay beside her.
'I love you, Nish,' she said.
Had Nish been standing up, he would have fallen over. All he could do was gape. Ullii never made remarks like that. What did she expect of him? He could hardly reciprocate. He liked Ullii, cared for her, and many a night had lain awake burning with desire for her sweet little body, but he could never, except perhaps to get that desire fulfilled, have said that he loved her.
Taking her hand, he drew it to his lips. She shivered and her eyelashes fluttered. He could have screamed with frustration. Why now, when he could do nothing about it? To hide his confusion, he climbed up to look at the balloon, ignoring her little whimper. Tonight, he thought. When everything is prepared.
The gasbag was flaccid, though being formed around a series of struts and stretched wires, it maintained its shape. The air inside had gone cold and he would have to burn the brazier for at least half a day to lift off. First he must gather fuel, for all he had was a large flask of distilled tar spirits. It was useful for burning wet wood but could not be used by itself in the brazier, or the explosion would have blown balloon and boulders back up to Tirthrax.
There was little fuel here, just scrubby heath and a few patches of grass. If he filled the basket with the stuff, it would barely lift the balloon. No time to waste. He headed for the nearest patch of vegetation. By the middle of the afternoon, Nish had gathered a great mound of shrubbery. As he'd expected, it burned quickly, generating plenty of ash but little heat. After an hour the balloon was almost as flaccid as when he had started. Already he had exhausted the closest supplies of fuel. What if the witch-woman (as he thought of the Matah) was already on her way?
Forcing down panic, he considered other options. The rocks were hung with feathery strands of lichen. Perhaps if he tied that into bales and soaked it in tar spirits? Nish began collecting the material but soon gave the idea away. It took an hour to gather a small bag of lichen and it weighed nothing. There could be no heat in it either.
By then the sun was going down. The sky was clear; the night would be cold and they would need a fire; more precious fuel wasted. He trudged off for another armload of scrub.
On his return Nish could not find Ullii anywhere. He felt like screaming, but did the sensible thing and lit the fire before he went looking for her. She was not far away, just down the slope at their original campsite. Ullii had discarded her mask in the evening and was drawing on a slab of sand-coloured rock with a black lump of pencil-stone.
'I wish you'd told me where you were going,' he said irritably.
For once she did not cringe. 'I knew where you were.' She gave him such a sweet smile that it was impossible to be angry with her.
'Come up. It's time for dinner.'
He followed, admiring her figure. Nish prepared dinner, a gruel made of mashed and boiled grains for her, since she could not bear any kind of strong flavour, and much the same for him but with hot spices and smoked meat added.
Nish ate his dinner moodily. If he began the instant it was light, he might just manage to collect enough fuel by darkness, and that was not good enough. The witch-woman might have discovered that the crystal was gone. She could stop him with a single flaming arrow, for the tar-sealed silk would burn like a torch.
By the time he had cleaned up, Ullii was asleep and Nish knew better than to disturb her. He spent a frustrated, agonising night, punctuated by trips to replenish the brazier, and before dawn gave up hope of sleep.
The day crawled by. Nish set Ullii to keep lookout for Tiaan and the Matah. Each time he returned with his burden of fuel, the brazier was out. By lunchtime the balloon had begun to fill but it was a long way from lifting off. Ullii sat beneath the boulder, still scribbling with her pencil-stone. The patterns made no sense at all. He was gnawing on a lump of smoked meat when the seeker gave a whimper and curled up.
'Ullii?' he whispered. 'What's the matter? Is it the witch-woman?'
She did not answer, which meant it was a major distress. He felt for his knife, though it was useless against the likes of the Matah. Climbing the rope ladder to the brazier, Nish scanned the surroundings. He saw nothing in any direction. Nothing moved but a white eagle soaring on the updraught above the icefall. Its beak was bright yellow.
When he reached the ground, Ullii had partly unfolded. He tried to discover what had scared her but she was unable to articulate it. 'Hooks and claws,' she said over and over again, referring to something seen in her lattice. He tried to put it out of mind.
Nish was about to go for another load when he noticed the lump of pencil-stone in her hand. The manufactory sometimes burned it in the furnaces. 'Where did you get that, Ullii?'
'Up mountain,' she said in a barely audible voice, still suffering.
He took her hand. 'Is it far? Can you show me?'
After a short climb they reached a steep face where the dark and light rock stood on end, dipping back into the mountain like layers in a cake. At head height the soft rock had weathered away, leaving an elongated cavity the width of Nish's hips. Several lumps of black, shiny pencil-stone were stuck to the overlying slate. Inside, the cavity was half full of chunks the size of his fist.
Nish climbed in and began to scoop them into his bag. To his amazement, Ullii joined in with the work, and soon the bag was bulging. 'Beautiful fuel,' he said, laughing for joy.
Back at the balloon, he stuffed the brazier, packed lichen all around and carefully poured in half a cup of tar spirits. The pencil-stone would need a hot fire to burn. He flew down the ladder, afraid he had used too much spirits. Nothing happened for a couple of minutes, then with a whoomph the fuel went up and flames roared out the top of the flue.
'More!' They raced up the slope, filling another bag each. The balloon was starting to swell visibly as they returned, though they would need more fuel to take them any distance.
He had come back with a third load and was topping up the brazier when Ullii choked and dropped her bag, spilling pencil-stone across the ground. 'What is it?' he called.
The little seeker looked as if she was having a fit. Her teeth were bared, her eyes staring. She tried to tell him something but managed only incoherent squeaks.
The hairs stood up on the back of his neck. He scanned the mountain and immediately saw two figures, only minutes away. One was the Aachim witch-woman, the other Tiaan. As he ran down the ladder, something broke the air in the west. Three winged shapes, too big and bulky to be eagles or even skeets. They were lyrinx, and heading directly for the balloon.
He fled down the ladder, frantically undoing the ropes, though the balloon was not quite full enough to rise. Moreover, the basket had jammed between the rocks in its fall and would have to be worked free.
Nish hurled in his bag of pencil-stone, the packs and what remained of Ullii's load. 'Ullii!' he yelled. 'There's no time. We've got to go.'
She made not a sound. He lugged her up, thrust his knife in his belt, decanted half a mug of tar spirits and scampered up the ladder. Lifting the lid off the brazier, he tossed the liquid in. It exploded in his face; Nish felt his hair frizzing. Slamming the lid, he leapt onto the nearest boulder and gave the basket a heave. It did not budge. It was jammed tight. Despair coiled around his heart. Not only was he going to lose the crystal but probably his life as well.
Jumping down between the boulders, he put his shoulder under the basket and heaved. It moved a fraction but jammed again. He tried the other side. The edge of the basket dug painfully into his shoulder. The basket scraped along the rock, then stopped.
The balloon was now as round as a globe and the ropes that held it to the basket were taut. It was ready to lift. Scrambling up the side, he shook the basket. It moved but did not free.
The lyrinx were descending rapidly now. The witch-woman was just fifty paces away. She threw out her arm, pointing at him.
Nish ducked. Golden sparkles burst in his eyes but he was otherwise unharmed. The witch-woman clutched at her chest as if in pain, then tottered forward. Nish shook the basket and felt something give. It lifted a handspan before jamming again.
If only he had a branch; anything to use as a lever. 'Come on,' he screamed, shaking it. 'Just move!'
It did not. The witch-woman plodded around the boulders to come at him from the other side. She looked distressed. Nish wished a heart attack on the old fool.
'Give up the crystal, artificer,' she called.
'Be damned!' he snarled, ducking behind the basket for a rock.
She put out her hand, fingers hooked as if she were holding an egg, and slowly closed them. It was as though they had closed about his throat. Nish could not breathe. His face began to swell; his tongue was forced out through his lips. He gave a grunting squeal, which was answered by a moan from inside the basket.
Tiaan began to climb the rock. She had a length of metal in one hand. With a tremendous effort of will, he tore away from the Matah's illusion and gasped a breath of air.
'Ullii,' he choked. 'Save me.'
Ullii's head appeared over the side of the basket, bobbing up and down. 'Don't know what to do,' she quavered.
'Throw something at the witch-woman. Try to knock her out.' He groped for his knife.
Ullii hurled out her half-filled bag of pencil-stone, which flew wide, scattering black lumps everywhere.
'Not the fuel!' he screamed. 'Haven't you got a brain in your head?'
The seeker moaned. Then, to Nish's horror, her chest pack, with its infinitely precious amplimet, soared out of the basket and struck the witch-woman in the face, knocking her down.
The pressure on his throat eased but before he could move Tiaan threw herself at him. He swiped at her but his knife was in the wrong hand and the blow missed. Tiaan thrust out the metal rod. He yelped, thinking she was going for his groin, but the rod went between his knees. She wrenched it sideways, his left knee collapsed and he toppled off the rock.
The fall seemed to take a long time. Nish thought he was going to land on his head, then his back. As he tumbled over, he realised that the knife was pointing up and he was likely to impale himself on it. He twisted in mid-air, slammed into the ground and felt a burning pain in his side.
He rolled over, groaning. Wetness flooded his shirt. A few steps away, the witch-woman was on her knees. Tiaan hurled herself on the pack. With a cry of triumph, she held up the amplimet.
Ullii wept. Nish groaned. His eyes met Tiaan's, then slid sideways to where the wings of the descending lyrinx darkened the sky.
'Enjoy your triumph!' he gritted. 'It won't last long.'
'Nor your tragedy,' said Tiaan. 'Goodbye, Nish. I hope we never meet again.'
'We will,' he said. 'Oh yes, we will, artisan. Traitor!'
He hauled himself onto the rock. Tiaan was helping the witch-woman up the hill. Near the point where he had first seen them, they stopped, their backs to a jagged outcrop, and prepared to defend themselves.
Two lyrinx came gliding down in spirals. Was it better to flee, or hang around in case the battle gave him a chance to recover the crystal?
The first seconds dashed that hope. The witch-woman held out her arms and another of those shining bubbles, a huge one this time, burst forth to explode against the chest of the leading lyrinx. The creature seemed to freeze in mid-air, rolled and landed on its back. The second flapped away. He could not see the third.
Nish had seen enough. The witch-woman was too strong. The crystal was lost. He shook the basket and it moved up. Climbing in, he took hold of the balloon ropes and pulled down hard. It came a little way and rebounded. The ropes snapped taut and with a tearing of cane the basket slid out. They were away.
At last they were free of the heavy earth, where every step was a labour and the smallest river an impassable barrier. Up here, Nish felt in control of his life again. He did not have Tiaan, nor the crystal, but he had done the best he could. Most important of all, he had warned the scrutator about the invasion. Nish settled back. Just for a few minutes he was going to enjoy the ride.
The balloon shot up. Well above the level of the glacier, a strong wind pushed it away from the mountain, to the west. Nish frowned. He wanted to go east. Perhaps he should go down again, in some isolated place, and wait for a wind that would carry them the right way. That could be a long wait at this time of year. He reached for the release rope.
'No!' cried Ullii, holding her hands over her ears. 'No, no!'
She was turning round and round, facing up at the sky. Her hands batted at the air; then, to his utter astonishment, she tore off the mask, exposing her naked eyes to the daylight. They were watering so much that pink tears ran down her cheeks.
'Noooo!' she screamed.
The third lyrinx had remained high up, on watch. Now it soared effortlessly after them. It was smaller than the others, no larger than a big man. Its outer, armoured skin was so transparent that he could see the more human inner skin beneath. It looked delicate, almost fragile, until Nish caught sight of the finger-long, extended claws.
Blood trickled down his side and Nish felt a momentary dizziness. Clutching one of the ropes, he stared at the approaching lyrinx. How would it attack? The basket was difficult to get at from the air; the creature would not want to risk tangling itself in the ropes.
Perhaps it would swoop down and come at them from below, or even try to knock him out with the Secret Art. All flying lyrinx were mancers – that was how they kept their massive bodies aloft. More lyrinx have died trying to fly on our heavy world than have been killed in the war, he recalled Scrutator Flydd saying. If he could distract it in some way he might have a chance.
Nish held out his sword, which made him feel better. He weighed the rope in his hand, balancing on the balls of his feet. The creature would have a harder job than it thought.
He was wrong. The lyrinx had no intention of attacking him. It altered course, darted for the side of the balloon and, with a single swipe of its claws, tore through the fabric.
Air hissed out. The balloon plunged toward the rocks, far below.
Ullii stopped screaming.
Are you all right?' Tiaan yelled as the second lyrinx lunged towards them. Backing under the overhanging rock, she whacked at it with her rod. The lyrinx retreated a step. She held no threat but it was wary of Malien.
Malien was breathing hard. 'I've not used the Art to defend myself in two hundred years. Just give me a minute.'
Lowering her head, she took several deep breaths. 'After the last time, I swore I would devote myself to peace. You have undone all that in a day.'
'I'm sorry -' Tiaan began.
'Hush! I'm not blaming you.'
Malien peered out from under the rock. The first lyrinx still lay on its back, one leg moving feebly. The other was three or four paces away, standing with wings spread, watching them. It was a massive creature, many times Tiaan's weight, and all of it bone and muscle. The armoured skin plates made it difficult to attack, even with sword or spear. The large mouth was agape, revealing hundreds of grey teeth. Its eyes, under prominent brow ridges, shone with intelligence. Beautiful colours shimmered across its chameleon skin, iridescent blues, greens and reds. Skin-speech: used for communication, to frighten enemies, and sometimes just for the joy of it.
'Even three would not have troubled me when I was in my prime,' Malien muttered. 'Of course, that was a long time ago and this is a poor place to defend. If there are more of them around, we can't hold out. We've got to get back inside.'
'They'll just come after us,' said Tiaan.
'Tirthrax has defences. Keep an eye out for the third lyrinx.'
Edging out from under the shelf, Tiaan scanned the sky. She saw the creature at once, swooping toward the balloon, which was now just a small black teardrop in the western sky.
'What's it doing?' she said as lyrinx and balloon merged. The balloon fell out of the sky and disappeared. The lyrinx turned back towards them.
Tiaan felt sick. For all her hatred of Nish, she did not want him to die that way. Nor Ullii, who seemed harmless and had been kind to her. 'It's torn open the balloon. Now it's on its way back.'
'Flying drains them. We'd better move before they recover. Give me the rod.'
Tiaan passed it to her. Malien slid her hands back and forth along it, and Tiaan felt the hairs on her arms rise up. Malien pressed forward, holding the rod out toward the standing lyrinx. A silver bead formed at the end, swelling and glowing like molten glass on the end of a glassblower's tube. When the bead was about the size of a melon, she thrust it at the lyrinx.
The creature clapped its hands together. The globe broke out in bright speckles, like metal filings sprinkled into a fire. Malien's neck sinews stood up. The lyrinx went rigid, straining to overcome an invisible force. Malien muttered under her breath. The globe burst and the lyrinx went tumbling backwards down the slope.
She fell to her knees, dropping the rod. 'That hurt,' she gasped. 'How are we doing?'
Tiaan picked the rod up. 'The lyrinx isn't moving but I don't think it's dead. The flying one will be here in a minute or two.'
'No, it's not dead. I'm not a killer, Tiaan. Give me a hand.'
They made their way up the slope, Malien's weight heavy on Tiaan's shoulder. The flying lyrinx began to circle around them. Tiaan stopped abruptly.
'What is it?' Malien asked.
'I know her.' Tiaan was staring at the transparent-skinned creature. 'Her name is Liett. She was one of the lyrinx at Kalissin; a flesh-former.' That roused unpleasant memories.
'What will she do?'
'I have no idea,' Tiaan said. 'I spent three months as their prisoner, but I knew little more about them at the end. Though…'
'They are deadly in battle, but when you get to know them… I found them to be honourable creatures.'
'That's encouraging,' said Malien, 'yet I can't say I want to get to know them.'
They watched the circling lyrinx, which now turned and flapped towards the two fallen ones. 'She's given up.'
'They know where we are. They can come back at any time, with an army.'
The lyrinx did not attack again, though as Tiaan and Malien made the weary climb up the mountain, Tiaan twice saw Liett circling high above. After they passed into Tirthrax, Liett flew east.
'What do we do now?' Tiaan asked as they rested in the entrance.
Malien unwrapped a food packet. 'Have some filuvior.'
Tiaan took a chunk of something that looked like green, crumbly cheese but dissolved smoothly in the mouth. It had a taste she could not put words to, a combination of aromatic, creamy and acrid. Her mouth tingled afterwards but she did feel better.
'What is this stuff, Malien?'
'A tonic for exhaustion, body or mind.'
She took another piece. Tiaan did too.
'This level of the city is undefendable,' Malien went on. 'And that's a pity, because there are things here I would sooner the enemy never saw, not least of them the wrecked constructs. Fortunately I can seal off the upper and lower entrances. We have greater treasures there. I wonder what brought the lyrinx here?' She looked questioningly at Tiaan.
'The amplimet, I expect. They can track such things.'
'How do you know that?' Malien said sharply.
'At the manufactory, when I was an artisan…' Memories of her lost life came rushing back and for a moment Tiaan could not speak. 'The enemy were locating our clankers from afar, and we could not tell how. I discovered that they could sense the aura given off by a working crystal.'
'How? I've never heard of such a thing.'
'I was never sure. They used something that resembled a large, leathery mushroom. I don't know whether they made it, grew it or -'
'Flesh-formed it,' Malien said, with an uncharacteristic shiver. 'Go on.'
'I developed a way of shielding crystals from them.'
'What did you do?'
'I wrapped the crystals in gold foil, sealed them tight and covered everything with pitch. That cut off the aura and prevented the crystals being sabotaged by heat, too.' She looked away. 'I miss my work.'
'What a remarkable young woman you are,' said Malien. 'I wish -'
Malien activated sentinels – squat black cones – at the entrances to the lower and upper levels. Tiaan's eyes lingered on the broken constructs as they went by. The design, and the workmanship, was magnificent. Were they powered by the field, as clankers were, or did they draw on an entirely different source? She wanted to get inside one and find out. Tiaan really missed her craft.
They went up. It was not far, now that Tiaan knew the way, but they had to climb eight long swirling flights of stairs, one after another. By the last, the old woman was shaking.
'This day has been rather too much for me. I'll see you in the morning.' Malien went into her room and closed the door.
Tiaan had a drink of water and sat down until her heart stopped hammering. She was overcome by a deep melancholy. Such a small decision to care about Minis, such mighty consequences. Was the world already at war with the Aachim? Were innocent people being slaughtered while she sat here in luxury?
Tiaan sprang out of the chair. She felt a mad urge to hurt herself, to make herself suffer as a way of connecting with Haani. Flinging the door open, she hurtled up the stairs to Malien's lookout, rejoicing in the ache in her side. She slapped the opener with her palm. The glass wall slid back and Tiaan pushed out into the gale.
The balcony was icy. Tiaan slipped, cracking her shin against the stone seat. Limping to the edge, she looked over. The air was perfectly clear, the distant peaks like etchings on glass. A low sun glinted bronze off the ice sheet.
The view was magical but Tiaan could not see it, any more than Malien did in the hours she spent here every day. Malien looked across the void to Aachan, the ancestral world her people had been cut off from thousands of years ago. Now they would never return. The small, cold globe that was Aachan was no longer habitable. They were forever exiles.
As was she. By the time the red sun plunged into a lake of mist, Tiaan was practically frozen to the seat. 'What the blazes do you think you're doing?'
Malien was shaking her. Tiaan could see nothing, and for an instant of horror thought her eyes must have frozen solid. The Aachim picked crusted snow off her eyelids, rubbed them with a warm palm and Tiaan's eyes cracked open.
Back down below, her fingers wrapped around a mug of a custardy-thick, sweet red drink, Tiaan began to feel rather foolish. The emotions that had taken her outside felt alien now.
'I suppose…' she said haltingly, 'I was punishing myself.'
'What a stupid thing to do! If you have done harm, do something to make up for it.'
Tiaan sipped her drink. Malien was right. She must do something, but what? Maybe she should try to get back to the manufactory and resume her artisan's work.
Malien was turning the pages of a small book bound in yellow calf, though not reading it.
'Is something the matter?' said Tiaan.
Malien laid the book to one side. 'I cannot tell you what a shock it was to hear of the gate, and see those constructs. Arrogance was ever an Aachim failing, and so many constructs, and such power, would breed hubris in the meekest of breasts. Vithis is a type I know well – a brilliant, blind fool. After the loss of world and clan, he will not compromise. He has suffered – why should others not suffer equally? We have had many such leaders in our Histories, but all looked backwards to a time when we were great, while knowing that such times were past.
'Vithis is different. Having lost everything that mattered, nothing can moderate him, and now he has the opportunity of a lifetime. With his mighty force, the most powerful ever assembled, he comes to a world ruined by war. What will he do?'
'Take it,' Tiaan said softly. 'But… we are all humankind. Maybe he will ally with us to defeat the lyrinx.'
'I would,' said Malien, 'but why would Vithis? Many Aachim think of you old humans as primitive, even sub-human, and from what you say of him Vithis holds to that view. He may prefer to let the lyrinx win, or even side with them to destroy humanity.'
Tiaan's blood congealed. 'He would not,' she whispered. 'He could not.'
'Look at your own Histories, Tiaan. The more advanced races, or the more powerful nations, have wiped out hundreds of the lesser.'
'But humanity has a great and ancient civilisation. How could anyone think…?'
'Look to your Histories, I say.'
Tiaan could not countenance it. That Vithis might destroy humanity, and all its culture and Histories, as carelessly as one might kill a cockroach, was incomprehensible.
'And nothing can be done about it?' she said in a daze.
'I wouldn't say nothing,' said Malien. 'Vithis must have weaknesses as well as strengths.'
'I saw none, apart from clan rivalry.'
'Which would disappear the instant the Aachim were threatened.'
'And perhaps your own people would join with them to make an even stronger force.'
'If pushed hard enough, they probably would.'
'But not you, Malien?'
'I will never betray my own kind, Tiaan. But I will do what I can for all humanity.'
'And I!' Tiaan swore. 'Since I brought the Aachim here, I must make up for it.' How, though? She was trapped by geography, hundreds of leagues from anywhere.
Malien sat forward on her chair, looking down at her boots. Her veined hands shook. She rested them on her knees. 'I -' She broke off.
Tiaan said nothing. What could Malien offer her but words? Words could change nothing.
'You can never know what I felt when I heard about the amplimet,' said Malien.
Not expecting that, Tiaan felt a surge of jealous anger. 'Why?' she said coolly. 'What is it to you?'
'The chance to look back to lost Aachan.'
'You can't have been born there.' The Histories were clear on that.
'I was not. We came to Santhenar thousands of years ago, mostly as slaves of the Charon. For that reason, few of us feel perfectly at home on Santhenar. Nor do I, despite that my children and my partners lie in their graves here. We forever look back to Aachan, mourning the world that we lost. We always hoped and planned to return. Now we never shall. But still I would use the amplimet, if I may, to take a last look at our lost world.'
'But Aachan was destroyed,' said Tiaan. The anger had gone but she still felt reluctant to let Malien have it, however briefly.
'With the amplimet, and a strong enough will, I might look back into the depths of time. I might even see beloved Aachan as a paradise, before the Charon took it from us. Ah, Tiaan, you cannot know how I yearn for that.' Malien shook her head and tears fell from her ageless eyes.
Tiaan found herself moved by the old woman's anguish. 'Take it,' she said, unfastening the little pouch hanging between her breasts. 'Look back to Aachan and be at peace.'
'I'm afraid,' Malien said softly, and the power and the confidence were gone. She was no more than an ageing woman whose life had seen more of tragedy than triumph.
'That the amplimet has been corrupted by the gate?'
'I fear that, but not as much as I fear what I will see on Aachan.'
Malien did not elaborate and Tiaan asked no more questions. She did not have the right. The crystal lay on her hand, glowing in a way that seemed vaguely menacing. They both stared at it.
Malien shuddered, then reached out to lift it away between fingers and thumb. It dragged as if anchored to Tiaan's palm with sticky threads. Something went snap and suddenly the crystal was tumbling through the air, exploding with light. She cried out but Malien's long fingers closed around it and the light was cut off.
Malien rose. 'Come with me.'
Tiaan followed her to the stone bench on her lonely eyrie. 'What do you want me to do?'
'Nothing, apart from being here.' Malien sat on the bench.
Tiaan stood by the glass door, where it was a little warmer. There was still a core of cold in her from before, and Malien having the amplimet only added to that.
'Isn't it dangerous using it so close to the node?'
Malien held the amplimet between her fingers, which were pressed together as though in prayer. The end of the crystal extended past the tips. She rested her elbows on her knees. Her posture was so rigid that Tiaan moved toward the edge of the precipice, the better to see.
Malien's head turned sharply and Tiaan was shocked at her expression. She looked afraid. The amplimet, normally a luminous white or blue-white, had gone a baleful red. The glow rose and fell, and with each flare Tiaan felt a wrenching in her middle.
The crystal pulsed faster, more erratically. Some kind of struggle seemed to be going on between it and Malien, and Tiaan recalled Vithis's fear – that it had been corrupted. Would it be a danger to her too, when she got it back? If Malien gave it back.
Abruptly the glow was gone. The illuminated globe inside the door also went out. The sun had set long ago and the night was black, apart from a shimmer of starlight on the distant ice sheet. That seemed ominous. Malien shuddered from head to foot, then rose from the bench until she was standing on tiptoe. She held the crystal above her head and let out a great cry that could have been ecstasy or anguish.
The crystal shone so brightly that Tiaan saw the blood running in Malien's veins. It slowed, slowed, slowed. What was she doing? Tiaan tried to move but the world vanished and the next she knew, she was picking herself up from the frigid stone.
Some time had passed, for moonlight now glistened on the peaks and the icefield. Malien still held the crystal above her head, pastel rays streaming out between her fingers. It looked as though she had frozen in place. Gelid tears hung on her cheeks but beneath her eyelids her eyes were moving.
Tiaan crouched near the edge of the precipice, afraid to disturb her. The rays slowly thinned and dulled until they could barely be seen, until the light illuminated only Malien's fingertips and her face, and finally even that went out.
Reaching up, Tiaan touched Malien's hand. To her surprise it was warm. A great weight left her and Tiaan took the crystal from Malien's fingers.
Malien turned stiffly, like a statue coming to life. Her eyes opened, shedding crescents of ice. 'Tiaan,' she said haltingly, as if so long had passed that she barely recalled how to speak.
'Go to the warm. I will follow directly. I have a deal to think about.'
Tiaan was reluctant to go, so concerned did she feel for the old woman, but she was freezing. She went creakily down the stairs to Malien's chambers but could not get warm until she drew a bath of steaming water and slid in to it.
There Malien found her, hours later, fast asleep in the tub. She touched Tiaan on the shoulder. 'Dinner is ready.'
'What did you see?' Tiaan asked after they had finished another magnificent repast, every item of which was strange to her. She was sitting in a comfortable chair, clad in a silky dressing-gown with a glass of something that vaguely resembled coffee, though richer and more aromatic, at her elbow. 'I'm sorry. That was rude of me.'
'I did not see what I expected,' said Malien, 'and I will not speak of that save to my own kind.' She took a sip from her glass, made to say something, then went silent.
Tiaan did not prompt her. Aachan meant nothing more to her than visions, through Minis, of volcanoes and ruins. She finished her glass, went to bed and did not dream. It was not until the following afternoon that Malien came to her. 'You deserve an explanation, Tiaan. I must -'
'Aachan is your affair. I don't want to pry.'
'Hear me. Aachan involved itself in your affairs and you must know what is going on. I believe Vithis did deal dishonestly with you, or if he did not, other Aachim used or manipulated him. You were right to impugn the honour of the Aachim of Aachan; I was wrong to rebuke you. Someone is playing a deadly game and the consequences could be more dire than anyone imagines.'
Tiaan opened her mouth but Malien held up a hand. 'There is more, and this concerns you personally. The amplimet has been corrupted by the gate, or by what Vithis did to change the gate. That appears to have roused something in the amplimet that was formerly dormant.'
'What?' Tiaan whispered.
'I don't know. Perhaps a kind of mineral instinct.'
That was too close to what Tiaan had been thinking. From the very first, there had been something different about it. She had not needed to wake it to draw power, as with a hedron. The amplimet had already been drawing power, by itself. 'What is it up to?'
'I can't say. Its purpose may be benign, malignant or indifferent, but it will try to follow it no matter what.'
'Should we destroy it?' Her voice broke. It was perilous for an artisan to destroy any hedron she was intimately linked to. But to destroy an amplimet… She dared not think what that would do to her.
'No!' Malien cried. 'It may be perilous but it is still a treasure. Guard it, protect it, and above all, beware of it, for make no mistake, it is deadly.'
'To use, or just to have by me?'
'I don't know. You must leave as soon as you are able. The amplimet is… incompatible with the node here, and the Well. You're lucky something drastic hasn't already happened.'
'What do you mean?'
'I'll be looking into that tonight.'
'Maybe it made the gate go wrong,' Tiaan said hopefully.
'No. The gate corrupted the amplimet.'
More to think about. 'Where am I to go?'
'Where best your knowledge, and your skills, might be employed to bring good out of ill.'
'If I went back to the manufactory it would take a year to get there,' Tiaan mused, 'if I got there at all. And if I dared risk their punishment. Going west would take months of equally dangerous travel. By then it would be too late, even if I knew what to do.'
'You must work out your own path. I can't advise you. But before you go, there is one thing you can do for me.'
'Yes?' said Tiaan, sure she was not going to like it.
'You're a skilled artisan,' said Malien. 'Perhaps you could pull the crashed constructs apart and make a working one from them.'
It shivered Tiaan from the roots of her hair to her toenails. From the moment she had set eyes on the constructs, she had longed to see how they were powered, controlled and built. It was fate.
'I'll begin right away.' She leapt up. 'This minute!'
'I was about to prepare dinner.'
'What if the lyrinx come back? I don't dare miss the chance.' In truth, she longed to feel metal in her hands again. Devices were logical, predictable, reliable. They did not lie or cheat or betray.
Malien smiled, though it had a faraway edge. 'Dinner will be ready shortly.'
Tiaan hurried down the stairs, her heart pounding. As an artisan, new ways of seeing and doing had always fascinated her. Everything about these constructs must be new, since they had come from another world.
Down on the gate level, she walked around the three machines, frowning. Without understanding how they worked, it was difficult to know where to start. The one that lay on its top looked the worst damaged, and no doubt righting it would cause more. The second had its front smashed in; the third, one side crumpled, and its upper part warped. Tiaan tried to pull the metal back into place but could not budge it. Though just a thin, curved sheet, it had the strength of the plate armour on the side of a clanker.
Climbing the construct with the crushed front, she looked in through the hatch. It was more spacious than it had appeared, though it must have been dreadfully crowded with a dozen passengers inside. Above and behind the hatch, a cramped turret was fitted with a javelard-like weapon, similar to the one that had killed Haani. She turned her back to it.
Inside the hatch was a small ovoid compartment with space for half a dozen people to stand close together. Seats pulled out from the rear wall. At the front was a curved binnacle of coloured glass, the pale green of young lemon leaves. Below that was a bank of finger-shaped levers, several coin-sized wheels and many coloured knobs or buttons. Between the binnacle and the seat, a hexagonal rod came up from the floor, sprouting into a six-sided trumpet with a studded knob on top. The trumpet could be moved back and forth as well as from side to side and up and down. Nothing happened when she tried it. On the floor beside it were five crescent-shaped pedals.
She wiggled the levers and pressed the buttons and pedals, to no effect. Perhaps the mechanism was damaged, or there was a secret way of operating it.
To the left of the trumpet an oval hole gave access to the lower level. Stepping onto the top rung of a metal ladder, Tiaan went down tentatively. A lightglass began to glow. The egg-shaped interior was decorated with inlaid silver and other precious metals in the intricate Aachim way. Handles ran down the wall in front of her. She pulled one and an ingenious bunk unfolded. Another revealed a small cupboard containing mugs, plates and cutlery. A third seemed to be a weapons cabinet, though all it contained was a sword shaped like a cutlass and quarrels for a crossbow. A fourth held tools of unfathomable purpose.
Lifting a recessed hatch in the floor, she found what she assumed to be the driving mechanism. Some of its components resembled those she had used to build the port-all: crystals of various kinds, thick and robust glass tubes in the form of doughnuts and twisticons (as little Haani had called them), and other structures of ceramic and metal. The familiar shapes and components were comforting. The port-all had worked, therefore she might be able to make this construct operate.
Going back to the operator's compartment, she checked it more thoroughly. Everything was as dead as before. Climbing out, she walked around the machine. It did not seem badly damaged, though a vital part might have been broken in the collision or the subsequent fall from the gate. But surely the Aachim would not build a war machine that could be disabled so easily?
She checked the one on its roof. The top of the machine was crushed; she could not get in. It was hard to imagine its vital parts surviving such an impact. The third construct, lying on its side, proved similar to the first but was badly damaged inside.
Returning to the first construct, she began to remove the damaged front section. The work required the utmost concentration, for she had to deduce how every part worked, and the right tool to use with it. Tiaan became so engrossed that she lost all track of time. She had part of the damaged section in pieces when she realised, with a start, that Malien was standing right behind her.
'Where did you spring from?' Tiaan exclaimed.
'Whistling while you work,' said Malien. 'This is a change from yesterday.'
'I've missed my craft. Is it dinnertime already?'
'It went cold ten hours ago. I came to call you to breakfast.'
Tiaan was astounded. Yes, dawn was outlining the hole in the wall of the mountain. 'I had no idea. I'm sorry.'
'It doesn't matter. Why are you taking the whole front to pieces?'
'I was planning to replace it with parts from one of the others.'
Malien squatted beside her, reached underneath and did something with her long fingers. There was a soft click. She did the same at the top and on the other side. 'Pull this.' She indicated a strut.
Tiaan did so, Malien tugged on the other, and the front section slid onto the floor.
'How did you do that?' Tiaan cried.
'I understand Aachim design,' Malien said.
Half an hour later, the undamaged front section of the other construct had been installed. Tiaan wiped her hands and stood back. The repaired construct, apart from the dust, looked as if it had just been built.
'There's still the bigger problem to solve,' said Tiaan. 'How to make it go.'
'Best leave that for later. Aachim machines can be booby-trapped and even an expert would not work on one after a sleepless night. I'll come down later and teach you a few words of our tongue. To understand what you're doing, you'll need to know the names of things.' While Tiaan was sleeping, Malien returned to the Well. Even before she entered the conical chamber, she noticed that things were different. The entry passage was less frigid, the barrier cubes more brittle. The blue-illuminated mist around the Well was as thick as cream and now extended higher than her head. Malien felt resistance as she pushed though it to the Well.
She peered down anxiously. What if it had begun to unfreeze? She listened for the telltale tinkle of cracking ice – the first sign. Nothing. The tendrils still coiled lazily inside. The Well was silent, the depths still. She relaxed. Not yet. Malien was not sure she could restrain it by herself. Not sure that any one person could.
On the way back, she debated whether to tell Tiaan about her worries. Malien decided to keep them to herself for as long as possible. It would not benefit Tiaan to know. That afternoon, Malien began to teach Tiaan the rudiments of the Aachim tongue, focussing on the words needed for this kind of work. Though Tiaan spoke three languages – the common tongues of the south-east, the west and the north – as most people did, Aachim speech proved difficult. It was always a relief to get back to the real world of her work.
She spent days studying the construct but could understand neither how it was powered nor what mechanism it used to hover and move. Maybe it was beyond her understanding. Vithis, and the other Aachim, had emphasised their mastery of geomancy and the limited scope of her own abilities. Eventually, more exhausted by this failure than by all her previous labours, she went to sleep inside the construct.
Malien woke her, bearing a mug in each hand. While they sipped their zhur, as the thick red spicy beverage was called, Tiaan explained why she was so downcast.
'With your clankers,' said Malien, 'can anyone operate them?'
'Of course not! The operator has to be tuned to its controller, and when he leaves he always takes it with him. Without it, nothing can make a clanker go.'
'Except another operator with his own controller, presumably?'
'Well, yes, but not always. Do constructs operate the same way?'
'I don't know,' said Malien.
'That isn't much help,' Tiaan snapped.
'After Rulke built the very first construct,' Malien said carefully, 'at the time of the Tale of the Mirror, our finest thinkers devoted much time and thought to such devices. How they could be built, powered and controlled. They failed. The problem was too difficult.'
'But later, humanity discovered how to use the field,' said Tiaan. 'Nunar's Theory showed us how, and then we learned to build clankers.'
'A primitive machine,' said Malien. 'I mean no insult,' she added when Tiaan bridled, 'but the one can hardly be compared to the other.'
You just can't help yourself, Tiaan thought. Your Aachim superiority is bred into you. She spoke aloud, 'Your people in Aachan succeeded.'
'They were more desperate. And they had Rulke's original to use as a model, wrecked though it was.' She regarded Tiaan expectantly. 'So there must be a key for the machine.'
'I imagine they took it with them to prevent anyone else using it.'
'There may be a way around that. Leave it to me.'
Tiaan climbed inside, took off the lower hatch to reveal its workings, and sat with her legs dangling into the cavity. She created a mental image of the mechanism and turned it this way and that, trying to know it. Not just the way an operator knew his clanker, but the way a master controller-maker knew the vagaries of the ever-fluctuating field that was the source of all power. Her talent for thinking in pictures allowed her to do that, and it had often helped her to solve problems.
How could a construct float above the ground? What held it up? She could not work it out. The controller mechanisms seemed wrong for the field as she knew it. But of course constructs did not use the weak field, so presumably they must employ one of the strong nodal forces Nunar had speculated about. Deadly forces, even to experienced mancers.
A thought occurred to her. One problem an artisan had to solve, each time she made a controller, was how to tune it so that it did not react against the field but drew power smoothly from it. But what if a controller was tuned to resist the field? It, and whatever it was in, might be repelled by the field. Could that be done?
In her mental image she worked the mechanism trying to see what made it go, and noticed something curious. Behind the glass binnacle a small, cup-shaped receptacle rotated on a shaft, and as it reached the vertical its cap flipped open. It was about the right shape and size to take a small hedron. Looking beneath the binnacle, Tiaan found the receptacle. It was empty but she picked up faint traces of a crystal's aura. What if she put the amplimet in it?
She unfastened the drawstring, feeling that oneness she always felt when her fingers touched the glowing amplimet. She was about to slide it into the cup when Malien spoke from above.
'I wouldn't, if I were you.'
'Why not?' she asked testily.
'I told you – the amplimet is deadly. And the people who built this construct had not seen one in four thousand years. Whatever crystal they used, it was nowhere near as powerful. The mechanism might burn out, or blow apart. Or melt the construct, and you and me, into puddles. If you must try such a dangerous experiment, do it with a lesser crystal.'
Tiaan could see the sense in that. 'I've got an ordinary hedron. Should I try that?'
'If you must; only know that anything you do here is a risk.'
'The Tirthrax node is one of the greatest in the world, and working so close to it may have unexpected effects. And then there is the Well…'
'What about it?'
Malien hesitated, as if reluctant to speak of it at all. 'It has a somewhat… uneasy balance with the node. I would not want to upset that.'
'I don't understand.'
'These are Aachim secrets, not for outsiders' ears.'
'How do you expect me to fix the construct if I don't know what's going on?'
'Very well! There are some things I can tell you, but you must promise to keep them secret.'
'Of course,' said Tiaan.
'The Well of Echoes has been captured but not tamed. Improper use of power might change it in an unpredictable way, or even allow it to break free! We are always careful with the Art here, and so must you be.' She turned away abruptly, ending the conversation.
That raised a dozen questions but Tiaan knew better than to ask them. She took her hand off the amplimet. The more Malien told her, the less she understood.
Putting it away, she weighed her hedron in her hand. Her jaw was clenched tight. Tiaan tried to relax. Reaching down, ever so carefully, she lowered the crystal into the cup, then whipped her hand out of the way.
Nothing happened. She looked up at Malien questioningly. 'What should I have expected?'
'I don't know.'
Tiaan was about to take it out when Malien said, 'No, leave it there. Something else may be required.'
'What?' Tiaan cried in frustration.
'Leave it until tomorrow. Things always seem better after a good night's sleep.'
'I like to keep going until I can't do any more.'
Malien's gaze was penetrating. 'I wonder about you, Tiaan.'
'What do you mean?' said Tiaan uncomfortably.
'What do you enjoy, apart from work?'
Tiaan did not understand the question. 'I love my work.'
'And I mine, but it is not all of me. What are you hiding from?'
'I'm not hiding from anything,' she yelled, turning away. 'It's why I'm such a good artisan; because I work harder than everyone.'
'How old are you? No, you've already told me. You were twenty-one the day the gate opened.'
Tiaan hurled her wrench onto the floor. 'So?'
'Do you know my age?'
'You look about sixty, but Aachim age slowly. And I know you were alive at the time of the Mirror. So I would guess, 250?'
'I'm 385, a hundred years more than I ever expected to live, and I've a good few years in me yet, if I don't take the Well. I've lived eighteen of your lives, Tiaan, and learned a thing or two. You can't work all the hours of the day, and you can't cover up other failings by staying at your bench day and night. You have to live!'
'My mother used to say that.'
'If you won't listen to me, take her advice. Go to bed early and get up in the morning, refreshed. What is hard now will seem easy then. It may come to you in your dreams.'
Tiaan dreaded her dreams these days, though as she headed up the stairs she muttered, 'I'm glad you're not my mother.'
She had not thought of Marnie in ages. What would she be doing now? Tiaan could almost see her on the great bed, gorging herself and pulling her latest lover down on her enormous, fleshy expanses. Her mother did nothing but live.
'I'm worried the lyrinx will come,' she said as they reached the top. 'This is the greatest opportunity of my life and I don't want to miss out on it.'
'I'm worried too,' said Malien. 'I think I'll go to my eyrie for a while. I need to think.'
'What is it? There's something else on your mind, isn't there?'
After a long hesitation, Malien said, 'I've been keeping a close eye on the Well. It seems to be unfreezing.'
'What do you mean?'
'The Well is a dynamic object, like an energy whirlwind. It wants to run free, but that freedom would come at the expense of everything in the natural world that is fixed – rocks, forests, life of any kind! Tamed as it is, it's a treasure. Set free within the plane of the world, it spells ruin for every solid thing it touches. It has been frozen in place ever since we came to Tirthrax, but now it appears to be thawing. Should it thaw completely, I would be hard pressed to hold it.'
'Why is it thawing?'
'I don't know. Have you noticed anything different about the amplimet lately?'
'No. You warned me against using it.' She passed it over.
Malien studied it. 'I don't see anything, but keep an eye on it, and tell me if anything unusual happens.'
'Do you expect it to?'
'I don't know. The thawing may have nothing to do with the amplimet. It might be due to the gate opening, or all the power the fleet of constructs took from the node.'
'But you're worried?'
'I'm very worried.'
The tear was two-thirds of the way down the balloon but the air still gushed out. The balloon fell, not quite like a stone, but fast enough to be frightening. The lyrinx did not wait to make sure of them, but turned back toward Tiaan and the witch-woman.
Nish wondered what it would feel like to be splattered across the rocks. He hoped the pain would not last long. Ullii whimpered and tried to climb into her basket.
'That won't do any good. Come here.' Nish took her in his arms.
Ullii pressed herself against him as if she was trying to get inside his skin. He hugged her tightly. The tearing wind had carried them a few leagues west of Tirthrax and down over the precipice. They were now dropping towards one of the spreading mounds below an icefall. The ice would be as hard as stone.
A sudden whirling updraught caught the balloon, driving them past the ice mound in the direction of a moraine of boulders, then beyond it toward an island in a frozen outwash river. Nish was sure they were going to smash right through the ice. However, the wind pushed them towards the forest covering the centre of the island.
The trees loomed up, tall conifers rather like fir trees, though the needles were blue. The balloon was not completely deflated but as soon as they hit the trees, a branch would tear the side right out.
Nish felt quite calm about dying. He had done his best; however, as with so many other people in this war, circumstances had been against him. His only regret was that his family would never know what had happened. Their Histories would just say 'disappeared in Mirrilladell.'
The balloon was falling directly towards one of the larger trees of the forest. They were going to hit the top, full on. 'Hang on!' he said uselessly to Ullii.
She clung to him. Nish gripped the sides of the basket. The base struck the top of the tree, snapping it off, and the broken trunk thrust up through the bottom of the basket like a magic beanstalk. Blue needles and pieces of shredded bark and cane whirled like snowflakes. The basket kept going down, stripping off the small upper limbs until it slammed into a pair of solid branches. The tree swayed across the sky, went creak-crack and Nish thought it was going to snap again. It moved back and forth a few times then stopped. They had, somehow, survived.
The stripped trunk had thrust up beside the brazier and gone some distance into the open neck of the balloon. The tree now appeared to have a black mushroom sprouting from its top. The last of the air rushed out and the balloon went flaccid, bent in the middle where its supporting wires had warped out of shape.
Nish looked at Ullii. 'Well, at least we're alive.'
'I knew we'd be all right,' she said. The climb down was unpleasant. Though Nish was not afraid of heights, the knife wound troubled him and Ullii did not seem to understand how high they were, or how to get down. The branches were spaced uncomfortably far apart and she had no idea which ones would support her weight and which would not. He had to check her every step, as if she were a two-year-old.
Eventually they did reach the ground, where he was at a loss what to do. The black balloon could be seen for leagues and he was tempted to burn it to make it harder for the enemy to find them. Of course, he could only do that from underneath the tar-soaked fabric. Besides, a fire in the treetops would be even more visible.
Nish did not think there was any possibility of repairing the balloon, which was a pity. He could see no other way out of here. There had been no sign of habitation from above and they would soon starve to death in this wilderness.
His side began to ache. Taking off his jacket, jerkin and bloody shirt, he inspected the self-inflicted injury. A long shallow cut ran up his ribs almost to his armpit. The wound had closed over but was rather painful. It was getting late. Having no idea what to do, he put the decision off until the morning.
'We'll have to camp here.' He unpacked the tent. 'Could you find some firewood please, Ullii?'
She stared blankly at him.
Nish suppressed the urge to slap her. Ullii had never learned to do the least thing for herself and had no concept of cooperative labour. That was just the way she was. She was not going to change.
'We must have a fire, Ullii,' he said patiently, 'and I've got to put the tent up. Could you collect some wood, please?'
He pointed to a branch on the ground. She tried to pick it up, found it was too heavy and just stood there looking at it. Sighing heavily, Nish showed her two others that she would be able to carry. By the time he had erected the tent, she had brought back the two pieces of wood and was squatting by them, shivering.
'That's not enough, Ullii. We'll need ten times that much to get us through the night.'
He had to show her, piece by piece, and then help her to bring them back, so he might as well have done the work himself. Finally, when the fire was blazing, Nish looked around for the dinner bag. It was still in the basket at the top of the tree, with their packs.
It was getting dark but they had to have food. The climb, a good thirty spans up, then down again in the gloom, was not one he cared to think about afterwards. But he made it with no more damage than a lot of skin off his hands and the departure of what remained of his temper.
'I'll make the dinner, Ullii…' He was speaking to empty air.
Nish swore. Where had the wretched woman gotten to? About to roar out her name, he heard a gentle snore coming from the tent. Ullii was inside, curled up in his sleeping pouch, fast asleep.
'All the more dinner for me,' he said selfishly, and set to with the frying-pan. On the morning after the crash, Nish discovered that the minor injury, which he had been too weary to tend the previous night, had become infected. It was now an angry red from one end to the other.
'This is all I need,' he muttered, peeling off his shirt.
'Don't die, Nish,' Ullii wailed, thrusting her head hard against the wound.
It was agony. Nish cried out and shoved her away, biting back tears. Ullii put her hands over her ears and ran into the forest.
'Come back,' he yelled once the shooting spasms had eased. She did not answer. Well, let her go; she would not run far.
He boiled water, cleaned the wound, then put on salve from the medicine kit and bound it up in the cleanest cloth he had. With the rest of the water, Nish made a brew of liquorice tea, sweetened with great quantities of honey from a comb. The tea was too hot to drink, so he leaned back against the tree and closed his eyes, the better to think.
The balloon carried a small repair kit: needles, thread, a length of silk cloth and a pot of tar to seal it with, though Nish doubted if there was enough fabric for this job. The tear was long, with subsidiary rips radiating out as far as the seams in the material. Without them the top of the balloon would have torn off.
Still, he had to try: the idea of walking out of here was laughable. He had already consulted the map which, even if it was accurate, showed no town within ten leagues. Ten leagues of frozen waste that was rapidly unfreezing, turning even small streams into impassable barriers.
He could, he supposed, attempt to build a raft of logs tied together with the ropes from the balloon. That would be easy enough for someone with his artificer's skills, and he had an axe. As long as the green wood floated. But rafts were difficult to steer and at the first set of rapids it would be torn to pieces, dumping him, Ullii and everything they owned into the icy water where, if they survived the rocks, they would quickly drown or freeze to death on the shore.
Repairing the balloon was the better gamble, and he'd better get started. Leaving Ullii to return in her own time, Nish shinned up the tree next to the one they had landed in, so as to gauge the repair job. He was inured to the climb now, though his wound hurt more than before. At the top he took a firm grip on the trunk and leaned out. He was level with the top of the balloon, which was sheltered from the wind by the surrounding treetops. The damage was worse than he had expected, the main tear a good three spans long. How could he possibly repair that?
On the ground again, he found Ullii in the tent, curled up into a ball, but he was sure she was awake. He did not go in, just made sure she knew he was there, and in sound health.
He spent the rest of the day by the fire, considering possiilities for repairing the balloon, and rejecting them all. The infection grew more painful and, by the afternoon, climbing the tree was impossible. He went to his sleeping pouch as soon as the short day ended.
For the next three days, snow fell lightly all day and wind whistled through the branches. It was too cold to risk exposure up in the trees, for he could not work bundled up in his cold-weather gear. He spent the time carving and shaping pieces of wood with the blade of his axe and the tip of his sword. It was awkward work. The time dragged, the only comfort being that the lyrinx did not come back. Nish saw them wheeling in the air on occasion, in the direction of the mountains, and wondered what they were up to.
One day, trudging down to the river for water, he saw a white shadow thumping the water with a flat paddle, making a booming sound that could have been heard half a league away. Nish slipped behind a tree. It was a great Hurn bear, scarcely visible in its shaggy winter coat. It was in the water now, scooping stunned fish out onto the bank. A magnificent animal, this one was bigger than a lyrinx.
As he watched, its head turned in his direction. Nish went still. Hurn bears were not vicious but they were territorial, and even a backhanded blow from those paws would be the end of him. As soon as it went back to its fishing, he slipped away to the camp. He and Ullii spent a cold and uncomfortable night halfway up the tree. Nish did not sleep. A Hurn bear could climb better than he could.
On the following morning he woke to feel no pain in his side, just the tightness of healing flesh. The sun was out, already melting the snow on the branches. He went up at once. Though they had plenty of food, the supply was not inexhaustible and every day they stayed here increased the risk of lyrinx coming to investigate. Or Hurn bears.
He assembled the shaped pieces of wood into a small block and tackle. Passing the rope through it, he tied one end to the tree and tossed the other across to the neighbouring trunk. Climbing down, then up, he passed the rope around the trunk and threw it back to the first.
By the time Nish had gone down, then up the first tree again, he was practically treating it like a footpath. He used the block and tackle to pull the two trees closer, then lashed them together. He constructed a platform by cutting one of the sides out of the basket and tying it to the branches. Now the real job would begin.
It went painfully slowly, for the upper part of the tear curved away from the trunk and he had to lean out just to the point of toppling. At the end of the day he had done less than a third of the sewing.
The job took another two days, at which time the cloth ran out when he still had half a span to go. Nish sewed one of his shirts over the remaining slit. The cloth was heavier than silk, but the balloon had less to lift than before, so he hoped it would suffice.
When all was finished, and sealed with tar, he stood back. The repair did not look strong enough. What if they got up into the air and it tore out? Their escape had been miraculous. It would not happen a second time. Unravelling a length of rope, he reinforced the repair with a network of strands and tarred them down. It would have to do. He had no tar left.
It took another day to cut up enough dry fuel, and then he had to carry every stick up on his back. Nish tied the section back into the basket, roped everything down and wove green twigs together to repair the hole in the floor, should he ever succeed in raising the balloon.
'Amplimet is gone,' Ullii said suddenly.
She pointed to the west. 'It went that way.'
'Do the lyrinx have it?'
'I don't know.'
'What about Tiaan?'
He mulled over that while he worked, but there were too many possibilities and he had no way of distinguishing between them. Finally all was ready. Firing up the brazier, he cut away any branch stubs that would impede their upward progress and helped Ullii into her basket. He was stirring the fire with a stick when three things happened at once.
To the east, in the direction of the great mountain, a yellow cigar-shaped object passed across the sky. It looked like a gourd or squash, though tapered at either end. Underneath hung a smaller, elongated container. Nish squinted at the object, wishing for a spyglass. Was it a lyrinx machine of war, brought here to attack Tirthrax?
Ullii let out a screech that made his hair stand on end. Nish spun around, wondering what had so terrified her. She was not looking that way at all. The seeker was staring towards the base of the tree.
'Hooks and claws,' she moaned. 'Hooks and claws.' Ullii threw herself into her basket and wrenched the lid closed.
Nish caught an unpleasant reek, like hot rotting meat. What was it? Ullii had said something similar before they'd gone up in the balloon. Was it a predator nearby, or just something she had seen in her mental lattice? Better find out. The brazier would not fill the balloon for hours. Thrusting his battered sword through his belt, Nish began to climb down.
Near the bottom, the decaying reek became stronger, until he began to gag. It did not have the smell of a dead animal; more like a live one that had burrowed through decaying flesh.
Nish went still. The noise sounded like a low, purring growl. The purring bothered him more than the growl. Something began scratching at the bark at the back of the trunk.
Drawing his sword, Nish peered down. He could not see anything. Edging around the tree, he looked again. Still nothing. He lowered himself onto the next branch and ducked his head through the twigs. The beast slid around the tree and stood up on all fours, staring straight at him.
Tiaan lay on her bed, puzzling about the construct until she drifted to sleep. Perhaps that was why she dreamed of the forbidden book, Nunar's The Mancer's Art, which she had found hidden in the manufactory. At the very least, discovery would have meant the end of her career, if not her life, so why had she kept it? Partly for the thrill of the forbidden, though she had never been a rebel. But mostly because the night she had read the thoughts of the great Nunar on the nature of power Tiaan had been touched by something.
The basis of mancery, the Secret Art, was the field. Though artisans were mere craft workers, whenever she plied her trade Tiaan felt kinship with the greatest mancers of the age. But until she'd read Runcible Nunar's book she had not understood what she was doing. The field was just one of several forces that mancers speculated about, and the weakest of all. No one knew how to use the strong forces, or even if they existed. At least, if anyone had, they had not survived to record it.
Minis had taught her the rudiments of geomancy, the greatest of all the Secret Arts, which drew on the forces that shaped and moved the earth. Tiaan had not understood that either, though the Aachim had implied that their geomancy employed one of the strong forces.
Jerking awake, she dug The Mancer's Art out of her pack where it had lain, carefully wrapped, for months. It was a small, slim volume written in a fine hand on silky rice paper. Tiaan turned the pages, searching for anything to do with geomancy. She did not find that Art mentioned by name, though late that night when she could barely keep her eyes open, she did discover something else.
The Strong Forces and the General Theory of Power It is my contention that a node may generate as few as four strong forces, or as many as ten. These forces must be mutually orthogonal, and therefore only three can ever manifest themselves in our familiar world. The remainder must lie in other dimensions and can neither influence our physical environment nor be drawn upon by any refinement of the mancer's Art about which I am competent to speculate.
There followed a theoretical discussion of the strong forces, written in such abstruse language that Tiaan could make no sense of it. And then she found this: Though I cannot prove it, I believe that the peril of the strong forces lies in their sheer intensity. The weak field is diffuse, so mancers were able to draw upon it without necessarily hazarding their lives, though those who were unlucky, or greedy, frequently made that sacrifice. Cautious mancers could master their Art from nebulous areas of the field, before drawing upon more concentrated parts.
The strong forces offer no such comfort. Essentially planar rather than three-dimensional, they would contain prodigious amounts of power within the plane but virtually none immediately adjacent. They would also be difficult to sense. Thus, any attempt to draw power from a strong force would almost certainly result in annihilation. No mancer could react quickly enough to control it.
Others have argued that a controller device could be fashioned to overcome this limitation. Not in my understanding of the Art. I believe that such forces are forever beyond the tampering fingers of humanity, and rightly so.
Had the Aachim discovered the answer after all? Tiaan recalled her image of the construct mechanism. Surely its controlling parts were in the wrong arrangement to be sensitive to the strong forces, much less to control them – unless the great Nunar was completely wrong? That was possible. The Mancer's Art had been written a hundred years ago, before the first controller had been invented.
That night, Tiaan had crystal dreams for the first time since opening the gate. They vanished on waking, as usual. She did not leap out of bed, as she was accustomed to do, but lay with the covers pulled well up, thinking about the problem. The Aachim must have a special way of controlling the construct. Could she read that from the aura?
She dozed, woke, dozed and woke again with a rudimentary design in her mind. After another hour she had worked out the details of her sensor, but only when she heard Malien moving about in the kitchen did Tiaan get up.
'Good morning,' she said, springing out of bed.
'You're cheerful today. The sleep must have done you good.'
'It has. I know what to do.' Tiaan spent all afternoon building an array of interlinked hexagons of wire and crystal that mimicked the amplimet's form and structure. It was set around a little glass doughnut she had taken from one of the many storerooms in Tirthrax. The amplimet lay at its heart, in the soapstone basket from the centre of the port-all. She now felt anxious about that. Every time she touched the amplimet, she mentally flinched. Using it was no longer a comfort but a threat.
Sitting on the operator's seat, she slipped her fingers in through the wires of the hexagons and touched the amplimet. It was warm. Stroking along its length, she closed her eyes.
The amplimet began to pulse; she could feel the light beating against her eyelids. Tiaan did not try to control the crystal – this close to the great node of Tirthrax she was afraid to. She merely allowed the pulsation to wash over and through her, drifting with it until, finally, the field sprang into view. It was the greatest she had ever felt.
Tiaan traced the construct's aura into a black metal box whose contents she could not visualise. The aura came out the other end, twisted through the bowels of the machine and went up behind the green glass binnacle in front of her. There she lost it in murky tangles which she could not penetrate. It was like trying to make out a blueprint written in mist. Her eyes ached. The workings must be protected.
But a lock protects nothing if you have the key. She just had to decipher it. Feeling unusually tired, Tiaan rested her head on the glass. Was her obsession with her craft just a way to avoid other responsibilities, as Malien had implied? She did not want to think about that. Better keep going. She was terrified that the lyrinx would come back, and take the construct before she could understand it.
That black container in the bowels of the machine was another mystery. Putting her head through the lower hatch, she peered around, holding out one of Malien's glowing spheres. The box was up in the darkness at the front.
She was trying to sense its purpose when she felt an odd prickle and the image of wires and crystals froze in her mind. It was so quiet that Tiaan could hear her heart thumping. Going up, she traced the aura on the green glass, but the glass lit up and a spiralling red line began to rotate.
Tiaan jumped. Other markings appeared on the surface: blue circles that shrank and expanded again, yellow lines arcing from one side of a rectangle to another, rows of characters that were undoubtedly some kind of writing.
The shapes and colours changed, the writing flowed endlessly, but nothing else happened. As she crouched beneath the binnacle, probing with her inner sight, an alarm shrieked in her ear; then something clamped around her forehead and began to squeeze.
It was a trap and she had fallen into it. Metal fingers gripped her skull. Tiaan tried to tear them off but received a shock that singed her fingers. Her arms flopped uselessly by her sides. She began to shake uncontrollably as echoes of the shock raced up and down her limbs.
Tiaan felt disconnected from her body. Her tongue expanded to fill her mouth, her eyes rolled down as far as they would go, and stuck. She could see her hands hanging like floppy spiders, but she could not move.
It was hours before a grinning Malien appeared and freed her – hours of helpless terror that she would never move again. And hours of crystal dreams that she remembered all too clearly, for she was dreaming awake. She dreamed that she was trapped inside the amplimet, paralysed or frozen, and it was feeding upon her essence as a wasp feeds on a spider. And the whole time, she could see the amplimet in her mind's eye, the central light flashing on and off like a signal lamp.
Her head felt fuzzy; it hurt to think. 'What's so funny?' she said curtly.
'The look on your face,' Malien chuckled. 'Next time, have the good sense to ask me for help. Did I not tell you that there could be traps?'
'I was worried that the enemy would get here first.'
'Better they kill you than you do it yourself. How are you feeling?'
Tiaan sat up. 'A bit shaky.'
Malien gave her a hand. 'We'd better get to work.'
'Yesterday you were lecturing me about working too hard.'
'The lyrinx weren't out there yesterday.'
'I saw one this morning, circling high in the eastern sky. I wouldn't want them to get hold of a construct.' By the evening, Tiaan felt that she understood most of the controls, though she had not discovered how to make the construct operate. 'There's still something missing,' she said.
'Like a key for a lock? I wonder…'
Malien touched an isolated button at the base of the binnacle. A curved tube with hexagonal sides slid out from beneath. 'This leads to a cavity above that black box, low down. Can you sense what used to be in there?'
'I was trying to when it trapped me.'
'I think it's safe now.'
Tiaan sensed out the lingering aura. 'It held some kind of woken crystal.'
'I can't tell. Do Aachim use crystals the way we do?'
'Not exactly, but I expect I can find a hedron or two, if that's what you're getting at.'
They spent half the night searching the storerooms, and found a number of woken crystals that would fit, though none had any effect on the construct.
'I can't do any more,' Tiaan said, when it was well after midnight.
'Wait a minute,' said Malien. 'Have you got the amplimet here?'
Tiaan took it from its pouch. Light streamed forth; steady light. 'What do you have in mind?'
'Putting it into that cavity.'
'But yesterday you said it would be too powerful to use.'
'I'll try to moderate it.'
Tiaan moved the amplimet from hand to hand, wondering if they might not be doing its will.
'Put it into the tube, Tiaan. No, the other way round.'
Tiaan did so.
'Now, push the tube down, very carefully. I'll stand ready, just in case.'
When it had gone all the way, she heard a gentle click as the crystal settled into the cavity. They waited, holding their breath. The colours on the glass plate brightened.
'Close the cap,' said Malien.
Tiaan pushed it down. There came a metallic screech from below and the whole construct shuddered. Orange rays streamed from the open hatch. Something began to thump against the floor. Malien hit the button; the amplimet shot out of the tube. Tiaan caught it and stuffed it into its pouch. The racket stopped. They looked at one another.
'It's too powerful.' Malien looked drawn. 'Let's go. I can't do any more tonight.'
'I'll stay for a while. I need to think.'
'Don't do anything foolish.'
'I won't,' Tiaan said absently, her mind on the problem.
With a hedron, power did not flow at all without the artisan drawing it from the field. In the hands of an experienced artisan, power could be controlled delicately. However, the amplimet drew power all the time and, here, even a little was too much.
It seemed to be drawing more than ever now – a flashing glow was visible through the leather pouch. A worm inched down Tiaan's backbone. She opened the flap but the crystal just shone steadily. She closed it. The flashing resumed. She lifted the flap, fractionally. The amplimet was flashing at a furious rate, just as in her dream.
Closing her fist around it, she ran up to Malien's chambers. 'It's blinking!' she cried, bursting through the door.
Malien rolled over, touching a globe to the faintest light. 'What on earth is the matter?'
Tiaan thrust the pouch at her. 'The amplimet was blinking furiously but as soon as I opened the pouch it stopped. Now it's doing it again.'
Malien shot up in bed and touched out the light. The flickering glow could be seen through the pouch, and when she lifted the flap, again it stopped.
She slid her legs out of bed, pulled on her boots and shrugged a cloak around her. 'Come with me. Leave it here.'
Tiaan sat the pouch on the table beside the bed. 'What is it, Malien?'
'I don't know. I've never seen anything like it before. I think -'
'What?' Tiaan had to trot to keep up.
'Let's just see, without prejudice. How does the field look to you?'
'I can't see it. I left my hedron down in the construct.'
Malien shook her head and walked faster. Tiaan ran after her. The tunnel to the Well was now distinctly warm. At a sweep of Malien's fist, the cubic barrier smashed into shards that vaporised in the air. The mist in the conical chamber whirled higher and faster, and the light from the shaft now had an oily green tinge. Moonlight, or an exhalation from the Well?
Malien was standing at the brink, her toes over the edge. She was breathing hard.
'It looks the same to me,' Tiaan panted.
'Is it -?' Tiaan peered down fearfully.
Malien laid a hand on her shoulder. 'It's not as bad as I thought. It's still bound – just! And…'
'I think the amplimet is communicating with it.'
'What's it saying?'
Malien looked her up and down, wordlessly.
Stupid question. Communication between a woken crystal and a frozen whirlpool of force might take any form. And might have any purpose.
'You'd better get back to work,' Malien said abruptly. 'And hurry.'
Tiaan turned away. Malien did not move. 'Are you coming?'
'I hardly dare,' said Malien. 'I'll have to keep watch. Run, this is an emergency!' Tiaan thought through her problem on the way back. She needed to choke down the flow, yet allow more power through when the construct was further from the node. What if she set the amplimet in a golden box, to contain the aura, but with a rotor at the open end, powered by the flow from the field? The blades, also made of gold, would lie flat. If there was not enough power to spin the rotor, the power would come though. Once the rotor began to turn, the golden blades would rise into position, choking down the flow. Tiaan was sure it would work. It had to – she desperately wanted to make this construct go.
The fabrication was painfully slow but she dared not rush it – the box must seal perfectly and the rotor work every time.
In the afternoon she was so tired that she had to take a nap. She dozed for an hour and roused to find her cheeks damp with tears of longing. She had dreamed that the construct was hers.
By that evening she had built a golden box and assembled her rotor. Tiaan put the boxed amplimet into the tube and closed the cap. Now she saw a field, though it was not the one she normally used. This was different, flatter, weaker; and probably just as well.
The hum resumed. It was lower now, more like the sound the constructs had made when she first encountered them. There was no thumping. Tiaan experimented with the buttons, which did no more than change the images on the green glass. She played with the finger-shaped levers. One lit up the area all around the construct, another changed the sound of the mechanism below from a hum to a whine, a third opened the turret behind her with a whirr-click.
A fourth shook the machine, which slowly rose in the air until it stood hip height above the floor. At last! Tiaan's heart crashed painfully about her ribcage. Now, if she could just get it to move.
She wiggled the studded knob on the trumpet-shaped lever and was hurled sideways as the machine spun like a top. Her arm grew so heavy that she could barely hold it up. Forcing with all her strength, she managed to push the knob the other way but as the rotation slowed she went off-balance, forcing the trumpet further over.
The construct spiralled sideways across the floor, directly towards one of the main roof pillars. She jerked the knob. The machine spun the other way. Tiaan let out a screech. Her brain seemed to be spinning inside her skull. Each new movement sent the machine a different way. As it whirled toward another pillar, Tiaan saw Malien with her hands cupped around her mouth. What was she trying to say?
Tiaan could not hear a thing. The machine was out of control, spinning so fast that everything became a blur. She felt herself losing consciousness.
Golden sparkles burst in her eyes and the whine stopped. Malien must have cut off her view of the field. The machine came to rest just a handspan from the pillar. Tiaan climbed out, reeled about drunkenly and collapsed on the floor.
'That was the funniest thing I've seen in a long time,' Malien chuckled.
'I'm glad you think so,' Tiaan choked. 'I could have wrecked it in the first minute.' As she sat up, the world tilted, so Tiaan lay down again. 'I don't feel very well.'
'It'll pass. Tiaan, a construct is not a clanker. Strength with delicacy is the hallmark of our work, whether it be a bridge spanning the mightiest of abysses, or a dressmaker's needle. The gentlest movements are all it takes to control a construct.'
'I'm not sure I want to control one,' said Tiaan, feeling as though she was being lectured.
'I know you do,' said Malien. She placed one hand on the flank of the machine. 'There's something strange about it.'
'Except for the fitting out and the turret at the back, it's just like the one Rulke made two hundred years ago.'
'I suppose the Aachim copied his design.'
'We are artists first, engineers or craft workers second. We never make the same object in the same way twice, yet these three constructs are almost identical. From what you say, the others were too.'
Tiaan recalled the images to mind. 'They were all sizes, but the shape was always the same. So what?'
'It suggests that they didn't dare make changes, because they had copied what they did not understand. Not the way Rulke did.'
'What are you trying to say?'
'Rulke's construct didn't just hover, it flew through the air. I saw it with my own eyes.'
The freedom of the skies! How she wanted it. Tiaan bit down on those feelings. 'Maybe so, but all the cleverness of the Aachim has failed to uncover that secret.'
'Perhaps they were looking in the wrong place.'
'What are you up to, Malien? Do you hope I will solve it for you?'
Malien laughed, though it had an odd ring to it. 'My adventuring days are well behind me.'
They returned to the machine. 'What I don't understand,' Malien continued, 'is how they could have rebuilt it. I saw Yggur's blast pass across the void and turn Rulke's construct into a glowing cinder. We all did, who were there that fateful day. How could they recover its design after such ruin?'
She answered her own question. 'Metalmancy. They used mancery to recover the form and purpose of every part of it. That must have been a labour indeed, though they had two hundred years to do it, and the resources of a world. But even metalmancy could not have recovered the most fragile parts.
'They never saw it used,' Malien mused. 'Not the way I did. Rulke's machine was as hot as a furnace beneath, after it had flown.'
'The Aachim constructs weren't hot,' said Tiaan. 'They passed over snow and ice without melting it.'
'Did they now! Vithis can't have discovered the secret of flight at all.' Malien turned away. 'I'm going back to check on the Well.'
Tiaan, consumed by the thought of flight, the ultimate secret, hardly noticed her going. She spent all the following morning practising with the construct, bringing hand and eye into coordination. It was more difficult than it seemed, especially under the pressure of time, though after a couple of hours she could manoeuvre it without too much risk.
She went back over everything the Aachim had taught her of geomancy. The more she compared that to what Nunar's book had taught her, the clearer it was that someone was wrong. The construct did not seem designed to detect, much less draw upon, the strong forces. It used a weak field she had never bothered with.
A few hours later, Malien came down the stairs, exhausted. Tiaan told her what she had learned. 'Maybe Nunar was wrong, and the strong forces do not exist.'
Malien sat on a carved bench and closed her eyes.
After several minutes, Tiaan said, 'Malien?'
'What? Oh, give me a look at the book.'
Tiaan showed her the passages in The Mancer's Art.
Malien looked thoughtful. 'I think I know how to test your theory. Wait here.'
She returned with two sheets of a glassy mineral somewhat like mica, though brittle. Laying one sheet over the other, she held them up to the light and rotated the top sheet. At one point it went black. 'Make yourself a set of goggles from these. Put the goggles on, then use the amplimet to envision the field.'
Tiaan did so, and as soon as she put them on, the field streamed all around her.
'Rotate the upper lenses until they go black,' said Malien. 'Now what do you see?'
'Nothing. The field has completely disappeared.'
'Nothing at all?'
'Concentrate, as though you're searching for a distant field.'
'You're too tense. Relax. Just let it flow.' Malien's hands went around her head, over the goggles.
Tiaan tried to relax. One of the lenses moved, allowing in a multi-coloured loop of the field. She moved it back to the dark position and saw a white-hot cross made of three planes intersecting at right angles. She cried out, the lenses slipped and the cross vanished. And then the truth came to her.
'I saw it!' she cried. 'The strong forces do exist.' Tiaan began to laugh.
'What is it?' Malien said, anxiously.
Tiaan took particular pleasure in telling her. 'Vithis can't be using the strong forces. The Aachim don't know how.'
'I don't understand. Come, sit down. Tell me what the matter is.'
'The Aachim always act so superior. To their mind they are superior, and make sure everyone knows it. Yes, you too, Malien. But they're not even using the node field, just little local fields.'
'Stress-fields,' Malien said crossly. 'They're strong on Aachan but weak here.'
'They don't know as much as we do,' Tiaan chortled.
'Beware pride!' snapped Malien, nettled.
'Or false pride,' Tiaan retorted. 'The Aachim could never have made the construct fly. Flight requires power that only the strong forces can provide, as well as the ability to see them.'
'Once the secret is out, they will soon learn. So, are you saying you can make the construct fly?'
'I'm prepared to try.'
'Try very hard.'
'Is something the matter?'
'The amplimet is still communicating with the Well, in spite of all my efforts. The Well is drawing power from somewhere and rapidly unfreezing. I can't allow that to happen.'
'What are you saying?'
'Either the amplimet leaves here, or I'll have to destroy it, whatever the consequences.'
'No!' cried Tiaan. 'You can't.' 'Do you think I want to?' said Malien. 'No one knows better than I do, how precious it is. I know what destroying it would do to you, too. But should the Well unfreeze and break the bonds that hold it here, the consequences would be catastrophic.'
'How do you mean?'
'Possibly, no more Tirthrax – city or mountain.'
'How long do I have?'
Malien hesitated. 'I've sent a skeet to Stassor, but no Aachim could get back here in less than two months. The construct would be no quicker – the country is too rugged for a hovering craft. But with flight, it could be there in a week. I sense that we're close to uncovering the last secret of the construct. Dare I risk it? Come upstairs. I'm going to my eyrie. I need to think.'
Tiaan followed. Malien walked out the opening and stood staring down at the glacier. Tiaan watched, hoping and praying she would come up with something. Destroying the amplimet would surely drive her insane. To miss the chance of flight would be almost as bad.
Malien came running back, her cloak flapping behind her. Tiaan held her breath.
'You have until tomorrow,' said Malien. 'I believe I can hold the Well that long. If you haven't found the answer by then, we must come to a decision: to take the amplimet away, or destroy it. And I dread what will happen if it leaves here – whose hands it will fall into. The choice almost makes itself.'
'Please,' said Tiaan. 'I'll take it. To destroy it would be to destroy myself. Though I don't know where to go.'
'In that case, I may have to come with you. Get to work and I'll do the same, and tomorrow I'll decide what is for the best.' Tiaan studied the strong forces through her goggles. She had to know them perfectly before she could tailor the controller to them, and even then they would be deadly.
The hours raced by. She felt that she was making no progress at all. Malien came and went a number of times during the day, looking ever more careworn. Time was running out.
'No luck?' she asked that night.
'No.' Tiaan was exhausted too, but that was due to her own failure. 'How about you?'
'It's holding, for the moment. Let me have a look down below.' Malien went down into the construct. A good while later she came up with the black box in her hand. 'This surely has to be the key.'
'It isn't connected to anything.'
'The original must have been.'
'Then why didn't the Aachim's mancery reconstruct it?'
'Perhaps the vital parts were no longer there.' Malien seemed to be looking right through Tiaan to the far wall. She often appeared lost in another world, or a distant time. Or perhaps she was holding the Well from afar.
'I have no idea what you're talking about,' said Tiaan.
'I hardly know myself. I'm thinking as I go. The original construct was destroyed by Yggur's blast -'
'There's little in a construct to burn, but its parts would have fused. The crystals commonly used in the Art would not melt, though they may have shattered. Traces would remain, enough for Aachim metalmancers to reconstruct what was there. And yet…'
'What?' said Tiaan.
Malien looked frustrated. 'I don't know. Rulke's construct flew. These are as exact copies as could be made, but they cannot fly. What did Vithis miss? What have I?'
Tiaan prised the top off the black box, which contained metal coils and shaped pieces of magnetic iron, as well as a number of evenly spaced ceramic plates on which were mounted rows of metal sockets. She held the box up to her eye. 'There are dozens of tiny little holes in the back.'
Malien raised the box to the light. 'Fifty-four of them. I wonder what they're for?'
'Perhaps it gets hot inside and they let the hot air out.'
'They're too small.' Malien counted the metal sockets. 'Also fifty-four pairs. That can't be an accident.'
'They're meant to hold something.'
'Whatever it was, all were the same size and shape.'
'Small crystals?' Tiaan said doubtfully.
'How could small crystals draw such power that the construct would grow red-hot beneath? And why was no trace found of them?'
'There are crystals that, when heated, simply evaporate, though none are any use in mancing…'
'That's it! Tiaan, name those crystals.'
'Ice, sulphur, iodine… There must be others, but none are good for making hedrons -'
'Some mancers use brimstone crystals.'
'Not for drawing power. It would shatter them.'
'Agreed. What else?' Malien leaned forward eagerly. 'What is the most powerful crystal?'
'Diamond, of course, but diamonds are generally too small to use in controllers. And large ones are too precious.'
'Not if they're the only thing that will do,' said Malien. 'And Rulke had the best of everything.'
'But diamond is the hardest of all. Why didn't they find it?'
'Because, unlike other crystals, diamond burns. That must be the answer: these pairs of sockets once held small hedrons made of diamond.'
'How were they connected to the amplimet binnacle?'
'Perhaps through these tiny holes in the back, no bigger than a cat's whisker? And look, there are also fifty-four holes in the back of the amplimet cavity.'
'If they were connected to the crystal there, why did metalmancers not recover the wires?'
'Because they were not metal, and also vanished without trace.'
'How can that be?'
'What wires would disappear when heated, Tiaan?'
'Ones made of thread, or spider-silk, or hair, though none are useful in the Art as I know it.'
'Nor I. Wait here.'
Again Malien disappeared in the direction of the storeroom. She was gone for ages. It was after midnight. Tiaan lay on the warm floor of the construct. Only hours left… Malien thumped into the operator's compartment, waking Tiaan from a deep sleep.
'Any luck?' Tiaan called. She went up the ladder.
'Possibly.' Malien opened a small case that contained dozens of pink diamonds, all the same, and a leather sheet wrapped around a black cord made of braided threads. She drew out a single thread. 'These are hollow whiskers made from soot, as is diamond itself. The whiskers are stronger than steel, yet they too would have burned leaving no more than a trace of smut. And the crystal calls to the whiskers, for elementally they are the same. It's a perfect geomantic design, just right for controlling the strong forces. Feed them through.'
Tiaan fed fifty-four whiskers through the holes in the black box and up to the cavity while Malien inserted fifty-four woken diamonds in place. They made a three-dimensional pattern that seemed peculiarly appropriate to the strong forces. Once the whiskers were connected, everything looked so right that Tiaan knew this was the way it was meant to be. It was so beautifully simple.
They looked at one another.
'Go on,' said Malien.
'I hardly dare,' Tiaan said. 'It was dangerous enough just scooting above the ground. I wouldn't know how to control it, using the strong forces.'
Malien edged her out of the way without repeating her offer. 'Then let me try.'
Tiaan was uncomfortable with that idea, and more so as Malien took the goggles and put the amplimet in. She hoped, selfishly, that the older woman would fail. If Malien could operate it, what chance was there for Tiaan ever to do so?
Tiaan pressed the amplimet down and closed the cap. The construct shook, rumbled and rose smoothly from the floor. Malien flicked down one of the finger levers and a blast of heat coiled up the sides. She pulled on the knobbed trumpet and the machine kept rising. She directed it around the ceiling, then took it down to the floor again.
'You knew what to do all the time,' Tiaan accused.
Malien had drops of sweat on her brow. It must have been harder than it looked. 'I did not even suspect it until you discovered those little holes.'
'Well, you've done it.' It was a momentous discovery, an awesome moment. The world would never be the same again. What was Malien going to do now?
'My people have sought this secret for two hundred years, here and on Aachan.'
'But they didn't find it. Is an amplimet necessary for flight?' said Tiaan.
'Probably not, if the hedron is strong enough, and the operator skilled.'
'Did Rulke have one?'
'I don't know. Your turn, Tiaan.'
'You're going to let me fly it?' It did not seem possible.
'I just thought…'
'The trumpet-shaped controller works the same way, but you pull up on it to climb and push down to descend.'
Tiaan took hold of the knob. Her heart was pounding.
'Remember, do everything gently,' said Malien beside her.
Tiaan swallowed, then pulled up the knob the way Malien had done. The construct jerked into the air.
'Put it down, quick!'
'What's the matter?' Tiaan cried. 'What have I done wrong?'
Malien pointed in the direction of the opening.
Tiaan set the construct down.
A lyrinx was descending onto the rubble in the entrance. Another settled beside it, a third, and then many more, too quickly to count.
The beast was the size of a large dog, though lower to the ground, and all tooth, claw and spiky armour. Its head was massive, the maw surrounded with teeth and the crested head coated in rings of spines. The body was protected by segmented armour plates, spiny above and underneath. The tail was a knotted and spiked club. That was not the most frightening thing about it. Nor was the truly repulsive smell.
What scared Nish most was the lurking cunning, and the madness, in its eyes. It looked like a beast that lived to torment; to rend and devour. It could only be the nylatl Tiaan had mentioned. It must have tracked her down and he was to be a snack as it went by.
With those claws it could run up the tree as quickly as he could walk down a path. If he leapt to the ground, he would have a better chance with the sword, but that would leave Ullii defenceless. The creature would follow her scent upwards and devour her at its leisure. Nish imagined her terror, confronted by the beast. He could not give it the chance.
Here, on the lower branches, was a poor place to defend. The trunk was too big and the creature could come at him from behind, or even climb past him in a rush. He screwed a heavy green cone until it broke off. Thrusting the sword into his belt, Nish shifted the cone into his right hand and threw hard at the unblinking eyes. It went true, striking the nylatl on the ridges above and below its left eye. The creature yelped and scurried into the bushes.
The injury was minor, at best. The nylatl would be back in a minute. Nish scrambled up, hand over foot, faster than he had ever gone before. Five or six branches higher he missed a foothold, almost plunging all the way down again. After that he was more careful, but before he had climbed much further Nish knew that the monster was after him.
At a point where the trunk was no wider than his chest, and there was no way for the nylatl to get past, he prepared to defend. Here the branches stuck straight out from the trunk, as good a footing as he would find anywhere. The sword was not a long one, though its reach extended below his feet. Far enough to get in a good hack if the creature attacked that way, as it must.
It did not. Nish was searching the underlying branches, cursing himself for not having spent more time practising his swordsmanship when he had the chance, trying to stop his heart from bursting out through the wall of his chest – when he felt eyes on the back of his neck. The nylatl was staring at him from the branches of the neighbouring tree. It had crept up the far side of the trunk without making a sound.
The creature was about three spans away. It was a heavy beast. Could it leap that distance? It certainly seemed to think so. The muscles tensed in its back legs. Bracing himself against the trunk, Nish thrust out the sword, making a hissing whistle that came out ear-piercingly shrill.
The nylatl squealed and reared up on its hind legs, as if the sound had hurt it. Nish did it again. The creature's mouth gaped and a rolled blue tongue extended, but it was not, as he thought, another distress signal. The tongue squirted something at his eyes.
Nish went backwards but not quickly enough; the spittle struck him on mouth and chin. The putrefying smell went up his nose and he threw up so violently that vomit projected out of his mouth and nostrils.
'Aaargh!' he gasped as the venom began to burn and blister. As he scrubbed at the venom with a sleeve, the skin peeled off. Nish could feel his lips swelling, bleeding.
The pain was excruciating. It felt as if his lips were splitting apart. He steadied himself, held out the sword and eyed the nylatl. It crouched, its back legs tensing and relaxing.
'Haaahh!' he screamed, waving his weapon.
The nylatl swayed backwards. It was just a slight movement but it gave Nish hope. The creature was uncertain how dangerous he was. Once it launched itself at him, it could do little to evade the point of his sword. It scrabbled up the trunk, watching him over its shoulder.
Sheathing the weapon, Nish climbed too. He could not allow the nylatl the advantage of height.
Once or twice it stopped, crouching and staring at him with those cunning eyes, but Nish waved his weapon, whistled or shrieked and did his best to look intimidating, and the nylatl kept on. In this way Nish reached the bottom of the balloon basket, where he realised his vulnerability. He would have to move out on the branch toward the creature, then climb the rope ladder with his back to it.
The nylatl went up another branch and stood watching him. Nish prayed that it would stay where it was. If it leapt into the basket, it could dine on Ullii at its leisure and attack him as he tried to climb over the rim.
Nish tapped on the bottom of the basket with his sword. 'Ullii,' he hissed.
She did not answer. He hoped she just had her earmuffs on, for if she had gone into one of her states he would never get her out of it.
Still no answer. The nylatl raked its claws along the branch, tearing the hard bark into curling shreds. Its back legs tensed.
'Ullii!' he screamed, loud and shrill. He wasn't pretending. 'Help. It's going to eat me.'
Again the nylatl reared back as if in pain. Above him, the lid of the basket creaked open. He could hear the seeker's teeth chattering. Poor Ullii.
'Nish?' she whispered. 'Where are you?'
'Under the basket.'
'I'm very frightened, Nish.'
'I'm frightened too.' Somehow he had to force her to act. A threat to her might not be enough, since her normal defence was to retreat into herself. Then he had it.
'Ullii, look over the side.' No answer. 'It's hurt me, Ullii, and now it's going to eat me.'
She peered over, caught sight of his bloody, grotesquely swollen lips and let out a wail. 'Nish, poor Nish!'
'Ullii, can you see S'lound's sword?' S'lound, their guard from the balloon trip, had died in the landing at Tirthrax.
'Yes,' she whispered. 'It's under his pack.'
'Hold it out in front of you.'
He heard a rasp as the sword came from its scabbard.
'That's good. Now watch the beast while I climb up to you. Can you do that?'
'I'm scared, Nish.'
'It's going to eat me, Ullii.'
Nish went out on the branch towards the dangling rope ladder. The nylatl rolled its tongue. He whistled and lunged forward, slashing with his sword. The creature went backwards, but not very far. Something flickered in its eyes. It wasn't fear. It had worked him out.
Not daring to put the sword through his belt, Nish caught the ladder with one hand and tried to pull himself up. He slipped but managed to hook his arm through the rung. His back was to the nylatl now. Nish could feel the eyes on him. He was so terrified, he could almost see into the mind of the creature, feel its bliss as the talons raked down his back and the jaws went for his throat.
Heaving himself onto the next rung, he felt the sweat dripping from his armpits. Another rung. Only three to go. Two.
'No!' Ullii screamed. 'Nish. Nish!'
The nylatl sprang. He saw it out of the corner of his eye. As Nish tried to swing around, one sweaty hand slipped on the rope. He snatched at the rung with his other hand and, horror of horrors, the sword slipped from his grasp. He tried to catch it with the toe of his boot but missed.
As he swung off the rope, the nylatl thumped into the side of the basket above his head. Its backside was right above him. Had he not lost his sword, he could have skewered it in one of the few places where it was vulnerable. He could not go up and dared not go down. Nish did the only thing left. He caught hold of one back paw, below the spines, and tried to tear the nylatl off the basket.
Futile hope. Nothing could relax those mighty claws. It kicked backwards, luckily at an awkward angle, or the claws would have torn his arm off at the elbow. As it was, they opened him up from wrist to the inside of his upper arm. Nish cried out; he could not help himself.
'Nish!' Ullii wailed. 'Are you all right?'
'No,' he groaned, grasping the paw again. A spine pricked into his wrist but he dared not let go. All the nylatl had to do was spin around on the basket, lunge and bite his face off. There was nowhere for him to go.
Then, a sight that brought tears to his eyes, little Ullii was up on the edge of the basket in her bare feet, balancing like a tightrope walker. She had the long sword in both hands. She looked down, saw the gore all over him and let out a bloodthirsty cry of rage.
The nylatl lunged but Nish was holding it back and Ullii was lightning quick. The sword flashed and danced. One blow opened up a cut across a crusted nostril, a second below the eye. The nylatl retreated and its backside struck Nish's head. A spine slanted into his scalp; the poison burned. Thinking that the creature was going to come down on top of him, he let out a shriek.
Ullii wailed and hacked at the beast with all her strength. The sword clove three of its toes off and went a handspan through the wall of the basket. Blood poured from the damaged limb, all over Nish's face.
Wrenching out the sword, Ullii thrust the tip at the creature's eye, but it had had enough. It sprang off the side of the basket and landed on a lower branch, scrabbling at it with its injured limb. Jumping for the trunk, it went head-first down the tree.
Nish lost sight of it as the beast's blood trickled into his eyes. He hung dazedly on the ladder until Ullii took his hands and dragged him into the basket.
She said nothing until she had wiped the blood away and discovered that he was not badly injured, whereupon she lay on him and wept until her tears washed his face clean. 'I was so afraid,' she sniffled, putting her soft mouth on his lower lip, which was swollen like a sausage.
He kissed her. 'You are the bravest woman in the world, Ullii.' Nish meant every word.
The tree creaked in the wind and he jerked upright, terrified. She pushed him down. 'I will know, Nish,' she whispered. 'If it ever comes back, I will know.'
She poured water onto a rag and began to clean him, as gently as if he had been her baby. Afterwards they lay quietly on the floor of the basket, holding each other, until Nish realised, from the rising warmth, that his clothes stank of the nylatl's blood. Pulling off his shirt, he tossed it away and felt in his pack for a clean one.
'My clothes smell too,' Ullii said, staring at his chest.
Nish was reaching for her pack when he realised what she was saying. She lifted her arms while he peeled the bloodstained coat off, and her trousers, which were not stained at all, followed by the neck-to-ankle underwear of woven spider-silk that protected her overly sensitive skin. Ullii, standing naked above him, was sweet and lovely and so very desirable. They slept afterwards, until the cold woke them. A breeze moved the treetops as they dressed, giving each other sideways glances, still wondering about what had happened. Every so often Ullii would look up at him from beneath her colourless lashes, smile to herself, then glance away. Her eyes were watering but she did not put on her mask, and that was odd.
Nish was gnawing at a stale slab of flatbread, baked in the ashes days ago, when he remembered that strange vessel drifting across the sky. Standing up on the side of the basket, he peered through the treetops but of course could see nothing. Nish climbed to the level of the brazier, staring into the east. The sun reflected off the side of the mountain. There was no sign of the air-floater.
He yawned, stretched, and looked the other way, across the flatlands of Mirrilladell, dotted with a hundred thousand lakes now thawing in the spring. As he did, he caught a movement from the corner of his eye. The air-floater was coming directly for them and its intentions did not look peaceful.
'What are we going to do?' Tiaan yelled as more lyrinx flapped down into the entrance. She could see at least thirty already.
'I'll seal this level off,' said Malien. 'Run up and hide.'
'They'll slaughter you.'
'This isn't your battle. Anyway, Tirthrax has defences and so do I.'
'I'm not going to leave you to fight alone.'
'All right. Stay in the construct. I'll set the sentinels.' Malien hurried away.
Tiaan took hold of the controller knob but had to let it go for her arm was shaking. The construct was too precious to risk. She had no idea how to defend herself anyway, apart from driving straight at them, which could do no more than knock one or two down. She could not rely on its strangeness. The enemy were used to clankers. And to destroying them.
Two big females were flying towards her, accompanied by a smaller but more heavily muscled male. Above them soared a slight, unpigmented lyrinx – Liett again. The other lyrinx fanned out across the floor. There were too many of them. She couldn't do it. But you fought the nylatl, Tiaan told herself. You're not completely helpless. It was not convincing.
She concentrated on her breathing – deep, slow breaths. Her heart stopped thumping; her arm steadied. She hovered the construct. Tiaan dared not try to fly it. She moved the controller, ever so gently, and the construct went around a quarter-turn. She did it again, until she was facing the enemy. She felt a mad urge to race straight at them, out through the entrance and away.
Where was Malien? Tiaan felt desperately alone. She directed the construct toward the stairway with many a lurch and hop, for yesterday's control had deserted her. The opening to the higher levels was closed. Malien appeared, wrestling with a black sentinel.
Tiaan drifted the construct that way. Malien looked up, flashed Tiaan a tight smile and said, 'It wasn't working properly. I had to renew it.'
'Is it all right now?'
'I believe it will do.' She climbed in.
'What are they doing?' said Tiaan. The fliers were circling halfway down the hall, directly above a wedge of lyrinx on the floor. 'Do you think they're afraid of us?'
'No, but they are wary. There's a great civilisation here that they knew nothing about. For all they know, Tirthrax might have another thousand constructs ready for battle.'
'And we could be luring them into a trap.'
Malien laughed. 'If only. And of course, they must know of the great construct fleet by now. They may even have encountered it.'
'How long can your sentinels keep them out of the upper levels?'
'Days, at best. They're watchers, not weapons, and not designed to defend an empty city.'
'Then if Tirthrax is not to fall -'
'Why would they want it?' said Malien.
'Because you have it. And because a mighty node lies here, which might be of benefit to them in their flesh-forming.'
Malien pursed her lips. 'There are nodes aplenty in Santhenar, but if they want this one I will give them a show they will long remember. Though I fear…'
'They'll most remember that we are alone.' She climbed up over the back.
'What are you doing?'
Malien lifted the rear hatch and settled herself into the turret. One just like it had fired Haani's fatal missile. Whirring gently, a spear-throwing device resembling a large crossbow rose from a concealed cavity. Malien swivelled the weapon back and forth, slid in a rod with a stone fist on the end, and wound the crank until the wires creaked.
'I imagine I can do some damage with this. Go towards them, slowly. Try not to show any fear.'
One or two javelard missiles would make no difference. Tiaan prayed Malien had a stronger defence. With much concentration, she managed to keep the machine straight and steady, though it must have been clear that it was driven by an amateur. Did it have any other weapons? She should have explored that question long ago.
Tiaan moved to within fifty paces of the point of the wedge, then stopped. The fliers were all down now, except Liett. It required a considerable exertion of the Secret Art to stay in the air and they would not want to waste their strength. Liett, one of the best fliers of all, was just for show.
'Why do you trespass in the city of the Aachim?' came a cold voice from behind Tiaan. 'I am Malien, Matah of Tirthrax. State your business, lyrinx!'
The largest female stepped forward. 'I am Wise Mother Cordione,' she boomed. 'Until now, we have had no quarrel with the Aachim. You have kept to your cities and taken no part in the war.'
'That is so,' said Malien, 'but you have not answered my question.'
'Our business is eleven thousand machines of war like this one! Built in secret and now pushing across the world on half a dozen fronts. To what purpose, Matah?'
Malien did not answer straight away. 'You know them better than I do, Tiaan,' she whispered. 'Is it better to say we built the machines here, or that we brought them from another world?'
'I don't know,' Tiaan whispered back. 'Either way confirms the value of this place.'
'They know that already.' Malien raised her voice. 'These constructs were not built here, Wise Mother, though they could have been. They came across the void from Aachan, through a gate. Their passengers are refugees from a dying world.'
'Then they do their own business and you cannot negotiate for them.'
'They are still my people,' said Malien. 'My own Clan Elienor is numbered among them.'
'Come they in war or in peace?'
'They came, like your own kind, for survival. Should they be accommodated by Santhenar, they will have no need to fight.'
'War, then,' said the Wise Mother. 'I thought as much.'
Tiaan held her breath. The lyrinx now showed violent red and black skin colours. Were they going to attack?
'We are an honourable species,' said Malien. 'There will be no war without a declaration.'
The skin colours flashed brighter than before. Even Malien seemed alarmed. The moment stretched out, then the colours faded.
'It best not be long in coming, for the march of your constructs is an act of aggression. Be sure we are ready to match it.'
The Wise Mother, yellow waves shimmering over her green crest, bowed low. Malien did the same. Cordione spread her glorious wings and climbed into the air. The others followed.
Malien's javelard followed them to the entrance. Only then did she release the tension.
'That was close. They're not fooled, Tiaan. Nothing has changed here in weeks. If Tirthrax had any strength at all, we would have cleared away the rubble and sealed off the opening.'
'What will they do?' What am I to do, Tiaan thought desperately. I can't destroy the amplimet, and I can't leave with hungry lyrinx outside.
'They will watch and wait. Once a declaration comes, they will return in force.'
'Tirthrax has stores enough to feed an army, and hiding places they will never find. You need not fret for me.' She got down.
Tiaan followed her. 'Malien, I -'
'You'd better go.'
'But they'll eat me.'
'If you're flying the construct they'll never catch you.'
Her heart lurched. 'Where are we going?'
'I'm not going anywhere. I don't dare, with the Well in this state.'
Tiaan did not know what to say. 'But the construct isn't mine.' How she wanted it!
'It was abandoned in my city. I give it to you, freely and unencumbered.'
It was the greatest gift in the world. Too great a gift, undeserved. Why did Malien offer it? 'Thank you,' said Tiaan uneasily, 'but… why not keep it for yourself?'
Malien walked across the great hall, head down, hands tucked in her loose sleeves. Tiaan watched her go, and return.
'You've got to take the amplimet away, far and quickly. How else can you do that? The construct won't fly without the amplimet, so it's no use to me here.'
'You could hide the amplimet outside until the Well has stabilised.'
'It would still be too close. The amplimet must be taken a hundred leagues, at least. Since I cannot take it, you must. And also, Tiaan, in my heart I know that old humans and Aachim are both forms of humanity. Perhaps Minis was drawn to you for a reason. Maybe he can see the future and you are vital to it. There is something about you.'
Something small, frightened and helpless, but Tiaan did not argue. She had coveted the construct for too long.
'The machine is well provisioned,' Malien continued, 'but take what you want from my storerooms. Anything at all.'
'Thank you.' What conditions would she put on the gift? Nothing came without an obligation.
Tiaan was exhausted but there was no time for sleep. She spent the rest of the day checking everything and practising. The strong force took a deal of getting used to, for it either flowed like a torrent or not at all. It required much more control, and affected both her mind and her sight. Once, her vision went blue for a minute before flashing back to normal. Another time she thought she was seeing double, a strange hallucination where what she saw through her left eye was a few seconds later than her right. She shook her head and the effect vanished, but another problem remained. Her view of the strong force tended to slip 'off plane', which would be disastrous if she was flying. If not for her visual memory, she could not have done it at all.
She would never master the machine in time. Tiaan was terrified of the strong forces; she knew so little about them and Malien could not help. She had to understand them on her own.
'The design of the flying controller seems a little primitive for Rulke,' said Malien that evening. 'Perhaps that's the problem. There may be something about the original design we haven't discovered. You'd better get some sleep.'
'But the Well…'
'I can hold it a little longer. The morning will be fine, but don't sleep in.'
That was not comforting. Tiaan kept practising and, by late that night, felt she could operate the machine in relative safety, in its hovering state. Flying was a different matter. When high up, she could not tell how fast she was moving and, if the visibility was poor, it was hard to know whether she was going down or up. But it would have to do.
Rising at first light, she returned to the machine, disabled the sentinels the way Malien had taught her, filled containers with water and did her last checks.
As she climbed out, Malien appeared with a basket and steaming mugs, and a rolled map. 'This may be of use to you in your travels.'
The map was entitled Part of the Southern Hemisphere of Santhenar, and depicted all the lands between the tropical Isle of Banthey in the north and the frozen Kara Agel in the south.
'Thank you,' said Tiaan. 'It's beautifully drawn. It must be very old.'
'Very,' Malien said dryly. 'I drew it last night.'
They sat beside the machine for a last meal together.
'I wish you luck with your construct,' Malien said.
Tiaan frowned. 'I don't like that name. It's cold, like Vithis.' She thought for a moment. 'I shall call it thapter.'
'Good choice,' Malien laughed. 'Where will you go? Back to your own people?'
Tiaan had spent half the night thinking about that, but had not come to a decision. 'I don't know. The manufactory is a long way from here. I may go west.'
'You'll see plenty of the enemy. The war is at its worst over there.'
'Then the thapter will be needed.' Tiaan stood up. Malien was more a mystery than ever. 'I'd better go.'
'I hate long farewells.' Malien embraced her and stood back.
Tiaan climbed in and reached for the controller.
'Wait!' called Malien. 'I have a gift for you.' She tossed something in the air.
Tiaan caught it. It was a small piece of worked metal in a swirling pattern that was hard to look at, for it seemed to double back on itself, inside, then outside, then inside again. She had seen it somewhere else in Tirthrax. Markings had been inlaid into it, silver on black. Just to look at it was calming.
'Thank you,' she said. 'What is it?'
'A symbol of the Well of Echoes,' Malien replied casually. 'It signifies infinity, the universe and nothingness. Or to put it another way, the importance, as well as the insignificance, of humanity in the great cosmos. It's just a token but I've laid a virtue on it that may help you find what you are looking for.'
Tiaan put it on the chain around her neck. She knew what she was looking for: revenge! Though even that had lost its force lately. 'I'll cherish it always. It will remind me of you.'
Malien smiled and raised her arm.
'You've not said what you require of me,' Tiaan said after a long interval.
'I don't know that I'm wise enough to require anything.'
'You've given me the greatest gift I could hope for. You must want something in return.'
'The thapter may turn out to be a poisoned fruit, Tiaan. It may ruin your life, or destroy it. I also give it to you because, through accident or design, the amplimet has been imprinted by you. If you cannot use it to the betterment of humanity, who can?'
'I might be taken by the enemy straight away.'
'All might be lost in a dozen ways. Even the greatest seer sees only fragments of the future and can never know if what they predict is for good or ill. That's why I place no condition on you, save to do what you think is right, calmly and clear-headedly, and never out of calamitous passions.'
Was that a warning? Surely it was. 'I'm afraid.'
'To live is to be afraid. You'd better go, Tiaan. It's getting harder to hold the Well.'
Tiaan clung to the controller knob. Already the gift had become a burden. It was not hers at all, but then, how could it be?
'I feel so alone, and I've not a friend in the world.'
'Apart from me,' said Malien, with the most fleeting of smiles. 'And if you should ever need me, come back. Or send word.'
'I will,' said Tiaan.
She drew power and the mechanism whined into life, lifting the thapter above the floor. She turned it to face the opening.
'One last thing,' Malien called.
'Take care. Whatever you do to Vithis, or Minis, will come back on you tenfold.'
Tiaan went rigid. Malien had known her purpose all along, and still had given her this marvellous thapter. Almost afraid to look, Tiaan sketched her a stiff salute and pushed the knob. The thapter shot forward, much faster than she had expected, and she was hard put to control it as she careered toward the ragged opening in the side of the mountain. She lifted the machine over the piles of rubble, down again to avoid pendant slabs of roof rock, and out into the sunshine. A soaring eagle had to brake in mid-air and was sent tumbling by the shockwave of her passing. Above the glacier, the thapter turned east and disappeared into the mist. Malien stood watching until the mist concealed it. Already the pain of holding the Well had begun to ease, thankfully. She was near the end of her strength. She would just sit down for a while, then go up and renew the great spell that kept the Well shackled inside Tirthrax. In a way, it was Tirthrax.
Malien sat on the bench behind the remaining two constructs, following Tiaan in her mind's eye, and fretting about her. She was flying into a maelstrom and Malien could do nothing about it. If only she could have gone with her. Perhaps she should have sent Tiaan to Stassor. No, better to avoid that dangerous complication.
'I could not even protect my own children,' she said aloud. 'I could not save either of them.' That was the worst part, and it made her unexpectedly long life all the more bitter. A mother should not outlive her children.
Not wanting to start all that again – the useless self-reproach, the futile dwelling on what might have been – she forced against the exhaustion of body and mind and got up. Hard work would keep those thoughts at bay, for the moment.
Passing by the port-all chamber, Malien recalled that she'd previously planned to check it. She spent an hour there and all the while her disquiet grew. Tiaan had assembled the port-all perfectly, so why had it gone so wrong? It took a potent, subtle spell to find out.
As Tiaan opened the gate to Aachan, the Aachim had stampeded up that spiralling ramp. All that was very clear. Vithis, realising that the port-all was left-handed, not right, and fearing it, had ordered his clan to stay back. They had ignored him and were first into the gate. In desperation he had snatched control from Tiaan, but the gate had gone wrong, hurling all those inside it across the unknown void. The failure had nothing to do with Tiaan.
But the more Malien studied the port-all, and divined what had happened, the more she felt that she had missed something. Or that something had been carefully covered up.
It took hours of the most exhausting toil to uncover it, hours she could not spare. Malien was uncomfortably aware of the unstable Well, and the risk she was taking by not attending to it. But this might be even more important, and once started she could not stop her divination, else those hidden vestiges would vanish like smoke.
And at last she had it. As Vithis took control of the gate, someone had twisted the wormhole, linking it to Tirthrax, inside out. Just for a fraction of a second, but everyone inside had been lost: the entirety of Clan Inthis and some hundreds of other Aachim.
Who could have committed such a monstrous, genocidal deed? Could it have been another Aachim clan? She prayed that it was not. If it had been, Tiaan was flying right toward them. And if not, who on Santhenar had the power, and the malice, to do such a thing?
With a heavy sigh, Malien headed up the stairs to set the Well to rights.
The thapter turned over the icefall and headed west, which was where Tiaan's troubles began. The controller jammed and the thapter kept turning until it was facing Tirthrax again.
She hovered above the blue, deeply crevassed ice not far from the icefall, and disconnected the flight controls. As the thapter settled, clouds of steam hissed up all around. She worked the trumpet but could find nothing wrong with it. She hovered again; the controller was fine now. Tiaan checked the linkages from one end to the other. Everything worked perfectly.
Setting off, she turned and headed west, and again the machine kept turning. It was as if it did not want to leave, though that was absurd. As she drew more power from the field, for a fleeting instant Tiaan saw coloured streaks streaming toward the mountain, and swirling into it. The amplimet must be trying to keep her here.
She set down hard in a vast billow of steam, trying to work out how to overcome the crystal. It was not alive. It could not move or speak. Tiaan could not understand how to deal with it. What could an inert piece of mineral want?
The crystal had already been awake when Joeyn had found it in the mine. It might have been in that state for a million years, and who knew what slow intelligence might have developed in it over that time? Why would it want to free the Well? And what next? She did not dare imagine. Tiaan wished Malien were here to advise her. She thought about going back, but that might be disastrous if the Well had unfrozen further. And whatever the amplimet wanted, she should try to do the opposite.
This time she took off and drew all the power she could handle before flinging the controller over hard. The thapter spun so sharply that her vision went black, but still it turned the other way. She took it down to the base of the cliff and again hovered. Removing the amplimet, she put it in her pouch. Tiaan disconnected the carbon whiskers as well, just in case. Drawing power through just the hedron in its cup, the thapter would no longer fly, only hover like any ordinary construct. Turning west, she thrust on the controller.
The thapter moved forward, away from Tirthrax, without resistance. She kept going all day. It was slow travelling in the broken country at the base of the Great Mountains and she had to constantly detour south around boulder fields, mounds of broken ice at the bottom of icefalls, gorges and other obstacles. The hovering thapter could not rise high enough to cross them.
By the end of the day Tiaan was less than a dozen leagues from Tirthrax. She ate her dinner on top of the thapter, watching the setting sun, then locked the hatch and slept inside. Next day she continued, making better time across untracked snow and through spindly forest, and by the morning after, felt that she might risk flying again.
This time she felt no resistance when using the amplimet – they were beyond the influence of the Well. Tiaan flew on. She was bound to the amplimet now, reliant on it, yet it could not be trusted. Would it do the same thing when next she approached a powerful node? Or would it betray her at the most inopportune time? Tiaan knew what she had to do – fly straight to the nearest large city, find its scrutator or army commander and turn the thapter over to him. Humanity must be in despair at the Aachim threat. The thapter would give them hope, as well as a weapon better than anything the enemy could field against them.
But every scrutator would know her name by now, and what she had done, for Nish's skeet would have reached Flydd many days ago. While a far-sighted scrutator might recognise her value, a vindictive one would see only a traitor who must be made example of. From what Tiaan knew of them, the vindictive scrutators outnumbered the other kind, so she would be gambling with her life. First she must do something to prove her loyalty and her worth.
She decided to shadow the fleet of constructs, find out where they were going and, if she could, what their plans were. That would be valuable intelligence and the best she could hope for. Revenge was out of the question.
It did not take her long to pick up the trail, even after all this time. So many machines travelling close to the ground had left an unmistakable path of beaten-down bushes and broken branches. Where they had passed over snow, the crystals had clumped together like grains of sand.
Tiaan followed every winding league of their path. She did not have to, for she could have tracked them from a thousand spans up. But she needed time to master flying the thapter and time to think, though that only emphasised her inadequacies. She had no place dealing with the mighty – she was quite out of her depth.
At night she slept inside, in the most secluded place she could find. Tiaan was not afraid, thinking that most folk would avoid the alien machine on sight, but she did not want anyone to know she was there. She saw few people – the north-west quarter of Mirrilladell was an empty land.
The fleet had headed west from Tirthrax, following the rind of the Great Mountains. Some hundred leagues to the west, the mountain chain turned south, and here the Aachim had spent days searching for a way across. Tiaan followed their trails up one path and another, but all ended in country that not even constructs could cross. They could not negotiate steep banks or cliffs, rugged or very rocky land, nor climb slopes greater than one-in-one.
Finally they had turned south and, near a vast landscape of swamps and mires called the Misty Meres, the dwindling range broke into strings of windswept hills that allowed them through into the west. Ruined guard towers crowned the hills like grey teeth in brown gums, last remnants of the Mirrillim, an insecure people long gone.
Winter had not completely relaxed its grip in Mirrilladell but the lands beyond the mountains now rioted in the luxuriance of spring. A narrow road, the Moonpath, ran west between two large lakes before meeting a broader north-south highway, the Great North Road. It ran north across Lauralin for hundreds of leagues, and south nearly as far. Here the force of constructs had separated. Near Saludith she counted five trails splitting off the main one.
On her tenth day of travel she saw the fleet in the distance, running north toward a rich land ringed by forest and mountain. The map named it as Borgistry, and just south of Borgistry she found their camp. The deciduous trees of the Borgis Woods were already springing into leaf.
It was night when she drew near, keeping low to the ground to avoid being seen, though that was unlikely. The passage of the fleet had raised a dust cloud five spans high. On the other hand, they might have sensing devices that she knew nothing about.
Tiaan flew east then north along the Great Chain of Lakes, to the point where a scattered line of volcanoes thrust up through the skirts of the forest. Judging by the luxuriance of the vegetation, it was a long time since any of them had erupted, though several were smoking. Setting down her craft halfway up the slope of the nearest peak, Tiaan checked her surroundings, made a campfire and prepared dinner. From here she could soon tell if the fleet moved.
She did not sleep that night. The promise, or threat, of tomorrow kept her awake. And also, though she suppressed the thought each instant she had it, of Minis. He was a lying, treacherous man whose word meant nothing to him. He had betrayed her. And still the memory sent her heart pounding.
Before dawn broke she was in the air, meaning to conduct a reconnaissance over the fleet. Tiaan hoped that, at this time of the day, and high enough up, she could do that undetected. If she did nothing else, she could learn valuable information about the disposition of their forces.
Her hand shook on the controller trumpet. She wanted to render the constructs useless. Wanted to see the Aachim left helpless, abandoned, bereft. And she wanted Minis to suffer. Or was she following Minis because, despite what he had done to her, she could not keep away from him? Was she truly that weak, that pathetic?
Yes, she was. She was bound to him by hatred now, because breaking free would be even more painful. And she would never be free until she felt neither love nor hate, only indifference.
That realisation was a release of sorts, though she was not strong enough to put Minis behind her. With her emotions fluttering like a butterfly in a cage, she cruised across the camp, high in the dark sky.
The machines were drawn up in a seven-sided array around an open space, in the middle of which several large tents, and dozens of smaller ones, had been erected. The larger tents touched each other, leaving a shadowed space in the middle. The area was lit by globes on poles and she saw vast selections of weapons, piles of supplies, and ranks of soldiers practising battle manoeuvres or firing at targets. They were preparing for war.
As she passed across the centre, Tiaan sensed a great distortion in the field, as if it was being warped by something centred on the array of constructs. Some device there was drawing mighty amounts of power, even more than the gate had taken. They must be testing some new kind of weapon. She had to get a better look.
Five larger constructs were near the main tents but the warping was not coming from them. Perhaps from one of the tents? The field distortion was spiralling in like a whirlpool. Was it some terrible weapon they had developed on their own world?
The whirlpool pulled her in one direction as she passed over the large tents, then pushed her hard the other way. Incredibly, it seemed to be interfering with the controller. She looked down into the space walled around by the tents. What was that?
Spinning the thapter around, she headed back, aiming to go right over the walled space. Again the warp wrenched her off course, though this time she managed to correct enough to see down. Peering through her fingers, she looked into a whirling red hell, like a captured tornado, that distorted everything around it. As she went over it, a rod of blue light burst forth from the centre of the red hell, like a searchlight.
For an instant she thought she was being attacked, but the light angled away into the heavens as if searching the very void. It blinked on and off many times, then vanished. Were they signalling the other fleets to war? She had to go to the scrutators now.
Tiaan turned the thapter away from the camp, climbing toward the safety of a ridge of cloud. As she did, the sun rose and its first bright ray highlighted the thapter, a spark curving across the pale sky. She prayed that no one would notice, but a crowd of Aachim ran into the open, pointing to the sky, and a series of streaks rose up. Before they even knew who she was, they were shooting at her.
Since she'd been discovered, she might as well learn as much as she could about that strange device. Such intelligence could be vital. Flinging the front of the thapter down, she headed towards the largest tent, which was rapidly emptying. More glowing spheres came on, lighting up the clear area as bright as day.
A group of Aachim converged on a tall lean man, the last to exit the tent. Tiaan recognised Vithis instantly. He had a spyglass trained on her. Vithis reeled backwards, gesturing furiously to the guards behind him. He must have recognised her. Two soldiers raised a kind of heavy crossbow to their shoulders and fired. Tiaan hurled the controller sideways, skidding across the sky.
A bolt slammed into the machine just behind her head. Others struck the outside with a clatter like hail on metal. She had done nothing to them, yet they were trying to kill her, just as they had killed Haani. Bloody rage exploded and all her resolutions, her promises to Malien, went over the side. Vithis or her, it was time to end it. Flinging the thapter about, she went low to the ground and hurtled up between the rows of constructs. Aachim, running everywhere, threw themselves out of the way.
She roared through the open centre, coming at Vithis's command tent from the rear. Guards were shouting and loading weapons. More bolts struck the thapter. Tiaan went left, right, left, then saw Vithis straight ahead. She slammed the trumpet lever forward as far as it would go. Acceleration thrust her backwards and the thapter hurtled straight toward the leader of Clan Inthis.
Just before she hit, Tiaan realised that Minis was behind him. Vithis hurled Minis to his left and tried to go the other way, but the slick metal skin of the thapter caught the clan leader on the hip, sending him tumbling across the ground. She tried to turn but the tent came up too quickly. The thapter crashed through it, fabric wrapping itself around the machine. All she could do was pull up on the knob and pray.
The thapter soared, fabric flapping, ropes lashing the sides, then the wind tore it away. She looked back but could not tell whether Vithis was dead or alive. Alive, she felt sure. Directly below, she caught a last glimpse of that hellish tornado, and the searchlight spinning like a top. Its blinking blue light struck the machine, a blast of heat and dazzle. Her mental control failed, the controller slipped off-plane and suddenly she was falling in silence.
Tiaan waggled the lever but nothing happened. The machine arced down toward a patch of trees on the far side of the camp. The impact would turn her to jelly. She could not see the strong force at all. Tiaan reached under the binnacle and popped the cap, thrusting her hand in until her index finger touched the amplimet. The field flashed before her eyes and the thapter whined into life. She climbed away from the camp while she tried to work out what had happened. The blue ray fingered the sky as if they were trying to cook her alive. She hurled the thapter around to avoid it.
The mechanism stuttered but came to life again. Was that ray interfering with the machine, or the field? She couldn't think straight. Why, why hadn't she slipped quietly away as soon as she was seen? Her attack had been an insult to the pride and might of the Aachim, and to Vithis personally. She had brought disaster upon herself, risked everything for a moment of self-indulgence.
This thapter, and the secret of how it worked, was worth a nation. Flight could win the war; the world. What warlord, general, scrutator or Aachim would not kill to get it? She was friendless in a desperate world, and every time she set down to sleep or buy supplies, she would be in peril.
The first priority was to get well away and pray she did not lose the field again. Then, find a general or scrutator, and give him the thapter as well as her intelligence about what the Aachim were up to. That was her duty and she must do it. And then plead for her life. What she knew might be enough to save her.
She headed north along the Great Chain of Lakes, which ran up through the Borgis Woods before curving north-west to the Sea of Thurkad, a couple of hundred leagues away. To her right loomed the southern arm of the Great Mountains. To her left, up ahead, stood the jagged white pinnacles of the Peaks of Borg. Between them she made out the vast elongation of Parnggi, second-greatest of the lakes. Cloud covered this area and she passed into it gratefully, guided only by the thin disc of the sun above.
Tiaan felt numb. They had tried to kill her. Now that Vithis knew about the thapter, he would hunt her to the four corners of the globe. Everyone else would do the same. She was doomed. Why, why had she been so foolish as to let him see her? Why hadn't she heeded Malien's warnings? Every time she allowed her emotions to govern her, it made things worse.
The Aachim had shown that Haani's death was not accident, but policy. She wanted to hurt Vithis and Minis, to humiliate them and, beyond all else, to thwart them in their plans for Santhenar. Most of all, she wanted to repay Malien's confidence in her.
But first she had to find a scrutator and work out what to say. Tiaan flew on, making plans and rejecting each. All foundered on the same reef – how to find the right person, and tell her story, without being attacked or seized as a renegade.
She finally passed beyond Parnggi around the middle of the night. Moonlight showed her the way. Forest still clothed the hills in all directions, though through a gap in the clouds she saw clear land well ahead and, some way to her left, a cluster of volcanoes dominated by one much larger and taller than the rest. Its flanks were covered in dense forest, part of the endless Worm Wood. She checked the map. It was Booreah Ngurle, the Burning Mountain. It seemed to call to her, but she would not find a scrutator there.
Further back and to her left she made out a road – the Great North Road again – cutting through a rich and fertile land that must be Borgistry. Its principal city was Lybing. Surely it would have a scrutator.
There was no way out of it. Time to give up the thapter, and herself. She moved the controller to turn left. It moved back to centre. She tried again but the thapter was set on its course and would not turn the way she wanted.
It was flying north-west, quite slowly, for as the day passed it had grown ever more sluggish. Dense forest passed beneath. The thapter seemed to be heading for the cluster of volcanoes; for Booreah Ngurle. What was the amplimet up to now? Whatever it was doing, she could not prevent it, for there was no place to land. Nothing but forest in every direction.
The moon was hidden now. At least no one could see her. Unfortunately she could not see either. She dropped low over the shadowy trees, still flying toward the distant mountain.
Twice more she tried to turn away, and twice the controls refused to answer her. Just after dawn, the thapter approached the peak of Booreah Ngurle. She saw a great building off to her left, on the inner rim of the crater, and tried to turn towards it. The controls jammed. Why had it brought her all this way only to thwart her again? The node, of course – an unusual one here, a double with one centre larger than the other.
Her fury flared again. She was not going to allow it to master her this time, or ever again. Tiaan looked for a place to set down, planning to take out the treacherous amplimet and smash it against a rock, and curse the consequences!
The ground was steep here, extremely rugged and clothed in dense forest – the worst possible place to land. Spotting a tiny clearing, Tiaan hovered above the trees, planning her route down. As she nudged the lever forward, the field vanished. The thapter fell like a rock and crashed through the treetops in a cloud of leaves and shattered branches. It bounced off a leaning tree and hit a fallen trunk with an almighty thump. Tiaan was hurled against the binnacle and after that felt nothing, not the fall down the ladder, nor the impact with the floor below.
A long while later she came to. Something was running into her eye. She wiped blood off her forehead. It did not feel like a major injury, though her head had begun to throb and her ears were ringing. She could not work out what had happened, but she had an alarming suspicion that the amplimet had cut off the field. She prayed that the construct could still be made to hover.
Tiaan tried to get up, and that was when she realised that things were badly wrong. She could not move her legs. Tiaan lifted her head. Her pants were torn from hip to ankle and there was a long gash on her thigh, but she could not feel a thing. Again she tried to move her leg. She could not even wiggle her toes.
Her back was broken.
P ART T WO
Nish checked the balloon, which was nearly inflated. He crammed in as much fuel as would fit and opened the damper all the way. Flames roared up the flue. Racing down the ladder he began hacking at the cane floor where it encircled the trunk.
'What is the matter, Nish?'
'Someone's coming!' He pointed in the direction of the yellow floater. 'Can you sense anything about it?'
'No, Nish,' she said, giving him sweet and loving looks.
He was too panicky to reciprocate. 'It can't be lyrinx, or you would see them in your lattice.'
'I can't see anything in my lattice.'
'What!' he roared.
Ullii slapped her hands over her ears, her face screwed up in pain.
He lowered his voice. 'What do you mean? Is it gone?' Had their lovemaking destroyed her talent? There were folktales about that kind of thing but he had always sneered at them.
'My lattice isn't gone.' She smiled a secret smile. 'I just can't see it. I'll have to make a new lattice.'
Nish cursed, but under his breath. What a time to lose the only talent that could help them. He looked up. The balloon was taut. The danger would come when it lifted, for the stripped trunk went up through the neck. If anything caught, it would tear the flimsy fabric apart.
The air-floater was getting closer every minute. Nish leapt out and gave the basket a heave. It lifted but stuck. He climbed in and rocked the basket from side to side. It freed itself from a snag and shot up; he had to brake it with S'lound's sword against the trunk.
The balloon rose steadily, the trunk slid from the neck and they were free, rising above the treetops. Nish could have wept. Their survival was truly a miracle; a series of miracles. He held his breath, staring at the patch. Let the wind not be too strong. Let the patch hold.
The patch held and there was no wind at this level. They simply drifted above the forest, slowly rising. The air-floater altered course, heading directly for them. How could it do that?
The minutes went by with agonising slowness. The balloon caught the gentlest of breezes and sailed beyond the forest. The air-floater approached. Nish could make out people standing in the smaller compartment underneath. Human, or Aachim? If human, were they friend or foe?
Nish picked up S'lound's sword, not that it would be any good against archers. He rubbed his chin, which hurt. It was blistered from the nylatl venom. The air-floater closed the gap, swung side-on, and at least a dozen soldiers, armed with spears and crossbows, stood along the side. Nish swallowed.
'What the blazes are you doing?' bellowed a familiar voice across the gap.
Nish searched the faces. A lean, gaunt-looking man forced his way between the ranks. 'Don't hang there like a bloody fool. Go down.' It was Xervish Flydd, the scrutator.
Nish yanked the release rope and the balloon drifted down. What was the scrutator doing here? Nish had no idea what he was going to say to him.
He rehearsed his lines all the way to the ground. The scrutator was the most powerful man in the land, and the most feared. A combination of secret policeman, spy and inquisitor, he could do just about anything he wanted. He had sent Nish out on this suicide mission, to bring back Tiaan, and the crystal. Nish had recovered neither.
The balloon slowly reached to the ground. Nish jumped out, closed the valve and tied the tethers to a log. He stood waiting as the air-floater slid to earth not a hundred paces away. Soldiers sprang over the rails, hammered stakes into the ground and roped the vessel down fore and aft.
The craft held sixteen soldiers. He counted them off, as well as the scrutator and Mechanician M'lainte, who looked like a squat scrubwoman and did not appear to have changed her clothes since he'd last seen her. The mechanician was a genius and it did not matter how she looked, but Nish was conscious of his own shabbiness. Appearances had always been important to him, as if to make up for his short stature and indifferent looks.
The whirring, that had been in the background ever since the craft approached, slowed to a gentle tick. Some kind of mechanical contraption at the rear was attached to a twelve-bladed rotor similar to those he had seen on windmills, though this one was driven by the field. It enabled the air-floater to go where it pleased, even against the wind as long as it was not too strong. The cabin of the craft was built of canvas reinforced with light timbers, to weigh as little as possible. Sandbags hung on the sides, for ballast.
'Well, artificer?' The scrutator, a small man who looked as though every scrap of flesh had been pared from his bones, clambered over the side. He walked awkwardly, as if those bones had been broken in a torture chamber and put back together wrongly, and they had. Taking Nish's arm, Flydd led him back toward the balloon. 'What have you got for me?'
'Er…' said Nish.
'Did you recover the precious crystal?'
'No – I mean, I did recover it, surr, back there at Tirthrax, but a witch-woman took it from me and gave it back to Tiaan.'
'A witch-woman? What bloody nonsense is this? Explain yourself, artificer.'
Nish felt his life hanging by a thread. 'A noble Aachim, surr. A woman of advanced years. She called herself Matah of Tirthrax.'
'Matah? What did she look like, boy?'
'She was this tall,' Nish held his hand a little above his head, 'with grey hair that once must have been as red as the setting sun. A very handsome woman, for all that she was old…' He selected his words more carefully, not wanting to insult the scrutator. 'She looked the age of a human of sixty, but she talked about the time of the Forbidding as though she had been there. I -'
'Malien!' said Flydd between his yellow teeth. He turned away in some agitation, muttering to himself, as he often did. 'Well, well. The Council of Scrutators will want to hear of this.'
'You mean the Malien, from the Tale of the Mirror?' Nish said, awed. 'How can she still be alive?'
Flydd did not bother to answer. 'She is no witch-woman, artificer, but a mancer of considerable subtlety. I will not hold it against you that she took the crystal away. You are not made for that kind of foe. You did not manage to take Tiaan either?' he barked.
'I had her, twice, and twice she got away from me.'
'Twice?' The scrutator wrinkled the single brow that ran across both eyes. 'Twice, boy? To lose her once is bad enough. Twice looks distinctly like -'
'She was… clever,' Nish said lamely. 'I caught her a third time, tied her up, and was determined that nothing could free her.'
'Where is she? I don't see her?' The scrutator pretended to look around.
Nish went along with the game, knowing how deadly it could become. 'The witch – Malien, surr. She freed Tiaan and befriended her. I tried,' he pleaded, 'but Malien used her magic against me.'
'Enough!' snapped the scrutator. 'I have no doubt that you tried, but you failed.'
'And Tiaan is gone, with her crystal.'
'This morning, surr. Ullii said that they had gone west.'
'The lyrinx, or the Aachim, must have taken her.' Flydd growled. 'She's out of the game! You've let me down.'
Unable to think of any defence, Nish stood, head hung, awaiting his fate.
'So!' Flydd measured him up and down. 'You seem to have grown up since I saw you last.'
'There have been a number of trials, surr,' Nish said softly.
'I'm sure there have. You shall tell me the entire story, later, and my chronicler will write it down. At least you have not lost the seeker, eh?'
'No,' said Nish inaudibly.
Flydd ratcheted his way across to the basket, spoke to Ullii and gave her his hand. For some reason Nish would never comprehend, she got on well with him. She stood up on the side, wearing mask and earmuffs now, protection as much against people as against the elements. Ullii stepped lightly down. Flydd threw her pack over his shoulder.
They ate lunch inside the lower section of the air-floater, since the ground was a snowy slush. Nish was seated next to M'lainte, and Ullii beside the scrutator. Nish told his tale, which earned the undivided attention of the group, and even several grunts from Flydd that might have constituted approval. At the end, when he described the repair of the balloon in the treetops and the subsequent beating off of the nylatl, both he and Ullii were given a cheer by the soldiers.
Even Flydd, a man who rarely praised anybody, reached across to grip him by the shoulder. 'You might be a second-rate artificer, lad, but I can't fault your initiative.'
'Thank you, surr,' Nish said without a trace of irony.
Flydd showed no such restraint with Ullii. 'If courage is measured not by the deed but by the terror overcome, surely you are the bravest of us all.' Shaking her little hand, he said, 'You are one of my finest, seeker.'
Ullii pulled off her mask. Her eyes were huge, luminous and moist. She kissed his withered hand and swiftly pulled the mask up again, though she could not conceal the colour that crept up her cheeks.
'Is something the matter?' said Flydd.
'Ullii has lost her lattice,' Nish interjected.
'I was not speaking to you! Ullii, what happened?'
Ullii blushed, her colourless skin going the colour of blood.
'Is there something the matter? Something I should know about?' Flydd continued.
'No, Xervish,' she said faintly. 'I will make a new lattice.'
'My skeet arrived safely?' Nish asked, for that had not been mentioned. 'That is what brought you here so swiftly?'
'It arrived only two days after you sent it. That was a good bit of work, lad. Fortunately I had other skeets at the manufactory and could send out the warnings right away. Within three days every city in Lauralin had been alerted to the invasion, though I don't know what good it may have done us.'
'How did you build this air-floater so quickly?' It was much bigger than the balloon, which had exhausted all the silk cloth in the city of Tiksi and taken more than a month to construct.
'We didn't,' said M'lainte. 'I had the idea not long after our first balloon flight, but we were not sure that it would work, so it was built in secret at another manufactory. It was already being tested when you left.'
Nish looked up at the great airbag and for the first time noticed something missing. 'Where is the furnace, and the fuel?'
'Not needed, said M'lainte complacently. 'A mine in the mountains produces floater-gas. We simply filled the air-floater with it.'
Nish had heard something about floater-gas. 'Isn't it… explosive?'
'Horribly. And it leaks through the tarred seams, so we must return soon or there will not be enough to lift us. Going back will be slower than coming.'
'Why did you come?' Nish asked.
'To see what we could see,' said the scrutator. 'To test this new air-floater. And to bring back whatever you had found. The wind seldom blows east at this time of year so, even if you had recovered Tiaan or her crystal, you would have had to walk home. That would have been too late.'
'And to bring back Ullii, of course,' Nish said quietly.
'You are expendable, alas, but we can't do without her.'
'How is my friend Irisis?'
Ullii jumped, then clenched her little fists.
The scrutator gave Nish a hard stare. 'I'm pleased to say, since you've been gone, she has settled down to her work. There'll be no more of that nonsense.'
'No, surr,' Nish said faintly. The mechanician was concerned about the leaking floater-gas, so as soon as lunch was finished they prepared to leave. Nish was heading to the balloon for his gear when one of the guards shouted, 'Lyrinx, surr, in the north-west!'
'Are they heading this way?'
The guard put a spyglass to his eye. 'Not at the moment, surr. They're watching the hole in the great mountain.'
Flydd paced back and forth. 'Is it better to be in the air or on the ground? In the air, I think. At least we can move, and defend ourselves. But on the ground, should they drop something on the envelope, we're done.'
'And we can soar up high,' said the mechanician, 'where the air is too thin for their wings.'
'We won't be able to breathe,' said Flydd.
'There'll be enough. We're not doing the hard work of flying.'
'True. Gather your gear, everyone. We're going now.'
Nish ran. 'Make it snappy, artificer,' roared Flydd. 'I won't wait on anyone.'
Nish was climbing the rope when Ullii cried out, something that in all the shouting he did not catch. Then she screamed.
'Get moving!' yelled Flydd.
Nish went over the side into the basket, and froze. On the other side, just across the hole in the floor, crouched the nylatl. And he was defenceless. S'lound's sword was over by the air-floater.
He tried to throw himself out but the nylatl sprang and caught him by the calf muscle. Nish kicked, the teeth tore through his flesh and the nylatl fell through the hole in the floor. He hobbled to the side but, before he could leap over, the horned snout came at him again.
There was a knife in S'lound's pack. Nish wrenched out the long blade, then hurled the pack at the creature, hoping to create enough of a diversion to get over the side. He caught a fleeting glimpse of Ullii, screaming and struggling in the arms of one of the guards. The scrutator was shouting. 'We can't wait, even for you, Nish. Come now or stay behind!'
Nish heaved himself onto the rim. The nylatl's teeth went through his boot, just missing his toes. It tossed its head and the force went close to breaking his ankle. Nish was dragged into the basket, slashing wildly at the beast. One blow carved the top off the main spine on its snout. The nylatl squealed, drew back and sprang again. This time the vicious teeth closed around his leg.
Nish hardly felt it, the way the adrenalin was surging through his veins, the blood lust singing in his ears. He stabbed down with the knife, whose blade was long enough to pass between the poisoned spines. It skated off an armoured plate, found the crack between it and the next, and went in deep.
The nylatl reared up, its eyes wide, and let go. Nish knocked it down with one boot and kicked it in the head with the other. It fled through the hole.
He clambered over the side but was too late: the air-floater was taking off without him. Nish slashed the tethers and the balloon shot up. His leg began to throb. Sagging against the basketwork, he took toll of his injuries. The muscle of his calf was torn in three places and there were tooth punctures on both sides of his leg, almost to the bone. It could have been worse. Much worse.
The balloon had gone up faster but the air-floater was swiftly overtaking him. There was still a chance. He waved and someone waved back. The air-floater altered course, though Nish could not see how they could take him off in mid-air.
He was wondering how to manage it when the nylatl, which must have been clinging to the underside of the basket, came over the side right behind him. Its smell alerted him as it was about to sink its teeth into his neck. He dived across the basket. This had to end, now.
The nylatl limped around the rim, its back legs dragging. He must have done it some damage. How to kill it? The flask of tar spirits, carried all the way from the manufactory, gave him an idea.
Hefting the flask, he backed away from the creeping beast and jerked out the bung. The creature eyed him. He feinted with the knife, and as the nylatl went the other way, heaved a great spurt at its face. It squealed as the stinging liquid went into eyes, nostrils and gaping mouth. Nish gave it another whoosh, then dropped the flask and attempted to attack while the nylatl was blinded.
It did not work; the creature seemed to sense his position and slashed with its right paw. The sole remaining claw raked down Nish's wrist, sending the knife flying across the floor and out through the hole. He was defenceless.
From the corner of his eye he saw an archer standing at the rail of the air-floater, but the man could not get a clear shot. The nylatl sprang down. Nish threw himself onto the rim, crawled around and his head bumped the hanging rope ladder up to the brazier.
Without thinking he went up hand over hand, all the way to the top. The nylatl came to its hind legs to follow. The air-floater, which had been standing by, suddenly veered away as fast as its rotor could go.
Must have read my mind, Nish thought. Nothing mattered but to rid himself of this ravener. Flipping open the lid of the stove, he reached in with his bare hand, pulled out a handful of red-hot coals and hurled them into the basket. Then he pushed head and shoulders through the rope ladder and hung on for dear life.
The coals scattered. One landed on the creature's snout. Flame burst out in all directions. The nylatl let out the most hideous scream and raced around the basket, flame following it to every drop of spilled spirit. Nish's hand began to burn and there was worse to come. He closed his eyes, gritted his teeth and waited.
The blazing nylatl ran full tilt into the half-empty flask of tar spirit. Flame licked it, then bottle, basket and nylatl were blown apart in an explosion that sent flames bursting out in all directions
The ladder burned away from below Nish's feet. His trousers caught fire. He beat them out. Nish opened his eyes to see the remains of his nemesis falling in a sheet of flame. It surely had to be the end of it.
The balloon, freed of most of its load, shot upwards, higher than it had been before. There it caught a gale blowing west.
Nish climbed up next to the warmth of the brazier. Tying himself to the ladder, he thrust his hands into his sleeves. The air was numbingly cold, but it eased the pain. It was thin, too. So thin that he could hardly breathe. He closed his eyes.
Ullii screamed herself into a fit and had to be sedated, for she kept trying to jump out of the air-floater in mid-air, as if she could fly to Nish. When the drug had taken effect, the guards bound her hands and took her inside the cabin, a flimsy structure of canvas attached to stretched rope and a few bracing timbers.
The scrutator stood with the mechanician, arms folded, watching Nish's desperate struggle with the nylatl. 'Dare we go closer, M'lainte?' he asked at one point.
She took a long time to answer. 'We dare not. We can't get near enough to take him out of the basket, and if we tried, chances are the brazier would set off our floater-gas. I don't want to end our lives as a firework.'
'He might kill the beast,' said Flydd. 'If he does, can we risk landing to pick him up?'
M'lainte eyed the three lyrinx, which were circling some distance away. They don't look as though they're going to attack.'
'I was referring to our shortage of floater-gas.'
'We're already taking a risk,' said the mechanician. 'Ask me if it happens.'
They watched in silence until Nish began to hurl liquid about the basket. 'What's in that flask?' the scrutator asked sharply.
'Tar spirits.' M'lainte swung around but the scrutator was quicker.
'Away!' roared Flydd. 'Away and all speed!'
The air-floater veered off. The complement of the vessel was leaning over the rail now, willing Nish to succeed.
'Faster!' yelled the mechanician. 'Get over the other side, you lot. You're ruining our trim.'
'What's he doing?' cried Flydd, for they were now a long way off.
'He's up at the brazier,' said the watchman with a spyglass. 'He's reaching into the brazier with his bare hands. He's…'
They watched, holding their breath as flames appeared in the basket. Suddenly it was blown apart and dark objects fell, trailing flame. The balloon shot upwards, was caught by high-level winds and disappeared towards the west.
'Well?' Flydd said to M'lainte.
'Not a chance. Nothing could catch it now.'
The scrutator turned away, shoulders slumped. 'A pity! He had a great future, that lad.'
'We can't be certain he's dead,' said M'lainte.
'If not now, then soon enough, when the balloon comes to ground in the wilderness. Let's go home.' Despite the danger, Flydd changed his mind as they whirred past the great mountain. Tapping Pilot Hila on her slender shoulder, he pointed to the ragged entrance. The air-floater landed just inside and the guards formed a ring around it, aiming their weapons at the circling lyrinx, while scrutator and mechanician walked into Tirthrax.
'I hope…' began the scrutator.
M'lainte raised an eyebrow.
'I must speak with Malien.'
'To make alliance with her?'
'Just to talk, first. I…' Flydd smiled self-consciously. 'My childhood was spent elbow-deep in the books of the Histories.'
'You had a childhood?' M'lainte was making one of her rare jokes. 'I thought you were born scrutator.'
'I loved the Great Tales as much as any child alive. It's ironic, now that I look back…'
'What?' she said.
'No matter. Malien is a legend, one of the few surviving from ancient times. Just to talk about the past -'
'I understand, Xervish. This place is a marvel,' M'lainte went on as they passed yet another staircase made of little more than a ribbon of metal. 'The Aachim know so much. It's tragic that we've not been able to make an alliance with them.'
'Aye,' said Flydd, 'but they are a people much governed by history, tradition and a powerful sense of their own worth. The affairs of other humans are of importance only when they touch theirs, and in their increasing isolation, that is seldom.'
The scrutator looked morose. 'What has this fleet of constructs come for? Is Aachan really dying, or is it the first wave of an invasion?'
'The Aachim of Santhenar will take their side, whatever their purpose.'
'And we're in the middle. But can we persuade them to take our side against the lyrinx?'
'We are both human species.'
'The lyrinx are not as alien as they might appear,' the scrutator said enigmatically.
They stopped beside the two wrecked constructs. 'Nish's message said there were three,' Flydd went on. 'Where is the other?'
'And Tiaan gone too,' said M'lainte shrewdly.
'Well, better her than the enemy.'
'I dare say. Beautiful metalwork,' the mechanician observed.
She walked around and around, making notes on a scrap of paper. 'They float above the ground, Nish said.'
'Yes, and we must try to get Tiaan's back.'
'She could be hard to find.'
'There's not much the scrutators can't find if they want it enough. I'll send a skeet at once, in case we don't get back.' Flydd cast an anxious glance at the entrance. 'We'd better go, M'lainte. Those lyrinx may have called their mates. We're vulnerable here.'
'To say nothing of our leaking floater-gas. Write your message, surr. I'll just have a peep inside.'
The scrutator flexed his twisted fingers. 'Make it a quick one, old friend. I'd hate to lose you.'
'I'd hate to lose myself!' M'lainte looked down at her thick body and grinned. 'Not much danger of that.'
The scrutator wrote a note and took it to the skeet handler, who was standing mournfully outside the cage. The skeet lay on the floor, quite dead.
'What the bloody hell's happened?' Flydd began.
'Jellybeak,' said the handler. 'There was an outbreak in Tiksi but I thought our birds were clean.'
Cursing, Flydd returned to the constructs. 'Come on, M'lainte!' He was not worrying about her being killed, and least of all himself, but if they did not get back to tell all they knew, the war effort would suffer.
'I'm coming,' she said from inside. She did not appear.
He went across to a broad set of steps guarded by a black conical object like a witch's hat. Flydd knew it to be a sentinel. He looked up. The stair passed through a hole in the stone ceiling, as did all the others. He edged closer. Closer. Crack! The shock curled his toes and it was just a warning. If he tried to go up it would be far worse.
He considered using his Art on it. Scrutator magic was designed for sneaking, spying, interrogating and manipulating, and the breaking of locks and protections. Only rarely did it involve outright power, but he had that too, in words of power, charged crystals and other artefacts. Flydd thought better of it. The Aachim had used sentinels for ages and had defences for most of the Arts.
He walked up the other end of the vast chamber, looking all around. The sentinel would have sounded an alarm in the floors above but Malien did not come to check on it. Finally, when the mechanician had been inside for a good hour, Flydd rapped on the hatch with a knuckle.
Her head popped out. M'lainte's eyes were gleaming. 'Marvellous!' she said. 'Just marvellous.'
'Remember our leaky floater-gas.'
'I've finished.' She hauled herself out. 'Well, of course I'm not finished. I could spend a year here.'
'Can you make one like it?'
'Probably not. Some of the innards are sealed and I have no idea what's inside, and we'd not master such fine metal-working as this -' she slapped the smoothly curving side, 'in a hundred years. Still, I've learned a thing or two.'
The scrutator left it at that. M'lainte was the best mechanician in the south-east, and did not make promises she could not keep. It was better than nothing.
'Malien's not coming,' Flydd said dispiritedly. 'Come on.' The air-floater took off as soon as they climbed in, heading east. There were no enemy in sight. It was something over two hundred leagues back to the manufactory and they would probably have to rotor all the way.
They had taken on rock ballast at Tirthrax so as to fly extra low, for at high altitudes, strong winds blew directly against them. They floated along the line of the mountains, enjoying the magnificent vista of peaks and glaciers. Below and south as far as they could see lay a flat landscape, a monotonous vista of snow-clad plains, swamps and ragged lakes, many still frozen. The forests were straggles of spindly, impoverished pines.
The trip was slow but uneventful. Night fell. They continued, and late in the morning, at a place where the Great Mountains were less high and they could see across the range to another in the distance, the air-floater dropped its ballast and turned northeast to make the crossing.
'We should reach the manufactory within the hour,' said M'lainte in the mid-afternoon, trying to consult her map as the air-floater lurched and bounced.
'I'll be glad to see it,' the scrutator replied curtly. He had paced all night and was not in the best of humours, and the rough flight made his head spin.
'At least the air-floater has worked well,' she said cheerfully.
'Don't jinx it!' he snapped.
M'lainte went up the other end, to stare over the rope rail. Flydd inspected his scarred and gnarled hands, trying not to think of the events that had made them that way. The knot in his stomach was painful.
'How is the seeker?' he called to the soldier on duty inside.
'Still sleeping, last I checked.'
The man ducked away, then came back. 'She's stirring. Should I give her another dose of poppy?'
'Of course not! Keep an eye on her. Bloody idiot,' the scrutator said, more out of habit than annoyance. His mind was on other matters.
They floated over the last range and saw smoke everywhere. 'What's going on?' cried Flydd. 'We've only been gone four days.'
'It's early in the season for a forest fire.' M'lainte had come up to the rail beside him.
'Far too early. That's Tiksi; the city is burning. Circle round,' he roared to the man at the helm. 'See what's going on. Hurry!'
They veered left, sliding through smoke clouds all the way. The air-floater bucked and rolled in the updraughts. Flydd choked back on nausea uncomfortably similar to seasickness.
The air-floater broke out of the smoke. Tiksi lay dead ahead. The city wall was broken in three places, the eastern quarter ablaze. On the plain outside the main gates a battle raged, four clankers against dozens of lyrinx. Dead lay everywhere, and Flydd counted fifteen broken clankers. Behind the clankers a small force of troops stood together, shields up, spears out.
They circled, weighing the damage. Flydd's escort stood by with their heavy crossbows, in case of an attack, though there were no lyrinx in the air. Flydd allowed half the soldiers to fire on the enemy. Several lyrinx fell. The others retreated, but not far.
'It's not as bad as I first thought,' said the scrutator. 'They would have beaten the enemy off without us. There's no fighting inside the walls.'
'But bad enough!' It was his sergeant, Ruvix, a short, broad man who was a solid slab of muscle. 'Those are storehouses burning.'
'Still, the damage can be repaired.'
'As long as they don't come back in force. It'll take a week to fix the wall breaches, and with only four clankers left…' Ruvix muttered oaths.
'Do you want to go lower?' called the woman at the helm.
'I've seen enough. Wait.' The scrutator pulled out a piece of paper and began scribbling. 'Take us over the master's palace.'
They hovered over the magnificent building, which was unscathed apart from minor damage from catapult balls. Flydd finished writing, stamped his seal at the bottom of the paper and snapped his fingers. A soldier came running with a leather envelope.
Another shouted to the crowd gathered below. The soldier dropped the envelope, someone caught it and ran inside.
'To the manufactory,' said the scrutator. 'And don't muck about.' The manufactory had also been attacked though it was not badly damaged. The air-floater landed on the gravelled area outside the front gates, disgorged its passengers and took off to replenish the floater-gas. Scrutator and mechanician watched it away, then went inside, where Flydd called Overseer Tuniz, all eleven foremen, Captain Gir-Dan and Crafter Irisis to a meeting.
'Your reports, if you please,' said the scrutator. 'Captain?'
Captain Gir-Dan had recently arrived from one of the coast garrisons. A handsome man, dark-haired and broad-shouldered, he had set many hearts aflutter since his arrival. Scurrilous rumour, however, put a question mark over his behaviour on the battle lines, and said that he had been sent here 'for evaluation', as the quisitors put it.
'One attack, surr.' Gir-Dan was not a loquacious man. 'Two days back, it were. Five of the beasts, with a single 'pult. We did three of them with the javelards mounted on the wall. The others fled.'
'Very good.' The scrutator swung around to face Tuniz, a tall, dark-skinned woman with wiry brown hair and filed teeth. A native of Crandor, a steamy land in the subtropical north, she stood out among the smaller, honey-skinned and black-haired natives of this region. 'Overseer, what news from below?'
The captain scowled, for military matters were his province and to be passed over in this way was a deliberate slap in the face. Knowing better than to show it, Gir-Dan composed his features. The scrutator was not a forgiving man.
Tuniz smiled. Her filed teeth made the gesture threatening though she was, by nature, cheerful and friendly.
'The enemy have come out of the ranges all along the coast, surr. As you may have seen, Tiksi has been attacked and badly damaged.'
'We've been down there,' Flydd said flatly. 'It's bad, but they're holding out.'
'Then your news is more recent than mine, surr. There have been attacks on most cities between here and Gosport. Maksmord is likely to fall; Guffeons is sorely pressed. We don't know as much as I'd like; the enemy are targeting skeets now and some messages have not come through. I have the despatches here.' She held out a leather wallet. 'Some are for your eyes only.'
The scrutator took out the papers, riffled through them and sorted them into two piles. He began to read the pile at his right hand. No one spoke for the ten minutes it took him to finish.
Flydd cleared his throat. 'It is worse than I thought. The enemy now hold most of the lands about the Dry Sea, save for Crandor. The mountains of Faranda are theirs, though not the lowlands, and some of the arid lands north of the Great Mountains. And of course Meldorin fell last year, save for the southern peninsula. Thurkad was a crippling loss. We still hold the east coast, the fount of our wealth, central Lauralin and everything south of the Great Mountains. But the east coast is in peril now, and with the Aachim flooding across Lauralin… Well, we shall see about them in due course.'
He set his jaw and eyed them one by one. All broke under his glare, save Irisis. 'We will never give up, not even if all we have left is desolate Luuma Narta. Anything else, overseer?'
'We will meet our target again this month, surr, or better. Three clankers, I'm pleased to say.'
'Very good. Crafter Irisis?'
Irisis also stood out in the manufactory. She was tall, though not as tall as Tuniz, but with pale skin, bright blue eyes and hair as yellow as butter, a sight few people here had seen before her arrival. She had a breathtaking figure, which meant that, despite the shortage of males, she could take her pick. Irisis had been Nish's lover at one stage, though by the time of his departure that had changed to an abiding friendship.
As crafter, she was in charge of the artisans who made controllers for the clankers built here. Twenty artisans now worked to her direction, and fifty prentices. Because their work was so fine, completed controllers were being shipped to other manufactories.
'We have also exceeded our target,' she said. 'We've built eleven controllers this month…'
'But?' snapped Flydd. 'What is the problem, crafter? Remember you are on probation.'
'I could hardly forget it, surr!' Irisis stood up to everyone, and sometimes it got her into trouble. 'The problem is crystal. We've used up almost all we have and the miners can't find more. And since Ullii went away… We need the seeker to sense it out. I'm told you brought her back, surr?'
'I did, but I'm not sure what use she will be. She has suffered a considerable trauma and lost her talent.'
'It may come back. The healers are looking at her now.'
'This is bad, surr. How can I find the crystal I need?'
'I've no bloody idea. Discover a way.' He turned to the first of his foremen.
'One more thing, surr, if I may.' Irisis was unaccountably tentative.
'What is it?' the scrutator snapped. 'I've got a war to win, crafter.'
'What… happened to Nish, surr?'
'We lost the damn fool!'
'Is he dead?' she whispered, rod-straight and hands clenched by her sides.
'Almost certainly. Maybe Ullii can tell us, if she gets her lattice back.'
'Ullii can only see the Secret Art, and Nish has no talent.'
'Useless fellow. He'll be no bloody loss. M'lainte can tell you the tale, when our important business is done.' Irisis joined the mechanician in the refectory afterwards, and over bowls of cabbage soup M'lainte told her what had happened.
'Scrutator was practically in tears,' said the mechanician, slurping from her bowl, 'and that's a sight I've not seen in the thirty years I've known him. Nish did well, notwithstanding that he did not recover the crystal nor get Tiaan back. A boy left us a month ago. At Tirthrax I saw a man, transformed.'
'And now he's dead!' Irisis said bitterly. Despite their many fights, little Nish had been good to her and he was the only man she really cared about.
'You never know. I've got work to do.' M'lainte stood up abruptly.
Irisis remained where she was. She had work to do as well, but her workshop was running smoothly and she needed to think. The loss of Nish changed everything.
Many people had died in the war. Very many men. The population was falling and it was the duty of everyone to mate and produce more children. Irisis had done that duty eagerly, with a number of partners, but so far without result. She had considered bonding permanently with Nish, but that would never happen now. There would be pressure on her to take another partner. For the first time, Irisis found the idea unappealing.
'Done all your work, crafter?'
She jumped, for the scrutator had come up behind her without a sound. 'Sometimes I just need a quiet place to think.'
'I have to talk to you.'
'I'm listening.' She reached for her bowl of ginger and lime tea.
'Not here. Come outside.'
They went through the front gate and Flydd turned right. Irisis had expected him to go left, down in the direction of the crystal mine. She walked beside him up the path, under the aqueduct and towards the tar mines, where fuel was obtained for the furnaces. They lay four hours up a steep path. Irisis hoped he was not planning to go all the way.
After labouring up a steep incline, the scrutator turned left and settled onto an upthrust boss of pale rock, a dyke that ran across the slope like a series of knobs on a backbone. 'Sit down, crafter.'
She perched beside him. 'If this is about my work, surr…' Had he learned the terrible truth about her, that she had lost the most crucial talent an artisan could have – the ability to draw power from the field? That to cover it up she'd become a liar and a fraud, despite her undoubted ability to manage her team of artisans.
'I'm happy with your work, Irisis.'
She relaxed, just a little. Some day she would be exposed, but not today. 'What is it, surr? Something to do with the war?'
'Everything is to do with the war, crafter!' Flydd snapped. 'There's a problem that I didn't wish to bring up, in there. People talk, despite themselves.'
'You already know something about it. Do you recall a time, some months back, when a vital node went dead, stranding fifty clankers on the plain of Minnien?'
'It was before Tiaan's fit of crystal fever. Just before she was sent to the breeding factory…'
His dark eyes probed her. 'About which the least said the better. The lyrinx destroyed every one of those clankers and we have been trying to find out what happened to the node, or at least to its field, ever since.'
'What have you discovered, surr?'
'Very little, and now it has happened again.'
'A number of places. Two are Maksmord and Guffeons, way up the coast, where the enemy have had their greatest successes. It's a great blow to us, Irisis. A terrible blow. Without clankers, we have no hope.'
'Why are you telling me this, surr?'
'No one else has been able to solve the problem. I'm going to give you a try.'
'I have confidence in you, crafter, but you won't be going alone. You've worked well with the seeker in the past. I'll send her with you, once she regains her talent.'
'What do you want me to do?'
'Find out why the nodes are failing. Are we draining them dry, or has the enemy found a way to block or destroy them?'
'Not much is known about nodes, surr.'
'Then you will have the thrill of discovery,' he said dryly. 'Get your work done and organise the best artisan here to take your place. You have a week to be ready.'
'What if Ullii has not recovered by then?'
'She'd better have. Choose two artisans, best suited to the task. You'll go in the air-floater, with guards.'
'To Minnien, then to the next node, if necessary. And the one after that. Be prepared for anything.'
He got up, then sat down again. 'Another matter. A minor one but I thought you'd be pleased to hear about it, since you're under suspended sentence of the place.'
'I've no idea what you're talking about.'
'In the attack on Tiksi, the breeding factory was burned to the ground.'
She smiled. 'I'm delighted to hear it.'
'I dare say it will be rebuilt soon enough.'
She tapped her fingernails on the stone. 'Tiaan's mother was there. What will she do, I wonder?'
'She's a wealthy woman. She'll survive better than most.'
'I dare say.' Marnie was not surviving well at all. Only weeks before, as the war approached, she had sold everything and converted it to gold, which she kept in a chest in her room. She had been downstairs when blazing balls crashed though the roof, and the fire had burned so fiercely that there was no chance to recover anything.
She went back in the morning, before the ashes cooled, tramping through the rubble in a pair of workman's boots found in the gardener's shed. She tracked back and forth for three days, until there was not a handful of ash she had not sifted. Marnie found the half-burned leg of her chair and the brass bands of a chest with her name engraved on it, but that was all. The scavengers had already been. The gold was gone.
All she could do was join the thronging destitute who had lost everything but the clothes they were wearing, and hope someone would take pity on them and give them a few scraps to exist on. Marnie knew her life was over. The breeding factory would be rebuilt but they would never take her back. She was past it.
Irisis sat with Ullii in her darkened room every day, making time where there was none to be had. The seeker spoke not a word. She had taken to throwing her clothes away again and most times squatted naked in a corner, rocking on her bare feet, staring at the wall but seeing nothing. Then, on the third day, she uttered a single word, 'Nish!'
'What is it, Ullii? Can you see him in your lattice?'
'Nish!' she screamed. 'It's got Nish! It's eating his leg! Claws, claws.' She began to sob. 'Myllii, Myllii, Myllii.'
'Who is Myllii?'
Ullii did not reply and Irisis could get no more out of her, for the seeker went back into that silent state.
Returning to the workshop, Irisis sat at her stool and considered her artisans. Of the twenty, there were only three that she would consider taking with her: Goys, a woman of sixty, brilliant but erratic and past her best; young Zoyl Aarp, equally clever but inexperienced and naive, his head turned by every woman who paid him the least attention; and Oon-Mie, no genius but level-headed and a master of every aspect of her craft. Fistila Tyr, now back at her bench after the birth of her third daughter, was also steady but she must stay here. No one else could be relied upon to get the work done and manage the prickly personalities that most artisans were.
So Oon-Mie had to come; Irisis also needed someone she could rely on. Should the other be Zoyl or Goys? Experience or youth? Several teams of artisans and mancers had already worked on the problem and failed. In this hierarchical world those teams would have been packed with experience. A brilliant insight was required here, and that was the province of the young. Zoyl then, and Oon-Mie would balance him.
Everything was ready, and Irisis was awaiting the arrival of the air-floater, when a lightning raid on a shipment heading down to Tiksi resulted in the loss of six newly built controllers.
The scrutator was beside himself. 'Those controllers were needed desperately. The node mission will have to wait. How quickly can you make a new lot, crafter?'
'We have the mechanisms already, surr,' said Irisis. 'But without crystal we can't make them work, and we have no suitable crystal left.'
'What the hell are the miners doing?'
'The mine is practically worked out. The last vein Ullii found, before she went away, contained only three suitable crystals. We've used them all.'
'There must be more somewhere.'
'No doubt, but our miners can't sense it through solid rock.'
'And Ullii is no better?'
'This is bad, crafter. I don't know what we're going to do.'
'There is one possibility, surr.'
'If we could discover where Tiaan came by her special crystal there might be others there like it.'
'I doubt that.'
'Or at least another vein we can use.'
'Does anyone know where she found it?'
'Only she, and old Joeyn, but he died in a roof fall before she fled.'
'So presumably he had only just discovered the crystal.'
'Where was his body found?'
'On the sixth level.' Irisis gripped the sides of her stool.
'What's the matter?' said Flydd.
'I was thinking about being trapped down there.'
'You're not afraid of the underground, surely?'
'No,' she said softly.
'Well, get miners in and find the place.'
'The roof collapsed. Joeyn's body is still there. Two miners died trying to bring it out.'
'Did anyone survive the collapse?'
'I believe so.'
'Find them; locate the spot as precisely as you can and drive another tunnel into it.'
'That level is forbidden, surr,' said Irisis.
'Do you think I don't know that? I take full responsibility. Get it done!' Mining was slow work and all the pep talks and offers of double pay could not measurably speed it up, especially on the unstable sixth level. Moreover, skilled miners were in short supply and even in this desperate situation the scrutator did not want to risk them in unnecessary haste. He had set two teams of miners to the problem, tunnelling in from either side, offering a quile of silver to the team that got there first, but nearly a fortnight had gone by before the slow creep of the tunnel face brought the first team around the collapsed area towards the vein of crystal on the other side.
'We've just about done it, surr,' said Peate, the senior miner on the team. 'Next shift, according to my survey, we should break though. And win the prize.'
'Glad I am to hear it,' said the scrutator. 'The Council has not been pleased so far. I hope this will restore their faith in me. And in this manufactory…'
Irisis shivered, as did everyone. Bad enough that they had a scrutator breathing down their necks every day. Far worse to know that, even if he was happy with their efforts, his superiors were not.
She went back with Peate, for it had been a week since Irisis had had the time to go down the mine. She had no fear of confined spaces. It was the thought of being trapped down there and slowly starving to death that terrified her.
'Here we are,' said Peate, squeezing under a hard layer glistening with golden mica. Two miners, naked to the waist, were using hammer and chisel to break the rock while another shovelled it into a hand cart.
'The rock's different here, is it not?' Higher up in the mine it was pink granite, all sheared and vein-impregnated, but here the granite was blue-grey and the veins were the width of tree trunks.
'It's different everywhere.' Peate levered a shattered piece of rock out of the face with his pick. Seeping water had stained the granite in brain patterns.
'How far, do you think?'
'Two spans; at most, three.'
'And you can dig that far in a day?'
'We can do two spans in this kind of rock, since we're digging on such a narrow face. Probably not three. Definitely not if we have to prop up the roof, though I don't think we will.' He turned away.
Irisis watched them for some time; but as she was about to leave, a muffled crack sounded off to the side, where no one was working. 'What was that?' she yelled. 'Is it the roof?'
'It's the team working on the other side,' said Peate. 'Won't do 'em any good, poor sods.' He laughed, a strangled gasp. 'They'll never catch us. The silver is as good as ours.'
'Would we hear them through all this rock?'
'Sound travels strangely through stone. Sometimes miners can be working five spans away and you won't know they're there, while in another place you'll hear them from half a league. Who can fathom it? I'm going home. Come back tomorrow afternoon if you want to see the breakthrough.'
Irisis returned at midday to find the team hammering and shovelling like fury, stripped down to loincloths and covered in sweat. 'I've never seen anyone work so hard,' she marvelled.
The scrutator, perched on a rock like an emaciated vulture, snorted. 'The other team kept going all night. When Peate's mob got in this morning, their opposition had only a span and a half to go. Peate hasn't taken a break in five hours.'
'He'll kill himself,' said Irisis. The miners were staggering about like zombies.
'No one ever worked themselves to death!' Flydd said carelessly.
'Won't be long now,' she said a while later, then realised that she was talking to herself. The scrutator had gone to check on the progress of the second team. She followed the tunnel around the other side. Here the roof rock, which was greatly sheared, was held up with a forest of props and beams. She edged between them, afraid that if she bumped one the whole roof would come down. Four miners crouched, their faces yellow in the lamplight.
'We're through,' grinned Dandri, the leader of the team. She poked her stubby finger into a cup-sized hole. 'Careful now. And remember, no yelling and cheering when we're in the cavity. We'll just sit there, drinking our tea and waiting for them to break through. That'll teach the buggers to gloat.'
'I would give you the same advice,' said the scrutator.
'But we've done it.'
Flydd and Irisis stood back while they dug out a hole large enough to step through. Frantic hammering echoed from the other side. Someone laughed.
'Going to tear down the old hut and build a new one with my share,' said a panting miner.
'This way, if you please, surr,' said Dandri.
Flydd took the offered lantern and eased sideways into the cavity, which ran vertically here and was as wide as his shoulders. Holding the lantern out, he turned around, then his lipless mouth curved down at the corners.
'What's the matter, surr?' cried Irisis.
'No crystal,' he said in a dead voice.
'This is the place, surr,' Dandri pleaded. 'I checked the survey twice.'
Irisis put her head in. 'Are you playing a joke, surr? There's crystal everywhere.'
'Indeed, but it isn't any good. I can sense proper crystal, the stuff that can be woken into a hedron, and there's none of it here. This is just ordinary quartz, as dead as we'll soon be.'
'But how can that be?' cried Irisis. 'This has to be the place where Joeyn found the wonder crystal.'
'It's the place, all right. The aura makes my skin prickle. Good crystal was here, buckets full of it. But it isn't here now.' He indicated an oval shaft that slanted down towards the seventh level. 'Someone has tunnelled up and taken the lot!' Xervish Flydd said not a word for the rest of the day, which was far more frightening than the half-joking threats he was wont to issue in normal conversation. A brief, grim meeting was held, where he put the disaster to overseer, foremen and captain, and dismissed them.
A volunteer soldier followed the shaft, which zigzagged back and forth through weaknesses in the stone, down to the disused seventh level.
'It had better be lyrinx!' said Overseer Tuniz, for once without the least trace of good humour, as the soldier scrambled from the hole.
The crisis had a personal dimension for her. The scrutator had promised that she could go home after a year, if the manufactory met all its targets. Home was Crandor, four hundred leagues north. Tuniz had left her work there without leave, to search for her shipwrecked partner, only to discover that he had been captured and eaten by the enemy. She had not seen her little children for a year and without the scrutator's leave might never see them again.
'It was lyrinx, overseer,' said the soldier. 'I found their dung all around the exit. Trod in it, in truth, and right horrible, stinking stuff it was.'
Irisis could smell it on his boots. She moved backwards out of the way.
'How did they know the crystals were there?' said Tuniz, rubbing her eyes.
'I imagine they tortured it out of Tiaan,' Irisis surmised. 'They know how desperately we need crystal.'
'What are we going to do about it?' demanded the overseer. 'We'd better have an answer by the time the scrutator gets up tomorrow, or…'
'What?' said the soldier, snappy because his bravery had not been recognised.
'Or our lives may well be forfeit, and Flydd's as well. The Council does not like failure and these past six months we have had nothing else.'
'Time the seeker got over her self-indulgence,' said Irisis. 'I'll see if I can shake her out of it.'
'What good will that do?' asked the overseer.
'She saw crystal in several places in the mountain, before she went away with Nish. I'll have her search out the best of them, and then we must dig for our very lives.' Irisis was unable to rouse the seeker from her self-absorbed state. Something drastic had to be done. When it was nearly midnight, she went to see the scrutator. His door was closed. She knocked. There was no answer. Irisis knocked again.
'Go to bloody hell!' he roared, so loudly that she jumped.
Taking her courage in both hands, Irisis lifted the latch and pushed the door open. Xervish Flydd was sprawled in a wooden chair, a flask of pungent parsnip whisky dangling from one gnarled hand. An empty flask lay on the floor. He was naked but for a loin rag and his skeletal body was as scarred and twisted as his face and hands. Whatever had happened to him, whoever had tortured him and broken his bones, they had spared no part of him.
'What the blazes do you want?' he snarled. Flydd's voice was clear despite the quantity of liquor he had consumed. 'Go away! I'm sick of the lot of you.'
A half-written letter, presumably confessing the manufactory's difficulties to the Council of Scrutators, rested on the table.
'I have an idea!' she said.
'I don't want to hear it.' Tilting the flask up, he drained the contents in one swallow, then reached for another.
The death wish was rising up in her again. Snatching the flask from his hand, she hurled it out the door, where it smashed satisfyingly.
The scrutator rose to his battered feet, swayed and steadied himself on the table. 'You could die for that, artisan.'
'Crafter!' she snapped. She wanted to run away screaming, but Irisis forced herself to meet his eyes, to hold his gaze. She had never met anyone as tough as Xervish Flydd, and she had to be just as strong. 'If you don't pull yourself together we could all die, scrutator. How is that going to help the war?'
'You lecture me?' he said incredulously. 'The penalty for insubordination is death, crafter.'
'If I'm going to die, it might as well be of my own choosing!' Irisis gave him the kind of glare she used to quell importunate lovers and idle prentices.
He glared back, quite as fiercely. They held their positions, each waiting for the other to break, then finally the scrutator barked with laughter and pointed to the other chair.
'Spill your idea, Irisis.'
'Come with me, and together we will cajole the seeker, or force her if we must, out of that state. Then we get her to find the biggest cluster of crystals the mountain has to offer and we dig for them, night and day. I'll take my turn with pick and shovel, if there's a shortage.'
'Not much of a plan, crafter, but it's better than anything I can come up with. Shall we go?'
With her hand on the knob, Irisis looked back. 'It might be an idea to dress first, surr. Wouldn't want to alarm her unnecessarily.'
The scrutator looked down at his grizzled nakedness, grinned, and said, 'Quite!' Ullii squatted in the corner, exactly as she had for the past couple of weeks. Though it was cold today, she wore only her spider-silk undergarments.
'Seeker?' the scrutator called from the door.
The rhythm of her rocking did not alter.
He came up close. 'Seeker?'
Nothing at all.
'What are you thinking about, seeker? Are you remembering your friend, Nish?'
She might have rocked a little faster, though more along that line of questioning yielded nothing.
'Here is your other friend, Irisis. Do you remember her?' He beckoned Irisis in.
Not by so much as a blink did Ullii react, nor could he gain one from any other approach, though he spent half an hour trying.
'I don't know what else to do,' he whispered to Irisis, over by the door.
'Since being kind has not worked, maybe you should try being nasty.'
'Better that you be the nasty one,' he snapped. 'You've had more practice.'
She ignored that. 'Come outside.'
She led him out and around the corner, so that Ullii, even with her hypersensitive hearing, could not overhear.
'I can't force her,' she said, 'else I will lose her trust. I'll need it when we go to examine the failed nodes.'
'True enough. What is she afraid of most in all the world?'
Irisis considered. 'Apart from Nish's father, Perquisitor Hlar?'
'Precisely! Go away. Best that you're nowhere near.'
The scrutator went inside, this time taking a bright lantern and leaving the door wide open. Ullii groped around for her goggles and mask but he got there first and held them out of reach. She began to moan and flail her arms in the air.
'Well, at least that's a reaction,' he said aloud. 'Ullii?'
She dropped back into her slack-jawed rocking. Was it an act? Perhaps she was sulking, or punishing him for losing Nish.
He slammed the door a couple of times, opened it again and turned the lantern up to maximum brightness. Ullii put her arms over her face and began to make a keening sound in her throat.
'Stand up, Ullii,' he roared, knowing it would hurt her.
She did not move.
'What are you afraid of, seeker? Are you frightened of me?'
No reply, though for an instant one eye peeped out through her fingers.
'Do you remember Perquisitor Jal-Nish Hlar, Ullii? Nish's father?'
She wailed and covered her ears.
He dropped his voice. 'If you don't wake up and help us, seeker, do you know what will happen? The Council will cut off my head.'
Ullii went still and her fingers slipped away from her ears, so he knew she was listening.
'What will happen then, Ullii? You don't know, do you? Well, listen good. The perquisitor will come!'
Ullii let out a little gasp, 'No!'
'Yes, Jal-Nish Hlar will come, for you! Right here, to this room.'
'No!' she wailed.
'Yes, he will smash your goggles and rip your earmuffs apart. He will tear off your spider-silk underwear and cast it into the furnace.'
She screamed and threw her head from side to side but the scrutator did not relent. Squatting in front of her, he took her by the shoulders. Her wide eyes stared into his.
'And then, little seeker, he will beat you and scream at you. He will torment you in ways so horrible that I cannot bear to say them. He will stake you out in the sun and leave you there to die! That's what kind of a man the perquisitor is, seeker!'
'No, no, no!' she screamed, leapt up and raced around the room, so distressed that she cannoned off the walls.
The scrutator allowed her that freedom for a minute or two, then turned down the lantern, closed the door and, as she fled past, handed her the mask and earmuffs.
Ullii snatched them and put them on. Fleeing to her corner, she crouched down, rocking furiously.
'On the other hand,' said Flydd gently, 'you could agree to help us. We know your talent has come back, Ullii.' He was guessing about that, but Flydd felt sure that her loss of talent was due to a temporary trauma, long over, and she was pretending otherwise for her own perverse reasons.
'Only sometimes,' she muttered. 'I don't have it all the time.'
'Better than nothing, seeker. So you will help us?'
'Yes!' she mumbled.
'That is very good. Thank you, Ullii. We will start down the mine after lunch.' He tiptoed to the door.
'I hate you,' hissed Ullii. 'You are a nasty, cruel man!'
'I am,' he replied. 'But not as nasty nor as cruel as the perquisitor.'
'Master, the pipes are calling!'
Gilhaelith, known locally as the tetrarch on account of his obsession with numbers to the power of four, threw himself out of bed, eyes firmly closed. 'Where is my gown?'
The servant wrapped it around Gilhaelith's gangling frame. Gilhaelith tied the sash with awkward jerks, sat on the bed and raised a pair of large and profoundly ugly feet. Leather slippers were pulled on. He put out a hand, blindly, for he still had not opened his eyes. The servant pressed a two-handled cup the size of a serving bowl into Gilhaelith's fingers. The yellow liquid was too thick to ripple. Even the steam rose sluggishly.
Gilhaelith put the cup to his nose, inhaling pungent fumes of mustard-water that was more mustard than water. His head jerked back; his eyes sprang open.
'Aah!' he gasped, draining half the cup in a long series of swallows that bobbed his larynx up and down like a cork in a pail. 'Aaaah!'
The servant, ever ready, wiped Gilhaelith's streaming nose with a kerchief the size of a tablecloth. Gilhaelith gulped the rest of the mustard-water and sprang to life. 'Aaaaaaaah! Very good, Mihail; a fine brew this morning. Take me down the outside walkway, if you please.'
'I… dare not, master.'
Gilhaelith smiled. The ritual was an old one. It pleased him to ask, and to have the servant refuse. He would have been irked had Mihail answered differently.
'Meet me in the pipe chamber then.'
'At once, Gilhaelith.'
Gilhaelith frowned at the familiarity. But after all, Mihail had served him nearly fifty years, and Mihail's father for thirty years before that. 'Be ready,' he said. 'I am hungry this morning.' He said that every morning. Gilhaelith strode out, the mustard-coloured, mustard-stained robes flapping about his bristly shanks.
It was still dark outside as he walked across the terrace. A thumbnail paring of moon, low in the sky, gave barely enough light to see. That did not matter – Gilhaelith had trodden this path most days in the hundred years since Nyriandiol, the ultimate creation of his life and work so far, had finally been completed.
The night was a little too cool for what he was wearing but his belly radiated a satisfying warmth. Gilhaelith paused under a vine-covered pergola while a mustard-flavoured belch made its wobbly way up. His slippers rasped on the paving stones as he turned down the walkway.
A swooping suspended path of stone, the walkway curved along the outside wall of Nyriandiol, which itself swept in and out. At the far end, the path took a zigzag down and ran back the other way, and so on right down the eight levels of the monstrous building. The path had no steps and no rail. Its surface undulated like waves in the ocean. It was a colossal conceit and a dare, for there was nothing beneath it but the dull gleam of water hundreds of spans below, and to fall meant death. Many workers had died building the path; only one man dared to walk it.
Gilhaelith knew it like the most familiar parts of his body but every day it was a challenge that left his heart racing. Presently it was damp with condensed moisture from the lake, slippery in unexpected places, and if he relaxed it would claim him with profound indifference. Walking this path was a good way to start the day, or the night for that matter.
Safely at the lowest level, he grasped the handle of a door carved from solid red jasper and jerked it open. No need for locks here. The corridor was unlit. He made his way through the blackness to a small chamber, out through whose door yellow light streamed.
Mihail waited inside with breakfast – a platter of freshly salted slugs covered in foaming yellow slime. Gilhaelith downed the delicacies whole, two at a time, smacking his lips and licking the foam off his fingers. On each corner of the tray was a quartered, pickled red onion the size of a grapefruit, with which to cleanse his palate. Gilhaelith selected a quarter, inspected it, found a minute blemish and put it back. The others also failed his scrutiny; the whole sixteen quarters were blemished. Fortunately Mihail knew what to do. He deftly peeled the outer layer off the first quarter, presenting Gilhaelith with a perfect inner segment.
'It's too small,' Gilhaelith said for the sake of form, but took the onion and crunched it noisily.
The servant presented a finger bowl half full of sulphur-water. Gilhaelith waggled his fingers in it, dried them on the proffered napkin and was ready for work.
'You may go, Mihail.'
The servant withdrew. Gilhaelith took up the lantern and went through into the adjoining room, a chamber so vast that neither its ceiling nor far wall could be seen. He set the lantern on the floor, shuttered it completely and stood in the dark, listening.
The pipes were calling. He made out a low note, a fluttery tremble that he could feel through his slippers, and then a higher, eerie keening. Gilhaelith cocked his head. He had not heard either sound before and could not work out what their ultimate source might be.
Unshuttering the lantern, he made his way up the room. The light picked structures out of the gloom – pipes of wood and metal, most in clusters of four by four, rarely nine by nine. The values were important. He would have used larger numbers but Nyriandiol was not big enough to accommodate them. Some clusters were horizontal, though most stood upright. The end of the room was taken up by countless arrays of organ pipes, the tallest stretching up to the ceiling, which here stood the full eight storeys of Nyriandiol above them. Gilhaelith sat in a chair around which were clustered, in symmetrical arrays, more pipes of all sizes, down to ones smaller than a pencil.
The organ was a geomantic device designed to listen in to, and give sound to, the harmony of the spheres. So far, though he had spent a century refining it, Gilhaelith had been frustrated in that endeavour. The subtle vibrations of the planets in their orbits could not be detected by his geomancy, even funnelled through the largest pipes he could create. However, the organ did pick up other vibrations, other tones, and for more than fifty years he had been noting these and trying to discern the underlying patterns and the numbers behind them. Many vibrations seemed related to nodes or to their fields. Fields that in some cases were being drained dry by the power drawn by humanity's squadrons of clankers, and other machines powered by the Secret Art. Another puzzle he was keen to solve.
Gilhaelith had constructed a model of the main nodes he knew about, trying but failing to understand them. His organ was powerful, for he drew upon the great Booreah Ngurle double node to drive it. But it, or perhaps he, lacked sensitivity. He could not tell how to overcome that.
There was something strange about the tones he was now hearing, and he needed to pinpoint them. On a bench across the room, on a pedestal of ebony wood, sat a perfect sphere some half a span across, surfaced with glass. The sphere contained a model of Santhenar, or at least the parts of it for which there were reliable maps. It showed Lauralin and the surrounding islands in detail, including the mountains in relief, though all of that lay beneath the smooth surface of glass.
Drawing on a pair of silken gloves, Gilhaelith passed his fingers over the surface of the geomantic globe, close but not touching. Wisps of cold vapour followed his movements: for sensitivity, the sphere had to be bitterly cold. It was kept that way by what lay at its core.
Beneath his hands, tiny pinpoints of light sparkled. He put on a pair of spectacles, each side of which contained a trio of lenses set within wire coils, like springs. Pulling down on the coils to separate the lenses, he squinted at the markings. With a grimace he lifted his hands and repeated the operation, no more successfully than the first time.
Gilhaelith returned to his chair, which stood in front of a curving console carved from a single block of cedar wood two spans across. It contained a number of organ keyboards whose yellow triangular keys alternately pointed toward him and away, as well as a variety of stops, buttons and pedals. Drawing out some stops and pushing in others, he set his big fingers to the keys and began to play, attempting to duplicate the low, fluttering tremble. He could not, which vexed him. Nor could he work out where the note came from, which bothered him even more. To unmask the source, he must first record the location on his scrying globe.
Gilhaelith was a geomancer of great power, though power itself held no interest for him. He cared about nothing except knowledge. He was wealthy, but likewise wealth had only one value – it allowed him to pursue his drive to understand geomancy in all its subtlety. Geomancy was the Art that underpinned the heavenly bodies and the forces that controlled them, and he sought to master it to the limit of his ability, though in truth he rarely used that power. When he did need to use the Art he relied on mathemancy, which he had developed and of which he was, as far as he was aware, the only practitioner in the world. Wielding an unknown Art had its advantages.
Neither could he precisely reproduce the higher sound that came from the pipes, though Gilhaelith had perfect pitch and knew which pipes made it. That irritated him even more. However, he was able to identify one remarkable feature of the call. It was moving.
That was strange. His organ could pick up the sounds associated with the great forces that shaped and moved the world, but they were always in the same place. It could not detect the harmonies associated with the planets, the moon, wandering comets or other celestial bodies. Occasionally a meteor might be large enough, and come close enough, for him to detect its song – a high squeal rising in pitch before abruptly being cut off – but neither of these sounds was remotely like that.
They were moving slowly. Definitely not a celestial body. A delicious puzzle. He enjoyed puzzles – Gilhaelith had been playing the world game for most of his adult life and was a long way from solving it. What could this object be? The organ was not sensitive to the tones from minor forces such as hedrons, clankers and other devices that employed the Art. He had no interest in the works of vulgar humanity. But this was different, and something in the notes was slightly, hauntingly familiar. Shuttering the lantern, he sat in the dark, listening and remembering. His stomach crawled as though his breakfast was still alive. Some weeks ago, a strange disruption had frosted his globe and wrung a sobbing note out of the worldwide ethyr itself. That had not happened before in all his years of listening. The ethyr was only a carrier, normally intangible, and for it to sing meant that a monumental disruption had taken place.
Gilhaelith had not yet discovered what, or where. If some natural force, it must have been a cataclysmic one, though a huge earthquake, eruption or landfall would have reverberated for ages. It had been nothing like that. Nor had it to do with the war. Neither humanity nor the lyrinx had that kind of power.
The sounds were still moving. He put his hands on the keys, again struggling and failing to duplicate them. His curiosity would not let go, but though he played for hours with such intensity that his mustard-stained gown became drenched in sweat, Gilhaelith could not get close. He wanted to draw the source to him but did not know how. For all his geomantic power, he was helpless. Should he go to the bells? He glanced over his shoulder at the cloth-shrouded carillon and shuddered. No, he was not in the right frame of mind for that particular kind of struggle.
When Gilhaelith finally left the organ, the pipes no longer sang. In disgust, he closed the door and climbed the obsidian stairs to the top of his observatory tower, to draw solace from the ever predictable motions of the celestial bodies. Gilhaelith's house stood at the top of the volcano whose name was Booreah Ngurle, the famous Burning Mountain, and it was the strangest house in the world. He called it a house, though really it was a great rambling workshop, laboratory and library. Gilhaelith was a polymath, a man interested in everything and master of many disciplines. He was more than one hundred and fifty years old, but in society might have passed for forty, not that he was ever in society. He lived alone apart from a flock of servants whose families had served him for generations.
Gilhaelith spent the rest of the night in his observatory, at the top of the tower near a vine-covered terrace. He was searching for comets, which were more frequent at this time of year, but as the dawn brightened he fell asleep at his 'scope. A servant woke him an hour later with a mug of stout, heated to boiling by plunging a red-hot poker into it. Black liquid foamed over the sides, flecked with shreds of mace.
As Gilhaelith reached for the mug, the greatest pipes of his organ, which had not sounded by themselves in all his years of watching, groaned. The sound was so low that it shook the whole of Nyriandiol. The drink quivered in his servant's hand. A few seconds later something flashed past the rim of the crater. It could not have been a comet, for it was black and the rising sun glinted off it. Swinging the spyglass around, Gilhaelith caught another flash of black, now dropping sharply to disappear below the rim.
He leaned back in his chair and, putting his lanky legs up on the rail, grated a good third of a nutmeg onto his stout. Stirring it in with a pair of brass dividers, he took a cautious sip. Spice-crusted foam caught on his upper lip. 'What can it be?' he said to himself.
He puzzled about the incident until mid-morning, working through all the possibilities he could think of. It did not occur to him to go down into the forest and take a look. Gilhaelith was not a man of action. However, he did check the organ and look into his globe again. Neither told him anything. Frustrated, he occupied himself with other activities, to cleanse his mind of the puzzle.
Late in the morning Gilhaelith was composing a poem in his library – an ode on the power four – when his eye caught an engraving of a scene from the famous but debased Tale of the Mirror. It portrayed the tragic funeral ride of Rulke across the Way between the Worlds to Aachan, his body bound to the side of the construct. The engraving had been on his library wall for ninety-seven years, so long that Gilhaelith had ceased to notice it.
Laying down his quill, he peered at the engraving. The fleeting black image seen earlier resonated with this image of the construct, a congruence so remarkable that he began to contemplate a radical action – actually going down to the forest to investigate. 'Curious,' he said. 'Will I or won't I?'
He tested the omens by raising a selection of random numbers to the fourth power, then reading the pattern. It was mostly harmonious. 'Yes, I'll go down and take a look.'
Being a methodical man, he returned to the tower, took a sighting on the spot where the falling object had disappeared, and marked it on his map. Taking off his robes he donned a dark green shirt, red walking boots and baggy pants which revealed hairy, skinny legs knobbed in the middle by kneecaps as square as pieces of toast.
Gilhaelith tossed a shapeless pack over his shoulder. It contained a length of rope, a hatchet and a large bottle of stout so black that it could have been used to dye soot. Fully equipped, he told the servants where he was going and strode off along the rim of the volcano as though there were springs in his knees.
Booreah Ngurle was dormant at the moment, emitting only wisps of steam and an occasional puff of ash. One day, however, it would come to life and erupt violently, blasting cubic leagues of rock into the air and destroying everything for five or ten leagues around, including Nyriandiol and, if he was in residence at the time, himself.
Gilhaelith enjoyed that uncertainty almost as much as his morning walk on the suspended path. Life on Santhenar was fragile, death often brutal and sudden, and living here reminded him every day. He knew the science of the earth better than anyone, and monitored the tremblers and the gaseous emissions of the volcano as methodically as he did everything in his life. Gilhaelith hoped to predict the eruption and make his way to a safe vantage point, the better to observe it. But if he failed, that would also be interesting, albeit briefly.
Crunching along the ashy ground, which was sparsely covered in silky lamb's ears and other hardy plants, he looked over the outer side. Further down, weeds gave way to grey shrubs, beyond which the vegetation became increasingly luxuriant. From the halfway point, the slopes were clothed in tall forest that extended into the vastness of Worm Wood in all directions, concealing what lay below. He felt sure the falling object had gone down there, somewhere.
Though Gilhaelith was familiar with this part of the forest, it took him what remained of the day to find the machine. A lesser man might have given up but, once set upon a course, Gilhaelith never did.
It was a construct. He marvelled at that. Gilhaelith knew the Histories well and understood the significance of this machine. It, or the events that had brought it here, would change the world. Just what was the connection with that disturbance of the ethyr weeks ago?
The construct lay on its side, partly embedded in the mouldering remnants of a pair of rotting logs, forest giants that had fallen many years ago. The metal skin was crumpled, the front and side stoved in. He walked around it twice, noting everything for future consideration and making sketches. He might do a painting one day and hang it in his library.
The hatch was closed. 'Hello?' he called. 'Is anyone here?'
There was no answer, so he heaved it open. Constructs had always fascinated him, because no one knew how they worked. In his boyhood, before reality crushed such ambitions, he had dreamed of flying one.
It was growing dark. Gilhaelith slid in through the hatch. It was completely dark inside but his exploring hand struck a glass sphere, which began to glow. Everything about the machine was strange and, to a geomancer, fascinating. He discovered that it bore similarities to clankers, but also had many differences. The most notable: its flight had been powered by one of the strong forces. To the best of his knowledge, no one had ever mastered such forces. Did he have a rival more advanced than himself?
Then he discovered the amplimet. In all his life he had seen nothing like it. He spent ages there, oblivious to everything else, studying the amplimet without ever touching it. He was wary, for the danger was obvious. Yet he coveted it, and the construct too. Within them lay the answers to questions he had puzzled over for a very long time. How he would enjoy that journey of discovery.
A faint scraping sound from below reminded him that the construct must have had an operator. 'Hello?' he called.
A groan answered him. He climbed down into the darkness. The globe on the wall was broken so he conjured a glimmer with his fingers – the simplest magic of all. A young woman lay on the tilted floor. Gilhaelith had little use for people but she was different from the women of these parts, and quite lovely. He gazed at her.
The woman was small compared to his female servants, and slender, with hair so black and glossy that even in this dim light it shone. Her colouring, and her eyes, suggested that she was from the south-east of Lauralin.
Gilhaelith had no currency with women, apart from the elderly matrons who worked in his villa. He had not spent time with a young woman in a hundred years. From his early life, Gilhaelith knew that human relationships caused only misery. Nonetheless, he did not like to see any creature in pain.
Squatting beside her, knees popping, he called to mind the common speech of the south-east, which he had learned in his youth but seldom had cause to speak. 'My name is Gilhaelith. Who are you?'
'I am Tiaan Liise-Mar.' Her voice was the barest exhalation.
He inspected her from head to foot, probing her skull with bony fingers. 'You've taken a nasty knock, but I think no harm is done. Take my hand; I'll help you up.'
'I can't feel my legs. My back is broken.'
Gilhaelith rocked back on his heels. Broken backs could not be repaired by any healer's skill, nor any form of the Secret Art he was aware of. What was he to do with her?
'Have you friends or family?'
'Not within two hundred leagues,' she whispered.
Beautiful and doomed. What to do? He would take the glowing crystal. He could have his servants bring the construct to Nyriandiol. It would not be easy but it could be done. And Tiaan Liise-Mar?
It would be a kindness to put her out of her misery, as he would do for any animal with the same affliction. He considered it dispassionately, but the practicality of suffocating her, or breaking her neck, under the gaze of those dark eyes, was beyond him. Better to expose her on the floor of the forest. A predator would take her within a day and it would be a quick death, though not a pleasant one. He would not want it for himself, and the waiting would be worse. Gilhaelith lidded his eyes, the better to take the omens. The numbers all fell badly, so he could not expose her either. There was only one thing to do, though he felt sure he would regret it.
'I will have you brought to my house, Nyriandiol,' he said heavily. 'It is not far.'
She closed her eyes. Gilhaelith stood by her for a minute. He could carry her that distance, had there been no option, but was reluctant to. Her back might not be irretrievably damaged, but if he picked her up it would be, and then he would never be rid of her. He would bring down his most reliable servants, a healer and a stretcher.
'I will be gone a few hours,' he said. 'Will you be all right for that time?'
'I'm not going anywhere,' Tiaan said, with an empty laugh that chilled him.
He gave her the last of the stout from his bottle. It went down the wrong way, causing her to cough. Black stout dribbled down her chin. He wiped it off, and with a last backward glance went up the ladder. Outside he closed the hatch and climbed the mountain as fast as he could in the dark. Red-faced and dripping sweat, he crashed into the hall not long before midnight.
'Mihail, Fley,' he roared. 'Get up! An accident down the mountain. Have we a stretcher?'
Mihail, a portly man with a pink, shiny complexion like fresh scar tissue, put his head around the door. 'Healer Gurteys has one, I believe, Master Gilhaelith.'
'Rouse Gurteys and Seneschal Nixx out of bed. A young woman lies injured in the forest. Her back is broken.'
Fley came trotting out of the infirmary with the stretcher under one arm. He was a big man, as muscular as a butcher, but completely silent, for Fley was a mute. Gurteys, his wife, was lean and wiry, with webbed fingers, a perpetual scowl and a voice as raucous as a cockerel.
'As if I haven't enough to do in the daytime,' she said in a whine that caused Fley to clench his fists. Staring at the back of his wife's neck, he opened his fingers into claws, then crushed them closed. That appeared to satisfy him for he followed in silence.
Nixx met them at the front door. An ill-shaped man, the seneschal had a nose so hooked, and a chin so pointed, that he could have held a walnut between them. His eyes were black buttons, his ears pendulous and his egg-shaped skull completely bald. Nixx was polite, efficient and completely loyal. And he had one feature that to Gilhaelith was worth more than all the others – he was the fourth son of a fourth son, and the fourth of his line to have been seneschal to Gilhaelith.
It was around three in the morning by the time the procession of lanterns reached the construct. Gurteys the healer, well back from Gilhaelith's hearing, complained all the way. The servants stared at the fallen machine but did not ask questions. Inside, Gilhaelith and the healer held Tiaan's head while Mihail and Fley rolled her just enough to slide the stretcher underneath. They bound her to it and Gurteys gave her a dose of green syrup that closed her eyes within a minute. The bearers carefully manoeuvred the stretcher up and out of the hatch. Gilhaelith gave orders for them to return with a canvas, to conceal the machine while he worked out what to do with it.
It was a slow trip back. Gilhaelith paced ahead of the stretcher, worn out after his second night without sleep. His belly throbbed, high up. What was he to do with Tiaan? Near the summit he looked back and saw that her eyes were open. She quickly closed them.
Dawn had broken by the time they reached Nyriandiol. Gilhaelith saw Tiaan settled in the room beside his, next to the front door, and left her to the healer. He spent hours pacing the suspended walkway, oblivious to the danger. Usually he found the scenery exhilarating. Now he did not notice it.
When the healer had finished, Gilhaelith met her at the door. Taking Gurteys by the sleeve, for he did not like to touch, he led her out to the main terrace. They stood by the stone wall, looking down into the crater. Below, a man clad only in a loincloth toiled up a winding path, carrying a laden basket on his head. It was piled high with chunks of native sulphur, which condensed around vents inside the crater. Sulphur had always been valuable. The war had made it priceless and Gilhaelith's supply was the purest in the world.
That was another worry. For the past century the war had been so far away that it did not matter, but it was coming closer all the time. The lands immediately east of the Sea of Thurkad looked set to fall before next winter. The scrutators might be thinking it was time they secured their supplies directly rather than paying his outrageous prices. The lyrinx, who had never bothered him, could equally be planning to seize the source to deny it to humanity. Though he loved Nyriandiol more than anything, Gilhaelith saw a time coming when he would have to abandon it, if he was to continue his work.
'What have you found?' he asked the healer.
'Her back is broken,' said Gurteys. 'It's not a bad break, as such things go. It will heal. Unfortunately the spinal cord has been severed. There's nothing I can do about that. She will be paralysed from the waist down until the day she dies.'
Gilhaelith treated his people well, though he had never concerned himself with their lives or problems. Now, as he stared down into the crater, all he could see was Tiaan's face, bleached under the amber skin, and the eyes staring up at the ceiling.
It made him uncomfortable. Gilhaelith had no friends, nor wanted any. People were unreliable. People rejected, spurned and betrayed. His only desire was to play the great game to the limit of his ability, but if Tiaan remained here that would be disrupted. Yet how could he rid himself of her without compromising the crystal and the construct?
The amplimet, carefully wrapped, hung like a lead weight in his pocket. The construct oppressed him too. He wanted to master them, whatever it cost. If the scrutators knew the construct was here they would march on Nyriandiol with an army. To say nothing of the construct's true owner, and he knew that was not Tiaan. The machine was of Aachim make and they must be hunting it even now. Why had she stolen it?
By keeping it secret he risked everything, but he was going to try. He had to. The construct offered knowledge that could give him the advantage in the game.
That reminded him of something. Hastening to the library, he took up a secret book of geomancy his agents had only just uncovered. After ten minutes he had not taken in a single word. Tossing it on the table, Gilhaelith looked for his poem, but did not bother to pick it up. He could see nothing but Tiaan's tormented features.
One remedy had never failed him. In the cool of the cellar at the back of the seventh level, Gilhaelith tapped a foaming mug of his favourite stout. The black brew went down untasted, and another two after it. They proved no use at all.
Since Tiaan had stolen the amplimet and used the construct, she must have some minor talent. Perhaps he could use her. Gilhaelith was a fair man and would pay her for that service. Was there anything he could do to get her legs back?
His library was one of the best in the world, for books were the first treasures to be sold when war swept across a city and drove its citizens onto the road. The world was awash with rare manuscripts; treasures could be had for a few gold coins and his agents were constantly sending him more.
Calling his librarian, Gilhaelith instructed her to find every document that bore on the subject of broken backs, necks, and recovery therefrom. There was plenty; he read all day and half the night before collapsing on his bed for a few hours of sleep. Late that evening he visited the patient, who lay as still and silent as before, then went on with his work.
Gilhaelith ploughed through the rest of the tomes, scrolls and parchments. Though they contained a good lading of miraculous cures, most he was able to dismiss as quackery. He found no reputable healer's opinion that disagreed with his own.
Tiaan roused from the potion while they were still in the forest. She remembered everything except the fall that had broken her back. The bearers were carrying her up a steep slope through forest that had a rich decaying smell. The lanterns were golden orbs swaying across her vision. The night was silent, apart from the tramp of footsteps and an occasional mutter of 'No, this way,' or 'Give us a hand up here.' The man who had discovered her was just a shadow, well ahead.
Was Gilhaelith friend or enemy? Most likely the latter. In her travels across Tirthrax, Tiaan had often considered how she might defend herself against attackers. She had not imagined being helpless to do so. This man could use her, or abuse her, in any way he wanted. He could give the thapter to the enemy, or sell her to the most evil man in the world. There was nothing she could do. She wished she had died.
Hours later, as dawn broke, they carried her out of the forest up through a patch of thorny bushes, over a barrens of black rock and scree that slipped underfoot, and onto the rim of the crater.
The summit of Booreah Ngurle was elongated like a bean seed and consisted of a large crater at the western end overlapping a smaller one at the east. Ahead, Nyriandiol hung inside the northern lip of the larger crater. Long and low, it extended for several hundred paces around the rim. Apart from a slender tower, from the approach road it appeared to consist of only a single storey.
The road, a rutted and gullied track deliberately maintained in poor repair, curved around onto the stony rim, here no more than fifty paces wide. The area outside the front of Nyriandiol was paved with roughly worked stone, forming a terrace that had been partly roofed and provided with stools and tables. Other parts were covered in climbing vines. A series of benches had been cut into the welded rock of the mountaintop, forming lower terraces that looked down into the crater.
From here, as they carried her across, Nyriandiol appeared to grow out of the mountain's rim, which had been cut away on the inside to accommodate it. Subsequently the rubble had been put back so that, from the outside, only the upper storey and roof could be seen. From the lowest terrace, however, the full magnificence of the place was visible.
Sinusoidal walls of dark stone curved down for another seven levels. Enormous windows of coloured glass set in small panes made up parts of a giant mosaic which could only properly be viewed from the other side of the crater, with a spyglass. The panes, in groups of nine by nine, were linked by patterns of stone inlaid in the walls in geomantic themes: swirls, bridges and arcs of stone each laid according to secret numbers. The steep roof was covered in shingles of red jasper and even these were set down in numerical mosaics. Nyriandiol was a geomantic masterpiece, designed to safeguard its owner and enhance all his efforts in the great room on the lowest floor.
The front door, made of a single slab of chalcedony swinging on massive brass hinges, was an oval two spans high and two wide. The door surroundings had been cut from yellow jasper.
They lugged her inside. The villa was built entirely of stone, the lower floors being vaulted to bear the weight of those above. She was brought into a large room and placed on a bed. Someone saw that her eyes were open and gave her another dose of syrup. Tiaan surrendered to it gratefully.
She woke in the most mortifying position of her life. A metal dish had been jammed under her and someone was pressing hard on her bladder, forcing her to urinate. She prayed that it was a woman and not the odd-looking scarecrow, Gilhaelith. Whoever it was, they let out a muffled grunt with each thrust. Tiaan kept her eyes firmly closed. Was this a prescription for the rest of her life, having to be helped with every bodily function? If so, she prayed she would not live long.
Life conspired to devalue her in her own eyes. Each time she gained something it was snatched away. Minis's rejection had been the ultimate demonstration of her worthlessness.
Tiaan had always known that she would mate and have children. It was every person's duty, after all. She often dreamed about it, in an overly romantic way, but now it would never happen. She might still do her artisan's work sitting down, but the few men available could take their pick, and who would want a mate such as she?
There had been so many visitors in the day that Tiaan began to feel like a circus exhibit. Several people spoke to her, but she did not answer. The drug had left her listless. Overwhelmed by the disaster, and unused to being waited on, she could not think of anything to say to them.
The nurse gave an especially loud grunt and Tiaan heard footsteps cross the room, away from her. She opened her eyes. Gilhaelith stood by the head of the bed, staring at her. What a strange, ill-put-together fellow he was. His nose was a triangular chunk sawn off the corner of a plank, his mouth seemed to take up half his face, while his chin was so big and square it would not have been out of place in a carpenter's toolbox.
Gilhaelith had hair the colour of beach sand, the individual hairs crinkled and lying apart from their fellows in a frizzled mass like the unbraided strands of a rope. It looked as if he had mopped the floor with his head. His eyes were smoky grey, though not hard, as pale eyes could often be – he looked contemplative, even philosophical. They were his only appealing feature.
Who was Gilhaelith, and what did he want? He was taller than Minis, which made him too tall, and big-framed but skinny. His bones looked too large for his muscles; he had the oddity of broad shoulders but a narrow chest, and his legs made her want to laugh.
She studied him from half-closed eyes as he went back and forth in the room, walking with a springy, bent-kneed step. He kept staring at her then looking away. Now he was coming toward her. He could walk; she never would. Tiaan did not know how to deal with him either. She closed her eyes and pretended to be asleep. After standing beside her for a few minutes, he went away.
The room was empty at last. Tiaan looked around. Soft cords ran across her chest, waist and hips, binding her tightly to lengths of timber. She could move only her arms and her head.
The roof beams seemed to be massive trunks of petrified wood. The room was large and kidney-shaped, the walls built of chunks of dark volcanic rock cemented together with pale mortar. The floor was cleaved stone, slabs of irregular shape also set in mortar then varnished to the colour of beer. The walls were bare apart from three large watercolours depicting scenes from the Histories, all by the same artist.
In the far corner, a curved bookcase had been fashioned to fit the shape of the wall. It was hand-carved from thick pieces of a dark, highly figured timber, but was the work of an enthusiastic amateur, an artist rather than a master craftsman. The maker had used the natural curves of the timber, shaping them only when necessary. To Tiaan, used to furniture that was simple, geometric and functional, it was a shocking piece, self-indulgent and wasteful.
The books might as well have been on the far side of the world. She turned the other way. Her bed was enormous, also hand-carved, though from a darker, straight-grained timber. The sheets were fine linen. There was one blanket of blue lamb's wool, quite unlike the scratchy material in the manufactory, and a quilt filled with down so light she could barely feel it.
The luxury felt sinful; even the space did. In the manufactory, twenty people would have been crammed into this room. The floor was scattered with brightly patterned rugs in earthy reds, oranges, yellows and browns. A pot beside her bed contained a succulent plant covered in large white flowers. She could smell the nectar. No one in the manufactory had a plant in their room; nothing would grow in such cold and gloom.
This room had three huge windows, each of plain glass in many small panes grouped in threes, flooding the chamber with light and colour. In Tiaan's experience only rich people had a window to themselves. Gilhaelith must be as wealthy as the legendary Magister of Thurkad.
She looked through the nearest window. All she could see was blue sky with wisps of high cloud. To someone who'd spent her life in the manufactory, that was a welcome novelty. The sun had not been much in evidence in her long winter's trek across Mirrilladell either. She longed to feel it on her face.
A shadow passed by the end window – Gilhaelith again. She hoped he would not come in. He knocked at the door. She did not answer but after an interval he entered. He was now dressed in long yellow robes which concealed his ungainly figure. She imagined he had come to interrogate her.
'You are better, I hope?' he said in her tongue, which he spoke with a rather flat accent, as if he had learned the language from a book.
'Yes, thank you. Apart from my broken back!'
'I'm sorry,' he said formally. He looked down the line of her body under the covers.
'It's done.' She wished he would go away. The conversation was pointless.
'Is there anything you would like?'
'I'd like to go out in the sun.' It came out without her thinking about it.
'I will arrange it at once.'
He went to the door. Shortly two servants wheeled in a small bed and slid her onto it. Gilhaelith pushed her out of the door, around the corner and along a suspended, undulating stone walkway.
Tiaan caught her breath at the view, not to mention the drop into the lake. 'How can you live at the top of a volcano?'
'Booreah Ngurle, the Burning Mountain,' said Gilhaelith, misinterpreting the question. 'Welcome to Nyriandiol. My house.'
She counted the windows as they went by. Eighty-one. And there were another seven levels below this one. 'House' was not the word for it. It was almost the size of the manufactory.
Gilhaelith parked the bed on a small paved area at the rear of the building. Some distance away was a stone skeet house. She could hear their harsh cries. To her right the arid inner slope of the crater swept down, not quite barren of life, but nearly. Steam wisped up from vents, discoloured yellow or brown. Workers, the size of ants, could be seen toiling at them. Below, occupying perhaps a third of the floor of the larger crater, the lake was as brilliantly blue as lapis lazuli. Nearby a large fat-tailed lizard scratched among the rubble. The crater aroused a deep-seated fascination; she had never seen anything like it.
'What's that lizard doing?' she wondered.
'Looking for a suitable place to lay its eggs.'
'Isn't this a dangerous location to do that?'
'Indeed, and for us too, though I have dwelt here more than a century.'
She opened her mouth and closed it again. In her part of the world the normal lifespan (for those not sent to the war) was less than sixty years, though a few people lived longer. Gilhaelith clearly was not a normal old human like her. And yet he did not appear to be Aachim, as Malien was.
The sun slanted in on her face. It felt wonderful to be warm. 'Could I look over the other side?'
He wheeled her across so she could see down the outer slope to the forest. It was luxuriantly different from the impoverished forests around her manufactory.
'That's where I… crashed?' she asked.
'Back the other way.' He pointed. 'The construct is damaged, but I think it can be repaired.'
She did not have the strength for question and answer, nor for thinking about what had caused the crash. For some reason she couldn't explain, she did not want him to know about the capricious amplimet. 'It doesn't matter. Nothing matters now…'
The sun was beating down on her head. She felt ill and Gilhaelith's looming presence discomforted her.
'I'd like to go back to my room, please.'
The servants wheeled her away, but an hour later she was still sweating. Gilhaelith had not questioned her. He must want something from her, otherwise he would not have treated her so well. What was it? Her helplessness was terrifying. Tiaan's second day began the same way as the first, with embarrassing toilet operations by Alie, a pale fleshy woman with a figure like a bale of wool and a square face utterly devoid of expression. Breakfast was spooned into her as if she was a baby. Alie talked the entire time she was in the room, but her words were empty. It was so tiresome that Tiaan closed her eyes and turned away.
'Bitch thinks she's better than us,' Alie said to the healer on the way out.
'And she can't even wipe her arse,' Gurteys agreed. 'What is the master thinking?'
Tiaan bit her lip. Why did they resent her so? She hadn't said a thing to them.
Gurteys plied her healer's art with all the indifference of the true professional, and so roughly that it hurt. In the afternoon she reappeared with a contraption made of wood and leather. Rolling Tiaan onto her side, she propped her in place with cushions and pulled her gown down to the waist.
'What are you doing?' Tiaan asked.
Gurteys fitted the rows of straps around Tiaan's chest, belly and hips and pulled them tight until they pinched the skin. She adjusted the position of the wooden spars. 'The brace will ensure the bones set in place.'
The brace was uncomfortable lying down. Tiaan could not imagine what it would be like sitting up. 'How long will I have to wear it?'
'How would I know?'
'Well, you're supposed to be the healer.'
'A month. Two? Until your back is healed.' A bell rang and Gurteys hurried out, leaving Tiaan's garments around her waist.
Gilhaelith thrust the door open. He had been in several times today, but this time, realising that she was half-undressed, he spun on one foot and dashed from the room, shouting orders. Gurteys reappeared, roughly jerking Tiaan's gown over her shoulders. 'You're more trouble than you're worth!' she said between clenched teeth.
'I didn't say a thing,' cried Tiaan, but the healer had gone. Why had Gilhaelith reacted that way?
The balloon, carrying no more weight than Nish and the brazier, drifted high and fast. The streaming winds carried it across the Filallor Range, which ran south from the western end of the Great Mountains, separating frigid Mirrilladell from the more equable western lands. The forests of central Lauralin passed beneath unseen. Still out of it, Nish drifted north of Booreah Ngurle in the dark, slowly descending. The brazier had gone out hours ago and the air in the balloon was cooling rapidly. The craft skimmed the top of a solitary tree, floating over scrub towards a broad, sluggish river.
As the sun rose, the balloon just cleared a palisade around a vast encampment crowded with the meanest of dwellings, a refugee camp for some of the millions who had fled the fall of the great and wealthy island of Meldorin. From the top of the hill the Sea of Thurkad could barely be seen. It had rained in the night and the bare earth was an ocean of mud. Nish drifted between two decrepit dwellings before his dangling boots struck the earth and the balloon lay on its side, the last air sighing out of it. Its long voyage had ended.
Nish, roused by his impact with the mud, groaned. Though he was half-frozen, his injuries throbbed. Within a minute he was surrounded by people, all dirty, hungry and staring. Paying him no heed, they took the balloon and brazier apart with ruthless efficiency. In ten minutes every scrap had disappeared, even the scorched rope ladder he had tied himself to. They went through his pockets, removing everything but the lint. The coat vanished from his back but they left him the rest of his clothes. Then the crowd evaporated.
He sat up, still dazed. He had no idea where he was, though it was not cold enough to be Mirrilladell. The place stank of sour water and human waste.
Someone shouted. Drums rattled. He was about to call for help when a small figure came flying out from behind the nearest hut.
'Quick!' hissed a young voice. It was a boy of eleven or twelve, a skinny lad. He used the common tongue of the west, in which Nish had become fluent during his days as a merchant's scribe. 'Guards coming.'
'That's just as well,' said Nish. 'I've been robbed and I -'
'Come on!' The boy hauled him by the hand. 'If they find you, they'll beat you senseless.'
'But I don't come from here,' Nish began. Prudence overcame outrage. He staggered after the boy, around the corner, down between the rows and into a sodden space underneath one of the huts. It was barely high enough to crawl through. When he was well inside, the boy shoved a rotting piece of timber against the entry.
'Shh!' he said.
'But -' Nish began.
Nish peered through the crack. The rattle of drums came closer and shortly a squad of guards passed by. Two of them kicked open the door of a hut and stormed inside. Dragging an elderly man from the hovel, they began beating him about the back and body with their sticks. 'Get to work, you lazy swine! No work, no eat!'
The other soldier made a mark on his slate. They proceeded to the next hut, and the one after, all the way down the line. The old man reeled off in the other direction.
'What is this place?' Nish asked. It was all too much to take in.
'It's supposed to be a refugee camp,' said the boy. 'It's really a slave city. We work fourteen hours a day, every day of the week, and all we get for it is pig swill.' The boy seemed older than his years. No doubt kids grew up quickly here, those that survived.
A hundred questions swirled in his head but Nish was too dazed to ask them. 'My name is Cryl-Nish Hlar, son of Jal-Nish Hlar. He is the perquisitor for Einunar.' It could not hurt to establish that at the beginning.
'A perquisitor!' whispered the boy.
'I'm just an artificer. I fix weapons, and clankers.'
The boy seemed, if anything, even more impressed. 'Back home, I used to watch the clankers go by. I always wanted to ride up on top with the shooter. Can you get me a ride?'
'I will, when I get out of here. You can call me Nish, if you like.' He held out his hand, forgetting the burn.
'I'm Colm,' said the boy, squeezing hard. A blister popped and Nish winced. 'My home was in Bannador, but I have no home any more.'
'Where's Bannador?' Nish asked.
'Across the sea; in the mountains.'
'What sea?' Nish had no idea where he was.
'The Sea of Thurkad, of course,' the boy said scornfully. 'Don't you know anything?'
'I come from a long way away.'
'Where are you from?'
'Never heard of it.'
'It's on the other side of the world. So this camp is near the sea?'
Colm pointed. 'It's only half a league, that way.'
'Are we near a city?' The Sea of Thurkad was long and Nish was desperately trying to find some geographical point to hang on to.
'Nilkerrand is up the coast. Not far.'
'I don't know that place,' he said. 'Can you give me any other names?'
'Nilkerrand is directly across the sea from Thurkad. Surely even you have heard of it?'
'Of course I've heard of Thurkad,' said Nish. For millennia it had been the most famous city in the world, the richest, and certainly, to the prudish minds of distant Einunar, the wickedest. 'It fell to the enemy a while back, didn't it?'
'Last autumn. Why were you hanging onto that… bladder thing?'
'I floated across the Great Mountains on it.'
'Just like that?' Colm asked, incredulously.
'There used to be a basket but I was attacked by a savage beast called a nylatl, the most horrible creature you have ever seen. It's got claws as long as my fingers, and teeth nearly as big. Its spines are poisoned and it squirts venom out through a blue tongue. I set fire to the basket and exploded the beast to bits. It was the only way to survive.'
'Really?' said the boy, in a tone that suggested he did not believe a word of it.
'Yes, really!' Nish pulled up his trouser leg, showing the savage lacerations to his calf and the teeth marks on either side, which were red, swollen and hot to the touch. 'And see this,' he probed his still-swollen lips with a fingertip, 'that's where it got me with its poison. It was aiming for my eyes.'
Colm was impressed. 'I've never met a real hero. I bet you could fight a lyrinx and win.'
'I bet I couldn't,' said Nish. 'A real hero knows when to fight and when to run.'
'Like everyone here,' sneered Colm. 'The camp is full of cowards. Even my father ran when the lyrinx came.'
'My father didn't,' said Nish, 'but I wish he had. A lyrinx ripped his face open and tore his arm so badly that we had to cut it off.' He clenched his fist, grimaced and examined it in the dim light. There was a blister the width of his palm, and smaller ones along his fingers.
Now Colm was positively awe-stricken. 'Was that where you wiped the venom off?'
'No, that's where I pulled red-hot coals out of the brazier to set fire to the beast.'
Colm went quiet. Nish looked out through the crack but the yard was empty. All he saw was beaten earth and mud. There was not even a weed to be seen. Everything burnable had been burnt, and everything edible, eaten.
'I've been praying for a real hero,' the boy said softly. 'We really need help, Nish. Our home is gone, where we lived for more than a thousand years. We've even lost our Histories, all but what mother and father remember, and they won't talk about it any more. They've given up! I hate them sometimes. Why won't they fight? Will you help us, Nish?'
'I'm on a secret mission,' Nish replied, thinking fast. He needed aid and only this lad, and his parents, could give it. However, the island of Meldorin was swarming with lyrinx, and anyone who went there would be eaten. 'For the scrutator! I'm sorry, Colm. It's the war.'
'Of course,' Colm said dully. 'I understand. Where were you going?'
'I can't tell you that. But there is something you can do for me.'
The boy's eyes were shining. 'But you're a hero.'
'I've lost my balloon, and those thieves stole everything I own. I've got to get out of here and… do my job.'
'Of course I'll help you. I'll do anything. And in return…' He caught Nish's eye, a desperately young lad. 'In return, when all this is over, will you help me get back my heritage?'
What could Nish say? 'I give you my word, Colm. When the war is over, I will help you.' He held out his hand. The lad took it and there were tears of gratitude in his eyes. 'But first, I have to get out of this place.'
'The guards won't let anyone go.'
'I'll tell them who I am. That will make them sit up.'
'Do you have papers or a special pass?'
Nish had nothing. Most of his gear had been lost when the basket burned; the rest stolen the instant he arrived. 'No, but I represent the scrutator.'
'Not ours! They don't like foreigners in this country and the guards have heard every story in the world. They won't listen. They'll just beat you senseless and throw you in the mud. They say we should have been left to the lyrinx.'
'People must come in and out, in a camp this big.'
'Only soldiers. Sometimes they take the young women out, but they don't bring them back. My big sister is hiding.'
Nish could imagine why, all too well. The war was tearing society apart and in places like this the only thing that mattered was power. Getting it and keeping it.
'Perhaps I could dress up as a woman,' Nish said, half-joking.
Colm inspected Nish's swollen face and sturdy body. 'They wouldn't take you, Nish.'
I deserved that, Nish thought. 'Could I dig my way out?'
'The soil is only this deep.' Colm spread his fingers. 'And under it, there's rock.'
'What about over the fence?'
'The guards hang the bodies on the spikes. After they've finished with them.'
Nish shivered. His options were rapidly running out. 'Do your mother and father know anyone important?'
'I don't think so,' said the boy. 'I'll take you to meet them when it's dark. It's not safe in daytime. You haven't got a sign.'
Colm held out his hand. On the back was a red, raised scar of jagged lines, like a jumble of triangles.
'Did the guards do that to you?'
Colm nodded. 'They did it to everyone, even the babies. With quicklime!'
'It must have hurt.'
'It still does, sometimes, and that was six months ago.'
'You've been here six months?'
'Yes, but we lost our home a long time before that. On my ninth birthday.'
'How old are you now, Colm?'
'Twelve and a half. I can join the army when I'm fourteen, if I'm big enough.'
'Don't be in too much of a hurry,' said Nish.
'I'll be signing up on my birthday,' said the boy proudly. 'We have to fight for what is ours, else we may as well lie down and die.'
Nish felt a thousand years old, though he was only twenty. Colm would be sent to the front with minimal training and would probably be dead in a month. The tragedy had been played out a million times and was not going to end until humanity was no more. Well, perhaps what he, Nish, knew might make the difference, if only he could get out of here and find someone in authority.
From not far away came the barking of hounds. Someone screamed. 'Come on!' said Colm. 'They've brought the dogs in. If they catch us, they'll beat us half to death.'
Nish wormed his way out, the boy beside him. 'Where are we going?'
Colm had his head around the corner. 'It's clear. Follow me.'
They ran a zigzag path between the hovels, Nish doing exactly as the boy told him to. Everything stank here. They dropped into a gully running with human waste, leapt the brown stream and continued along the other side. The ground was bare apart from bright-green, slimy strands of algae growing in the flow. Further down, Colm ducked into an embayment where a flood had undercut the bank, leaving a hollow the size of a small barrel.
'This isn't much of a hiding place,' Nish said doubtfully.
Colm dug a chip of stone out of the wall with one finger, tossed it aside and excavated another. 'We'll only be here a minute. Give me your hand.'
Nish held it out. Colm turned the chip of stone around until he had a sharp edge and scored it across the back of Nish's hand.
Nish yelped and tore his hand away. 'What are you doing?'
'You've got to have a mark,' said the boy. 'Without it, you're nothing!'
Nish gave him his hand. The boy pressed harder, making a series of bloody cuts. Nish flinched.
'It's only a scratch,' Colm said scornfully.
'Heroes still feel pain, Colm.'
When it was done, Colm dabbed the surplus blood away, comparing the marks with the raised red welts on the back of his own hand. 'It's not very good, but it will probably look like the real thing, from a distance.'
'What if they check it and discover it's not?'
'You could run for your life, but it'll be worse when they catch you. Best thing is to just take the beating.'
'Why do the guards hate us so much?' Already Nish felt it was 'us' and 'them'.
'It's not the guards who will beat you in the workhouse. It's the boss refugees. They don't want any attention, in case their own schemes are found out.'
They were off again, up the stinking gully, then towards a large ramshackle building made of reused timber. It looked as if a dozen houses, all different, had been pulled down to make it. A sentry, dressed in clothes as ragged and filthy as the boy's, stood outside.
'How do we get in?' Nish hissed.
Colm did not answer but, after checking that the sentry was not looking, darted across the space between the gully and the side of the building, lifted a couple of loose boards and wriggled inside.
Nish only just managed it, his shoulders being as wide as the opening. He emerged in a gloomy space with timbers running along above his head, and more in front of him. Beyond were dozens of pairs of dirty feet. He was under a wide workbench that ran along the side of the building.
Colm turned right, crawling down next to the wall. Before long he stopped by a pair of grubby feet. Next was a smaller pair, clad in sadly stained and tattered slippers.
'Stay down until I say so,' he whispered in Nish's ear, and with a twisting movement like an eel on a hook, Colm was out, up and standing between the two pairs of feet.
'Where have you been, Colm?' came a weary, worn-out female voice. 'I've been worried sick about you.'
'Just around,' said Colm. 'I -'
'Get to work, son.' The man's voice was equally lifeless. 'We're behind in our quota and your slackness -'
'I've found him!' Colm hissed.
'Can you fix this one?' said his mother as if he had not spoken. 'It doesn't want to go together again.'
Silence, in which there was an occasional click or rattle, a muffled curse.
'I've found the man who floated in on the balloon.'
'Lose him! They're looking for him and we don't want to attract attention to ourselves, boy. I've told you that a hundred times.'
'It's dangerous, Colm,' said the dead voice. 'Keep your head down. Do your work. Say nothing. Never catch anyone's eye.'
'I might as well be dead!'
'He's a spy! Or in the pay of the enemy. We could all die if he's linked to us. And there's your sisters to think of, Colm. It'll be worse for them. I didn't think I'd have to remind you of that.'
'He's a hero!' Colm said stubbornly. 'He's going to help us get Gothryme back.'
'It's gone forever,' snapped the man. 'We're refugees and we will never get anything back. We're lucky to be alive.'
'We're unlucky to be alive,' said Colm. 'What's the point to life when we've lost everything, even our Histories?'
'We can't eat our Histories.'
'I'm going to go back if it takes me all my life. Gothryme is my due and I won't give it up.'
'Anything you can't carry on your back is worthless; it's like chaining yourself to a rock.'
'You don't even tell us our family Histories any more.'
'If you cling to the past, you'll never make a new future.'
'This man can help us. You should hear what he's done, father. He's a hero.'
Smack. Colm fell to his knees. For a second his eyes met Nish's, then he climbed to his feet again.
'I won't hear another word, son,' said the father. 'The man is a liar and you're a little fool for being taken in by him.'
Nish pulled himself against the wall, where it was darkest. His pockets were empty. He had not a copper nyd to his name, nor anything else he could use to buy or bribe his way out. He had no weapons, no means of defending himself. All he had were his wits. He might have given way to despair, but lately Nish had thought his way out of a number of difficult situations. Leaning back, he closed his eyes and went through his options. He could only see three.
Declare himself to the guards at the gate, tell them who he was and where he had come from. Likely result: a merciless beating and being thrown back into the camp, where the powers that ran it could well give him another beating. It didn't seem worth the risk.
Try to get over the palisade in the night and escape. Colm's little remark made that into an unpalatable option, though Nish knew that guards were seldom as vigilant as rumour had it. On a dark night, or a rainy one, there must be a chance.
Failing that, let's see what he could do with the boy. Colm had proven trustworthy but Nish was wary of pressing him too hard. Family always came first.
He spent the whole day under the table. It grew increasingly hot and humid until Nish could think of nothing but cool water. His last drink had been with the scrutator the previous day. Had he really come all this way in only a day? He had no idea how long he'd been unconscious. It felt like another year; another life. The scrutator would not be back to the manufactory yet, and Ullii… Poor Ullii. How was she coping? He could still hear her screams.
The hours dragged by. The building stank of unwashed bodies. There was not a breath of fresh air to be had and he felt as if he were suffocating. Nish looked up at the underside of the bench, where the grain of the timber made sawtooth patterns reminiscent of the crest of a lyrinx. He swallowed.
Considering so many people worked here, the workhouse was uncannily quiet. All he heard was the shuffle of feet, an occasional clearing of the throat and the muted tap and click of mechanical parts being put together. Nish manoeuvred an eye to a gap between the boards, looking up along the bench. The workers were putting together small clockwork mechanisms, possibly for something like a clanker.
Thwack. Someone let out a reedy scream, quickly cut off.
'Half-rations for three days. Work harder!' The voice was close by.
Nish made himself as small as possible but felt sure he would be discovered. A thick pair of hairy calves went by, attached to the filthiest feet he had ever seen. They smelled like ordure.
The feet stopped. Something struck the bench above Nish's head so hard that small objects jumped. He did not dare to breathe. He could hear the heavy breath of the supervisor. The room was completely silent. Everyone else was as afraid as he was. Nish's nose began to itch but he resisted the urge to scratch it.
'Get on with your work!' the man roared and the dirty feet moved away. The clicking and tapping resumed.
Nish endured the day. Should he declare himself, or leave it to the boy? He waited. In the early afternoon the work stopped briefly while lunch was taken at the benches. Nish could smell the water by then and had begun to shake with hunger. He was practically fainting when a thin hand reached below the bench, holding a battered wooden mug.
Nish drained it in a single swallow and immediately regretted that he had not made it last. He put the mug into the waiting hand. Shortly it reappeared with a generous chunk of black bread.
Nish eked that out, taking the tiniest of nibbles, which was just as well since it was full of hard, burnt grain and grit he might have broken a tooth on. After that he pillowed his head on his arms and slept.
When he jolted awake it was dark outside but the work was still going on. What had disturbed him?
'Don't start that again,' Colm's father hissed. 'You're not too old for a beating, boy!'
'He's here,' Colm whispered.
'What are you talking about?'
'The man is right here, under the bench. His name is Cryl-Nish Hlar and his father is a perquisitor.'
The silence stretched out, then the man dropped a wooden spanner, bent down to pick it up and stared at Nish.
Nish held his gaze. 'It's true,' he said softly. 'He is Jal-Nish Hlar, Perquisitor for Einunar, and I have come all this way on scrutator's business. I beg your help in his name.'
The man ducked away again, forgetting his spanner. Reaching forward, Nish handed it up to him.
'Which scrutator?' Colm's father said out of the corner of his mouth.
The work resumed on the bench, and only some minutes later did Nish hear any more.
'You have ruined us, Colm,' his mother muttered. 'This will be the end of your family.'
'Why couldn't you mind your own business?' his father said. There was no anger in him now; just despair. 'Why, Colm?'
'You taught me to do what I thought was right, no matter how painful.'
'Those rules don't apply any more,' his father said in a low voice.
'Just look at the poor man! He's got wounds everywhere but it hasn't stopped him.'
Both mother and father bent down, inspected Nish, then stood up again.
'Of course you can't denounce him,' said Colm's mother. 'That would also attract attention.'
'We have to,' said the father.
'He's not much more than a boy,' muttered the mother. 'He doesn't even have a proper beard.'
'Tell him to go, boy,' said Colm's father.
'I won't betray him. You tell him.'
Again Nish heard a slap, but thankfully Colm remained defiant.
'If he is a perquisitor's son,' the mother quavered, 'and on scrutator's work, to refuse him will mean our deaths.'
A metal cover-plate was knocked off the bench. The father's face appeared in front of Nish. The mother and son closed up on either side. 'What business?'
'I can't tell you, but I carry information vital to the war. I must find a way to escape and meet a querist or perquisitor. Or failing that, an officer in the army.'
'Very well,' said the father. 'I know my duty. We will be leaving shortly to go back to our quarters for the night. When I give the signal, come out between me and Colm. Walk carefully, looking down. Show me your hand.'
Nish held it out and the man examined the bloody scratches. 'It may do, if they don't look too closely. We have no friends here, but people know us, and in this camp anyone will betray their neighbour for an extra bowl of fishhead soup.'
The call came. Nish ducked out from under the bench and stood up between Colm and his father, who was a big man, nearly a head taller than Nish. He took a sideways glance. The building had three aisles and a line of people was forming along each of them. There would have been hundreds. Most were as haggard, thin and dirty as the boy. Few looked anywhere but at the earth floor.
The line crept forward. Nish felt a fluttering in his stomach. He had saved himself several times, by his own initiative, assisted by a generous helping of good fortune. Fortune could turn against him just as swiftly, and then he would die.
They approached the door, where each of the workers was delivered a dollop of gruel into their mug, and a slab of black bread. Nish had no mug. He was going to fall at the first hurdle. Panic told him to run but he fought it. He looked back. The father had realised the problem but did not know what to do about it. Nish was going to be discovered with the family and they would all be punished.
It was too late to get out of the way; they were only half a dozen places from the end of the line. Nish leaned forward. 'I've no mug,' he whispered in Colm's ear.
Colm passed his own back, picked up a fragment of metal lying on the bench and, with an unobtrusive flick, sent it flying down the row. It struck a hairy man on his protruding ear. He whirled and swung a blow at the man behind him, who struck back.
The fellow serving the slops came out from behind his bench, flailing at the struggling men with his wooden ladle. Colm snatched a mug from the back of the bench and held it out.
The fight was over quickly. No one wanted to attract the attention of the guards outside. The line paced by, Nish received his ration of slops and his lump of bread, the serving man taking no notice of him, and then they were through the door.
He passed the guards and was halfway across the yard when one yelled, 'Hey you!'
Nish froze, whereupon a hard hand went down on his shoulder and squeezed. 'Keep going. Don't look around.'
Nish did as he was told, expecting the soldiers to come running after him, but no one did. As he rounded the corner he saw, out of the corner of his eye, an unfortunate fellow being beaten between three laughing guards.
'It's their game,' said the father. 'Some poor wretch always turns around, and then they beat him for it.'
It took an anxious ten minutes to cross through the labyrinth of huts, shacks and hovels to the dismal space Colm and his family called home. Built from scraps of timber and canvas, chinked in with grass and mud, it was meaner than the hut of any primitive tribesman.
Inside it was barely long enough for the father to lie down. The earth floor was covered in bracken and reeds. The walls were hand-smeared mud, the roof a piece of rotting canvas smaller than a single bedsheet. They had nothing else in the world.
Two girls crouched within. The older, who might have been fifteen, was a small, unattractive creature, her hair positively dripping grease, her face full of spots and scars, and her teeth horrible black stumps. The younger, no more than five, was pretty, with wavy chestnut hair and green eyes.
'This is Cryl-Nish Hlar,' said the father, whose name was given as Oinan. 'He is an important man. He will stay with us for a little while and we are going to look after him. No one will ever mention his name. Cryl-Nish, this is my wife Tinketil, my older daughter, Ketila, and my other daughter, Fransi.'
Ketila hid her face, and a flush crept up her throat. Poor girl, Nish thought, to suffer such a handicap, especially when her sister is such a beauty. He shook hands with Oinan, with Tinketil and with a solemn, staring Fransi. Ketila would not look at him. Her hands fluttered over her mouth.
'Ketila,' said Oinan sternly.
Putting one hand behind her back, she held out the other. Nish took it and she gave him a little shy smile that went all the way up to her eyes. It revealed perfect white teeth, and it quite transformed her. She must have been wearing something in her mouth to make them look so horrible. Perhaps the spots and the scars were fake too.
'Teeth, Kettie!' snapped Oinan.
'They hurt, father,' Ketila said, soft and pleading.
'Oh, let her be,' said the mother. 'Have you no brains at all, husband? She can put them back if anyone comes.'
Tinketil boiled a tin mug of water over a handful of roots, cleaned Nish's wounds and covered them with precious lard.
The parents said no more about Nish, nor spoke to him either. After a while Ketila and Fransi settled on the bracken against the far wall. Nish lay on his side facing the entrance. Oinan and Tinketil whispered to each other for a long while, a furious argument for all that they spoke so softly. Nish did not catch a word of it and finally he slept. He was woken before dawn by a flickering light at the back of the hut. Tinketil was kneeling in front of Ketila, applying the spots to her face with a clump of hair glued into the split end of a twig. The smaller girl was still asleep. Oinan was not there.
Shortly he reappeared, carrying his dinner mug. 'Hold out your hand, Cryl-Nish.'
Nish did as he was told and Oinan applied white powder to the back with a spoon, tracing out the pattern Colm had scratched the previous day. The mixture immediately began to burn and Nish had to grit his teeth.
'It only takes a few minutes,' the man said.
They were all staring at him. He wanted to weep with the pain, but they had gone through it and so could he. He counted down the seconds, then Oinan washed the quicklime off. It had taken most of the skin with it, leaving raw, weeping flesh.
'You're one of us now,' said Oinan.
A gong sounded and everyone hurried to their workhouses. So the day passed, much as the previous one had, except that Nish now had to work. Like everyone else, he was required to assemble the clockwork mechanisms, and for all his years of artificing Nish proved the slowest of all.
Back in the hut that night, as Tinketil mended a shirt by the light of a pithy reed smeared with rancid fat, Nish became aware that Ketila was watching him, though every time he looked in her direction she glanced away. She had washed her face and tied back her hair. She was not as beautiful as Fransi, but she was charmingly fresh and lovely, and Nish liked her.
Six months ago he might have taken advantage of her, had the opportunity come, but he was a wiser and a less selfish man now. Nish was no saint, but he could see her yearning. Not for him, particularly, and certainly not for the kinds of fleshy grapplings he dreamed about. Ketila was becoming a woman and wanted to be seen as one, and to be taken seriously.
'This land is so different from where I come from,' he said.
'Where do you come from, Cryl-Nish?' Her back was pressed against the wall but Ketila inclined her head towards him. Her mother noted it and smiled.
Nish looked different from the other people in the camp; there was a mystery about him. He had flown into the camp hanging from a huge balloon, and he came from the other side of the world. He had an important father and a powerful master and Ketila knew, because Colm had told them, about his great deeds and heroic struggle with the nylatl. She had seen the tooth and claw marks in his leg, when Tinketil dressed the wounds. To her, he was not short, plain and lacking in a beard. He was fascinating, exotic, bold and brave. And he spoke to her as if she was important.
'I was born in Fassafarn,' said Nish, 'which is almost as far as you can go east from here. It is the chief city of the province of Einunar, at the furthest end of the Great Mountains.'
'What is it like there?' she asked softly.
'There are enormous mountains covered in snow all year round, and valleys so deep you can hardly see the bottom…'
'I was born in Bannador,' she said. 'We also have big mountains.'
'These ones are so big that when the wind blows they write their names in the sky, and the glaciers…'
'What are glaciers, Cryl-Nish?'
'Rivers of ice that flow down from ice caps half a thousand spans thick, grinding out the bottoms of mighty valleys and not stopping until they reach the sea. Sometimes they break into chunks of ice as big as islands and float across the ocean. Many a sailor has seen an iceberg loom up out of the foggy night and knows that his little ship was going straight to the bottom and he with it, never to see his wife and his darling daughters again.'
Nish was enjoying his rhetoric, though at the last the girl bit her lip and he turned to safer waters. 'We have great snow bears in the mountains, white beasts so big that they could not get through the door of a house. I saw one once and it was almost two spans high. It could have eaten a lyrinx for breakfast.'
Ketila brightened at that. 'Are they not dangerous?'
'Very dangerous, though they seldom attack people unless they get between a mother and her cubs.' Nish's eye met Tinketil's for a second.
'Have you ever killed a snow bear?' asked Ketila.
Nish felt the urge to make up a heroic story, but suppressed it. He was not sure why. 'No, Ketila, I haven't. To tell you the truth, I don't like killing things much, and snow bears are magnificent creatures.'
'You killed the nylatl.' They had all heard that tale.
'I had to, or it would never have stopped trying to kill me. It was mad, the poor creature. The lyrinx flesh-formed it out of nothing. Did I tell you that?'
'No,' she breathed.
The whole family was listening as he told the tale of the lyrinx attack, the flesh-formed little monstrosities he had found in the ice houses on the plateau, and all that he had learned about the depraved Art since. It was a long tale, and both girls' eyelids were drooping by the time he finished it.
'Thank you,' said Ketila. 'That was a wonderful tale. You are so brave. Good night, Nish.'
When they were asleep he said quietly to Oinan, who had been out earlier in the evening, 'Have you had any luck so far?'
'No. It's a delicate matter, Cryl-Nish. I have to be sure we won't be informed on before I ask my favour.'
Since there was no more he could do, Nish settled down to sleep. It was not a good start. The weary days went by. One night, something roused Nish in the early hours of the morning. It had been a noise, far off. He looked out through the opening of the hovel. It was still pitch dark. Crawling outside, he stood up and stretched. The night was mild compared to what he was used to. The stars glittered in a clear sky. He wandered around the huts, relieved himself, yawned and headed back. Again came that noise, a faint, distant roar like an angry mob.
Fleeting across to the palisade he peered through a knothole. It was dark outside, which was strange. Normally the guards patrolled with blazing torches, calling to one another. He went further along, to a gap between two poles, and heard that faint roar again.
Nish pulled himself up the palisade. There was not a guard in sight. He slipped his leg over and sat atop the fence as if it was a saddle. The roar was louder from here and he made out a glow in the north, from the direction of Nilkerrand.
A not-so-faint glow when he stood up, one foot on the outside rail, the other in the valley he had been sitting on. It looked like a fire. He knew there was no forest up that way, and it was too early in the season for the fields to be burning. It must be in the city.
The sound came on the wind, louder now, a terrified mob. Flames shot up. Nilkerrand was burning, its hundred thousand inhabitants running for their lives, and the guards of the refugee camp had fled. The battlefront must have moved faster than anyone expected. It was almost on them.
Racing back to the hovel, Nish shook Oinan and Tinketil awake. 'Get up!' he hissed. 'Nilkerrand is burning and the guards have run away. The enemy is upon us.'
They must have been used to fleeing in the night for they woke instantly and pulled their boots on. Nish felt for his own. Tinketil woke the children, who were just as silent and grimly efficient. In a reed-light Nish saw Ketila's eyes on him again.
'I'll wake the camp,' Nish said, crawling out.
Oinan caught his leg. 'There'll be a stampede. We'll never get out.'
'I can't let everyone be slaughtered in their beds. How will I find you?'
'Which way, Colm?' cried Oinan.
'Down the gully where the waste runs,' said the boy without hesitation. 'We can get through the fence at the far end, if there are no guards at all.'
'I'll meet you there,' said Nish, 'but if I don't come, go without me.'
He ran down the row to where the great gong hung by the workhouse. Snatching up the mallet, he thumped the gong, one, two, three.
There were cries all over the camp. 'Wake!' he roared. 'Nilkerrand is burning and the enemy is upon us. Wake!' Giving it one last thump, he dropped the mallet. Then, thinking that it was a better weapon than his bare hands, Nish tucked it under his arm.
People were running everywhere, shouting, screaming and crashing into each other. Down the row, one of the hovels was ablaze. As he turned the corner, Nish was swept off his feet by a stampede. Holding his arms over his head, he scrunched up and waited for them to go by.
Once they passed, he crept along the walls of the buildings. A flame leapt up to his left: someone had set fire to a shanty and in its light a mob was attacking the gate. A dark figure went over the top and hurled the bar off. The gate burst open.
Nish kept going. Most of the camp was behind him now. Stumbling along in the dark, he fell off the edge of an embankment, skidded in greasy clay and slid all the way to the bottom. Judging by the putrid smell, he was in the gully. The drain must be just to his right. Well, that saved him looking for it.
He picked his way down. Several others must have had the same idea, for he could see figures further along. Perhaps it was the family. Nish did not call out in case it was not. A vibrating shriek of terror came from behind, then screams from hundreds of massed throats. Was it the enemy? He had to know. Scrambling up the side of the gully, Nish climbed a mound, stood on tiptoes and stared towards the gate, clearly visible in the flames.
People were streaming back, screaming and trampling each other in their desperation to get away. He knew what was behind them but had to see it with his own eyes.
A great shape came over the palisade, landing in front of the flames. The silhouette was unmistakable – a massive body, crested head and leathery wings. A lyrinx. Others stormed through the gate.
Nish could not bear to watch. He hurtled down the gully, splashed through the stinking muck in the bottom and along the other side, running and running despite the agony in his injured leg. He could not ignore it, but it was a reminder of what it would be like to be eaten alive. Nish rounded the corner and the fence stood in front of him. Several of its poles had been torn away. Someone was just going through the gap. He squeezed after them, tearing his shirt.
On the other side he looked around for Colm's family, but they were nowhere to be seen.
Ullii was down the mine with Irisis, her only friend now that the scrutator had betrayed her and Nish abandoned her, and even Irisis was suspect. True, she had defended Ullii previously, but she had also been Nish's lover. Ullii resented that with all her jealous little heart, and took pleasure in defying Irisis whenever she could get away with it.
Dandri and Peate, the leaders of the two mining teams, were there as well, to make sure artisan or seeker did not wander into unsafe ground, and also because it was their mine and they did not like outsiders poking around in it. They were accompanied by a pair of soldiers armed with heavy crossbows. The loss of the crystals, and the discovery of that secret tunnel, had been a shocking blow. The mine was no longer their haven from the world, but an unknown and threatening place where at any moment they might find a lyrinx behind them.
They were now completing a survey of the seventh level, working in the section below Joeyn's vein. It was a dangerous area, with many sections out of bounds because the roof was too unstable. It had been a frustrating week and Ullii had found no crystal at all.
Please find something, Ullii, Irisis prayed. Anything! I can't bear to tell the scrutator no again. He's afraid. I saw it in his eyes last night.
'I can't see anything.' Ullii was standing against the wall, her arms and hands pressed to the stone. She had been saying that all day.
'All right,' said Irisis tiredly. When had she last had a decent night's sleep? 'Where to now, Dandri?'
The miner held out her map, on which she had marked in red ink all the places Ullii had been. 'We've finished this level. There's nowhere to go but down to the eighth, if the scrutator permits it.'
'I already have his authorisation,' said Irisis.
'We must have it in writing,' Peate interjected, 'since that level was expressly forbidden by the previous overseer.'
He referred to Overseer Gi-Had, her second cousin, who had been slain in that terrible battle up at the ice houses. Irisis could never forget that. Gi-Had had been a decent man, despite the fact that he'd had her flogged. Her back would bear those scars until she died.
Irisis handed Peate his copy of the letter. The miner placed his mark on it and put it in his pocket. 'Then let's make a start.'
'Tired,' said Ullii, whose sentences grew more abbreviated the more weary she became. 'Can't do any more.'
'Please, Ullii,' said Irisis. 'Just for an hour. The scrutator -' She broke off, realising her mistake.
'Lost the lattice,' Ullii said, pleased to refuse her. 'Going home.' It was not long after dark when Irisis returned to the manufactory, but Xervish Flydd had already retired to his room. She could hardly deny him his report on the grounds of lateness, so she went there directly. The door was ajar, as if she was expected. She knocked once and pushed it open.
The room was warm, for a charcoal fire burned in a corner grate. The scrutator was at his table, clothed this time, surrounded by maps and papers. Flydd had a ruler in his hand and was measuring the distance between a series of red marks on the map, then entering figures into a column on a sheet of paper.
Unusually, he laid down his pen as she entered. 'You don't need to tell me,' he said. 'You found nothing.'
'I'm afraid not, surr.'
He leaned back in his chair and put his battered feet on the table. 'Shut the door. Sit down. Would you like a drink?'
'I can't say I'm that fond of parsnip whisky.'
'That's not what I'm offering.' He selected a green glass bottle, carefully wrapped, from one corner of his chest, levered out the bung with a little silver tool and poured a healthy slug into two glasses. 'This is real brandy; one hundred years old.'
They were proper glasses, made of crystal. Irisis's parents had some at home, but she had never seen any in the manufactory. She warmed the glass in her hands and took a careful sniff. It went up her nose and made her gasp.
'What are you celebrating, surr?' she asked after her eyes had stopped watering. Irisis touched her glass to his and took the gentlest of sips. It was splendid stuff, the best she'd ever tasted.
'I drink this at wakes, not weddings.' He tossed half the glass down his throat. 'You think I'm all-powerful, don't you, Irisis?'
'Er, well, I once did, surr.'
'I too have my masters, crafter, and they are less forgiving than I am. And there is another consideration. The higher you climb, the further there is to fall. I can climb no higher, for which I'm glad, though don't tell anyone I said so.'
'You have had a reprimand from the scrutators?'
'You might say that, though the Council won't couch it so bluntly. The letter begins, Be assured, Xervish, that we are not saying we are displeased with you. Of course, that means they are highly displeased. Furious!' He chuckled, which she found odd.
'What's going to happen to you? And to us?'
'You're worried that when the tower falls, it will smash all the little ants to bits. I suppose it will, if it falls. But I'm a fighter, Irisis, and I'm a way from beaten yet. I have friends on the Council, as well as enemies.'
She relaxed, leaned back and took another sip of the glorious brandy. Irisis seldom drank and the fumes seemed to be floating around her head, inducing a delicious haziness.
'Don't feel too reassured,' he went on. 'Another failure and I may well be done. The war is going worse than ever.'
'You can't be blamed for that!'
'I would be quick enough to take the credit, were it going well. And I can be blamed for the Aachim invasion, as we are calling it. Without Tiaan, it would never have occurred.'
'But you weren't anywhere near here. If anyone should be blamed, it's me!'
'Don't remind me!' he growled, draining his glass and filling it again, along with hers. 'Einunar is my province. I'm supposed to know everything that's going on, and be in control of it.'
'How badly is the war going?'
'People have been saying that for a long time.'
'It's been going badly for a long time, but it's going worse now. We've been losing territory for years, but not gaining any. It could be all over in twelve months, and then we'll be in pens, waiting to be eaten.'
'Is it really that hopeless?' She took a sturdy pull at her glass.
'No. We're working on a lot of… secret weapons. If one or two of them come off, it could make all the difference.'
'What sort of secret weapons?'
'If I told you, they would not be secret, would they? Think of the ways clankers have changed warfare compared to foot soldiers and cavalry, and apply that Art to everything we do. We could use controllers to power dozens of different kinds of devices – night lights, weapons, pumps, boats. And indeed we must, for we no longer have the labour to do otherwise.'
The thought was less comforting than it seemed. 'We're already overusing the Secret Art,' she said, 'and seeing nodes drained of their fields. I would be worried about the consequences, were I on the Council.'
'Thankfully you will never be,' he said smoothly, 'so you can leave that worry to us.'
'The enemy also have secret projects, like their flesh-forming. What if that succeeds?'
'We'll need our own devices to combat it.' He looked away. He did not want to talk about that.
Irisis had a sudden thought. 'Wasn't the querist studying their flesh-forming? I haven't seen Fyn-Mah for months.' Fyn-Mah, the querist or spymaster for the city of Tiksi, answered to the perquisitor and therefore, indirectly, to Flydd.
'She was and still is.'
'Where is she?'
'Away on Council business. Don't ask that kind of question.'
'What about the Aachim and their eleven thousand constructs? Are they with us or against us?'
'We don't know. There has been contact with them, though it wasn't fruitful.'
'What do you think?' She held out her glass for more brandy.
'I'd say they are too bitter to negotiate. Bitter that the Charon kept them as slaves on their own world. Doubly bitter that since the Forbidding was broken their world has become uninhabitable. I hear they blame us, which is a worry. We have no answer to their constructs, and maybe the lyrinx don't either. We're both weak after so much war. The Aachim are strong. What they choose to do will decide the fate of the world.'
'So how important is our work? Really?'
'Finding out what happened to the node is vital.'
'Then why don't we do that first?'
'Because without crystal this entire manufactory, and the others we supply with controllers, are useless. If we can't produce them, my head will soon be hanging over the gate and a new scrutator will take over. You would be out within a week. You're tainted, Irisis.'
'Who would the new scrutator be?'
'I can't talk about things like that. However, I can tell you one thing – I was premature to write off Nish's father. Perquisitor Jal-Nish Hlar has fought back from his injuries. He will always be a horror to look at, he will always be in pain, but that has only hardened his ambition. He still wants to be scrutator and there's only one way he can get there. Over my maimed and mutilated body.'
She wrapped her arms around herself. It felt as if something had just scuttled over her coffin and was clawing at the lid, trying to get in. 'Were you ever friends?'
'No. I was his mentor for a time, but that was terminated by mutual agreement. Jal-Nish is too ambitious, and ambitious people can't be trusted. They're always looking out for themselves.'
'Coming from someone who has been scrutator for thirty years, that's a bit rich!'
'I was made scrutator because I was better at what I did than anyone else. I never wanted to be on the Council, though having got there, I cling to it because I know what happens once you let go. I still think I can do the job better than anyone else, in spite of the last few months. Ah, it's hot in here. You don't mind if I take off my shirt, do you?'
'I've seen your chest before,' she said with a chuckle. 'I don't expect to lose control.'
He pulled it over his head, revealing a scarred and sinewy torso that looked as though all the flesh had been gouged out from under the skin.
'I wonder about you,' she said, fascinated. He was ugly but not grotesque. The scrutator was such a likeable man, once you got to know him, that his appearance became irrelevant.
'Who did such terrible things to you?'
He emptied his glass but did not answer.
She held out the bottle. 'More?'
'No, thank you. I've a job to do later on and I'll need my wits for it. The Council of Scrutators did this to me. At least, it was done at their command.'
'Why would they torture their own?' she said, appalled.
'I was not scrutator then. I was a perquisitor; a young and handsome one, rising fast. I became too full of myself, and too curious. As you know, the scrutators have the best spy network in the land. We pride ourselves on knowing everything, though of course there's no such thing as perfect knowledge. I was too clever. I pored over what everyone else had looked at, and saw something no one else had seen. I saw a pattern. People had been a little careless.'
'What are you talking about?'
He rubbed his chest, pointedly. 'Do you really want to know?'
She did not. She sipped. He reached for the bottle, drew back, then filled his glass after all. They sat in a companionable silence, listening to the crackling of the fire.
'It was about our master,' he said, now slurring just a little.
'The Council of Scrutators?'
'No, our real master. The Numinator.'
'I've never heard of him.'
'No one knows who the Numinator is, but be assured, there is a power behind the Council, working to its own purpose. It may not care who wins the war. It may have manipulated everything that's happened since the Council was formed.'
'The Numinator?' she said thoughtfully.
'Don't mention that name again! It's a death certificate. I must have had more brandy than I thought.' Suddenly he looked frail and rather vulnerable, which she found strangely endearing.
'I've also had more than is good for me,' she said, moving close. She traced the scars on his chest with a fingertip. 'You must have suffered so.'
'I did,' he said, 'and would rather not be reminded of it. Besides, you have also felt the lash.'
'And I have the scars to prove it, though they are nothing like yours.'
'I'm sure they are.'
'Would you like to see them?'
'As a matter of fact, I would.'
She unbuttoned her shirt, pulled it off and draped it over the back of the chair. Irisis had a magnificent bosom, though the rest of her did not put it to shame.
His eyes passed over her, and again. Finally he said in a hoarse voice, 'I see no scars.'
She turned her back. The creamy skin was marked across with welts that, even after half a year, had a purple tinge. He laid a hard hand on her back, quite gently. A shiver went up her neck.
'I've seen enough,' he said.
'Of your back, I meant.'
She turned around.
'Would you like to see the rest of my scars?' he said.
He raised his forehead-wide eyebrow. 'On what?'
'On whether every part of you is as emaciated as your chest.'
He took off his trousers.
Irisis considered him thoughtfully. 'Am I the job for which you needed your wits about you?'
'You're not the handsomest of men, scrutator, nor the youngest. What gave you the idea that I would be interested?'
'I told you. We scrutators pride ourselves on knowing everything.'
Well, thought Irisis, smiling to herself after Flydd had gone to sleep. The things they teach you in scrutator school! Easing out of bed, she looked down at him. They must have appeared quite the oddest couple, when they were at it, for he was her opposite in every physical respect. Tucking the blankets around him, she dressed, went to the bathing room and after that to her own room, but not to sleep.
Her room was small, dark and airless, like every chamber in the manufactory, and even after all this time she found it confining. As a child of the wealthy House of Stirm she'd had a room bigger than some people's homes, with views of meadow, lake and forest. Having been surrounded with beautiful things, the profound ugliness of this place was a drain upon her soul. Her work was, too. Irisis had always wanted to be a jeweller but her family would not hear of it. For four generations they had been crafters or better, and it was her duty to raise them back to the pedestal they had slipped from.
Irisis hated them for it, but with the world at war she had no choice. Family and Histories were everything to her and she could not go against them. She had become an artisan, and was now crafter, but her mother demanded more. She must rise to chanic, the pinnacle of the artisan's profession. Irisis was going to, though not for herself. She still planned to be a jeweller once the war was over.
Her gaze wandered the walls, which were decorated with things she had made in her spare time, mostly miniatures created of silver, plentiful here, and semi-precious gems. They gave her more pleasure than anything she had done as an artisan. It was a canker in her soul. Many women in the manufactory wore jewellery she had made, which was remarkably fine. But making jewellery did not aid the war, and the war had to come first. She understood that, and accepted it, but it was not enough.
Irisis sighed and turned her mind to duty. The mountain might be full of crystal but not even Ullii could sense it through a league of rock. However, if the miners could get her close enough, Ullii would see the crystals like plums in a pudding, and then it would just be a matter of mining them out.
The failing nodes were another matter. Finding out what had gone wrong with them was vital to the war, and for the scrutator to have given her the job meant that he was unhappy with the work of the other teams.
But I don't know enough, Irisis thought. I don't know anything about nodes, except that's where the field comes from. This is a job for a mancer, not an artisan, and I'm neither. I can't do it.
It became clear, as the night wore on, that she really only had one option. She must go to the scrutator and confess. She knocked on his door at six in the morning, carrying a loaded tray.
She put the tray on the bed, since his table was littered with work. Flydd laid the pen aside, rubbed his temples and sniffed appreciatively.
'That smells nice. I'll bet a bottle of last night's brandy you didn't get it from the refectory.'
'I made it,' she said. 'Specially.'
He gave her a keen stare, picked up the tray and placed it on his maps and papers. He took the cloth off to reveal freshly baked buns, a piece of grilled fish, still hot, and a bowl of ginger tea.
'Will you join me?' He indicated the other chair.
'No, thank you. I've already eaten.' That was a lie, but she did not want to share food with him. It would make it even harder.
'All the more for me.' He broke a piece of pink flesh from the fish with his eating sticks and ate it with relish. 'Very good!' He tore a bun in half. 'Is there nothing you can't do well, Irisis?'
She did not answer, just sat watching, enjoying his pleasure in the meal. He sipped his tea, stirred honey into it with a crooked finger and looked up at her.
'Of course I know you want something, crafter. What is it?'
The lump in her stomach felt like a pumpkin. She caught his eye and for once had to look away. She liked the man; they had been lovers. How could she let him down like this? But then, how could she not tell him? He had to know.
'I want to confess. No, that's not true. I have to confess. I cannot bear it any longer.'
He considered his plate, selecting a choice morsel of fish, and licked his lips. How could he be so casual?
'Confess, Irisis? You surprise me. What can you possibly have to confess to me?'
It burst out of her. 'I'm a fraud, scrutator. I can't draw power from the field. I lost the talent when I was a child of four and I've never been able to get it back. I've been lying and cheating ever since. I can't do the job and I can't possibly help you see into the node and find out what's gone wrong with it.'
'But you do do the job, Irisis. This manufactory produces the best controllers in the east, and more quickly than most. The Council is rather pleased with your work.'
'Besides, we know you have drawn power. You did it up on the high plateau when the clanker controllers had to be re-tuned to that strange double node. Fyn-Mah told me so.'
'That was… Ullii showed me the way, surr.'
'I don't answer to "surr" from my lover, Irisis.'
'Xervish -' The name felt wrong; she could hardly bring herself to use it. 'It was Ullii's doing, Xervish. She showed me the path and power just flooded from the field. I could not have done it on my own.'
'But I'm sending Ullii with you to the node. Where is the problem?'
'I'm not what I'm supposed to be.'
'None of us are what we're supposed to be. I'm a pragmatic man. It's the result that counts. You worked well with the seeker so I trust you will again, artisan.'
'I don't answer to artisan from my lover, Xervish.'
'I'm sorry. The scrutator in me.'
'I prefer the other meaning,' she said wickedly.
He smiled. 'Ah, yes. Very good. Might…' He hesitated, unsure of himself for once. 'Might there be further opportunities in that regard, do you think?'
She pretended to consider it, blank-faced. Her eyes met his. 'I'm mindful that we each have a duty to perform, Xervish.'
'I prefer the other meaning,' he grinned.
'Er, I'm not sure I take your point, Xervish.'
'You will, later! A duty, to perform!'
She lay back on the bed and closed her eyes, listening to the clacking of his eating sticks. The scrutator was a noisy eater and drank his tea with loud, appreciative slurps. It did not bother her; that was good manners in the country he came from.
She felt very tired. Irisis had not slept all night, and sparring with Flydd was emotionally exhausting. What was more, it still had not solved the problem.
'Another thing, Xervish.'
He gulped the last of the bowl, wiped his mouth on the cloth and swung around. 'You're thinking that you don't know enough about nodes. That this is really mancer's work and you can't do it.'
'You won't be going alone,' said Flydd.
'Who will be going with me?'
'I'll let you know when the time comes.' Irisis was not at her best that day. They were now surveying on the eighth level. She was desperately tired and not up to dealing with a fractious, childlike Ullii who suffered constant headaches and would curl up in the dark at the least provocation. The miners, a rough lot at the best of times, were having trouble restraining their tempers. They were bitter about the loss of the reward, more so that the enemy had infiltrated their mine, not to mention anxious at the danger of working beneath such unstable rock. Dandri had already shouted at Ullii twice. If it happened again, it would put paid to any useful seeking for the rest of the day.
'This is hopeless,' Irisis said to Peate as they trudged down another tunnel so narrow that the sides scraped against her shoulders. 'Isn't there any way to tell where to look for crystal?'
'The veins wander where they want to. And often, in this mine, the best veins are in the most dangerous areas. Like -' He looked away down the tunnel.
Irisis sensed that there was something she was not being told, or shown. They seemed to have been going around in a circle.
'Could I see the map of this level, please?'
'That's miner's business,' he muttered, rolling it up.
She put out her hand.
He held the map behind his back. 'You have no right? Anyway, you'd never understand it.'
'Would you like me to get an order from the scrutator?' she said coldly.
'Just give her the blasted map, Peate!' shouted Dandri, and marched off into the darkness.
Peate's arm dropped to his side. He did not offer her the map, nor resist when she took it. His face had assumed that mulish expression she had seen so often on miners over the years.
The map was, of course, perfectly comprehensible. The tunnels were marked with double lines whose width varied according to the size of the tunnel. Shafts were shown with circles; arrows indicated whether they went up or down. Markings along the sides of the tunnel were in symbols she did not understand, though she presumed they described the character of the rock and the sources of ore or crystal. The places Ullii had surveyed, fruitlessly, were marked in red. The red marks formed an irregular 'U' shape around a central core of tunnels.
'We've not been in this area at all,' she said to the miner.
'Too dangerous,' said Peate.
'Is that what these black jags show? Bad rock?'
'I'd still like to go in there.'
He threw down his pick. 'Then you can go alone!'
'I will. Give me your lantern.'
He passed it to her, Irisis called Ullii and led her away. Around the corner, she said to the seeker, 'We must go down here. Is that all right?'
'Yes,' said Ullii. 'We can go anywhere you want.'
'You're not afraid to go without the miners?'
'Don't like Peate. He is an angry man.'
'The rock is bad down here,' said Irisis. 'It might fall and kill us.'
'I know you'll look after me.'
Irisis sighed. 'Let's get to work.' 'Nothing here either?' said Irisis about six hours later. The silent darkness of the mine was getting to her. She had been edgy from the moment she'd entered.
Ullii shook her head. 'Head hurts. Want to go home.'
'Let's just look around the corner first.'
Irisis trudged off. Ullii plodded after her. It was no wonder the seeker's head was aching; the air was really bad down here. It had a faintly sulphurous smell, overlain by the odour of stagnant water, though the map showed no water on the eighth level. Where could it be coming from?
Around the corner the tunnel narrowed between two bosses of massive white quartz, free of any kind of crystal. Irisis held her lantern out. Ahead she could see only sheared pink granite in walls and roof. Wet mounds of crumbled rock, nearly waist high, partly blocked the tunnel. The roof must be really unstable. Water dripped all the way along.
'Well, that's one place we're definitely not going.' Turning away, Irisis rotated the half-shuttered lantern so it would not dazzle Ullii.
The seeker slipped by her and went up to the obstruction, staring into the dark and sniffing. Irisis kept going. Ullii needed no light; in fact, she could employ her seeker's talent better without it.
Irisis had been walking for some five minutes before realising that Ullii was not behind her. She held the lantern up. There was no sign of the seeker. No point yelling or cursing her, that would only make things worse. Irisis returned to the roof fall. Ullii was not there, though there was a small print in the clayey muck.
'Ullii,' she called, not too loudly.
Grit sifted down from a crack in the roof. Irisis felt afraid. Rotten wet rock was far more perilous than dry stuff. She squeezed through the gap, scraping breasts that were still tender from the previous night, and edged forward. A flat piece of granite detached itself from the roof, landing with a plop in front of her. Irisis shuddered and kept going.
The rotten rock continued as far as she could see, which was not far here. At a shallow bend, she peered around. Something crouched down the other end of the tunnel, but Irisis could not make out what it was. It might even have been a lyrinx.
At the thought, terror rose up within her and she almost screamed. Get a grip on yourself! A lyrinx would not even fit in this tunnel. She held up the lantern, the shapes shifted and became the seeker, crouching with her arms against the wall.
'What are you doing?' Irisis said crossly. 'This place is too dangerous. We've got to go back.'
'I can see something,' said Ullii.
Irisis resisted the urge to run. 'What?' she whispered when she got there.
'Crystal. Good crystal. Big crystal!'
'Really? Are you sure?'
'Biiiig crystal!' Ullii turned around and around, as if searching for something she could not quite locate.
'Where, Ullii? Which way?'
Her outstretched arm revolved, slanting down towards the floor. 'There.'
'Is it close?' Ullii could never be precise about distances, although directions were usually accurate. To be so fuzzy was unusual.
'Not… so close,' said Ullii.
That meant down a fair way. The ninth level was also unsafe and partly flooded, the level rising and falling with the seasons. It had not been too bad last autumn: Tiaan had been able to escape that way. That could be different after a winter of heavy snowfalls that were rapidly melting. If the crystal was below the ninth level they might as well forget it, for the water would come into the excavation faster than their primitive pumps could extract it.
'Let's go, Ullii. We'll come back in the morning.'
For once, Ullii seemed reluctant. She lingered by the wall, feeling it with her fingers. Her face was animated.
Irisis felt the sleepless night catching up with her. She caught Ullii by the arm. 'Come on. It's late.'
The seeker resisted. 'Leave me alone!'
Irisis was so astounded that she took a step backwards. 'What's the matter?'
'It's talking to me!'
'What is it saying?'
Ullii gave her a strange look, somewhere between pity and contempt. 'You can't understand.'
Irisis did not have the strength. She squatted against the wall and closed her eyes, but sprang up as the rock shook and a crash thundered along the tunnel. Air rushed past, carrying a wet, clayey smell. More of the roof had fallen.
Irisis looked back the way they had come but could see no further than the bend. She inspected the roof with her lantern. It was fractured all the way along.
The seeker had not moved, nor did she answer. There was nothing to do but wait. Irisis settled down again. Her eyes drifted closed. 'I'm ready now'. Ullii was shaking her shoulder.
'What?' Irisis said thickly, roused from deep slumber. She opened her eyes to utter darkness. 'Where -' She remembered. 'What's happened to the lantern?'
'It went out ages ago.'
Irisis felt for it and gave it a shake – it was empty and cold. It had burned all its oil. How were they going to find the way back to the lift shaft? The eighth level was a maze of intersecting tunnels.
'Ullii,' she whispered. 'I'm afraid. I don't know the way back. What are we going to do?'
The seeker made a muffled sound in her throat, which Irisis took for a sob. Panic began to close her throat over.
A warm little hand found her cold fingers. 'It's all right,' Ullii said soothingly, the way Irisis had often spoken to her. 'I know the way.'
Being treated like a child was irritating, but Irisis tried not to show it. Maybe the seeker did know the way out. Perhaps she could see it in that lattice in her head.
Ullii pulled her gently along. 'This is the wrong way,' Irisis hissed, sure that she had gone to sleep against the right-hand wall, which meant that the way back was on her left side. They were going the other direction.
'No, it's not,' Ullii said calmly.
Irisis did not argue. The seeker was at home in this environment and she was not. Maybe she had turned around in her sleep, or after she stood up. It was so easy to become disoriented down here.
The tunnel turned sharply, then back the other way, like the bends of an 'S'. Irisis shivered.
'It is the wrong way, Ullii. We definitely did not come around those bends.'
'Shh.' Ullii patted her hand. 'I know where I'm going.'
Perhaps the fall had blocked the way they had come. After that, and turning into a different tunnel, and then another, Irisis kept her mouth shut. Hopelessly lost, she had no choice but to rely on the little seeker.
They had been walking for a long time when Ullii stopped suddenly. Irisis, so tired that she could not think straight, kept going. Ullii jerked hard on her hand.
'What's the matter?' Irisis asked dazedly.
'Hole in the floor. Shouldn't be there.'
How could she possibly know that? 'Does that mean we have to go back?'
'Stay here.' Ullii let go of her hand.
Irisis sat on the damp floor. This puts a whole new shade on being kept in the dark, she thought wryly. The silence settled around her. Absolute silence. It was broken by a faint echoing click.
What was the seeker doing? Was she trying to climb down the hole and up the other side? Irisis did not fancy that in the dark. She wanted to cry out, to hear the reassurance of the seeker's voice. Now that was ironic.
What was taking her so long? Had she gone down and could not get up again? Irisis felt very alone. To pass the time she began counting, but after reaching a thousand gave up because she could no longer concentrate. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Ullii was beside her.
'I smell clawers.'
It was her word for lyrinx. 'Where?' Irisis whispered.
'Down. Ninth level.'
'Did they make this hole?'
'Does it go all the way down?'
'Yes,' said Ullii.
'What do they want?' Irisis said to herself, then answered it. 'They want crystal and they're also after the big one. Can we get past the hole?'
Getting information out of the seeker was like pulling teeth. 'Come on!' said Irisis. 'We can't let them trap us here. I don't want to end up in the belly of a lyrinx.'
It was the wrong thing to say. Irisis heard the seeker's muted squeal of panic, then nothing.
'Ullii,' she whispered.
There was no reply. Feeling around, she came upon the seeker, curled up like the armadillo that was her favourite animal. Irisis felt just as panicky. Now what was she supposed to do?
Leaving her there, she crawled to the hole. It was absolutely dark. Feeling around the ragged edge, Irisis smelt a familiar musty, meaty odour. The lyrinx were not far away.
It was unpleasant work in pitch blackness, knowing that if she overbalanced she would fall head-first and dash her brains out on the floor of the ninth level. Her hands met the wall, but leaning out as far as she dared Irisis did not find the other side. As she hesitated there, her heart clattering in her chest, something else struck her. If she could smell the lyrinx, they could probably smell her.
Her probing fingers found the narrowest of shelves on the left side, too narrow to walk across. She had to know how wide the hole was. Her pockets were empty but for fluff. No, there was something caught in the seam.
It was a holey nyd, a copper coin with the centre punched out. She weighed it in her hand. The small sound it would make had to be weighed against the risk of not knowing how far across the hole was.
Standing at the edge of the hole, she tossed the coin. It fell short, bounced off one wall of the hole, then the other, and landed with a distinct ching at the bottom.
'Slazzhik?' a lyrinx called, the sound echoing along the tunnel.
'Glunnra!' another replied. 'Tynchurr.'
Running back on tiptoes, she shook Ullii. 'Wake, seeker! The enemy knows we're here. We must run.'
Ullii moaned and curled up even tighter. Irisis felt like kicking her. She grabbed the seeker, who lashed out, catching Irisis in the left eye. 'Stop that!' she hissed, and when Ullii continued to struggle, Irisis slapped her.
Ullii went rigid, then curled up again. Holding her in her arms, Irisis felt her way up the tunnel. As she neared the hole, or shaft, it was outlined by a glow from beneath. They were coming.
Irisis peered down. The light was still moving; she smelt something like incense. They were burning sticks dipped in tree gum. The hole looked a couple of good steps wide. She would have to jump it, for the rim of stone along the left side was definitely not wide enough to walk on. Irisis checked the roof. No point leaping high and knocking herself out.
Ullii was like a hard little ball, which was not going to make it any easier. Irisis took three long steps backward, ran up to the hole, knew she was not going to make it and baulked at the last instant. She bent over, gasping for breath.
Something appeared at the bottom, the shadow of a beast with wings, and roared. She had to do it this time. Irisis ran, one, two, three. The load in her arms kept shifting and her mind could not calculate how much further, how much higher she had to jump. She stopped, overbalanced and almost fell down the shaft.
She managed to recover, spinning on one foot as she did so, but lost her footing and was forced to drop the seeker. Ullii landed on her bottom, let out an aggrieved howl and fleeted across the tiny ledge of floor. Without looking back, she hared off up the tunnel.
You little cow! Irisis thought as the seeker disappeared. After all I've done for you. A dark silhouette was moving up the shaft. No choice now. Jump or die.
She ran backwards, took two deep breaths and ran. As she came near, the creature's head emerged. The torchlight lit up its face from below: eyes and teeth. Jump high and fast, or you're dead. She took off, leaping as high as she possibly could. The lyrinx threw up its arm, its claws scraped her ankle, caught on her boot seam and it tried to pull her out of the air. Irisis kicked, connected with its forehead; and then she was over, landing on hands and knees.
The lyrinx roared and threw itself out of the shaft, holding up the torch. The tunnel ran straight for about thirty spans. Irisis fled. When she was nearly to the bend, the light disappeared. All she could see was the silhouette again. The creature had put the torch behind it, so as to hide the way ahead of her.
Slowing to a trot, she put her arms out. Even so, it came as a shock when she ran into the bend. She felt around it and moved forward at a shuffling walk. That would not save her if she encountered another shaft.
Irisis prayed for a narrow pinch that her pursuer could not get through; there had been several like it over on the other side. Here, the tunnel was almost as wide as a road. It took many a turning, and each time she had to go blindly into the dark. Each time the silhouette appeared behind her, it was closer.
She went harder, but it sped up too. There was a stitch in her side. She felt as if she had been running all her life. Suddenly the lyrinx let out an almighty roar that seemed to shake the tunnel. It had a note of triumph. Gravel and grit fell on her head. Something thumped behind her; a lump of roof.
The roar echoed back the other way. Or was another lyrinx ahead? She saw a flickering light, panicked, and when a smaller tunnel loomed up on her left, Irisis turned into it. Unfortunately it was not a tunnel, just a dead end, but in the darkness she could not see that. Irisis ran into the wall.
Gilhaelith had gone to see Tiaan several times but she always pretended to be asleep. She was hiding something. He had left off questioning her for the moment, for he had much to think about. War now raged in northern Almadin, and that was not far away. The lyrinx had defeated an army and razed a city. Neither the vastness of Worm Wood nor the slopes of the mountain could deter a determined attack. And the amplimet was preying on his mind. He had spent hours each day, watching it and wondering how it had formed. He had not touched it yet – each time he read the numbers they told him to wait.
On the fourth day after the crash, there came a tap on the door and Nyrd the messenger hurried in, his satchel bulging and a leather envelope in one hand. With his pointed nose and chin, elongated ears and skin so thick and wrinkled it could have been a leather suit, Nyrd looked like an oversized gnome.
'What is it?' asked Gilhaelith.
'The war!' said Nyrd with a quizzical glance. His eyes were as small and black as cherries. 'Better take a look at this one first.' He passed over the leather envelope. 'It just came in by skeet.'
Gilhaelith untied the red cords, withdrawing the wax-sealed packet inside. Noting the origin of the seal, he stiffened. 'Thank you, Nyrd. I won't need you until after lunch.'
After Nyrd closed the door on the way out, Gilhaelith broke the seal. The letter was from his factor in Saludith and contained no identifying marks, though it bore the previous day's date.
Surr, I have the most alarming news. A horde of battle constructs, modelled on Rulke's that was destroyed in Aachan two centuries ago, have come over the mountains from Mirrilladell. Their number is 6118, and presently they are camped beyond the southern boundary of Borgistry, near Clew's Top. They are said to have come from Aachan. Though I do not see how that could be true, they speak in a most barbarous accent and are armed as for war. Other fleets are believed to have gone south to Oolo, Candalume and K'Klistoh, as well as west toward the Karama Malama. I am awaiting reports on those movements.
The main force is led by Vithis, an arrogant and unlikeable man, very bitter and uncompromising, according to those who have had dealings with him. Vithis has made no declaration though surely his plans are predatory. The enclosed papers contain more detailed information, maps and sketches of these constructs.
Finally, and most urgent of all, I have heard reports of another construct, a flying one. It flew over the main force three days ago, attacked the camp recklessly and knocked down Vithis, injuring his leg. It then disappeared in the direction of Parnggi and the Peaks of Borg. Vithis is said to be out of his mind with rage. He has, for the present time, turned aside from his military objectives and is exerting all his strength to finding this renegade machine and its operator.
I will send more the instant I have it. Chiarri
Chiarri, not her real name, was one of his most reliable factors. Crushing the letter in his fist, Gilhaelith called for a jug of stout and went to sit on the terrace, a favourite thinking place. He stared down into the crater.
Aachan! That meant a gate, and its opening had something to do with that reverberation of the ethyr he had felt weeks ago. Was this the first strike of a war of the worlds? Why, why had Tiaan brought the flying construct here? But of course, when the pipes had sounded days ago, he'd done his best to draw her here. Whether her coming was due to his efforts, or to sheer chance, here she was and he must deal with her and all her baggage.
How had she stolen the flying construct, and why had she attacked the Aachim so recklessly? The situation was out of control and for the first time in a century Gilhaelith felt afraid. The prize might not be worth the risk. He ran the numbers but this time the pattern was ambiguous, the worst result of all.
The best option would be to take Tiaan back to the site of the crash, put her next to the construct and leave her to die. She was so intimately mixed up with the gate, amplimet and construct that whoever found the construct must come looking for her.
He resolved, reluctantly, to do just that. Gilhaelith was not going to risk his life's work for a thief and cripple, no matter how haunting the look in her eyes. He'd seen that look before; nothing good ever came out of it.
The amplimet was another matter. The Art and Science of the earth were his life's work and this crystal could take him to the core that had always eluded him. He would not give it up unless he stood to lose everything. And so he might, if he did not quickly discover why Tiaan had stolen the flying construct. And there lay the problem. Any competent mancer could read the aura given off by the amplimet, inside and outside the construct. If he left the construct where it was but kept the crystal, the first place they would look was here.
It was all or nothing, and whatever his decision, he had better make it quickly. Was the amplimet worth it? If not, the choice was made for him. He went down to the organ to see what he could make of the crystal.
Gilhaelith worked the lever that uncovered the skylight far above, allowing the thin rays of the crescent moon to shine vertically on the bench, the frosty globe of the world and the amplimet which lay on a piece of crumpled black velvet. The crystal glowed strongly but the central spark sometimes fluctuated in intensity. Strange and intriguing.
He reached out with gloved hand, then drew back as one of the larger organ pipes soughed, just on the lower edge of hearing. It was like the murmuring of bees in the far distance – a warning. He'd had that whenever he tried to investigate the amplimet.
It was frustrating. The crystal was powerful and sensitive. What wonders might he uncover if he could learn how to use it properly? The little thief could not have employed a fraction of its potential.
Making a sudden decision, he wrapped the amplimet in its velvet and carried it beyond the keyboard to a spot where arrays of organ pipes – some vertical, some slanted and the remainder horizontal – formed a series of fans converging on a single point. At that spot stood a hollow star with eighty-one points, each a matched crystal. Gilhaelith eased the amplimet into the hollow, settled it in place and removed the velvet.
Reaching for a stop on his organ console, he carefully, carefully pulled it out, withdrawing a golden mask from the centre of the star. He held his breath. A nerve throbbed painfully in his stomach. Anything might happen. Or worse, nothing.
The glow from the crystal died down. The spark vanished. At the same time a cloud must have passed in front of the moon, for the silvery beams coming through the skylight disappeared. Frost seemed to settle on everything. When he moved his foot, the floor crackled.
As he eased the lever the last fraction, the frost deepened. Then, with a shrieking, roaring rumble, every pipe of the organ sounded at once, a noise so violent that it tore at his skull. He clapped his hands over his ears but that made no difference. The sounds were inside too. A wooden pipe burst, embedding a dark splinter fingernail-deep in the back of his hand.
Gilhaelith kicked the stop in and the cacophony cut off, though not before more pipes exploded and a metal array sagged as if made of putty. Wrapping his hand in the piece of black velvet, he reached into the star. Gilhaelith would not have been surprised had smoke risen from his fingertips. The crystal was unchanged except, perhaps, a little colder than before. Its glow was subdued.
He did not know what had happened and shuddered to think what other mancers would make of that disturbance to the ethyr. He prayed that no one could tell its origin. The crystal was more potent than he had thought, and more dangerous. Something had transformed it but he could not tell what. He had to have it, though Gilhaelith did not plan to risk his life testing it. That seemed to leave him with only one alternative.
Let's see what the little thief knew about it. But first, one thing must be done urgently. He called his foreman.
'Guss, put together a detail, only your most reliable people. Go down to the forest and bring the machine back. Leave no trace of it and keep it covered as it is brought up. Can that be done today?'
The foreman considered, rubbing his shiny forehead. 'I'll take twenty men. That should be ample. Not far from the site there's an ancient lava tube, if you recall, which we've previously used as a covered road. We'll bring it up that way, and the last distance under cover of night. It'll be in your deepest cellar by midnight.'
'Swear the men to secrecy, even from their partners.'
'It's a little late for that, master. No one has spoken about anything else for days.'
Gilhaelith frowned. People were so ill-disciplined. 'I'll speak to them myself. No more talking. The others need not know it's here. Better still, I'll send them around the rim. The glanberries are starting to fruit already, are they not?'
'The winter flowering ones are, on the warmer northern slopes.'
'Good. I have a fancy for glanberry pie tonight. Oh, and one other thing.'
'It might be an idea if you and your men were not around to be questioned for a while.'
'There's plenty to do below,' said the foreman. 'We'll work there until you give the word.'
'Very good. Tell the men to stay clear of my best stout.'
The foreman laughed. 'Every man has his weakness, and I imagine you're referring to me rather than them. I'll keep it in mind, though it'll be a thirsty duty, master.'
His loyalty deserved a reward, though Gilhaelith offered it with a tinge of regret. 'When you come up, you shall have a barrel of the stuff.' Gilhaelith spring-stepped to Tiaan's room. Hitherto she had dodged all his questions. Now he had to know.
Her head rotated as he entered. Her eyes were dull; she did not seem to be interested in anything. Pulling up a chair, he sat down. She resumed staring at the ceiling.
He leaned forward, unfolded the letter from his factor and began to read it. She ignored him until he mentioned Vithis, whereupon her hands fluttered under the covers. She bit down on a gasp. He kept reading. At the end, her eyes turned to him and he saw naked terror there. Just as quickly she hid it.
'You must tell me everything,' he said sternly.
'There's no point. Just take me down the mountain and leave me by my thapter.'
'The flying construct.'
'I am thinking of doing just that.' He inspected her as dispassionately as he would have done the least of his servants. There was no room for sentiment, not for a thief. 'Why did you steal the thapter?'
'I didn't. It's mine.'
The claim was nonsensical. 'Tiaan, Vithis is searching for the thapter, and you, and won't rest until he has interrogated every witness in the land. I cannot resist him, even if I wanted to. You are a thief who wantonly attacked his camp and tried to kill him. I must give you up.'
'Then talk to me.'
'He is a liar who callously betrayed me, and attacked me first. I am not a thief.'
He did not believe her. 'Go on.'
'I did not steal the thapter,' she blurted. 'It's mine.'
'Come, Tiaan, patently it was made by the Aachim.'
'Malien gave it to me in Tirthrax.'
He drew in a breath. 'Malien is still alive?'
'She is old, but in health.'
'How very interesting. Were the other constructs made at Tirthrax?'
'They were built on Aachan. I created the gate that brought them to our world, for their own is dying in volcanic fire.'
He got a tale out of her, with much probing, and many pauses on her part that made him sure there was little truth in it. It was well into the evening by then. A shiver went up his spine as he understood, at last, the source of that ethyric convulsion weeks ago. Someone had made a gate but it could not have been Tiaan. She was not old enough to have mastered the basics of geomancy, far less the greatest of all magic. Gilhaelith was so unsettled that he shouted for a cup of mustard-water.
'But, master,' said Mihail, 'you never drink mustard-water in the evening. Shall I fetch you -'
'At once, dammit. And tea for Tiaan.'
Gilhaelith sat back in his chair. She could not have made a gate, so who had? Malien, most likely. The situation was more dire than he had thought: for the world, for himself, and of course for Tiaan. Her attack, even if it had been self-defence, would have been the ultimate humiliation for the proud Aachim. And the thapter was worth a continent. Who had made it fly, as Rulke's original had, two centuries ago? Tiaan had not revealed that. Vithis would do everything possible to recover it. With mastery of the air his forces would be unstoppable; humanity's clankers would be no more useful than hay wagons.
And then there was the amplimet. Even if Vithis dared not use it himself, it was required for the thapter to fly. Vithis might be capable of scrying out the path flown by the thapter, given time. It would be a difficult task, but not impossible for someone with unlimited resources. Sooner or later he would end up here. I haven't thought things through, Gilhaelith thought. Should I call Guss back? Perhaps I should tell Vithis where the construct is, and earn the reward.
'Tell me about the amplimet, Tiaan.'
'I've already talked about it.'
'There's much you haven't told me. It's a deadly crystal and I can't see how you survived using it, even briefly.'
Tiaan flushed and looked down at the bed. Mistaking her reaction for guilt, he reared up over her and said sternly, 'I have been testing the amplimet and I know you're keeping much from me. My patience has run out. Tell me, or it will go badly for you.'
'The c-crystal is alive,' she stammered.
She was less intelligent than he'd thought, but he'd humoured her. 'How can you tell?'
'It was drawing power from the field all by itself, without ever being woken.' She told him about finding it. 'And in Tirthrax, since the gate opened, it was talking to the node.'
'Talking to the node? Preposterous!'
She explained about that, and how it had taken over the thapter's controls. He did not speak after she had finished, but paced the bedchamber, analysing what she had said and calculating probabilities. He could not believe her.
'What are you going to do?' she said. She seemed to be going through some kind of internal struggle.
'I don't know.'
'Vithis must not get the thapter. You've got to give it to the scrutators. It will make all the difference to the war.'
'You're a fine one to talk about duty, after running away from your manufactory.'
'I was on my way to Lybing to give the thapter to the scrutator, but the amplimet brought me here instead. It cut off the field to make sure I couldn't fight it.'
One absurd lie after another. Did she take him for a fool? But still, there was something about her, and her story, that made him pause.
'Please,' she said in tones that would have wrenched at the heart of any normal man. 'Vithis is a monster. He plans to take our world.'
Gilhaelith was not a normal man, but he could not think with her tragic eyes on him. He rose abruptly, sending the chair skidding back. Her head whipped around and he saw terror in her eyes.
He stalked around the rim of the crater, stumbling over the rubble in his agitation. He was not defenceless. Gilhaelith had been born with a talent for the Secret Art, one he had worked hard to master. Nonetheless, the Aachim force must contain many adepts greater than he, and if they discovered what he had done they would destroy him. He could not play that kind of game. Better be seen to be helpful, while hiding his true design.
Or should he give the thapter to the scrutators? A good decision if it helped them to win the war, but a foolish one if, as he suspected, they were going to lose. Gilhaelith took the omens but the numbers were ambiguous. He took them again – different numbers, yet the uncertainty was the same. The choice went three ways and his decision could alter the future of the world. One option was right, the others likely to be disastrously wrong, but for all his auguries and all his logic he could not separate them. The future was scrambled. Randomness, the greatest curse of all, looked like being crucial. In the early hours of the following morning, Gilhaelith sat in his chair in the basement, a jug of stout at his elbow, staring moodily at the thapter. He could not bring himself to believe Tiaan's outlandish story about making the gate. A student of geomancy for a century and a half, he knew just how long it took to master the Art. The notion that the amplimet had some will of its own was even more absurd. And yet… there had been that strange reaction when he had tested it with his organ.
Gilhaelith had not got to where he was by having a closed mind. If it did have some kind of mineral awareness, he would discover it. But what could a piece of crystal want?
He spent a day and a half cunningly investigating it with the subtlest of his instruments. It shone steadily all the while unusual, but not unprecedented. It did not blink once. It was not communicating at all – that was just another of Tiaan's fantasies. Once he had gone, the amplimet's glow faded to the dullest of glimmers, but the central spark began to blink rapidly and, after some hours, the field of the Booreah Ngurle double node started to pulse in unison. Several minutes passed. The spark died and the field went back to normal.
The thapter was another puzzle, though one more amenable to logic. Gilhaelith's smiths had removed its crumpled metal skin and were now beating it back to shape. He had studied every part of the machine's workings but had not discovered how it hovered, much less flew. It vexed him that a little liar and thief had been able to do what he could not.
Two days later, Mihail came running to Gilhaelith, who had just gone in to check on Tiaan.
'Master, master!' he cried, bursting through the door.
'What is it?' Gilhaelith snapped. He hated chaos and emotion.
'Klarm, surr. The dwarf scrutator.'
'What? On his way up the mountain?'
'He's turning onto the terrace right now.'
Gilhaelith jumped. How had Klarm climbed the hill without anyone seeing him? Scrutator magic! 'Keep this door shut!' he snapped and ran out, ignoring Tiaan.
Klarm was scrutator for Borgistry, the land south of Booreah Ngurle. Strictly speaking he did not have any authority here, for Gilhaelith held an ancient charter that declared his little kingdom independent. It suited the leaders of the surrounding nations, and more importantly the Council of Scrutators, otherwise they would have repudiated it long ago. But the war had changed the world and Gilhaelith was uncomfortably aware of his vulnerability. He had to please everyone, offend no one, and maintain his usefulness to the scrutators. And still he could not make his choice. Should he give the thapter to Klarm, or lie and pray he got away with it? Even if he did, he would soon have to abandon Nyriandiol and all he had done here. But if Klarm suspected the thapter was being kept from him…
'Scrutator Klarm!' Gilhaelith said as he went out the circular front door. 'It's very good to see you. Come down.'
Klarm's groom trotted across with a footstool and stood it beside the stirrup, for Klarm had not grown properly and, standing on tiptoes, his large round head reached no higher than Gilhaelith's waist. Despite his dwarfism he was a cheerful fellow, though as ruthless as anyone ever to take the robes of scrutator.
Klarm clambered down, nodding to the groom. He walked with a rolling gait, like a man who had spent too long on the deck of a ship. With a dazzling smile, the scrutator threw out his hand. He was a handsome man with a noble mane of brown wavy hair that enclosed his neck like a collar. His eyes were the brilliant blue of the crater lake below. 'It's a pleasure to be back, Gilhaelith.'
Gilhaelith bowed low and took the outstretched hand. He had always liked Klarm, though he did not trust him. Scrutator first, friend a distant second. 'And to you, my friend. How long has it been? Too long, certainly.'
'Eleven months to the day.' Klarm always knew such details.
'Come into the shade. Shall I bring up a jug of my finest stout?'
'Porter, I think, but don't be mean. Bring the whole damned barrel.'
A servant was despatched and Gilhaelith led Klarm under the vines. They talked about the splendid weather and the beauty of the blue lake, as custom dictated, until the drink arrived. The first servant bore a jug the size of a large bucket. Another carried a tray of delicacies – the pickled intestinal organs of lake fish, arranged in squares four to a side, for Gilhaelith, and more traditional tidbits for Klarm.
The scrutator wrinkled his nose. 'Nothing changes with you.' He chose a cube of blue cheese, which he roofed with slices of gherkin before swallowing it whole.
'And why should it?' Gilhaelith selected a pair of small, liver-pink organs between finger and thumb, admiring the colouring. Red-brown material oozed out. He slurped them down.
He poured the scrutator a large tankard of the boot-polish-brown brew. They touched porcelain to porcelain and Klarm drained his in a single swallow. It was his habit to begin a session that way, though he seldom lost his wits no matter how much ale he had taken. He poured another, sinking it as quickly, and a third, which he merely sipped.
Gilhaelith, knowing his limitations, took a sturdy pull at his own drink, sat it on the table and looked the scrutator in the eye.
'I know you'd come a tidy distance to drink a porter as fine as mine,' he said. 'Are you passing by, or have you come about this other matter that everyone is talking of?' No one passed by Booreah Ngurle, for it was a winding twenty leagues through Worm Wood from the Great North Road, and not on the way to anywhere.
'I figured your spies would have told you of it,' Klarm said. 'Whatever happened to this flying construct, it's checked the progress of the Aachim, and that's a blessing. They raced halfway across the continent in a couple of weeks, but since the machine disappeared they've not moved their main camp. I need not tell you what a shock their appearance was. They came from Aachan, Gilhaelith. Through a gate! What do they want? Are they really refugees, or an advance guard come to bring the rest of their people across? Will they ally with us against the lyrinx, or take their side, or fight us both? On the answers to these questions our very future depends.'
'And the Aachim's too. I'm glad you came, Klarm, for I've been mulling over the business ever since I first heard of it. And one thing puzzles me more than anything else.'
Scrutator Klarm raised an eyebrow.
'The earliest rumours were that they were imminently preparing for war. Since then, all reports show them to have lost their purpose.'
'Reports they could have tainted,' Klarm retorted.
'I doubt that even these Aachim are as calculating as the scrutators,' Gilhaelith said with a cheerfulness he did not feel. 'They mill all over the place, and every day their advantage is diminished. This is no way to win a war. If they planned to attack us, or the lyrinx, why not do so at once?'
'A question the Council also asks, you may be sure. The Aachim have had a number of shocks since they arrived. Recall.' Klarm dipped a stubby finger in the head of his porter then held it up, licking at the tip with a neat pink tongue. 'The last they knew of Santhenar, we were just a collection of primitive and warring nations, easy prey. Now they find a world united, organised for war, well-armed and hardened after generations of conflict. We have vast fleets of clankers, as well as other weapons powered by the Secret Art. What else do we have that they know nothing about, nor how to deal with?'
Another finger. 'The lyrinx are an equally formidable enemy and they too are legion. They also have developed the Art in directions the Aachim do not understand, such as flesh-forming.'
Finger number three. 'The Aachim would have expected their own kind, who have dwelt here for thousands of years, to support them, for they see themselves as the original and unsullied people of Aachan. But I know our Aachim and I see it differently. They will regard these interlopers as primitives who place clan above kind, who over four millennia never united to throw off the yoke of the Charon.'
A fourth foam-covered digit. 'The flying construct is a secret they do not have, despite the fact that they built all the others: more than ten thousand, I am told. Who is this genius who transformed their work so quickly, and so radically? The Council of Scrutators will pay one million gold tells for the secret of flight. For the flying construct, or the person who stole it, ten thousand apiece.'
Gilhaelith was staggered. A soldier's pay for a year was a single gold tell and the scrutators were notoriously miserly.
'And there is friction among the invaders,' Klarm went on. 'The clans resent Vithis for his arrogance and his inflexible command. And he, it is said, condemns those who cannot focus on the prize.' He drained his porter and poured another. 'Whatever his plans are, losing this construct has stalled them. In order to get it back, he has given away the element of surprise.'
'You're saying they can't agree what to do?' said Gilhaelith.
'They're disunited. It gives us an opportunity, though one that will vanish the instant war is declared. But first we need answers. What have you heard about the woman who stole it?' Klarm's eyes were unnaturally bright.
Last chance. If he gave up the thapter, and Tiaan, would Klarm let him keep the amplimet? Of course not. Without it the thapter could not be made to fly. No doubt that problem could be solved in time, but humanity did not have time. I can't give up the amplimet, Gilhaelith thought. I've worked a hundred and fifty years for this. Humanity must fend for itself.
He met Klarm's eyes. 'Nothing, save that she attacked their camp,' he lied. 'And you?' There was no going back now.
'She is old human, an artisan from Tiksi who used to make clanker controllers. Very good ones. Her name is Tiaan.' Klarm licked foam from the rim of the tankard. 'It took me a while to work out who she was. So many despatches to remember. She fled the manufactory last year after a… distasteful incident. The last I heard, she had been taken by the lyrinx. My colleague Xervish Flydd was trying to get her back. And here is the most important question of all: did she discover how to make the construct fly? Or if she did not, who did?'
'How could she? That would require mastery of the Secret Art, surely? You imply that she has a history of crime. She is just a clever thief. I would look to the Aachim of Santhenar.'
'Rumour says the gate was made at Tirthrax. The Aachim have the resources and the Art. Who else does? I don't, and I doubt if even the Council -'
'I wouldn't take that line of reasoning any further, if I were you.'
'Meddle in the scrutators' business at your peril,' Gilhaelith quoted.
Klarm waddled to the wall, which was the height of his head, and hopped up on it facing the crater. Gilhaelith perched beside him.
'I'm terrified,' said Klarm, and he did look distressed, a rare expression for a scrutator. 'Though I say it to no one but you. If the Aachim do unite, and I'm sure they will when it comes to it, their constructs will destroy us. Flight is the only answer, if we get it first. I hear what you say but we've got to find Tiaan before Vithis does. Our future depends on this machine. I must send messages right away.'
Any other man might have felt guilty. Gilhaelith felt not a twinge. Klarm began scribbling notes, after which they walked around the back of Nyriandiol to the skeet house. Gilhaelith gave Klarm three message wallets and the scrutator placed one letter in each.
'Where are they going?' Gilhaelith asked.
Klarm told him. 'How long will it take to school your skeets to the destinations?'
A sharp pain struck Gilhaelith in the stomach, high up, and he bent over, clutching at the spot.
'Are you all right, my friend?'
'A touch of colic.'
'No wonder, the gruesome stuff you feed on.'
'It's made me what I am today.'
'I've no doubt of that,' Klarm said dryly. 'Can I do -?'
'It's just gallstones. The pain will pass.'
'Not too quickly, I'll warrant. My apothek has a sovereign remedy for stones.'
'If it persists I may well call on his services.' Gilhaelith forced himself to straighten up. 'How much time, you asked? None at all.' He took seed crystals from labelled jars on a shelf and popped one into each wallet. 'The bird homes by following lines of force. I've already set these crystals to the correct destinations.'
'A clever innovation.' Klarm passed the wallets to the handler. 'We must do business. Lost messages are one of our greatest problems.'
'You may have as many crystals as you want,' said Gilhaelith. 'With my compliments.'
Klarm bowed. They watched the skeets released, with an interval between each so they would not attack one another, then returned to the front terrace, Gilhaelith walking bent over.
'It will not be easy to find her,' said Klarm, 'nor to carry her and the construct away if we do. Vithis's spies and informers are everywhere.'
'I shouldn't wonder. Whoever finds this flying machine, and can crack its secrets, will win the war.'
'Whoever finds it and tells me,' said the scrutator, 'will bathe in a solid-gold tub for the rest of his life.'
'I wish I had it!' Gilhaelith forced a smile. 'Mine is of humble rhyolite.'
'You haven't done so badly.' Klarm ran his eye along the length of the villa.
'It's taken me a long time.'
'And all could be lost so quickly,' said Klarm.
'Indeed,' Gilhaelith sighed, ignoring the ever-so-subtle threat. 'In the twinkling of an eye.'
'On a different matter entirely, isn't your brimstone contract up for renewal soon?'
'It is, but if you don't want to renew it…'
'Of course we do,' said Klarm, 'though many considerations have to be weighed up. The war, other suppliers…'
'I'm sure we can satisfy each other, Klarm. As you know, I am the most flexible of men. And if there's any other way I can help the scrutators -'
'Do you have anything specific in mind?' Klarm feigned disinterest, not entirely successfully. Gilhaelith had developed a rare ability to read people, even the trained impassivity of the scrutators.
'One rumour has it that the construct disappeared in the northern part of Worm Wood. I am doing everything I can to find it, and if I do… well, I have no need of such a device.'
'Any merchant who had it would make a fortune,' said Klarm.
'But he wouldn't keep fortune or construct for too long,' said Gilhaelith. 'Nor his head! I prefer to stay attached to mine. If I hear anything, I will send word at once, by skeet.'
'Thank you,' said the dwarf, draining his tankard. 'As always, it's a pleasure doing business with you.'
'Another porter, my friend?'
'Not this time. The Council runs us harder than ever. I must go.' Tiaan lay in her room, trying to hear, though she caught only a sentence or two. The air of controlled power the little man gave off frightened her, but better him than Vithis.
The door opened. Gilhaelith came in. 'Scrutator Klarm is a dangerous man. A good friend, as long as you don't cross him, which I have just done, but a deadly enemy.'
Tiaan closed her eyes. Two deadly enemies, and both were hunting her. 'You're going to give the thapter to him, of course?' She held her breath for the answer.
Gilhaelith scowled. Clearly he was not used to being questioned by inferiors. 'I need the amplimet, so I cannot give up the thapter either.'
'But it's vital to the war!'
'There's always a war somewhere. The amplimet may hold the key to the great game.'
She could not believe anyone could be so greedy or stupid. 'You fool!' she cried. 'What use will your precious secrets be if there is no one alive to see them?'
Nish scanned the flame-shot darkness. A solitary figure ran along the wall but nowhere did he see a family group. He risked a shout. 'Colm! Oinan, Tinketil! Ketila! Fransi!'
No reply. Perhaps a lyrinx had circled around the palisade and got them. More likely they had dared wait no longer. He could not blame them. In this race, the stragglers would be eaten. He was sorry, though. They had risked their lives for him and he would have liked to thank them.
Taking up his mallet, Nish slid like a spectre into the darkness. Which way? In the field of war you could never tell. Even if you guessed right, an hour later it might become the wrong way.
He was skidding down the gully when something crashed through a thicket to his left. It was probably another refugee as miserable as himself, but Nish was taking no risks. He crouched down so that he would not show against the glowing skyline. Someone hurtled out of the bushes, straight for him. Nish tried to get out of the way and the man – it was a man, by the size – swung something at him. Nish thought it was a sword, and that he was going to lose his head.
Foolishly, he threw up his arm. A piece of wood snapped against it, just a brittle stick, luckily. Nish swung the mallet hard and low, into the fellow's midriff. He went down without a sound. Nish fled along the reedy gully until he smelt salt water. The Sea of Thurkad lay ahead.
To go right would take him in the direction of Nilkerrand, which was still burning, and the enemy. He turned left. The coastline curved west here and, as he reached the shore, Nish saw flames reflecting on the water. Such a pretty sight, from this distance.
As he continued on sand that squeaked underfoot, it began to grow light. Making out a low promontory, Nish broke into a trot. A flying lyrinx would easily spot him on the beach or in the dunes behind it.
He reached the promontory as the sun rose. The headland was layered sandstone, as grey as the water. A rock platform, weathered into rectangular blocks, surrounded it. Sullen waves crashed over the edge. Picking his way across, he came upon a band of oyster shells. His mouth watered. Nish pounded an oyster with the mallet and shell fragments flew everywhere, one catching him in the corner of the eye.
The oyster was just a smear on the rock. Nish found a pebble in one of the tidal gutters and attacked another shell, more carefully. He managed to crack it in half and picked out the oyster. It was not very big, nor did it look appetising, but he was too hungry to care.
He ate about thirty of the little creatures, only stopping because they were salty and he had nothing to drink. Nish climbed the sandstone stack at the back of the promontory to look for a stream.
From the top he could see the towers of Nilkerrand, still burning. The westerly wind drifted a greasy brown plume across the landscape. Smoke trailed upwards from several parts of the refugee camp and lyrinx circled in the air over it.
To the south a long curving beach extended as far as he could see. Behind the beach were dunefields and salt marsh, country difficult to cross, easy to get lost in. There were hundreds of boats on the water, from majestic barges to little dinghies with scraps of sail. All were heading away from Nilkerrand, well out to sea where the lyrinx would not dare attack. He waved in the faint hope that one might come to his aid. None did.
To the east Nish saw a road crowded with refugees. It offered the safety of numbers and the possibility of begging for food. Further on, a meandering line of trees appeared to mark a creek. Nish set off in that direction. Two hours later he was sitting in the shrubbery next to the road, thirstier than ever, watching the refugees go by. He had not reached the creek. His leg throbbed after the long walk through the dunes and he did not think he could go much further.
The refugees comprised every kind of humanity imaginable. Passing him now was a fat merchant or lawyer, staggering under bags of silver plate and precious metal chains. His fine clothes were tattered and soot-stained; he was drenched in sweat and scarlet of face. He would not last long, nor his equally plump and beringed wife.
Behind them trudged a mother and four young children, the youngest a babe-in-arms. They were dressed in peasant's drab, coarse brown cloth that hung in baggy folds. They would not last long either. Then Nish saw the knife in the woman's belt, the fixed look in her eye, and was not so sure. He would not want to get between her and her cubs.
A farmer's cart followed, a rickety affair with a wheel that squealed at the top of every rotation. The mournful nag looked as if it wanted to lie down and never get up again. An aged woman and her equally weathered man sat on top.
The dismal procession continued. Nish was looking for someone who had been in authority and was still strong and capable. He planned to ingratiate himself, which was not going to be easy – people would be more suspicious than ever. Failing that, after his accidental success with Colm he would try to find a child to befriend, in order to get into the good graces of the parents.
Hours went by. He kept watch for Colm and his family but did not see them. Nish saw few people who looked more competent than himself. However, around midday his eye was caught by two girls, about twelve years old, coming up the road arm-in-arm. They looked to be identical twins. Both had the same coppery-brown wavy hair, the same dark eyes and sturdy figure. Each was dressed in plain green blouse and pants, their faces shielded by broad-brimmed hats. Their little packs were identical. Superficially they could have been any children on the road, but their clothing was of fine weave and well cut. But they were alone, and that was no good to him. No point, if they had already lost their parents.
One of the girls was limping. She sat down on a stone at the edge of the road, not far away. Taking off her boot and sock, she inspected a blistered heel.
'I don't think I can go much further, Meriwen,' she said. 'My foot really hurts.'
'Remember what father said. If we were separated we must keep going, and never stop, until we get to Kundizand. He will find us there.'
'My foot is killing me.'
'It's not far, Liliwen.'
'It is! It'll take us all day and half the night.'
'The sooner we start the quicker we'll get there.'
'You sound just like Mother,' said Liliwen crossly.
Another group of refugees, wearing straw hats and labourer's drab, passed by. No one gave the twins a passing glance. The world was full of lost children.
'They'll be really angry if they can't find us. You know Father has to go back to the army tomorrow.'
'If there is an army,' Liliwen muttered.
'Of course there's an army! There will always be one.'
'The beasts might have eaten Mother and Father,' said Liliwen, clearly the pessimist of the pair.
'Stop it!' shouted Meriwen. 'Don't talk like that!'
Nish, desperately thirsty and in considerable pain, could see no better prospect. Cutting through the scrub, he came out behind the girls, who were still arguing as he limped by. The wound in his leg was agonising. He walked on a dozen steps, then perched on a boulder. Pulling his trouser leg up, he began unwrapping the bandages.
The rents in his calf muscle had been healing, but one had torn open with the night's exertions and was trickling blood. The tooth marks were red, swollen and filled with pus.
The twins were walking towards him. As they came by, Nish probed the wound, groaned and looked up. 'I don't suppose you've got any ointment, have you?'
The first girl stopped. They weren't absolutely identical. Liliwen had thicker eyebrows than Meriwen, a rounder face, and the beginnings of a bosom. 'I'm sorry,' said Liliwen. 'Mother has some but she's… not here.'
'Is she coming?' said Nish, looking down the road. 'My leg is killing me.'
'Liliwen!' hissed Meriwen, standing some distance away. 'We're not allowed to talk to strangers.'
'That's very wise,' said Nish, knowing that he must look a fright. 'There are all sorts of wicked people on the road. My name is Cryl-Nish Hlar, but everyone calls me Nish. Actually, I hate that name,' he said confidentially, 'but it doesn't seem to make any difference.' He held out his hand.
Liliwen took it in a way that suggested she had never shaken hands before. 'I'm Liliwen. This is my sister, Meriwen.'
'Hello, Meriwen,' said Nish.
'Hello,' she said grudgingly, keeping well away. 'You sound strange.'
'I come from the other side of the world. I'm not very good at your language.'
'Come on, Liliwen.'
Nish rose and limped beside Liliwen. Meriwen kept to the other side of the road.
'Do you live in Nilkerrand?' Nish asked.
'Yes.' Liliwen looked up at him. 'At least -' She suppressed a sob.
'The enemy came, those horrible flying beasts. Everything was on fire. Our lovely house was burnt, and all my toys, and…' she began to sob, 'poor Mixy.'
'Who was Mixy?' he asked gently.
'Her old tomcat,' said Meriwen, still uncomfortable with him.
'I'm very sorry. I lost my cat too, when I was a kid, about as old as you.'
Liliwen wiped her eyes. 'What happened to him?'
'Her,' said Nish. 'Finn was her name. A cart ran her over in the street. I cried for days.'
'Did you?' Meriwen thawed a little.
'I loved my old Finn,' said Nish. 'She used to sleep on the end of my bed at night. She kept my feet warm in winter. I can still hear her purring sometimes, when it's dark.'
They continued along the road. 'What's the matter with your leg?' asked Meriwen.
'I was attacked by a nylatl,' said Nish. He showed them the wounds. 'It nearly killed me.'
'What's a nylatl?'
He explained, and though it was a bright day, both cast a glance at the undergrowth and moved closer to him.
'Have you lost your parents?' Nish asked a while later.
'They're going to meet us down the road,' Meriwen said quickly.
'They're not!' Liliwen wailed. 'We've lost them and we'll never see them again.'
'How did you become separated?'
'We were waiting outside the front gate,' said Liliwen. 'Mother and Father were trying to get something from the house. All these people came running down the road, screaming. Millions!' she said hyperbolically. 'We got carried along with them and when we went back, our house was on fire. Mother and Father were gone.'
'It burned to the ground,' said Meriwen. 'We waited for ages but they didn't come back. Then people started screaming and running away, so we ran too.'
'Your parents are probably up ahead,' said Nish. 'Waiting for you.'
'I hope so,' Liliwen said doubtfully.
This was developing the wrong way. He could not afford to take on someone else's problems. Two girls, alone on the road with no one to look after them, did not bear thinking about. He told himself that this situation must have been repeated countless times in the war, but it made no difference. He knew the girls now and could not abandon them.
The day grew hot, and Nish's leg more painful with every step. Liliwen was struggling too. They came to a rivulet trickling across the road, its reeds trampled into mud. Nish eyed the brown water, swallowing raspily. If he drank here it would probably make him sick.
The girls stood by. 'I can't go any further.' Liliwen wiped away tears of pain.
Her sister pointed upstream to where a pair of umbrella-shaped trees leaned towards each other. 'It'll be cool in the shade.'
'I don't think it's a good idea to stop yet,' said Nish. 'The enemy -'
'We don't need your help,' said Meriwen, eyes flashing.
'Yes, we do. Don't be silly, sis.'
The shade looked beautifully cool, and Nish's throat was as dry as the soles of his boots, so he accompanied them up the wooded stream, gripping his mallet. It was a good place for an ambush. There were all kinds of vermin on the road, desperate for whatever they could get.
His stomach began to bubble and churn. The stream was about a long leap across, and here flowing clear and clean. The girls cooled their feet in the running water. Nish drank until he was bursting, then looked for fruit, nuts or anything else edible. He found nothing; it was too early in the season. Judging by the trails twisting through the scrub, plenty of game came to drink, though he doubted if anything would be slow enough for him to thump with the mallet.
'I don't suppose you've got flint and tinder in your pack?' he said to Meriwen.
'Of course! Do you want to make a fire?'
'I need to boil water and bathe my wounds.'
She handed him a flintstone, a small packet of tinder and a little cooking pot with a wire handle. Nish gathered dry wood and soon had a fire going. It gave off just the faintest trail of blue smoke. He heated water, cleaned his wounds, then poked the dirty bandages under the boiling water. After a few minutes he fished them out with a stick and, when they were cool enough, wrapped the wounds again.
His stomach was now churning like a milk separator. Those wretched oysters! Nish hobbled into the scrub to relieve himself. It took a long while, and he had just turned back when he heard a muffled cry.
The girls! Why had he gone so far from the fire? He ran a few steps before realising that he was heading in the wrong direction. Everything looked the same in this scrub. Walking in a circle until he found his footmarks, he followed them back. When he finally burst into the clearing by the rivulet, the girls were gone.
If he lost them, Meriwen and Liliwen were as good as dead. Their abductors would take them away from the crowded road. Which way? They might have gone up the stream, or off into the scrub. He hunted for tracks.
There were tracks everywhere. Hundreds of refugees had filled their water bottles here. Nish hobbled back and forth, feeling panicky. Why hadn't he been more careful? He'd had a bad feeling about this place from the beginning.
Tracks ran into the scrub here and there, though none were the right size. Wading the stream, he searched the other side and came upon several sets of marks leading upstream. Among them he saw a small bootprint. Nish limped that way.
There could have been two abductors, or even three. Bad odds, especially if they were armed. One man with a sword would make short work of his mallet. Hopefully they would not take the children too far, or Nish's injured leg would beat him. He followed the tracks for a few hundred paces by the water, came into a clearing and lost them on hard ground.
Now what? Nish stopped, cupping his ear. Was that a groan? No, just the wind rubbing two tree trunks together. Had they gone back across the stream? He could see no tracks there. He took the risk and kept going. Despair crept over him. If he lost them he would never be able to forgive himself.
There – a footprint in the soft mud of a dried-up pool. It belonged to one of the girls, and the dry grass was crushed beside it. He followed stealthily and, anxious minutes later, caught a flash up ahead, perhaps the sun reflecting off a pack buckle. Creeping forward, he peered between the trees.
There were two of them: big, unshaven ruffians in filthy clothes. Each had hold of a struggling girl but, as Nish watched, the taller of the men struck Meriwen across the face and threw her down on the grass. Nish had a moment of panic, a failure of nerve. There was no way he could attack them both. He closed his eyes, feeling sick. Then Meriwen screamed.
He hurled himself through the trees, ignoring the agony in his leg, and swung wildly at the man who held Liliwen. His leg folded up and the blow missed. Thrusting Liliwen to one side, the man lashed out.
The blow caught Nish on the side of the head, making his skull ring. He staggered backwards. The man came after him, arms flailing. Nish did not have the strength to lift the mallet above his head. All he could do, as the bearish man lunged, was to swing it up, underarm.
The amateurish attack took the man by surprise and the heavy, iron-bound mallet caught him fair under the chin. His head snapped back so hard that his feet lifted off the ground. He fell, legs thrashing.
The other fellow flailed at Nish with a cudgel, which caught him on the elbow. The mallet went flying and Nish's whole arm began to go numb. The backswing crashed against his ribs. The third blow was aimed at his head.
Nish ducked but the cudgel clipped the top of his skull, knocking him to his knees. His vision blurred; he could hardly see. His hand, scratching on the ground, found a pebble. Nish hurled it at the ruffian's face. It missed.
The man kicked Nish's legs from under him. Nish went sprawling. The man lunged. Hands big enough to throttle a steer went around his throat. The fellow gave out a horrible, black-toothed grin and squeezed.
Nish tried to push him off but the man pinned his shoulders with his knees. Then he tried to knee the ruffian in the groin but was in the wrong position. He kicked and squirmed. It was no good. The huge thumbs dug into his windpipe.
Tossing his head from side to side, he managed to gasp, 'Please, don't!'
The man spat in his face. As Nish began to black out, he gave one last, despairing heave. It failed.
There came a nauseating pulpy thud and the man collapsed on top of him, his eyes wide open. Nish choked; the fingers had locked around his neck. He tried to push the fellow off but he was far too heavy. Nish managed to get his fingers under the man's thumbs and prise them away. Liliwen was on her knees, heaving on one arm. Together they rolled him to one side.
Nish could not stand up. He wiped his face and gasped, 'Thank you. Are you all right?'
She nodded stiffly, avoiding his eyes.
'I whacked him in the back of the head with your mallet,' whispered Liliwen. 'I'm sorry. I didn't know what else to do.'
'You did well,' said Nish, clasping her hands in his. 'You saved my life. No one could have done better, Liliwen.'
Meriwen was sitting up, looking at the other man, who had stopped kicking. Judging by the angle of his head, his neck was broken.
'They did not harm you?' Nish asked Meriwen.
'No,' she said in the faintest whisper. 'We're both all right.'
'We'd better go,' said Nish, 'before they recover.'
'Yes.' Liliwen was still staring at her victim.
He was not going to recover either. Liliwen's blow had crushed his skull and killed him instantly. Nish suspected she knew that. A difficult thing for a twelve-year-old to cope with. Difficult enough for him, for that matter. Nish checked the other ruffian. His neck was broken. He, Nish, had killed a man.
'Come on!' he said. 'There may be more of them.'
Nish wiped the bloodstained mallet on the ground when he thought Liliwen was not looking, and led the way back to the road. The girls collected their packs and they kept going all day without stopping. Liliwen did not complain about her blisters. The girls said virtually nothing. As did Nish, though his leg was in agony, his throat was so swollen that every breath hurt, and he was seeing double. He was too caught up with what had happened. He had killed. The fellow had been a villain, certainly, but hadn't desperation driven him to it? Could he, Nish, end up like that one day?
'Is it far to Kundizand?' Nish asked when the day was near its end. He did not want to spend the night out here.
'Not far,' said Meriwen.
They turned a corner at dusk and the lights of the town were twinkling ahead of them. They had not seen a lyrinx all day but he could not allow himself to relax until, finally, they reached the gates.
They were passed through without question. The normal checks had been suspended; just to be human was a passport. The town was bursting with people. As well as its normal population of eight thousand, there were at least thirty thousand worn out, desperate refugees. Every bed had been taken long ago. Every street was jammed; people were bedding down in the alleys and everywhere else that was out of the way of direct traffic.
They fought their way through the throngs, Nish keeping close by the twins. It would be easy to lose them and impossible to find them if he did.
'Where were you to meet your parents?' he asked.
'In the town square, by the wind clock.'
The square was an explosion of people – it took a good fifteen minutes to struggle from one side to the other. Eventually they reached the clock, which was striking the hour of seven. Its screw-shaped scarlet sails twirled merrily in the breeze, though down in the square the air was still and stifling. Nish and the girls worked back and forth for an hour without finding anyone the twins recognised.
Liliwen burst into tears. 'They're dead, I know it.'
'Father said he'd be here,' Meriwen said soothingly. 'He never breaks his promises, Liliwen. We have to keep looking.'
Nish thought he saw Colm's sisters, Ketila and Fransi, across the square. He shouted their names but the sound was swallowed up in the din, the crowd closed again and he could not find them.
By the time the clock struck nine, Nish could barely move. 'We'd better find a place to sleep -' he began, when a tall woman screamed, pushed through the crowd and threw herself at the girls.
'Meriwen, Liliwen! Where have you been? We thought we'd lost you.'
Meriwen burst into tears. 'We went home, Mummy, but you were gone. We were so afraid -'
'But you did as you were told. Good girls!' The woman embraced Meriwen, and then Liliwen.
'Where's Father?' Liliwen asked anxiously. 'Is -'
'He's just over there,' said the woman. 'Troist!' she yelled. 'They're here!' Shortly a stocky, handsome man in a lieutenant's uniform shouldered through the crowd, beaming from ear to ear.
He embraced his daughters, gathered the family up and was shepherding them away when Meriwen said, 'Wait, Father. I must thank this man -'
Troist spun on his heel, inspecting Nish and evidently not much liking what he saw. 'Who the blazes are you, fellow?' he demanded, his lip curling.
'My name is Cryl-Nish Hlar, surr, and I -'
'If you have rendered my daughters a service, I thank you for it.' He reached into his coin pocket.
'Father,' said Liliwen, 'he saved our lives! Two horrible men grabbed us and took us into the forest -'
'What?' cried Troist. He spun around to his daughters. 'Are you all right, girls? They did not harm you? By heavens -'
'We are untouched,' said Meriwen calmly. 'But only because Nish attacked them with his mallet.'
'Give me their descriptions, man,' cried Troist. 'I'll see they hang for this.'
'They're dead,' Nish said softly. 'I broke the neck of one of them, and the other your daughter struck down with this mallet when he had his hands around my throat.' Nish pulled down his collar, revealing the bruised and blackened flesh.
'The devil!' cried Troist. 'I owe you an eternal debt, man. Name it and you shall have it.'
'I want no payment,' said Nish, 'but… I see you are an officer in the army. You may be able to advise me.'
'Oh?' Troist said warily.
Nish lowered his voice. 'It is a matter of the utmost secrecy. I must speak to a senior officer, the master of the city, or a representative of the Council of Scrutators.'
Troist took another look at him. 'You are not from these parts.'
'I have come all the way from Einunar.' Nish said no more. He did not know whom he could trust and the news he carried was a great burden to him.
'The master of Kundizand is not here,' said Troist. 'Neither is any representative of the Council. Perquisitor Unibas was in Nilkerrand when it was attacked and has not been heard of since. We are quite as lost as you are, I'm afraid.' He shook his head wearily.
'And the army?' said Nish.
'Slain, or scattered to the four posts of the compass. The enemy's favourite trick is to attack the command tents first with flying lyrinx. I fear that all my senior officers were killed, else there would not be this chaos now. Had I not been on leave I would be dead too.'
Nish turned away in despair. He had no money, no papers, no friends. If he did not get treatment for his leg, he was likely to lose it. He had to trust someone and this fellow had an honest look about him. And you could tell a lot about people from their children. Meriwen and Liliwen were bright, resourceful and well brought up. He turned back to Troist.
'Then I must trust you, surr. I am in the service of Scrutator Xervish Flydd and carry vital intelligence about the war.'
'I wondered about your accent. You'd better come with us, Cryl-Nish. We cannot talk of such matters here.'
He introduced Nish to his wife, Yara, who was an advocate. She was a half-head taller than Troist, with a lean, horsy face, big teeth and flared nostrils, though she had an elegant manner. Her dark hair hung in a single plait all the way down her back.
Troist was short and muscular, with a small head capped in sandy curls, a blunt nose and a square jaw. His eyes were blue, his shoulders broad, his fingers thick and blunt. He exuded capability.
It took an hour to force their way through the crowds to their inn, though it was only a few blocks away. Cramped and musty, their room was considerably better than the hovel Nish had last slept in. He lay on the floor with his head in his hands and could scarcely believe that he had survived.
There was no possibility of a bath, for the overcrowding had exacerbated a water shortage, but Yara announced that dinner was on its way. Shortly a skinny lad staggered in under a laden tray. The smell made Nish drool. He had not had a proper meal since leaving the manufactory a month ago, and this smelt better than anything he had eaten there.
The girls told their story over dinner, then Nish his, leaving out only such details about the amplimet and the Aachim invasion as might be considered strategic information. These he would reveal after the children were asleep.
'So, your father is Perquisitor Jal-Nish Hlar?' said Troist.
'Yes. Do you know him?'
'No, but I've heard much about him. Hmn.'
What did that mean? Nish's father had a lot of enemies.
Troist questioned Nish in detail about his father. No one could be too careful, for the enemy had been surprisingly successful at recruiting spies and impostors. Finally he seemed satisfied, whereupon Yara began, for she had travelled to Tiksi a good few years ago. Nish must have answered to her satisfaction, for she made a sign to her husband, to which Troist nodded. He glanced across to where the twins were curled up together on the small bed asleep.
'Well, Cryl-Nish,' said Troist, 'your tale astounds me, and that doesn't happen often. It was a happy day when you ran into our daughters on the road, and I will never forget your service.'
'Thank you, surr. If I may, I will tell you the rest of it, for I'm deathly tired and my head still throbs from the blows I took.'
'Does it?' said Yara, coming up close with her candle. She checked his skull with long cool fingers, turned his head from side to side and looked into his eyes. 'I don't think there's any damage, apart from a minor concussion. I'll mix a potion for you.'
While she was busy, Nish told Troist about the amplimet, what he knew of Tiaan's geomantic abilities, and all she had done at Tirthrax.
'There has been rumour of an enormous fleet of craft, that resemble clankers, coming over the mountains from the west,' said Troist. 'No doubt our leaders have the scrutator's despatches, though no news has come down to me. But of course I am only a junior officer.'
'Though a brilliant one,' said Yara, handing Nish a mug. 'Drink this.'
Troist bowed in her direction. 'Yara is the genius of the family,' he said. 'She will be Advocate-General one day. I am merely diligent and hard-working.'
'Pfft!' said Yara, attending Nish's leg. 'You will be commander of all our forces before the children are grown.'
'I would like to be,' said Troist. 'I make no secret of that. But neither hard work nor good connections are enough. One must also have the good fortune to be where it matters, and the ability to seize the opportunity when it comes.'
'And win it!' said Yara.
'Perhaps we can help each other,' said Nish.
'Perhaps,' Troist said in a non-committal way. 'What is it you want, Cryl-Nish?'
'Since I lack the means to go home, I must do my best for the war, and for myself, here. As you know, I am an artificer by trade and have seen combat with the enemy. And with my knowledge of the Aachim constructs, I may be able to help plan to defeat them, should it come to war.' That was a faint hope, since he had seen them only at a distance, but it was the one advantage he had.
'Indeed,' said Troist, who seemed to be thinking fast. 'And what can I do for you?'
'Take me on as your adjutant.'
'Only the commander has an adjutant,' said Troist, looking to Yara as if seeking her advice. She was a cool, reserved woman except with her family. It would be hard to fool her. But Yara nodded, almost imperceptibly.
'Tactical assistant, then. Call it what you will. I would like to make my career in the army, by your side. Can this be done?'
'I don't see why not,' said Troist. 'You are well spoken, well connected, and you have valuable experience. I will see about it as soon as we rejoin my unit. That, unfortunately, could be more difficult than you might think.'
'Why is that, surr?' asked Nish.
'The defeated army has been scattered. I hope enough have survived to make a small fighting force, but first I must find them. I am leaving in the morning. You may come with me.' They slipped out of town the following morning, heading east. Nish had expected it would just be himself and Troist, but the family accompanied him, along with five soldiers discovered among the refugees. They were all mounted. Nish had no idea where the horses came from but it spoke considerably of Troist that he had been able to obtain them in such chaos.
Troist was busy all day, despatching his troops one way or another, conferring with new soldiers who appeared out of the dust, some mounted, armed and ready for war, others footsore, worn out and weaponless. Nish tried to keep up but it was a long time since he had sat on a horse and his head still throbbed. Finally, catching him deathly pale and swaying in the saddle, Troist said curtly, 'Your place is back at the camp. I'll see you tonight.'
It was not a reprimand, though it felt like one. Nonetheless, Nish was glad to return. The camp was hidden in a scrubby gully scarcely visible from a distance. Three soldiers stood guard. Yara was working in an infirmary tent which already had half a dozen casualties in it, and more coming in all the time. Meriwen and Liliwen cleaned wounds and applied bandages. Clearly it was not the first time they had done it. Everything looked efficient and well-organised, though there was much worried talk about their lack of supplies and weapons. Nish lay in a corner, closed his eyes and fell asleep.
He was woken by someone roaring out orders like a drill sergeant. A soldier was directing the laying out of the camp, which now comprised almost a hundred troops.
As it grew dark a squad of a hundred and fifty marched in, followed by smaller groups and a mounted troop. There was no sign of Troist but as the mess tent began serving dinner Nish heard an unmistakable squeak and rattle.
His professional interest aroused, he limped to the edge of the firelight. Four clankers appeared, one after another, their eight mechanical legs moving in rhythmic pairs. They were a different design from the ones he was familiar with, lower and broader, with the overlapping armour plates shaped like leaves rather than oval shields. The shooter's platform on top contained seats for two shooters: one to load and fire the catapult, the other for the javelard that could fire its heavy spears right through the armoured body of a lyrinx.
Troist came galloping in, close to midnight. Sliding off his horse he gave it an affectionate pat, greeted his wife and daughters and immediately went to the command area, a patch of stony ground covered by a canvas slung on long ropes from tree branches. Nish was called in as well.
The tent was crowded. A small map was spread out on a folding table. 'We are here,' Troist said, indicating a spot on the map about six leagues south-east of Nilkerrand. 'We'll break camp at dawn and head south-east, across the plains of Almadin in the direction of the Worm Wood. That's an enormous forest,' he said to Nish, circling it on the map. 'Quite the largest in eastern Lauralin. Our next camp will be here,' he stabbed at a location with his forefinger, 'or failing that, here. I hope we can find more soldiers on the way. If General Boryl escaped -'
'He did not, surr,' said a bald man with a bandage around his bare chest. 'I'm his adjutant. I saw him fall.'
'Slain?' asked Troist.
'The blood would have filled a bucket. His head was practically severed -'
'Later!' Troist glanced at his wide-eyed children. 'What of the other officers?'
'Most are dead, surr. The enemy broke into the command tent and slew them in a minute. Had not I been outside they would have killed me too. You are the most senior officer alive, surr. If you can't rally the troops, I fear all Almadin will be lost.'
'I thought as much,' Troist said heavily. 'Well, there's not much I can do with a few hundred troops and a handful of clankers, but whatever can be done, I'll do it.'
He turned away, and Nish, standing at his elbow, caught a strange gleam in the man's eyes. Troist's chance had come. Should he be able to seize it, it would be the making of him. If he failed, none of them would survive. Almadin was a largely treeless land, flat apart from residual mounds topped in black rock, the tells of towns abandoned in ages past. The soil was barren, salt-crusted, and supported only yellow grass. Here and there were round saltpans, quite bare of life. Carrion birds circled in the distance.
They wound back and forth across the arid land for days. Troist spent all the daylight hours in the saddle, combing the countryside for survivors of the battle and sending them back to the camp. All the troops he could spare were doing the same. The trickle of battered, dispirited soldiers became a flood.
More clankers began to come in. Many had been lost in the battle, for as soon as the officers had been slain the enemy turned the attack to the clankers' shooters, exposed on their platforms atop the machines. Once the shooter was dead a clanker operator could do nothing but flee. Some machines had only an operator, others as many soldiers as could fit inside and cling to the sides and top.
Troist greeted each one, no matter what time they arrived, and ensured they were fed, given a place to sleep and had their wounds attended. Nothing was too much trouble. He scarcely seemed to sleep at all.
On the fifth night he took a detachment out on a raid, on horseback and in half a dozen clankers fitted with the new sound-cloaker that reduced their rattling squeal to a whisper. Nish was not invited to go with them and knew nothing of their objective. Yara, who did but would not say, paced the whole night. Her worry infected Nish. If Troist and his bold team did not return the little army would fall apart.
Dawn came and there was no sign of them. Noon went by. Yara was still pacing, rigidly now. The sun went down, and finally a dust cloud appeared on the horizon.
'It's Troist!' cried Yara, her reserve failing for an instant. Tears glistened on her eyelids.
In they came, weary and brown with dust but grinning broadly. The clankers were packed with swords, crossbows, camp implements, tents, provisions and other gear abandoned by the defeated army. Hastily constructed wooden sleds, piled high, were towed behind.
'This should solve the supply problem for a while,' said Troist. 'You could not call it a victory, since we were unopposed. We're still running from the enemy but not as fast as before.'
'Where are the enemy?' Nish asked.
'We saw them in the air above Nilkerrand, and doubtless some still occupy what remains of the city, but most, I am told, went back across the sea to Meldorin.'
'So the attack on Nilkerrand was a raid, not an invasion?'
'A raid and forerunner to the invasion.'
'When will that occur?'
'If I knew that, Cryl-Nish, I wouldn't be wasting time listening to your inane questions.' He turned to his wife. 'Now that things are more secure, I'd like you and the children to go back to Kundizand.'
'No, Daddy!' cried Liliwen. 'Don't send us away again, please.'
Meriwen, normally conservative and responsible, supported her. 'We wouldn't feel safe without you, Daddy. And if you get hurt, you'll need us to look after you.'
'I'm not going to argue -' he began, but Yara laid a hand on his.
'Just a few more days,' she said. 'The enemy can fly across the sea to Kundizand in hours. We're safer here.'
'Oh, all right, but as soon as the chance comes…'
'Of course,' she said.
The army slowly swelled as they travelled. Troist had begun to form it into fighting units, and as the news got around, soldiers appeared from everywhere. After ten days they had a force numbering three thousand, several hundred of them mounted, as well as a fleet of seventy-one clankers. Five more machines needed repairs before they could go into battle, and Nish worked long days helping the other artificers get them ready. He learned more about his trade in that short period than he had in his years at the manufactory. Many more clankers lay abandoned at the battlefield east of Nilkerrand, or in flight, but until operators could be found or trained, they were useless. Troist had done a wonderful job so far, though he was worried that the scrutators would not let him keep his command.
In the evenings Nish sat with Troist and another tactician, telling them all he knew, or had deduced, about constructs. Together they began to formulate tactics to attack the machines, tactics for defence, and plans for all kinds of contingencies. They worked until after midnight every night, each taking one side or the other and fighting imaginary battles in a variety of terrain.
This night, the twelfth since leaving the inn, Troist tossed his lead pieces aside before the midnight bell had struck. He rubbed red eyes, yawning.
'Games are all very well but they count for naught when the battle starts. Out there, we can't see what's going on after the first few minutes. Our messengers are slain, or the field simply changes so quickly that our orders are useless.'
'They don't make the kinds of mistakes we do in battle,' said the other officer, Lunny. 'It's as if the enemy can communicate with each other.'
'What if we were to send up an observer in a balloon?' said Nish. 'He could see the whole battle and signal us what was really going on.'
'Until the wind blew it away,' said Troist, 'or a flying lyrinx tore it open, which they would do at once.'
A messenger ran in, saluted and handed Troist a folded piece of paper. Troist read it, frowned and stood up.
'We will find out soon enough, gentlemen. A sizeable force of lyrinx are moving in our direction; many hundreds. We must prepare to do battle in the morning.'
He looked every inch a commander, though as his eyes rested on Yara, who sat up the back winding bandages, Troist stiffened. Tomorrow could see the brutal end of his family, but it was too late to send them to safety. Why hadn't he taken the chance while he had it?
P ART T HREE
Irisis woke with terrible roars and cries ringing in her ears. She felt her throbbing forehead, which sported a lump the size of a small potato. Lights, surrounded by haloes, danced along the corridor. They seemed to be moving closer. She rubbed her eyes, trying to see what they were, but they only separated into paired images.
She supported herself on the rock wall, struggling to recall what had happened. She had been on the eighth level of the mine. A lyrinx had come after her and Ullii had fled.
'Who… are you?' Irisis said to the first pair of lights.
The scrutator chuckled. 'How quickly they forget.' Bending down, he whispered, 'It's your lover, Xervish Flydd, come to rescue you.'
'How did you know -?'
'Peate turned up with a story about you going off with Ullii into the forbidden section, so I came to find out why. We had just about given you up when Ullii hurtled out from a tunnel that isn't even on the map, crying for us to save you from the clawers. So here we are.'
'How did you manage it?'
'Mancer's secrets, crafter. Mancer's secrets.'
Taking her arm, he helped her to the lift, which was not far at all. Within the hour, Irisis was tucked up in bed with a cool compress across her forehead and a steaming bowl of willow-bark tea on the bedside table.
The scrutator took the map, which was still crumpled in her hand, and unfolded it. 'The seeker said something about good crystal. A big crystal.'
'I've marked it on the map, with a red circle.'
'Here?' He held the map out.
'That's where Ullii sensed it, but down at an angle. Like this!' She mimicked the gesture. 'The ninth or tenth level.'
He frowned. 'It had better not be lower than the ninth. We'll get started in the morning.' That being miner's work, Irisis went back to her own, directing the twenty artisans and fifty prentices in the making of clanker controllers. Once a day Ullii was taken down to check that the miners were driving in the right direction. Irisis sometimes accompanied her. Working on the eighth level was perilous and slow. The miners were guarded by squads of soldiers with heavy crossbows, but they saw no further sign of the lyrinx.
They reached the ninth level, which was dry here, but found no crystal. Ullii still pointed in the same direction so they continued sinking the shaft towards the tenth. Water began to trickle into the workings and they had to bring in a pump, powered by two workers on a treadmill, to keep them dry. Below the tenth, the trickle would become an unstoppable flood.
A couple of weeks after Ullii's discovery of the crystal, Irisis woke to the familiar crash of a catapult ball against the wall of the manufactory. She was running to her station, up on the wall near the front gate, when the scrutator caught her by the arm.
'What is it?' she yelled, for already the racket was deafening.
'Take no risks!'
'I have to get to my post!' She tried to pull away but he did not let go.
'I mean it, Irisis. I can't replace you.'
'Plenty of women are prepared to warm the scrutator's bed!' she snapped, deliberately mistaking his meaning.
'Don't be a fool, crafter. I need you: to make controllers, to support Ullii and, most of all, to work with me on the node problem.' Nodding curtly, he let her go.
Irisis ran up the stairs, feeling guilty that she had not done better, but she could not make controllers without crystal. On the wall, crossbow in her hands, she soon forgot the scrutator's warning. In the light of the watch flares Irisis could see eight lyrinx, and from the clamour on the far walls, there must be just as many on that side.
A catapult ball sang overhead, smashing into one of the furnace chimneys, which collapsed in a shower of bricks. The masons and bricklayers would slave for a fortnight to repair it.
Crouching between the battlements, Irisis sighted on a large, green-crested lyrinx that seemed to be directing the attack from the eaves of the forest. Stay where you are, just another second. She fired. The lyrinx jerked, then slapped a hand to its breast. The bolt had gone low, embedding itself in the breast plate. The creature would be sorely bruised but no real damage had been done. It raised its fists to the sky in a voiceless cry.
Irisis was reloading the clumsy weapon when someone cried, 'Look out!' and she was struck hard between the shoulders. The crossbow skidded down the paving, struck the wall and went off, firing its bolt into the stone.
Irisis was on her knees, trying to work out what had hit her, when she was lifted in the air. A hovering lyrinx had her in its claws, flapping desperately. She must have weighed more than it had anticipated.
She thrashed her arms and legs. Her coat tore and she fell free but the creature slashed out and its claws went through her collar. The beast wobbled in the air as it tried for a better grip. She kicked, caught it in the groin and it went close to dropping her. Its eyes were staring, its breath coming in tortured gasps.
Irisis tried to pull out of her coat but could not get her arms free. She smacked at the face of the lyrinx, which snapped back, almost taking her hand off. Its wings beat irregularly as it struggled to gain height. She attacked again and managed to poke it in the eye with a finger. It canted sideways, its eye closed and she thought it was going to fall over the edge.
Its head lunged, the great teeth snapping so close that she smelt its hot breath. The abduction had failed; now it was trying to kill her. Irisis drew her legs up and kicked it in the jaw. The lyrinx howled and almost fell out of the air. She was a heavy burden for a creature that required the Secret Art to keep its own weight aloft. Irisis touched the artisan's pliance hanging around her neck and could sense the distortion the lyrinx was making in the field.
She kicked again but it held its head well back now. Its free hand went for her throat, but so slowly she had time to get her arm across. The claws tore harmlessly through the heavy fabric of her coat. The lyrinx gained control, the great wings beat and it lifted. Irisis could see the guards, their weapons tracking the creature, but no one dared shoot for fear of hitting her.
The scrutator came running up the steps, only to stop at the top as if he had run into a wall. The beast was gaining height now, drifting out toward the edge, its wings thumping the air. Just a couple of spans and it could let her go. She heard its rumbling purr. Irisis struggled but its grip was too tight. She had no knife or any other kind of weapon. She kicked and missed. Kicked again.
The creature rotated in the air. Time seemed to be going so slowly. Flydd was up on the edge of the wall, then he whirled, racing for the steps that led to the lookout above the gate. What was he doing?
Appearing at the top of the watch-tower, he took a flying leap out across the angle of the wall. She felt sure he was going to fall to his death, but the lyrinx drifted underneath and he landed with a thump that drove it out of the air. Irisis crashed into the battlement, the creature landing on top of her with stunning impact. It slid down onto the walkway, its skin flaring bright orange, claws scraping the stone beside her face. Lowering its head, it thrust forward. Her arms were trapped. All she could do was draw her knees up before her face. The lyrinx wrenched them apart and kept coming.
The scrutator's knife dug in between the neck plates and dragged across. Hot blood exploded from its throat, spraying the stone, her face and her hair. The lyrinx stopped struggling. Two soldiers dragged her out from underneath and she watched the great beast die, its eyes slowly closing, the head drooping. The death colours – mottled yellows, greens and scarlets – kept on flickering long after life was extinguished.
Irisis could not stand up. Flydd wiped the blood off her face, sat her with her back to a battlement and put her crossbow in her hands.
'I told you to be careful. Get your breath. We've a long way to go.' He ran down the wall.
A ball smashed stone into stinging gravel. Another crashed through the light-tower, scattering blazing tar-soaked straw everywhere. Little fires began on the roofs. Attendants scrambled to put them out.
A boulder struck the massive iron gates below their section of the wall, tearing one off its hinges. Another ball hurtled through the gap, followed by a third, equally large. A splintering crash was confirmed by the doorman's shout.
'To the gate! The inner gate is broken.'
Levering herself to her feet, Irisis peered over. The lyrinx charged in a group. In the gloom she could not count their numbers. One fell outside the iron gates, another on the step, struck down by a lump of rock dropped from the wall, but it got up again. She fired her crossbow as fast as she could load it, though soon there were no targets left. The survivors were inside the manufactory.
The attacks on the wall continued, the catapults firing from the edge of the forest. In the dark it was almost impossible to hit them, while the soldiers on the wall were easy targets. A splatting thud signalled the end of another guard.
Not long before dawn she saw Flydd hauling himself up the stair by the railing. He looked as if all the blood had been sucked out of him.
'What's happening?' Irisis yelled.
'They drove us right through the manufactory, but we ambushed them near the furnaces, firing red-hot bolts. They didn't like that at all. We killed five and injured the others, and they fled out the back door.'
'Red-hot bolts,' said Irisis. 'Whose idea was that?'
'One of the artificers. He's dead, now. It turned the battle though; changed minor wounds into disabling ones.'
Irisis, imagining the agony of such a wound, felt ill.
'We've suffered terrible casualties,' he went on. 'At least sixty dead and as many wounded. We can't take much more, Irisis.'
'They're only firing intermittently now. I'd say they've had enough.'
'There were sixteen and we've killed eleven, at least, but don't think this is the end of it. They'll be back.'
'They're deadly accurate with those catapults,' said Irisis. 'Do you think the attack on me was deliberate?'
The scrutator was aiming through an arrow slit with a borrowed crossbow. He fired. 'I do. They've kidnapped artisans before. It went straight for you and would not let go even when that risked its own life. They don't usually go for suicide missions so they must have wanted you badly.'
'Or wanted me dead. Thank you, Xervish.'
'We also want you badly,' he said dismissively.
Shortly afterwards the attack ended, the surviving lyrinx fading into the forest. By daybreak there was no sign of them. Flydd called a meeting in the refectory to review the damage.
'The gates and front doors will have to be completely rebuilt,' said the chief mason. 'We'll make a temporary wall out front, not that it'll do much good. If they attack tonight with as much force, I don't see how we can survive.'
'I'm sure they will attack tonight,' said Flydd. 'They'd be fools not to.'
There was worse news and it was not long in coming. Chief Miner Cloor, a little nuggetty fellow whose pores were so impregnated by mine dust that it looked as if he was covered in blackheads, stumped in.
'The lyrinx have taken the mine, surr.'
'How many?' asked Flydd. He did not look surprised, though his scrawny shoulders drooped even further.
Irisis felt for him. Since he'd arrived there had been one disaster after another. He would be blamed for them all.
'Can't tell, surr. We saw five or six behind the grid. That could be all…'
'Or there could be another hundred down there,' said the scrutator bleakly. 'Evacuate the miners' village, chief miner. We can't defend it as well.'
Cloor nodded and stumped out again. After the night's exertions, few people were able to work. In the case of Irisis's artisans, it hardly mattered, since they already had a large store of controllers assembled, awaiting hedrons to complete them. That was looking increasingly unlikely now.
Irisis snatched a few hours sleep then returned to the refectory, where she found the scrutator sitting at a table in the far corner with the chief miner, Overseer Tuniz and Captain Gir-Dan. Maps of the various levels of the mine were spread out in front of them.
'They must have come in through the lower tunnels,' said the captain. 'The enemy had captured the mine before the outside guards knew a thing.'
'Unless they had skived off from their duty,' the scrutator said darkly.
'Let's have no talk of neglect of duty, if you please, surr,' said Cloor. He was as irascible as Flydd, with little respect for any authority save his own.
Flydd gave him a black stare. The chief miner glared back. Neither broke. 'Enough,' Flydd said finally. 'The fault does not matter. What can we do about it?'
'I've talked with my surveyors. We're sure they're getting in this way.' Cloor's battered fingernail indicated a long tunnel down on the ninth level. 'If we could drop the roof here, we'd have them trapped and it would just be a matter of winkling them out.'
'Deadly winkling,' said the captain. 'A dozen lyrinx would be a match for fifty of my men, down there in the dark.'
'I'd starve them out,' snapped Cloor. 'Not even lyrinx can go a month without food.'
'I can't wait a month for crystal. How long would it take to bring down the roof?' asked the scrutator.
'We could do it in a few hours in this section.' Cloor's finger marked an 'X' on the map. 'And it's relatively close to the workings. Of course, we'd need a strong guard.'
'At least forty men,' said the captain.
'If I send that many down,' the scrutator mused, 'and they attack here, as they are bound to do… We might well lose the manufactory.'
'Without the mine there's not much point to the manufactory,' said Irisis.
The scrutator dismissed that with an irritable sweep of the hand. 'The mine is just a hole in the ground, but to replace this manufactory would take five thousand people working for four years.'
'What do you want us to do?'
'Get some rest. We'll be on the wall again tonight, I'll be bound.' Flydd rose. 'What do they want?' he muttered on the way out. 'Do they aim to deny us the crystal, or is there something more sinister at work?' That night, on the gong of midnight, the lyrinx attacked again. Irisis had just dozed off when a catapult ball, fired up at a steep angle, came smashing through the roof a few doors away, demolishing the room of one of the recently arrived artisans. The silence was followed by her screams, then shouts as the manufactory scrambled out of bed.
Irisis was the first to get there. The artisan lay in the splinters of her bed, unharmed but screaming her lungs out. More balls began to fall, so swiftly that the catapults must have been firing many at a time. Though only the size of melons, they wrought terrible damage. Not all the sleepers were as lucky as the first.
Irisis dressed and put on the metal hat she wore down the mine. It would not save her from these missiles, but might protect her from the slates that were falling all around.
There was a lull of a minute or so. She ran into the scrutator in the corridor. 'What are we to do?' she shouted.
'It's not this I'm so worried about,' he said, 'though it's doing damage enough.'
She looked up through one of the holes in the roof. 'What are you worried about?'
'Fire -' As he spoke, a flaming ball descended from the sky, hit the roof and slid in through a hole to land in one of the ruined rooms. Flames leapt up. Irisis grabbed a fire bucket and emptied the sand on it.
'What is it?' the scrutator yelled.
'Rock dipped in tar.'
Soon blazing missiles were falling all around. Irisis and fifty other people were kept busy putting out the fires. They still had many to go, and the fire team were attaching their canvas hoses to the hand pumps when the barrage stopped. At once the attack on the walls and front gate resumed.
'I don't think we're going to survive this time,' said the scrutator as their paths crossed again. 'Better pack up your gear.'
She stopped, staring at him. 'What do you mean?'
'I try to plan for all contingencies. The air-floater is standing by, up in the mountains. I've signalled it to come.'
'It'll be a sitting target, floating over the manufactory.'
'It will drop down behind the ridge. We'll sneak up inside the aqueduct where the enemy can't see us.'
'The air-floater won't carry a thousand people.'
'Not even twenty. The rest must stay behind.'
'More likely they'll be left alone once we're gone.'
'I've worked with these people for most of my life,' she said. 'I'm not leaving them.'
'I'm ordering you to. Anyway, we'll be in more danger than they are.'
Alhough Irisis was quite selfish, she could not bear the thought of running away. 'I've got work to do!' she snapped and went back up. The fires were under control now and Irisis preferred the danger of the wall; at least she could see what was coming.
They were losing. The lyrinx had an uncanny sense of where to aim and their catapults picked off the guards one by one. Half were dead now, and most of the survivors carried injuries. Their replacements were just ordinary workers who did little damage to the enemy and were slain in droves. The dead still lay where they had fallen hours ago, for no one could be spared to carry them away. Irisis had known them all for years.
She checked the sky. Dawn was not far away but there was no sign of the air-floater and the scrutator had sent no message. Finally she dragged her exhausted body down for a drink and a bite to eat, a few minutes' relief from the hell that was the wall.
The scrutator was in his room, writing furiously. 'What's happened to your air-floater?' she said sarcastically. 'Another failure?'
Irisis regretted this the moment the words left her lips, but Flydd did not react. He looked numb.
'There's been nothing since I signalled. The lyrinx must have caught them.'
'Then we're finished,' she said.
'It seems so. I'm sorry.'
'Oh, well. I've been here before. And survived too.'
'I doubt you will this time,' he muttered.
'It was borrowed time anyway.'
There was a great roar outside. 'See what that is, will you?' he said, without looking up.
Irisis ran to the front gate, where she encountered Tuniz. The overseer had blood all down her front, though it was not her own. 'How are we doing?' Irisis gasped.
'We beat them back but I don't think we can do it again.'
Irisis peered through the broken gate. 'It's not long until dawn.'
'That won't stop them this time. They're too close to victory.'
Irisis ran back to report. 'The gate still holds,' she said to the scrutator, 'though it can't last long.'
'We'll be overrun by sunrise.' He carried a stack of papers to the furnace and heaved them in. They burst into flame and were sucked up the chimney.
Light began to spread through the manufactory. Irisis was on her way to the wall to make a last stand when a massed cheer sounded. She ran up the steps three at a time. A panting scrutator appeared beside her.
Over the ridge to the west, between the mountains, appeared a flotilla of clankers. These were bigger than the ones the manufactory made. The great, ten-legged monstrosities had a pair of javelards at the front as well as the catapult at the rear.
'Twenty-seven clankers,' said Irisis. 'That's the most beautiful sight I've ever seen.'
All along the wall the soldiers were laughing, cheering and embracing one another. The workers of the manufactory began streaming up the steps to rejoice in the sight. Already the lyrinx were pulling back, melting into the forest and disappearing. It was over.
She looked across at the scrutator. His face was twisted into the most bitter anguish Irisis had ever seen on a man.
'What's the matter?' she asked, laying her hand on his arm. He did not respond. 'Xervish?'
He turned that gaunt face, pared of all superfluous flesh, to her. 'Do you see the ensign on the leading clanker?'
'Yes, of course. What of it?'
'That is the flag of my most bitter enemy; and yours, Irisis. It belongs to the man who will not rest until he destroys us both. Perquisitor Jal-Nish Hlar!'
Irisis tried to breathe and found that she could not. The air felt as thick as the gruel they served in the refectory. She could not get it down. 'What will he do to us?' she gasped.
'He'll watch, and wait, and bide his time. He likes to drag these things out, the better to torment his enemies. We should go down. At least, I must. Stay back – better that he does not see you straight away.'
Flydd trudged down the steps, back bowed, and her heart went out to him. The scrutator was as tough as boiled leather. A hard man but, underneath, a decent and honourable one. He had done his best. It had not been enough.
Gathering her crossbow and a pocketful of quarrels, Irisis headed for the rear of the manufactory. Most of the workers remained atop, to cheer the clankers in. She went out of the rear door and down to the ravine over which the wastes were dumped into the river. It was a horrible, reeking place suited for nothing except despair. She wandered along the cliff. Irisis had not been this way since her failed suicide attempt, when all that had saved her had been Nish going over the edge and ending up in Eiryn Muss's air-moss farm.
She could hardly remember that self now, so long ago did it seem. What had happened to Muss? He had not been a halfwit at all, but the scrutator's prober, or spy. Muss had disappeared just as his secret was revealed.
Irisis missed Nish. Could he still be alive? It seemed unlikely, but Nish was resourceful. If anyone could survive it would be him. She paced along the escarpment. The smooth rocks were coated in brilliantly green spring moss, so soft she felt like taking off her boots and walking barefoot across it. Why not? Enjoy life's small pleasures while you may.
It was peaceful here. The damage to the manufactory could scarcely be seen. It looked an architectural abomination, but not the scene of a bloody and murderous battle.
Irisis sat by the drop-off. The lichens made a patchwork of colours – green and grey, brown and yellow, and even red. They gave her an idea for a brooch. She began to plan it in her head, knowing she would never make it now.
It was funny the way life could turn out. Who could have imagined this just a few short months ago? She tossed a pebble in her hand, reached out to throw it over the edge, but drew back. Nish had done that, and look at the consequences. She saw them cascading on into the future for as long as time existed. The thought paralysed her, for a few seconds, then Irisis smiled, and shrugged, and dropped her pebble on the ground. She could not live her life that way. Dusting her hands, she headed back.
She reached the gravelled expanse out the front at the same time as the leading clanker. It clattered to a halt. The shooter leapt down and stood by the rear hatch with his hand gripping the lever, but did not open it. The rest of the clankers rattled in, almost filling the yard. All but the first disgorged armed, hard-bitten veterans, ten from each. They stood by their machines, at attention.
Xervish Flydd emerged from the shattered front gate, a small, withered man, standing alone. The rising sun caught the angles and planes of his face. He looked almost as ruined as the front of the manufactory.
The shooter of the leading clanker flung the hatch upwards. A figure emerged, straining to make it look easy, but unable to conceal the pain. His feet crunched on the gravel, he swayed, then snapped upright.
The perquisitor had once been a roly-poly little fellow but the plumpness had been etched away, revealing a stocky frame hard with muscle. His right arm had been cut off at the shoulder, which made him look lopsided. Irisis, who had done it to save his life, would remember his screams for all her remaining hours.
Jal-Nish's face had been torn apart in the attack and he had lost an eye. Irisis could not forget the torn ball of jelly dangling from its empty socket. The wounds had not healed in the weeks-long journey back to the manufactory.
The damaged parts of his face were now covered by a burnished platinum mask that hid the lost eye, the hideous red crater that had once been his nose and the warped and twisted mouth and cheek. It curved across below the other ear, where a thin band of the same silvery metal swept around the back of his round head to join up on the other side. Another band ran across his forehead and around, making an open helmet. A mouth opening, like a downwards-curving crescent moon, revealed nothing. He might have drunk through it using a straw, Irisis thought, though surely he would have to take off the mask to eat.
Irisis moved closer, walking on the paved path that ran along the side of the manufactory. She had to see the confrontation between the two, which would reveal her own fate. She was only a dozen steps away when the perquisitor's head whipped around. The single eye fixed on her. Irisis froze. The face showed no expression at all, but she sensed such feelings of rage and loathing that she could scarcely breathe.
He did not move for a handful of heartbeats, then turned away in a manner that dismissed her as worthless, and crunched across the gravel to the scrutator. She held her breath.
'Perquisitor Hlar!' The scrutator inclined his head. 'Never have we seen a more welcome sight.' He held out his hand.
Jal-Nish hesitated for a second, then took it. 'Scrutator!' His voice had once been rich and warm; now it was slurred as if he had been drinking. His ruined mouth could barely shape the words. He bowed and Irisis held her breath in case the mask came off. It did not. 'We would appear to be just in time.'
'The enemy have been unrelenting, Jal-Nish. They know the worth of this place, and its people.'
'Things have not gone well since you moved your station here,' said the perquisitor.
The words held a threat and Irisis was not the only one to notice it.
'I inherited a difficult situation.'
'That was some time back. I'd have expected that you would have sorted it out long ago.'