The Collector
Outside, the market square was in chaos and high above it, a tall, dark figure stood alone upon a rooftop, his wide shoulders silhouetted against the sky.
Silas Dane was the last man any town wanted to see. He stood there in silence, watching events unfolding exactly as he had planned. His clothes were deliberately dark and plain, but that was where any ordinariness ended with him. Silas had the presence of ten men. Power and threat exuded from him as clearly as fear leaked from the people down below, and his eyes shone with faint light, their irises bleached grey: the washed-out empty grey of death.
Even in their madness the birds stayed clear of him, sensing the unnatural essence that made him what he was: neither fully dead nor completely alive, but unimaginably dangerous. Only one bird stayed close, one that had been with Silas since before his second life had begun: his own black crow, perched upon his shoulder, ignoring the mass of feathers and death swooping down around them.
Silas rested a scarred hand against a chimneystack and cast his eyes around the market square. The wardens were not far away. From his viewing point he could see three of their black robes lurking nearby, daggers already drawn, blades shining in the rising sunlight. Those three were only the beginning. He had over a hundred more men stationed around the town, all waiting to make their move.
The last of the dying birds plunged into one of the market stalls and Silas watched the traders step out of their hiding places, each one nervously checking the sky for more birds. He sighed, wishing for once to face some kind of challenge … some form of resistance. Then the streets fell quiet, as if the entire town was holding its breath, and an unexpected sound carried to him on the wind. A flapping sound, like two strips of leather being clapped together. He looked up, his eyes darting straight to the roof of the little bookshop he had been told to watch more closely than the rest, and then he saw it.
His muscles tensed. There, rising from the bookshop’s chimney, was a black fluttering shape, trailing soot behind it as it awkwardly took flight.
Bird or bat? He had to be sure.
Bird or bat?
The flying creature turned in the air, rode upon an updraught and soared across the market square, over the heads of the traders and right past Silas, so close that he could have snatched it out of the air if he had tried.
‘Bird,’ he said with a cruel smile.
The wardens were looking to him, waiting for instructions. Silas raised a hand and signalled the order they were all waiting for. The order to move in.
‘The chimney!’ cried Artemis. ‘Grab the bird. Quick!’
Edgar lunged forward but Artemis was already ahead of him, climbing up the shelves like a ladder. The blackbird watched them warily. Artemis made a wild grab for it, but he was too slow. The bird took flight, headed straight for the old cellar fire and fluttered up the chimney, searching for the sky. Edgar ducked in after it, waving his arms around blindly in the dark. When he re-emerged his face and hair were thick with soot, but his hands were empty.
Artemis stared at him. ‘If a warden sees that bird they’ll find us in a second,’ he said.
Edgar sneezed and wiped his nose along a filthy sleeve. ‘Best start running then,’ he said. ‘Better that than be trapped down here. Right, Kate?’
Kate didn’t know what to think.
‘I’m not giving either of you a choice,’ said Artemis, swinging the lamp as he headed towards the back of the cellar. ‘We have to hide. The wardens can’t take what they can’t see.’
Artemis heaved aside two boxes of old books that were stacked in the corner furthest from the door and he held the light up to the wall, revealing a tiny door sunk into the stone just wide enough for a person to crawl into. He scraped his fingers around the dusty edges and searched his pockets for the key. Kate knew that place. She had hidden behind that little door before and she never wanted to go near it again.
‘I - I can’t,’ she said.
Something clicked and creaked above them.
Slow footsteps crossed the shop floor.
‘Come on, Kate.’ Edgar held out his hand and Artemis blew out the lamp, unsticking the old door as quickly as he could.
Kate knew she had no choice. She crept forward through a cloud of dust knocked down from the floorboards above, and crawled into the secret hiding place. An old blanket was bunched on the floor, giving a soft place for her knees to rest, but the little hollow behind the wall was a lot smaller than she remembered. She shuffled forward a few knee-steps and scrabbled around, making room for Edgar to squeeze in behind her.
‘Move up,’ he whispered.
‘There’s no more room.’
‘What about Artemis?’
But Artemis had already tucked the dead lamp inside the door. ‘Whatever happens, you two stay in here until they are gone,’ he said. ‘After that, I want you both to leave Morvane and don’t look back. Do you understand?’
‘It’ll be all right, Kate. Do you remember how to get out?’
Kate nodded nervously.
‘Good. When it is safe, go. Don’t worry about me. Nothing is going to happen to you. I promise.’
Kate could not see Artemis’s face when he closed the door, but she heard the scratchy sound of a key turning in the lock and suddenly she was afraid. The tiny room felt a lot smaller, its walls pressing closer around her body as she knelt in the dark. She was touching the wall in front of her, reassuring herself that there was still plenty of air to breathe, when a quiet whimpering sound started beside her.
‘Edgar? What’s wrong?’
‘We’re locked in,’ said Edgar, sounding even more terrified than Kate felt. ‘I don’t like this. We have to get out. We have to. Artemis!’
Edgar thumped his fist against the door and Kate grabbed his hands, forcing her own fear aside as she tried to calm him down. ‘It’s OK,’ she whispered. ‘Listen to me. You have to be quiet. If they hear us—’
‘I can’t breathe. Kate … I can’t …’
‘Shh. Yes, you can.’ She held his hand and pressed it against her chest. ‘You feel that? I’m breathing. You’re breathing. We’re going to be all right.’
Edgar fell quiet and small scraping noises bumped against the door as Artemis quickly stacked boxes against it. Then Kate heard the sound of metal rattling against stone and a cold key fell into her hands. The eyeholes! Her fingers reached up to feel out the thin spaces in the wall. How could she have forgotten the eyeholes?
‘Stay quiet and don’t come out,’ said Artemis. ‘I love you, Kate. Remember that.’
Kate walked her fingers along the stones and found a flap of leather pinned a little way below the ceiling. It was dry and curled with age, but when she pushed it aside, she could see through a carefully cut slit between the mortar of the wall and one of the old stones. She moved Edgar’s hand up to a second leather strip and together they looked out.
At first they couldn’t see anything, just deep darkness. Then there were voices, quick footsteps and a loud slam as someone forced open the cellar door. Two black-robed men burst on to the staircase, flooding the room with light from a lantern that cracked hard against the wall.
One of the men had a crossbow trained carefully down the cellar steps and the other held the lantern up high, straining to keep hold of a long leather lead with a vicious dog panting at the end of it. Kate’s mind threw up visions of the great beast sniffing them out, snuffling its jaws into their hiding place and dragging them out with its sharp yellow teeth, but those terrors were soon buried under something far more important.
Where was Artemis?
‘Search it,’ said the bowman, and the warden with the dog scuttled down the steps, letting its nose investigate, hunting out its prey.
The dogman dragged full boxes aside as if they were empty, scouring every cranny for signs of life. He pulled handfuls of paper out of the storage chests, rapped his knuckles on the walls, and dug his long fingers into every crack, leaving nothing unchecked. Closer and closer he came to the little door, until a sudden scrabbling noise in the wall made the dog lower its head and snarl.
‘Here,’ the bowman said. ‘What’s that in there?’
Kate froze, but the wardens were not looking in her direction. They were looking towards the fireplace, where a trickle of soot was falling into the room. Artemis was hiding in the chimney. The wardens had found him.
‘Come out of there!’ demanded the dogman, mashing his fist against the chimneybreast. ‘Now!’
The dog’s ears pressed back against its skull as Artemis’s feet thumped down into the hearth. ‘Wait!’ he said, holding his hands out. He stepped into the room, dropping his useless dagger on the floor. ‘Please.’
The bowman raised his weapon to Artemis’s chest. Kate wanted to shout out, to distract them, stop them, but fear was gripping her throat so tightly it was a struggle even to breathe.
‘Winters. Artemis Winters. I - I own the shop upstairs.’
‘Who else is in here?’
‘No one.’
The glinting point of the arrow moved up to Artemis’s throat. ‘Who else?
‘I already told you … ooof!
Artemis’s lip dripped with blood. The dogman had struck him with a meaty fist, knocking him to the floor.
‘There’s no one here!’ said Artemis, trying to stand up again. ‘I told you … ahh!
The dogman’s boot kicked hard into Artemis’s ankle and he dragged him up by the shoulders.
Tears stung in Kate’s eyes. She couldn’t bear to watch.
Edgar squeezed her hand gently as a shadow spread from the cellar door. The dog crouched low, head down, turning its eyes away from a man who was standing at the top of the stairs. All Kate saw was his shadow and she heard the flutter of feathers as a large bird shuffled upon his shoulder.
‘What do you have down there?’
The dog whimpered at the sound of the man’s voice and pressed its body against its master’s legs.
‘A bookseller,’ grinned the dogman. ‘Only one here. It must have been him.’
‘Are you certain of that?’ The man stepped down the stairs into the lantern’s glow and Kate saw him clearly for the first time. He didn’t dress like a warden, he didn’t even speak like a warden. Instead of robes he wore a long coat that hissed across the floor as he walked and his voice was dark and well-spoken, demanding the attention of anyone who could hear it. His black hair was long enough to touch his shoulders. He was younger than Artemis and walked with the strides of a man used to being in control, but the strangest thing about him was his eyes. Dead eyes, Kate thought. Eyes without a soul. She watched him closely, waiting for those eyes to look in her direction, and when they did, pausing for only the smallest moment before moving on, her body felt cold with fear.
‘His name?’
‘Winters,’ said the bowman.
The man towered over Artemis, at least a head and shoulders taller than him. ‘He is not the one we have come for,’ he said, taking one last look around. ‘There is someone else here.’
‘No,’ insisted Artemis, his voice unusually strong. ‘There’s no one. Only me.’
‘The girl. Where is she?’
‘W-what girl?’
Kate shrank back in the darkness. He knew about the blackbird. He knew that it was her.
‘Lies will not keep me from her for long.’ The man turned to his wardens. ‘You, take him outside and put him with the others. And you, check the upper floor. If the girl is not found here, I will burn this place down.’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘No!’ cried Artemis, looking back at the hiding place, his face pale with desperation. ‘My shop! M-my work!’
‘None of that matters to you now,’ said the man. ‘If you are one of the Skilled, as these men think you are, then your life as you know it is over. If not … the same applies, only in a much more final way. Take him.’
Artemis struggled all the way up the cellar steps, limping whenever his bruised ankle was put to use. He barely made it halfway before his leg gave way altogether and the dogman had to leave his lantern on the floor and drag him up into the shop, with his dog and the bowman close behind.
Soon only the grey-eyed man was left in the cellar and he stood there, motionless, staring at the wall as if he could see Kate and Edgar cowering behind it. The bird on his shoulder cocked its head to one side and Kate pressed her nose right up to the stone beneath the eyehole, watching. She wanted to move back, but any movement might give her away. Edgar’s chest was wheezing with each nervous breath and she squeezed his hand, desperate for him to be quiet.
‘We’re ready, sir,’ came the bowman’s voice from the floor above. ‘There is a girl’s room on the top floor, but the rest of the house is clear.’
‘Very well,’ said the man. ‘Return to the square.’
With the wardens gone, the grey-eyed man opened the lantern and slid a small book from a storage shelf beside him. He cracked the book open with one hand, touching its pages to the lantern’s exposed flame. They caught at once. The book smouldered and burned with growing fire, and he carried it up the cellar steps to begin his work.
‘He’s going to burn the shop,’ whispered Kate, as heavy footsteps crossed overhead.
‘Maybe he’s just trying to scare Artemis,’ said Edgar. ‘To make him tell him where you are.’
The hot smell of burning paper crept in around them and Kate pressed the key into Edgar’s hand.
‘He’s doing it!’ she whispered. ‘Open the door. We have to get out.’
Edgar fumbled with the key, dropping it in his panic. ‘Kate, that man …’
‘I know,’ said Kate. ‘Just get us out.’
‘No, you don’t understand …’
Something thumped nearby. A door, slamming open.
‘What was that?’ Kate twisted back to the eyehole. The man had returned, his face glowing in the light of a flaming torch that blazed in front of him as he walked down the cellar steps. He stopped for a moment at the bottom, looked along the shelves one last time and then rammed the head of the lit torch into the box nearest to him, letting the flames catch, crackle and spread.
‘Oh no,’ said Edgar, desperately searching for the fallen key.
The man moved to the next shelf, then another and another, until one side of the cellar was spreading quickly into a rising wall of flame. Edgar found the key and felt around for the keyhole, but Kate held him back, pulling on his arm with all her strength. The man did not hear the scuffle above the crackling noise of the flames. He threw the torch into the centre of the room, watched it splutter against the stone and then climbed back up to the doomed shop floor, leaving his deadly fire to spread and grow.
Edgar struggled and scratched the little key into place, fighting to make it turn.
‘Stop! It’s too late,’ said Kate. ‘Listen to me!’
Firelight seeped in through the open eyeholes, reflecting in Edgar’s frightened eyes as he turned to her. ‘The shop is on fire!’ he said. ‘We have to get out!’
‘No, we don’t. Give me the key.’
‘What? No! You said …’
‘Edgar, please.’
‘We’re going to die in here, Kate!’
‘No, we’re not.’ Kate tugged up a corner of the floor blanket and rapped her knuckles on what sounded like hollow wood where stone should have been. Edgar looked at her, confused.
‘I think Artemis knew what he was doing, putting us in here,’ she said. ‘There’s another way out. Please, Edgar. Trust me.’