The Warrens
Thick smoke swirled around the cellar, creeping along the stairs, up the chimney and under the door of the little hiding place. It crawled up Kate and Edgar’s noses like ghostly worms, making them cough and choke as the air around them was churned into a deadly soup.
‘Here.’ Edgar thrust the key into Kate’s hand and she wrestled the blanket out from under her knees, flapping it back to uncover a circular trapdoor with a sunken handle. Her fingers felt for the keyhole, pushed the key in and turned it, sending a deep clunk echoing up from under the floor.
‘Open it. Open it!’
The rusted hinges cracked and moaned as Kate lifted the hatch, sending a gush of dead air swirling up to fill the smoky space. A match flared as Edgar relit Artemis’s lamp and held it out over the deep narrow shaft. There was just enough light to make out a passage at the bottom and a long wooden ladder nailed down the side.
Kate went down first, leaving Edgar struggling to keep his eyes open, they were so sore with the smoke.
‘It’s not far,’ she said, dropping down on to hard earth. ‘Come on.’
Edgar swung himself down the hole and descended the ladder as fast as he could, closing the trapdoor as he went. He jumped the last two rungs and looked back up the shaft, half expecting a warden to come slithering down behind them. ‘Where are we?’ he asked.
Kate could hear the worry in his voice and he clung to her wrist, not wanting to let her wander too far ahead in that unknown place.
They were standing at the end of a low tunnel built of grey bricks, not far from a shadowy crossroads where it linked with two wider ones that split off at sharp angles.
‘I’m going to take a look up ahead,’ she whispered. ‘You stay here. Watch the door.’
‘Me? Why? Hey, wait!’
Kate ignored him and headed off down the tunnel, taking their only light with her.
Even with the lamp, the tunnel felt tight and claustrophobic. The walls were rough and uneven and narrow enough at some points to rub against her shoulders unless she turned to the side. The little flame flickered, burning dangerously low as she drew close to the junction up ahead. She ran her fingers along the wall and was trying not to think about the fires tearing through her home above her, when something crunched under her feet.
Kate stopped and stepped back, worried that the old floor might collapse into a tunnel below. She shone her light down by her feet. The ground felt sturdy enough, but there were tiny brown things scattered over it: things that crunched and clicked under her boots. And they were moving.
The little shapes clambered over one another, writhing across the floor, making it wriggle and shine as if the entire place was alive. Artemis had complained for months about hide beetles attacking the leather-bound books in the cellar; now Kate knew where they had been coming from. She stepped straight through them, reached the junction and pressed her back against the wall, summoning the courage to look out.
The left-hand tunnel sloped downwards and turned a corner some way down where a fire torch was burning on a hook in the wall. Maybe someone else had found their way into the tunnels: a neighbour, perhaps, someone who might help her save Artemis from the wardens. Then she looked to the right, where the second tunnel had a torch of its own much further away, linking sideways on with another branching path.
Footsteps echoed slowly in the distance and a third torch moved into sight, carried by a hunched figure walking with slow shuffling steps. It was a man, his face lit by the flames while his eyes stared hard at the ground.
Kate stayed still.
The man stopped, straightened his back with great effort and raised his nose to the air. Then he turned, his bloodshot eyes suddenly looking right into hers and she ducked out of sight, pulling her coat over the lamp, her heart pounding in her chest.
‘Hello?’ the man called down the tunnel, making that one word sound dangerous and threatening. He definitely was not a neighbour.
‘Who’s there?’ he shouted again.
‘Kate?’ Edgar called her name from the ladder and she turned back, gesturing for him to be quiet. ‘What’s wrong?’ he whispered.
Kate squeezed back down the tunnel as fast as she could and pounced on Edgar, clamping a hand over his mouth. ‘Shut up!’ she hissed, pulling him down into a crouch and blowing out the lamp. ‘There’s someone else down here.’
‘Better come out,’ came the man’s creeping voice. ‘Come on out, now.’ A scratching sound scraped down the walls: the sound of a blade being dragged slowly along uneven bricks. ‘Yer trespassin’! You got no business bein’ in my place. Come on, now. Show yerself and yer sweet young bones. Let old Kalen pick ’em clean.’
Kate and Edgar waited as the footsteps drew closer, trying to make themselves as small as possible in the space next to the ladder. There was nowhere to go and smoke was seeping down through the trapdoor as the fire made quick work of the cellar.
‘Where are ya, eh? Don’t think I didn’t see you up here, girly.’
The man’s torch swelled the tunnel junction with a wash of light and he shuffled in after it. He was dressed in the long black robes of a warden, but he looked much older than any wardens Kate had seen. His robes were shabby and worn, he had strips of rags wrapped around his feet instead of boots and every piece of uncovered skin was streaked with pale mud, making him look grim and skeletal in the half-light.
He raised his torch, turned a grimy dagger in his hand and looked down the bookshop’s tunnel. Kate and Edgar stared back, not knowing what to do. The man’s light did not stretch all the way down the tunnel. Maybe the shadows would keep them safe. Kate looked up the shaft. The hatch was starting to crackle now. The fire had made its way into the hiding place and the trapdoor was smouldering, sending small sparks fizzling down through cracks in the wood.
Something snapped above them and a handful of hot sparks rained down from the trapdoor into Edgar’s hair. Kate brushed them out before he could notice, but the edges of the door were glowing and curling in the heat. A few minutes more and they would be getting more than sparks dropping down on their heads.
The old man showed no sign of moving.
More sparks sprinkled down. The trapdoor began to buckle.
It was time to go.
Kate grabbed Edgar’s arm, pulling him awkwardly behind her, and together they ran for it. The man looked up, spotted Kate’s frightened face heading his way and grinned.
‘Ha!’ He lifted his blade, but Kate kept running. She had just one chance. Dozens of shiny beetlebacks were glistening on the floor and some were creeping their way steadily up the tunnel walls. As soon as she was close enough, Kate scraped a handful of squirming beetles from the stones and threw them into the old man’s face. He yelped with surprise, trying to scratch them off with his fingernails, and Kate collided with him, struggling to keep her balance as he fell to the floor.
‘Keep going!’ shouted Edgar, holding her steady as they clambered out of reach of his slashing blade. A fist-sized chunk of burning wood bounced down the bookshop’s ladder, sending fiery splinters spearing towards them from the dark and the man cried out, shielding himself from the sudden burst of flame. Kate and Edgar didn’t wait to see what would happen next. They were already past him, hurtling as fast as they could down the right-hand tunnel, hoping to find a way out, but instead of heading upwards, the tunnel dipped steeply down. Edgar grabbed the flaming torch from the wall and tried to keep up.
The tunnel walls whipped past them in a flicker of bricks and damp slime, widening slightly the deeper they went. It was like running down a dirty alleyway closed off from the sky. Rotten food spilled out of paper bags stacked against the walls, old blankets were piled up high, wrapped around pieces of rusted metal left leaning against each other, and there were rats: dozens of brown furry bodies scuttling through it all, carrying off whatever they could salvage from the mess.
At last the tunnel sloped upwards and Kate checked the ceiling as they ran, hunting for another trapdoor, a ladder, anything that would take them back up into the world outside before the old man caught up. She could hear him in the tunnel behind them, shuffling along like a vicious crab, gaining on them all the time.
‘What’s this?’ said Edgar, stopping suddenly. ‘Look! A door!’
Kate doubled back and found him tugging frantically at a curled handle jutting out of the wall.
‘It won’t open,’ he said, trying to push it instead. ‘It won’t … Got it!’ With one good shove the door scraped open through a mess of food spilled over a hard stone floor. They squeezed in as soon as there was room, bolted the door and backed away from it, listening for any sign of their pursuer on the other side. He was definitely faster than he looked. He reached the door less than a minute after they did. They could hear him moving in the tunnel, talking to himself.
A sharp scratching noise traced the door’s frame, the handle rattled suddenly and Kate stepped further back. The bolt was only small. One good kick and it would snap from its screws in a second. ‘We have to get out,’ she whispered. ‘Where do you think we are?’
The torch shone around a large underground room lined with shelves, each one holding rows of different coloured bottles and rough sacks, but for every bottle and sack lined up along the walls, at least two lay smashed or torn open on the floor. Dark brown liquid seeped through islands of bread rolls, fresh meat and squashed vegetables, and the warm tang of alcohol thickened the air.
‘Smells like ale,’ said Edgar, crunching through a scattering of broken glass. ‘I think we’re under an inn.’
‘It looks like the wardens have already been here,’ said Kate. ‘We should be all right, so long as they’ve gone.’
Kate made her way over to a wooden staircase at the back of the cellar and listened for any sound coming from above.
‘Hear anything?’ asked Edgar.
‘No. I think we can risk it.’
The tunnel door rattled hard with a loud bang, sending one of the bolt’s screws bouncing across the floor.
‘You first,’ said Edgar. ‘Better he gets me than you.’
Kate didn’t have time to argue. She grabbed the handrail and threw herself up the staircase, heading for the sunlight that was seeping in under a door. She flung it open and burst through, emerging in the main room of the inn behind a long thin bar. Sunlight streamed in through a row of small arched windows decorated with stained-glass shooting stars.
‘We’re in the Falling Star,’ said Edgar, panting up behind her. ‘We’re on the other side of the market square.’
‘So where is everyone?’
The inn was deserted. Most of the tables were crushed or upturned and some of the spindles were snapped on the staircase leading to the rented rooms above. They could still hear the thump-thump of the old man smashing something against the cellar door, but other than that, the whole place was horribly silent.
‘All right,’ said Edgar. ‘We’ve got wardens on the loose and a creepy old guy in the cellar. Now are you ready to run?’
‘I’m not going anywhere without Artemis.’
‘They think he’s a Skilled, Kate! They think he was the one who brought that bird to life. They’re not going to just hand him over. You know what that means, right?’
Kate didn’t want to think about what it meant. All she knew was that her uncle was in trouble because of her. She was not going to leave him behind.
‘That man we saw back at the shop, he’s trouble,’ said Edgar. ‘Have you ever heard of Silas Dane?’
Kate shook her head.
‘He’s a collector. One of the best. Whatever the High Council wants, he goes out and gets it for them. And if he’s got your uncle—’
A shout from outside cut him off and Kate ran to the window, rubbing grime away from a blue pane to look out across the square.
The market square was not a market any longer. Clustered amongst the squat wooden stalls were dozens of metal cages, each one mounted on wheels with two horses at the front and big enough for four or five people to be squeezed inside. There were wardens out there. Kate counted at least thirty, with more arriving all the time, all pacing around the square in their black robes, surrounding groups of people like vultures circling a kill.
The wardens shouted orders as they walked, dragging people out of the crowd and forcing them into the cages ready to be sent off to war. Every one of them was armed, but the town had been taken by surprise and there had been no resistance strong enough to require bloodshed yet. The town would be harvested and the wardens would be gone as suddenly as they had arrived. Everyone knew what to expect. Morvane was beaten and there was nothing anybody could do.
The sun was shining brightly now and the air was crisp and cold, tainted by the smell of smoke. Kate looked across the square to the bookshop. The little building was completely ablaze. Its windows were smashed, the lower floor was engulfed in flames and smoke was pouring from the upstairs rooms, snaking up into the sky, taking everything she had ever known with it.
‘Look,’ said Edgar. ‘Over there.’
Something was going on in the north-eastern corner of the square where a tall man was standing next to the town’s memorial stone. Kate recognised him at once. The man with grey eyes. Silas Dane.
She pressed her cheek against the window to get a better view and saw a group of prisoners standing near him with their hands tied. One of them was being supported by one of the others, unable to put his weight upon an injured leg. ‘Artemis,’ said Kate, pushing away from the window and making a sudden run for the door, all fear of the wardens forgotten.
‘Kate! Look out!’
Something sharp and silver cut through the air, narrowly missing Kate’s arm, and Edgar ran to her, fleeing from a face that had appeared on the other side of the bar.
The old man from the tunnels looked even more terrifying in the sunlight. Everything about him looked pointed and vicious. His nose was short and sharp, his cheekbones jutted out and his mouth looked more like a beak, with a pointed top lip spiking down over a thin scar where the lower lip used to be. He crept forward and drew a second dagger from his rat-eaten belt, a smile squirming across his lips.
‘Gotcha now, girly.’ He raised his hand to throw the blade and the bright glint of metal flashed again.
Kate ducked. The dagger flew over her head and thrummed into the door. Then Kalen was in front of her. He reached out and clamped his cold hands around her neck, pinning her back hard against the door handle.
‘Such a pretty girl,’ he grinned, breathing out a cloud of stinking breath. ‘I’ll teach ya to go pokin’ around in other people’s business.’
Kate kicked out, stamping hard on the man’s ragged feet.
‘Arrrgh!’ he snarled and tightened his grip.
Kate stamped again and scratched his arms with her fingernails, fighting him off so she could catch a breath.
‘Let go of her!’ Edgar’s voice filled the inn. There was a loud crack. Kalen’s eyes bulged, his knees buckled and Edgar stood behind him with one of the bar stools raised high, ready to hit him again.
Kate clutched at her throat, coughing her lungs back into life as the old man arched an arm across his face for protection. Only he didn’t look afraid. He was smiling.
‘J-just leave us alone!’ said Edgar, switching his gaze nervously between Kate and the old man, and in that moment, Kate saw something odd in her friend’s eyes. There was fear there, but there was anger too. Deep anger that she had never seen in Edgar before. It looked like he wanted to hurt that man. Really hurt him. And he was more than ready to do it.
‘Edgar,’ she said carefully. ‘Don’t.’
The atmosphere in the inn bristled. Edgar’s fingers clasped tightly around the leg of the stool and his hands shook a little, betraying the uncertainty behind his rage. He bit his lip and forced his muscles to relax.
‘Leave. Us. Alone,’ he said, lowering the stool. ‘We haven’t done anything to you.’
Kalen glared back at him and shook his head. ‘What’re ya doin’?’ he bellowed, spraying globs of brown spittle into the air. ‘You know better than that. Don’t ya, boy? Never yield to an enemy. Never give ’em a chance. Do it, why don’t ya? Finish me off!’
Edgar faltered under Kalen’s stare and the old man laughed.
‘You won’t last five heartbeats out there,’ he said. ‘The world is changin’. You know what’s happenin’. You know what that little wench is. You’ve seen ’er kind before. Nothin’ but trouble. Just hand ’er over an’ maybe I’ll forget I saw you ’ere, eh? You know what Silas’ll do if ’e catches up with ya.’
‘Shut up!’ said Edgar.
‘There’s those who’d pay fine gold to ’ave this little bird locked up, good and tight. What’s she worth to a fine young man like yerself? Bet you could do with a few coins in yer pocket. And ’oo knows? Hand ’er over quick and the council might even be willin’ to forget a few things. Make yer life a bit simpler, wouldn’t it?’ Kalen smiled deviously. ‘Every man ’as ’is plan,’ he said. ‘What’s yours, eh? How’s it goin’ so far? What’s that little voice inside yer ’ead tellin’ ya to do next?’
‘Edgar? What’s going on?’ asked Kate.
‘Nothing. The stupid old guy’s crazy, that’s all.’
‘Not so crazy that I forget a face, boy. And I’ve seen yours before. If you ’ad any sense, you’d let me do it. You’d let me snap that girl’s sweet little neck right ’ere and save Silas the trouble. Or maybe ya want to do it yerself? Please, be my guest. I won’t stand in yer way.’
Edgar’s foot kicked out and slammed hard into Kalen’s chest, sending him sprawling back. ‘I said, shut up!
‘That’s better! Ha! Much better,’ coughed Kalen, wheezing and chuckling on the floor. ‘Makin’ it look real. Wouldn’t want ’er to know what you really are, now would we? Careful, boy. Think! The life of a traitor’s ’ard enough, but when they catch ya the dyin’s always slow and cruel. Do ya want to know what hell looks like? Silas’ll show ya things that’ll make my life ’ere look like a rich man’s blessing. You mark my words.’
‘Edgar, just leave him,’ said Kate. ‘We have to get out of here.’
Kalen turned towards her.
‘It’s too late for that,’ he said. ‘Silas won’t let ya. You’ve got something he needs. That spark inside ya. You think he won’t see it? You think he won’t know what you are? Silas is the kind of man ya don’t ever want to meet. He’ll walk around inside yer pretty little mind leavin’ footprints that’ll never go away. He’s a devil, see. Just … like … me.’
Kalen’s hand whipped down to his belt where the hilt of a third dagger jutted from the cloth. Edgar was ready. He swung the stool as hard as he could, smashing it against the man’s skull.
‘Quick!’ he shouted. ‘Run!’
‘You won’t stop ’im!’ roared Kalen, grasping a bleeding nose as Kate threw herself out of the inn’s front door. ‘You’ll jus’ make ’im angry!’