Kate fled out into the market square and saw Artemis being pushed roughly into a cage. She forced herself to turn away and kept close to the inn’s outer wall, hoping that no one would see her. There were too many wardens for her to risk helping him there. She had to find another way.
The sun shone straight into her eyes, leaving no shadows in which to hide, so she kept running, leaping over bird bodies and piles of wood and tools, and squeezing past a row of traders’ horses that were tied to a fence, eating hay from a rack. She considered stealing one of them, but she didn’t know how to ride and, even if she could, a girl travelling on horseback would look far too conspicuous in the town.
She ducked amongst their warm bodies and headed for one of the gaps between the buildings instead, where a pair of open gates led her into a barrow alley: a road just wide enough for two horses and carts to squeeze past each other on their way to and from the market. There was a high wall on one side and a few tiny shops on the other, but everything looked abandoned now. Kate checked behind her. Edgar was pushing his way past the horses, making one of them stamp and snort, but there was no sign of Kalen. She knocked hard on the first door she could find and the wood swung back limply against the weight of her hand. The lock had been smashed and there was no answer from inside.
‘Come on,’ she said quietly, stepping forward as the door creaked open and Edgar followed her through into the dark.
The air smelled of sage and rosemary and the floor crunched with scattered dry leaves. Edgar lit a match from a box in his pocket. Tall jars sparkled from shelves lining the walls and a pair of weighing scales had been knocked off the curved wooden counter, left dented and broken where they fell.
Kate stepped over the scales and crept to the window. The curtains were closed, but she could see the front pane had shattered, covering the floor beneath them in fragments of green glass. She pulled the fabric carefully aside and peered out into the alley.
‘You don’t think they’re still in here, do you?’ whispered Edgar, shivering as the match went out and he began to light another.
‘Whoever lives here.’
‘The wardens have already been here. What do you think?’
‘I think this is all crazy,’ said Edgar, crunching his way over to her. ‘First those birds, then Artemis gets taken. There are mad guys underground and wardens everywhere else.’ He looked at Kate and then lowered his eyes. ‘That old guy. Kalen? What he said back there. It was all crazy talk. You do know that, right? On a scale of sanity that guy is completely out of his tree.’
‘I know that,’ said Kate. She tried to sound confident, but the truth was she did not know what to think. Even if Kalen had been lying about knowing Edgar, his behaviour towards the old man had made her realise just how little she really knew about her friend. ‘Does he know you?’ she asked tentatively.
Edgar looked away, refusing to meet her eyes. ‘He’s probably just seen me around somewhere,’ he said with an awkward smile. ‘Like I said, crazy.’
Kate wanted to believe him. ‘That’s what I thought,’ she said.
Kate had known Edgar for three years, since the very first day he had arrived in Morvane. He had moved there from somewhere in the south and spent all his time lurking in the bookshop talking to customers until Artemis had finally agreed to give him a job. He had never really talked about his life before he had come to the town. All Kate knew was that he lived alone in a basement room two streets from the market square and his family were all gone, just like hers. It had never crossed her mind that he might have something to hide. He was just Edgar. Anything else … she was not sure she wanted to know any more.
The shouts of the people gathered in the market square carried down the barrow alley while Kate looked around their new hiding place. She knew the people who had owned that shop. They had been regular customers at the bookshop and two of the few people her uncle counted among his friends. Now they were out there with the wardens - with him - and everything was falling apart.
‘We should hide here,’ she said, trying to sound confident. ‘If we stay out of sight no one will find us.’
Edgar pushed the front door back into its frame and pressed his hands against it when the broken lock would not catch. ‘This door’s useless,’ he said. ‘We need something to push against it.’
‘No,’ said Kate. ‘Leave it. The wardens won’t expect anyone to hide in an open building. They’ll think it’s empty and won’t search it again.’
‘What about Kalen?’
‘I don’t think he’ll follow us. Not with everything that’s going on. We should be safe in here until we decide what to do next.’
The next hour in that shop was the slowest of Kate’s life. They hid behind the counter, side by side, and Kate sat in silence while Edgar concocted plans for their escape. He was whispering something about heading back into the warrens, dodging Kalen and finding their way into one of the other quarters, but Kate was only half listening. Her own mind was filled with thoughts, confusion and half-made plans to free Artemis from the wardens, which all seemed to end with them getting captured. Edgar must have known she was not listening, but he kept talking anyway, peering over the counter now and again to check for any movement outside.
‘Maybe you were right,’ he said, ducking down as the shop’s clock rang out the hour, making them both jump. ‘Maybe they won’t find us in here.’
‘Maybe,’ said Kate. ‘Just wait.’
Then the noises came.
First there was a shuffling sound and a sharp tapping noise from somewhere close by, though neither she nor Edgar were moving an inch. Then it came again. Shuffle-shuffle-tap . Shuffle-shuffle-tap. Kate tensed. Someone was outside, in the alley. Someone was walking along the cobbles.
‘Did you hear that?’ she whispered.
‘What was it?’
‘Wait here.’ Kate crept around the side of the counter and crouched low, making her way over to the curtained window. Edgar was not about to stand back and do nothing again and he followed close behind, peering out silently into the alley beside her. Neither of them spoke as a limping figure shuffled into sight, but both held their breath.
Kalen was back.
The old man’s shoulders were hunched and his muddy face was stained with trails of blood. Kate crouched quickly beneath the window and peered over the window frame. Kalen’s tight lips were drawn back in anger, his sharp eyes searching every shadow for movement, his ears scrutinising every sound. Seeing him there, it was hard to imagine how they could have got so close to him in the tunnels and survived. Out there in the open he looked more vicious than ever.
Edgar stood up quickly against the shop wall, hiding himself in one of the curtains and Kalen raised his head, sniffing the air like a dog. It was hard to tell exactly where he was looking. He was just standing there, waiting, his fingers playing upon the handle of a dagger at his side.
‘Filthy rats,’ Kalen grumbled to himself, scraping his tongue under his nose to taste the dried clots of his own blood. ‘I’ll find ya. Don’t you worry. Kalen’s comin’.’
Something moved at the end of the alley and Kalen stood up straight and alert, his dagger raised ready to strike.
‘No!’ he snarled. ‘Not you. Get back!’
‘Lower your blade, Kalen, before I drive it through your throat.’ Kate heard the order before she could see who had given it.
Silas strode into sight, his grey eyes fixed upon the old man. Edgar tensed behind the curtain and Kalen shuffled from foot to foot, looking back over his shoulder, planning his escape.
‘You won’t be able to run from me this time.’ Silas walked right up to Kalen until he was close enough for him to stab him if he tried. Kate waited for the older man to make his move, but he just stood there, hands quivering, looking down at the ground.
Silas’s dark shadow swallowed Kalen as he stood over him like a predator. Kalen swiped his dagger in front of him, trying to force him away, but the weapon might as well have been made of wood for all the attention Silas gave it. He kept walking, making Kalen retreat instead. Then his hand shot out, clutching the old man’s throat, raising him off the ground and slamming him against the alley wall.
‘Ssssilasss!’ Kalen’s voice came out as a hiss.
‘Where is she?’
Kalen grinned beneath a moustache of clotting blood. ‘Why would I tell you? It’s ’cos of you I’m stuck in this rotten place. Argh!’
‘She’s a strong one,’ said Kalen. ‘Oh yes. Maybe I’ll just claim ’er for myself, eh?’
Silas held Kalen firmly with one hand and drew a long sword from his belt with the other. The blade was so blue it was almost black, shining like a forged night sky. Kalen squirmed, trying to slash out again with his own blade, but he did not have the strength to land a good strike.
‘What exactly is your plan?’ said Silas. ‘Do you plan to kill me, Kalen? Many have tried, one of them even succeeded. But as you can see, it was not as permanent a predicament as some would have liked. You told me the girl would be in the bookshop. Tell me where she really is.’
Silas loosened his grip enough for Kalen to wheeze in a thin breath. ‘You’ll … kill me anyway,’ he said, chuckling horribly with each word.
Silas rested his blade upon Kalen’s shoulder. ‘And with good reason,’ he said. ‘Who was it who stood by while the High Council allowed one of the Skilled into their midst? Who was it who knew what that woman planned to do and yet said nothing - nothing - about it to me? If you had warned me about her, I never would have allowed her to get close. So do not dare to blame me for what has happened in your life when you had a hand in destroying mine.’
‘What can I say? The gold was good.’ Kalen grinned, showing off rows of loose cracked teeth. ‘Course, that’s all spent and gone now. Heh-heh. Worth it, though. Ah, yes. It’s not my fault ya walked right into ’er trap.’
Silas’s eyes flashed with anger. ‘You are the same traitor you have always been,’ he said. ‘The council stopped looking for you years ago because they thought you were dead. I should have told them where to find you, but instead you went free. You owe me far more than your worthless life. So, for the last time, what have you done with the girl?’
Kalen’s face twisted into a look as smug as any man could get with a blade so close to his neck. ‘Losin’ yer touch eh, friend?’ he said. ‘Time was you’d have had that little banshee locked up and halfway to Fume by now, an’ I’d’ve been left dead and cold. Food for the rats, just for slowin’ you down. Better get a move on. The council won’t thank ya for keepin’ ’em waitin’.’
‘This one’s not for the council,’ said Silas, sheathing his sword, but keeping a firm grip on Kalen’s throat.
‘Then I’d finish ’er off quick. Dangerous, she is. Better off dead than breathin’. Wouldn’t take much, I reckon.’
‘This blood,’ said Silas, noticing the stains across Kalen’s robes. ‘Is it hers?’
‘Maybe. Maybe not. My nose took a good bashin’ along the way. She’s got company with ’er, see. Da’ru’s boy. He did this to me.’
‘Da’ru’s boy?’ Silas looked surprised. ‘Edgar Rill is here? In this town?’
‘Ha! Didn’t know that, did ya?’
Kate looked back at the curtain where Edgar was wrapped up with only his shabby boots poking out into the room. If he could hear the two men’s conversation he wasn’t showing any sign of it. Maybe Kalen had seen him in town somewhere, but how could a collector know his name?
‘I’ll be sure to thank him for what he’s done to you when I find him,’ said Silas. ‘It’s just a shame he did not finish what he started.’
Kalen’s face hardened. ‘Hey, now. You and me. We’re friends, Silas. Soldiers. Let’s not forget that.’
‘I owe you nothing,’ said Silas. ‘You know what is at stake here. That girl could be the key to everything and you have let her go. Do you at least have the book?’
‘Have it? I’ve been ’ere all this time lookin’ for the cursed thing. I’ve been listenin’ from the cellars, sneakin’ into houses at night. If anyone was hidin’ it, I would know. It’s gone, Silas. Gone to who knows where.’
Silas tightened his grip and the old man whimpered. ‘If you had not lost it in the first place all of this would already be over,’ he said. ‘I would be free of this useless life and you might still have full use of your pathetic little mind.’
‘I tried!’ squeaked Kalen. ‘It’s not here, I tell ya.’
‘Then you have not tried hard enough,’ said Silas. ‘How do I know you have not just been hiding here, doing nothing, cowering away like the filth that you are?’
‘You don’t.’ Kalen grinned dangerously. ‘But at least I’m not some errand boy, trapped under a woman’s heel!’
Kalen’s laugh turned into a hacking cough and Silas glared at him in fury. ‘The Skilled are our only link to Wintercraft,’ he said. ‘That girl is the only one they have not yet hidden from us and you are wasting my time. You should have stayed in your tunnels, friend, where rodents like you belong.’
Kalen’s eyes flashed to the broken window, spotting Kate’s face before she could duck out of sight. Silas saw him look and turned towards the shop, giving Kalen the chance he needed. He swiped his dagger up towards Silas’s throat, but Silas’s hand moved lightning fast, grabbing the blade so hard that his palm dripped blood. ‘Too slow,’ he said, turning the blade inwards towards the old man’s chest. ‘Haven’t you learned anything, Kalen? The dead cannot die. You, on the other hand …’
‘Wait!’ Kalen cried, but it was too late. In one powerful move Silas thrust the blade up into his robes, driving the metal deep into his heart.
Kate squeaked with shock and threw a hand over her mouth as she looked away.
‘One death for another,’ said Silas, letting Kalen bleed freely until his lifeless body slumped down on to the cobbles.
Kate looked out to see Silas crouching down and pressing his hand to Kalen’s forehead. The air rippled strangely around him, like heat rising from a roof on a wet summer’s day, and everything seemed to slow down. Kate did not know what she was seeing. Silas was impossibly still, his eyes closed, concentrating on something she could not see. Kate had forgotten to breathe and only when the air settled back to normal again did the full horror of witnessing a man’s death hit her. Her knees felt weak and she stumbled back.
‘Kate!’ whispered Edgar, abandoning his hiding place to help her.
That was all Silas needed.
He saw Edgar move, drew his sword and strode towards the broken window. Edgar did not see him approach. His boots made no sound upon the cobbles and no shadow crept across the shop floor. Only Kate saw him standing there just two steps from Edgar’s back, his sword raised ready to strike.
‘Move!’ she yelled, pushing Edgar hard into the curtains as the blade pierced down. The sword missed, the point dug into the wooden floor and the metal rang out.
Edgar stood frozen against the wall. Silas was inside the shop, standing right in front of Kate. Both of his hands were on the sword, but he made no attempt to free it from the floor. He just stood there, looking at her.
‘Do you know who I am?’ he asked.
Kate nodded firmly, trying not to give away her fear.
‘Then you should know that no one escapes me once I have set my mind upon their capture. No bargains are granted, no freedoms or mercy are offered or given. You have something I want and I believe you can help me find something I need.’
Kate didn’t know what he was talking about and she didn’t care. ‘Where is my uncle?’ she asked, sounding far braver than she actually felt. ‘He’s not one of the Skilled. He’s not what you’re looking for.’
‘I know that.’ Silas tugged his sword from the floor and raised it a little, enough to make Kate flinch. ‘I knew it as soon as I saw his face. The eyes do not lie, Kate.’
‘How do you know my name?’
‘I have been ordered to find you,’ said Silas. ‘And I believe you may be of use to me. But first …’ He turned to Edgar, whose face was a picture of terror. ‘First I must put down the boy.’
‘No!’ Kate shouted. The blue blade whipped up to Edgar’s throat and stopped only a hair’s breadth from his trembling skin.
‘No?’ said Silas. ‘Why not?’
Kate glanced at the dead body out in the barrow alley. ‘Because I … I’ll go with you,’ she said. ‘You don’t have to hurt him. He’s not in your way. He won’t stop you from taking me. Will you, Edgar?’
Edgar shrugged his shoulders as much as the blade would allow. ‘I was going to give it a bloody good try, actually.’
‘I’m not going anywhere if you hurt him,’ said Kate. ‘And I certainly won’t help you.’
‘You will do as I say, or you will die right here next to your useless friend.’
Kate thought fast, not knowing what to do, but Edgar had a plan.
With Silas distracted he took his chance, heaving on the green curtain with all his strength, making the rusted curtain pole break from the wall and spilling the wooden rings from its end. He had hoped to catch Silas beneath the fabric, but it was too heavy and the curtain flopped straight down on top of his own head instead. Edgar scrambled blindly across the floor, dragging the curtain along with Silas right behind him. Kate grabbed the weighing scales from the floor and threw them at Silas’s knees, cracking the metal hard into his kneecap. The collector did not stop. He did not even limp, he just strode on, calmly chasing Edgar down until he finally managed to squirm out of the curtain and bolted straight out of the shop door.
Silas stopped at the threshold and Kate watched Edgar skid upon the bloodstained cobbles as he ran past Kalen’s dead body, fleeing the herb shop without even looking back. Her heart sank and fear gathered like a lump in her throat as she realised he was not coming back.
The door at the back of the shop was blocked by a rack of fallen shelves and a killer now stood between her and her only chance of escape. She was alone, unarmed, and there was no way out.
Silas sheathed his sword and turned on her. ‘The weak always run,’ he said. ‘There is no honour in killing a coward. Do not disappoint me by trying to do the same.’
‘You didn’t give him any choice,’ said Kate, trying to convince herself that it was true, that somehow Edgar had to leave her behind. ‘What do you want?’
‘You are a rare girl, Miss Winters. A diamond in the festering filth that makes up the rest of this worthless town. I have questions for you and you will answer them. Answer them to my satisfaction and your life will be made easy. Defy me and you will find me far less friendly than I have been thus far.’
‘You just killed a man,’ said Kate. ‘You burned my home, took my family and you just tried to kill my friend.’
‘Yet here you stand, untouched. Why do you think that is?’ Silas walked towards her, and with every step the air felt colder. Fear trickled up Kate’s spine, but there was nowhere to go.
‘You were the one who brought the bird back to life,’ he said. ‘You are the only one I am interested in. You will help me find what I need.’
‘I didn’t do anything,’ said Kate. ‘I don’t know who you think I am. But you’re wrong.’
Silas’s hand snapped forward and grabbed Kate’s face, clutching her cheekbones as he stared into her eyes. His grip was river cold and would not let her wriggle away. The dead grey of his eyes moved like fog trapped behind circles of glass and Kate found herself staring at them, unable to look away.
‘I am not wrong,’ he said. ‘Your uncle has no more Skill in him than a splinter of rock. But you … I can see the power inside you. Young power from ancient blood, raw and untrained. Do you know how many people carry the Winters name here in Albion? Worthless people with no true link to the family by blood?’
Kate shook her head.
‘Hundreds,’ said Silas. ‘One or two of them showed some small promise, but they were nothing like you. You are the one I have been looking for and you will come with me, or I will start slicing off those delicate fingers of yours. One. By. One.’
Kate felt the chill of metal against her hand and she tried to snatch it away. There was a sharp snap of a lock and Silas cuffed one end of a long fine chain to her wrist, wrapping the remaining length of it around his hand. ‘A precaution,’ he said. ‘I do not intend to lose you again. Now, walk.’
Silas dragged Kate to her feet and pushed her ahead of him out of the shop door. She did not want to go out there, not after what had happened, and she deliberately tried not to look at Kalen’s body laid upon the ground. Silas led her towards it and made her stand beside him as he toed the fallen man with his boot. He knelt on one knee, wrenched the dagger from Kalen’s body and wiped it clean on the dead man’s robes. An engraved letter ‘K’ glinted along the blade. He pocketed it at once. ‘Unfortunate,’ he said. ‘But necessary.’
Silas looked up to the roof of the shop, where his crow was perched patiently upon the gutter, fluffing its feathers against the wind. ‘Follow the boy,’ he said. ‘Do not leave his side.’
‘Edgar?’ Kate tried to pull free of her wrist chain, but the metal gripped tight. ‘What do you want him for? Leave him alone!’
The crow clicked its beak and leaped into the air.
‘As long as my crow is with him, I will be able to find him,’ said Silas. ‘The Skilled may be able to do many things, but I possess a few tricks of my own. No one can escape me, Kate. Not him. Not you.’ Silas held Kate still and she watched the bird fly away until its wing beats were lost across the rooftops of the town. ‘Kalen earned his death many times over,’ he said. ‘Your friend will have his own judgement to face. For now, you are my primary concern.’
Silas pushed Kate further down the barrow alley in the opposite direction to the market square, heading out into the maze that was the Southern Quarter’s back streets. Kate looked around, searching for someone who could help her, but the few people she could see were already running from the collector, too terrified to challenge him for the sake of one girl. Her town belonged to him now.
Groups of robed wardens moved through the streets, herding frightened stragglers in towards the square, and Silas forced Kate to a stop as a black horse pulled a closed carriage along the road towards them. The sides and roof had been red once, but the paint had long since peeled away, leaving scars of worn red and black. Kate could not see the driver’s face under the hood of his robes.
The carriage stopped right beside them and Silas unlatched the door. ‘Get in,’ he said.