The Ancient Library
It was hard to see where they were going without the lantern, but Kate could sense that they were entering an immense space. The air was clear and cool and the sound of voices carried from somewhere nearby. The path opened out a few steps ahead of them and a silhouette of railings rose up in the dim light, blocking their way.
Silas stopped walking and held her still. ‘Officers,’ he said loudly. ‘Step forward.’
Kate looked on in horror as two wardens stepped out of the dark. They bowed at once, refusing to raise their heads until he gave the order.
‘Very good,’ he said firmly. ‘You have taken a fine ambush position. If I were an intruder I would not have detected your presence.’ Silas sheathed his sword and the two wardens bowed again, putting away their daggers.
‘Da’ru has sent another girl to aid the search,’ he said, pushing Kate towards the two men. ‘I hear there was a bookseller brought here from the town of Morvane.’
‘Put the girl to work alongside him. I have my own business here. I will not be disturbed.’
The wardens bowed together and one of them took hold of Kate’s arm, making the cut Silas had made there burn and sting. ‘Come with me,’ he said.
Kate looked back at Silas, who was now holding on to the railings, looking out into the darkness like a captain on the deck of a ship. The railings made up part of a long balcony, and the warden took Kate over to a flight of stairs which curved down into an enormous room. She stopped at the very top and looked out at the view Silas had already seen.
The ancient library was not just a room, it was a chamber.
The staircase spiralled down to dozens of towering bookcases lined up in long rows beneath an arched red-brick roof, and there were people down there, carrying lanterns and candles that created pools of orange light in the dark. Some were balancing on narrow platforms that ran around the uppermost shelves, and others were wheeling themselves along on railed ladders that reached taller than a house, pulling handfuls of books out for inspection, leafing through them and forcing them back in again out of place. They were so far along the shelves that it was hard to believe they had only been searching the library for two days. There had to be thousands of old books down there. Wintercraft could be any one of them.
The warden followed Kate down the steps and when she reached the bottom she looked up and saw Silas watching her from the upper balcony. Loose pages littered the floor between the disordered bookshelves and the warden took her to the row along the easternmost wall, the only place in the chamber that was still relatively neat and tidy.
‘You will work here,’ he said, pointing down the row. ‘The others will tell you what to do.’
The warden left her there without a light and Kate could feel the bookcases looming over her like sad sentries witnessing the destruction and disarray. The cavern was so huge that the voices of the other workers did not carry right to the edges and a strange silence hung around her as she walked along the row, heading towards a candle propped at an angle upon the floor.
‘No, no, no. I don’t need help. Go back. I’ll work faster alone.’
A figure was kneeling just outside the glow of candlelight and he struggled to his feet, leaning on a stick for support as Kate drew closer.
‘Row sixteen needs another pair of hands. This one’s full of nothing but poetry and fairytales. No point wasting anyone else on it. I’m fine on my own. Go back.’ The man gathered up a handful of open books from the floor and quickly pushed them back on to the shelves.
Kate quickened her step. She knew that voice. ‘Artemis?’
‘I’m not moving. I don’t care what they say … What? How do you know my name?’ Artemis picked up the candle and held it high, squinting to see who had spoken. His cheek was bruised and his right eye was swollen, but it was definitely him. He looked tired and nervous as he stood his ground, waiting for her to come into sight. ‘Oh!’ He lowered his candle the moment he saw her face.
‘It’s all right,’ she said. ‘It’s me.’
‘Kate? How … ? Kate!’ Artemis abandoned his stick and limped towards her, reaching out his arms and pulling her into a hug.
‘I hoped you would remember the way out … but when I saw the fire, I was worried that … Kate, I thought you were dead! What are you doing here? Is Edgar with you? Did the wardens get him too?’
‘I think he’s all right. He’s here in Fume, but we got separated.’
‘I’m so sorry,’ said Artemis, still clutching her tight. ‘The fire … I couldn’t stop them. I couldn’t—’
‘It’s not your fault.’
‘I just wanted to keep you safe.’
‘We don’t have much time,’ said Kate, slowly pulling away. ‘The man who gave the order to burn the shop. He’s here.’
‘The collector?’ Artemis’s face hardened at once. ‘Where is he?’
‘That doesn’t matter right now,’ said Kate. ‘A lot’s happened since we left Morvane, but I think I have a way to get you out of here. I just need you to do something for me.’
‘Anything,’ said Artemis.
Kate chose her words carefully. If Artemis had found the book, he would have hidden it well and there was no way she would be able to find it without him. She needed his co-operation. She had to get this right.
‘I know what you’re looking for down here,’ she said. ‘If you know where it is, if you have it, I need you to give it to me.’
Artemis looked down the shelves behind Kate and once he was sure no one else was nearby, he spoke very quietly. ‘We are looking for Wintercraft, a book of old Skilled techniques,’ he said. ‘What makes you think I have it?’
‘Because you’re the only one down here who knows exactly what you’re looking for. You’ve seen the book before. You knew the Skilled were going to hide it down here. I think you might even know where it is.’
‘Shhh!’ said Artemis.
‘The Skilled sent you those messages from the south, didn’t they?’ said Kate.
‘That doesn’t mean—’
‘I know they put the book here to protect it, but we have to find it. It’s the only way to get us out.’
Artemis’s face dropped. He limped back to the shelves and picked up his stick. ‘Do you know how many people have died because of that book?’ he said. ‘I can’t believe anyone still wants it. The High Council think that they need it. They think it will give them answers. That it will somehow end the war and make their lives so much easier, but it won’t. Wintercraft is dangerous, Kate. The book is a lie. It always was.’
‘I know what it is.’
‘But you have never actually read it. Believe me, I have. It is a collection of impossible theories, written by a group of people no one remembers, about something that could never happen.’
‘What makes you so sure?’
‘Shades? Wandering souls? Spirits returning from beyond the veil? It’s impossible! How could any of it be real? The dead stay dead! We know that better than anyone.’
‘You saw me bring that blackbird back to life,’ said Kate.
‘The Skilled are healers, that’s what they do. They preserve life by healing the body. They do not have any power over the soul. The veil and spirits and everything else, it’s a nice idea but there’s no real truth in it. You know that.’
‘My parents thought it was true.’
‘I loved Jonathan and Anna,’ said Artemis. ‘I tried to understand their lives. I did. For years I wanted to believe that it was all true. I wanted to see what they told me they could see, but there is nothing there. It is all a lie. The veil does not exist. And even if it did, Wintercraft is all about corrupting its natural balance, allowing people to abuse life and manipulate death. I would not want to live in a world where anyone had that kind of power. Just the idea of it has been enough to drive the whole of Albion into chaos at the hands of the High Council, and it was enough to turn the entire Continent against us. We can’t let the council have it, Kate. They’re all crazy. They don’t have the slightest idea what they’re doing.’
‘Why not let them have it?’ asked Kate. ‘If it’s as harmless as you think, it won’t make a difference, will it?’
‘Because it doesn’t matter what I think the book means,’ said Artemis, struggling to keep his voice down. ‘All that matters is what they think it means, what they think it does. The council are taking it all far too seriously. They will follow its words, step by step, thinking they can command spirits, bind souls and achieve the impossible. They will keep experimenting on the Skilled, taking the lives of innocent people. Innocent people like you, Kate. They will keep failing and they will try again, and everyone else will pay the price.’
Kate felt frustration welling up inside her, but she fought against it, forcing it back down. ‘Don’t you want to get out of here?’ she asked.
‘Of course I do!’
‘Then help me find the book. We can’t leave here without it. All we have to do is hand it over. Then we can go home.’
Artemis shook his head firmly. ‘No,’ he said. ‘You don’t know what happened last time. If you knew what I had done—’
‘I know exactly what happened,’ said Kate, stepping closer. ‘I know what happened to my parents. You warned them not to take the book, but they didn’t listen. The wardens found them and they died for it.’
Artemis looked up at her in shock. ‘How could you—?’
‘I know why you ran. You were scared and there was no way you could have helped them. But if you hide the book this time, the same thing that happened to my parents will happen to us. I know you want to keep it safe, but I would trade anything to get you out of here alive. Nothing is more important than that.’
Artemis looked down at her as if she was five years old again. ‘Listen to me, Kate,’ he said. ‘These people cannot be trusted. Whatever deal you have made with them, they will turn their backs on you the moment you hand over the book. They will promise you anything to get what they want. It was not worth risking your own life to save mine. You should not have come here.’
Artemis turned away from Kate and anger blistered inside her. She grabbed his shoulder, forcing him to face her. ‘Which is more important?’ she demanded. ‘Staying alive? Or protecting a book that you think is useless anyway?’
‘Kate, you’re hurting me.’
‘I came here because I wanted to help you. I know the veil is real. I know what the Skilled can do and I know how dangerous Wintercraft can be, but we have no other choice. No matter where you hide it, they are going to find the book eventually. At least this way we have a chance to get out of here. Why won’t you listen to me?’
Artemis said nothing, but when he looked straight into her eyes Kate was sure she saw a look of fear cross over his face. Realising how tightly she had been holding him, she let go. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said.
‘So am I,’ said Artemis, rubbing the pain from his shoulder. ‘I don’t know what that collector did to you, Kate, but if you want the book so much, it’s the least I can give you to help put things right.’ He limped a few steps along the shelves to a waiting rail ladder. ‘Up there,’ he said, rolling the ladder a few steps to the left and holding out the candle for her to take. ‘Twenty-third shelf up, fourth book to the right. There’s a knot-latch. You’ll see it.’
‘How did you find it all the way up there?’ asked Kate. From the look of Artemis’s ankle, he would not have been able to manage one rung, never mind however many it would have taken to climb up there.
‘I didn’t,’ he said. ‘But it’s there. When the Skilled hid it here, one of them came to see me again at the shop. She told me that it was our family’s right to know where the book was being kept at all times. She even offered to bring you and me here to see this library for ourselves, but I refused. “Furthest row on the right. Two hundred paces. Twenty-third shelf up. Fourth book right.” Those directions have stayed in my memory for ten years. I would have needed a guide to find the library if I didn’t use one of those wheels, but once I was in here, I knew exactly where it would be. Half of our family died for that book. I never want to see it again, but if you need it, it is yours. I’ll leave it to your conscience to decide what to do with it this time.’
‘Thank you,’ said Kate. She took the candle and climbed the ladder, taking extra care to test each rung as she went.
The knot latch was an old trick. Not many people knew about them, but they were simple enough to spot when you knew what you were looking for. Kate found it exactly where Artemis said it would be - a secret spring-button disguised as a knot in the wood - and she pressed it.
Something clicked. Kate balanced the candle on the shelf, pulled a handful of books out and found a thin flap of wood beneath them. She lifted the flap carefully and put her hand inside, adjusting her hold on the ladder to keep her balance as she wriggled a small leather pouch out of the hidden space. Kate tugged the cords from its drawstring neck and a small book slid out of it on to the shelf. She could smell its age, and wondered how many other hands had touched it; how many people had died to keep its words a secret. Its cover was exactly as she had seen it within the veil, stretched in old purple leather with ancient silver lettering that still sparkled in the candlelight.
The spine creaked and snapped gently as she opened it, sending brown fibres drifting into the air. The old paper was crinkled and cracked, the pages clinging to the spine by the thinnest of threads, but the ink was still dark enough to be readable.
Kate read the only words written on the first page.
Those Who Wish To See The Dark, Be Ready To Pay Your Price.
A shout of surprise echoed up from below, and it was only then that Kate sensed how high she was above the ground. She clung to the ladder for safety and looked down. ‘Artemis?’
It was too dark to see anything. She stuffed the book back into its pouch, grabbed it and the candle in the same hand and clambered back down the ladder as fast as she could.
‘Kate, no! Stay up there!’ Artemis cried out in pain.
Kate stopped twenty rungs from the bottom, close enough to see Silas’s grey eyes looking up at her.
‘Your warnings are unnecessary, Mr Winters,’ he said. ‘I have no interest in taking your life. All I want is the book.’
Kate climbed down the last few steps and saw Artemis curled up on the floor with Silas standing over him, one boot pressing down on his injured ankle. ‘Stop! Don’t hurt him!’ she said.
Silas’s sword shone deep blue as he stabbed it into the library floor beside Artemis’s neck, splintering the ancient wood and sending shards of it across Artemis’ face. ‘Give me the book,’ he said, lifting his foot from Artemis’s leg and pressing it against his neck instead, forcing his quivering throat closer to the blade.
‘It’s yours,’ said Kate. ‘Take it!’
Silas held out his hand. Kate passed the pouch to him and he checked inside it before tightening the strings again and tucking the precious book into his coat.
‘Now we leave.’ He wrenched his sword out of the ruined floor and grabbed Kate’s hand.
‘Leave her alone!’ cried Artemis, struggling to his knees, trying to heave himself to his feet as Silas dragged Kate away. ‘You’ve got what you wanted! Leave her. Please!’
Silas kept moving, pulling Kate along past the bookshelves and moving quickly through pools of light cast by people working on a platform overhead. Kate looked back at Artemis’s face until it was swallowed by the darkness. Her candle blew out and she let it fall to the floor, listening to the blood pounding in her ears as they raced between the shelves. Silas may have got what he had come for, but she was leaving something far more precious behind.
Silas stopped suddenly as they came up against a solid wall. Kate could feel the coldness of the stone and Silas’s hand upon hers as he forced her palm against it.
‘Ask it to show us the secret way,’ he ordered, his voice vicious and cold. ‘Ask it how to get out.’
A sharp point stabbed into Kate’s skin and the sound of a moving spirit wheel rumbled through the wall. The tiles rattled into place around her hand and the floor shifted beneath her feet.
Silas pulled Kate back as part of the floor slid to one side and the faint glow of firelight brightened a shaft thick with cobwebs, with rusted metal hooks marking where a ladder had once been. Kate could smell water. Deep water.
‘There’s no way down,’ she said.
Silas peered out over the edge of the hole. ‘Only my way.’
Then, without warning, Silas pulled her to his chest, engulfed her in his arms, and jumped.