The Night of Souls
Edgar caught up with Silas and Kate on the front steps and the three of them stood there together, looking out across a city that was completely transformed.
A lot had happened outside the museum since the listening circle had been opened.
Celebrations for the Night of Souls had begun.
Hundreds of people filled the streets, singing, dancing and celebrating the lives of their ancestors, unaware of what had just taken place inside the old museum. Carriages hung with long coloured ribbons trundled through the streets, winding between groups of women in fine dresses and men in hats and brightly-striped cloaks.
There were storytellers on horseback, walking proudly along with troupes of listeners trailing behind them like a living cloak. Dancers weaved expertly through the crowd and blue banners had been hung from the towers high above them, reflecting the light of the moon and imbuing the city with a strange eerie glow. Some of the banners had been painted with large black eyes, as people wanted to believe that their ancestors were watching over them. Kate doubted any of them would really be ready to know the truth.
At ground level the streets flickered with moving candlelight. Many people were carrying candles to remember the lives of the dead and each of them wore a feathered mask over their eyes, decorated with tiny crystals that sparkled in the flames. They moved together in one long procession, snaking their way towards the centre of the city, where small bonfires were casting smoke and heat across the cold night sky.
Bright music filled the air and Kate spotted a group of musicians at the base of the museum steps, playing fiddles and flutes and thumping a beat out on a huge deep drum. Three of them had painted their faces deathly white, were wearing tattered clothes and had blackened their teeth, and other people in the crowd had dressed the same way to represent the dead rising up from their graves to join in the celebration.
Kate had always respected the Night of Souls, but standing there in a graveyard city overtaken by the rich and their slaves, it felt gruesome and ghoulish. The sound of other instruments echoed loudly from the towers and she could not help staring at the spectacle below her as the colour and noise of the Night of Souls brought the ancient city to life.
Silas kept to the shadows and looked up at the rooftops, vainly searching for his lost crow. ‘I said you could go,’ he said absently. ‘Why are you still here?’
‘You’re going after Da’ru, aren’t you?’ said Kate.
‘I have a promise to keep.’ Silas clenched his fists. ‘Da’ru will pay for what she has done.’
‘I want to go with you.’
Silas looked down at her.
‘I’ve done everything I could to help you,’ said Kate. ‘Now I need your help. You owe me that.’
‘I owe you nothing.’
A stray firework streaked from the crowd and burst with an ear-splitting bang overhead. Three more followed and Silas headed down the centre of the steps, pushing through the people as they danced and twirled their way along like a living river.
Kate ran to catch up to him.
‘What are you doing?’ shouted Edgar, struggling to be heard above the noise as he followed her down. ‘He said we could go!’
Kate was jostled, pushed and squeezed between enormous dresses as the masked dancers swallowed her into their midst. She fought her way past pipe players, horses in black veils and men on stilts wearing decorated blindfolds who were throwing handfuls of dead leaves over anyone they could reach. She ducked beneath one of the stilt walkers and a woman next to her cried out as a single red leaf caught in Kate’s hair.
‘She’s next!’ she shouted, trying to grab Kate before she slipped away. ‘This girl will be the next to die!’
Kate ignored the woman and left the leaf flapping where it was. She had no time for superstition. They had the same tradition in her own town but no one took it seriously any more. The woman shouted something after her, but she was already too far away to hear. She had spotted Silas moving up ahead and she was closing in.
‘I did everything you wanted,’ she shouted the moment she was close enough. ‘I need your help. I need you to help me find my uncle. He could have been up here, safe with us, and you just left him behind!’
‘We both left him behind,’ said Silas, refusing to slow his pace. ‘I did not hear you complain about it until after the deed was done.’
‘I have to find him!’ said Kate. ‘Edgar said those wardens went to the museum looking for you - and Wintercraft. Artemis was the only other person who knew that you had it.’ She dodged the hot breath of a fire breather and people squealed excitedly away from the flames. ‘He wouldn’t have told anyone about it unless someone forced him to. I think Da’ru has him. I need you to help me get him back.’
‘Your family’s problems are no concern of mine,’ said Silas. ‘I have spared your life and I spared his. That is payment enough.’
Silas pushed his way on to a street lined with stalls selling every kind of food that Kate had ever known. Steam rose from hot fire ovens, soups bubbled in enormous pots and water spat from open pans. The smells were intoxicating. Kate had not eaten since she had been locked in the Council’s cell and her stomach growled as she followed Silas through clouds of heat filled with the scent of spices, fried meats and stewed fruits.
‘You told me that you were honourable,’ she said, ducking beneath the outstretched arm of a biscuit seller. ‘That you never say things unless you intend to carry them out. You said that as long as I did what you told me, Artemis would live. I’ve tried to do everything you wanted and he is still in danger. You broke your word. I don’t think you have any honour.’
Silas stopped and spun around to face her. ‘You do not know me, Miss Winters. Do not pretend to.’
A handful of masked people stared at Silas, recognising him at once, and Kate heard them whispering together before they backed away. Word of his presence spread swiftly, the people parted around him and he forced his way past a sausage seller, almost toppling the terrified man’s cart as he made a sharp right turn down into an empty barrow alley.
‘When those wardens don’t report back, Da’ru will know something is wrong,’ shouted Kate, starting to get out of breath. ‘Her guards will be waiting for you. They will stop you before you even get close to her. You want Da’ru and I want Artemis. If we work together … maybe we can both get what we want.’
‘You are a bookseller,’ said Silas. ‘Whatever plan you think you have, it will not work.’
‘Da’ru still wants me, doesn’t she? What if we went to see her together, with me as your prisoner? How close would the guards let you get to her then?’
That got Silas’s attention. He stopped walking so suddenly that Kate almost bumped into him. ‘You would not suggest that if you knew the consequences,’ he said.
‘I don’t care about that.’
‘You should care. Da’ru is not the only one in the High Council who is interested in the workings of the veil. They know what you are now. They will never let you go once they have you. They will imprison you and experiment upon you, regardless of anything that happens to her.’
‘And what will they do to you for killing a councilwoman?’
Silas’s eyes grew darker. ‘Whatever happens, it will be worth it to see the look on Da’ru’s face when I send her into death,’ he said.
‘And your best chance of doing that, is with my help.’
‘Our help,’ said Edgar, panting up beside them. ‘Da’ru still has my brother. If there’s a chance I can help him, I have to do it. I don’t want to leave him behind again.’
‘I will not protect you. Either of you,’ said Silas. ‘It is of no interest to me if you live or die.’
‘We know that,’ said Kate.
‘Then you are both fools. But you are right. Presenting you as my prisoner would certainly get Da’ru’s attention.’
A dog’s fierce bark echoed above the music.
‘The wardens must not find us,’ Silas said. ‘Follow me.’
The barrow alley led into another part of the crowd and the flow of people carried them along so strongly that Kate lost sight of Silas as he raced ahead again, disappearing between a moving carriage and a masked juggler on horseback. She kept going, trying to spot him in the heaving crowd and Edgar pushed his way along beside her.
‘Can you see him?’ he shouted.
‘Where did he go?’
Kate spotted him at last, walking through a wide stone archway that linked two towers together. Beneath it, tucked just inside an alleyway, was a two-horse carriage decorated with black ribbons and paper skulls. The carriage still had a driver, but he was more interested in watching the crowd than in anything else going on around him. Silas crept up beside him, grabbed the whip and held it firmly to the man’s throat. Kate was too far away to hear what was said, but Silas talked while the driver just nodded nervously. She was expecting the worst, until Silas lowered the whip and the driver leaped down from his seat, fleeing into the night.
‘What did you say to him?’ she asked, running to the carriage.
‘I gave him a choice,’ said Silas. ‘He chose to live. Get in.’
Kate and Edgar climbed into the back of the carriage and Silas snapped on the reins, guiding the horses swiftly out into the busy streets. Kate looked out of the window at the leaning towers gathered around them, which looked much older and more decrepit than any she had seen before. ‘Is this the way to the council chambers?’ she asked. ‘I haven’t been in this part of the city before.’
‘We’re not going to the chambers,’ said Edgar. ‘Da’ru won’t be there tonight.’
‘Then where are we going?’
‘The city square. The High Council go there every year. That’s where Da’ru will be.’
Silas took the carriage down through the narrowest streets of the city, dodging the busiest areas and driving the horses along at a steady pace. He could have gone faster, but he did not want to draw attention to himself. No amount of prisoners would do him any good if he was captured by a warden patrol. He kept his eyes fixed straight ahead, concentrating on the task before him, until the four round towers marking the corners of the city square rose slowly into sight.
Fume’s main square was very different from the one in Morvane. It was edged by tall white-stoned buildings with arched roofs and high stained-glass windows and, instead of barrow alleys, the crowd entered through ornate stone tunnels that sloped gently upwards, decorated with carvings that looked centuries old. Silas took the carriage into one of them and stopped it a short way inside. ‘We’ll get out here,’ he said, speaking through the hatch behind his seat.
They abandoned the carriage behind another that had stopped in the same place and then they were part of the crowd again, squeezing along by candlelight into the bright fiery glow of the square.
Inside the straight edges of the outer buildings, Kate was surprised to see that the city square was not a square at all. It was a circle. The tunnel came out at the top of a long staircase, which led down to stepped galleries of wooden seats surrounding a sunken circle of stone. A huge bonfire was burning at one side of the circle, most of the seats were full, and the whole place rippled with noise as people began cheering and clapping at a line of polished black carriages that rolled into the circle through a pair of high arched doors. Kate remembered the vision of Da’ru she had seen in the council tower and knew that this was the night she had seen. The Night of Souls. It was actually happening.
‘Time to go,’ said Silas, clipping the silver chain back on to Kate’s wrist.
‘This wasn’t what we agreed!’ she said.
‘You are my prisoner, exactly as we agreed,’ said Silas. ‘Now walk.’
Kate heard four thuds as wardens closed heavy wooden doors across the mouths of the entrance tunnels. The stairways between the galleries were packed with people trying to find a seat before whatever was about to happen began. Silas forced a path through them, pulling Kate along so fast that Edgar was soon left behind, his face lost amongst a sea of strangers.
Down in the circle, the carriages’ passengers stepped out into the open air and twelve of the councilmen took their seats near the centre, surrounded by twice as many of their own personal guards. The thirteenth council member, Da’ru, walked over to a large stone table, ready to address the crowd, and anyone who was still on the stairs stopped where they were to listen to what she had to say.
‘Once again, we are together,’ she said, her voice carrying powerfully around the square as firelight reflected from a glass locket at her throat. ‘The war goes on, both outside our borders and now within, as those upon the Continent continue to challenge us for what is rightly ours. Our people fight to protect us, to defend our lives and preserve our history, but as we, the inhabitants of this ancient city, know only too well, no victory can be achieved without sacrifice.’
Silas and Kate came up against a tight group of people blocking their way. Da’ru signalled to her carriage and Tom climbed out, carrying a cage with a large bird flapping angrily inside.
‘Those upon the Continent think they can defeat us,’ said Da’ru. ‘But they have not yet seen our true strength. Our ancestors are always by our side. They guide us and watch us from a place beyond the veil. Once a year we ask them to reveal themselves, to lead us forward and show us our path. Tonight, I call upon them to honour us. To show us that they are here. To prove to us that Albion does not fight alone!’
Cheers exploded around the square. Many people stood up and the few who had brought drums beat them to a rousing rhythm that grew faster as Da’ru thrust her hand inside the cage and pulled the bird out by its neck. It pecked and scratched, cutting her arm, but Da’ru took no notice. The councilmen watched as she pinned the flapping bird against the tabletop and held a shining glass dagger high above her head.
‘Move!’ demanded Silas, forcing his way through the crowd.
That was his bird! His crow!
‘By the rite of black feather and red blood, I call to the ancestors. We are here. We are waiting. Show yourselves to us!’ Da’ru brought the blade down and plunged it into the struggling bird’s chest; with one last weak flap of its wings, it was dead.
The crowd fell silent. The drums slowed to a deep low beat and Da’ru held the crow’s limp body up for all to see. A drop of blood fell on to her necklace and the bonfire flared suddenly in a gust of strong wind. The flames rose, died a little and then rose again. It must have happened a hundred times since the fire had been lit, but the crowd cheered again even louder than before, taking it as a sign that their ancestors had answered Da’ru’s call.
‘The proof is given!’ she shouted. ‘We are protected!’
‘Councilwoman Da’ru!’ Silas’s voice thundered over the sounds of celebration as he reached the edge of the circle. Wardens closed in around him, but Da’ru, noticing that he had a prisoner, signalled for them to move away.
‘Let him through,’ she said.
People in the lowest seats fell quiet immediately and frightened whispers spread swiftly around the square. Every one of them knew the face and deeds of Silas Dane.
Kate followed Silas into the circle and halfway across it she felt something change. The air was different there. Dead and thin, like the air inside a tomb.
‘What are you doing here, Silas?’ Da’ru’s voice was calm and threatening. The crowd was too far away to hear her words, but the councilmen were listening with interest.
‘I have brought you what you asked for,’ said Silas. ‘The girl and the book.’
‘You have Wintercraft? Here with you now?’
‘The girl has it.’ Silas pulled Kate forward. ‘Show her.’
Kate pulled Wintercraft slowly out of her coat pocket and Silas took the precious book, handing it formally to the councilwoman.
‘I believed you had turned against me, Silas,’ said Da’ru. ‘I will admit, I did not expect to see any loyalty from you tonight.’
‘You command the circles,’ said Silas. ‘With Wintercraft, you can conduct the ritual of souls the way it was meant to be done. That is what you want, after all.’
‘I never should have let this out of my sight,’ said Da’ru. ‘And I should have kept a far closer eye on you from the beginning. Two mistakes that I shall not make again.’
Silas glanced at the dead crow on the table and his eyes narrowed, just for a second. Kate sensed his anger, but Da’ru was too busy turning through Wintercraft’s pages, making sure they were all intact. Once satisfied, she closed the book and spoke loud enough for everyone in the square to hear.
‘As many of you know, Silas Dane is one of Albion’s most loyal sons,’ she said. ‘He was once our greatest warrior and now he is our finest collector, ensuring that this country is kept safe from the few unwanted elements who still lurk within our midst. For generations the Skilled have chosen to hide in fear rather than stand at your side, yet I stepped forward, the only one among them willing to use the veil to help our country survive. Many of those cowards have since been hunted and captured because of Silas’s efforts. He has proven himself a hero to us many times over, but what you do not know is that Silas is far more than any ordinary man. He is unique.’ Da’ru walked right up to Silas, and Kate was sure he would take that chance to strike, but still he held back. ‘Silas has seen the very depths of the veil for himself. He has walked the path into death and he has survived.’
Half of the crowd cheered again, thinking that Da’ru’s speech was all part of the festivities, while the other half stayed quiet.
‘Twelve years ago, I witnessed Silas’s death. And, using knowledge passed down to me by our ancestors themselves, I changed his fate. I reached out to his spirit and returned it to our world.’
That was a lie. Kate watched Silas, waiting for him to say something.
‘Many of you may not believe me. But here, tonight, I shall prove it.’ Da’ru signalled to Tom, who ran along to the rear black carriage and opened its door. ‘You are all gathered here to see proof of life enduring beyond death. Proof which I, and the rest of the High Council, fully intend to provide.’
Two wardens stepped out of the carriage carrying someone awkwardly between them: someone slung in a blanket with a bloodied leg swinging out over the side.
‘This prisoner is a traitor,’ said Da’ru. ‘He has been found guilty of theft and of conspiracy against the High Council. For that, he deserves death. All traitors must face their executioner and this man shall be no different. But tonight, I intend to show mercy to this criminal. I have restored life to the dead once before and, once his rightful sentence has been carried out, to prove Albion’s strength beyond any doubt, I shall do it again.’
The crowd chanted together as the wardens rolled the prisoner out of the blanket and on to the table. ‘Traitor. Traitor. Traitor.’
His wrists were bound and he wriggled painfully as the wardens tied him down, leaving him powerless to do anything except look nervously around at the people surrounding him.
‘Artemis,’ whispered Kate.
Da’ru was already cleaning the crow’s blood from her blade. ‘Prepare him,’ she said.