He had found the late king’s brigandine, a magnificently crafted piece of armour that fit him as well as it had the man it was made for. A padded leather jacket covered in red velvet, sewn up with steel plates, with a knee length skirt that split to the waist to allow for ease of movement, particularly for riding a horse. It had been worn, but only for ceremonial purposes and so it was as sharp as new. He had found matching vambraces and boots, all decorated with hawks embroidered in white-gold. He still wore the chain shirt under it all, better safe than sorry, and had not found any suitable head covering, of which he was sorry, but it was the finest piece of armour he had come across and would serve him well, he hoped.
He’d also managed to find his father’s claymore, Odras, and had strapped her to his back in the Tunji style. The dagger, he had called Hiss, was back in her sheath.
“Gods,” Innogen cried as he entered the room as silently as he could. “I thought you were Hanesca.” The princes stood behind her, the same look of shocked horror upon their faces. One boy’s face twisted in hatred.
“He’s wearing father’s armour,” he sneered in disgust.
“We haven’t time for this foolishness now,” Innogen said to the boy. “Come. We’ve got to hurry.”
Cab led the way back into the secret passages, with Innogen close behind, one hand clutching Cairbre’s hand, as he held tight to Ethamyn.
“You shine like a beacon in that armour,” Innogen hissed at him. “Could you not have found something less bright?”
“There was little time,” he said softly. “Those black clad men slink through your castle like shadows. They’re looking for you and your children, I thought I should not let them find you.”
“How courteous of you.”
They continued to creep through the dark passageways, the buzzing feeling, the power and perception Cab had felt earlier were replaced with a sickness deep in the pit of his belly. Jaw clenched, throat tight, he tried to keep his breath even, to calm the heavy beating of his heart. He was glad they walked through darkness, did not want this woman and her children to see what he felt.
The air around them changed, became less hot and close, indicating an area of openness. There was the faintest light, as through cracks in the stone and they could see a little more than they had. The queen and her children were now bare silhouettes in the darkness. Somewhere here, was another long passage, one that led to the rear of the castle, to a secret door, and escape.
Cab turned to Innogen, opened his mouth to speak when a piece of the shadows beside him broke off from the rest, formed itself into the shape of a man. A man whose smile glinted in the faint light, but not so well as the longsword in his hand.
“Cantan,” Innogen gasped, shoving the children behind her and swinging the heavy headed sceptre with all the fear within her. Cantan leaped nimbly back, out of the sceptre’s range, but Cab was not so fast, and took the brunt of the blow to his chest. He staggered back and fell against a wall, gasping to catch his breath.
“Cantan, please,” Innogen tried. “Not our children.”
He laughed. “How many men have you tried that on, Inni?” he asked. “Have you fallen for it yet, Atholine?”
Innogen snarled then, hissing and rasping out words in a strange language, but before she had begun Cantan thrust the sword at her with one lazy motion, causing her to shriek like a hawk.
Darkness allied to no man, Cab found himself with Odras in his hands, pushing back at a man he could hardly see. They were a pair who had fought far too often, men who knew each other as they knew themselves and for a moment that stretched longer than it had any right to, they were young boys again, practising sword forms together. Unseeing, guided only by the sound of their swords striking and sometimes a few bare sparks, they danced a dance that was theirs alone.
The moment broke when Odras twisted out of her prescribed motion and, as if guided by the hand of another, struck Cantan a hard blow to the chest. His armour stopped the blow from being deadly, but knocked the breath out of him. Cab pulled away, the darkness around him slowed, clarity returned, the power of Veinar Agis flooding into him, filling him as it had before. It broke the darkness with an almost audible crack, filled the world with crystal light and Cantan’s very intentions glowed. As he leaped forward with a snarl Cab did what neither of them expected. He gambled, threw the heavy claymore at his opponent, which so surprised the man that he loosened his grip enough to lose his own sword. They went clattering away into a corner and Cab moved with a speed he did not think possible, striking Cantan blow after blow with the dagger. Most of his strikes hit mail or the plates sewn into Cantan’s britches, but some broke flesh until he fell to his knees. Cab kicked him so that his head cracked against the wall and he fell limp to the floor. He stepped forward, crouched beside him and took up his head by hair sticky with blood, laying the dagger at his throat.
“Cab,” came a strangled cry, breaking the spell and bringing back the darkness. “Stop.”
He turned and in the fading, last moments of vision, saw Innogen, leaning heavily on one child, stumbling off down the last long hall. Cantan’s hair slid through his fingers as he stood. He wiped his hands and blade upon the man’s chest, found Odras and caught up with the queen.
“Innogen,” he said, walking behind, trying not to trip over a child.
“I’m fine,” she said.
“I’m fine,” she repeated. Cab could have argued. But what good would it do? Down here, they were so close to their escape, they could not turn back now and risk being caught, only to find the Serenity. Once Innogen stated a fact she was not wont to repeal it. Even if he picked her up and tried to carry her back she would fight him. There was nought for it but to carry on. He pushed ahead, led the way with his hands twitching at every stray sound that carried through the cold stone.
Through the darkness that grew colder at every step, the walls beaded with condensation, the world around them strangely quiet. They must be nearing the rear of the castle, above them would be kitchens. Cab wondered if the cooks were going about business as usual, preparing bread and soup and tea and generally making ready for the day, or if they had all been killed by Cantan’s men. For it seemed to him that Cantan must be the mastermind behind this silent assault. Only a man as sly, who knew the castle as well and who had reason enough to want the queen dead could have pulled this off in this way. Cab wondered if Cantan had arranged for the Chapel to burn as well, the perfect distraction. And was the defeat of Mornwor troops a part of it? Was Cantan working with the Man-Eaters or was he merely striking while the iron was hot?
He was jarred from these thoughts when he hit a dead end.
“It would appear we’ve come to the end,” he said, hands roving over the wall in front of him. It seemed to be a door, at least there was a cross beam blocking it. The heavy oak beam seemed to have grown into the iron fastenings and it took a good deal of noisy coaxing before he was able to remove it. And then there was the door. He tried to think back to his youth, when Innogen first showed him this secret passage, this escape. The door had been round, if he recalled correctly, with an iron ring in the centre. Yes, there, he could feel the ring, cold and smooth in his hands and he gave it a great yank.
It didn’t move. He pulled harder, listening to Innogen murmuring quietly to her children. He put his whole strength into the next tug upon the iron ring and the door opened a crack letting in the first light of morning and a great gust of wind that seemed to scream as it flew through the crack. Cab inched his fingers into the crack and forced the door the rest of the way open, its entire being squealing in protest, to match the cries of the wind, and then turned to look upon his charges.
Innogen stood, clutching one boy’s shoulder with a white-knuckled grip, her other hand upon the wall, face bone white. The wind howled past, ripping stray hairs from their binding, streaming the dressing gown out behind her and plastering the night dress to her form. A dark wet patch stuck to her belly.
“Mother,” Cairbre cried, tears springing to his eyes at the sight of her. “You’re hurt!”
“You have to take us back,” Ethamyn demanded of Cab. “She needs the Serenity.”
“We can’t go back,” Innogen said. “Only forward. Go. Carefully.”
“But Mother,” Cairbre whined.
“I said go!” she snapped, and pushed him forward. His brother took his arm and together they faced the edge of the cliff and the steep and unkempt stair that was their only option. It was a two league descent down that wind and wave carved cliff side, with a narrow set of steps barely used and nearly worn away by the elements where it was not taken over by hardy scrub plants. Their terror for their mother was replaced by fear for their own lives and Ethamyn felt his brother go rigid with it.
“Come on,” he said gently and took the first step, still holding his brother’s hand. The wind blew hard and the cold off the ocean and the distance did not stop the icy spray of waves from reaching them and wetting the steps.
“Where is the sceptre?” Cab asked suddenly. “Heal yourself.”
She dropped her eyes to the ground, leaning now only upon the wall, but said nothing.
“Stop the wind and the waves,” he was getting angry now. “You can make this easier, why won’t you?” She only shook her head and turned to look back over her shoulder.
“I dropped it,” she said softly.
“I’ll get it,” he said turning to stride back into that darkness. But she grabbed his arm and nearly fell.
“It’s too late,” she said. “They’re behind us. And I cannot...” Her knees buckled and hit the ground before he could catch her. She groaned as he moved to haul her up by the waist without thinking. She took to her feet but was leaning too heavily upon him now and touched her belly with shaking fingers. He reached out to touch her wound but she stayed him with bloody hands. The blood upon her dress was too dark and glistened with moisture. No doubt most of the blood was running down her legs, she had likely left a trail of it. If they were being followed it would not be difficult.
“Gods,” he breathed.
“Bella is threading her needle,” Innogen whispered.
“Then I have failed to protect you. I’ve broken my vow.”
She shook her head. “The children.” She fell against him.
“Onward, then,” he said, lifting her into his arms, he took the first careful step. The wind buffeted them, howled murder against the opening in the rock. Like the ghosts of the dead taunting them to fall and join their ranks. The princes were making a careful way forward, like very young children navigating stairs for the very first time, they sat the steps, crawling down them feet first.
Innogen’s breathing was so shallow he could hardly keep track of it over the noise of the wind. He doubted she would survive the descent, but tried to hurry. The steps were slick with spray from the ocean and the children were clutching at each step as though they could get a good grip on flat stone. They had travelled perhaps half a league when Innogen’s eyes flew wide and she gasped, “Archers.”
Cab didn’t need to stop and turn to know they were there above, in the doorway. He could hear the changing of the wind as the doorway was filled.
“They cannot hit us in this wind,” he said as an arrow struck the rock far to the left of his foot and fell away into the ocean. “Father of Winds forbid.” He tried to step more lively.
“You forsake the Dreamer,” Innogen breathed. “For a dead god.”
“If He was dead,” Cab reasoned. “So too would I be. I do not think it was Dreamer that stilled your hand against me.”
“No,” she said. “Dreamer is no friend to a queen.”
“So you have forsaken her as well,” he said.
“It is to Mag Rand Am that I pray now,” she whispered. “Lay me in Her arms.”
“You can never be reborn if you lay with the Lady of the Waters.”
He supposed the sound she made next was some attempt at a laugh. It was weak and full of blood though. “So well we remember our lessons. I care not for rebirth. All I care is that my children live to rule this land, as is their birthright. You must see that they do, Cab. You are the only one left who can keep the name of Ur from utter destruction.”
“The name of Ur,” he mused. Her eyes, once vibrant blue now fading as her life drained away, searched his and he wondered if it was a madness that he saw within them.
There came a whistling and a rush of air like the breath of the gods as an arrow flew past his head. The wind broke it against the stone. He closed his eyes a moment but opened them quickly for the world had begun to spin around him as he did and he feared to lose his balance. It was still a long and rocky descent and he had vows to keep. He took a breath and attempted to adjust the queen in his arms, for his muscles were beginning to cramp, but as he did she let out a cry like a downed hawk. He muttered an apology as he confirmed his grip upon her. The children below him stopped and turned black stares upon him. He was shocked and not for the first time at their faces, for they were the face of Ur through and through but for the eyes. Eyes as black as his own.
“Keep going,” he shouted to them. “Faster!”
“You’ll kill them,” she whispered.
“We’ll all die if those archers get any closer,” he snapped, nearly loosing his footing as his emotions took hold of him. He hadn’t thought her face could get any paler, it bore almost the same waxy sheen of a corpse.
“Promise me, Cab,” she whispered. “Promise to keep them alive and safe. They need your help to retake the throne.”
“I’ve already vowed upon my blood to protect them,” he cried. “What more can I offer you?”
“A promise,” she sighed. “Differs from a blood vow.”
“I don’t see how,” he said.
“The vow was forced. A promise comes from the heart.”
He was silent for a while as he negotiated the path. The wind blew cold in his ears and the waves reached long fingers of spray to coat him lightly in salt water. The queen’s silken garments fluttered as though they would escape, or perhaps carry her away from her fate. It was difficult to watch his step though and he had to use all the powers of steady footing he had learned as a swordsman and a hunter. Still there were times when he thought he would slip and fall to his death, or trip and twist his ankle, which would be death just as likely. He watched the boys in front of him, as identical in clothing now as they were in their faces. Only in their mannerisms could he determine a difference, and he was still so new to them that though he may tell that they were different he could hardly determine which was which. They bore the faces of their mother and grandfather, pale flesh and sharp bone structure and the prominent curved nose like to the animal of Ur. But in all the generations of Ur he had never heard of a single ancestor that did not have eyes as blue as the ocean. And theirs were black.
“Whose children are they?” he asked.
“They are mine,” she replied.
“The father,” he insisted.
“You know,” she said. “You can see it.”
He said nothing for a long while, his mind roving over uncertain memories. Hanesca Neevarra, late king, a man as large in stature as Cab himself, older, born of the mountains, raised to his position by his own hands, quick of wit but what of his eyes? Cab could not recall whether they were dark or light, for few men looked the king in the eye. Cantan’s eyes were dark, but not as black as his own. Were the prince’s eyes really so black as his or was it just a trick of the light? He had been gone just shy of ten years... was it really possible? Was he the father of princes or was it merely another manipulation?
“Can’t you see?” she whispered. “They need you.”
“You know,” he insisted. “You know who their father is. Tell me.”
She fumbled round his neck and pulled out the Eye, sigil of the Nameless One.
“He is their father,” she said. “Would you protect His children?”
He was struck by the memories of earth that the eye made him recall, of dirt under fingernails, green shoots, the buzzing of bees, the soft comforting sound of men chanting prayers before the sun rises, of black beer and bread, the smell of manure, the baying of sheep, laughter, sunlight, healing. And then the dream of that place, of looking out the window and seeing himself taken by the dark shadow that is death. And the one eyed giant who must surely have been a god.
“I will protect his children,” he said softly. “I owe him that much.”
She sighed and eased her grip on the sigil, a smile playing at the corners of her lips. Her breathing continued, though it was shallow.
By the time he reached the bottom of the stair her breathing had ceased.