There was a brief moment when he realized that Mag wore nothing but her scarred and bloody skin. He pulled off his scaled leather breast-piece and woollen tunic and handed her the latter, before pulling the former back on. He reached for the dagger that no longer existed, grasping at an empty sheath. Mag took a moment to spit upon the corpse of her former captor before she started toward the door. He took a deep breath and followed. He loosened his sore muscles as he walked, flexed his fingers and together they removed the heavy bar and opened the door.
He had expected a fight. Instead, an ocean of blood washed the hall floor, seeping into cracks in the tile. The ocean was littered with body parts, weapons, torn armour. The odour in the hall was near as bad as that which followed behind them and he once more fought the urge to gag. Mag stepped barefoot into that ocean, carefully picking her way past the larger pieces of what were once the two guards. He followed, plucking up a sword and sheath, which he wiped clean upon his breeches and attached to his person.
He had slowed down to affix his new gear and now with the sword steady in his hand he caught up to the sorceress. She was a strange sight as she walked quickly, hunched, ready for attack, her lips mumbling words that Cab could not hear. Her eyes were wide and wild, casting all about, she was bruised and ripped and bloodied and her hair was a hurricane of curls upon her head. Her hands still blackened, wandered up to her mouth to be bitten by small white teeth and the only clean part of her face were the runnels made by tears.
“No one will ever know,” she muttered with her fingers in her mouth. “Lost to obscurity. Wiped from history.” Of a sudden she stopped, spun round and took hold of Cab by the neck. He tensed, raised the sword in his hand and hesitated. Her grip upon him was not tight.
“They’re gone,” she hissed. “The Ghamiscar are gone forever. No one will ever know they existed.”
He nodded, lowered his sword and placed his free hand over hers.
“They’re gone,” he agreed. “But you and I will know.”
He did not think her eyes could have grown any wider or wetter. She looked as though she might crumple into tears.
“And now we must get the boys and be gone from this place,” he reminded her. “We can celebrate later, once we can see the sky.” He tried to smile encouragingly, but was uncertain of his efficacy. He felt as though his face did not remember how to smile.
“Celebrate,” she muttered, as her hands drifted away from his neck. Her spirit seemed to collapse and then to expand and all at once the thought of comparing her to a madman was almost obscene. Despite her appearance, or perhaps because of it, she drew herself up like the leader of a massing army pitted against a meagre opponent. She turned and headed off, and Cab followed.
They carried on through the many corridors, sounds of battle bouncing off the walls. There were many passages and Mag seemed master of them all. Though the clashing of weapons and the wailing of death and injury came to them through the air they met few kobalos, and those they did were no trouble for Cab’s quick blade. They paused well back from many a crossroads to witness an Orscan being overwhelmed by Nidrig, but each time were able to sneak by without being drawn in, or else to choose another path.
When at last they came to the throne chamber it seemed empty. A faint light filled the room from the pool of liquid fire off to one side. The battle between the heat of that fire and the chill from the chasm was marked. Cab could feel the heat of it as though he still hung suspended over it, and his shoulder’s ached in memory. There were some few dead littering the floor. The main throne was empty, but the seats behind it were filled with corpses of dead Ghamiscar, the flesh of their chests crisped and blackened, blown outward as if their hearts had been ripped out by a fiery-handed creature.
“Bansons!” Mag called as she moved to stand at the edge of the chasm. It was far too wide to leap, perhaps two or three times man-height across and as deep and black as Bella’s realm. Cab sheathed his sword, moved to stand beside the sorceress and called out to the princes.
“Ethamyn!” he cried, with a hand cupped around his mouth. “Cairbre!”
There was no response. He looked to the sorceress, who would not meet his gaze. She called out again, as did he, fear creeping into his chest. Had she lied to him? Were they really fallen deep into the chasm before him? Or had the space she placed them in not been as safe as she had supposed? What would he do if they were dead? What could he do? The fear had just begun to creep into his voice, to make it grow hoarse, when they heard movement from the other side. There came a clattering of stones and one of the orphan’s gaunt and pale face appeared from behind a pile of rubble. His hair was plastered to his weary forehead, but despite looking as if he had not eaten in many days there was a bright spark in his eyes that Cab could see even across the wide chasm.
“Banus?” Cairbre called. He stumbled and scurried over mounds of black rock, still clothed in the dirty rags the kobalos had wrapped him so tightly in. He came to the edge of the chasm and swayed there.
“Are you alright?” Cab called. “Where’s your brother?”
“He’s back there,” he gestured vaguely behind him. “We thought...” he seemed to choke on the words for a moment. Or perhaps it was tears. He shook his head, steadied himself upon a rock.
“Banus,” he said, his voice suddenly serious. “Can we go home?”
The longing in those words caught at something in Cab’s throat and he found he could not speak. No, they could not go home. He felt tears forming in the corners of his eyes. None of them could go home. But they could leave this Mortholmish place. He found his voice.
“Get your brother,” he called. “And we’ll leave this place.”
The boy scrambled back over the rocks and after a moment, reappeared with one hand upon his brother’s arm. They were both gaunt as street urchins, their princely fat worn away by gods only knew how many days without sustenance. They did not look like princes at all, but at least they had had some stores to live on. Cairbre led his brother to the edge of the chasm, where Ethamyn, in a state of unbelieving, promptly sat upon a rock.
“How do we get across?” Cairbre asked. His pale face seemed to glow with excitement. Ethamyn’s, on the other hand, was darkened by a scowl. Cab turned to Mag and took her arm in desperation.
“Quickly,” he cried. “Magic us all out of this place.”
She shook her head. “I cannot,” she whispered. “I am too weak.”
His heart dropped into the pit of his stomach. She had magicked them across the chasm and now she had nothing left to get them back. He quickly scanned the room for anything that might help and saw the chain that he had hung over the pit by. He moved to gather the chain, pulled it from the winch on which it was wound and brought it over to the side of the chasm.
“Hold this,” he said, passing one end to Mag. She shook her head but said nothing. He took up the other end and attempted to toss it to the other side. The chasm was too long. The chain too heavy. He pulled the chain up and tried again. And again. It was clearly not going to work and he ground his teeth in frustration, wanting to stamp his feet and shout. He pulled the chain up again and Mag put a hand upon his arm.
“There’s another way,” she said.
“How?” he asked.
“You must help me,” she said. “Together we can turn the chain into a bridge.”
“I thought you had no magic left.”
“I have little power left within me,” she admitted. “But you have some within you.”
He didn’t understand, but he was ready to try leaping across, so he nodded his assent.
“Throw it again,” she commanded, taking his free hand. He did so and she started the magic. He felt the thrill of power rush through her hand and into his. It rocketed up his arm, filled his chest. His lungs opened, his voice glowed.
There seemed to be a thin silvery line coursing around the chain, stretching it out so the links became longer, thinner. It edged its way across the chill, dark air and snapped taught when it reached the other side and attached itself to the stone there. The links of the chain had changed from fat as the palm of a man’s hand to thin as lace. The flow of the magic changed, the line began to thicken, sprouting vine-like arms that wrapped round and round the chain, making it thicker, brighter. It was thick now as it had been at first, thick as Cab’s arm, thick as a sapling and kept growing until it was thick as a healthy tree trunk. There it stopped, glowing bright and Mag squeezed his hand and motioned with the other for the boys to cross. Cairbre, face full of wonder, touched it gently with a toe, carefully put his weight on it and with a motion to his brother, began to make his way across. He was nearly halfway when he realized Ethamyn was not following. He swayed a moment over the chasm and then called for his brother. Cab could not break the spell to command them to hurry but he could feel the strength of the magic ebbing. Mag’s hand shook in his. He reached to the very depths of his reserves, pulling everything he had left into the song and praying to the Nameless One that it could hold, that the boys would hurry. Cairbre returned to the far edge, took hold of his brother in a firm grip and hauled him onto the bridge. The corners of Ethamyn’s lips turned down and he stuck out his chin in stubborn indignation but Cairbre simply hauled him with all his own stubborn strength. Cab reached out his hand, he could see the bridge shrinking, shrivelling back to its original form as the children raced across it. Instead of reaching out for the hand, Cairbre threw himself into Cab’s arms, dashing the spell as his brother stumbled onto solid ground and fell to his knees. The spell broke as Cab broke contact with Mag to hold the child in his arms. The chain reverted to it’s original form and slipped into the chasm. Mag collapsed on the edge of the chasm and Cab nearly fell over, though he could not be sure whether it was the sudden stop of the magic or if it was simply shock and weariness. Cairbre clutched at Cab with all the strength left within him, his arms tight around the man’s neck, his leg’s around his waist. It took a moment for Cab to recover from all this and he held the boy firm but gently. The boy’s body shook but it wasn’t until he gasped that Cab realized the child was crying, sobbing frantically. Ethamyn was on his knees, staring blackly at the prone form of Mag. Cab moved his hand up to rub Cairbre’s back.
“It’s okay,” he said quiet. “You’re okay now. Take a deep breath, calm yourself. We must still flee from this place.” It took a moment more before the boy gathered a deep breath and loosed his grip upon his warden. Cab set him down, looked him over.
“You’re alright?” he asked. Cairbre wiped the tears from his grimy face and nodded, though he seemed unable to speak for the moment. Cab turned to Ethamyn. “And you? Are you injured?”
“I was so hungry my stomach hurt,” he admitted softly. “But I don’t feel it anymore.”
“We’ll find food soon,” Cab said, though he was uncertain of anything really. He crouched beside the fallen sorceress, she seemed almost dead, the rise and fall of her chest was so very subtle. He reached out to be sure she was alive. When his hand touched her back she took a deep shuddering breath, turned her head to look at him. Her eyes had drained of colour, the pupil was small, the iris such a pale blue he thought it was white.
“I am empty,” she said, her voice distant, eyes glossy with tears. With great effort she managed to pull herself to a sitting position.
“Empty?” Cab asked.
She could not even nod her head. “My well of magic is deep. It has been a long time since it has been spent. I forgot how it felt.” She made a weak noise, shook a little. It took him a moment to realize she was attempting to chuckle. “I need to rest. To eat.”
He nodded. “Yes. And so we shall. As soon as we get out of this wretched place.” He took hold of her arm, felt the muscles within vibrating with weariness. He leaned closer, whispered in her ear so the children could not hear. “We still need you to get us out of here.” He pulled back and she held his gaze with hers for a moment. Tears welled in her eyes once more, she shook her head and turned away.
“I cannot,” she whispered. Her voice was so quiet he could hear the tear drops as they fell upon the stone floor.
“You must,” he replied. He took her by the arms, pulled her weakened form up to her feet, but she was not ready to stand and so he held her against his chest.
“You will not like me,” she cried, attempting weakly to pull away.
“Nonsense,” he whispered. He glanced down at the children. Ethamyn had been glaring, but turned his gaze away. Cairbre stared at nothing, too weak and exhausted to focus on that which was happening around him.
“You can stand,” he said to the sorceress. He did not know if it were his words alone that made it true, or if it was his tone that lent her strength but she pushed away, wavered a moment and then she was standing on her own.
“Very good,” came a familiar voice from behind Cab. His heart sank into his groin and he shuddered, prayed it was not so. His blood turned to ice as he turned to find Rottdokk standing before the throne. Rottdokk, who had no heart in his chest.
“You should be dead,” Mag said. She found she was unable to put any emotion into her voice. She felt as though she had no emotion left within her. She was an empty vessel. She hadn’t felt so useless in many long years.
“Why?” Rottdokk asked. “Because you destroyed the Heart-room?” He chuckled and patted his chest. His chest, which was covered with a mutilated form of the late king Hanesca’s brigandine. He had ripped the sides open so that it might fit him.
“You only did exactly as I had been planning to do for too long,” he related. “I thank you for your effort.” He gave a small bow, never taking his eyes off the humans. “You will be our rallying point, Luukt, we must defend our dear, dead Ghamiscar’s memory from the outsiders who destroyed him. You’ve made everything considerably easier for me.” He stepped back to seat himself upon the throne.
“Now I am Arr-Orscan.”
None had noticed the golden circlet in his hand until he placed it on his head, nestled between his sets of horns; the golden circlet of hawks with their ruby eyes agleam. The crown of Ur. Cab’s muscles shook with frustration and weariness. The gods, he thought, were trying to destroy him.
“You cannot defeat him,” Mag whispered.
“That is my crown!” Ethamyn cried, with all the stubborn arrogance of his birthright. So, it had not been starved out of him.
“He wears our father’s brigandine,” Cairbre muttered.
And carries my father’s sword, Cab thought, recognizing the belt and sheath wrapped around the creature’s waist, the dull pommel and well worn grip.
“Is it?” Rottdokk replied to Ethamyn’s claim, standing as he did so. “Well, come and get it then.”
The boy had enough courage to take a step forward. His warden had enough sense left to stop him, with a hand upon his shoulder. The heir scowled up at Cab, who broke the scowl with a hard look upon his face and a slight shake of his head. Rottdokk took a step toward them, pulled Odras from her sheath and tested her weight in his hand.
“I have seen a man fight with a sword and a dagger,” he said. A dagger appeared in his hand and disappeared again. He reached back and hefted his serrated, cleaver-like sword from where it sat beside the throne, in his other hand.
“But only a god can wield two swords.” He lifted them over his head, crossing the blades in the sign of Veinar Agis, the god of war.
“I thought the gods were on my side,” Cab muttered. His hand shook as he reached for his borrowed sword. He felt as though it would turn to dust the moment it touched another weapon.
“The god of war plays both sides,” Mag stated. “You cannot fight him and win. We must run.”
His muscles felt like jelly. He did not think he could do anything, run or fight, but he had to protect the princes. He had made a vow.
“Take the children,” he said quietly. “There is a monastery, three days north, one north east. The men there worship the Eye. They will keep and protect you.”
She took hold of the back of his scaled leather breast-piece and pulled at him.
“Don’t be a fool,” she hissed. “You will give yourself to the Dark Lady and gain nothing!”
“Go,” he told her.
“They are pieces of metal and leather,” she cried. “Our lives are worth more!”
“Go,” he repeated and tried to shake her hand off. She would not let go. He turned to see tears streaming down her cheeks. She was taking short, gasping breaths.
“You’ll kill us all, if you do this,” she warned.
“Well, child?” Rottdokk snarled at the heir, standing ready.
“Give us the crown and you may live,” Ethamyn stated. He hardly glanced at his warden.
“Take it from me,” Rottdokk taunted. “If you can.”
The boy took a few steps forward and stopped.
“Ethamyn,” Cab warned, trying to ignore the hysterics of the sorceress. “What are you doing?”
“What you are too blind to do,” he replied. Rottdokk started to laugh, a terrible hissing sound. The boy began to sing.
“The spring wind blows so softly,
a fresh free flowing breeze,
that crashes waves upon the shore
with simple, careless ease.”
Rottdokk hissed and snarled. “You cannot weaken me with song,” he growled, though his posture had changed. His straight back had bent just a little. His hard mouth pulled down at the corners and he adjusted his grip on one sword ever so slightly.
“How quickly it springs back again.
How neat, and soft, and slow,
to drown the green upon the shore
the spring wind that does blow!”
“My mother was a Lauklanner,” Rottdokk spat, his voice slightly off from his accustomed deep rumble. “A human! You cannot weaken me with a child’s song!”
The boy swallowed a lump in his throat. He could feel his heart beating like a jackrabbit’s foot upon his chest. The creature before him was a thing of his worst nightmares, but already he had suffered more than he had ever thought he would. He was weak and weary and nothing seemed real. He felt he could take no more. Either this creature would kill him, here and now, or he would somehow defeat it and he did not care which it was. Rottdokk laughed. Ethamyn started the song again.
Rottdokk’s scarred face twisted into further ugliness and he charged at the boy. Cab leapt between them, put all his weight against the beast, slicing at his exposed thighs. It was like a fly on a horse’s back. The creature barrelled past, straight at the prince and Cab was too slow to stop him. Mag snatched at the child at the last minute, pulling him away before Rottdokk could adjust his course. He stopped on the edge of the precipice, his momentum checked before he could fall. He paused a moment, turned his fiery gaze back. Mag pushed the children behind her and stood before him, a dagger in her hand and a hollow feeling within her. There was only one thing that could be done with an empty vessel and that was to fill it. Even if it destroyed that intangible bond that had grown between her and the warrior. Even if it killed her. At least she had been given that small reprieve, an ort of freedom, a dram of human contact. Rottdokk looked to his belt, to the empty dagger sheath there and gave a low laugh.
“You think you can best me with a dagger?” he laughed.
“You will not die today,” she replied and plunged the dagger into her own palm with a high wail upon her lips.
Blood calls to blood, a voice whispered that all could hear.
Cab could not be sure if the voice had been in his head or all around them. The dark blood that had seeped from the wound upon Rottdokk’s thighs rose up in a thin stream and quicker than he could see, wrapped itself, cord-like around his ankles, his knees, slapped his arms to his sides and held him still. The swords fell from his grip as he shook and raged against the bonds. He let out a snarling roar, cut off in a gurgle as blood stoppered his throat and dripped off his lips.
“Hurry!” Mag moaned. Cab was too shocked to move. He had never been comfortable with magic, but this was a dark thing indeed. The magic of blood was the reason magic had been outlawed in the first place. It made his stomach turn, his head ache, his eyes grow dim. Blood poured from the wound in her hand. It dripped down her arm, off her elbow and spattered the floor and her bare, bruised legs. To Ethamyn, this greatest violation was merely icing atop the other horror’s the sorceress had committed. He stepped forward, lifted his hand up toward the crown. The blood bonds bent the beast forward so that the boy could pull the crown from atop it’s head. Rottdokk snapped his jaws at the boy, splattering blood upon his face, but Ethamyn ignored it. Nothing seemed real to him anymore.
Cairbre was terrified, and overawed by the fearlessness of his brother. The heir turned with the crown in one hand and a truly regal look in his eyes. He took his brother’s hand.
“Atholine,” he said in a sure and steady voice. He did not wait for his warden to respond, but walked toward the nearest doorway, confident, with his brother’s hand in his.
Cab was knocked out of his state of horror by the sound of his family name. He plucked up Odras and kicked the other blade into the chasm. Blood seemed to fill his vision as he stumbled past the sorceress. She pulled the dagger out of her palm and clenched her bloody fist. The blood swept up from the floor, up her arm, to coalesce atop her palm. She opened the fist and the blood formed a ball in her hand. It was wrong, so wrong. Cab felt everything within him rebelling against his vision, he did not want to be near her, to touch her, but he reached out a hand anyway. Somewhere deep inside him, some sensible part still remained that knew they could not leave Oomglaken without her.
Her face was white, drained. He took her arm, the one that held the bloody dagger, though bile rose in his throat, and he dragged her away after the children. Ethamyn led them, quick yet resolute, walking as though he knew the way, as though he were ruler here. Cairbre allowed himself to be led and hoped he would wake from this nightmare soon. Cab dragged the sorceress, who could neither see nor hear nor barely stand, whose entire body seemed awash with deep red blood. Yet she gripped the dagger in her hand as if it were a lifeline, and the bloody ball in her other wobbled and fluxed. Blood bloomed in Cab’s vision, and an icy darkness seemed to creep from her, from his grip upon her upper arm, to steal over him, to darken and numb his very soul. He felt the corruption of everything he thought he had stood for, felt as though he had opened the door to a realm darker than Bella’s own and thrown himself haphazardly within. He did not want to see where they were going, did not want to live in his own body anymore. He tried to escape, tried to let go, to stumble off, to die. But he could not ease his grip upon her, could not stop his feet from pulling them forward and he could not stop the devastation that she caused. The devastation which was their only means of escape.