Extract from Nightchild

Nightchild by James BarclayThe covered carriage rattled along the western edge of Thornewood, heading in the direction of Varhawk Crags on a rutted and overgrown trail. Wheels bounced off stone, wood protested and metal bolts screeched in their stays. The driver urged his pair of horses on, snapping the reins and shouting his encouragement as they dragged their unstable load at a speed that could only have one outcome.

But not just yet.

With every bump in the trail thudding through his lower back, the driver turned to look over his shoulder.

Through the cloud of dust the carriage threw up, he could see them closing. Six on horseback, eating up the distance, their pace unimpeded by ground that played havoc with wheels.

He’d seen them closing over half the day, his sharp eyes picking them out almost as soon as they had spotted him and begun the chase. At first, he hadn’t had to gallop but, as the afternoon had worn on, it became clear that his pursuers would ride their horses to death to catch him. He wasn’t surprised. What they believed to be inside the carriage was worth the lives of far more than a few mares.

He smiled, turned back to the trail and snapped the reins again. Above him, a fine day was clouding as dusk approached and already the light was beginning to fade. He scratched his chin and stared down at his horses. Sweat poured from their flanks and foamed beneath leather straps. Heads bounced as they drove on, eyes wide and ears flat.

‘Well done,’ he said. They had given him all the time he needed.

He glanced back again. They were within a hundred yards. A thud signalled the first arrow to strike the carriage. He breathed deep; it had to be now.

Keeping low, he dropped the reins and launched himself on to the back of the right hand horse, feeling the heat through his hands and legs and hearing their exertion.

‘Steady now,’ he said. ‘Steady now.’

He patted the horse’s neck and drew his dagger. It’s edge was keen and with one quick slash, he cut the carriage reins. Another and the leather binding the yoke dropped away. He kicked the horse’s flanks and it sprang right, away from the carriage which, with the other horse still attached, slowed dramatically and veered left. He prayed it wouldn’t overturn.

Unhitching the single reins from where they were tied around the bridle, he fought briefly for control and leaned close to his mount’s neck, putting quick distance between himself and the carriage. When he heard the shouts behind him, he reined in and turned.

The enemy were at the carriage. It’s doors were opened and riders circled it, their voices angry, filled with recrimination. He knew they could see him but he didn’t care. They wouldn’t catch him now; but more than that, he had taken them away from their quarry. Half a day’s ride following an empty carriage. And now they at least, would never find what they were looking for.

No time for self-congratulation though. These were just six incompetents he had fooled. There were far cleverer enemies still in the hunt and they would not make their intentions so obvious.

* * *

Erienne looked down at her daughter, dozing fitfully in her lap, and wondered for the first time whether she had not undertaken a monumental folly. The first day in Thornewood had been easy enough. Lyanna had been high-spirited and they’d sung walking songs as they’d travelled south and the sun dappled forest had smelled clean, fresh and friendly. That first night had been a real adventure for Lyanna, sleeping in the open, covered by her mother’s cloak and guarded by her alarm wards. And as Lyanna had slept, Erienne had gone further, tuning to the mana spectrum and tasting its chaos, looking for signs that all was not well. Not that Erienne had considered them in any danger that night. She trusted that the Guild knew what they were doing and would look after them. And though wolves ran in Thornewood, they were not known to take human flesh. And she, as a mage of Dordover, had more defence than many.

But on this second day, the atmosphere had changed. Deeper into the woods, the canopy above thickened and they walked in shadow much of the time, their moods lifting only when the sun breached through to lighten the ground at their feet. Their songs and chatter had become sporadic and then ceased altogether. And though Erienne fought to find things to say or point out to her increasingly anxious daughter, she found her efforts fell on deaf ears or died on her lips as she looked into Lyanna’s fearful eyes.

And the truth was, she felt it too. She understood, or thought she understood, why they were having to walk alone. But her faith in the Guild was quickly diminishing. She had expected some contact but had had none; and now every twig that cracked and every creak of a tree in the wind made her jump. She strained for the sounds of the birds and used their song to boost Lyanna’s spirits. After all, she had lied, if the birds sing, there can be no danger.

Erienne had kept a smile on her face though she knew Lyanna was only half-convinced to carry on. Even so, the little girl tired quickly and so they had stopped in the late afternoon, Erienne resting her back against a moss covered tree trunk while Lyanna dozed. Poor child. Only five years old and running for her life, if she but knew it.

Erienne stroked her long black hair and edged her doll out from where it was making an uncomfortable dent in her cheek. She looked out into the forest. The sound of the breeze through the trees and the shadowy branches waving above them felt somehow malevolent. She imagined the wolf pack closing in and shook her head to free herself of the vision. But they were being followed. She could feel it. And she couldn’t free herself from the thought that it wasn’t the Guild.

Her heart was suddenly pounding in her chest and a sudden panic gripped her. Shadows flickered in front of her, taking on human form and flitting around the periphery of her vision, always just out of reach. Her mouth was dry. What in all the God’s names were they doing here? One woman and a little girl. Pursued by a power too great for them to combat. And they’d put their lives in the hands of total strangers who had surely abandoned them.

Erienne shivered though the afternoon was warm, the motion disturbing Lyanna who woke and looked up at her, eyes searching for comfort but finding none.

‘Mummy, why do they just watch? Why don’t they help us?’

Erienne was silent until Lyanna repeated the question, adding, ‘Don’t they like us?’ She chuckled then and ruffled Lyanna’s hair.

‘How could anyone not like you? Of course, they like us, my sweet. I think maybe they have to be apart from us to make sure no one bad finds us.’

‘When will we get there, Mummy?’

‘Not long, my darling. Not long. Then you can rest easy. We must be getting closer.’ But her words sounded hollow to her and the wind through the trees whispered death.

Lyanna looked sternly at her, her chin carrying a slight wobble.

‘I don’t like it here, Mummy,’ she said.

Erienne shivered again. ‘Neither do I, darling. Do you want to find somewhere better?’

Lyanna nodded. ‘You won’t let the bad people get me, will you?’

‘Of course not, my sweet.’

She helped Lyanna to her feet, shouldered her pack and they moved off, direction south as they had been told. And as they walked, their pace hurried by the phantoms that they felt closing in, Erienne tried to remember how The Unknown Warrior or Thraun would have shaken off pursuers. How they would have covered tracks, moved carefully over the ground and laid false trails. She even wondered whether she could carry Lyanna within a CloakedWalk, rendering them both invisible. A tiring and draining exercise that would be.

She smiled grimly. It was a new game for Lyanna and it might just keep her happy but it was a game they were playing for the highest of stakes.

* * *

They moved through the forest with no little skill but beneath the canopy, elves missed nothing. Ren’erei confessed surprise at their ability, the silence with which they moved and their efforts to leave no trace of their passing. She even respected the route they chose, moving often away from the trail left to throw off any who might follow.

And for most pursuers it would have worked. But Ren’erei and Tryuun were born to the forest and detected every nuance of change brought upon it by the passage of humans. A splayed leaf crushed into the mulch; loose bark brushed from the bole of a tree at a telltale height; the pattern of twig splinter lying on the ground. And for these particular people, a shadow at odds with the sun through the canopy, eddies in the air and the altered calls of woodland creatures.

Ren’erei went ahead, Tryuun covering his sister from a flank at a distance of twenty yards. The two elves had followed the signs for a full day, closing steadily but never allowing a hint to their quarry that they were being followed.

She moved in a low crouch, eyes scanning her route, every footfall of her light leather boots sure and silent, her mottled brown and green cloak, jerkin and trousers blending with the sun-dappled forest environs. They were close now. The woodchucks nesting in the tall pines ahead had sounded a warning call, bark dust floated in the still air close to the forest floor, and in the dried mud underfoot, tufts of grass moved gently, individual stalks recovering from the force of a human foot.

Ren’erei stopped beside the wide trunk of a great old oak, placing one hand on it to feel its energy and holding the other out, flat-palmed, to signal Tryuun. Without looking, she knew her brother was hidden.

Ten yards ahead of him, local turbulence in the air, signified by the eddying of bracken and low leaves, told of a mage under a CloakedWalk. The mage was moving minutely to avoid becoming visible even momentarily and again Ren’erei paused to enjoy the skill.

Her fingers all but brushing the ground, Ren’erei crossed the space, identifying the patches of shadow and building a picture of the mage. Tall, slender and athletic but unaware of his or her mortal position. The elf was silent, her movement disturbing nothing, the woodland creatures comfortable with her presence among them.

At the last moment, she slid her knife from its leather sheath, stood tall, grabbed the mage’s forehead and bent the skull back, slitting his throat in the same movement. She let the blood spurt over the vegetation and the man shuddered his last, too confused to attempt to cry out in alarm. The Cloak dropped to reveal black, close-fitting clothes and a shaven head. Ren’erei never looked at their faces when she killed this way. The look in their eyes, the surprise and disbelief made her feel so guilty.

She laid the body down face first, cleaned and re-sheathed her knife and signalled Tryuun to move. There was another out there, Erienne and Lyanna were running scared and the day would soon be done.

* * *

Denser sat in the fireside chair in the cold study, an autumnal wind rattling the windows. Leaves flew across the dull grey sky but the chill outside was nothing to that inside the Xeteskian mage who sat in Dordover’s Tower.

The moment the Dordovan envoy had arrived on horseback to speak with him and ask him to come to the College, he had known circumstances were dire. The dead weight in the pit of his stomach and dragging at his heart hadn’t shifted since but had deepened to a cold anger when he discovered that it had taken them six weeks to agree he should be called.

Initially, he’d been disappointed Erienne hadn’t tried to contact him by Communion but breaks of weeks between touchings weren’t uncommon and now, he realised ruefully, sheer distance might be stopping her even making the attempt.

He folded the letter in his hands and pushed it into his lap before looking up at Vuldaroq. The fat Dordovan Tower Lord, dressed in deep blue robes gathered with a white sash, was sweating from the exertion of accompanying Denser to Erienne’s rooms. He shifted uncomfortably under the other’s stare.

‘Six weeks, Vuldaroq. What the hell were you doing all that time?’

Vuldaroq patted a cloth over his forehead and back on to his bald scalp. ‘Searching. Trying to find them. As we still do. They are Dordovan.’

‘And also my wife and child, despite our current separation. You had no right to keep her disappearance from me for even one day.’

Denser took in the study, its stacks of tied papers, its books and parchments arranged in meticulous fashion on the shelves, its candles and lamp wicks trimmed, a toy rabbit sitting atop a plumped cushion. So completely unlike Erienne who delighted in untidiness where she worked. She hadn’t gone against her will, that was clear. She’d cleaned up and intended to be away for a long time. Maybe for good.

‘It is not as simple as that,’ said Vuldaroq carefully. ‘There are procedures and processes – ‘

Denser surged from the chair to stand eye to eye with the Tower Lord.

‘Don’t even think of trying that horseshit with me,’ he grated. ‘Your Quorum’s damned pride and politics has kept me away from the search for the woman I love and my daughter for six bloody wasted weeks. They could be absolutely anywhere, by now. What exactly have your searches turned up?’

Denser could see the beads of sweat forming on Vuldaroq’s red, bulbous face.

‘Vague clues. Rumoured sightings. Nothing certain.’

‘It’s taken you six weeks to find out “nothing certain” The entire and considerable might of Dordover?’ Denser stopped, seeing Vuldaroq’s squinted gaze dart momentarily away. He smiled and stepped away a little, half-turning, his fingers playing idly with a stack of papers. ‘She really took you by surprise, didn’t she? All of you.’ He gave a short laugh. ‘You never had any idea that she might leave or where she might go, did you?’

Vuldaroq said nothing. Denser nodded.

‘So what did you do? Send mages and soldiers to Lystern? Korina? Blackthorne? Even Xetesk perhaps. Then what. Scoured the local woodland, sent word to Gyernath and Jaden?’

‘The search area is large,’ said Vuldaroq carefully.

‘And with all your great wisdom, none of you had the wit to know her well enough to consider in which direction she might have headed, did you?’ Denser tutted and tapped his head, enjoying for a moment, Vuldaroq’s embarrassment. ‘No instinct, was there? And so you sent for me, someone who might know.

But you left it so very, very late. Why is that, Vuldaroq?’

The Dordovan Tower Lord wiped the cloth over his face and hands before pocketing it.

‘Despite your relationship to both Erienne and Lyanna, they were both under the care of Dordover,’ said Vuldaroq. ‘We have a certain image to uphold, protocols to observe. We wanted them returned to us with the minimum of apparent…fuss.’ He spread his hands wide and tried a half-smile.

Denser shook his head and moved forward again. Vuldaroq took a pace back, struck his leg against the seat of a chair and sat heavily, face reddening anew.

‘You expect me to believe that? Your secrecy over Lyanna’s disappearance has nothing to do with risking public embarrassment. No, there’s more. You wanted her back in your College before I even knew she was gone, didn’t you?’ Denser leaned over the sweating face, feeling the warm, faintly alcohol-tainted breath spatting quickly over his cheeks. ‘Why is that, I wonder? Scared she would fetch up at the door of a more capable College?’

Again a slight spreading of the hands from Vuldaroq. ‘Lyanna is a child of utterly unique talents. And those talents must be channelled correctly if they are not to provoke unfortunate consequences.’

‘Like the awakening of a true all-College ability, you mean? Hardly unfortunate.’ Denser smiled. ‘If it happens, we should celebrate.’

‘Be careful, Denser,’ warned Vuldaroq. ‘Balaia has no place for another Septern. Not now, not ever. The world has changed.’

‘Dordover may speak only for itself, not Balaia. Lyanna can show us the way forward. All of us.’

Vuldaroq snorted. ‘”Forward”? A return to the One is a step back, my Xeteskian friend, and one talented child does not herald such a step. One child is powerless.’ The old Dordovan bit his lip.

‘Only if you stop her from realising her potential.’ What started as a retort finished as a whisper. Denser paced back, his mouth slack for a moment. ‘That’s it, isn’t it? By all the Gods falling, Vuldaroq if one hair on her head is harmed – ‘

Vuldaroq pushed himself out of the chair. ‘No one is going to harm her, Denser. Calm yourself. We are Dordovans, not witch hunters.’ He moved towards the door. ‘But do find her and bring her back here, Denser. Soon. Believe me, it is important to all of us.’

‘Get out,’ muttered Denser.

‘Might I remind you that this is my Tower,’ snapped Vuldaroq.

‘Get out!’ shouted Denser. ‘You have no idea what you are toying with do you? No idea at all.’ Denser sat back down in his chair.

‘On the contrary, I think you’ll find we have a very good idea indeed.’ Vuldaroq stood for a while before shuffling out. Denser listened to his heavy footsteps receding along the wood panelled corridor. He unfolded the letter they hadn’t even found though it was barely hidden in Erienne’s chambers. Denser had known it would be there, addressed to him. And he had known they wouldn’t find it, just as she had. No instinct. He read the letter again and sighed. Four and a half years it had been since they had all stood together on the fields of Septern Manse, and yet The Raven were the only people he could possibly trust to help him, depleted as they were. Erienne was gone and Thraun presumably still ran with the wolf pack in Thornewood. That left Hirad, with whom he had had a bad falling out a year before and no contact since, Ilkar who was working himself to an early grave in the ruins of Julatsa and, of course, the Big Man.

Denser managed a smile. He was still the lynch pin. And Denser could be in Korina in a little over two days if he flew all the way. A supper at The Rookery and a glass of Blackthorne red with The Unknown Warrior. A pleasant prospect.

He would leave Dordover at first light and turned to ring for a fire to warm Erienne’s chambers. There was a great deal of work still to do. Denser’s smile faded. The Dordovans would continue their search and he couldn’t risk them finding Lyanna first. Not that that was very likely given the contents of the letter but he couldn’t be certain. And without certainty, his daughter was at risk from the very people Erienne had turned to for help.

But there was something else too. Something serious nagging at him that he couldn’t drag from his subconscious. It was to do with the awakening.

A strong gust of wind rattled the windows, almost over before it had come. Denser shrugged, switched his attention to the desk and began leafing carefully through its papers.

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