Rebellion: Tainted Realm: Book 2 (7 page)

BOOK: Rebellion: Tainted Realm: Book 2
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“Rebuild my army and forge alliances, so when the time comes…”

“For a bold stroke?”

“Or a last desperate gamble. Possibly using you.”

Tali froze. Did he know about the ebony pearl? She turned to the brazier, afraid that her eyes would give her away.

“You gave me your word,” he went on.

Not her pearl.
Worse
. He was referring to the promise he had forced out of her in his red palace in Caulderon. That one day he might ask her to do the impossible and sneak into Cython to rouse the Pale to rebellion.

She did not consider the promise binding since it had been given under duress. But the blood oath she had sworn before escaping from Cython
was
binding, and it amounted to the same thing. With Cython depopulated because most of its troops had marched out to war, the vast numbers of Pale slaves there were a threat at the heart of Lyf’s empire.

Sooner or later he would decide to deal with the threat, and that was where Tali’s blood oath came in. She had sworn to do whatever it took to save her people. But before she could hope to, she would have to overcome her darkest fear – a return to slavery.

CHAPTER 4

The winter journey over the Crowbung Mountains, and the lower ranges beyond, took eight days of cold, exhaustion and pain. Tali saw nothing of the lands they were passing through, for the chancellor had taken pains to ensure that no spy could discover where she was.

She was confined to a covered wagon all the hours of daylight, disguised by a glamour the chief magian had cast over her. All she knew, from glimpses of the setting sun, was that they were heading west, then south-west.

Twice more she was taken to the healer’s tent at night so Madam Dibly could draw more blood. It was needed to heal valued people who had been bitten by shifters and thus turned to shifters themselves.

Tali had been waiting for it, hoping to have another of those blood-loss visions. What key was Lyf looking for, that mattered more than anything he had done so far? Finding out was the one way she could help the war effort. But, frustratingly, the vision had not been repeated.

“Does it work?” said Tali on the second occasion, “or are you putting me through all this out of spite?”

“I’m a healer!” cried Dibly, deeply affronted. “I look after my patients no matter what I think of them.” Her scowl indicated exactly what she thought of Tali.

“Does my blood work?” Tali repeated. “Or aren’t I
allowed
to know.”

“It heals most shifters —”

“But not all?”

“Few panaceas work on every patient,” said Madam Dibly. “The blood you give so grudgingly heals most shifters, as long as it’s administered within a few days after they’ve been turned.”

“But not after that?”

“The longer they’ve been a shifter, the harder it is to turn them back. And once the shifter madness comes on them it’s no use at all…” Dibly looked away, her jaw tight, her eyelids screwed shut. “My brother was one of the bitten ones. Your blood came too late for him.”

“What happened?” said Tali, moved despite her dislike of the old healer.

“For everyone’s safety, the bitten ones have to be put down – like rabid dogs.” Madam Dibly wiped her eyes, then said harshly, “Lie down. Bare your throat.”

She only took a pint of blood this time. Tali tried to force another blood-loss vision by envisaging Lyf in his temple, but saw nothing. She was so exhausted she could only doze on the camp bed afterwards. If they took any more it was bound to be the end of her.

She was given the best of food, including more meat than she had eaten in her life, though after the third blood-taking Tali lacked the energy to chew it. Dibly had it made into rich stews which she dribbled down Tali’s throat from a spoon.

But today, the eighth day since leaving Caulderon, she felt better. The cold wasn’t so bitter, her throat felt less bruised, and she had enough strength to pull herself up to a sitting position, wedged in place by pillows. The cavalcade was heading down a steep, potholed track, the brakes squealing and the wagon lurching each time they grabbed the rims of the six-foot-high wheels.

“Where are we?” she asked.

“Approaching Rutherin,” said the healer, who was trying to write in a small, red-bound herbal.

Ruth-erin
. The name had an unpleasant sound. “Is that a town?”

“It is, but we’re going to Fortress Rutherin, which is on the cliff-top above the town.”

“Can I see?”

Madam Dibly had mellowed after seeing how badly Tali had been affected by blood loss. She peered out between the curtains. “It can’t hurt, I suppose, since we’re high up and no one can see in.”

She drew the curtains wide and white light flooded in, momentarily dazzling Tali. Her throat constricted. For a few seconds the wagon rocked, as the dome of the sky had rocked the first time she had left the dim underworld of Cython for Hightspall. She had suffered her first attack of agoraphobia then, and now thought she was about to have another, but everything settled.

They had crossed the mountains and were winding down a steep hill towards the south-west coast. The sun was out and in the distance, as far as she could see, a dazzling field of white extended across the ocean. “Is that the
ice
?”

Madam Dibly seemed amused, in a grim sort of way. “Indeed it is, and creeping closer to Hightspall every year. When I was a girl it could only be seen from here in winter, at the furthest horizon.”

“Why is it coming closer?”

“The land we took from the enemy long ago is rising up against us.”

So people said, but Tali found it hard to believe. “But… so much ice. Where does it come from?”

“No one knows, but it cut Hightspall off long ago. Now we’re alone in the world – perhaps the only nation left…”

“Alone in the world,” said Tali, “and at the mercy of the ice.” She shivered.

“It’s closing off our southern ports, one by one, and creeping up the east and west coasts. Soon Hightspall will be ice-locked. Some say that our great volcanoes will stop it from covering the land the way it’s buried Suden, but surely ice will win over fire.” The grim smile faded.

“Is Rutherin a port town?” Tali said, trying to sound casual.

“It was, but don’t think there’s any escape that way. It’s a stranded port.”

“How do you mean?”

“As the ice sheets grow, the sea falls. It’s now a mile offshore and the old port – see it there, beside the town – is dry land. The fishing fleets no longer dock at Rutherin.”

Madam Dibly busied herself with her herbal. Tali stared hungrily out the gap in the curtains. But escape was impossible when she barely had the strength to stand up.

The wagon turned a corner, rattling and thumping down a track surfaced with chunks of broken rock. Over the heads of the horses she saw an ominous bastion of black stone. The native rock had been cut into knife-edged ridges around it to enclose it on both sides and the rear, while at the front there was a high wall and a pair of massive wooden gates which now stood open. On her left, the ridge fell away in a glassy black cliff that plunged down towards the town.

“What’s that place?” said Tali.

Madam Dibly whipped the curtains closed and sat down, breathing raggedly. “I told you, Fortress Rutherin.” She bent over her herbal.

“Aren’t I supposed to see it?”

“You can see it. No one is allowed to see you.”

“Why not?” said Tali, though she could guess the answer.

“You know Cython’s secrets, and the enemy wants you dead.”

No, Lyf wants me very much alive, so he can crack my head open and gouge out the master pearl. It had to be taken while she were alive; if she died, the pearl died with her.

Tali realised that Madam Dibly was looking at her curiously. Had she given something away? “Fortress Rutherin doesn’t look a very nice place,” she said hastily.

“It wasn’t… even before the blood-bath lady became its mistress.”

Tali had to ask. “Who was the blood-bath lady?”

“It takes a lot of victims to fill a bathtub with blood. And she bathed daily. Or so the tales say.”

Was this another of Dibly’s macabre jokes? Tali tried not to think about it, but the image of all those people being bled to death each day was not easily banished.

“Puts your little problem into perspective, doesn’t it?” Dibly said with a sidelong glance at Tali. “But Fortress Rutherin is strong; it’s what the chancellor needs. It’s easy to defend, hard to attack and has underground water enough to withstand a year-long siege.”

One wheel crashed into a deep pothole, jerked out of it and fell into another. There came the sharp crack of breaking wood. The wagon tilted sharply to the left, slamming Tali’s camp bed into the left-hand wall.

“Are we being attacked?” she cried.

Dibly tore open the front curtains and was leaning out when there came another crack, from the rear. The left-hand side of the wagon slammed down onto the rocky road, hurling her out, and the wagon bed came to rest at a steep angle. Tali was toppled from the camp bed, which overturned onto her.

Struggling out from under the bed was like climbing a mountain. Her heart was pounding by the time she freed herself. Outside, people were shouting and a rider was galloping towards them. If it was an attack, was she better off inside the wagon or out? Out, she thought. She could not bear to be trapped.

Tali crawled along the sloping bed of the wagon to the curtains, and peered out. “Madam Dibly?”

The old woman lay on the rocky ground, unmoving. There was blood all over her face. Tali slid down, half falling. Both of the left-side wheels lay on the ground. It wasn’t an attack. The first jolt must have broken the front axle of the wagon and then the strain had snapped the rear one.

Tali felt so faint that she had to hang on. She crawled to the healer.

“Madam Dibly?” she said, turning her head upright.

It moved too easily, and when Tali released it, flopped back at an odd angle. Dibly was dead. Her neck was broken.

Tali closed the healer’s eyes, then pushed herself to her feet. The faintness returned. She took a lurching step forwards, clambered over the wagon tongue and out into the middle of the track. A line of wagons had stopped behind hers and several drivers had gathered around it, studying the broken axles.

Ahead, most of the riders were still heading for the closed gates of Fortress Rutherin, but three horses had turned out of the line and were coming back. Two were ridden by big men who had the look of the chancellor’s elite guard, while the fellow between them was small, hunchbacked and rode slumped in the saddle like a bag of wheat. The chancellor.

Tali had to know where they were taking her and what the surroundings were like. The moment she was strong enough, she was going to escape. She moved out on to the road, clear of the wagon, and looked around.

The black cliff to the left of the fortress dropped several hundred feet to a narrow coastal plain, below which she could see the tangled streets and smoke-stained buildings of the former port town of Rutherin. It had a forlorn and neglected air. In the distance, the ice sheet covered the ocean in all directions, unimaginably vast. Its advancing front was formed from ice cliffs nearly as high as the track on which she stood.

Behind her, up the winding road, were the snow-covered mountains they had recently crossed. No escape that way; not on foot, anyhow.

Kaark! Kaark!
 

The hoarse cries caused her to look up. Squinting against the bright sky, she saw a large bird wheeling, thousands of feet up. An unusual bird; or was it a huge bat? Shivers ran down her back.

As it came lower, circling above the fortress and the road with the stalled wagons, Tali saw that it was neither bird nor bat, but some flying creature bigger than either, with man-like shoulders and head, and wings at least twelve feet across, but spindly legs that could not have supported its weight. She had never heard of such a creature. Tali was studying it, shading her eyes from the bright, when the chancellor let out a furious bellow.

The guards came hurtling up. The leading rider scooped Tali off her feet, dropped her face-down across his saddle and threw a cloak over her.

“What are you doing?” she cried, struggling to free her face.

The guard’s big hand pressed her down. He wheeled his horse and raced for the gates of Rutherin. The chancellor and the other guard turned and matched his pace, and within a minute they had passed through and were under a covered ride-way inside. Further on, the ground sloped so steeply that the rear of the fortress was thirty feet lower than the front.

“You bloody fool!” cried the chancellor, dragging Tali off the saddle. “You bloody, bloody fool.”

She had to sit down; her head was whirling. “Dibly was thrown out of the wagon,” said Tali. “I went to help her… but she broke her neck.”

A triumphant cry echoed across the yard.
Kaark! Kaark!

The chancellor jerked his head at the first guard. “Shoot the damn thing, Regg.”

Regg grabbed his bow, darted to the edge of the ride-way and looked up, but shook his head. “It’s too high, well out of range.”

“What’s it doing?”

“Flying away, waggling its wings – looks like it’s giving us the finger.”

The chancellor slumped onto a bench, breathing hard. His eyes met Tali’s.

“It’s a gauntling, a kind of flying shifter.
A spy
, Tali. A key purpose of this trip was to get you here without the enemy knowing. Why did you think I kept you disguised and indoors the whole time?”

“I assumed it was to torment and punish me.”

“Aaarrgh!” he roared, tearing at his scanty hair. “And now it’s all been for nothing. It won’t take the gauntling long to fly back to Caulderon. By midnight, Lyf will know you’re here.”

CHAPTER 4

The winter journey over the Crowbung Mountains, and the lower ranges beyond, took eight days of cold, exhaustion and pain. Tali saw nothing of the lands they were passing through, for the chancellor had taken pains to ensure that no spy could discover where she was.

She was confined to a covered wagon all the hours of daylight, disguised by a glamour the chief magian had cast over her. All she knew, from glimpses of the setting sun, was that they were heading west, then south-west.

Twice more she was taken to the healer’s tent at night so Madam Dibly could draw more blood. It was needed to heal valued people who had been bitten by shifters and thus turned to shifters themselves.

Tali had been waiting for it, hoping to have another of those blood-loss visions. What key was Lyf looking for, that mattered more than anything he had done so far? Finding out was the one way she could help the war effort. But, frustratingly, the vision had not been repeated.

“Does it work?” said Tali on the second occasion, “or are you putting me through all this out of spite?”

“I’m a healer!” cried Dibly, deeply affronted. “I look after my patients no matter what I think of them.” Her scowl indicated exactly what she thought of Tali.

“Does my blood work?” Tali repeated. “Or aren’t I
allowed
to know.”

“It heals most shifters —”

“But not all?”

“Few panaceas work on every patient,” said Madam Dibly. “The blood you give so grudgingly heals most shifters, as long as it’s administered within a few days after they’ve been turned.”

“But not after that?”

“The longer they’ve been a shifter, the harder it is to turn them back. And once the shifter madness comes on them it’s no use at all…” Dibly looked away, her jaw tight, her eyelids screwed shut. “My brother was one of the bitten ones. Your blood came too late for him.”

“What happened?” said Tali, moved despite her dislike of the old healer.

“For everyone’s safety, the bitten ones have to be put down – like rabid dogs.” Madam Dibly wiped her eyes, then said harshly, “Lie down. Bare your throat.”

She only took a pint of blood this time. Tali tried to force another blood-loss vision by envisaging Lyf in his temple, but saw nothing. She was so exhausted she could only doze on the camp bed afterwards. If they took any more it was bound to be the end of her.

She was given the best of food, including more meat than she had eaten in her life, though after the third blood-taking Tali lacked the energy to chew it. Dibly had it made into rich stews which she dribbled down Tali’s throat from a spoon.

But today, the eighth day since leaving Caulderon, she felt better. The cold wasn’t so bitter, her throat felt less bruised, and she had enough strength to pull herself up to a sitting position, wedged in place by pillows. The cavalcade was heading down a steep, potholed track, the brakes squealing and the wagon lurching each time they grabbed the rims of the six-foot-high wheels.

“Where are we?” she asked.

“Approaching Rutherin,” said the healer, who was trying to write in a small, red-bound herbal.

Ruth-erin
. The name had an unpleasant sound. “Is that a town?”

“It is, but we’re going to Fortress Rutherin, which is on the cliff-top above the town.”

“Can I see?”

Madam Dibly had mellowed after seeing how badly Tali had been affected by blood loss. She peered out between the curtains. “It can’t hurt, I suppose, since we’re high up and no one can see in.”

She drew the curtains wide and white light flooded in, momentarily dazzling Tali. Her throat constricted. For a few seconds the wagon rocked, as the dome of the sky had rocked the first time she had left the dim underworld of Cython for Hightspall. She had suffered her first attack of agoraphobia then, and now thought she was about to have another, but everything settled.

They had crossed the mountains and were winding down a steep hill towards the south-west coast. The sun was out and in the distance, as far as she could see, a dazzling field of white extended across the ocean. “Is that the
ice
?”

Madam Dibly seemed amused, in a grim sort of way. “Indeed it is, and creeping closer to Hightspall every year. When I was a girl it could only be seen from here in winter, at the furthest horizon.”

“Why is it coming closer?”

“The land we took from the enemy long ago is rising up against us.”

So people said, but Tali found it hard to believe. “But… so much ice. Where does it come from?”

“No one knows, but it cut Hightspall off long ago. Now we’re alone in the world – perhaps the only nation left…”

“Alone in the world,” said Tali, “and at the mercy of the ice.” She shivered.

“It’s closing off our southern ports, one by one, and creeping up the east and west coasts. Soon Hightspall will be ice-locked. Some say that our great volcanoes will stop it from covering the land the way it’s buried Suden, but surely ice will win over fire.” The grim smile faded.

“Is Rutherin a port town?” Tali said, trying to sound casual.

“It was, but don’t think there’s any escape that way. It’s a stranded port.”

“How do you mean?”

“As the ice sheets grow, the sea falls. It’s now a mile offshore and the old port – see it there, beside the town – is dry land. The fishing fleets no longer dock at Rutherin.”

Madam Dibly busied herself with her herbal. Tali stared hungrily out the gap in the curtains. But escape was impossible when she barely had the strength to stand up.

The wagon turned a corner, rattling and thumping down a track surfaced with chunks of broken rock. Over the heads of the horses she saw an ominous bastion of black stone. The native rock had been cut into knife-edged ridges around it to enclose it on both sides and the rear, while at the front there was a high wall and a pair of massive wooden gates which now stood open. On her left, the ridge fell away in a glassy black cliff that plunged down towards the town.

“What’s that place?” said Tali.

Madam Dibly whipped the curtains closed and sat down, breathing raggedly. “I told you, Fortress Rutherin.” She bent over her herbal.

“Aren’t I supposed to see it?”

“You can see it. No one is allowed to see you.”

“Why not?” said Tali, though she could guess the answer.

“You know Cython’s secrets, and the enemy wants you dead.”

No, Lyf wants me very much alive, so he can crack my head open and gouge out the master pearl. It had to be taken while she were alive; if she died, the pearl died with her.

Tali realised that Madam Dibly was looking at her curiously. Had she given something away? “Fortress Rutherin doesn’t look a very nice place,” she said hastily.

“It wasn’t… even before the blood-bath lady became its mistress.”

Tali had to ask. “Who was the blood-bath lady?”

“It takes a lot of victims to fill a bathtub with blood. And she bathed daily. Or so the tales say.”

Was this another of Dibly’s macabre jokes? Tali tried not to think about it, but the image of all those people being bled to death each day was not easily banished.

“Puts your little problem into perspective, doesn’t it?” Dibly said with a sidelong glance at Tali. “But Fortress Rutherin is strong; it’s what the chancellor needs. It’s easy to defend, hard to attack and has underground water enough to withstand a year-long siege.”

One wheel crashed into a deep pothole, jerked out of it and fell into another. There came the sharp crack of breaking wood. The wagon tilted sharply to the left, slamming Tali’s camp bed into the left-hand wall.

“Are we being attacked?” she cried.

Dibly tore open the front curtains and was leaning out when there came another crack, from the rear. The left-hand side of the wagon slammed down onto the rocky road, hurling her out, and the wagon bed came to rest at a steep angle. Tali was toppled from the camp bed, which overturned onto her.

Struggling out from under the bed was like climbing a mountain. Her heart was pounding by the time she freed herself. Outside, people were shouting and a rider was galloping towards them. If it was an attack, was she better off inside the wagon or out? Out, she thought. She could not bear to be trapped.

Tali crawled along the sloping bed of the wagon to the curtains, and peered out. “Madam Dibly?”

The old woman lay on the rocky ground, unmoving. There was blood all over her face. Tali slid down, half falling. Both of the left-side wheels lay on the ground. It wasn’t an attack. The first jolt must have broken the front axle of the wagon and then the strain had snapped the rear one.

Tali felt so faint that she had to hang on. She crawled to the healer.

“Madam Dibly?” she said, turning her head upright.

It moved too easily, and when Tali released it, flopped back at an odd angle. Dibly was dead. Her neck was broken.

Tali closed the healer’s eyes, then pushed herself to her feet. The faintness returned. She took a lurching step forwards, clambered over the wagon tongue and out into the middle of the track. A line of wagons had stopped behind hers and several drivers had gathered around it, studying the broken axles.

Ahead, most of the riders were still heading for the closed gates of Fortress Rutherin, but three horses had turned out of the line and were coming back. Two were ridden by big men who had the look of the chancellor’s elite guard, while the fellow between them was small, hunchbacked and rode slumped in the saddle like a bag of wheat. The chancellor.

Tali had to know where they were taking her and what the surroundings were like. The moment she was strong enough, she was going to escape. She moved out on to the road, clear of the wagon, and looked around.

The black cliff to the left of the fortress dropped several hundred feet to a narrow coastal plain, below which she could see the tangled streets and smoke-stained buildings of the former port town of Rutherin. It had a forlorn and neglected air. In the distance, the ice sheet covered the ocean in all directions, unimaginably vast. Its advancing front was formed from ice cliffs nearly as high as the track on which she stood.

Behind her, up the winding road, were the snow-covered mountains they had recently crossed. No escape that way; not on foot, anyhow.

Kaark! Kaark!
 

The hoarse cries caused her to look up. Squinting against the bright sky, she saw a large bird wheeling, thousands of feet up. An unusual bird; or was it a huge bat? Shivers ran down her back.

As it came lower, circling above the fortress and the road with the stalled wagons, Tali saw that it was neither bird nor bat, but some flying creature bigger than either, with man-like shoulders and head, and wings at least twelve feet across, but spindly legs that could not have supported its weight. She had never heard of such a creature. Tali was studying it, shading her eyes from the bright, when the chancellor let out a furious bellow.

The guards came hurtling up. The leading rider scooped Tali off her feet, dropped her face-down across his saddle and threw a cloak over her.

“What are you doing?” she cried, struggling to free her face.

The guard’s big hand pressed her down. He wheeled his horse and raced for the gates of Rutherin. The chancellor and the other guard turned and matched his pace, and within a minute they had passed through and were under a covered ride-way inside. Further on, the ground sloped so steeply that the rear of the fortress was thirty feet lower than the front.

“You bloody fool!” cried the chancellor, dragging Tali off the saddle. “You bloody, bloody fool.”

She had to sit down; her head was whirling. “Dibly was thrown out of the wagon,” said Tali. “I went to help her… but she broke her neck.”

A triumphant cry echoed across the yard.
Kaark! Kaark!

The chancellor jerked his head at the first guard. “Shoot the damn thing, Regg.”

Regg grabbed his bow, darted to the edge of the ride-way and looked up, but shook his head. “It’s too high, well out of range.”

“What’s it doing?”

“Flying away, waggling its wings – looks like it’s giving us the finger.”

The chancellor slumped onto a bench, breathing hard. His eyes met Tali’s.

“It’s a gauntling, a kind of flying shifter.
A spy
, Tali. A key purpose of this trip was to get you here without the enemy knowing. Why did you think I kept you disguised and indoors the whole time?”

“I assumed it was to torment and punish me.”

“Aaarrgh!” he roared, tearing at his scanty hair. “And now it’s all been for nothing. It won’t take the gauntling long to fly back to Caulderon. By midnight, Lyf will know you’re here.”

BOOK: Rebellion: Tainted Realm: Book 2
3.01Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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