Authors: Joseph Delaney
‘There’s snow on the way, Tom,’ Alice told me, completely ignoring Jenny. ‘This time there won’t be a thaw until the spring. We need to set off home tomorrow or we’ll be stuck here.’
‘I’d already decided to leave tomorrow,’ I replied. Then I realized what she’d said. ‘You said
– you’re coming with us?’ My heart leaped with excitement. I’d expected to say goodbye to Alice and not see her again for many long months.
‘Yes. Somebody has to make sure you get home safely!’ she said with a wicked smile.
I glanced at Jenny. She looked far from happy. No doubt she’d expected to be travelling alone with me. The last thing she wanted was Alice’s company.
‘Doesn’t Grimalkin need you here?’ I asked. ‘The Kobalos army could cross the river and attack at any time.’
‘She wants to get me away safely; then I can use my magic when it might tip the balance of some big future battle. That ain’t going to happen until next year. Maybe it’ll be far to the south when the larger kingdoms there have mobilized their troops; maybe it’ll be back in the County. Grimalkin believes that the coming battle here will be a rout and just hopes to form an organized retreat.’
Alice turned towards Jenny and gave her a smile. There was no real warmth in it. ‘Why don’t you get yourself off to bed, Jenny,’ she suggested. ‘You’ll need to be fresh for the journey.’
Jenny stared at her but made no move to leave.
This time Alice spoke without smiling. ‘Look, I need to speak to Tom alone . . .’
Jenny came to her feet, picked up her notebook and went out without another word, not looking at either of us. She didn’t exactly slam the door, but it closed with a bit more force than was necessary.
‘Try and be a bit kinder to her, Alice,’ I said. ‘She’s a long way from home and just wants to get back. She wanted to be a spook’s apprentice, not end up in the middle of a war in a cold, northerly land. She almost died out there; she was sitting on the same horse as Prince Kaylar when he was slain.’
I remembered the horror in Jenny’s eyes when she’d told her story. The Kobalos had struck the prince’s head from his shoulders and she’d been drenched in his blood.
‘I’ll try, Tom, but she only seems to think about herself. She irritates me. I think it was a mistake to take her on as your apprentice.’
‘She’s brave, Alice, and she’s gone through a lot recently. I took her on and what’s done is done. I can’t go back on that. She’s my responsibility now. I hope to train her and make a spook out of her.’
Alice smiled. ‘Then I’ll try to make allowances for her . . .’ She sighed and turned to the window. ‘Let’s sit down over there, Tom. I want to watch the sun set. I like to see the stars, and the glow of the campfires.’
‘You never seemed to get that much pleasure from it before—’
‘Before I became an earth witch, you mean?’ Alice interrupted.
‘I’ve always liked sunsets and dawns, ain’t no doubt about that, but now the feeling is even stronger. I feel closer to the Earth: I love its rhythms – light giving way to dark, and small changes in the weather. The Earth seems alive to me. Maybe it is.’
‘Don’t you know?’
‘There’s lots that I don’t know, Tom. Some of my knowing is just instinct, but there are gaps.’
‘Are there other earth witches?’
‘In the future there might be more. Pan tells me that I’m the first. But no more questions for now, Tom, please. I just want to sit and watch. Do you mind?’
‘No, Alice, I don’t mind. If it makes you happy – that’s all that counts.’
She sat on the window seat next to me and then reached across and held my hand.
For a moment we sat in silence and then she gave my hand a squeeze. ‘Do you remember how we held hands that night on the way to Staumin?’
I smiled again. ‘I dreamed about it the other night. In fact, I keep having dreams about you!’
‘Are they nice dreams?’
I nodded and squeezed her hand back.
The moment I did that Alice came to her feet.
My heart sank. I thought I’d offended her in some way and she was about to leave, but instead she sat on my knee and put her arms around my neck. Then she kissed me very slowly . . . it went on for a long time.
I’D EXPECTED THE
journey home to be hard, and from the beginning I was proved right. We left the castle a couple of hours after dawn, much earlier than Tom had planned, because heavy snow was already drifting in from the north.
Tom and Alice rode ahead side by side while I brought up the rear. I’d noticed a change in Tom’s behaviour since Alice arrived. He smiled a lot more. It was clear that her presence made him happy. He certainly seemed to prefer her company to mine.
I still wanted to become a spook but I wondered if I’d be better off being trained by somebody else. The trouble was it would be difficult to find someone suitable. I disliked Judd who worked the area north of Caster and I knew he was against training a girl. And as for the other spook I’d met – the one called Johnson – we’d disliked each other at first sight. He hated witches and was obsessed by hunting them down. I suspected that he probably disliked most women.
We were travelling south, so at least the snow wasn’t gusting into our faces. But it was very cold, and even with my hood up my ears were slowly freezing.
I had been glad to get away, but now began to wonder if we had left it too late. Once we left the forest, the landscape was flat, bleak and featureless. Already a film of snow covered the ground, obscuring the road. The sky was a dark grey and full of snow. Soon it would form drifts and I feared that the route would become impassable.
Somehow we stayed on the road – no doubt helped by the witch’s dark skills. But the daylight hours were short and soon we were forced to make camp. The snow had eased, and after Alice made and lit a fire, using one of the small bundles of wood we’d brought with us, we had a hot herbal drink and small pieces of cold venison, which were chewy but tasty.
The three of us shared the tent, and although I remembered the witch assassin’s growls, mutters and teeth-grinding, I wished Grimalkin was with us rather than Alice. Here there were other more disturbing noises. Alice laid her blanket down very close to Tom’s, and I could hear them whispering to each other in the dark. Once Alice gave a low giggle, which surprised me: she usually scowled more than she laughed. At one point I thought I heard them kissing, and I was forced to cover my ears with my hands. It took me a long time to get to sleep.
The following morning the snow was coming down much harder and we set off without breakfast. I began to wonder how much further south we’d have to travel to get clear of it. Tom had said it might be something to do with the Old God, Golgoth, the Lord of Winter. He might be driving the snow and cold south to aid a Kobalos attack. In that case we might never be clear of it. But before noon it had eased to a light sleet and we stopped and rested for an hour.
This time we had soup made by Alice to go with the strips of cold venison. It was spicy and delicious, and so hot that I could barely sip it. It warmed me up and I was in a better mood as we moved on.
But my good spirits didn’t last long. In the morning we had ridden in silence, but now Tom and Alice began to chat. She became very animated and kept laughing at everything he said. I suppose I was just jealous: nobody was talking to me and they seemed to be enjoying themselves.
I began to drop back: I didn’t want to hear what they were saying. At one point Tom turned round and shouted to me to keep up. I kicked my horse on, but after five minutes I began to fall behind again. After all, despite the sleet they were still clearly in view.
I suppose I must have been daydreaming, because suddenly I looked up and could see no sign of them. For a moment I panicked. I urged my horse forward, but they were nowhere to be seen. At last, to my relief, I saw them waiting for me ahead. Tom looked angry.
‘You have to keep up, Jenny!’ he snapped as I approached. ‘You could easily get lost in these conditions. It might get worse at any time.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I muttered, trying to avoid Alice’s gaze. She looked far from happy with me.
We rode on. I kept up, but soon they began to talk and laugh again. They were totally absorbed in each other, and by small increments I began to drop back a little.
What happened next took me completely by surprise. I heard a rushing noise to my left, and I was suddenly hit by a wind so strong that it almost knocked me out of my saddle. With it came the snow. Within seconds, what had been sleet was transformed into a blizzard of thick whirling snowflakes. I could no longer see Tom and Alice ahead, so I urged my horse forward to catch up, expecting them to wait for me.
But somehow I must have wandered off the road – I could see no sign of them and I began to panic. I tried shouting, but the wind snatched my voice away.
Within minutes I realized that I was truly lost. I tried to keep calm, although my heart was thudding in my chest. They would find me, I told myself. Alice would use her magic. It would be easy for her.
Then I began to wonder whether she really would. She didn’t like me and probably wanted me out of the way. She wouldn’t want an apprentice hanging around once we got back to Chipenden. I thought she might pretend to Tom that she was searching while making no effort at all.
I kept calling out, but there was no response. There seemed no sign of the blizzard easing. I was getting colder and colder and the light was going. Was it getting dark already?
Then I started to imagine things. I thought I heard a rider coming up behind me, but when I turned round, I could see nothing. I was really cold and drowsy. I could hardly keep my eyes open.
Back in Chipenden I’d felt a bond slowly growing between me and Tom and I’d enjoyed being trained by him. But things had changed for the worse once we’d journeyed here. Recently I’d been feeling increasingly alone. But I’d never felt so bad as I did now. I was lost and isolated.
And I was scared.
Things were already really bad, but then they got worse: my horse stumbled into a snowdrift and I was sent flying over its head.
I landed in the soft deep snow – unhurt; not even winded. I just lay there, too weary to climb to my feet. It was so nice to simply lie back; I didn’t even feel cold any more. Something inside my head was telling me to get up, but I didn’t have the energy. It was much easier to stay where I was, so I drifted off to sleep.
I realize now that falling asleep was the worst thing I could have done. The cold was drawing the heat and life out of my body and making me sleepy. I could so easily never have woken up and died there.
wake up. Suddenly I was sitting up, leaning against a mound of snow. In front of me was a fire and I was bathed in its bright, flickering warmth. There was a pot bubbling over it and a delicious smell of stew. I could hear horses breathing and snorting nearby.
I assumed that Tom and Alice had found me; I felt guilty for thinking badly of the witch. Then I noticed something beyond the fire. It was a while before I realized what it was: a wolf’s head sitting in a pool of blood that was soaking into the snow and ice. Strips of raw red meat lay beside it.
Then someone crouched down, put a hand on the back of my head to steady it, and brought a cup to my lips. A voice said, ‘Drink and you’ll feel better.’
It wasn’t Tom’s voice. It had an odd rasping quality. I looked up, cried out in fear, and tried to crawl away – for it was one of the Kobalos.
The creature was dressed in a long black overcoat, a sabre at its hip, and his face was bestial, but shaven in a way I’d seen once before. I realized it was a haizda mage.
Back in the County I had once been captured by one of these mages. It had hung me by my feet from a ceiling and drained my blood very slowly. I’d felt the life draining from me and I’d been close to death when Tom had rescued me. The experience still came back to me in my nightmares. It was hard to tell the difference between that one and this beast bending over me now.
‘I mean you no harm,’ the creature said. ‘Look – I will leave the cup here. You need not be afraid.’
He placed the cup on the ground, then retreated to the far side of the fire and sat down cross-legged, facing me.
I didn’t move, but I soon realized that the mage could catch me any time he wanted. Keeping my distance would make no difference. So I crawled forward, picked up the cup and began to sip.
I stared at the mage across the flames. Although his hands were covered in dark fur, his shaven face, with its elongated jaw and sharp teeth, was wolf-like. His eyes glared at me with a mixture of amusement and arrogance.
I glanced again at his sharp sabre, which was stained with dried blood. Had the beast used that to kill the wolf? The terrible memory of what had happened to Prince Kaylar suddenly flashed into my mind. Again I felt the warm blood flowing over me and saw the stump of his neck as I clung to his torso. I shuddered at the thought that the creature might use his sabre to cut off my own head.
‘I think I have good cause to fear you,’ I said, my voice trembling. ‘I don’t want to end up as one of your slaves. I fell into the hands of one of your kind, and he drained my blood until I was near death.’