Authors: Joseph Delaney
Stanislaw nodded and let out a big sigh. ‘Then let it be as sorceress’s plan,’ he said at last. ‘We will attack Valkarky. Eat – go strong. Get ready. In two weeks we ride.’
Later, I had a third visitor. Grimalkin arrived clutching a long roll of parchment. I gave her an account of what the prince and I had said to each other.
‘I cannot believe I did not see that!’ she exclaimed, shaking her head. ‘I should have known that he was just pretending not to understand. How can I have been so blind?’
I could see her agitation. She could usually see through to the truth of people and situations. That was the second thing she’d got wrong. First the Starblade had failed to protect me against dark magic, and now this. The witch assassin was not used to making mistakes.
‘It’s turned out the same in the end,’ I said. ‘As the prince said, we’ll cross the river in two weeks. I need to get fit. At the moment I can hardly walk. I can’t imagine how I’m going to recover sufficiently and be able to ride at the head of an army in such a short time. I’d probably be better off going back home to the County to regain my heath.’
‘There isn’t time for that,’ Grimalkin said, showing her pointy teeth in displeasure. ‘You will soon be stronger. But first we must plan and make these princelings bow to our will.’
She walked across to the small table, unrolled the parchment and held it flat on the wooden surface, securing it with four pins. It was an old map, the outlines faded to yellow, but there had been more recent additions in black ink.
‘This is the Shanna River,’ Grimalkin said, tracing it with her forefinger. ‘Here, to the north, is the Fittzanda Fissure, a region of volcanic instability. It was once the boundary between human and Kobalos territories. And there, far to the north, is the huge city of Valkarky, the heart of the Kobalos strength. We are not going there. It would be suicide at this stage.’
Valkarky was the great city of the Kobalos; they believed it would grow until it covered the entire world.
‘So where are we going?’ I asked wearily.
She pointed to what was no more than a cross on the map in black ink, a position far to the south-west of Valkarky, not far north of the Fissure.
‘You have studied Browne’s glossary of the Kobalos?’ she asked.
It was something that Grimalkin had found on her travels. Browne was an ancient spook who had studied the Kobalos. It was a key list of Kobalos terminology. I’d made a copy and hoped to update it with any new knowledge that we acquired on this expedition.
‘Then you know what a kulad is?’
‘It’s a fortified tower,’ I said. ‘Nicholas Browne says they’re also used as slave markets.’
‘That is true,’ said Grimalkin. ‘I visited one during my travels last year; it was mostly used to sell and buy slaves. But there are others which Browne was ignorant of. Each of these is ruled by a mage – they are private dwellings, seats of power and repositories of Kobalos mage magic. This one is special!’ she exclaimed, jabbing at the cross on the map with her finger.
‘It is called Kartuna and is the private kulad of a mage called Lenklewth. He is one of the triumvirate of mages who rule Valkarky – the second most powerful of the three. If we are lucky, he will be in the city and we will not need to face his magic. When we cross the river, we will ride towards Valkarky for a while – to fool the Kobalos scouts who will be observing and recording our movements. But then we will quickly veer westwards to attack and hopefully seize Kartuna.
‘Give me some time within that tower and I could learn much that might lead to the eventual defeat of our enemies. So we grab what we can and then retreat back across the river. Then we will ride home to the County as I promised. But we do
tell Prince Stanislaw about the retreat or it will threaten both his ambitions and his pride. He must believe that we are making only a short detour before pressing on to Valkarky. Once he sees what we are up against, he will be only too glad to retreat, believe you me.’
I wasn’t convinced that Grimalkin was right. ‘Are you sure about that? He’s a brave man and seems very determined to fight.’
‘Remember the varteki?’ she asked.
‘Well, the two you encountered were young and small in comparison with the full-grown adult version. The Kobalos may deploy hundreds of such creatures. In the face of that, even the brave prince will retreat!’
‘Have you told him about the kulad?’
‘Not yet. I will leave that to you. Gather your strength. At the end of the week we will have a meeting with all the princelings, a council of war. There
must be the one to take command. You have returned from the dead and filled them with hope and confidence of certain victory. They’ll expect you to be decisive and lead them with confidence. Would you like to practise now what you will say?’
I nodded, and allowed Grimalkin to rehearse me in my manner of delivery and how best to explain our supposed intentions. It would be difficult. My words and manner would have to persuade real princes to do as I ordered. And the strategy wasn’t even mine – it was devised by Grimalkin.
I resented my role in this. I did my best to conceal my feelings from her but I was becoming more and more angry.
Once again I was being manipulated.
I SLEPT A
lot but I had no energy. Despite that, I made it my business to continue Jenny’s training as best I could. I felt increasingly guilty about having brought her here; I certainly didn’t want her to feel that I was neglecting my duty to train her. I had to make her as good a spook as I possibly could.
Late each afternoon I gave her a lesson in my room. I talked while she took notes. Towards the end of the third lesson she suddenly asked me a question.
‘Don’t you think it’s strange having a witch like Grimalkin for an ally?’ she wondered.
I’d been teaching her about the dark, explaining the dangers from water witches. In an attempt to make it more interesting and hold her attention, I’d given her an account of my time working with John Gregory in the north of the County and our encounters with Morwena, the most powerful water witch of them all.
‘It’s true that it isn’t in our traditions. My master was against it at first, but after a while even he saw the need for alliances with witches such as Grimalkin. She’s saved my life on more than one occasion. I was being hunted by Morwena in the dark. I was alone on the marsh, nothing ahead for me but death, but then Grimalkin came to my aid and together we defeated the water witch.’
Jenny didn’t look convinced.
‘We’ve had enough theory for today,’ I told her suddenly.
‘I’ve had enough to last me a lifetime!’ Jenny retorted. She smiled but meant every word.
‘That’s why we’re going to have a bit of a change. Tomorrow we’ll do some practical work,’ I continued. ‘The prince has told me that in the eastern wing of the palace there are a number of sealed, haunted attics which aren’t used. It’s time these ghosts were sorted out. So we’ll see if you can manage to send a lingerer to the light.’
Lingerers were souls trapped on Earth – often ghosts who didn’t even know that they were dead.
The previous evening, thinking of Jenny’s training needs, I’d asked Prince Stanislaw if his ancient castle had any ghosts.
He’d smiled with his mouth but not his eyes. ‘Yes, we have ghosts. Many ghosts. There are places we cannot go. There is big danger. Many dark rooms. When lit by candles, shadows move strangely and air become very cold. We lock rooms long time. Seal danger inside. Old problem.’
‘I need to train my apprentice,’ I told him. ‘I could clear the ghosts from those rooms for you and then you’d be able to use them again.’
He’d looked at me like I was crazy. ‘You think you can do this? Many fail. Magowie have tried also many years ago. They try and die.’
I smiled at him. ‘I’m sure I can help. Will you let
Ghosts couldn’t usually kill people but did sometimes drive them insane. But there were exceptions – for example, there were strangler ghosts back in the County that spooks ranked from one to three. The very strongest, those of the first rank, were extremely rare, but they could asphyxiate their prey. They put their hands around the neck of their victims and squeezed. If they did it to the weak they could stop their breath.
In my master’s Bestiary, his personal compendium of creatures of the dark, there was also an account of something even more dangerous – his own encounter with an exceptionally strong strangler ghost that had killed a number of people.
But it hadn’t been able to kill John Gregory because of what he was. However, the news of the magowie deaths did make me think. We were far from the County. Perhaps things were different here?
‘I’m a seventh son of a seventh son,’ I told Stanislaw, giving him a confident smile. ‘Even the strongest ghost can’t kill me.’
The prince had shrugged. ‘Then I will give you the keys. So try do it. But flee if danger too great. Magowie who died were stubborn. They went back again and again. Best to know when you cannot win.’
Now, looking at Jenny, I took those keys from my pocket and dangled them in front of her. ‘The keys to the haunted attics,’ I told her. ‘So what do you think the first steps will be in dealing with the ghosts?’
‘Entering the attics and seeing what they contain,’ she replied, her face lighting up with enthusiasm. ‘Seeing how big the problem is and what needs to be done.’
‘So what will our biggest difficulty be after we’ve assessed the situation?’
‘Language,’ she replied thoughtfully. ‘You told me that you have to talk to a ghost and persuade it to go to the light. But Polyznian ghosts will talk Losta. They won’t understand our language.’
‘So?’ I demanded.
‘We’ll have to learn Losta!’
Jenny beamed at me. ‘I already know quite a few phrases that might be useful when dealing with a ghost – Grimalkin has been teaching me.’
The prospect of visiting those haunted attics clearly appealed to her. If she could eventually send a soul to the light, she’d feel she was making real progress, which was important for her development and confidence. So despite my weariness, I had to make the effort.
‘You can look after the keys,’ I told her. ‘There’ll be no theory lesson tomorrow – you can have the afternoon off – then soon after dark we’ll investigate the first of the attics in order to get some idea of what we’re dealing with.’
The following evening I was sitting in my window seat again, staring down at the flickering campfires. A cold wind was blowing from the north. I could hear it whining past the tower. It wouldn’t be long before the first fall of snow.
It was well after dark and Jenny still hadn’t arrived. I was beginning to worry. It wasn’t like her to be late.
Then I heard rapid footsteps outside my room. The door opened and Jenny burst in past the guard. Something was badly wrong.
However, I nodded at the man to signal all was well and he retreated, closing the door behind him. I turned to look at my apprentice: she was wearing my silver chain tied around her waist and carrying a rowan staff, but her eyes were wild and she was breathing hard.
‘I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!’ she cried, collapsing onto a seat.
‘What have you done?’ I asked, trying not to raise my voice.
She gabbled out her tale so quickly that I struggled to follow. She’d taken the keys and entered one of the haunted attics on her own. She’d expected to find ghosts but had stumbled across something far worse. There’d been what appeared to be a circular stone well. A glass had filled with blood and dropped down the shaft. Then the stones had begun to steam and some terrible entity had risen up out of the pit. The lights had gone out and she’d been confronted by a monstrous being with six glowing eyes that reached towards her with its tentacles.
‘I was terrified but I reacted without thinking,’ Jenny said, hardly pausing for breath. ‘I dropped my staff, reached into my pockets and grabbed a handful of salt and another of iron filings. Then I flung both straight at those frightening red eyes.
‘I’ve never been so scared in my life. I knew that if it was some sort of ghost it wouldn’t work. If it was a daemon or something else from the dark, it might not do much good either. The thing gave out a loud roar and the whole chamber began to shake. The head dropped towards the pit and the tentacles seemed suddenly shorter, shrunken. It wasn’t destroyed, but the salt and iron gave me just enough time to escape. I snatched up my staff and ran for my life. I slammed the first door shut behind me. Once through the second door, I locked it – though I knew that this might not be enough to stop it. I feared that thing might get out into the castle and attack other people and I’d be responsible for their deaths. I’m sorry, Tom. I’m really sorry for being so stupid.’
‘Why? Why on earth did you do it?’ I asked.
‘I just wanted to prove to myself that I’m good enough to be a spook. I thought it would be easy. I’ve learned some useful phrases from Grimalkin. I know enough Losta to be able to say
Think of a happy time in your life
Go to the light!
I was hoping to come back and say that I’d done it, that I’d sent a soul to the light. But I didn’t expect that . . . It wasn’t a ghost. The prince told you that they were attics haunted by ghosts. I thought I might be able to do more to help you – take some of the burden off you when you’re such a long way short of being fit.’