The bitter air took her breath away, Mithrid hurriedly donned her coat and forced her feet into her shoes as she walked. The walkway of boards and tarred rope was dark, empty, and Mithrid dashed along it, keeping an eye on the torch glow above. The watchmen were tired old souls who had eyes only for the sea or the clifftops. Pirates and marauders were the only things that caught their attention, not a gang of children up to no good.
Mithrid saw other shapes in the shadows, swarming to join her. Only four of them tonight: Remina, Bogran, and Bull.
They descended silently, jumping from the rungs and onto the wet sand. Clinging to the cliff face, they jogged along the beach, heads low and silence reigning. Only the sea and moon were witness to their creeping.
Only when they were far enough from view of Troughwake and tucked into a crevice in the rock, did Bogran speak.
Mithrid shrugged off her hood. ‘Where are the others?’
‘Crisk and Littlest could not be trusted with this. They’d only let it slip.’
‘Agreed,’ Remina whispered.
‘Think they found it?’ asked Mithrid, uttering the question they had all spent the day wondering. She saw the unease in the others’ wide eyes in the faint glow of the village. The pit was nearby, but its fires had long since died. It was now a black void in the beach.
Bull spoke up. ‘What if they burned it?’
Remina shook her head. ‘No. Can’t have.’
‘I buried it deep and high up the sands,’ Bogran said, reassuring himself more than the others. He began to stride ahead. ‘The old ones were working the tideline all day.’
Worry turned the gang’s jogging into another race. Sand flew from their heels.
‘Where is it, Bogran?’ called Remina, having to shout over the crash of a wave. The tide was creeping in once more, hungry for what had escaped it.
The boy was dashing about between the thicker parts of wreckage that had yet to be hacked into pieces. ‘There!’
Mithrid spotted the chunk of rebel ship at the same time. Bogran was already pounding back up the beach, counting steps out loud. Being far from the smartest in Troughwake, his numbers were in a jumbled order, but they made sense to him.
‘Twenty-eleven! Here!’ He hissed, kicking at a spar of wood sticking from the sand. He began to dig, down on all fours and using his hands as spades. It was a tense moment when he cursed and started to dig in another spot, then another, until finally he uttered a celebratory, ‘Yes!’
The gang immediately crowded around him, but Bogran led them back to the rock, where an overhang cast them in deeper darkness.
The girl had brought a candle. Bull produced a steel and with combined – if not lengthy – effort, they lit the candle. Every spark of the steel illuminated the cliff hollow in stuttering flashes. Mithrid imagined faces in the rocks, staring down at them, features disfigured by wind and wave.
Remina shielded the diminutive flame until it was strong enough to stand on its own. Its glow shone through her fingers. The gang leaned in, tightly knit, as Bogran reverently brushed the sand from the tome’s face. He turned it over and over, prodding here and there at its singed or sodden corners.
‘Open it already,’ hissed Mithrid.
‘It’s my book,’ Bogran tutted, placing it in the sand noticeably nearer to him. He saw to the latch on its cover. He might as well have been trying to thread a ship’s rope through a sewing needle for all the fiddling he did. Mithrid fidgeted as the anticipation rose to infuriating heights.
‘Bogran!’ Remina squeaked.
‘Got it,’ he sighed satisfactorily. He peeled back the cover, showing a half-soaked page. The dull ochre watermarks around the edge made a dry island of white paper and flowing green text.
Bogran’s rubbery lips quivered as he tried to read silently. His words were even less polished than his numbers.
‘Mithrid?’ he said. Eyes still locked on the page, he slid the book through the sand. The others leaned in like trees in a gale.
Mithrid angled her head to see better. The first line was written in some runic text, all harsh slashes and basic shapes. It was the kind of language designed to be carved in stone with a flat chisel. The next line was somewhat familiar in terms of lettering, but the words were all jumbled, foreign. The last line she recognised as the Commontongue, spoken throughout Hâlorn. It was old fashioned but readable.
‘Book of the Myst–Mysticies of Con… Conjutar… Conjurating Trickery, by Master Kala… fan. Kalafan,’ she said.
‘That’s not what it says,’ insisted Remina, swivelling the book around to read for herself. It took some time, but finally she crossed her arms and pouted. ‘Fine.’
Mithrid looked around the wide eyes and avid stares. ‘What does it mean?’
‘You’re the smart one. You tell us.’
‘Mysticies sounds suspiciously like magick,’ Mithrid breathed, as if her father were eavesdropping. ‘No?’
‘Nonsense,’ Remina scoffed, but she threw the book a sideways glance all the same. ‘Magick has been banned. The emperor has said so. This doesn’t look like an empire book. We should bury it.’
‘Trickery sounds fun,’ said Bull, in his usual innocent way.
‘That it does,’ Bogran began to turn the pages, unveiling diagrams and strange patterns marked in more unhelpful runes.
‘Bogran, go carefully,’ Remina cautioned him.
Mithrid blinked hard. Their intricate shapes blurred until Bogran came upon a page with a crude drawing of a skeleton key in blotched green ink. Below it were three more lines of text, each in its respective language. Below that, a block of scrawl that made her eyes ache, even upside down.
Bogran traced the boundaries of the key with a pudgy finger. ‘I wonder what this means.’
‘Don’t read it,’ Remina warned. All leaned closer save for her. She slid backwards on her arse like a hound with worms. ‘Feels evil. Arka’s glory, I don’t like it.’ She sounded just like Mam Hag. ‘Bury the thing!’
‘Crush, kill, bargain, slave,’ Bogran read. As he spoke, his voice took on a depth beyond his years, as if somebody recited with him from the shadows. ‘Stars, moons, blood, blame.’
A pain shot across Mithrid’s forehead. ‘Agh!’
Bogran was gripping the book with both hands. He wasn’t holding it, but rather thrusting it away yet unable to let go. The words kept spilling from his mouth, now in a language none of them had ever heard.
‘It’s magick! He’s reading a bloody spell!’ Remina shrieked, hands framing her gawping expression.
Bogran went rigid, spine bent at an unholy angle. Jaw stretched to breaking, blue smoke arose from his mouth. The sapphire tendrils curled together, forming the roaring face of a sabrecat. Fear leaked from it, washing over them. Remina and Mithrid both scrabbled away but Bull stepped forwards, swinging a spar of driftwood. The stave cleaved right through the blue visage without harming it, but it did clip Bogran across the head.
The spell broke. The book burst from Bogran’s hand and the boy was cast into the rock like a seagull striking a crab against a stone. A mushroom of blue smoke was left in his place. The spellbook crackled and fizzed, dancing about in the sand as if possessed. The night air grew hot.
‘Do something!’ Remina shrieked.
Mithrid acted fast, seizing the book to slam it shut. Scorching pain ran up her arm as soon as her fingers brushed it. Her vision failed her, but before she was enveloped by the darkness, she dragged the cover closed. The heat of the magick died. Green flames raced along the book’s edges and scorched the cover and spine to ash. Mithrid’s fingertips, lying barely an inch away, were seared pink but she did not flinch away. She could not. Mithrid lay prostrate in the sand, still reaching for the book, eyes rolled to the back of her head and limbs as rigid as fence posts.
Remina’s screams, Bull’s rough shaking, they mattered not. Mithrid was busy drowning in a black sea, with no star or moonlight to guide her. Echoes of a former life, now so distant it seemed a dream, escorted her into a void of silence.
North, where the cliffs thrust into the sea like a futile spear, pine forests dominated the precipices. They were known to sing when the winds blew strong and along the right line of the compass. It was a song no bard nor skald could do justice. It was an unearthly whining whose secret the pines kept to themselves. Some still believe it the song of spirits and phantom ship. On gusty nights, such as that particular evening, the wailing of the pines had been compared to that of a drowning crew crying out for salvation. If one listened closely, one could almost hear the individual screams.
Deep within the trees’ shadow, the lance blade twisted and cut dead the man’s screeching. The cliff peasant met the ground a corpse.
Masked figures with hoods drawn gathered around the body to watch it bleed. A dozen of them all counted. A spiral of corpses lay around them amidst the pine needles, some still twitching.
Unbidden, they methodically checked the bodies, moving as smoothly and coldly as machines. Knives ended misery before tearing tunics, revealing pale skin and emancipated spines. They poked, they prodded. Some of them carved stark symbols in the still warm flesh.
Before their macabre business was concluded, a change in the wind or some scent in the air made them all lift their heads. Still as paintings, they looked south, as if a lighthouse in the distance had swung its beam across the haunting forest.
No signal was given, yet they stood as one and immediately departed. No ceremony was given to the corpses. They were left to the devices of crows and rats.
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