Simon crouched back among the dry goods and prayed that Aedon would stop his heart, which seemed to be beating like thunder. He felt his gaze drawn upward against his will until he stared out between the sagging shoulders of the sacks that hid him. Through the narrow gap he could see the alchemist's bleak face; for a moment it seemed Pryrates looked right at him, and he nearly squealed in terror. An instant later he saw it was not so: the red priest's shadow-shrouded eyes were focused on the wall above Simon's head. He was listening. Come out. Pryrates' lips had not moved, but Simon heard the voice as plainly as if it had whispered in his ear. Come out. Now. The voice was firm but reasonable. Simon found himself ashamed at his conduct: there was nothing to fear; it was childish foolishness to crouch here in the dark when he could stand up and reveal himself, admit the little joke he had played... but still... Where are you? Show yourself. Just as the calm voice in his ear had finally convinced him that nothing would be simpler than to stand and speak—he was reaching for the sacks to help himself up—Pryrates' black eyes swept for a scant moment across the dark crack through which Simon peered, and the glancing touch killed any thought of rising as a sudden frost shrivels a rose blossom. Pryrates' gaze touched Simon's hidden eyes and a door opened in the boy's heart; the shadow of destruction filled that doorway. This was death—Simon knew it. He felt the cold crumble of grave soil beneath his scraping fingers, the weight of dark, moist earth in his mouth and eyes. There were no more words now, no dispassionate voice in his head, only a pull—an untouchable something that was dragging him forward by fractions of inches. A worm of ice clasped itself around his heart as he fought—this was death waiting... his death. If he made a sound, the merest tremble or gasp, he would never see the sun again. He shut his eyes so tightly that his temples ached; he locked teeth and tongue against the straining need for breath. The silence hissed and pounded. The pull strengthened. Simon felt as though he were sinking slowly down into the crushing depths of the sea. A sudden yowl was followed by Pryrates' startled curse. The intangible, throttling grip was gone; Simon's eyes popped open in time to see a sleek gray shape skitter past, leap over Pryrates' boots and streak to the hatchway, where it bounded down into darkness. The priest's surprised laughter scraped out, echoing dully in the cluttered room. "A cat..." After a pause of half a dozen heartbeats, the-black boots turned away and moved back up the aisle. In a moment, Simon heard the ladder-thongs squeaking. He continued to sit rigidly, his breathing shallow, all of his senses alarmed. Chill sweat was running into his eyes, but he did not lift his hand to wipe it away—not yet. At last, after many minutes had passed and the ladder-sounds had faded, Simon rose from the sheltering sacks, balancing on weak, trembling legs. Praise Usires and bless that little gray scattercat! But what to do? He had heard the upper hatchway close, and the sound of booted footfalls on the floor overhead, but that did not mean that Pryrates had gone very far. It would be a risk even to lift the heavy door and look; if the priest were still in the storeroom the chances were good that he would hear. How could he get out? He knew he should just stay where he was, waiting in the dark. Even if the alchemist were in the upper room now, eventually he must finish his business and depart. This seemed by far the safest plan—but part of Simon's nature rebelled. It was one thing to be frightened—and Pryrates frightened him witless—it was another thing to spend the whole evening locked in a dark closet, and suffer the attendant punishments, when the priest was almost certainly on his way back to his eyrie in Hjeldin's Tower. Besides, I don't think he really could have made me come out... could he? Likely I was just scared nearly to death... . The memory of the broken-backed dog rose in his mind. He gagged and spent long moments breathing deeply. And what of the cat who had saved him from being caught—caught: the image of Pryrates' pit-black eyes would not leave him: they were no fear-fantasy. Where had the cat gone? If it had jumped down to the lower floor it was doubtless trapped, and would never find its way back without Simon's assistance. That was a debt of honor. As he moved quietly forward he could see a dim glow from the doorway in the floor. Was there a torch lit down there? Or perhaps there was some other way out, a doorway opening into one of the lower baileys? After a few moments of listening silently at the open hatchway, making sure that no one would surprise him this time, Simon stepped cautiously onto the ladder and began to climb down. A breath of cold air ruffled his tunic and goosebumped his arms; he bit the inside of his lip and hesitated, then continued. Instead of being halted by another landing directly below, Simon's careful descent continued for some moments. At first the only light rose from below him, as though he were climbing down some sort of bottleneck. At last the illumination became more general, and soon after that his downward-groping exploration met with resistance. He touched wood with his toes to one side of the ladder: he had found the floor. Stepping down he saw that there was no further passage-way below, that the bottom rung of the ladder rested here. The only source of light in the chamber—and with the topmost hatchway now closed, the only source of illumination at all—was a strange, glowing rectangle that shone against the far wall, a misty door painted on the wall in fitful yellowish light. Simon superstitiously made the sign of the Tree as he looked around. The rest of the room contained only a broken quintain and a few other pieces of discarded jousting furniture. Although the room's elongated shadows left many corners obscure, Simon could see nothing that would interest a man like Pryrates. He moved toward the gleaming design on the wall with hands extended, five-fingered silhouettes outlined in amber. The glowing rectangle flared suddenly, then quickly faded, dropping a shroud of absolute black over all. Simon was alone in darkness. There was no sound except for that of his own blood booming in his ears like a distant ocean. He took a cautious step forward; the sound of his shoe scraping the floor filled the emptiness for a moment. He took another step, and then one more: his outstretched fingers felt cold stone... and something else: strange, faint lines of warmth. He slumped to his knees beside the wall. Now I know what's it's like to be at the bottom of a well. I only hope no one starts pitching stones down at me. As he sat, pondering what he should do next, he heard a faint whisper of movement. Something struck him in the chest, and he gave a shout of surprise. At his cry the touch was gone, but it returned a moment later. Something was butting gently at his tunic... and purring. "Cat!" he whispered. You saved me, you know. Simon rubbed at the invisible shape. Slow down, there. It's hard to tell which end is which when you squirm around so. That's right, you saved me, and I'm going to get you out of this hole you've gotten into. "Of course, I've gotten myself into the same hole," Simon said aloud. He picked the furry shape up and lifted it into his tunic. The cat's purring took a deeper note as it settled itself against his warm stomach. "I know what that glowing thing was," he whispered. "A door. A magic door." It was also Pryrates' magic door, and Morgenes would skin him for even going near it, but Simon felt a certain stubborn indignation: this was his castle too, after all, and the storage rooms did not belong to any upstart priest, no matter how fearsome. In any case, if he went back up the ladder and Pryrates was still there... well, even Simon's returning pride did not permit him to delude himself about what would happen then. So, it was sit at the bottom of a pitch-black well all evening, or... He flattened his palm on the wall, sliding it across the chill stones until he found the streaks of warmth again. He traced them with his fingers and found they corresponded roughly with the rectangular shape he had first seen. Laying his hands flat in the middle he pushed, but met only the stolid resistance of unmortared stone. He pushed again, as hard as he could; the cat stirred uneasily beneath his shirt. Again nothing happened. As he leaned panting against the spot, he felt even the warm spots growing chill beneath his hands. A sudden vision of Pryrates—the priest waiting in the dark overhead like a spider, a grin stretching his bony face—sent Simon's heart a-pounding. "Oh, Elysia Mother of God, open!" he murmured hopelessly, fear-sweat making his palms slippery. "Open!" The stone became suddenly warm, then hot, forcing Simon to lean away. A thin golden line formed on the wall before him, running like a stream of molten metal along the horizontal until both ends dropped down and then ran back together. The door was there, shimmering, and Simon had only to lift his hand and touch it with a finger for the lines to grow brighter; actual cracks became visible, running the length of the silhouette. He placed his fingers carefully in one edge and pulled; a stone door swung silently outward, spilling light into the room. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the wash of brilliance. Behind the door a stone corridor sloped away and disappeared around a corner, carved directly into the rough rock of the castle. A torch bumed brightly in a sconce just inside; it was this that had dazzled him so. He climbed to his feet, the cat a comfortable weight inside his shirt. Would Pryrates have left a torch burning if he didn't plan to return? And what was this strange passageway? Simon recalled Morgenes saying something of old Sithi ruins beneath the castle. This was certainly old stonework, but crude and raw, completely unlike the polished delicacy of Green Angel Tower. He resolved to make a quick inspection: if the corridor led nowhere, he would have to climb the ladder after all. The coarse stone walls of the tunnel were damp. As Simon padded down the walkway he could hear a dull booming sound through the very rock. I must be below the level of the Kynslagh. No wonder the stones, even the air, everything is so damp. As if to punctuate this thought, he felt water coming in at the seams of his shoes. Now the corridor turned again, continuing its downward slope. The dimming light from the entranceway torch was supplemented by some new source. As he turned one last corner he came onto a leveled, widened floor that ended some ten paces away in a wall of craggy granite. Another torch guttered in its bracket there. Two dark holes loomed in the wall at his left; at the end just beyond them was what looked to be another door, seated almost flush with the corridor's end. Water splashed near his shoe-tops as he moved forward. The first two spaces seemed to have once been chambers of some kind—cells, most likely—but now splintered doors hung lazily off their hinges; the flickering torchlight revealed nothing inside but shadows. A damp odor of decay hung in these untenanted holes, and he quickly passed them by to stand before the door at the end. The hidden cat pricked him with gentle claws as he examined the blank, heavy timbers in the wavering light. What might lie beyond? Another rotting chamber, or a corridor leading still farther into the sea-bitten stone? Or was it perhaps Pryrates' secret treasure room, concealed from all spying eyes... well, most spying eyes...? Midway up the door was fixed a plate of metal: Simon could not tell if it was a latch or a peephole cover. When he tried it the rusty metal did not budge, and he came away with red flecks covering his fingers. Casting about, he saw a bit of broken hinge lying beside the open doorway to his left. He picked it up and pried at the metal until, with a begrudging squeak, the plate tilted upward on a rust-and-salt-stiffened hinge. After a quick look up the corridor and a moment of silence listening for footfalls, he leaned forward and put his eye to the hole in the door. To his great surprise there was a handful of rushes burning in a wall bracket in the chamber, but any heady and terrifying thought of having found Pryrates1 secret hoard-room was quickly dashed by the dank, straw-covered floor and bare walls. There was something at the back of the chamber, though... some dark bundle of shadow. A clanking noise pulled Simon around in surprise. Fear washed through him as he looked frantically about, expecting any moment to hear the thump of black boots in the corridor. The noise came again; Simon realized with astonishment that it sounded from the chamber beyond the door. Putting his eye cautiously back to the hole, he stared into the shadows. Something was moving at the back wall, a dark shape, and as it slowly swayed to one side the harsh, metallic sound echoed again in the small space. The shadow-shape raised its head. Choking, Simon jumped back from the spy-hole as though slapped across the face. In a whirling moment he felt the firm earth totter beneath him, felt that he had turned over something familiar to find crawling corruption beneath.... The chained thing that had stared out at him—the thing with the haunted eyes—was Prince Josua.
12 Six Silver Sparrows SIMON stumbled across the commons yard, his thoughts shouting in his head like a great crowd. He wanted to hide. He wanted to run away. He wanted to bellow the terrible truth and laugh, to bring the castlefolk tripping and tumbling out of doors. How sure they were, sure about everything, guessing and gossiping—but they knew nothing! Nothing! Simon wanted to howl and knock things over, but he could not free his heart from the spell of fear cast by Pryrates' carrion-bird eyes. What could be done? Who would help to turn the world right side up again? Morgenes. Even as Simon ran shamble-jointed across the dusky commons, the doctor's calm, quizzical face appeared in his thoughts, pushing back the priest's deathly countenance and the chained shadow in the dungeon below. Without another conscious thought he fled past the chained, black-painted gate of Hjeldin's Tower and up the stairs to the Chancelry. In mere moments he was through the long hallways and pulling open the door to forbidden Green Angel Tower. So violent was his need to reach the doctor's chambers that had Barnabas the sexton been waiting there to catch him, Simon might have turned to quicksilver in the man's hands. A great wind rushed through him, filling him with wild haste, pushing him on. Before the tower's side door had swung shut behind him he was on the draw-bridge; seconds later he was pounding on Morgenes' door. A pair of Erkynguardsmen looked up incuriously, then went back to their dice. "Doctor! Doctor! Doctor!" Simon shouted, banging away like a demented cooper. The doctor quickly appeared, feet bare and eyes alarmed. "Horns of snorting Cryunnos, boy! Are you mad!? Have you eaten bumblebees?!" Simon pushed past Morgenes without a word of explanation and headed down the corridor. He stood panting before the inner door as the little man came up behind. After a moment of shrewd inspection Morgenes let himself and Simon in. No sooner had the door closed than Simon began the story of his expedition and its results. The doctor fussed up a small fire and poured a jar of spicy hippocras into a pan to warm. As he worked Morgenes listened, carefully poking an occasional question into Simon's tirade as a man might reach a stick into a bear cage. He shook his head grimly, handing the youth a cup of mulled wine, then sat down with his own cup in a scarred highback chair. He had put slippers on his thin white feet; as he sat cross-legged on the chair cushion, his gray robe rucked up above his bony shins. "... And I know I shouldn't have touched a magic door, Doctor, I know it, but I did—and it was Josua' I'm sorry, I'm getting things out of order, but I'm sure I saw him! He had a beard, I think, and he looked terrible... but it was him!" Morgenes sipped his wine and dabbed at his chin-whiskers with a long sleeve. "I believe you, lad," he said. "I wish that I didn't, but it makes an evil kind of sense. It confirms some strange information I received." "But what will we do?!" Simon almost shouted. "He's dying! Did Elias do that to him? Does the king know?" "I really can't say—it is certain, however, that Pryrates knows." The doctor put down his wine cup and stood. Behind his head the last of the afternoon sun reddened the narrow windows. "As for what to do, the first thing is for you to go and eat supper." "Supper?!" Simon choked, spattering hippocras down his tunic. "With Prince Josua...?" "Yes, boy, that's what I said. Supper. There's nothing we can do right this instant, and I need to think. If you miss your supper, it will just raise a hue and cry—albeit a small one—and it will help to do just what we don't want to do: attract attention. No, go now and eat supper... and between bites, keep your mouth shut, will you?" Mealtime seemed to pass as slowly as spring thaw. Wedged between loudly chewing scullions, his heart beating double time, Simon resisted the wild impulse to lash out and knock cups and crockery spinning to the rush-strewn floor. The conversation infuriated him with its irrelevance, and the shepherd's pie that Judith had prepared especially for Belthainn Eve was as tasteless and unchewable in his mouth as wood. Rachel watched his fidgeting with displeasure from her seat at the head of the table. When Simon had sat still as long as he could and leaped up to make his excuses, she followed him to the door. "I'm sorry, Rachel, I'm in a hurry!" he said, hoping to stave off the lecture she seemed primed to deliver. "Doctor Morgenes has something very important he wants me to help him with. Please?" For a moment the Dragon looked as though she were going to get that fearful grip on his ear and bring him forcibly back to table, but something in his face or tone caught at her; for a moment she almost smiled. "All right, boy, just this once—but you thank Judith for that nice bit of pie before you go. She worked on it the whole afternoon." Simon bolted over to Judith, pitched like a huge tent at her own table. Her plump cheeks colored prettily while he praised her exertions. As he hurried back to the door, Rachel leaned out and captured his sleeve. He stopped and turned, mouth already open to complain, but Rachel only said; "Now just calm yourself and be carefiil, you mooncalf boy. Nothing's so important that you should kill yourself getting there." She patted his arm and released him; he was through the door and gone as she watched. Simon had pulled on his vest and coat by the time he reached the well. Morgenes had not yet arrived, so he paced impatiently in the deeper shadow of the dining hall until a soft voice at his elbow made him start in surprise. "Sorry to make you wait, lad. Inch came by, and I had a devilish time convincing him that I didn't need him after all." The doctor pulled his hood forward, hiding his face. "How did you come up so quietly?" Simon asked, his whisper an imitation of the doctor's. "I can still get about a little, Simon," the doctor said in an injured tone. "I am old, but not yet moribund." Simon did not know what "moribund" meant, but he caught the general idea. "Sorry," he whispered. The two made their way silently down the dining room stairs and into the first storage room, where Morgenes produced a crystal sphere the size of a green apple. When he rubbed it, a small spark flickered into being at the center, gradually brightening until it limned the encircling casks and bundles with soft honey-colored light. Morgenes shrouded the nether half of it in his sleeve and held it before them as they paced carefully through the stacked dry goods. The hatchway was closed; Simon did not remember whether or not he had shut it himself in his mad dash out. They went down the ladder carefully, Simon leading, Morgenes above him casting about this way and that with the shining glove. Simon pointed out the closet where Pryrates had almost captured him. They passed on, down to the bottom floor. The lowermost room was as untenanted as before, but the door leading to the stone passageway was shut. Simon was almost positive that he had not done this, and told Morgenes so, but the little man just waved his hand and strode to the wall, finding the spot where the crack had been according to Simon's directions. The doctor rubbed his hand in a circular movement across the wall, muttering something under his breath, but no crevice appeared. After Morgenes had squatted by the wall talking to himself for some time, Simon grew tired of bouncing from one foot to the other and crouched down at the doctor's side. "Can't you just say some magic and make it open?" "No!" Morgenes hissed. "A wise man never, I repeat, never uses the Art when he doesn't need to—especially when dealing with another adept, like our Father Pryrates. We might as well sign my name to it." As Simon sat back on his heels and scowled, the doctor placed his left hand flat in the middle of the area where the door had been; after a moment's light palpation of the surface he hit it smartly with the heel of his right hand. The door popped open, pouring torchlight into the room. The doctor peeked through, then dropped his lamp-crystal into the hem of his voluminous sleeve and pulled out a stitched leather bag. "Ah, Simon-lad," he chuckled, quietly, "what a thief I would have made. It was not a 'magic door'—only hidden by use of the Art. Come on, now!" They stepped through into the damp stone corridor. Their footfalls made syrupy echoes as they slipped and stepped down the walkway to the corridor's end and the locked door. After a moment's examination of the lock Morgenes stepped to the peephole and peered inside. "I think you're right, lad," he hissed. "Nuanni's Shinbonel But I wish you weren't." He returned to the scrutiny of the lock. "Run up to the end of the corridor and keep an ear open, won't you?" As Simon stood guard, Morgenes fished around in his leather bag, at last extracting a long, needle-thin blade set in a wooden handle. He waved it merrily at Simon. "Naraxi pig-sticker. Knew it would come in useful one day!" He tested it against the keyhole; it slid into the aperture with room to spare. He removed it and shook a tiny jar from his bag which he uncorked with his teeth. As Simon watched, fascinated, Morgenes upended the jar and poured a dark, sticky substance onto the needle blade, then quickly poked the tip back into the keyhole; it left glistening traces as it passed into the lock. Morgenes wiggled the pig-sticker for a moment, then stepped back and counted on his fingers. When he had talked both hands three times each, he grasped the slender handle and twisted. He grimaced and let go.