NOT OUT OF THE WOODS
Mehrak said nothing on the walk back to the palace. Or when Borzin dropped them off. He said nothing at the communal room and went straight to his bedroom without so much as a ‘good night’.
Sammy went to her room and sat on the bed. If only she’d climbed into her mum’s bed instead of messing with the bracelet dial. She took off her shoes, placed them neatly together, and then climbed into bed, pulling the cover over her head.
She woke when she heard someone moving around in the communal room. She sat up, slipped out of bed, crept over to her bedroom door and opened it a crack.
Hami was at the table, arms folded, head down.
“You’re alright?” she asked as she entered the room.
Hami nodded, but didn’t look up. He looked worse than ever. If he hadn’t moved, Sammy might have thought he was dead. His face was pale, his cheeks and eye sockets hollow and purple. His brown clothes were somehow scruffier than they had been and he had cuts on his hands and face.
“A full-scale attack.” He opened his eyes and the whites were red all the way around.
Mehrak burst into the room. “What happened to Louis? He’d better be okay –”
Hami turned on him. “He’s fine! The crabmen didn’t make base camp. And I had four Marzban assigned to him, like I promised!”
Mehrak stopped. “I … I’m sorry. I’ve been so worried. I barely slept.”
“I haven’t slept,” Hami said. “At all. I just got back.”
“I’m sorry.” Mehrak turned to leave.
“It’s alright,” Hami said. “You were worried. I get it. But he’s fine. So let’s all keep calm.”
“Is it over?” Sammy asked.
“Almost.” Hami picked up a small root vegetable from the bowl in front of him. “The Marzban are clearing the last of the crabmen from the area – the ones that haven’t already fled or been killed.” He inspected the vegetable then dropped it back into the bowl.
“How many were there?” Mehrak asked.
“The fog made it impossible to tell. A lot. They outnumbered us something like twenty to one.”
“You really are alright though, aren’t you?” Sammy asked.
Hami smiled. It might have been the first genuine smile she’d seen on him. It made him seem younger. He looked closer to his actual age in his early twenties, not the beaten down, middle-aged man he appeared to be at other times. He was nice-looking when he smiled.
“Yes. Thank you,” he said.
“Did you kill any?” Sammy asked. “What about Narok? Did he kill some? And the other Marzban, are they okay?”
Hami’s smile waned. “Slow down. Narok’s fine; a lot of the others weren’t so lucky. I think we lost around fifty men and women with many more casualties. Which, considering the numbers we were up against, is a miracle.”
The room lapsed into silence.
“I’m going to take Sammy to visit an old friend of mine at the Keep,” Mehrak said after a time. “Will you be accompanying us?”
“No,” Hami said. “But thanks for the offer. I have to help plan for our departure tomorrow.”
“Mine and Sammy’s. Honton Keep isn’t as safe as I originally thought. I need to take her to the capital and into the protection of the magi.”
“Sammy’s and your departure? When was this decided? She’s staying with me. You can go to the capital if you want …”
“Sammy is not going to wander Perseopia unprotected. She’s from the Mother World. She’s too important. I’m taking her to Grand Master Aegis in New Ecbatana. She’ll be safe there.”
“You’re going to kidnap her?” Mehrak said.
“Don’t be so dramatic. Sammy’s not yours to keep and I’m not leaving her to drift through the Fungi Forest in a ramshackle caravan.”
Mehrak’s face flushed.
“Sammy needs protection,” Hami said. “And she’s going to get it. End of discussion.”
“I actually care about Sammy,” Mehrak said. “She only matters to you because she’s special.”
“Don’t I get a say in this?” Sammy asked.
Hami turned to her. “You’ve arrived in Perseopia with no family and nowhere to live. What are your options? Keep Mehrak company until he finds his wife? Once she’s back in the picture you’ll find yourself ditched in the middle of the forest again.”
“No she won’t!” Mehrak blurted out. “Gisouie would understand.”
“Would she? You’re shacked up with a young, beautiful sixteen-year-old who’s living with you and sleeping in your bed.”
Beautiful? Sammy suppressed a smile. That probably wasn’t the correct response in this situation, but she’d never received that particular compliment before. Not that beauty was something she necessarily wanted to define herself by, but it was pretty cool.
“It’s not like that,” Mehrak said. “Gisouie trusts me.”
“Regardless of your good intentions, Sammy also needs protection. And you can’t provide it, which you’ve already proven by losing your wife. I can’t, in good conscience, allow a visitor from
the Mother World to die wandering the Fungi Forest. The crabmen attacked the Keep in force last night. We need to leave and get Sammy into the safe hands of the magi.”
Mehrak scowled but didn’t respond.
“I would’ve thought you’d welcome someone else taking responsibility for her. You’ll be free to carry on looking for your wife. The Cataclysm isn’t far off the route we’ll be taking to the capital. That’s as good a place as any to look for her. The Regent has signed off on an entourage of thirty Marzban and karkadann for us. You should take advantage of that and travel with us.”
Mehrak’s eyes narrowed. “Thirty Marzban? Isn’t that a bit excessive?”
“Sammy’s safety is our top priority.”
“You really have her best interests at heart?”
“I do,” Hami said, without breaking eye contact.
Mehrak said nothing.
Hami got up. “I need to make preparations for our departure tomorrow. I’ve asked for a couple of Marzban to accompany you around the Keep today. They’ve given us Leiss and Borzin.”
“Does that mean we’re no longer safe up here in the Keep?” Mehrak asked.
“The crabmen attacked the Keep from four separate directions last night: north, west, south-west and south-east. It took all the Marzban to hold them back.”
“A four-pronged attack. I’m no soldier, but I know it makes sense to strike your target from multiple directions.”
“That’s true, but they could’ve spread out more. There was a gaping hole between the north and south-east prongs on the side of the Keep opposite base camp; a hole that we could only spare a couple of Marzban to sentry.”
“You think they were creating a diversion? Did the sentries pick up anything?”
“One said the area stayed quiet all night. The other is missing.”
Typical. Vafa was already at his post and looking alert.
Teymour laboured up the steps to the window at the edge of the Keep. He was getting too old for these long shifts. He’d been fighting crabmen all night and was beaten. Vafa, on the other hand, looked like he’d just leapt out of bed after a full night’s sleep. The lad could fight all day and still be spritely for a sentry shift.
At the top of the steps, Teymour took a deep breath and blew it out. The cool breeze that skimmed off the top of the fog wasn’t enough to perk him up, but it helped.
Vafa had propped himself against the frame of the window, arms crossed, one foot against the stone. He smirked.
“Struggling are we, grandad?”
“You wait until you get to my age,” Teymour said.
“Maybe a sip of this will wake you up.” Vafa reached into his cloak and pulled out a small silver flask.
“I can’t believe your wife sewed a pocket into your cloak so you could drink on the job.”
“It’s great isn’t it?”
“I think it’s disgraceful.”
Vafa smiled. “So you don’t want any?”
“Well. It’d be a shame to let it go to waste.” Teymour took the flask. “Obviously I wouldn’t be doing this if we’d been given proper work to do.”
Teymour took a long draught and sighed contentedly as the warming liquid slipped down his throat.
“Do you think we’ve done something wrong?” he asked. “I mean, we’ve been fighting crabmen all night, and then they give us an early morning sentry shift on the wall. I could understand if we’d been given base camp side. But here on the quietest section of wall with no lifts? What’s that all about?”
“I know, right? Are those crabbies really going to sneak past our karkadann and scale the rock?”
Teymour handed the flask back. He put his hands on his hips and exhaled loudly. “Right. I need to take a leak,” he said.
“You just got here. I suppose you’re losing bladder control in your old age too?”
“Enough with the old jokes.” Teymour shuffled back down the steps and entered a narrow alley between two houses. He’d just found himself a discreet corner and relaxed when Vafa called out:
“Teymour! Come and look at this!”
“I can’t,” Teymour called back. “I’ve already started.”
“There’s hot steam coming up from the Moat.”
“Okay. Wait,” Teymour said. “Just give me a moment.” He pulled at his trousers, tucked himself in and rushed out of the alley.
Steam was rising from the Moat and coming in through the large square window.
Vafa had gone.
“Vafa?” Teymour jogged to the top of the steps, his earlier tiredness forgotten.
Vafa’s silver flask was on the floor. Teymour groaned as he bent over to pick the thing up. Was this a prank? It was the sort of thing Vafa would do. But something didn’t feel right.
The temperature was going up and thick steam was coming up from the fog, making it hard to see. Maybe Vafa had become disorientated and fallen off the edge.
Teymour fumbled inside his uniform, pulled out his whistle and put it to his lips.
He didn’t blow. They’d both been drinking. If Vafa was playing a prank and he sounded the alarm, they’d both wind up in big trouble. He’d have a quick scout around first, then, if Vafa didn’t show up, he’d call it in.
First he was going to find out where the steam was coming from. Vafa might’ve had the same idea and fallen over the edge when he’d gone to look, so Teymour wasn’t going to take any chances. He lay down on his chest and eased himself along the
floor, scraping his clothes on the stone as he did so. He imagined what his commander would say if he could see him ruining his uniform in such an undignified manner. What would his wife say when she saw his scuffed buttons?
He stuck his head out into the column of steam and flinched as the hot vapour hit him. He closed his eyes and rubbed his face. He was going to have another look anyway. He covered his face with his hands and peered through his fingers.
His heart stuttered in his chest. There was someone below, clinging to the side of the rock. Just a black shape, but definitely a person.
“Vafa!” Teymour shouted.
No reply. The figure shifted, and pulled itself higher. Closer.
Teymour extended his hand. “Almost there! I got you, buddy.”
A hand shot up and grabbed his wrist. It was scalding hot, burning his skin. Before he could scream, it yanked him off the edge and he was in free fall.
Five stadia below the Keep, Teymour’s body hit the rocks. It flopped haphazardly, tumbling over itself like a ragdoll, until it came to rest at the bottom of the pile of stones, next to his friend Vafa, who lay dead beside him.