MOBILISING THE TROOPS
Sammy had heard enough. She turned and sat with her back to the tent, clutching her stomach. She was glad she hadn’t eaten breakfast. Footsteps approached, but she couldn’t bring herself to look up until a shadow fell over her.
“What you heard just now needs to be kept secret,” he said. He was calm, no anger in his voice.
“You knew I was here?”
“Not at first, but I wouldn’t have lasted long as a magus without knowing when someone was sneaking up on me.”
“Are you part of the Order?”
Hami smiled. “No. Narok was once. But we captured and converted him, made him our informant. The Order found out and tried to kill him, but we saved him and enrolled him in the Marzban guard. He’s never had the opportunity to prove his loyalty so he owes a debt to us. You don’t have to worry about him.”
“Why didn’t you tell me the crabmen were after me?”
“What good would it have done? I wanted to get you to our safehouse without you ever having to know.”
Sammy stared down at her hands and picked at a fingernail.
“This is our secret,” Hami said. “Okay?” He held out his hand.
Sammy didn’t take it, and got up by herself.
“Look. I’m sorry about … everything. A lot of people are relying on me. I’m stressed, sick … There is so much riding on this mission.” His piercing blue eyes met hers. “And Mehrak’s wrong. I do care about you. I hope you know that. I won’t let anything
happen to you.” He put his hand on her shoulder and gripped it tightly. “Let’s find Mehrak and get Golden Egg Cottage ready for the journey.”
Louis waved his ears as Sammy and Hami approached.
Sammy said nothing.
Louis tilted his head towards her. “Okay?” he signed.
“I’m okay,” she whispered. She walked up to him and patted his leg. Louis lowered his head and nudged her gently with an ear. Sammy wondered if he could tell how nervous she was from her breathing or body language, and whether he’d say anything to Mehrak. She didn’t want anyone to know about the black book in the library or about her dream. Although, part of her wanted to open up to Mehrak, for him to tell her that everything would be alright and that she’d be going home soon.
Eggie’s backdoor slammed and Leiss came charging round the side of the cottage.
“Principal Hootan,” he said when he saw Hami. His eyes were red and his face blotchy. “I need your help.”
Hami looked at him blankly.
“You have to convince General Grotta to let me come with you. I know whatever killed Borzin had something to do with Sammy.” He composed himself. “I want to be part of this escort mission.”
“I don’t think that would be wise, considering what you’ve been through. But I can speak to him about granting you leave if you wish.”
“I don’t want leave. Borzin asked me to take care of Sammy. He wanted her to have protection. General Grotta said he can’t spare any karkadann, but I could travel in Golden Egg Cottage. Mehrak said it’s okay.”
“Sammy has enough protection. Use this as an opportunity to spend time with your family.”
“I don’t have a family; my wife’s left me. She moved out when my mother moved in. I’ve got nothing to stay for. Borzin made me
promise to do this for him. I have to go. His last words were …” Leiss trailed off. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. He turned away as tears rolled down his cheeks.
Sammy watched him struggle to get a grip. She didn’t like watching grown men cry. It reminded her of the time her dad cried after Mama had walked into the door and broken her jaw, he’d stormed out of the house, and Mama had to take herself to A & E. Sammy went too so her mum didn’t have to explain herself to a babysitter.
Her dad didn’t return home until the early hours of the morning, well after they’d got back from the hospital. She heard him stumble in, knocking stuff over and slurring his words. He kept apologising and crying about something, but her mum had said nothing. After that day, she never spoke of it again.
A deep wound opened in Sammy’s chest. Mama was always so cheerful. No matter how many accidents she had, she always put on a brave face and had a smile whenever Sammy needed one.
She watched Leiss, guilty for feeling nothing for him. Fear for herself was all her head had space for. Fear of the crabmen. Fear of Hami taking her away. But mainly the fear that she wouldn’t be seeing her mum any time soon, maybe forever.
Leiss took several shuddering breaths and looked directly into Hami’s eyes. “Can you talk to General Grotta?” he asked. “He’s ordered me to man a post here.”
“I think he’s right,” Hami said.
Leiss maintained eye contact. “I’m begging you.”
Hami gritted his teeth. “I’ll talk to him. Take Sammy inside and help Mehrak prepare for our departure.”
Sammy and Leiss were sat at the kitchen table watching Mehrak pour the tea when the backdoor hatch slammed, followed by the sound of feet on the stairs. Hami entered the kitchen and, without stopping, continued to the tower staircase.
“You’re in,” he said to Leiss. “I hope you’re already packed.” And he carried on up the stairs to the tower.
Sammy left the table and went after him. In the bedroom, she saw him exit through the curtains to the front balcony and followed.
“Can you take us over to General Grotta please, Louis?” Hami said.
Louis pulled forward, heaving Golden Egg Cottage towards the line of thirty Marzban on their karkadann.
Sammy watched through the curtain.
“What’s going on?” Mehrak said as he and Leiss nudged past Sammy and out onto the balcony.
“Not now,” Hami said. “I’m about to address the men.”
Mehrak pursed his lips but said nothing. Leiss stood alert, his big chest puffed out.
Louis stopped at the line of karkadann. Sammy recognised Eva, Kelzar, Danush and Ali among the Marzban in the line-up. Eva smiled up at her and winked.
“Ladies and gentlemen!” Hami called out.
The campsite fell silent, the Marzban sat up, and all eyes moved to him.
“This is not going to be an easy mission,” he said, “despite what you may think. New Ecbatana may only be a seven-day ride away, but there are forces out to stop us. And they will try to stop us at any cost.” He paused. “See this girl?” He gestured for Sammy to come forward and approach the railing. “She is the reason the crabmen attacked Honton Keep two nights ago.”
Mehrak and Leiss gasped. The other Marzban stared, unblinking and open mouthed, regarding her as if she were a freak.
Nope. Sammy still didn’t like the attention.
Hami went on: “You are working directly for the magi now and you will take your orders from me. We will be engaging crabmen. And that means the Order!”
The Marzban shared anxious glances and muttered to each other.
Mehrak sidled up next to Sammy. “I knew you were one of those chosen children,” he whispered. “You’re special.”
Sammy thought back to the book in the library. Special was right. Not the sort of special Mehrak had in mind, though.
“The Order is coming for Sammy,” Hami shouted. The guards fell silent again. “And it will stop at nothing, nothing, until it has her. Some of my brothers were dispatched to assist us, but they’ve been intercepted and won’t reach us in time now. It’s likely we’ll run into trouble, too. I apologise for not revealing this sooner, but our mission is classified and must not be made public. Be under no illusion that the road ahead will be easy. There will be conflict and some of you may die. Just know that you’re working towards a higher cause.” Hami held his staff up and ignited the ball on the end. “May Ahura be with us!”
The Marzban joined in with the chant, but it was closer to a mumble and was without cheer. Narok pulled up alongside Louis. He was dressed in the navy blue combat gear of the other Marzban. His large, black karkadann had been equipped for battle with a streamlined saddle, and the base of its horn gilded.
Hami turned to him. “General,” he said.
Narok turned to his men, raised his sword, then let it drop. The Marzban pulled at their reins and led their karkadann around Golden Egg Cottage to form a hairy wall of muscle.
“Let’s go, Louis,” Hami said.
Louis performed a slow about-turn, then punched forward, carrying Eggie’s passengers away from Honton Keep and out into the fog. And, Sammy supposed, in the general direction of New Ecbatana. But where they were really going, she had no idea.