science fiction and fantasy writer

The Canal Barge Magician’s Number Nine Daughter

Something thumped onto the deck. Behra peered out into the rain from the shelter of her little hut at the front of the canal barge. The only light nearby was from the barge’s running lanterns and the open door of the coal furnace at the far end of the deck. The glow of the town’s street lamps was too weak to reach across the canal.

Her half-brother, Geneic, was by the furnace, his heavy Saltukkuri features lit orange while he bent his back against the downpour, shovelling coal. In the shadows of his brows, his eyes glowed a deeper red than the fire. In the wheelhouse beyond him, Behra could make out Chiufi’s smaller silhouette. Their father and Sorgui, Geneic’s twin, were asleep belowdecks.

A small shape skittered across the deck, nearer to Behra than to Geneic. She bit back a cry. Whatever it was, it wasn’t the right shape for a rat or a water dragon or a cat. She waited, watching and listening. The only movement on deck was Geneic, the only sounds aside from the patter of rain were the rasp of his shovel in the coal and the thud-thud of the barge’s steam engine.

She sat back, dissatisfied, and pulled her blankets back around her. Her ankle chain scraped across the boards.

“Don’t be afraid,” said a tinkling voice, right beside her in the hut.

Behra yelped.

“Shh!” said the voice, urgently.

Her heart rattled inside her ribs. Slowly, her eyes began to make out the speaker. It was man-shaped, slender, but it stood only about the height of her knee, the top of its head well clear of the hut’s low roof.

“Are you a fairy?” she breathed.

The visitor laughed, a sound like the chimes Behra had sometimes heard on the sedans of Ornomagnen ladies, and stepped from the shadows into the faint light of the deck.

Behra’s eyes widened. The visitor was a porcelain doll, its sculpted features those of a young Ornomagnen gentleman. It was dressed in a gentleman’s frock coat and hose, damp from the rain, its outfit completed by tiny brass-buckled shoes and a tricorn hat.

“You’re a doll,” Behra said.

“A golem,” it corrected. “I am in disguise. Do you speak Ornomagnen? My Rhuinish is limited.”

Behra blinked. It hadn’t occurred to her what language they were speaking. “Only a little.” She could understand better than she could speak.

“No matter,” said the doll, briskly. “I am Palinday.” He swept off his hat and executed a courtly bow, revealing a head of real yellow hair, tied with ribbon at the back of his neck. His eyes glittered blue, catching the lamplight.

“Behra.”

“Little Nine?” he said in Ornomagnen, translating her name. His face moved so little as the doll spoke that Behra wondered if she imagined his amusement.

She pulled away, tucking her knees up in front of her. Her chain clanked. Palinday’s eyes followed it from her foot to the ring bolted to the frame of her hut. Now she was certain that his expression changed, painted brows drawing together in a frown.

She glanced towards the back of the barge. Geneic was looking towards the bank, sniffing the air. Chiufi, too, had turned his head that way.

Palinday said, “Hide me!”

Behra looked at him in confusion, but the doll was already burrowing under her blankets.

“Hide me,” he repeated, muffled by the covers.

An approaching commotion reached her ears. Disregarding the rain, Behra crawled half out of the hut to see.

Soldiers flooded onto the bank, bursting from several streets at once. Their shouts identified them as Rhuinishmen. They milled about, musket barrels and halberd blades catching the light of the lamps many of them held, while their dogs cast this way and that along the canal wall.

One raised his voice above the rest. “You there! Bargeman! Did you see a fugitive come this way?”

There was quiet for several heartbeats. The soldier crabbed sideways as the barge continued to chug along. Geneic stared mutely back at him. Then Chiufi called back from the wheelhouse, “Beg pardon, sir, but my brother don’t speak.”

“Then speak for him, boy!” said the soldier. “Or fetch up your captain if you have not the wit to answer for yourself! And bring your vessel in to the bank.”

Behra eased back into the shadows of her hut. She couldn’t help a guilty start as she bumped against the doll’s hard little limbs. Chiufi slowed the barge but made no move to steer it to the bank. Geneic’s sloping brow beetled as Chiufi called for him to take the wheel. Chiufi hurried for the hatch at the rear of the barge and disappeared below. Geneic’s silhouette all but filled the wheelhouse, his eyes glowing sullenly.

All the soldiers were pacing the barge now. A squad hurried ahead. There was a bridge at the end of the town, Behra remembered.

An angry bellow announced their father’s emergence. Aghor stamped up onto the deck, followed by Sorgui. Chiufi slunk up the ladder behind them and along beside the barge’s rail to join Behra in her hut. He squeezed her fingers, his gaunt features tight with worry. Behra felt her face heat, acutely conscious of the fugitive hidden in her blankets.

Aghor planted his feet wide to face the soldiers, ignoring the rain, his sleeveless vest exposing the black bramble tattoos coiled around his arms, fists on hips to pull back the vest and reveal the belt around his thick waist, made from the mummified foetuses and umbilicals of Behra’s sisters.

She saw many of the soldiers draw back, making signs in front of their hearts to ward off black magic. Behra’s lip curled. The soldier who had called out to Chiufi raised his voice again, but there was a tremor in it now. “Bargeman, bring your vessel to the bank. We are hunting a fugitive and have reason to believe it may be on your barge.”

Her father lifted his chin. “In whose name do you order this?”

“In the name of Lord Tibuir,” said the soldier, some of his confidence returning with the invocation of his master’s name.

Aghor grunted and spat into the canal. The soldier’s posture was rigid, full of offence and fear. “And what manner of fugitive is it,” said Aghor, “that you refer to as ‘it’?”

“A golem,” said the soldier, “in the form of a child’s doll.”

Aghor guffawed. “A doll, is it?” He started to turn his back. “I have no truck with Ornomagnen trickery. Go back to your kennels, dogs. Tell Tibuir’s Hound that if she wishes for Aghor’s vessel to be searched, then she should come and see to it herself.”

Behra wondered if the soldier would argue, or perhaps even order his fellows to shoot, but her father’s name had power among Rhuinishmen. Hearing it deflated the last of the his bluster.

A shadow passed across the barge. The bridge. Behra looked upwards as they cleared it. A row of pale faces peered back from under the brows of their helmets.

“I wonder what that was all about?” said Chiufi.

“It’s here,” Behra said.

“What?”

She felt Palinday shift behind her. “It’s here. The doll, under the…”

She froze. Their father was striding towards them. Behra didn’t look up as he squatted in front of her, the shrivelled corpses of her aborted sisters dangling between his thighs. Chiufi gripped her fingers hard. She squeezed back, afraid for him, too, and wishing her hate could give him strength.

If their father found the doll, it would be Chiufi who would be punished for her misdemeanour, not Behra. She tried not to look at her brother’s fingers, clenched in her own, at the small, misshapen nails that had grown back after Aghor had pulled them.

Her heart beat painfully hard. I’m sorry, Chiufi.

“Hand,” Aghor said.

It took all Behra’s will not to slump with relief. Her arm trembled with it as she held it out. From the corner of her eye, she saw her father drop his scrying bowl onto the deck. His rough fingers caught her hand, bending it back. She gritted her teeth as the point of his knife dug into her wrist, opening a vein. He squeezed, dripping her blood into the bowl. A sharp porcelain elbow or knee dug into the side of her leg like an accusation. She tried to keep her breathing steady. Surely her father must sense the doll’s presence.

Sorgui crouched by the boat’s rail, eyes closed, his brutish face lifted to the rain. He must have felt Behra’s scrutiny, because he twisted his neck to look back, his red eyes locking with hers.

After what seemed an eternity, her father released her.

“Boy,” he said to Chiufi, “get back to the wheel.”

With a grunt of exertion, he rose and walked away, not waiting to see if Chiufi complied. Behra sucked her bleeding wrist. Chiufi released her and pulled out the grimy rag he kept in his pocket to quickly tear off a strip. Behra watched her father squat in front of the coal furnace and open the hatch. He reached in, bare-handed, to take out a burning coal which he dropped into the scrying dish.

Behra felt heat spread up her arm and through her chest.

“It is here,” said Chiufi, in surprise.

Palinday had sat up.

“You have to get off this boat,” Chiufi hissed, catching Behra’s wrist to bind her cut, his movements hurried. “If father finds out about you, we’ll get hell for it.”

Behra only half-heard him. Her head was full of her father’s murmured incantation. The words blazed across her mind. “Sarhgu torosch abh. Sarghu feic abh…” she mouthed. She didn’t know what the words meant, but she knew what they did – a scrying spell.

Palinday watched her. “He uses your blood to power his magic.”

“She’s the ninth daughter,” said Chiufi. He finished tying his knot and released her.

“Ah,” said Palinday. “That is a foul thing.”

“Foul or not, it’ll go even worse if you’re found,” Chiufi snapped. His fear grew like a cloud in Behra’s altered perception.

“He’s looking for me now,” said Palinday.

“Then go!” Chiufi sounded almost in tears.

Behra could feel her father’s probing thoughts pressing up against her own. She pushed back, Chiufi’s fear making her react without thinking. Aghor’s attention slid easily aside. He didn’t react, unaware of what she had done. Her pulse thumped, surprise and relief combined.

“I must get to Ardonailles,” Palinday announced. He stood up, set his hat onto his head, and stepped out into the rain.

Chiufi let out a whine of terror.

By the furnace, Aghor looked up. The spell blinked out and Behra snapped abruptly back to her proper senses. Sorgui rose, looking to their father for instruction.

“Aghor the Bargeman,” Palinday said, in Ornomagnen. “I am here.”

 “So you are,” replied Behra’s father, after a moment, in the same language. “And what have you done, little golem, to pull Lord Tibuir’s beard?”

“I have information for Lord Emieldraeu,” said Palinday. “The reward for aiding me would be substantial.”

“The King’s Spymaster,” said Aghor. Then, sharply: “You would have me betray a fellow Rhuinishman to our Ornomagnen oppressors?”

“I think you have little fondness for Lord Tibuir,” said Palinday, giving Sorgui a glance as he strolled past him. “And the slogans of the oppressed do not sit well on your tongue, magician.”

Behra’s father chuckled. The sound made her shiver. He stood, towering over the little doll.

Palinday stood his ground. “I am well warded against harm.”

Aghor gave a snort. “I have cargo for Verdecastre. We can take you on to Nouvebourg from there.”

“Ardonailles,” said Palinday. “I need to get to Ardonailles.”

Aghor’s eyebrows rose. “Not to the King’s city?”

“My journey needs to be direct,” said Palinday. “You will be amply compensated for any loss on your cargo.”

Behra’s father regarded the doll for a moment, then harrumphed. “Very well, little golem. It pleases me to irk Tibuir. Too often business interferes with such pleasures. I will have that reward and compensation.”

“And you will not punish the girl for hiding me,” said Palinday.

Behra recognised the danger in her father’s sudden stillness. Sorgui dropped halfway into a fighting crouch, broad hands flexing. It was several heartbeats before Aghor spoke, and when he did, there was an edge to his tone that belied his words, “Indeed. It would seem that she has brought me fortune.”

His gaze fell on Chiufi. “Boy! Get back to the wheel!”

#

The skies had cleared at last. Behra sat out on the deck with Chiufi, enjoying the sun while they shared a pot of salted gruel. Palinday remained in the hut, sheltered from prying eyes.

Geneic and Sorgui squatted together by the wheelhouse, gazing incuriously at the traffic passing on the water and the canal-side road. Aghor was at the wheel.

Behra looked up at the pale walls of the fortress city as they slipped by. The flat tops of the walls bristled with cannon. Banners fluttered in the breeze, bright against the sooty background of smoke from the city’s manufactories. She recognised the red and gold of Ornomagne hung above the green and white of Rhuin.

Palinday spoke up, “Those…” He paused. “Your father’s belt, those are your sisters?”

Behra hunched her shoulders against the question. Chiufi answered, gruffly, “They are.”

There was another silence from the doll. Behra concentrated on the castle flags.

“And your brothers?”

“Father made them birth early,” said Chiufi, “same as our sisters, and tossed them over the side. At least one, after me. Probably others, before. All but them two.”

Behra’s eyes were drawn to Geneic and Sorgui, crouched side-by-side like a pair of gargoyles. Their half-human, half-demiman faces always looked sad to her when their expressions were relaxed.

“And them?” asked Palinday.

“Father bought himself a Saltukkuri bitch, and got them on her,” said Chiufi. Noticing that Behra had stopped eating, he pulled the gruel pot onto his lap to scrape out the last of it.

“How many women?”

“Our mother, theirs. Others, maybe.”

Behra’s hands hurt. Her fists were clenched, nails digging into her palms.

“Bloody Sword and Chalice,” the doll muttered.

The canal broadened, docks lining the bank, bustling with barges and carts. Behra gazed up at the black iron girders of the steam powered dock cranes, like a row of giants’ gallows. Immense iron gates stood open, the way between them a gaping black mouth in the wall with portcullis teeth, swallowing and regurgitating endless streams of carts and coaches, riders and walkers. A train of coal wagons rattled along narrow tracks into the darkness, towed behind a huffing steam engine.

“Boy!”

Chiufi flinched at Aghor’s shout. Behra touched his arm before he went. “Be strong.”

“To the bow, boy!”

Soon now, Behra thought, doubting even as she told herself. Could she really be strong enough?

Her chain tugged against her ankle. She looked to see Palinday running his tiny, perfect fingers over the links, porcelain clicking on metal. His eyes met hers. “This chain is not thick,” he said. “It would be easily broken.”

Behra cast a glance over her shoulder at her father in the wheelhouse. He was looking past them at the waterway ahead. She glared at Palinday. “Be silent!”

He stared back with his gemstone eyes. “He always knows where you are.”

“The thread that joins us gets thinner as we get further apart,” Behra said. “I think it would break, if I got far enough away.”

“You’ve tried,” said Palinday.

Behra looked away, feeling hot moisture in her eyes.

“It was Chiufi your father beat when he caught you,” he guessed.

She shook her head. Not a beating. Her hands twitched, about to lift and cover her ears, filled again with her brother’s awful, wrenching cries as his fingernails were pulled out.

She covered her grief and guilt with a snarl. “One day…”

Palinday’s eyes glittered. “My master, Lord Emieldraeu, would give you sanctuary.”

For a moment, Behra could hardly breath.

The thud of the steam engine was slowing. She looked around.

Ahead, the land dropped away abruptly on either side of the canal. In the far distance beyond the edge, she could see low hills and chequered farmland. A gantry spanned the canal. Chimneys poured out thick smoke from the roof of a brick engine house on the bank. The canal ended in a wall inset with a row of gated, iron-sided bays. The gates of one bay opened, releasing a brief rush of water and a laden barge.

Aghor’s barge slid smoothly into an open bay, Chiufi fending it off the walls with his barge pole. High on the gantry, gears and chains clanked. The gates were lowered, one behind the other. Lock workers guided the inner gate into grooves in the walls of the bay, turning it into a tub that held the barge and the water on which it floated.

Aghor emerged from the wheelhouse. Behra saw the eyes of the Rhuinish tax collector widen. She heard him stammer as he hastily stamped her father’s manifest and took no money before he turned to wave urgently to his fellows on the gantry.

Ponderously, with tortured screams of metal on metal, the lift tub began to descend the steep face of the Rhuin Wall. Palinday risked peeping around the edge of the hut. Behra had a sudden urge to reach out and touch his fine clothes, stroke his golden hair. She kept her hands in her lap.

“Now there’s a thing,” the doll said.

Beyond the girders of the lift tower, the city extended out onto an outcrop of rock, prow-shaped, walled tiers descending the height of the cliff.

“Rhuincastre,” said Palinday.

“Neic ap Nagh,” replied Behra, giving the great city the Rhuinish name she’d always heard her father use.

“The anvil of kings,” said Palinday, in Ornomagnen.

Beyond the city, a broad waterfall tumbled over the edge of the cliff. The sheer face of the Rhuin Wall extended into the distance on both directions, unbroken as far as the eye could see.

Palinday ducked back inside as the counterweight tub passed, going the opposite way. A row of children of different ages, boys and girls, sat on the other barge’s deck. One little boy waved.

“Father!” called Chiufi. He was on his tiptoes on the barge’s rail, leaning out against the tub wall to look down.

Aghor stamped over to see. A quick glance and he swore and swung back around. “Golem! How well can you hide yourself?”

The doll got to his feet, his tiny tricorn hat in his hand. “I cannot be scryed out.”

“That is fortunate,” said Aghor, striding to the back of the barge, “because Tibuir’s Hound is waiting for you below.”

Behra’s chest tightened.

Palinday trotted after Aghor. “You have a hiding place for me?”

Behra’s father opened the hatch to the coalbunker. Palinday peered inside, then stepped back. “I am not going in there,” he declared.

“It’s in there or over the side,” said Aghor.

Behra caught her father’s subtle hand gesture to Sorgui. While the doll still hesitated, she watched her half-brother slowly extend a long-fingered hand towards Palinday’s back. She squeezed her lips together, desperate to call out a warning.

Sorgui struck. With a squawk, Palinday toppled into the bunker.

“Bury yourself deep, little golem,” said Aghor, and slammed the hatch shut.

Geneic and Sorgui chuckled their slow, barking laughs.

Chiufi slunk across to join Behra by her hut. Their father pulled his shirt off and dropped it to the deck, planting himself where he would be most visible to the lock workers. After a moment he reconsidered and hurried over to Behra, drawing his little knife and gesturing impatiently for her hand.

This time he only pricked her finger, squeezing painfully to smear her blood along his forearms. He marched back to his post near the rail, wiping the blood over his tattoos and muttering a hasty incantation.

Guigen negui rei,” Behra mouthed. “Guigen negui rei.”

The bramble tattoos on Aghor’s arms began to writhe like nests of spiked snakes. The skin on Behra’s arms crawled in sympathy. With an effort, she pushed the words to the back of her mind.

She leaned close to Chiufi, her lips almost touching his ear. “We’ll run at Ardonailles. Palinday says his master will protect us.”

Chiufi gasped and stared at her. Terror made him shake his head.

Behra gripped his hand, bigger and stronger than hers. “We must.”

The lift reached the bottom of the cliff. She saw soldiers among the lock workers, dressed in the same uniforms as those they’d seen the night before. Lord Tibuir’s men. She saw lock workers and soldiers alike blanch at the sight of her father.

A pair of workers hurried to open the lift gates, ignoring the angry shouts of a soldier with a gold-trimmed jacket. Behra caught the brief, satisfied twitch at the corner of her father’s mouth as the gates cranked up and the barge bumped out of the lift tub on a rush of water.

There were Rhuinish soldiers lining the low parapet on the near bank, more soldiers crowding a barge anchored cross-wise to the canal, partly blocking it. Some of the soldiers held the leashes of dogs. There were others with the soldiers, too, shorter and stockier, stooping with flat heads thrust forward, red eyes gleaming. Saltukkuri – true demimen, not half-castes like Geneic and Sorgui. Behra looked between her half-brothers and those on the shores, noting the differences, the flatter foreheads and heavier jaws of the full-bloods. Geneic and Sorgui stood up tall, lifting their heads and puffing out their chests, making themselves as large as possible.

The Saltukkuri with the soldiers had chips of red jewel in the centres of their brows, seemingly embedded there. Among them stood a Rhuinishwoman in red robes and cloaks, a similar, larger jewel upon her own forehead.

Her expression was thunderous. Up on top of the lift gate, there was scuffling between the workers and soldiers, the soldiers beating at the workers with the butts of their weapons.

Chiufi sprang up as their father barked orders. Aghor wore a lopsided smirk as he set his sons to work bringing the barge in to shore. Glancing up at the fracas on the lift gate, he called out to the woman magician, “It seems that folk still fear the old ways more than your new tricks, Hound.”

“Simple folk are most easily fooled by simple tricks,” the magician woman replied. “We will search your boat, Aghor.”

Soldiers reached out with hooked poles to catch the barge’s rails.

“Ah yes, your master’s lost doll,” said Aghor. “If Lord Tibuir plays with his dolls as he plays with his page boys then I can understand why the thing ran away. But you will not find it on my barge.”

Tibuir’s Hound stepped aboard.

“Where are you headed, Bargeman?”

“Verdencastre,” said Aghor. “Then Nouvebourg.”

The Hound arched an eyebrow. “Indeed?”

Soldiers and Saltukkuri swarmed after her, surrounding Aghor, Geneic and Sorgui. There was a deal of grunting and growling between the Saltukkuri and Behra’s half-brothers. She shuffled back into her hut. The movement caught the red-robed magician’s eye. Behra stared up at her. The Hound’s skin was very pale and smooth, her hair and eyes very dark. Her face was handsome and unyielding, like the statues of warrior queens that Behra had seen once, in the southern provinces.

Disgust curled the Hound’s lip. “The old ways, is it? What you practice is an abomination, Aghor. Yours was never the true path of our people.” She raised her voice, “Search everywhere!”

Dogs were brought aboard. Soldiers clattered belowdecks, the hatches of the cargo holds and coalbunker were flung open. Behra’s fingers knotted in her blankets as she watched the soldiers poke their halberd blades into the bunker.

“There, too,” snapped Tibuir’s Hound.

Rough fingers caught Behra’s arm. A soldier dragged her out of her hut and pulled her blankets out after for the dogs to sniff. The animals were in a frenzy of excitement.

“Father!” Chiufi cried.

He was by the far rail of the barge, pointing urgently over the side.

“Father, I saw it! It jumped over!”

Aghor stared at him, the first time in her life Behra had ever seen him dumbfounded.

The soldier holding her joined the rush to that side of the barge, dragging her with him. Her chain yanked at her ankle as she reached its farthest extent. On the water, ripples spread in an expanding circle.

“Get some men to the far bank!” the Hound shouted. Standing close to Behra, she said, “It seems you had a stowaway, Bargeman.”

“So it would appear.” Aghor’s face was purple, set in a furious scowl. “Where was it, boy? Where did it spring from?”

Chiufi cowered. “I didn’t see, father.”

Aghor cuffed him across the top of the head.

The Hound sneered. “Perhaps your old ways are not so puissant as you think.”

Aghor’s face darkened further, filling with shadow. The tiny bodies of Behra’s sisters danced on his belt. Behra could feel the power suck into him from all around. He would need to bleed her deeply to regain his strength after this. Learn, she told herself, and tried what she felt him doing. She found that she could, and suddenly was, siphoning energy from the air, the water lapping around the barge, even the planks beneath her feet.

She turned her thoughts on the man holding her.

Invisible flame seared up the bones of her arm. The soldier grunted and let go. He stared down at Behra in surprise.

Aghor spoke, magic making his words slam like clashing stones. “You no longer have reason to hold us, Hound.”

The Hound regarded him coolly, but her face had become even paler. Her men drew back. There were muffled yelps from among the Saltukkuri. A pulse ticked in the Hound’s throat.

“As you say,” she grated. She turned on her heel, shouting, “Clear the barge! Search the canal!”

Behra looked at the red welt on her forearm in the shape of the soldier’s fingers. She felt the rough energies dissipate from her father’s body, back into the air and water. They still throbbed in her, filling her with feverish heat. Aghor snapped a curt order to Geneic and Sorgui, who flinched in unison. They left off posturing at the departing Saltukkuri and picked up bargepoles to clumsily push the boat away from shore.

Aghor looked down at his youngest son. Chiufi tensed visibly as his father raised his hand again. But Aghor stroked the place where he had struck before.

“Did well, boy.”

Behra noticed the tremor in his fingers as he lowered his arm.

#

The next morning she lay in her blankets, still weak and exhausted, while Chiufi had fed her gruel with vegetables and salted meat, a worried frown on his face the whole time. Palinday watched in silence, his coal-smeared face solemn. Behra’s father had taken a lot of blood, all the strength she had gained from copying his spell and more, but she didn’t care.

He hadn’t known. She had worked magic and he hadn’t known.

The river was heavy with traffic, ocean-going ships sharing the water with steam barges and the pleasure yachts of the idle rich. Behra gazed up at sailors climbing about the rigging of a sailing ship, high above, its sails lit gold by the lowering sun.

Aghor had left Palinday in the coalbunker most of the night. Behra had heard the doll’s tapping and his frustrated shouts in the dark. Finally released, Palinday had emerged black from head to foot, spitting angry. “There was no justification for holding me in there so long!”

Aghor had looked down at him mildly. “Tibuir’s Hound will not be fooled for long. You cannot be scryed you say, little golem, but it is harder to hide an entire barge. She will have eyes on us.” He turned away. “Be thankful I did not hold you in there all the way to your Lord Emieldraeu.”

Palinday had washed his face and hands as best he could, but his fine clothes were spoiled.

Behra heard her father shout. The bowl clattered down beside her as Chiufi sprang to obey. She felt the barge tilt as Aghor turned hard on the wheel. Buildings loomed on either side, casting the barge in sudden shadow. She felt the thump of the engine drop away, twisted her neck to see Chiufi jump ashore, rope in hand. They had pulled in to a narrow warehouse canal.

Palinday was on his feet. “Why are we stopped? This is not Ardonailles.”

Aghor glanced his way, shrugging a long coat over his shoulders. “I have business here. You will not be delayed for long, little golem.”

He hopped lightly over the rail and they watched him stride away between the warehouses. Chiufi came back aboard and slunk over to sit with Behra and Palinday.

“Would your lord really protect us?” he said, softly.

Palinday looked at him. “Yes.”

“Then we will run with you when we reach Ardonailles,” said Behra. Chiufi’s face was drawn, tense.

Palinday shook his head. “My mission must not be endangered.”

“But you said…”  

“I will return for you,” Palinday said.

Behra blinked rapidly, her eyes suddenly hot. “We will be gone.”

“Then I will find you,” said the doll.

“Swear it,” said Behra, between clenched teeth.

Palinday looked from her to Chiufi. “By my maker’s honour, I swear it.”

Chiufi nodded, but Behra saw from his face that the courage he had screwed together had crumbled once more.

Behra reached out and gave his hand a squeeze.

#

A crowd gathered as the night deepened. Rhuinish folk, although they were in Ornomagne proper now. They waited quietly, squatting on the wharf or leaning against the warehouse walls. Most of them had brought gifts, ranging from baskets of vegetables to bolts of cloth. Sorgui and Geneic squatted side-by-side at the rail, their red-eyed gazes alert.

Palinday observed the assemblage nervously. “Who are they?”

“Folk seeking spells or charms from father,” said Chiufi stiffly, after a moment. “They always gather, wherever we dock.”

The doll’s porcelain brow creased a fraction. “How do they know?”

Chiufi shrugged.

“They always do,” said Behra.

“I dislike this,” Palinday grumbled. “Where is he?”

It was a while later before Aghor returned. He marched through the crowd without acknowledgement, yelling for Chiufi to fire up the engine and cast off. The supplicants watched in silence as the barge was pushed away from the wharf and backed slowly out of the canal.

#

“Ardonailles,” Palinday announced.

Behra looked around the side of her hut. The lights of the great port city, trading hub of the Ornomagnen Empire, sprawled along either side of the river and across the many islands of its delta. Staircases of canal locks ascended the long slope of the north bank between the close-packed streets. The river itself had broadened and slowed as it neared the sea, more than a mile wide now, its surface rippling with reflected light and shadow.

Geneic squatted close by, near the starboard running lantern with an anvil between his knees, hammering a twisted grapple hook back into its proper shape. Chiufi was at the wheel, angling the barge across the flow of traffic towards the south shore. Sorgui crouched idly near the coalbunker, his shovel across his knees, watching the river traffic.

They passed a brightly lit fortress island, iron-sided Ornomagnen warships drawn up alongside, powered by steam and sails and bristling with double- and triple-decks of guns.

“There!” Palinday called out, pointing to a canal mouth in the southern bank.

Chiufi steered the barge into a district of run-down terraces and tenement blocks. There were no locks here, the city’s southern suburbs sprawling across a flat plain. There was little traffic about on the dimly lit streets, although it was still early. Geneic stopped hammering.

“Girl, hand.” She hadn’t noticed her father’s reappearance on deck. He stood over her, holding his scrying bowl.

Behra held out her arm.

Palinday watched Aghor pull out his knife. “What scrying is there to do,” he said, “when we are at our destination?”

Behra winced as the point of the blade penetrated. The mummified, half-formed faces of her sisters gaped up at her with sightless eyes.

“You think the Hound would dare pursue me into the heart of Ornomagne?” Palinday persisted.

Aghor spared him a glance as he stood. “Don’t you?”

Palinday flicked the brim of his hat with his fingers and stuck it on his head. He noticed Behra’s gaze on him. “Tibuir’s Hound does not know for sure that I am aboard,” he said. “And we are far afield of where she thinks us to be headed. There are many waterways to hunt.” He drummed his fingers, tinkling hollowly, against his knees. “She would be reckless to try anything so far from her lord’s domain. And she fears your father, besides.”

Behra was drifting has he spoke, her body heating as the burning coal landed in the bowl of her blood. She murmured along with her father’s incantation. The words had an unfamiliar texture in her mind. It was no spell she had ever heard before. “Addrakkur naskkur sakkul urukh thoth nakkur thoth…

Palinday looked at her, his jewelled eyes glinting. “That isn’t Old Rhuinish.” His mouth moved with Behra’s. “And it isn’t a scrying spell.” He started to stand, then suddenly clutched at his head. “My wards…”

Geneic’s hammer smashed into his chest. Behra screamed. Shattered bits of the doll bounced across the deck, flying free of his clothes, some skittering under the rail to splash into the water.

 “The head! Find the head!” bellowed Aghor.

Geneic lifted Behra and dumped her out of her hut, so he could rummage in her blankets. She looked down into her lap. Palinday blinked up at her, his neck sheered off cleanly just below his jaw.

“Hide me.”

Behra clapped her hands over the doll’s face an instant before her father barged past. She looked around for Chiufi, found his shocked gaze already on her as he hurried up from the wheelhouse. He grabbed a running lantern off its hook and made a show of joining the hunt. Behra saw him pick up something, not breaking stride, and keep moving over to the rail to stoop again.

“Father,” Chiufi straightened, holding up his prize to the light. Palinday’s hat. “It was under the rail.”

A range of expressions crossed Aghor’s face as he stared at the hat. Slowly, he pushed himself upright. “You wouldn’t lie to your father, would you, boy?”

Chiufi’s jaw trembled.

He had closed the engine throttle, Behra realised, before he left the wheelhouse. Undirected and barely making headway, the barge was slowly turning across the canal.

Aghor began to swear, his fists clenched so tight they shook. Behra’s aborted sisters silently cursed along with him. The shadows deepened in the hollows of his face and spread. Sickly light leaked between his curled fingers. Beside him, Sorgui and Geneic cringed, their red eyes slitted almost shut.

“Having some difficulty, Bargeman?” a woman’s voice called out.

Tibuir’s Hound sat on horseback at the edge of the canal.

“None that’s any business of yours, Hound,” Behra’s father grated, his voice heavy with magic.

Hooves and boots clattered on stone, riders and foot soldiers appearing on both banks. Red Saltukkuri eyes glowed, the squat, hunched figures of demimen scattered among the Rhuinish troops. Crossbows were levelled.

Crossbows, thought Behra. Not muskets. Silent.

A horse whickered, a crossbow string creaked in the descending quiet. Behra heard a low growl from Sorgui by the wheelhouse.

The red stone on the Hound’s brow caught the light of a streetlamp. “You seem to have gone astray from your destination,” she drawled. “It is a curious coincidence that your failure of navigation has brought you here.” She leaned forward in her saddle, her eyes wide. “Did you know, Aghor the Bargeman, that the King’s Spymaster maintains a house in this part of Ardonailles?”

Behra’s hands shook on top of Palinday’s sculpted face. She heard him gasp, felt his lips move against her palm as he mouthed curses. Her father and the Hound glared at each other.

The sound of more tramping boots cut through the standoff. “Stand down!” a new voice cried. “Stand down in the name of the King!”

Bright-liveried Ornomagnen troops marched along both sides of the canal. Behra gasped. Brass, four-legged battle golems marched with them, their mantis arms upraised.

Silbuim meneich!” spat Behra’s father, and all hell broke loose.

Along both banks, Rhuinish crossbows suddenly caught on fire. The archers dropped them with shouts of surprise. Bolts flew in all directions as the bows bounced on the ground. Some thunked into the wooden deck of the barge. Soldiers and horses screamed as they were struck. The Ornomagnen troops discharged their muskets. Ornomagnen and Rhuinishmen both charged. Saltukkuri leapt onto the barge.

Sorgui and Geneic surged to their feet, laying about with the tools to hand, bigger by far than their full-blood brethren and with all of a demiman’s strength. Chiufi smashed his lamp into the face of a Saltukkuri warrior who landed beside him. Flaming oil sprayed over the shrieking demiman.

Tibuir’s Hound gave a shout. Aghor grunted as if struck and fell to one knee. Behra felt a squeezing pressure in her chest.

Telais ac ulh,” she mouthed her father’s snarled counter spell. “Telais maliel ap naghai.”

The Hound cried out, scrambling clear as her horse collapsed under her. She landed awkwardly, both hands stretched out like claws. Behra could feel the spells clash in the air between them, probing for weaknesses in the other’s defences. Her skin stung as if scalded.

A demiman’s fallen axe lay within reach.

Now, Behra thought. Her fingers closed on the axe. “Chiufi!”

He ran over to her and she thrust the axe into his hands. His eyes were huge, the whites showing all around.

“What’s happening?” demanded Palinday, as soon as his face was uncovered.

“We’re going now,” said Behra, holding her brother’s gaze.

Chiufi swallowed and nodded, fumbled about for her ankle chain and smashed the axe down onto it.

Behra mouthed spells, drawing power into herself. Chiufi’s breathed plumed in the suddenly cold air. He struck the chain again. This time the links parted.

Chiufi stood, hauling Behra up with him. She clutched Palinday’s head to her chest and led Chiufi towards the back of the barge. Sorgui flung a broken demiman into a crowd of his fellows near the wheelhouse. The barge had continued to slew across the canal. Its stern bumped against the stone wall of the bank. Chiufi pushed Behra up ahead of him and leapt after.

She stood, marvelling at the feel of cold stone under her bare feet, so different from the smooth planking of the barge’s deck. There was a roar from the boat. Their father had noticed her absence. His rage thrummed along the thread of power that bound them.

Behra lashed out, unthinking. “Telais ac ulh.” In her terror, she forgot the rest of the spell. But Aghor gave a shout of surprise. It rose to an outraged bellow as the Hound took advantage of his distraction.

Chiufi grabbed Behra’s wrist and they fled.

They raced down darkened streets, past frightened faces peeping from windows and doorways. Behra struggled to keep up with her brother. Her lungs and legs burned, unused to such exertion. Her feet were quickly bruised. She soon began to flag.

Chiufi slowed and stopped at a crossroads. He fumbled Palinday’s head from Behra’s grasp and held it up. The world spun around her. She felt faint.

“Why did he smash you?” Chiufi panted.

“To get the scroll out of my head and know the secrets it holds for himself,” said Palinday. “To use them, or sell them to the highest bidder.”

Chiufi looked around. “Which way?”

“I don’t recognise the street,” said Palinday. “But we left the river east and north of my master’s house. Go south and then west.”

Chiufi turned uncertainly.

“That way!” Palinday snapped.

Behra felt a familiar pressure against her thoughts. “He’s coming,” she gasped.

Chiufi caught her wrist again. “Run!”

She stumbled after.

On through the streets they ran, Chiufi dragging her along, sometimes holding her up, Palinday’s head held up in his other hand. The doll barked directions, guiding them deeper into the city. A sharp pain started in Behra’s side.

The sense of their father behind them grew stronger and stronger. “He’s coming!”

“Not far!” cried Palinday. “My master will be there.”

“I can’t,” Behra wept.

“Keep going,” Chiufi said, his own voice almost a sob.

“He’s coming.”

Closer. And closer. She could feel the killing fury in him. And power – more than she had ever felt him hold.

Chiufi would die if he caught them. She would be flogged, no doubt, and returned to her hut and chain. But Chiufi would die.

For his sake, Behra kept running.

“Here!” Palinday shrieked. “Here, on the left! The third house along!”

The townhouse was one of a row fronted by gated courtyards. Behra swayed, barely able to stay upright, staring up at the house in confusion. Surely the King’s Magician must live in a palace?

Chiufi rattled the bars of the gate and shouted. “My Lord! Open up!”

Palinday gave a wail of dismay. “My master isn’t here! He’s supposed to be here!”

Their father’s presence was overwhelming. He’s here, she thought. Her tongue refused to cooperate. He’s here!

“Hold me to the lock,” said Palinday.

Chiufi did so. The doll whispered into the keyhole and, with a loud clang, the gate sprang open.

“Chiufi!” Behra gasped.

There was a bellow from the corner of the street.

“Inside!” cried Palinday. “He won’t be able to pass the gate.”

Chiufi flung Behra through and slammed the bars shut behind them.

She almost fell, but he lifted her and dragged her across the courtyard towards the door of the house.

Talais ac ulh,” she mouthed, caught up in her father’s spell. She felt it gather strength, wanted to shout a warning. “Telais maliel ap naghai.”

With a scream, she wrenched herself free.

The air detonated between her and Chiufi. He was hurled away from her by the impact of the spell. Behra sprawled, twisted to see her brother bounce off the stones. Palinday’s head sailed through the air to smash against the wall of the house.

Chiufi’s screams rose to a shriek. Blood bubbled from his eyes, ears and nose.

“Chiufi!” Behra cried. She lurched upright, thrust her hand into the arc of power between her father and brother, thinking madly to bat the killing magic back towards Aghor.

She felt her fingerbones snap, the skin on her hand blistering and bursting. The force of the spell spun her around and back to her knees. There was a cry of surprise from outside the gate.

Behra whimpered, cradling her shattered hand. Tremors ran through Chiufi, then he lay frighteningly still.

She felt her father building another spell. “No,” she said. “No.” She drew in power, felt the air crackle against her skin. “Silbuim meneich,” she said aloud – her spell, not his.

Aghor disappeared in a flash. Heat washed back over her. She heard the thin screams of her sisters, felt her father’s shock, his pain, his rage quickly returning.

“No!” She got to her feet, lifting her hands, broken and whole, towards him. “Silbuim meneich!”

This spell had far more force, but this time he was ready, too. More of the blast bounced back through the gate, knocking Behra over. She thrashed about, beating at the flames on her smock and hair.

There was silence from her father, no sense of the chord that had joined her to him.

Shaking, she crawled over to Chiufi. He still wasn’t moving. She reached out to him with her good hand, fingers fluttering over his face. His chest rose, suddenly, and fell. Then again. Her vision blurred.

A clatter of hooves outside the gate made her look up.

Her father lay prone on the road. A horseman loomed over him. Aghor raised a hand weakly. The rider held out a forked staff to touch his fingers. Behra felt the words of power pass between them. Aghor’s back arched, and he slumped and fell still.

The rider dismounted. He pushed open the gate and strode across the yard. Behra shrank back. Pale eyes bored into her from under thick white brows. He went straight past her, stepping over Chiufi, to where Palinday’s head had smashed against the wall.

The old man stooped, then straightened with a tiny paper scroll in his hand. “Ah, my friend,” he murmured. “I sensed too late that it was you the Hound had cornered on that barge, and then you ran away from me.”

His gaze fell once more on Behra.

“Please,” she said, “help my brother.”

#

A knock at the door woke Behra from her doze. She jerked her head away from the wall behind her chair. Chiufi lay unconscious in the bed, bandages swathing his eyes and ears. His mouth was open and slack, but his chest rose and fell.

The door opened and a man with polished black skin came in. No, not a man – a golem, though he was dressed like a man and moved as smoothly.

The ebony golem saw her awake. His sculpted face shifted fractionally, approximating a smile.

“Behra.”

The voice was nearly the same – deeper, but tinkling with music. And he still had blue gemstone eyes.

Behra stared in wonder as Palinday came to perch on the edge of Chiufi’s bed.

“I told you I was in disguise,” he said. He reached across to brush his hand gently across her splinted fingers. He squeezed her good hand, his touch cold and unyielding. “You are safe.”

“And my father?”

“My Lord Emieldraeu has laid a geas upon him. He cannot approach you or do you harm. You are safe.” He patted her fingers. “You had already beaten him, you know, before my master intervened.”

Behra shook her head. It was too much, too overwhelming. “Chiufi?”

Palinday’s voice softened. “He will live. My master believes he will regain most of his hearing and his voice, in time. His heart and lungs, too, will mostly heal.”

He raised his hand to wipe her cheek with his fingertip. “Do not blame yourself. You did what was needed – both of you,” he said. “Lord Tibuir was plotting rebellion. Now the King can strike first, before Tibuir is ready. You and your brother may have saved Ornomagne from a terrible civil war.” Behra thought that if he was a man, he would have sighed. “Or made it less terrible, at least. And you saved yourselves.”

Behra was only half listening. “What of his eyes?”

“Ah.”

She imagined him blinded for life, yet another terrible hurt, taken for her sake. It was too much to bear.

She saw Palinday’s mouth stretch into another fractional smile, his fingers reach into the pocket of his vest. He turned Behra’s hand over and dropped something into her palm. She looked down at a pair of glass orbs. Set into each was a faceted blue gemstone identical to Palinday’s eyes.

“His eyes cannot be saved,” the golem said, “but he will be well cared for.”

<END>

%d bloggers like this: