Copyright © Ian Irvine, 1998.
Chapter 1: The Ruin of Thurkad
The Great Hall was dark. The glow from the burning city did not penetrate the velvet drapes. The shouts, the screams, the clash of weapons up the hill — all just a murmur from far away. In all the room there was no conscious being, no intelligent life. The broken door banged in the wind, the hinges bawled, striking a dreadful lament, crying to the dead to rise. The members of the Conclave lay silent.
Hours passed. In the darkness, one man dreamed. Dreamed that he lay cast down and senseless while the army of his mortal enemy poured through the gates of Thurkad. Get up! he cried. Only you can save your city. But he could not wake.
The tramp of marching feet echoed in his dreams. Soldiers — hunting him! He gave a wrenching groan that tore through the fog in his brain and woke, bolt upright in the dark. His heart was racing. Where was he? Hardly knowing his own name, aware of little more than a growing terror, he felt around him. The things he touched were blank pieces. He could not put a name to the least of them.
A horn blasted, not far away. Waking to panic, he clawed himself to all-fours, sagging across the room like a rubber-kneed crab, tripping over bodies, cracking his head against a table leg. Getting a lantern going, he lurched in swaying arcs back and forth along the rows of benches. The man fell down in front of a tall woman who lay on the floor like a fallen statue. Yellow light bathed long limbs, dark hair and skin as rich and smooth as glazed chocolate. Her eyes were open and her lips wet, but the woman made no sound, gave no sign that she saw anything.
With shaking hands he brought the lamp down to her eyes, but it registered nothing. The light showed him clearly — a slim man of average height and uncertain age, with blue eyes and thin, wild hair. His sallow skin was sunk into deep creases; his scanty beard was lank.
The man’s face was wracked. ‘Tallia!’ he sang out, a wail of pain. ‘For pity’s sake, wake!’ He rocked on his haunches, overcome by the magnitude of the disaster, shuddered and bent over her again. Putting his hands around her head, front and back, he tried to force open the blocked channels of her brain, straining so hard that his breath came out as a series of little groans.
In his head the tramping grew so loud that it blocked out all thought. He closed his eyes but the images shone out brighter than before, row after row of soldiers, grim, resolute. The mind that directed them — his enemy — was a remorseless machine.
‘Tallia,’ he screamed. ‘Help me! Yggur’s coming.’
Tallia’s pupils, which had imperceptibly contracted to points of dark, expanded in a rush and she knew him. ‘Mendark!’ she whispered.
Mendark threw his arms around her. Tears starred his eyelashes. They got to their feet, leaning on one another, swaying together, then Tallia’s eyes rolled and the room tilted in slow-motion confusion. He clung to her until she was steady again.
‘What happened?’ she asked. ‘I don’t remember anything.’
Mendark held the lantern high. It showed the hall in chaos: tables and benches overturned, lamps smashed, papers and people scattered like hay.
‘Tensor violated the Conclave,’ Mendark said, grim-faced.
‘Conclave?’ Tallia rubbed her forehead as if she could stir her brain back to life.
‘I called a Great Conclave,’ he replied, ‘to get back the Mirror from Thyllan the usurper, and to free Karan.’
‘I can’t remember,’ said Tallia, shaking her head. ‘Oh, this is awful.’
‘Yggur’s not far away. I can sense the hate in him.’
Tallia did not ask him about that. Mendark was a sensitive. He knew. She squatted down, rocking back and forth on her heels.
‘Tensor struck down the Conclave with a mind-blasting potency,’ Mendark went on. ‘A terrible spell.’
‘Tensor betrayed us?’ she whispered.
‘Yes, and he’s gone, and so is the Mirror. What’s he going to do with it? The thought fills me with dread.’
‘It’s starting to come back!’ Tallia slumped on the chair. ‘My head is bursting!’
‘And mine, but we must get going.’
Mendark handed her a jug, a tall, wasp-waisted vessel of dark blue porcelain. Tallia drank from it greedily, spilling water down her chin and her shirt. She wiped her face with the back of her hand, nodded, which made her wince, and said, ‘What do we do now ?*— go after Tensor, or stay and fight?’
‘I can’t think. The Council is in tatters.’
The Council was an alliance of wizards and scholars, of which Mendark had been Magister until his recent overthrow. He ticked the members off on his fingers. ‘Tensor gone, Nelissa dead. Thyllan is my enemy and will never be otherwise. Old Nadiril is far away in Zile and hasn’t come to a meet in years. Wistan is likewise out of reach in Chanthed. That only leaves me, Hennia the Zain and Orstand between us and ruin. Where’s Orstand?’
Tallia looked around. ‘I can’t see her.’
‘Find her and Hennia. Protect them at all costs! I’ve got to get to the citadel. If Yggur learns that they lie here helpless … Ahh! There’s no time!’
Mendark looked as bad as she felt. They were both wracked by aftersickness, the by-product of using wizardry, the Secret Art, or being too close when someone else did.
Outside, where all had been silent, they now heard shouting and screaming. Mendark wobbled his way toward the door. The street lamps still burned. The street was wet, though it was not raining now. People streamed past, clutching pathetic treasures.
‘What news?’ cried Mendark, but his voice went unheeded. He picked up a spear that lay on the step and stepped into the path of the refugees, blocking their way. ‘I am Mendark!’ he thundered, though it took most of his strength. ‘What news?’
‘The enemy has come through the northern gate,’ said a bearded man, grey hair plastered to his head. He cradled a tiny baby in the crook of one arm. The baby was whimpering. ‘It is said that Thyllan is dead. Who leads us now?’
‘I lead! I am Mendark,’ Mendark cried, ‘Magister once more! Go, tell everyone that the Magister has returned. We will defend the walls of the Old City and strike outwards until the whole of Thurkad is free again.’
The crowd, which was growing every minute, stared at him unmoving.* He raised the spear above his head. ‘Go, you fools,’ he roared. ‘I am your only chance.’
They scattered, and he heard a few thin cries of ‘Mendark! Mendark has returned!’ though whether they went in hope or in fear of him Mendark could not tell.
‘Poor fools,’ he said under his breath. ‘What chance is there for Thurkad now?’ He lumbered back up the steps.
‘Tallia,’ he shouted, and she came running, awkwardly, as if her knees had frozen solid.
‘There are …’ she began.
‘No time! You must do as best you can. I will rally our armies, what is left of them. Get the Council to the citadel, and anyone else who can help us. I will try to send aid, but do not wait for it.’
‘But Mendark …’
‘I’ve got to go. Whatever it is, you must deal with it.’ He stood there for a moment, his face haggard, then ran out. His unsteady footsteps echoed on the stones.
‘But most of the people here can’t even walk,’ Tallia said softly. ‘The great of Thurkad and other lands; people on whom the conduct of the war will depend. How am I to deal with them, alone?’ Thurkad was the greatest and oldest city of Meldorin. If it had fallen so quickly, where could they hope to find refuge?
She went to the door and looked out, but now the street was empty and silent. Misty rain began to drift down. What could she do? Tallia hesitated in the doorway, and as she did so she noticed a movement in the alley across the street. Someone had put their head around the corner and quickly pulled it back again. The little thin face was curiously familiar.
It was the street urchin who had guided Llian to Mendark’s villa several weeks ago. Llian had so charmed her that she had refused a silver tar in payment, a fortune for any street child. What was her name?
‘Lilis,’ Tallia called softly. ‘Lilis, come forth.’
The head peeked around again. It belonged to a hungry-looking girl who looked about ten, a long-faced waif with platinum hair. Her ratty clothes were spattered with mud up to the waist.
‘Come here, Lilis, I need you.’
Lilis emerged onto the street, looked this way and that and slunk across to Tallia. In the light from the doorway she looked even shabbier than before.
‘What does you want?’ she squeaked, looking tremulous.
‘Into the Great Hall?’ The squeak became a horrified whisper. ‘Could be whipped for that.’
‘Nonsense. The old Magister is back and I am his chief lieutenant.’ Tallia took Lilis’s thin wrist and led her inside. ‘Look,’ she pointed. Many of the richest and most powerful people of Thurkad: justices, legislators and wealthy merchants*, were strewn about like carcasses in an abattoir. ‘We’ve got to get them to the citadel.’
Not far away a tall man twitched and shuddered. He was ugly and mean-faced, with a misshapen cudgel of a nose and a swollen gash across one cheek. His pale, almost colourless eyes stared unseeingly ahead. It was Thyllan, who had ended Mendark’s tenure as Magister not long before the Conclave.
Lilis’s eyes bulged. ‘The Magister!’ she said, looking down.
‘No more! The usurper is overthrown. Mendark is back — the real Magister. Help me.’
Tallia hurried around the room, checking for signs of life. The guards had recovered and fled, save one who lay in a puddle of blood on the far side. He was dead — fell on his sword and bled to death, by the look of it.
As she turned away to the next, Lilis caught sight of a small bare foot protruding from under the guard’s billowing cape. She sang out, ‘There’s someone underneath,’ lifting the cloth to reveal a small woman with a pale face surrounded by a wild froth of dark red hair.
‘It’s Karan,’ said Tallia, ‘Llian’s friend.’
Various expressions crossed Lilis’s face: concern, envy. ‘Is she dead?’
‘It looks that way.’ Tallia bent down swiftly. ‘No, but seriously ill. Without help she could die.’
Karan’s face was set in an expression so sad that it made tears spring to Tallia’s eyes. If only I had helped her, none of this need have come about, she thought. She rolled Karan over. Her shirt was bloody from breast to hip. Tallia tore the shirt open, expecting to see a mortal wound, but there was none. It was the guard’s blood.
Tallia looked around. ‘Now that’s strange,’ she said, furrowing her brow.
There had been many people at the Conclave but a lot were gone, including several faces that she was looking for: Faelamor, Maigraith, Llian. ‘Where’s Llian? He would never have left Karan.’
‘Llian’s gone,’ said Lilis. ‘The big man took him.’
‘Big man?’ Tallia asked, checking Karan’s vital signs. The pulse was erratic, her skin clammy, and her eyes flickered back and forth under her eyelids. Tallia lifted one lid. The eyes were deep green; the pupils hardly reacted to the light. She was probably not in immediate danger though, if kept warm and dry. Tallia tore the cape off the guard, wrapped Karan in it, round and round, and put her out of the way against the wall. Nothing more could be done for her at the moment. She turned to the next casualty.
Beneath a window was a mound of fallen drapes, half- covering a huge jelly of a woman swathed in the scarlet and purple gown of the High Court/Council*. The dignity of the office was marred by a red mouth sagging open and dentures hanging out. Her face was as round as the moon, with eyes that looked tiny in their pouches of fat. Yellow-grey hair was cut straight across at the level of her ears.
‘Who is she?’ Lilis piped up.
‘Justice Orstand,’ said Tallia, greatly relieved. With Orstand on their side, there was always hope. She was the most powerful intellect on the Council, a friend that Mendark relied on greatly. ‘Water, quickly.’
Lilis scurried away to return with the blue jug, which she promptly poured on the judge’s face. Orstand shuddered, woke and levered herself up, but wobbled on her legs and Tallia hurriedly thrust a chair under her.
Orstand looked around the room. ‘Is Nelissa—’
*‘Dead!’ Tallia said harshly, and explained their situation.
‘Oh!’ said Orstand. ‘But Mendark is right — the Old City is our only refuge.’ Its walls were high and strong, and the citadel inside it, stronger yet. Though surely not enough to resist Yggur.
‘Can you walk?’
Orstand gave a smile of sorts. ‘See to the others. When they’re ready to go, I will be too.’
Encouraged, Tallia went on with her work. There were other dead, quite a few, mostly the old and the frail. Too late for them, but several people were on their feet already, after Lilis’s rough ministering with the water jug and a wet cloth.
Tallia remembered something Lilis had said earlier. ‘Tell me about Llian,’ she asked, but before Lilis could answer there was shouting, screaming and sounds of battle nearby. Dread shivered down Tallia’s backbone. They would be trapped!
‘Lilis,’ she cried. The child’s eyes showed the fear they both felt. ‘Go and see what is happening. See how close the enemy is.’ Tallia felt ashamed of herself for asking, but she had so much to do.
The girl hesitated, staring at her with those huge waif eyes. Tallia, thinking that she wanted payment, fumbled for the purse that hung at her waist. Lilis struck her hand aside then, realising that she had hit the chief lieutenant of the Magister and might be slain on the spot, leapt away saying, ‘I go, I go!’
‘Lilis!’ Tallia called. She came back warily. ‘Be careful.’ Tallia embraced the grubby little urchin. Lilis looked astounded, then a tiny smile broke across her face. ‘You will come back?’ said Tallia. Normally so capable, she now felt overwhelmed.
‘I come back,’ Lilis said, her eyes shining, then she was gone.
‘I can’t decide who to take and who to leave,’ agonised Tallia. ‘Is a judge more important than a doctor? A wealthy merchant more valuable than a young woman?’
‘You can’t choose that way,’ said Orstand, touching her shoulder. ‘The group must come before the individual. If they can’t walk, or if they fall down and can’t get up again, they must be left behind. And that includes me.’
‘I could never leave you behind,’ said Tallia, staring at the old woman.
‘I’d like to see you carry me,’ said Orstand, wheezing with laughter.
Tallia smiled at the thought. Soon she had seven people more or less ready to walk. They included Thyllan, his hair sticking out in all directions as though electrified, and Hennia the Zain, the other member of the Council, an old, saggy woman whose eyes had gone blank. A badly bitten tongue hung out the corner of her mouth. There were also two members of the Assembly, the puppet government of Thurkad, long dominated by the governor on one hand and the Magister on the other. The other two she did not know, though they both looked important.
They were in much the state that she had been in before Mendark woke her, but she did not know how to do the same for them. Several more were in worse condition, flopped over chairs and benches like dolls stuffed with wet straw. If they could be roused she might be able to get some of them to safety too. And there were quite a few like Karan, who might live or die, but would have to be carried. Worthy people all.
Save for Orstand, her seven could have been senile. Thyllan was wandering aimlessly around the room, but most of the others just stared at the wall or sat mumbling to themselves. Hennia kept trying to lie down on the floor and go to sleep. Tallia was almost in despair by the time Lilis returned.
She came running back, crying, ‘Soldiers coming! Must go now!’ Lilis grabbed Tallia’s hand and tried to pull her toward the door. Tallia resisted.
‘We’ve got to take them with us. Help me.’
Between the three of them they got the able-bodied into a straggling, shambling line at the door, but it took all of Lilis’s efforts to keep them there while Tallia tried to rouse the other group. Outside, the shouting and noises of battle grew louder.
‘Must go, now!’ Lilis screamed.
Tallia looked back at Karan, torn between her feelings and her responsibilities. Tallia liked Karan a lot. And she was a sensitive too, a priceless talent, especially in time of war. But then, the room was full of valuable people. Anyone left behind was probably condemned to death, but she could not save everybody. She ran back to Karan and took her hand, then laid it down again, knowing that she could not carry her all the way to the citadel. Not with all these others to look after.
‘Go on, Lilis. I’ll catch you.’
Karan moaned, flinging her head from side to side. Tallia bent down to pick her up, then one of the comatose sat up, a short, rather stout man called Prathitt, a wealthy merchant and legislator. A fussily-trimmed spade beard drew attention from his rapidly receding hairline. He staggered towards the door, waving his arms and shouting gibberish.
Tallia caught him just outside and got a hand over his mouth and nose, cutting off the racket. A small knot of people ran past, shrieking and moaning, then a signal horn called from up the street. Another answered it from around the back of the Great Hall. She looked around frantically, to see Lilis shepherding her crew into a mean dark alley. Orstand stumped across last of all, moving with the tottering, wide-legged gait of a toddler.
‘Hurry!’ Lilis screamed.
Tallia agonised in the doorway. There were about a dozen people left and she knew most of them. Some would die without help. Maybe all of them, if the soldiers came. Her patient began to thrash about again. If she carried Karan, this fellow would give them away. Then someone attacked the back door of the Hall, the hammer blows echoing inside. Too late! She pulled the door closed and hauled her burden across the road into the alley.
The rain was falling more heavily now. Within the alley it was almost as black as tar, and slippery underfoot. Another clot of people ran down the street, and behind them, the rhythmic tread of a squad of marching soldiers. She moved up the alley, slipping and skidding on what felt like decaying leaves. There was an odour of rotten cabbage, and the further up she went, worse filth.
‘Lilis,’ she whispered hoarsely.
There was no answer. Tallia heard the sound of falling water and the next minute walked right under a torrent discharging from the roof above. She wiped her eyes and stared uselessly into the darkness. The mouth of the alley was a lighted rectangle, partly obscured by mist. The tramping grew louder.
Prathitt, roused by the soaking, shouted an obscenity and flung up his arms. One fist caught her a painful blow on the cheek. Tallia struggled with him, making more noise than she liked. He was very strong, and when she eventually got her hand over his mouth he bit her so hard that he drew blood. She swore and struck him on the side of the head, knocking him down.
Someone yelled behind her. Yggur’s soldiers were moving back and forth in the road. One approached the alley, holding up a blazing torch. Her patient began to stir. Tallia put her foot on his back and pushed him down into the mud again. The torch went away, though the soldiers could still be seen in the street lights. The rest of the squad must be checking the Great Hall, she supposed, feeling her failure very strongly. Where had Lilis gone with her lot? Probably abandoned them as soon as the soldiers appeared, and who could blame her? There was no one to look out for her but herself.
Tallia heaved her patient to his feet again, hauling him backwards up the alley, when without warning he put his muddy hands on her face and shoved. She overbalanced and fell backwards against a water barrel, hitting her head. For a moment she stared into a whirlpool, like being back in her earlier trance, then her head cleared and she sat up, trying to clean the muck out of her eyes. Reeling footsteps disappeared up the lane.
The light appeared again, and the silhouette of a soldier. Tallia bowed her head, praying that he would not come up. After a long interval the light faded. She crept back to the mouth and saw a squad of soldiers standing guard up the street. No chance of going back for Karan now. Nursing her bruises, Tallia headed up the alley to find her sick.
Two hours later she reached the gates of the Old City, in pouring rain, having been hopelessly lost in the back streets. Not only had she failed to find Prathitt but she had not come across Lilis or any of her seven either. She felt like an utter fool, and was tempted to go back to the Great Hall, but Mendark’s guards summoned her to the audience chamber.
The large room was crowded with splendidly garbed officers and aides, and twenty clerks sat at a row of desks along one wall, writing orders furiously and passing their strips of paper to the messengers who ran in and out. Mendark stood before a large canvas map of the city, arguing with an officer gorgeously attired in the Magister’s colours, scarlet and blue. That put Tallia in an even worse mood.
It was Berenet the dandy, Mendark’s other chief lieutenant, his magnificent moustachioes freshly waxed and coiled. His garments were silk and velvet; he wore a ruff of purple lace at his throat that helped to conceal a sunken chest. Tallia wondered where he had been lately. With her own travels, and his, she hadn’t seen him for half a year. Tallia nodded curtly. Berenet inspected her from head to toe, grinning.
Mendark looked haggard, though she noticed that he’d had time to bathe and change his clothes. ‘What happened to you?’ he asked more brusquely than usual. ‘Don’t drip mud all over the carpet. Oh, what does it matter?’ as Tallia stepped to one side.
‘I lost them,’ she said, feeling like a schoolgirl caught out in some childish negligence. Berenet smirked.
‘What are you talking about?’ Mendark asked, his brows knitting together. He was furiously angry about something.
‘The survivors of the Conclave. I got some of them out but I lost them in the alleys.’
‘They’ve been here for an hour!’ said Mendark. ‘Some street brat brought seven of them to the gate, all looped together like a camel train.’
‘Lilis brought them?’ Tallia was amazed. ‘How is Orstand?’
‘Not too good — she’s over there.’ He waved a hand.
Tallia saw the big woman sagging at a table on the other side of the room, though she was working as hard as any. ‘I had to leave the rest — I was lucky to get away myself. I lost Prathitt. He hit me and ran away in the dark.’
‘Not one of your greatest successes,’ said Mendark sourly. ‘Thank heavens for Berenet. He has come back with vital intelligence about Yggur.’ An aide tugged at his sleeve. ‘Just a minute,’ he snapped.
‘I left Karan behind,’ said Tallia. ‘The soldiers came before I could get her out …’
‘A sensitive like her would have been useful, if she ever recovered from her madness.’
Tallia took that as a criticism. Sensitives could be invaluable, to sense out danger and to advise what an enemy might do. Some could even relay messages by means of a mind-to-mind link. Karan had that rare talent. But they were hard to control and often an emotional liability.
‘I suppose she’ll be dead in the morning,’ she said unhappily. Everything she’d done today had been a failure.
‘We might all be! Why did you send Thyllan back?’
So that’s what the problem was. ‘He’s on the Council — how could I leave him behind?’
‘How could you miss the chance to rid me of my enemy?’ Mendark raged. ‘No one could have blamed you. Now everyone knows he’s here and I don’t dare allow any harm to come to him.’
‘Do we obey the rule of law or not?’
‘In this case your judgment is faulty. Berenet would not have been so scrupulous.’
‘I’m sure of that!’ she said acidly.
‘Aah! Get something to eat; I need you to look at the situation on the north side.’ The aide attacked his sleeve again. Mendark turned away to a new problem.
Tallia remained where she was. ‘I’d like to go back to the Hall with a squad and get the rest of them.’
‘Impossible,’ Mendark barked over his shoulder. ‘I need you here. Anyway, Yggur holds that part of the city now. Forget them all!’
Tallia knew that he was right, but it still hurt. She turned away, then swung back. ‘What happened to Lilis? I didn’t even pay her.’
‘The brat? The guards gave her a couple of grints before they chased her away. Now stop pestering me.’
Again the smirk from her rival, Berenet, as she turned away. Tallia gritted her teeth and ignored him, though it took all her self-control. She stopped by Orstand’s table for a moment to enquire about her health.
‘I don’t think I’ve felt worse in my entire life,’ said Orstand, though she found time to ask about everyone by name, and was dismayed at Lilis’s shabby treatment.
Snatching food and drink from a tray, Tallia hurried out, to spend what remained of the night reviewing the reports that streamed in, doing the rounds of the walls and relaying orders, in the desperate defences of the night.
In the early morning of that bitterest of all days for Thurkad — the first time that an enemy had come within the gates in more than a thousand years — Tallia learned that Yggur’s First Army had been beaten back from the quarter where the Conclave had been held. Several small victories gave hope of larger ones to come, so instead of snatching a few hours’ sleep, she took a small detail and went down to the Great Hall to find Karan and the other wounded if she could, and bring them to safety.
She picked her way through streets strewn with valuables discarded in flight and not yet taken by the looters — here a red cloth bundle, burst open to scatter silver cutlery in the gutter; there a carved wooden donkey with one ear broken off; a jacket embroidered with silk and garnets; a rolled-up tapestry that could come from a bawdy house. Further on there were bodies and the marks of war — blood and broken weapons; men and beasts, women and even children dead of terrible wounds or sometimes no wound at all. And everywhere she saw the smoking shells of houses, once homes. Nearer to the Great Hall there were no signs of war; perhaps it had swept around that place.
It was late in the morning by the time she got there, and Tallia regretted bitterly her failures of the night, Karan especially. It felt like a personal betrayal. As she approached the Great Hall there was smoke and the smell of burning wood. Closer, the odour of burning flesh too. Black smoke groped for the sky. Tallia ran up to the pyre.
‘Nothing else to do, lar,’ said a tall, lean man with a little round pot of a belly that looked so incongruous it might have been pasted there. His grey hair was shaved to stubble. He wore the leather apron of a butcher and there was blood on the front of it. ‘If we leave them there’ll be plague.’
There were a lot of bodies on the pile and as she stood there staring, two men came up, carrying another between them, and heaved the corpse up onto the fire as if they were loading sacks of coal onto a wagon. The flames were too hot for her to get near or to recognise any of the faces, and she did not care to watch the burning or to smell the smell. She went into the Hall. It had been spared the fighting and had not yet been ransacked; indeed the chaos inside was as they had left it the previous night, save that the dead were gone, and the dying.
There was a huge bloodstain on the floor where the slain guard had lain, and drag marks away from it. Over against the wall, where she had left Karan wrapped in the bloody cloak, she found a tiny smear of blood. Near the far wall was Nelissa’s stick, broken in two. Tallia ran outside, back to the pyre, calling out to the butcher with the grey hair.
‘What of the dead in the hall? Are they burnt?’
The man thought for a moment, scratching the end of his nose with a bloody fingernail. Tallia found the mannerism particularly offensive.
‘There were five, or perhaps six, that we took from there,’ he said, frowning. ‘I can’t remember now; so many dead! It was hours ago that we did that place. I remember the old one — we knew her, of course, even if she hadn’t been in robes. Nelissa the Sour! Who will mourn her, I wonder?’
‘Was there a young woman with red hair?’
‘Can’t remember, lar. There were several women, that I know, and one very striking, but after a while you don’t look too closely at them, except to be sure that they’re dead. No matter how beautiful they are, once they’re gone, their dreams are finished. No use having your own over them.’ It seemed he needed to talk about his experiences. ‘Remarkable the gap between life and death — at first you can hardly tell it, but as the day wears—’
Tallia was not interested in his philosophy. ‘Are you sure you haven’t burnt her? She was little, about so tall; red hair, pale skin, blood all over her shirt, but not her own. You would have noticed her hair, a golden, fiery red. She was still alive last night.’
‘Then you should have taken her last night,’ he said, scratching his nose again. ‘That was a bitter night to be dying alone. The women we burned from there had no blood on them, as far as I remember, nor the men either, all but one. One woman was tall and dark, not unlike you. I don’t remember the other. But we didn’t burn any live ones. There were only two breathing this morning, both men, and we sent them away to be nursed. That’s all I know.’
The others must have recovered or been taken prisoner in the night, thought Tallia. If only I had taken her with me. But I didn’t, and now it’s too late.
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