Careful not to bend the floorboards lest she wake him, Thelana paced the short passages of Emma’s home, feeling a prisoner.
Long ago, when Baba stopped eating and Nicola was growing pale and sickly, she might walk the whole of Ilmarinen, its lush beauty never failing to ease her worries. As long as she continued moving, troubling thoughts failed to follow. But in the tower, she could go nowhere, nor did she dare wander the avenues of a place that was, for her, strange and foreboding. Thelana used to think that people in cities, wealthy enough for proper homes, lived without cares. With bazaars full of meats and vegetables, running water from aqueducts, and walls to keep out predators and cutthroats, what could trouble them? Now she was finding Emma’s life less enviable. In Ilmarinen, she’d known freedoms no Delian could dream of. On her twelfth year, she and Britannia went scouting, a cycle’s journey from home. They found footpaths over the hills of Ukko, crossed valleys into unnamed lands, swam the tributaries of the Potamis to wherever the water flowed. That was freedom, that was—
BOCK! BOCK! BOCK!
Thelana froze on one foot, forgetting that she was in a house and that no creature could see her. The noise came again, echoing more loudly, rattling the decrepit beams of the ceiling. She waited for it to go away, but the knocking persisted, sounding angrier by the moment. Against her better judgment, she hurried down the stairs, keeping some space between herself and the door.
“Um . . . Who goes there?” she mustered, unaccustomed to answering doors, or to greeting strangers in a city.
“Open up!” a man demanded.
Thelana could not imagine who it could be, but the voice did not sound friendly. She felt her breathing quicken and her muscles grow tense, and her palms perspiring for want of a weapon. Pressing an ear to the door, she heard the muffled sounds of boots in snow from at least a dozen men.
“State your business,” she called out.
“Open the door in the name of the king, or we’ll force our way in!”
“Alright,” she said, “give me a moment.”
Thelana considered her choices. She could remove the beam barricading the door and let the angry men in, or go downstairs to warn Emma and Mathias. Or she could go upstairs, retrieve her bow, and wake Xandr. A warm glow emanated from the lower level, so she was certain her Delian hosts were continuing their study, and if they were coming upon some bit of wisdom to increase Xandr’s chances of survival, she was not about to interrupt them. As the door continued to shudder, she bolted up to the bower, remembering she did not need to wake Xandr. All she needed was Grimosse.
“Don’t let them through,” she told the guardian as she seated herself midway up the stairwell, stringing her bow.
“Grimm not,” he said oafishly, hoisting his massive hammer over his shoulder.
The knocking was followed by numerous demands, all of which related to the opening of the door. Thelana gave no refusal, only half-hearted assertions that she would, given time, yield to their wishes.
“You’ve been warned,” she heard a voice say, and then another remarking, “Bring the ax.”
The door quaked from a more powerful blow, the tip of the ax having yet to break through, but the wood swelling from where it was struck on the other side. Thelana remained calm, fixing her aim where the door would splinter.
After a successive series of blows, a piece of planking fell to the floor, and a man’s helmeted face poked through the opening. It was all Thelana needed to send him reeling. On the other side of the tower, panic was setting in, as the victim of her aim started to scream, “Take it out! Take it out!”
“No, Thelana!” It was Xandr, sounding fatherly and disappointed. “You may have killed him!”
“I thought that was the idea . . .”
“Not here,” he admonished. “We can’t fight the whole city—!”
But there was no time for discussion. The panic beyond the door turned into a frenzy. More axes were coming through. Just then, Emma emerged from below, giving a short yelp and starting back at the sight of the splintered door.
“Go back down!” Xandr commanded her.
She stared at him, her eyes wild and bright. “What have you—?”
“No arguing!” he cried. “Let us handle this!”
Large gaps were beginning to appear now. The axmen retreated to make way for a multitude of hands. They were searching for the beam blocking the doorway. Emma stood petrified, fascinated by the intrusion into her home, but Xandr was quick to escort her away. Thelana, all the while, reached the entryway in two quick strides, snapping a soldier’s mailed wrist with her bare foot, removing another’s finger with her teeth.
“Some kind of . . . monster!” she heard someone say.
But the barricade would not hold. Openings were being made large enough for a man to crawl through. If they were so intent to enter, she figured, she would oblige them. As one man-at-arms came crashing in, chips of wood flying every which way, she pulled him to his knees, where Grimosse’s hammer rang against the back of his armor. A second intruder came at her belly with a short sword, but she joined her knee with his groin, forcing him back into the wall, twisting the helmet from his head to pummel him with it. A host of men-at-arms gathered up behind her, spying her with their blades, but Grimosse sent them flying, smashing the armor from their bodies, hurling one against the stair, another three back through the doorway.
Having beaten her assailant into unconsciousness, Thelana turned her attention to the jagged pieces of what had been the tower’s entrance. Outside, a dozen or more men-at-arms were gathering in the bailey. Snatching up a felled sword, she buried her ankles in snow to meet the invaders head-on, but before she could strike, Xandr’s palm fell hard on her shoulder, forcing her away.
Thelana’s heart was a monster in her ribcage. Her veins were like molten steel, her breath like fire in the frozen air. She was more alive now than when bonding to his flesh, and she wanted to disobey him, to meet the Dark God with all her fervor. But his scowl overpowered even her resolve, and she shrank behind the doorway, choking down her bloodlust.
Reaching the base of the lower stairwell, she could hear Mathias’ frantic voice, “They’ve found me! Found me at last!”
“Emma!” Thelana called out. “Xandr says it’s time to go!”
But the Delian was unable to turn from her adoptive-father. He looked more ghoulish than ever, his face loose against his skull like a mask of skin, his bloodshot eyes jolting frightfully.
“Come with us,” she pleaded. “It’ll be alright.”
He put a hand through her robes, touched her belly as if she were with child. “Is it safe?” His voice wavered with uncertainty. “Do you think they’ll find it?”
“They won’t,” she assured him. “They know me. I always wear my robes this way.”
Something in the way Mathias fussed over the book was unnerving, as if he were giving his daughter a parting gift. It turned Thelana’s thoughts to her own secret, hidden in the hilt of her bow-sword—the ilm her father had given her before leaving Ilmarinen.
“Remember not to stand too straight,” he said, “or they’ll question the bulge, and you know what they do with books and to people with too much knowledge . . .”
Thelana did not know what Xandr was doing. Now that her blood was cooling, she was able to focus, to consider possible actions. Was he planning an escape? Or was he going to surrender? Either way, time was their enemy. “Hurry!” she cried.
Mathias sent her a frustrated glance, and returned Emma’s gaze. “If you value my words, despite all I’ve said and done, I beg you this small kindness that you listen to me.”
She nodded, looking doubtful, afraid.
“I’ve been a fool, Emma—an utter fool! I sought an escape from death, but before the Taker came for me, I buried myself in this . . . this damnable tomb! I brought myself to the grave by not living.”
“This is not the time for sentiments,” Emma said to him. “The men-at-arms, outside—!”
“Permit me to finish, I beg you,” he said. “The day your father was killed, he tried to share a gift with me, what we had both sought for so long, immortality—you, perpetuate his being.” His voice collapsed to muttering. “Dak’s life continues through you. And I was too much the fool to realize it.
“I’ve never been a father to you, Emma . . . and I know that I am undeserving of it, but—”
“It doesn’t matter,” she murmured, blinking the tears from her lashes. “You’re not so old. We still have days ahead of us.”
For an instant, beneath his tired façade, Thelana saw in him a look of yearning. But like a smothered candle flame, the expression went out, and Mathias gestured for Emma to depart. She started for the doorway, but hesitated, turning to the spot behind his desk from which he made no motion. Her dark, raven-shaped eyes glittered in the chamber’s many lights, questioning him.
“Give me a moment,” he said uneasily, lifting the kerosene lamp from the wall, “to collect my belongings.”
She offered a puzzled expression, but he rushed her out by the arm, where she joined Thelana at the bottom of the stair. And then the door slammed shut with an echo of finality.
“Mathias!” Emma checked the doorknob, yet it was as she feared, locked from within. “What are you doing?”
“They cannot find these books,” he sounded from the room. “And they can’t find me . . .” With that, Thelana could hear the ting of splintered glass and a rush of air, followed by a flash of gold about the seams of the door.
“By the gods!” she screamed. “Father, open this door at once!”
Thelana watched Emma’s porcelain hands grow pink about the brass knob. Her raven colored hair tumbled about her face and neck as she struggled with the barrier, forcing her weight upon it. The handle twisted and groaned in her delicate fingers, but the door refused to yield. Her screaming mixed with sobs. For Thelana, the scene of a daughter and a father separated by a door was all too familiar, and when she looked at Emma again, weeping miserably, childishly, the Ilmarin was unable to harden her heart to it. A deep sorrow, whether for Emma or for herself, drained away her rage, her strength.
“There’s still time,” Emma repeated, in a kind of frantic mantra, pounding the door with her fists, pounding until collapsing against it. “Father, there’s still time.” She continued until her voice gave out and smoke, black as the ink from Mathias’ inkwell, swirled about the doorframe. The scholar had immolated himself without uttering a sound.
Emma stood mechanically, her face a mess of hair and grief. She brushed at a tear and tried the handle again, burning her fingers. “Bring Grimosse,” she said.
Thelana knew there was nothing to be done. “He’s gone.”
“No,” said Emma. “Bring Grimosse.”
“We’ll go together,” she answered, tugging at her robes.
As the two women made for the upper level, they could see the dull copper of men-at-arms. The intruders scurried across every available surface, bustling up and down stairs, a number of them, for reasons unapparent, clutching Emma’s story books, tracking dirt and snow over loose pages of The Epic of Thangar and Sint.
Thelana’s fist tightened against the jade hilt of her sword. They were to blame for Mathias’ death, for the loss of Emma’s only family. She felt a surge of hot blood once more, a need to kill everyone in the room, but, as if sensing her desire, Emma reached out. Her eyes turned dreamily between her dark lashes as she took Thelana by the hand into the cold night.
Xandr and Grimosse stood beyond the threshold with their wrists in knots. A pair of men-at-arms were heaving and swearing over the guardian’s hammer. Emmaxis lay half-buried, fading against the pale snow, no one daring to touch it. Across the street, lights started to burn, heads poking from neighboring windows curious as to the goings-on. Knights were arriving from every avenue. Thelana’s heart skipped. Unconsciously, her sword slid from her fingertips, ringing against the ice rimmed cobblestone.
She did not bother to see what strange hands were groping her backside. The ropes were coarse, cutting into her skin as they tightened, pinning her arms against her buttocks. Emboldened by her submissive state, a second soldier—a knight, she figured, by the finely embroidered look of his armor—approached from the front. His eyeballs rolled over her body. The other men-at-arms were no less observant, staring and snickering, sharing in the unexpected pleasure. In the heat of battle, Thelana had completely forgotten the taboos of civilization, and now she found herself wishing against all her nature for something—anything—to hide her shame. Noticing her sword, half-split into a bow, the knight’s expression turned suddenly to outrage, remembering the men that were wounded, possibly killed, by her hand.
She clenched to receive his mailed fist, stomaching the blow without complaint, staggering while keeping to her feet. As he looked on in disbelief, she pounced, crushing his nose between her teeth. After some thrashing and howling, he tore away, clutching his face to staunch the flow of blood. Now the eyes were on him. He was humiliated, her shame overshadowed by his. Enraged, he threw a hand over the pommel at his hip.
“Do that and I’ll reconsider!” Xandr warned. The Ilmarin looked vulnerable with his hands roped behind his back, his bare breast taking on a bluish hue in the cold night air, the cobblestones glazed with ice and snow looking hard beneath his bare feet. But his voice and the certainty in his eyes gave the knight pause.
“My stance on killing you,” he replied. “See, I did not surrender to spare our lives, but to spare yours. Lay a hand on her again, and you die—the whole lot of you.”
“You against all of us?” the knight replied. “I’d like to see you try.”
“Grimosse,” Xandr intoned, “show him.”
The guardian growled, snapping the ropes with a twitch of his muscled arms. A number of soldiers cowered back. Others pressed forward, training their lances against the monster’s throbbing torso.
“Hold off, Grimm.” A delicate white hand eased the golem into submission. It was Emma. Thelana and Xandr had made such a show that the young girl was able to pass among them unnoticed. She proceeded to search the faces of the Delians for any she might recognize. Two of the younger men shuffled away fearfully.
“Who did this!” she cried. “Who’s responsible here?”
A white destrier cut through the gathering, clopping softly before her. The rider’s greaves and the pattern on his breastplate were familiar. But she did not seem to recognize the closed helm with the single spike—long as her forearm—extending from the forehead.
“I’m in charge,” he said, his voice echoing weirdly from his faceplate. “And it would appear, considering my wounded men, that we should have listened to the king and had you executed.”
“This is my home,” she cried. “We’ve done nothing to warrant this intrusion. You know me, Duncan! We’re not witches!”
He brandished the long sword fused to his copper glove, to the plates of his arm and shoulder. “My wife cannot bear to look upon me. My children flee from my face. The man they once knew as Duncan Greyoak is no more. Henceforth, you may call me, Swordarm.”
As the men-at-arms led them away, Thelana turned back to the tower, watching the smoke rising through Emma’s bower window as blackened bits of philosophy rained on the city.
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