ONE THIRTY SIX: The Black Tower III
Then the wind blew the clouds in again, dark and heavy and low, and the wild-haired half-naked war goddess on her huge powerful horse disappeared behind them. There was a murmur of dismay from more throats than yours and you wondered how many of your companions had the same brief, mad desire that you had, to raise your sword and stab it upward, as if the clouds were a curtain you could cut apart, and see the Defender again, and go to her.
“All here, Colonel,” said Barolin. “All present and ready for your orders.” And he cast his usual glare over everyone, daring anyone not to be ready, but you thought it wasn’t his usual glare at all, and that he was worried, more worried than you’d ever seen him, Barolin, who was as tough and clever and fearless as the colonel.
The colonel nodded, and then raised her hand and shouted out suddenly: Canaluma nur frimeh-lec sen falconi dlin tuloom!
You stiffened, and your mare shook her head and sidled, but yours was not the only horse and you were not the only rider to react to the colonel’s words, so no one need know that you could smell the magic her words had released. But the rest of your company were probably only responding to the magic’s kick, the disturbance in the aether. You didn’t have to be able to recognise magic to feel its strength.
The colonel wasn’t a magic user; soldiers rarely were. It was one of the reasons why, when you ran away from the village where you’d lived all your life, you went straight to the Lady’s army headquarters and enlisted as fast as you could ink your thumbprint and press it where the captain told you to. Therefore what the colonel had just shouted wasn’t a spell or anything she had to work herself; it was probably some kind of key. . . .
“Is this the only way?” said Barolin.
“It’s the only way I know,” said the colonel. “It’s not like this happens every duty shift, is it?”
You could feel the ripple of unease curling through the company. The colonel didn’t talk like this in front of the people she led. She turned her horse so she was facing her company. “Listen, you green dogs,” she said, which made everyone smile a little: green dogs were either the newest, stupidest recruits or the legendary heroes who saved the country or the queen against impossible odds. Dornag had swum leagues in stormy seas to bring critical news; Eenarloc had fatally stabbed the enemy general in the eye with the shaft of a feather pulled out of her horse’s tail after the general had broken her sword in battle. Eenarloc had been a Falcon, and the feather woven into her horse’s tail had been a falcon feather.
“I’ve heard most of the stories you lot tell each other,” the colonel said briskly. “I’ve told some of them myself. But I don’t think I’ve heard you tell the one that says a company that goes to support the Defender of the Gate probably won’t come home again?”
It was a tribute to what her people thought of their colonel that no one looked away.
“I confess that generations of officers have tried very hard to prevent that story from becoming commonly known.”
Magic, you thought. Soldiers are the worst gossips in the world. They’d’ve had to put a spell on it to keep it quiet.
“Partly because no one knows if it’s true or not. If you’re going to lose sleep over something at least let it be real. And the Black Tower is an uncomfortable enough posting; it doesn’t need help from ghost stories.
“But”—she looked at Lamos, but he bowed his head and stared at his horse’s withers—“personally I think there’s something a bit odd about the Black Tower duty—aside from the amount of sleep you lose over nothing. The Lady’s regimental histories go back hundreds of years. You can look up how many sheaves of corn were stolen eight hundred years ago from a farm called Bright Harvest a quarter league west of the village of Rillbrook, or how many folk from Bagshire, and their names, ages and date of contract, enlisted in the Lady’s army seven hundred and eighty three years ago. But there’s almost nothing, ever, about the Black Tower aside from the fact that duty there was already long established when records began to be taken.
“So I’m thinking that I want to send word back to base about what’s happened to us.” She paused while the implications of what she was saying sank in. “Coros. Your wife’s expecting your first child, isn’t she?”
The whole company knew. Coros could talk of little else. And his face lit up every time he did.
“No ma’am,” said Coros. “I mean, yes ma’am. But Dora is a Raven herself, ma’am, and she’s the wife of a soldier and a daughter of a soldier. And I’m a Falcon. Ma’am.”
“Hmm,” said the colonel. “Mol, you’re the last child your mother has left, aren’t you?”
“Yes ma’am,” said Mol promptly. “But she loves her horses more, and the rents from her farm easily support her and her current lover. Or lovers.”
“Oh?” said the colonel. And so it went on: Dumain’s old father didn’t need him, nor did Susalla’s crippled sister—“She’s scarier than a pod of dragons. That she can’t walk is beside the point”—until the colonel laughed, perhaps a little painfully, and said, “All right, all right. We’ll leave whoever comes after us a note.”
She paused again as if listening. But you’d been aware of the change trembling in the air since very shortly after the colonel had shouted out the words of the key. A key was as good a way of explaining it to yourself as any. A kind of key that opened a kind of door.
You could feel the Black Tower . . . waking up.
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