Whenever spring was a month old, it even began to feel like spring in the foothills. At times the cold wind would be heavy with sleet, but not for long. The sun gradually began to peer from behind the clouds, each day bringing a bit more warmth to the little town of Albius with all its walls and towers, roofs, squares, narrow streets and tiny gardens. The sun’s persistence was paying off. Just yesterday the quiet, narrow streets and the main gates had been sullied with the sight of dirty snow drifts, but today there was no sign left of them.
Of course, the town’s cleaners worked tirelessly with their brooms and shovels. The voice of the Albius burgomaster was hoarse from shouting commands to the town workers, but where would they have been, had it not been for the sun?
Encircling the city wall, the supple torrents of the Mannaz river continued to drag shards of ice in its wake, while the brilliantly shining snow-white mountains with verdant young grass at their base glistened in the sunlight. The bare branches of the trees rustled lightly, and only a padded jacket could protect a girl’s shoulders from the cold freshness; but spring had already crossed the threshold. Only one thing wasn’t clear: why did the sky, the mountains and the cold air seem like a taut thread ready to snap at any moment?
Perhaps the reason was the beautiful black-haired stranger who had noticed the admiring gaze of a sixteen-year-old girl and smiled back at her? The stranger was a fine-looking young lady with long flowing hair. She wasn’t a child, but neither was she a mother. She was as pure as a third distillation of fire water. Where had this miraculous being appeared from, here in Albius?
There was a clamor in the market square. The traders were calling out to buyers or appealing for a warm summer. Rubberneckers from the surrounding villages feverishly clutched their thin purses while hawkers prodded each other with their baskets. The only person who really seemed to know where he was going and why was Thorn Brenin, slightly graying retired Captain of the Royal Guard who was also a volunteer patron of the Albius bowmen regiment. The townspeople parted before him like the waters of the Mannaz river forced apart by the keel of a Berkanan ship.
As dark-eyed Gleda followed her father, she could look around without having to be afraid of pickpockets or an accidental—or not so accidental—pinch or slap. This fact annoyed her rather than pleased her, however, because she was able and eager to respond decently to such an insult. Gleda was tired of waving around the wooden sticks they used to train young goofs how to fence, or swapping punches with other children of her age who were destined to be warriors. To be honest, she found all of that highly entertaining, but… now this disappointment too! What had become of the beautiful stranger? Just now she had been in front of her very eyes.
“I see that Captain Brenin’s come to market to get a present for his wonderful wife…” Baron Trobbel, the burgomaster of Albius, was walking through the rows of stalls towards the town hall. A guard with a basket of offerings walked behind him, while the Baron, a grizzled old fellow resembling a root-crop growing out of the stony ground, swayed from foot to foot, all the time looking around for something useful which might require his generous or not so generous patronage.
“What makes you think that, Mr. Burgomaster?” Thorn hid his smile.
“Albius isn’t the biggest town around,” Trobbel winked at Thorn’s daughter. “There aren’t too many captains of the Royal Guard. And even fewer captains’ wives. And only one of these wives celebrates her birthday on the festival of Spring Equinox. So, Captain, please consider tonight’s fireworks to be in honor of your Liki.”
“I shall convey it to her, Mr. Burgomaster!” Thorn said with a bow of his head. “Can we hope that you might visit us?”
“Of course!” Trobbel turned around. “But not today! I’m afraid today I’ll be too busy…”’
“I’d like to be that sprightly when I get to the age of eighty-four,” Thorn muttered as the burgomaster walked away.
“That will be thirty-one years from now,” Gleda remarked. “And then I’ll be… almost forty-eight! Holy Gods! I’ll be an old lady!”
“Old lady?” Her father shook his head reproachfully. “Your mother is turning forty-eight today. Would you call her an old lady?”
“What present are you going to get her, Daddy?” Gleda muttered sheepishly.
“What do you think?”
Gleda had already decided that her father hadn’t her in the clamor of the market, but Thorn Brenin heard everything everywhere.
“Jewelry of some sort?” Gleda suggested. “Mommy was making herself pretty in front of the mirror yesterday! Or should we get her a fluffy Raydonan shawl? It’s still cold inside the house.”
“Well, which one will it be?” Her father furrowed his brows.
“Jewelry,” Gleda said with a smith. “It’ll soon be summer. She doesn’t need a shawl.”
“Then we need to go this way,” Thorn said with a nod and headed towards one of the shops which formed a ring around the market square, with the town hall building with its yellow circular clock face atop the tower looking like a precious stone set into this ring. The very shop they needed was just next to the town hall.
Oh my eye, Gleda thought to herself. Does Father really have any idea where his daughter goes during her lunch-time strolls? Of course, chatting to the elderly antiques seller wasn’t such a big crime, but it had little to resemble a walk down to the river or whetting a young girl’s curiosity amongst the shelves of sweet pastries. I just hope Rask doesn’t let it out that he knows me!
Rask, a stocky, cheerful fellow with a black beard, only seemed on the old side because of the wrinkles that covered the length and breadth of his face. Then again, maybe he got them from his constant cheerfulness; at any rate, whenever he burst out laughing, and that was almost the whole time, each one of those wrinkles found its purpose in life. Now was no exception. When he caught sight of the customers, a happy smile spread across the merchant’s face. He rang the little bell that hung above the entrance and, still smiling, bowed to greet Thorn and his daughter.
He was at pains to pretend he had never met Gleda before. Bellowing with laughter at every remark made by the Captain, he summoned the guests into his shop where he took up his place behind the age-darkened oak counter between the many cupboards, big and small.
“It’s been a long time since I last came to see you, Rask,” Thorn remarked, casting a glance around the small and large vases, trunks and boxes displayed on the shelves, the stuffed wild animals hanging here and there, as well as certain incomprehensible things decorated in a variety of hues by the sun’s rays peering into the shop through the two narrow, intricate stained-glass windows.
“Three years, my dear Thorn,” Rask’s face again melted into a smile. “It’s been three years since you arrived in town freshly retired, discovered that an old friend had opened shop here, and bought from him a silver necklace with a garnet for your little wife, the lovely Liki. And then you forgot all about me. As I recall that was for her forty-fifth birthday. Why haven’t you come to see me ever since? Or did she decide not to get any older? I must admit her beauty is like a spot on the face of the sun, just try and look at it… But has there been no reason to buy a present for this little girl who is no less of a beauty than her own mother? I have also heard that your son has become a baronet? Was there no reason to order him a ceremonial dagger in a silver scabbard?”
“It would have been just the thing,” Thorn agreed. “If only Mact had decided to pay a visit to his parents. This young madcap was granted the title of baronet as a reward for faithful service in the Royal Court, but I haven’t seen him for all these three years. I want to visit him myself this summer, so who knows? As for my daughter… It looks as if she’s more interested in weapons, armor and scrolls of parchment. I would be surprised if she hasn’t already visited your shop. I can just see her standing at the basket and rummaging through those ancient manuscripts. My wife hasn’t been interested in jewels for these past three years. However, the garnet necklace is her favorite and she has been feeling better in recent months. By the way, I’ve heard that garnet helps in childbirth? I think I would have visited your shop more frequently if the necklace had been in the possession of my Liki seventeen years ago.”
“I’m aware of your troubles,” Rask added sadly. “A broken heart cannot be healed with powders and potions, but is protected by the warmth of the family—not always though… And by such daughters, even if their appearance to the world is sometimes the cause of the heartbreak. I have heard, truth be told, that there is a particular healing woman in Ursus—Unda’s her name—but she can’t do miracles either. And the garnet in the necklace is not a panacea. Unlike some other stones.”
Rask bent down and prodded the pendant with the black stone hanging around Thorn’s neck.
“A strix sometimes helps… against a variety of things.”
“Liki and I have visited all the menhirs in our kingdom, and the neighbouring ones as well,” Thorn grimaced. “We’ve spoken to the overseers and the priests in the Temple of Divine Retribution. Liki’s sick heart is not a simple disease. It is an inborn condition which she received at birth, and unfortunately her second difficult childbirth brought it out into the open. The menhirs cannot heal such conditions. They cannot regrow severed legs and hands and they cannot stick together hearts once they’ve been ripped asunder. And the strix pendant on my breast is just a badge of honor from the King. Badges like those are granted to every captain.”
“And yet they say that such stones were once able to protect its bearer from great misfortune,” Rask muttered as if deep in thought about something.
“From the Harvest,” Gleda whispered behind her father’s back.
“You said it, little girl,” Rask said with a wry grin.
“Give it up, my friend,” Thorn frowned. “Find another reason to praise your goods. And Gleda, it’s about time you forgot such childish stories. Rask, you would do better showing me which silver goods you have.”
“I have many,” Rask answered. For some reason, he was no longer smiling. “I actually have a strix as well. It’s a special type. Here, have a look.”
The merchant removed a box from one of the cupboards and took out a canvas pouch. He laid a strip of green velvet on the counter and tipped out a shiny white metal pendant from the pouch. It base was shaped in the form of a star, the many rays of which grasped the black stone like paws. It somehow resembled the stone in Thorn’s pendant, except that it was uncut, twice as large, and in the form of a frozen drop. Thorn touched the oiled leather thong and the pendant trembled. To Gleda it resembled a silver desert centipede about to drop its prey and run away.
“Such an evil-looking jewel…” she whispered, fascinated.
“Isn’t it silver?” Thorn said in surprise.
“No,” Rask said. “This unusually large strix is mounted on white gold. The Frisians call the metal platinum. But this is a special type of platinum. It’s enchanted. If the stone becomes smaller, it squeezes its paws to keep the strix from falling out.
“That can’t be true,” Thorn frowned. “Is it pure elasticity that makes it shrink? I have yet to see a single magician who can perform actual feats of magic without sleight-of-hand.”
“That only proves that you’ve never seen a single magician who can perform actual feats of magic without sleight-of-hand,” Rask laughed.
“But what makes it shrink?” Gleda interrupted.
“Strixes shrink when they use their power of healing,” Rask explained. “Your father has nothing to fear. His stone is glued to the base. It will shrink but it won’t drop out.”
“I’ve been wearing it for ten years and it hasn’t shrunk by a hair’s breadth,” Thorn replied abruptly.
Rask’s lips parted in a smile. “There just hasn’t been a reason.”
“The Harvest,” Gleda repeated.
“Bite your tongue, Glee!” Thorn raised his voice. “Don’t talk nonsense. Don’t keep going on about it! Rask, you would do better telling me whether this stone will help Liki and how much it costs?”
“I can’t say whether it will help Liki,” Rask admitted. “Can you say about any young man whether his sword can help him or not? One thing’s for sure, though. The lack of a sword won’t help anyone,” he continued. “The same with the stone. Especially one like that, because it’s very expensive. Its price is one thousand gold coins.”
“How much?!” Thorn asked in surprise.
“And how much did you think it might cost?” Rask said with a helpless gesture. “Or do you think strixes can be bought from the market stalls? Go and have a look in Albius… All they have are small shards which some people put in their ears. It’s no easy task to hew a piece from a menhir. They hack off all those pieces and what’s the point? No, harvesting strixes is a fine art. A rare art. And there isn’t anyone left with the skills to do it. At least in Berkana… That’s the reason for the price. But I can wait for… let’s say five years… for you to pay it off. I trust you.”
“One thousand gold coins…” Thorn muttered. “My house doesn’t cost much more. That’s expensive.”
“It’s not more expensive than the life which the stone will protect,” Rask remarked. “Will you take it?”
“You must be mad,” Thorn said with a shake of his head.
“Well then, choose,” Rask placed a basket of silver on the table. “Just for you, Thorn. One gold coin for any of these most luxuriant silver jewels. And I must tell you, some of these jewels contain rubies. They are much more expensive than garnet. Your Liki will be pleased. But I would think about…”
“About what?” Thorn replied uncomprehendingly.
“About the strix,” Rask lowered his voice. “Life is dearer than a thousand gold coins.”
“Look!” Gleda exclaimed, picking a silver tiara with crimson stones out of the basket. “Can you imagine how pretty that would look in Mummy’s hair?”
“Does anyone’s life demand that it be exchanged for a stone?” Thorn frowned as he untied his purse.
“I don’t know…. for the moment,” Rask replied. But he was listening intently to something else.
Outside, the bell in the clock tower struck the hour.
“I’ve always been amazed how you can live here.” Thorn placed the gold coin on the green velvet. “That bell strikes four times a day and once at night. Do you wake up every time?”
“It’s a matter of habit,” Rask whispered as the color suddenly drained from his cheeks. He took a sack from under the table and hurriedly began to stuff it with the contents of the little drawers he pulled out of the cupboards.
The clock struck a second time.
“Although,” Thorn took another look at the tiara, nodded in satisfaction and placed it in the bag which hung over his shoulder, “If I were the burgomaster, I would have that bell ringer’s head chopped off! It’s still half an hour until midday.”
“That’s a good choice,” Rask wheezed. “Of course, strix is better, but silver’s a good choice as well. You never know when it might come in handy.”
“Handy?” Thorn replied in puzzlement. “What are you talking about?”
“If anything happens…” Covered in shiny pearls of sweat, Rask tied up the sack which in the space of seconds he had stuffed with his wares. He looked around with regret, then grabbed his chopping axe with the curved handle and woven strap and slung it over his shoulder. He pulled his cloth tricorn cap over his head and exclaimed as he squeezed between the cupboards: “…then close the door, although if you want to you can go out through the back door!”
“Where are you going?” Thorn shouted after Rask.
“As far away from here as I can!” A door slammed somewhere in the depths of the shop.
“He’s gone mad,” Thorn said. “Him and the bell ringer.”
Suddenly the colored rays of the sun peering in through the stained-glass windows were extinguished and the sky went dark with storm clouds.
“No, they didn’t,” Gleda whispered.
* * *
They went out onto the market square and froze. Heavy storm clouds hung over the town, while the bell continued to peal above their heads.
Yet there was no sound, except for the rasping of the dying Burgomaster who lay huddled against the wall of the town hall, streams of blood spurting from his nose and mouth. The entire square, all the paths between the stalls, everywhere was filled with bodies. They were not dead but lying flat on the ground in terror, and—what was more terrifying than anything else—not only the people’s mouths but the jaws and beaks of the animals in the market were gripped with terror. The people in the market lay so still, as if their last breath would be plucked from them or their hearts ruptured if they but uttered a single sob of terror.
“You’re a strong one!”
Thorn heard the words not as a voice, but as a rustling, wheezing, the screech from a well at night, the whistling of the wind in a pipe, the swishing of a steel sword in the air, the rasping of a stone giant’s grindstone. He turned around and was dumbstruck. Before him stood a monstrous creature.
It looked like a human being, but wasn’t one. A head taller than Thorn, the beast resembled a man in every line of its silhouette. But even if it had been comparable in height and copied the slenderness and breadth of shoulders of the boldest of Albius’ bowmen, it would still remain a monster. The barely distinguishable differences that set it apart from any human made it even more terrible than anything imaginable and Thorn felt himself overcome by a sense of terror and nausea. Everything about the creature was unbearable. The skin dissected by cracks, as though it had been stuck onto a clay doll in grey strips with the ends tucked in. The muscles, not bulged like the muscles of circus strongmen, but twisted in bundles woven around the arms, chest, stomach, neck, almost tearing the grey skin at the joints. The long fingers with flat grey nails which firmly gripped the riveted leather straps girding the monstrous body from waist to shoulders, in places cutting into the very skin. The monstrous glaive of glistening grey metal protruding from above its horrifying shoulders. The bronze studs which pierced its body above the collar bones and were fastened beneath the ribs with steel rings and connected by chains. The long skirt made of dark material which hung all the way to its bare grey feet, and the blood-spattered leather apron above it. Its grey, lifeless face, the skin of which fell into pieces along the folds of its face. The black, greasy hair tied in a dozen dreadlocks. And the dark, narrow slits for eyes that looked like swollen black cataracts.
“Really strong,” the monster either repeated its words or it was an echo from the other end of the market square, and Thorn realized that he needed to fall to the ground. He knew he needed to prostrate himself, press himself into the ground, gnaw the spit-covered stone floor of the market square, turn himself into dried ordure.
He was about to make a move when he felt Gleda standing behind his back grabbing his belt, not letting him prostrate himself. She held him upright, or held tightly onto him so as not to fall, and he remained standing. He clenched his teeth, feeling the enamel chipping off. He tightened his fists until his nails cut into his palms. He growled softly, so as not to howl or whine out loud. And he squeezed his knees and loins tight so as not to wet himself.
“Good,” the monster hissed. It took a step forward and stretched out its grey hand to grab the captain’s pendant. Then it squeezed the stone and its grey fist sizzled as if the jewel on the captain’s breast was incandescent. “The burgomaster refused to serve me. Then we’ll start with your family, Thorn Brenin.”
And with that the beast disappeared into the air like an induced daze.
“I wet myself,” Gleda heaved from behind Thorn’s back.
“Run!” He shouted. “Run home!”
* * *
For the first time in her life, the little town of Albius appeared incredibly huge to Gleda. The streets seemed to stretch out until they disappeared beyond the horizon, and by the time she reached the door of her own home she was barely able to breathe. When she followed her father inside, she felt as though her heart was about to stop.
Old Tenner, the housekeeper and servant of the Brenin family, was sitting right behind the door, whining quietly. Thorn glanced at the staircase leading to the second floor. A rivulet of blood was flowing down. He ran upstairs. The first person he found was Quina, the serving girl, who was Tenner’s daughter. She had been killed by a sword blow. Liki’s sword was lying on the floor nearby. Liki herself lay at the entrance to her room. Death seemed to have taken her by surprise. Only her legs pressed to her stomach and the hand beneath her breast suggested that she had been felled by a pain in her heart. Liki was clutching the back of her own neck with her right hand, which was stained by Quina’s blood. Thorn fell to his knees.
“Mommy!” Gleda sobbed behind his back.
“Quickly,” Thorn hissed between clenched teeth. “Take the coverlet from the bed and cover up Quina. Then clean up Mommy’s sword and bring two sacks. Yours and mine. And do it all quickly!”
Gleda darted off while Thorn placed his hand on his wife’s cheek. He felt the coldness of her ebbing life and shouted for Tenner over his shoulder, just so he could stop the sobbing from ripping his chest apart.
“I’m here, Master,” the old man gurgled through his tears. He had served young Liki Brenin while she had still been Liki Vitchi.
“You have ten minutes,” Thorn barked. “Saddle all three horses and gather our things. We’re leaving.”
“Yes, master!” the servant responded.
“What will we do now?” Gleda sobbed behind Thorn’s back.
“Have you changed your pants?” He spoke to his daughter but did not take his eyes off the curls of dark hair on his wife’s temples.
“Yes,” Gleda whispered.
“Get your stuff ready, like we did for the summer games last year,” Thorn said, and his voice was the voice of a different man. “You have ten minutes, no more. Put the little box with your mother’s jewels into my sack and take the pouch of coins from my room. You know where it is.”
“Where are we going?” Gleda asked.
“Where?” Thorn repeated the question, recalling how Rask had fled. “As far away from here as we can!” he whispered.
“What’s happening?” Gleda bit her lips so as not to burst into tears.
“Are you still asking?” Thorn hissed between clenched teeth and removed Liki’s hand from her neck. There was a blue spot on the skin above his wife’s fourth vertebra. The skin around it was swollen, as though burnt.
“So, that’s it….” Thorn muttered and began wrapping his wife’s body in the rug on which she was lying.
“Daddy!” Gleda groaned. “My neck. It’s burning at the back. It’s unbearable.”
Thorn jumped to his feet as if suddenly facing an enemy he had pursued his entire life. His daughter’s neck sported a mark identical to his wife’s. For an instant he bit his lip to keep himself from roaring out in anguish and frustration. He reached for his pendant. His captain’s insignia had shrunk by more than half its size. The silver base had been crushed by the hand of the monster and the stone itself had withered, but it was still a strix. What if Rask was right? He ruffled his silver locks of hair, then plucked the captain’s insignia from his neck and gave it to Gleda. Instantly the pain subsided.
He held his daughter close to him. “Let’s get ready,” he said, his voice hoarse. “Be a good girl and hurry up. I’m with you.”
She nodded, tied a scarf around her neck and called out into the yard where her father was already busy loading Liki’s body onto a horse.
“There… on the square…. That was…? So it’s not just a story? It’s the Harvest?”
“I don’t know.” Thorn growled and called out to his servant: “Who’s knocking on the gates, Tenner?”
“The Captain,” the servant wiped the sweat off his forehead with a trembling hand. “It’s Captain Krieger who’s arrived, and he isn’t alone. He’s with Fisk, the watchman from the northern gates, and four young lads from your… from his regiment. They’re all on horseback.”
Thorn waved his hand. “Let them in.”
“What’s happening, old friend?” Captain Krieger, a stoutish but still energetic man, asked him a moment later. His clothes were spattered with blood and his hands were trembling. A heavy musket hung from his shoulders.
“Do you really not know?” Thorn asked.
The bells continued to peal over the town.
“Can it really be… the Harvest?” Krieger muttered and gave a strange shiver.
Thorn cast an eye over Krieger’s companions.
He knew them all quite well. Four lads of the same age from the autumn intake, all of them from Odal. Sopp, Ark, Brett and Hoda. They were the same age as Gleda and had been fencing and wrestling partners of her. They were still boys, but the best there were. Fisk, one of the local guards, looked like a shabby pooch. He was an orphan and a bachelor, it seemed, and well known as a hard drinker with a love for beer. Krieger, too, boasted an impressive pendant on his breast like the one Thorn had and which was now hanging on Gleda’s chest. The girl’s lips were sealed as if she had taken a vow of silence. But what was left from that pendant after the monster’s clasp? If only they had taken Rask’s stone…
“It’s the harvest alright,” Ark, a frail young boy with curls in his hair, answered.
“Show your necks,” Thorn ordered.
“We’ve got nothing,” Krieger said with a wave of his trembling hand. “I’ve already checked. A lot of people in the town got burns, but we didn’t. Every second fellow, from the look of it. They grabbed the backs of their necks, and many of them screamed out in pain. We’re the only ones who remained sane.”
“Sane?” Thorn asked in puzzlement.
“A lot of the infected went out of their minds,” Krieger clenched his teeth. “Not immediately though. We were standing at the north gates, Fisk and I. Then a monster suddenly appeared.”
“It was right terrible,” Fisk confirmed. “So frightful no-one could stay on his feet anymore!”
“The reaper,” Ark whispered.
“I don’t know about that,” Krieger said angrily with a shake of his head. “But it was a monster of a fellow. So terrible you could soil yourself. Many people did. In any case, everyone fell to the ground where they stood. And then the creature made a sign on the gates. It’s still there. At that point it began shouting something. I didn’t understand a word.”
“It said the gates were sealed,” Ark once more raised his voice. “It said it in Frisian and in the temple tongue.”
“Will you shut up, smart ass!” Krieger roared. “If only you were as eager to fight! Talking’s easy.”
“Did I…” Ark’s face paled.
“Calm down!” Thorn raised his voice. “The last thing we now need is to fight each other… Talking or no talking, each one of us will prove his courage, do not doubt that. And the tongue has nothing to do with it. But why Frisian and temple tongue?”
“I don’t know” Ark responded with a drooping head. “I know those languages. As to why… Temple tongue is only used for singing hymns. Although some say it’s used for magic too.”
“All right,” Thorn frowned. “And then what?”
Krieger shrugged his shoulders. “Then a merchant appeared. The one with the shop near the town hall. Sells all sorts of old things. Rask’s the name. Came galloping through the square on a mare. It’s a miracle he didn’t crush anyone. He was terrified but he certainly knew what to do. He pulled a lever, did something with the wings of the gate, then shouted a couple of words at the guards. They opened the gates and then he was gone.
“The gates, of course, slammed shut. No one could hold them back. Although a dozen guards managed to leap between the wings of the gates. Seems like they wanted to chase after the merchant. Devil knows what they wanted him for. After that the sign seemed to fill with blood! But by that time the gates were the last thing anyone could care about. Suddenly all the folks started getting up and killing each other. Some ran away, others grabbed their weapons. A couple of them even used their bare hands to kill… Fisk and I fought them off best we could. Old friends fell on us like wild beasts. We had to do away with some of them. We got into the stables where the young lads were. We need to leave town, Thorn. All my watchmen have gone crazy. There’s nothing left for me to do here. I just pray to the gods that my village is spared from this disaster. All my family is there.”
“My ‘village’ wasn’t spared…” Thorn muttered, casting a somber look at the soldiers. He glanced at the token on Krieger’s breast, at the black flecks of strix in the ears of the four. He turned to Fisk. “Have you been drinking?”
“What are you talking about?” The soldier replied uncomprehendingly. “I didn’t have me a thing. Haven’t drunk a drop since yesterday.”
“They were saved by the stones!” Thorn growled. “You must have had some strix on you.”
“Ah…” Fisk sighed with a shiver. He unclenched his left wrist to reveal a ring with a shard of black stone in it. “It looks all girly-like. That’s why I wear it with the stone on the inside. It’s all I have left from my mother.”
“Looks like she’s still protecting you after her death,” Thorn nodded.
“What are we going to do?” Krieger asked.
‘We need to get out of town,” Thorn said and leapt into the saddle. “You said so yourself. Tenner!”
“I’m not going,” said the old man, who was standing at the entrance to the garden. “My Quina is here, so I have to stay as well. Mistress Liki… resisted. When the trouble came upon her and Quina, I saw them reach for their necks. Then my Quina attacked the mistress. Liki pushed her away and ran upstairs. Quina ran after her. Like a beast she snarled. All a-waving the kitchen knife she was. And then… Mistress Liki stayed right-minded. She cried to me, asked me to forgive her for Quina, she did… And I… Well, I’m staying. If you need anything, I’ll look after the house, Master Thorn. For as long as I live.”
“You’ve got a mark on your neck as well,” Thorn guessed.
“If the gods appoint a death to me, I’ll meet my daughter again,” the old man sobbed. “The pain means nothing to me. The pain in my heart is greater than any other sort of pain.”
“Thank you, Tenner,” Thorn said. Then he grabbed the reins of Liki’s horse and led the animal to the exit.
* * *
The square was covered in blood. Here and there lay dead bodies, hacked to pieces, but the battle was over. A dozen soldiers, their blood lust satiated, stood with unsheathed swords at the gates. A dimly lit sign—a vertical line with a triangle at the middle of its height—seemed to hold the two wings of the gates together. The bloodied sentinels looked as if they were serving the terrible sign. They shifted their weight from one foot to the other, whining quietly as they rubbed the backs of their necks.
“That’s odd,” Krieger frowned. “Have they made their peace? They’re not fighting one another anymore.”
“Why did he seal the gates?” Thorn asked. “If someone wants to send a plague to the entire land, then why try to lock it inside the town?”
“I know nothing about the harvest,” Krieger admitted. “I never thought that…”
“And why have they stopped killing each other?” Thorn muttered. “It doesn’t look as if they’ve made their peace, if their faces are anything to go by.”
“The reapers are like children,” Ark raised his voice. “All-powerful but savage children. And the seal is like a trap. It’s a kind of delayed charm. We shouldn’t look for sense in their games, although we can’t discount the possibility either…”
“How do you know all this?” Thorn asked with interest.
“My father is a royal scribe,” the young boy sighed. “And I wanted to become a warrior.”
“I hope you succeed,” Krieger growled.
“They serve that monster,” Thorn heard Gleda’s voice. “If we don’t kill them, they’ll kill anyone who approaches the gates. Anyone who wasn’t immediately touched by the Harvest.”
Ark looked at Gleda curiously. Then his gaze met that of her father.
“Rask allowed me to read some of his parchments,” Gleda added and unsheathed her sword.
“There are lads from my regiment among them!” Krieger clenched his teeth.
“Have you forgotten that you’re the Captain of the Watch?” Thorn shot back. “Order them to leave the gates and go back to their barracks! Why are you quiet?”
“Stand to attention, you louts!” Krieger roared to the watchmen at the top of his voice, but to no avail. He might have been shouting at the wind, for all it mattered.
“Well, there we have it,” Thorn muttered. “They’re not the same people any more. Perhaps a bullet will scare them off?”
“I haven’t got a single bullet left!” Krieger hissed. “And my musket’s old, it was left to me by my father. I was still planning to take it for a service to the armorer.”
“Well if they don’t understand words, then we’ll have to use our swords,” Thorn whispered. “Truth be told, mine’s not new either…”
* * *
The crazed guards did not hear their words or simply didn’t understand them. They tossed their spears at the company and rushed to Thorn without paying any attention to his exhortations or Krieger’s shouts from behind. At first Thorn only parried the blows from their swords. But then the soldiers began to side-step him to get to Gleda and the lads from the squad. One of them thrust his sword into his horse’s throat.
“Defend yourselves!” Thorn roared at the top of his voice as he got back on his feet. He reminded his pupils of their training and rushed forwards, breaking through the oddly disciplined ranks of madmen. And yet he still tried his best to knock his adversaries out without killing them. But the crazed watchmen fought as if they felt no pain and showed no fear.
Krieger showered them with curses, calling out to each one, but they appeared to have forgotten their own names. Even the ones Thorn knocked down, got up again and lifted their swords. Thorn was left with no choice but to kill them.
“All good things come to us through the grace of the Gods, even if they are the doing of men, for man is a divine creation. But if a man commits evil, he alone is guilty of it,” Thorn Brenin mumbled aloud the lines from the Stone Testament and with trained movements—parry, feint, sidestep, lunge and skewer like lightning—he killed the crazy soldiers one after the others. In the end only a handful were still alive. They were the ones wounded by the lads, who had no choice but to follow the example of their teacher, their eyes wide as saucers.
“Finish them off!” Krieger hissed as he thrust his sword into the wheezing, bleeding bodies.
When everything was over, Thorn retrieved his bag from his dead horse. Then he got onto another horse, the one bearing the body of Liki. Krieger rushed to the gates and the young soldiers ran to the wings, but the gates wouldn’t budge. The wings of the gates seemed to be deadlocked. The four blood-besmeared soldiers applied their full weight to the wings, but as much as the chains rattled, the gates wouldn’t budge.
“What the blazes…?” Krieger broke out into a string of curses as he fidgeted with the wings. “I saw with my own eyes how Rask went up to the gates, put his hand between the two wings and the guards moved them without a problem. I’ve burnt all my fingers on that sign!”
Gleda went up to her father. “Daddy, do you remember Rask’s words? Strix would be better, but silver’s a good choice as well. That tiara. Is it still in your bag?”
Thorn looked around. On the opposite side of the square another regiment of strangely organized madmen with bloody swords appeared. He put his hand into his bag and found the tiara. He glanced at it for a moment and then threw it to Krieger.
“Slide this between the panels.”
The gates immediately began to open. The bell on top of the town hall continued to peal, warning the surrounding areas of the terrible misfortune. Above the town, a thick layer of clouds was gathering.