The past and future threat

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It wasn't the first time Tarn had found himself entirely lost, without any frame of reference to even begin understanding his predicament. As he hurried after Tranton, who had hauled Kirya up onto his shoulder as if she weighed nothing, he glanced over at Fenris, seeking that calm, measured expression that the old man always seemed to wear. All that he saw was the same sense of panic and confusion that was filling Tarn's own head.

They raced across the square and up a slight embankment towards the tallest building in the village: a watchtower, tall and straight, topped with a belltower which promised to provide a good vantage point of the area in all directions. "We must keep Kirya away from any creatures which breach the outer walls," Fenris said between breaths.

Tarn was reminded of being in the The Round, as the city guard and rival gangs stormed the inn at the same time, slaughtering anyone in their way. He thought of Wide Riley, and considered the life he might have lived had he stayed with the Stagehands; had the Stagehands still been alive. For the briefest of moments he had felt welcome and been part of a family, understanding the previously unknown concept of stability, of having a future. Fenris had explained that the Stagehands weren't nice people, but that didn't matter to Tarn. The guards in the machine rooms hadn't been nice people: Wide Riley was the kindest man alive, in comparison. Even as Stamper had ordered executions, he'd given Tarn a home and the beginnings of hope. That was more than he'd ever been allowed.

Barging the door open, they entered the watchtower, which revealed itself to be a simple, four-sided stone building with a wooden staircase winding around its inside. Fenris paused to close and bar the door, then they clambered up the stairs as fast as they could, two or three steps at a time, round and round until they reached the top and emerged onto the observation platform, in the centre of which hung a huge bell. Slender beams supported the roof but the view was otherwise uninterrupted, showing the lay of the village and the surrounding land. Tranton placed Kirya carefully onto the floor on her side, then rushed to the edge.

"Looks like a group of twenty coming straight at the main gates," he said. "I don't recognise the animals - nothing like them ever showed up in the arena."

"The other sides of the village look clear," Fenris said, moving from wall to wall. "At least for now. I imagine Miss Eyer would know what the creatures are."

"She'll have the chance to see them up close really soon," Tranton said. "That main gate's seen better days."

Tarn didn't bother to move to the wall to look out at the scene below. The valley, the cities, the mountains - they all remained abstract concepts, infuriatingly out of reach and beyond his capacity to describe or fully experience. He'd bodily escaped the machine rooms but his mind still worked in the context of levers and gears and steam. Ice and earth and sky were elusive and he feared to embrace them, should they be snatched away again.

This girl, though, was real. He had entirely given in to her existence and she felt more tangible than the grass or the trees or the rocks. Kirya was the point around which his world turned. She alone tried to talk to him as a person, as a friend. Tranton wasn't unkind but Tarn could sense his pity. Fenris wanted only to teach and protect him, always insinuating that there was some greater motivation at work behind his escape from the machine rooms. Only Kirya regarded him as an equal, in spite of everything. He'd been told she was a princess but that, again, meant little, for he knew nothing of kings and monarchies. Power he understood, more than most, having witnessed it misused his entire life, but he saw none of that cruelty in her.

Now she lay on the hard, old wooden floor of the watchtower, breathing slow, ragged breaths with her eyes half-open. There was nothing he could do, but in that moment he wanted to be nowhere else. He thought for a second that he saw a slight shimmering across her skin, out of the corner of his eyes, but when he looked more closely there was nothing - perhaps only a shiver.

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