Chapter Thirty-Six

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Lorn lunged to catch Guin before her head hit the marble, and ended up sprawled on the floor with a bolt of agony shooting up his leg. Still, he did manage to cushion her fall.

"Now you've done it," he heard Zolga say from somewhere above him. "That's opened up your leg again somethin' fierce."

"I'm aware of that, Zolga," he groaned as a wave of gut-churning nausea washed over him. "Anyone care to lend me a hand?"

"'Ere ye go, lad." Mogra reached down and helped haul Lorn into a sitting position. Guin's head lay in his lap, cushioned by a tangle of wet hair. She was breathing regularly, which was good, even if she looked frighteningly pale and thin.

Lorn felt a keen stab of guilt. While he was both awed and excited that his idea had actually worked, it had obviously taken every last ounce of her strength.

"I can't carry the both of you," Talon said flatly. "And we need to get moving fast, before--before more Alavardians come."

Lorn noted how the captain kept glancing over her shoulder, and the sharp, nervous energy in her movements. It all told him that she was exerting every last shred of her will not to simply skinshift and fly away to safety.

Of course, if she had bolted on them, Lorn hardly would have blamed her--considering what she would've been running from.

"I'll carry 'er," Droom volunteered, to everyone's obvious surprise. He met their raised eyebrows with a defiant jut of his frazzled beard. "Reckon I can carry a wee slip o'gel like 'er w'out too much bother."

"I'll help ye, Droo," Mogra said gently, leaning over to peck him on the cheeck. Droom colored slightly, and gave her hand a squeeze.

"Thank you. Both of you," Lorn said. He glanced down at Guin, and was taken aback to see he'd been absently combing tangled strands of hair back from her brow with his fingers. He pulled his hand hastily away.

The Ironsongs squatted on either side of Guin. Droom hooked his hands under her arms, and Mogra lifted her knees. She hung between them like a very long, limp fish.

"Poor lass, she's fair wasted away. Weighs nothin' at'all," Mogra observed, shaking her head and frowning. "They've near starved 'er t'death."

Talon leaned down and gripped Lorn about the waist, then lifted him like a sack of flour and slung him back over her broad shoulder. Lorn sighed inwardly--if they survived, he was never going to live this down.

They set off down the stairs and splashed across the flooded dining hall, weaving between chunks of smashed furniture and grotesque flotsam of the few remaining soldiers. They hadn't simply drowned, Lorn realized, as he got a closer look at one man's lifeless body--they had been smashed to pieces by the sheer weight and force of the water. The skull of the man he was looking at had been caved in, and by the look of things, his limbs had snapped like straw.

Empty as it was, Lorn's stomach heaved, and he looked away.

They waded their way out of the dining hall, up few steps and out into a broad, sunlit gallery lined on one side with statues, and the other with open arches that led out onto a stone terrace, and from there, into lush gardens. There was water here as well, though only an inch deep. It cascaded down the terrace steps in a glittering waterfall, and, ironically, looked quite pretty.

"Should we try the garden?" Zolga asked. "Looks walled, but there might be a door for the servants..."

"We'll try it," Lorn said, nodding.

They crossed the terrace quickly and descended into the cool green shade of ferntrees and trelaced girtlevine. There were pools of clear water here, and wrought iron benches, and more colorful, sweet scented flowers than they had names for. The ground was soft underfoot, soaked through from water seeping out of the palace. It occured to Lorn that if Guin didn't close that portal in the dungeon, the entire city would eventually be flooded, and whatever body of water was on the other side might be drained. Hopefully she would wake before then.

The garden felt almost like a different world from the warm, smooth whiteness of the palace, or the dark, damp dungeons below.

Lorn could still hear shouts and screams, sounds of battle, coming from elsewhere in the distance, but these grew ever fainter as they moved along. Whatever the witches were doing, they had evidently caught the full attention of the guards, and scattered everyone else. Lorn was absolutely certain he didn't want to know what was happening inside those walls.

Somewhere in the city, a bell had begun tolling.

_____

The voice stopped. Thesul paused, head tilted, listening. It did not return. He'd lost the Reader's trail, for now.

But he thought he heard other sounds--shouts, screams, the ringing clash of metal. And had there been a tremor, a shudder of stone beneath his feet, only moments ago? What in the name of the pit was going on out there?

Things were happening in his palace that he had no knowledge of, and he was displeased.

With a low growl, Thesul change direction and stormed down a low-ceilinged passage. He thrust open a door, and stepped into a pantry. The walls were lined with shelves of neatly-packaged dry goods--and the floor was crowded with shivering, wide-eyed people. They hovered around a single candle in the center of the pantry, like moths.

Thesul stopped dead and stared.

They were servants, yes--ancient and stooped, dressed in gray. But there were also a several bright young courtiers scattered through the group, butterflies among the moths. He even spotted a few of this castle guard lurking near the back.

Like mechanical dolls operating on a single clockwork spring, they all turned their heads to look at Thesul as she stood in the narrow doorway. Several of them even had the good sense to look terrified.

Thesul ran a tongue over his lips before forcing them into a stiff smile. "Ah. I see you are having a little party in here." He took a step forward and shut the door. "I should have you know, my dears, I am deeply hurt that I did not receive an invitation..."

"M'Lord." One servant--a hatchet-faced old man with watery eyes--shuffled forward, his gnarled hands held out in supplication. "M'Lord, the palace is under attack. There are creatures--women with the speed of beasts--they are tearing your men limb from limb--"

"Is that so?" Thesul asked, raising his eyebrows inquisitively. "My, my. That is shocking news, to be sure."

A young woman to his right, one of his nubile, glittering courtiers, raised her voice to add, "And there is water, M'Lord, water everywhere! And the ground shook, not a minute ago. We--we are so afraid--!"

Thesul smiled sweetly at her. "Oh, I imagine you must be. And I have no doubt that you have every reason to feel that way, Lady Orilla."

He took a few steps into the crowd. They parted around him. He turned, slowly, to study their pale, frightened faces. He thought for a moment, then reached out a gentle hand to cup Lady Orilla's chin.

Softly, he said, "But I think, perhaps, that your fear is misplaced, my dear--or have you forgotten the penalty for cowardice and desertion?"

The woman's eyes widened, and her mouth opened, as if to cry out--but before she could make a sound, Thesul's other hand moved with a blur of savage speed and tore out her throat.

The others tried to run. One or two of them even managed to escape the small room--though mostly, they only got under one another's feet.

When Thesul was done, his skin and clothes were sticky with crimson. He licked his lips again, tasting salty, rusty sweetness.

"Ah," he sighed, combing his hair back into place with a gore-streaked hand. "Much better."

He stepped over the mounded corpses--some still twitching--opened the pantry door and walked out into a deserted kitchen. Yes, he could hear the sounds of battle, sure enough. Were the Sisters really attacking his home after all those years of hiding under rocks?

Thesul shook his head, and chuckled. How delightful. He'd never imagined today would turn out so eventful. He hadn't had this much excitement in years.

Thesul set off at a brisk stride in the direction of the nearest screams, whistling softly to himself and leaving congealing red footprints in his wake.

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