I - FLIGHT OF THE FIRE MAIDEN
The musket heaved into her shoulder, the Black Powder roared and the white smoke clouded her vision. She didn't wait to see the outcome. In her mind she had traced the lead ball's trajectory through the darkness, above the flapping tents and fluttering pennants, through the open window and into the man's skull. She pulled aside the lenses across her eyes, slung the musket onto her back and swung lightly over the parapet. The taut cord bore her weight and she dropped rapidly down the side of the steeple. She was a black shadow against the dark stone that a late reveller or weary sentry in the street of Magdeburg would scarcely have noticed, even if they chanced to glance up at the Cathedral's towers. But no one observed the inky shape dropping, dropping into the chimney smoke and clouds drifting across the shattered city from the fires burning in the northern quarter.
Quality Durrand had landed on the sloping roof of the lower building before she even thought of Hans Vollair dead. She didn't allow herself to smile. Two Names were dead but there were three more to go. Three names of men who called her kind Hexen - witches! - and had crimes to answer for.
"Heinrich Holk," she breathed as she ran across the angled slates of the church roof. Gargoyles and weeping virgins clustered in stone congregations around her feet. The next cord was lashed to an angel's robed shoulders. She dropped over the side and let the robe run between her gloved fingers, sinking gracefully to the street.
"Albrecht Von Wallenstein," she added as her soft boots found the cobbles. She tugged the lenses from her cap and pulled a tricorned hat over her thick red hair. The heavy buff coat hid her long musket well enough, though it forced her to walk with a stiff, rapid gait. She marched into the street without looking left or right and fell behind a rattling wagon of barrels and boxes that dropped stinking fish onto the flagstones as it rolled towards the barracks.
"Johann Kaspar Von Stadion," she muttered with a tremor in her voice. Kaspar was Highmaster of the Teutonic Order, the man whose knight had murdered her Egypcian friends, the man who still pursued the Hexen relentlessly.
Guards bearing lanterns shouted from up ahead and, while the wagon slowed, Quality stepped aside and into a tight alleyway running between two tall buildings. Far away the cannons roared again. The night smelled of ash. Behind her, in the precincts of the Dom, a man lay dead. His loyal followers would be looking for his murderer.
"Don Julius D'Austria!"
This name was her own contribution to the list. The grinning monster, half princeling, half lunatic, had pulled himself out of his premature grave and stalked her across the length of the Empire. His occult book reassured him of his invulnerability. He had killed Baptista Reinhardt, who had been her friend. He had killed Brandt. Brandt was dead. Brandt had loved her, perhaps. Or perhaps he had loved Baptista. But Brandt was dead, regardless.
"Don Julius D'Austria," she repeated, naming the man who would pay.
There were noises in the street she had left, heavy footfalls and the iron clatter of a horse. Shouts came from within the barracks, the steel gate squealed. Men issued out. Their marching boots descended towards the river and the walls of the Dom. Quality pressed deeper into the city.
A market square opened out in front, the debris of weeks of siege strewn about in the ruts and broken cobbles. There were men there with torches. Why were there men there?
Quality paused in the darkness of the alley. Men with torches meant a patrol. Perhaps night constables, hoping for a bribe or a young girl to bully. Perhaps soldiers looking for an assassin. The hour was late and any stranger abroad on the streets would be questioned, asked to show papers, her hat removed, her fiery red hair revealed. She hesitated.
Brandt was dead, she reminded herself, and so was Geri. Geri had died at Midsummer high on a mountainside in the Black Forest. His brother had killed him. His twin. This had been done because the Geists commanded it.
She pulled down the brim of the hat and stepped into the square. Her boots were soft but the cobbles echoed. There would be another cannonade soon, at any moment. Head down, she marched across the shattered steps of a church façade towards the narrow alley opposite.
"You there!" a voice called in a northern accent, but there was no mistaking the imperious tone of a soldier.
She ignored the voice, plunging her fists into the deep pockets of her coat. One of her pistols waited there, primed and loaded. No one would hear pistol fire once the next cannonade began.
"You, you in the hat!" shouted a new voice, closer at hand.
Her own shadow, impossibly long and stretching across the square, emerged in the light from a torch behind her. She heard footsteps and the distinctive hiss of a fuse. The noise resounded off the church walls and the cobblestones but it came to her ears as three messages: a man behind her, approaching with a torch; one further back and to the left lighting a fuse; another, the one who had called first, in the archway of a shuttered-up inn. She wanted that man, the first speaker, as her target: he was the leader. But the angles were not in her favour. She preferred never to miss.
The torchbearer shouted again, angrily, but Quality didn't attend to his words, only his location. She had given up waiting for the cannons to fire again.
Quality turned swiftly, opening her coat in a fluid motion. Her left hand drew the rapier, Raven, as her right hand raised the pistol. The hammer snapped on the frizzen and the Black Powder blazed under the sparks. Her left hand was weak but the man was so close and running into her, it didn't matter. He impaled himself smoothly on the slim blade. The pistol in her other hand detonated and the man with the fuse dropped to the ground. His own pistol, unlit, clattered across the stones towards her.
The white smoke clouded the air. Beyond it, the third man stood in the archway. She understood his movements. He would step forwards, impulsively, wanting to see what had happened. He would shout an order but the echo of the booming pistol would drown it out. In this time she would drop to one knee, sheathing her pistol. The fallen man's weapon would rattle across the ground towards her.
Now the remaining man would understand. He would see the thinning white smoke and realise that the noise was gunpowder and that his own men had not fired. He would see his danger. He would draw his weapon. By then, Quality would have taken up the fallen pistol and fuse. A Dutch pistol with an English snaplock, loaded but not ready. There would be no time to prime it, so she would use the fuse.
The frightened man would be fumbling with his powder horn, charging his weapon. This would take time. Without the correct measure of Black Powder, a pistol was just a club.
Quality touched the fuse to the flashpan and the pistol discharged. The man screamed. She turned away and darted for the alley and its concealing darkness. Sword unsheathed, she leaped into the shadows and she heard him crash to the ground behind her.
The night roared with echoes. Then the cannonade followed and drowned them out, but too late. Nearby, beyond the barricaded houses, the shots had been heard and the wounded men's screams attracted attention. While the cannons deafened the city, Quality broke into a run. She sped through the darkness, remembering Brocken's stumbling run, blinded by tears, as the young boy fled the hillside, his home, his adopted family. This hunt will never end, Tor had shouted after him him. I will taste your blood. Do you understand me, Goblin? Brocken had understood. He had poisoned Alruna the Witch and, though the Geists had commanded that too, Tor would kill him for it. Another friend had been lost.
Stone steps rose ahead and she mounted them, rising onto a raised market walkway above the rutted thoroughfare below. Torches blazed down one street, projecting shadows ahead. Men were coming. She squared her shoulders and ran faster. The cannonfire faded away down the river and across the fens.
"Up there!" someone yelled.
Quality strained her lungs and found more speed in her legs. The drill had the familiarity of a funeral bell. She knew how it would proceed.
Make ready! was the first order and the soldiers raised their muskets and searched for their target, her shadow streaking away from them along the raised walkway. Up ahead, the walkway converged with the one across the street before the fortified wall of an old tower.
Slung inside her coat, she found the other pistol with the modified barrel.
Present! came next and the soldiers shouldered their weapons, taking aim. Their aim would be dreadful, but they fired a barrage of lead shot that would tear to pieces anyone in her vicinity. Aiming was not really important for them.
Aiming was important for her. She pointed the pistol towards the shattered battlements on the tower, silhouetted by the glow of the fires burning in the suburbs to the south. The barrel was heavy with its strange projectile in place.
Fire! would come the last command, but Quality had fired first. The pinion erupted from the barrel and arced away across the tower, a thin cord trailing after it. There was no chance to test the strength of it or even whether the clawed missile had found a secure grip among the broken stonework overhead. Quality gripped the cord and ran off the walkway into empty air.
The muskets below her discharged with angry snarls like a pack of unleashed hounds. The walkway she had left exploded into smoke and flying stone fragments and shattered wood from the balustrade and upright posts along its length.
The girl hung in mid-air because the cord held. High above, in the battlements of the tower, the clawed metal pinion gripped the stonework and bore her weight. She swung under her own momentum in a smooth curve out over the sunken street and onto the tower itself. Her boots smacked into the pitted bricks. She gripped the rope, heaved on it and began to climb.
Below her, the soldiers were re-arming. Out would come their cartridges and ramrods. They would have to stab the packed musket shot down into the barrel, with no time to clean it. Their next volley would be even less accurate. They would be lucky to hit the tower.
Her arms burned as she pulled herself higher. Her muscles protested. Quality remembered doing this, an age ago, under a waterfall. She remembered Freki teaching her to climb. Freki, before he murdered his brother Geri. Freki, before the Night-Feasters bit him and her contracted their thirst. She recalled the gaunt form of Jonas Vladyslav carrying the boy into the night. He was a Night-Feaster now. Another friend lost.
The muskets would be reloaded now, all charged and ready. The soldiers would be fumbling for their powder horns to prime the flash pans on their weapons. Slowly for this, slow and careful: a spark or a nudge from a neighbour's fuse and the fickle powder would explode. No one could fire until all were ready, in case a spark set off his neighbour's firearm. This gave her precious time.
Quality's fingers found the ragged lip of the battlement. She threw over an arm, then her other elbow. Her feet scrabbled for purchase on the stones. The night wind tugged at her heavy coat.
They would have their aim now. The command would be given.
She pushed with her elbows and her shoulders became knots of fire but the power was there from the years spent working her father's forge. Her chest and belly passed over the ledge. Then one leg.
A distant shout reached her: Fire!
She pulled up her other dangling leg. A rattle of musket fire pierced the darkness.
She fell over the battlement and onto the walkway as the musket balls hit. The balls whined and shrieked as they smashed into the bricks, ricocheting away into the darkness, trailed by sparks and smoke.
She was up on the tower, behind the broken battlements and safe. Safe for now.
Quality lay with her cheek on the cold flagstones and drew in quick, raw breaths. The troops had gathered so quickly, found her so soon. But she was used to this. Another power was at work, besides the malice of the Five Names and the Hexenhammers they commanded. She had seen it in the burning coach house. It had been an angel wreathed in fire. The little boy Adam had told her of Don Julius' prophetic book. Her enemies possessed oracles. Escape was never certain.
Down below, in the centre of the tower, voices rose up along with smoke and snatches of song. Down below, in the rubble in the centre of the ruined tower, refugees and made a camp. The homeless of Magdeburg and the desperate fugitives from the countryside fleeing ahead of the Emperor's wrath, they'd come here and found a shelter. Somehow they begged or stole or traded themselves for food. Their little fires burned brightly down there and the ragged men and women gathered close to the weak flames. Quality thought of her father and his instruction: Bless all God's ragged ravens and feed them. She had been a little girl, once, taking trays of bread out to drifters like these.
The songs turned to shouting. More lights were appearing underneath her. The soldiers were in the tower, carrying torches. They seized the tattered figures of the beggars and street women. Sharp interrogation drifted up with the smoke.
"- red headed girl?"
"- stairs to the top?"
"- murderess and assassin!"
That's me, Quality realised, sitting up quickly. Murderess and assassin. That's what I am now.
She crouched down, keeping low so as not to be framed against the night sky behind the battlements. She drew up her cord and then scurried forward. She discovered the cleft blasted in the stonework by a lucky cannonball and slipped down into its wedge-shaped cavity. Outside the tower, rooftops waited invitingly, punctuated with broken chimneys.
The pinion-claw served its purpose again. She twisted it into the base of the cleft with its prongs gripping inside the tower and dropped the rope to the nearest rooftop. Then she slipped out and down the wall.
The demand on her weary arms made her sob and cry out. Her fingers shook and slipped and she dropped two or three feet before finding her grip again. She hung for a moment on the side of the tower, controlling her breathing. The cannons had fallen silent for the night. A strange peace fell over the besieged city. Somewhere, a dog howled its complaint and further away, another answered. Quality could breath. Her muscles tensed once more. She remembered running, exhausted, through the midnight woods with monsters clutching at her heels. Finn had been waiting for her. She squeezed her eyes closed. Finn was gone too, but he was no friend.
Inside the dark tower, boots crashed and torchlight burned through the cracks and gaping holes. The soldiers had found the stairs. They were ascending. They marched up to where she dangled, within reach of them, mere feet away, but with the fortified wall between them. They found the final flight and mounted to the roof.
There wasn't much time. Quality lowered herself in three measured drops and her feet found the tiled roof. The tiles slipped and one shot away underneath her. It smashed to pieces on the street below and the noise echoed about in the darkness like shrill laughter. Torches started to appear up among the battlements of the tower overhead. Voice shouted out alarms and instructions.
Quality started to run. It seemed she was always running. Running through woods and across mountains, through abandoned monasteries and over rooftops and across frozen lakes. She threw back her shoulders and straightened her back and her feet knew where to find the next step. Men shouted behind her. She knew they were pointing to her, a sleek shadow darting across the rooftops, flashing between chimneys with the tiles slipping underneath her and shooting away as her feet lifted, spinning into the streets and shattering.
A musket fired then another. No ricochets answered. Uncleaned, the barrels of their firearms were no longer true. A tall chimney stack ahead of her cracked and shattered in a spray of dust. Sometimes a poor shot could be lucky.
The tiles were slipping away, one after the other. The next foot forwards found no solid support, only a sliding conveyor of loose tiles that tipped her sideways. She snatched for the chimney but grasped only air. Now her arms flailed and she moved without running. The rooftop ridge rushed away from her and she saw the spot where she had stumbled explode under another lucky shot. Then the eaves appeared and flew away from her and she was tumbling in a dark space between the buildings. She fell, with the tiles, and heard them crash to destruction on the hard cobbles below. She closed her eyes as she hit the ground.
The air was knocked out of her. She had no breath and couldn't think. Wrenching and tearing reverberated in a confined space. Wood broke and splintered. She lay among shattered boxes. Crates were broken underneath her. Shards of wood thrust into her, but her mailed coat protected her. She lay on her back, winded, and looked up at a narrow strip of stars between the leaning eaves of two buildings.
It was quiet. No shutters opened. Perhaps the houses were empty. Maybe the occupants were dead or too frightened to investigate night noises. It was good to lie still.
She used to have dreams like this. In the dreams she was lying in a grave, looking up at the world above. She used to dream that there was trouble and distress in the world, but that the grave was comforting and still. She had been a child. She had seen real graves since then. She had seen Brandt and Baptista, entwined in the muddy rainwater in the grave Don Julius dug for them. Blood darkened the swirling water in the pit. Brandt's blood.
She was never going to let them put her back in the grave. She heaved herself up, the smashed wood cracking and creaking under her.
"Don't move!" the voice commanded in a thick, foreign accent.
She heard the familiar sound of the sear clicking over and the lock being fully cocked. A snaphance pistol pointed at her, held by the man at the entrance to the passage. She saw a crown of unruly dark hair, a pale pocked face and wide eyes that shone. In the street beyond him, a lantern shone and a horse whickered.
"You'll pay," he went on in a voice that might have been Swedish, "for what you did tonight."
There was a choke of emotion in his throat. He was one of Vollair's men, the mercenaries. They were Scots, Quality remembered. Their strange oracle had led them right to her.
"He's paid," she replied in a voice faint with breathlessness. "He's paid," she repeated, "for his crimes." Freki was in her mind and Baptista too. Baptista and Brandt. "You'll pay too," she added, letting her head fall back into the wrecked crates.
The pistol shook and the Scotsman chewed his cheeks and his big eyes blinked. He wanted to shoot her now and his finger twitched on the trigger.
"He was a good man," the Scotsman barked, baring his teeth. "He was a man of God!"
Looking up at the stars, Quality smiled. How their God always appeared at this point, about now, when anger and fear demanded that someone should die. How reliable this God had become. How useful.
"End this," she whispered.
The Scottish captain shook and gripped the pistol with both hands. Behind him, his men called out. Someone shouted in alarm, but the Captain did not listen. He looked at the young woman lying on the broken cart, her big military coat hanging open and her sword and musket gleaming in the starlight. He clenched his teeth but his cry escaped them and became a shout. He blinked at last and yelled at the witch-girl and pulled the trigger.
The pistol detonated but no one heard it. The retort was lost in a deeper and more terrible roar. The Scots Captain was on the ground. The pistol, smoking and sparking, slid away from him across the slick cobbles. Over his shoulder he glanced up, terrified, into the dripping maw of a beast.
The man shrieked and lay on the ground, weeping. The giant wolf stood on his shoulders with its jaws around the back of his neck and its eyes fixed on Quality.
Quality stared back into the beast's eyes, black within a disk of hazel brown, so alien but so familiar.
"I said end him," she told the wolf. Her voice was firm. "End it now."
The beast didn't move but its sharp teeth trembled around the fallen man's neck. From within its powerful body, a snarl trembled and grew to a throbbing threat. The Scotsman lay still. His eyes were shut. The fangs had not closed on his throat.
"Very well," muttered Quality, pulling herself to her feet and glancing into the street where the horse had fled and a sentry lay in a pool of blood beside an overturned lantern. "Leave him then. Let's go."
She squeezed past the sprawled Scotsman, her gloved fingers tracing the grey wolf's fur, and emerged into the street, blinking. The sky overhead was paling. Dawn was coming.
"Tor!" she shouted back to the wolf. "Let's go!"
She began to run again, finding her breath and her stride. The aches and bruises burned out of her muscles with the brightening sky. A cockerel crowed across the fens and another answered from somewhere in the city. A tom cat skittered from her path and hissed at her. The animal bolted in a streak of terror when the great wolf loped into view behind her.
Up ahead, the western road was barricaded. A wall had been erected across the thoroughfare. It was a wall of broken masonry, timber beams, shattered doors and mounds of earth. Soldiers had built it and manned it. It was the last defence when the Imperials assaulted the city. It had not been there last night.
Quality crouched down behind a low wall beside a gutted churchyard and spied on the men moving about in the twilight. They wore scavenged armour, brigantine and pot helms, but carried pikes and muskets. There was a horseman present there too. Someone wore an orange sash that glimmered in the half light.
Quality glanced at the big wolf at her shoulder. His rumbling breath smoked in the cold air.
"We can't stay in the city," she began to say, dismayed to see more men moving on top of the barricade.
She was interrupted by movement up ahead. The officer with the sash re-mounted his horse and the troops he had commandeered spread out into a line across the road then began advancing down it, muskets forward.
Quality patted the wolf and turned away. She could creep along the length of the church wall without being seen and follow the line of the old cemetery through the half-light. In the church square ahead, more troops were gathering. The Scots captain was there, ashen-faced, along with the wounded man that Tor had bitten. His horse had returned along with more of his men.
"- spread out!" she heard him order.
"Shoot the wolf first!" another one shouted. Their accents made it hard to catch their words, but the tone was not in doubt. They were angry men who had become frightened, which was the deadliest combination.
For a moment, Quality's mind went blank. The picture of this city she had carried in her head suddenly melted and rearranged itself. Was she in Magdeburg or Wurzburg? Which Hexenhammers were these? Where were Brandt and his brave horse, riding up to save her? For the first time in this long night, she didn't know what to do.
The wolf's breath was hot on her cheek. Tor was waiting for her to think it through, while he couldn't think clearly himself. But all the ways were blocked.
A voice shouted. More cries joined in. They had been seen.
There was no more time to choose or choice to make. Quality leapt up and ran across the uneven graves, jumping over the fallen headstones. In the narrow street beyond, the end had been walled up with barrels and sand. She doubled back, running between the vegetable plots of two houses and ducking under clothes lines. A shot was fired, the first of many. The ball went wide and smashed a shutter and someone in a house screamed. Another cockerel crowed and the light continued to grow.
Quality tumbled into another street that converged on the old church yard. Men were advancing down it, the pale dawn light reflecting on their steel bonnets. She turned the other way and ran down the street. Looking up, she saw the twin towers of the Dom emerge from the gloom above the rooftops. She was being herded back there.
The church bells seemed to respond to her. The tolled the morning chimes to rouse the city.
In the chime, there was a Rune. She heard it plainly and it spoke to her: To the River. She remembered Finn's runes, how he would place them in the flight of an owl or the branches of a tree to reveal themselves to other Hexen. Was Finn here? Had he returned?
There was no time to consider this. The river was to her left. Quality dived left and felt the heat of another musket ball pass close by. The wolf went bounding ahead down the uneven steps dropping between high walls towards the misty wharves.
"No!" Quality cried to him. "Come back - look!"
There was another Rune, etched into the wooden slats of a door sunk into the stones of the river wall. It was set at the back of a narrow passage and the paint peeled from its warped and rotten planking but the Rune was plain: Enter!
Quality squeezed into the narrow passage, pushed herself up the steps and slammed herself into the door. It shuddered but was barred. The wolf's claws scratched and scrabbled on the steps behind her.
She banged on the door with her gloved palm. There were marching boots out in the lane, coming down the big steps. She wanted to cry out for someone to let her in, open the door, quickly, now.
She slapped her palm onto the door. The boots echoed on the steps and the great bells tolled again.
They were upon her. The soldiers arrived. Their muskets were ready and primed and, wedged into the passage with the wolf at her feet, she would only be able to press herself back against the door and wait, in plain view, for the volley of shots.
But the door opened. She fell backwards and hands seized her ad pulled her into the room and the wolf rushed in with her and the door closed. When the soldiers arrived at the passage, they saw no one.
The Scots Captain, Ruthven, squinted up the passage. It ended in a choked space of cobwebs and dripping water, but there was nowhere to hide there and no door to be seen. He blew his whistle and his patrol marched on.