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Shadow of the Seacrow (extract)

‘It is time,’ Wyn said behind them suddenly. Calim was getting tetchy with hunger.

Maina nursed him for the final time, not attempting to dry the tears that streamed down her face as she watched him suckle.

They walked down to the Morthern gate. Kesh’s horse was tethered and waiting. Wyn skillfully bound Calim in a sling to keep him safe against his father’s chest while Kesh rode. He set off carefully down the path to Morth. As soon as he was out of sight, Maina ran back through the building, and up the stairs to the North Tower. It was the old look out tower that had been staffed with military guards in the old days, but was now only used occasionally to look out for expected visitors. After a while, Maina could see a horse and rider moving out into the lower hills that surrounded the Sacred Mountain. Every now and then, she lost sight of him behind a hill or promontory, but she watched him for a long time, until he was a black speck smaller than a gnat, and indistinguishable from the green of the landscape in the failing light.

A knock came at the door, and Wyn’s voice told her it was time for the evening meal.

‘I am not hungry,’ Maina said.

‘Can I not bring you something?’

‘Just my book of sacred texts, please. It is on the table next to my bed.’

Wyn duly returned with the book that her own father had given Maina long ago. She knocked and handed it over. Maina thanked her, closed the door, and slid the bolt across.

Wyn went to eat with the others, but then returned with a lighted candle, some bread and cheese in a cloth, and a flagon of water. Maina took the candle and the flagon but not the food, and bolted the door once more. Wyn sat on the cold stone steps outside the room and waited.

After a while, she heard mutterings like an incantation. Maina was reading aloud from the book of texts. Wyn dozed, with her head resting on her arms folded on the top step. She heard her friend praying aloud to Veyer to protect her son, then to Tarn to protect the heathen Kesh and guide him in the care of her son. Then more muttering of texts. Wyn fell into a deeper slumber for a while. She was woken by shouts and banging. Maina seemed to be hammering on the walls with her fists.

Wyn called, but her friend did not pay her any heed. She tried the door, but the bolt was still in place.

‘Kesh of Khoulan, bring my baby back to me!’ Maina was shouting. ‘Bring me back my child, you heathen, or by the tides of Goran, I will crush and you and your house forever. By Tarn’s heaven, I will search you out, I will find my child, I will bring him home where he belongs. Curse your festering nation, your people are toads slithering in the slime of hell! Their bodies will burst forth with the puss of lethal pestilence. You are cursed, all cursed, till you bring me back my child.’

The raving went on into the night, and Wyn could sleep no more. Later Maina screamed out against their own gods for failing her. The blasphemy was harder for Wyn to hear than the cursing of the Mortherners. Amid this railing there was a thump and a fluttering sound, and a catching of the breath.

Maina sank to her knees, as she saw what she had done. Her precious book, gift of the beloved Bradmutt, and all she had for a memory of her kindly nurse-father, lay in pieces on the floor. She reached to collect the scattered leaves, and the ravings turned to sobs.

When the light of dawn blanched night from the room, she drew herself upright and drew back the bolt on the door. She saw Wyn sitting on the steps, pale and with hollow eyes, and she realised she had not been as alone as she had thought. She felt shame at having given voice to the awful curses that Wyn must have heard, but she also felt touched by her devoted friendship. She stumbled towards her, and they embraced for a moment.

‘We must prepare ourselves,’ said Maina as she straightened and smoothed down her gown, pretending that the ravings of the night were all forgotten.

‘Zoradetra awaits,’ said Wyn.

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