Wallachia – 1742
Stebbins was the first to die.
All day, the mountains had been growing closer. After the travellers ate a hasty luncheon in their shadow—long, whistling winds blowing down the valley of the Olt, cooling the ciorbă before it could be taken off the fire—the boatmen hustled them back onto the punt as if the ground underfoot had become poisonous.
Frank had grown to loathe the boat, his posterior aching from endless hours perched on his own travelling bag. Stebbins crowded so close on one side Frank could not move his elbows. Protheroe, on the other, continually joggled him as he tested the ever-increasing vril saturation with an etherometer of brass and crism. This device had to be bolted to the gunwale and folded out over the boat’s side, and then everyone had to hold still for a good minute while he took his readings, before he could make a note in his book and fold it back in again.
Recently, Protheroe had begun to squeak in surprise and delight every time he made an observation. “We must be getting close now, lads. We’re already at a concentration twice as high as the one under Glastonbury Tor. I don’t see how it can go up much higher without buckling the nature of reality wholesale.”
Protheroe’s obvious excitement went a long way towards soothing Frank’s guilt. Neither of his friends would be out here in the Wallachian wilderness but for loyalty to him. They had turned the escape of a criminal into a respectable theurgic expedition. Though they had done their best not to grumble about discomfort, he still felt terrible if they so much as frowned, and unfortunately, there had been a great deal to frown about. Not only cold nights on cold stones, strange food and stranger customs, but also a terrible run of bizarre accidents that had approached life-threatening levels. Misfortune had dogged their heels like a hunter from the very beginning.
This morning however, had started well. Stebbins—the naturalist—was smiling as he sketched the approaching mountains, and Protheroe was all but bouncing on his seat. “We should see it today. You have to be a member of the Royal Society to be permitted to study the vril accumulator in England, so I didn’t think I’d ever get the chance to see one active. I can’t wait.”
Frank grinned back at him, unwilling to dampen his enthusiasm, but the prospect of reaching their goal was not as appealing to him as it was to his friends. They would go home afterwards. He, who faced only a noose in England, would be left alone, revealed as the fugitive from justice that he was.
Confined to the boat, there was little to take his mind off it. As the linguist of the party, he had nothing to do except stare out at the slowly changing landscape and try to engage their native boatmen in conversation. Downriver, where the towns were more plentiful and the folk more welcoming to a travelling scholar, Frank had been able to refine his grasp of the Wallachian language until he’d found himself dreaming in it. In these less inhabited parts of the country, he had hoped to keep in practice by chatting with the bearers, but they had proved a tight-mouthed bunch.
One of the boatmen—Nicu, he of the extravagant moustaches, who never appeared without a dagger in his sash and a carbine over his shoulder, wicked eyed and wizened like a tree root—occasionally had muttered in the speech of the Romani, and Frank had tried endlessly to encourage him to pass some of it on, but his persistence seemed only to have driven Nicu into absolute silence.
So Frank had reclined awkwardly out of the way of Protheroe’s contraption and was trying to sleep despite the crick in his neck, when it happened. They had rounded a bend in the river between two hills. There came a crack and a flash, sharp as lightning, then Stebbins shrieked and flung himself into Frank’s lap.
“What on Earth?” Frank shoved him in the shoulder, half convinced his friend was simply bored and this was an overture to mock wrestling. But his hand slid in something warm and red. The scent of black powder on the wind was blessedly chemical in contrast with the slippery organic reek he could smell from Stebbins. As he was bending over to try to catch his friend’s shoulders, Stebbins convulsed on Frank’s knees twice, his face agonized. His mouth filled with blood and overflowed.
“Stebbins?” Frank cried, part of him wanting to recoil from the warm gout of blood now soaking into his trousers, part of him wanting to pull his friend close and protect him. Stebbins’s chest was unmoving against his own, his torn waistcoat turning crimson, beginning to drip. “William!”
Nicu’s hand landed between Frank’s shoulder blades and pushed him forward, off the seat. “Lie down. Lie in the boat. Do not get up.”
“What’s happening?” Frank laid Stebbins in as dignified a position as he could manage, checked his pulse, and refused to believe he could not find it.
A second shot slammed into the gunwale next to him, peppering him with splinters. In the bow, Apostol, one of their bearers, unslung his own rifle and fired back. At the stern, silent Mihai bent double to the boat’s pole, trying to speed past the attacker.
“Bandits, young sir.” Nicu gave a fierce and chilling grin. “The mountains are full of them. Stay down.”
Frank was not a maiden to be protected. He looked up, caught Protheroe’s matching determined expression. Oh God, let me not bring ruin on these, the best of all friends, as I have brought it on so many others. “We can help!”
“You have rifles? You can shoot?”
“Of course!” Protheroe exclaimed, dropping his notepad and pulling the long bag out from beneath the heaps of luggage. “An English gentleman is always proficient in firearms.”
Nicu gave them both a sceptical look, as if to say, And you have hidden this from us all this time because you expect us to steal them? To murder you in your sleep? It would have been troublesome if he had voiced the words, because the answer was yes, but instead he merely flinched out of the way of another bullet.
“Good. Then you will lie flat and return fire, and I will take up the second pole so that we may be through the ambush faster. Do not let them shoot me.”
Protheroe passed the first rifle to Frank, followed it up with a box of shot, a rammer and a powder horn. As Frank wriggled to get the gun loaded, Nicu joined Mihai at the stern. The boat sped up a little, though a trotting horse could still have outpaced it.
With the rifle primed, Frank propped himself on his elbows, stock pressed to his shoulder. He swarmed cautiously up until he could raise his head above the gunwale. Nothing to see but pinkish-brown rocks against a clear, blue sky, the lower ones topped with trees and shaggy about their crevasses with wind-blown plants that would have delighted Stebbins’s plant-hunting soul.
No, he was not going to think of Stebbins, going cold by his ankle.
One of the ledges of the foothills sprouted a dark blur as the hidden bandit stood up to shoot. Frank’s world twisted and chilled as he got a good look at the man’s face. Surely that wasn’t . . . Lewis? No. No, my father would not . . .
A flash of fire, a puff of white smoke, and then the bang of a report, and Frank—trained by years of hunting on his family’s country estate—had aimed and squeezed the trigger in return without a second thought.
The distant figure recoiled and dropped. A cry came down the wind, harsh and sharp as the cry of some strange bird. Apostol gave an approving laugh. “The scholars are not such children as we thought.”
Something froze solid in the pit of Frank’s stomach, as though his viscera had turned to stone, but he didn’t have time to consider the feeling. As the rock sides abruptly swarmed with motion, his mind felt clearer than it had ever done before. He could not return fire against a whole pack of bandits. What could he do instead? What would help? To spoil their aim. We need cover. Darkness.
Letting go of the rifle, he spread his hands and pulled at the shadows, as he had pulled at the sunlight in Gervaise’s room. The ability to manipulate light and darkness was the only piece of magic that had ever come spontaneously to him. It had once saved his life. Perhaps it would do so again.
Obedient to his summons, darkness flowed across the water and wrapped the boat in a thick smoke. Within it, the light turned to tar and the bright sky became dim as if seen through dark spectacles. But it did nothing to stop the thunder of a dozen carbines firing so close together one could not distinguish the shots.
“Frank!” Protheroe shouted, “Is that you? What are you doing, you idiot? I can’t see where to shoot.”
Frank cursed himself and rapidly rethought. If it was Lewis out there, then these bandits must have come for Frank alone. It meant they should be aiming at him only. And if they slew him, they might allow Protheroe and the boatmen to live. By concealing them all, he had put his friends at greater risk. Damn it.
He struggled with his talent. Spells, he could manage when the steps were written down and their unwinding clearly delineated on the following page. But this free-form sorcery? He didn’t know, on an intellectual level, how he’d summoned the darkness, didn’t know how to get rid of it. A small, cowardly part of him didn’t even want it to work—didn’t want to stand up and die in the hopes that that would make things better for others. Indeed, if he’d wanted that, he could have just stayed in England to be hanged.
Pushing the cowardice aside, he pictured himself letting go, letting the shadows bounce back into place as though on springs. It didn’t work. He tried again, mentally pushing them away. This time they went, slowly, reluctantly, leaving him visible and exposed, leaving Protheroe and the bearers equally so. What the hell was he doing? What was he doing? What could he do to make this right? Please don’t punish Protheroe for my sins. Please spare him from my curse. Please!
Around the boat, the river spiked up in spatters, and the timbers shivered and smashed. A swarm of bladed splinters slammed into Frank’s cheek, but he scarcely felt it, because one of the bullets had struck Protheroe’s gun, dinting the barrel just as Protheroe was returning fire.
Blocked, Protheroe’s rifle exploded, taking half of his face off and utterly destroying his hands. At the same time Mihai gave a soft huh that was almost laughter. With blood oozing from his chest, he fell slowly outward from the stern, still clinging to his pole. The river current caught him and washed both away. Numbed, Frank could not grasp the magnitude of this disaster for a moment. But the loss of one pole meant that it would take twice as long to get away.
Only three of them left: Frank and Apostol on their bellies in a boat filling up with blood, Nicu boldly upright in the stern, labouring with all his might at his own pole. Both Apostol and Nicu had begun to sing beneath their breath, the heathenish, eerie music of the orthodox liturgy, asking God for strength and protection and, if He didn’t feel inclined to grant the request, for forgiveness in the instant of death.
Frank had long been told it was his fault his mother had died in childbirth. His fault his father had grown cold and bitter. His fault his elder brother had died at sea. He was indisputably responsible for Gervaise’s death, and yet somehow he had always yearned to believe he was not a curse on his fellow man. When Nicu fell, shot through the temple as they passed under the deepest shade of the hemming boulders, he could no longer deny it. All of this was his fault. Better that he should die here, then, and save Apostol at least.
Leaping up, he grabbed Nicu’s pole before it, too, could be lost. He would stay upright, be at least as brave as the old Roma man who had fallen in his service.
Apostol came running from the bow, his almost skeletal face flapped about by long hair the colour of crow wings. “We must stop trying to get through! We must go back.”
“Yes,” said Frank. “Yes, absolutely.” He twisted the pole to turn the boat around. A part of him wanted to go forward at all costs. Not to give in. Not to give his father the satisfaction, but it was easy enough to ignore in favour of sensible flight.
“You go to the . . .” Apostol indicated the sheltered spot where he had lain amongst the baggage, and was shot twice as he gestured. A third shot grazed along Frank’s biceps like the press of a hot poker, but did not do him the courtesy of killing him too.
“No!” Frank protested as the last of his companions dropped and left him alone. He might have stood there longer, stupidly gaping, if the boat had not obeyed his last push and driven its nose into the rocks at the river’s edge. The grating shudder woke him up, forced him to take stock.
Seeing their victory all but complete, the bandits had begun to come down out of the cracks and crannies of the rocks to line the shore. They were so close he could read the malice in their grins, and everything in him revolted from the thought of letting such grimy, greasy-looking creatures get any closer.
Frank jammed the pole into the riverbed and pushed with all his strength. The boat was a brutal heavy thing, unwieldy and slow. If he could just get it facing with the current, let it be swept downstream, he could outrace them, get away, get back to somewhere more civilized, where he would be safe.
Then his right arm stopped working. His grip weakened and his hand fell limp to his side. The world seemed like a painted backdrop that wavered as a breeze passed behind it, and he shook his head, looked down, and found he had been shot in the juncture of chest and shoulder. The blood that welled out was making his shirt chill and damp. There was, for the moment, no pain at all.
He wrapped his left arm around the pole, pushed once more, and the blood came rushing up and past the embedded bullet as if pumped. His wound had begun to burn. His mouth was full of saliva, and he couldn’t swallow.
Then the current caught the boat, lifted it, and ground it again into the shore, smacking the bow hard on the rocks, making him lurch forward and stumble into the ankle-deep gore beneath the many corpses of his companions.
Jeering laughter broke out along the banks. Frank hauled his aching, ton-weighted head up to see hands clutching at the gunwales, pulling him in closer to the ugly, grinning crowd. Women stood behind the men, and the thought gave him a moment’s relief until he saw that their hands grasped sickles. There were blood stains all down their aprons and a matching red glint in their eyes.
Panicking, Frank dropped the pole and scrabbled for his rifle. It was unloaded, and there was no time to prime the pan and ram home a new shot. The bayonet he had for the weapon was still tucked away in its bag, leaving it no more deadly than a large stick. Still, he reversed it, and smashed it down on the grappling hands as if it were an axe.
The shoulder wound made him cold, shaky, and nauseous, camouflaging his terror from himself. He swiped at an attacker’s dirty face as, with a roar, the man leaped from the bank into the punt, clawing him with the tines of a rake, tearing the coat over his ribs and leaving long, shallow scores, as though from the nails of a giant.
Frank doubled over from the pain of it just as two more men jumped aboard. Outside, other bandits seized the boat’s sides and pulled the whole thing out of the water, grounding it. A hand curled around Frank’s shoulder wound and squeezed, and the merciful anaesthesia lifted like a theatre curtain and showed him agony. His own scream choked him as he was hauled out by many hands and thrown into a ring of thin outlaws with ravenous eyes.
He just had time to close his eyes, to think that finally, finally he was doing something that would please his father, and then all thought fled as they began to kick him. He curled in to keep his stomach and his face from the boots. Here, too, the wound was a mercy. He flapped in agony like a dying fish, but didn’t have the strength to futilely fight back and extend the torment. They beat him with staves, with threshing flails. The first man kicked him in the ribs—heat bursting in his rib cage, as though he’d swallowed coals—and he looked up, mouth open, eyes streaming, in time to see his own rifle butt poised above his forehead.
He tried to say “No!” but could only spit blood, and then someone laughed and the steel-capped rosewood came down. A giant hand tore the world in two, and him with it, and nothing else remained.