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Dastu smiled. 'I have an idea already, Captain.' He looked to Ott, received a nod from the spymaster. Then he handed the fengas lamp to another Turach, and slipped out of the room with Haddismal's lieutenant.
Rose turned a stern and formal look on the captives before him, and pointed his sword at each in turn. 'Pazel Pathkendle. Thasha Isiq. As Captain and Final Offsh.o.r.e Authority of the IMS Chathrand Chathrand, I hereby charge you with the crime of mutiny. The crime was both premeditated and sustained. You have held council with the aim of planning the seizure of this s.h.i.+p. You have recruited others to your cause. You have already a.s.sumed control of the admiralty-level stateroom, and held it by magical means, creating a s.p.a.ce beyond the reach of s.h.i.+pboard justice. You have taken oaths to persevere in this crime as far as it leads - even to the destruction of this vessel, and the death of its entire crew.'
At the last words, Mr Fiffengurt began to squirm and kick, and cry out beneath his hood.
'Your quartermaster begs to differ,' said Rose. 'He would put all the blame for that last notion upon himself. But Dastu tells us that the whole council discussed the possibility - that you hoped it wouldn't come to that hoped it wouldn't come to that. Which means you accepted that it might.' Rose turned to the four captives seated behind him. 'Remove their hoods, Sergeant,' he said to Haddismal.
One by one the Turach unlaced the leather hoods and wrenched them free. Druffle spat at the commando, and received a blow that rang loud in the little chamber. Fiffengurt already had a gash across his forehead, straight as a chart line. Blood had trickled down one side of his nose, and left a cinnamon stain on his white whiskers.
'Pazel,' he said miserably, 'Miss Thasha. Forgive--'
'Silence!' barked Haddismal.
Big Skip was still and watchful, like a bear that has given up struggling in its chains. Bolutu, unhooded last of all, did not even glance at his captors. His eyes too went straight to Pazel and Thasha, but what was that keen glance trying to say? Help me? Save yourselves? Have faith in my plan?
A sudden glimmer of hope leaped in Pazel's mind. Dastu left the council before Bolutu told us that his masters could see through his eyes. He can't have told Rose and Ott. They don't know that we're being observed, that Bolutu's empire is expecting us. Dastu left the council before Bolutu told us that his masters could see through his eyes. He can't have told Rose and Ott. They don't know that we're being observed, that Bolutu's empire is expecting us.
Rose opened the chamber door, and beckoned. Turachs began to file into the room, hugely muscled men in leather armour, gauntlets, and short blades for close-quarters fighting. Two lifted the body of Khalmet and bore it from the room. The others, at a word from Haddismal, tugged the bound prisoners to their feet and made them face the captain.
'Mutiny has been a danger from this mission's inception,' said Rose. 'But despite yourselves, you have in fact helped me to prevent one.' Rose pointed at Pazel and Thasha in turn. 'I have known since Ormael that the two of you, along with Undrabust and Hercol Stanapeth, wished me harm. What I could not know was just who else might wish it also. But I did not have to find them, fortunately. I simply had to wait for you to find them for me.
Now his gaze swept all the prisoners. 'The punishment for mutiny is death. So is the attempted theft of a vessel belonging to a chartered interest of Arqual. I might have found a way to construe your crimes as falling short of these worst offences, but for the fact that you spoke of destroying this s.h.i.+p. For those who would hatch such a conspiracy there can be no second chances. You are all condemned men.
'The spell on the s.h.a.ggat forces me to delay most of your executions: you will be held in the brig until the matter of the Nilstone is resolved. We know Pathkendle is not the spell-keeper, but he too must wait a little longer for his punishment. That leaves us with Mr Sunderling, who joined the crew only after the spell was cast. Since you were in such haste to mutiny, sir, I see no reason to make a slow affair of your punishment.'
Big Skip's eyes went wide. 'Captain,' he said, low and serious, 'don't do it, sir. We weren't after your s.h.i.+p. I'm a good Arquali like you. It's a doomed voyage, sir, an evil one. You didn't want to be part of it no more than me. I've heard the talk. They sent the Flikkers after you, sir. They caught you with a ticket for an inland coach.'
'Take him aloft,' said Rose. 'Put him in stocks by the jiggermast, and nail the charges above his head.' He hesitated, studying the carpenter's mate. 'Give him some water. At midday tomorrow, he hangs.'
For an instant the room looked poised to explode. Thasha cried out; Ott had given her a warning nick below the ribcage, even as the captain spoke. Pazel whirled, and felt the captain's sword cut him through his s.h.i.+rt. 'Hold !' roared the captain. roared the captain.
Of course there was nothing else to be done in a room full of Turachs. But as he felt his flesh torn open by the blade Pazel's wisdom simply vanished. He struck at Rose's sword-arm, the fastest and most thoughtless blow he'd ever attempted, and felt the captain's wrist buckle. Rose howled in astonishment and pain, Haddismal leaped forwards with his dagger raised, Thasha screamed No! No! Then a foot out of nowhere struck Pazel's cheek with the force of a club: Ott's foot. He had kicked the youth without taking either hand away from Thasha. Then a foot out of nowhere struck Pazel's cheek with the force of a club: Ott's foot. He had kicked the youth without taking either hand away from Thasha.
The blow turned Pazel's body like a snapped towel. Mouth agape, he crashed into Rose. The captain seized him snarling and threw him to the floor. Something - perhaps the cold, wet draught through the planks - kept him from losing consciousness. Then Rose came down on top of him and took his throat in both hands. The ferocity of his grip, the excruciating pain, left no doubt as to his intentions. Pazel smashed his knees against the captain's ribs, but Rose only grunted, lifted Pazel's head and slammed it down against the boards.
'I had plans for you,' he said. 'Plans, or hopes at least. But I can d.a.m.n well make other arrangements.'
He pressed his face to his victim's chest, for Pazel was clawing desperately at his eyes. Thasha was fighting Ott, Fiffengurt was begging the captain's mercy for the youths. And Pazel was dying. He knew that, even as his eyesight dimmed. There came an instant of mental lightning, when visions of his mother and Neda, Thasha and Neeps, Ramachni and the bright eyes of the murth-girl, all became beautifully distinct, like so many gorgeous playing cards fanned across a table. Then the visions began to wink out.
The voice shrieked, peremptory, commanding, from the crowded pa.s.sageway. The captain jumped, relaxing his grip on Pazel's neck with an almost guilty haste. The voice was Lady Oggosk's.
Her red cat preceded her, slipping among the ankles of the room's startled men. Sniraga went directly to the captain and rubbed against his leg. Then Oggosk herself appeared, elbowing a path through the Turachs, who looked twice as big beside the tiny crone. She wore a black shawl over her arms, and pointed at the captain with her walking stick.
'What are you doing, Nilus? Get up, you look a perfect fool!'
'Oggosk, how dare you interfere!' said the captain through his teeth. 'Get back to your quarters; we will speak when I am finished here.'
'Pazel! Thasha!' cried Neeps from the pa.s.sage. 'I came as fast as I could! She's just so blary slow on the ladderways!'
'Quiet, you odious boy!' snapped the witch. 'Nilus, the Ormali must not be killed. Not yet, not while the girl is still - glaya glaya, the way she is.' She gestured vaguely at Thasha, still held fast by Sandor Ott. 'Have the girl and Pathkendle taken to your quarters. Leave the rest to Haddismal. There are more urgent problems, Rin knows, such as the apelike Mr Uskins' blunders at the helm.'
'Nilus, he is fondling her! That lascivious spy is fondling Thasha Isiq, and snuffling at her ear! He has cut her belly, too! What sort of s.h.i.+p are you running? Get off her, you reptile.'
She jabbed at Ott with her walking stick, but the spy only pressed his knife harder against Thasha's side. The hand on her neck had indeed slipped lower, inside her s.h.i.+rt. Thasha's eyes were blazing, her lips curled back in a look of consuming hate.
Oggosk made a sound of disgust. 'I'll expect you in your cabin, Nilus. Bring the doctor to bind their wounds. You can stay here, Undrabust; try not to get killed.'
She hobbled off into the pa.s.sage. Sniraga, however, remained seated by the captain's knee, purring softly, the only contented being in the vault.
Rose took his hand from Pazel's throat. He did not seem to know how to carry on. Pazel lay still, breathing like a rusty spigot.
'Ott,' said Thasha quietly, 'I swear on my mother, if you touch me there again I'll kill you.'
'I swear on your father, father,' said Ott, 'that you shall never again lift a hand against me, or presume to mention where I put my own.'
'Commander Ott,' said Sergeant Haddismal, 'this is the daughter of Eberzam Isiq.'
If such were possible in a Turach's voice, Haddismal sounded afraid. Ott turned slowly to face him, astonished and cold. 'I will pretend those words never left your mouth, Haddismal. See that they never do again.'
'You are relieved, Spymaster,' said Rose suddenly. 'Unhand the girl, and be gone.'
A twitch pa.s.sed over Ott's face, and his scars stood out like veins in marble. Rose had not even looked in his direction. Sergeant Haddismal glanced sharply at his fellow Turachs, whose hands went to their weapons. Still Ott remained where he was, one hand in Thasha's s.h.i.+rt, the other fidgeting with his knife.
'Pathkendle--' Rose began.
He never got any further, for at that moment Sniraga gave a ghastly yowl. An ixchel man had burst from between two crates, sword in hand, copper eyes alight with hatred. Sniraga pounced, but the ixchel dodged her, leaped straight at Rose, and plunged his sword into the red beard with a cry. The captain roared and swatted at him as he might a giant insect. The ixchel spun head over heels across the room, and landed on Big Skip's ankle.
The carpenter's mate kicked instinctively. Steldak flew across the room a second time, lost hold of his sword (which had drawn no blood), and bounded unsteadily to his feet. He was lithe and quick, for he was an ixchel, but he was no Diadrelu. He feinted this way and that, as if he could not decide which way to run.
It's over, thought Pazel. Over for us, and the ixchel. Over for us, and the ixchel.
Rose's fist smashed down. Haddismal stomped, missing Steldak by a hair. Ott gave a croaking laugh and pulled Thasha tight against him. And Steldak, quick as a spider, wriggled through a two-inch gap in the floor planks.
'That's my poison taster!' said Rose. 'G.o.ds of death, we have to dig him out of there! We need to learn if the little b.a.s.t.a.r.d's alone!' He shoved Pazel to one side, clawing at the plank, which was loose already. 'Help me, Haddismal !'
'He'll be long gone by now, sir,' said Haddismal, squatting next to Rose.
'Pull, d.a.m.n you! There are baffles in the floor! He's crawled right into a box!'
Sniraga growled and clawed at the gap. Rose squeezed her aside, jamming his toe under the board as it started to lift.
'Those baffles are rotted out,' said Fiffengurt from the back of the room. No one heeded him. Rose and the Turach wrenched and pried at the board. Over the slop of bilgewater, a sound of scurrying could indeed be heard from beneath it. Was that a voice, too? Pazel pulled himself up against a crate, listening. The board was starting to give way.
Steldak's voice rang out suddenly from beneath it. 'Not yet! Not yet! He isn't close enough!'
Neither Rose nor Haddismal showed the slightest reaction to the voice - of course not of course not, Pazel thought, he's using ixchel-speech. he's using ixchel-speech.
'Captain,' he rasped, his throat still terribly painful, 'you might want to stop that.'
Rose looked daggers at him, and gave a monstrous heave. The board lifted some ten inches, ancient nails popping from sea-rotted wood. Rose bent down to peer into the dark s.p.a.ce beneath.
'There you are!' he cried.
The board shattered. Something wet and furious struck Rose in the face. It was a huge white rat, twice the size of Felthrup, and its head was thrust into Rose's mouth. Human and rat fell backwards, the beast clawing, Rose flailing and bucking on the floor. At last he got a grip on the squirming animal and flung it away from him with all his might. The rat's head was a hideous, hairless k.n.o.b, scarlet with blood, and even before it struck the wall behind Druffle it had begun to talk.
'Glory!' it howled, from atop a crate some eight feet above the floor. 'Glory to the rats of Arqual! Glory to the Angel of Rin! Death comes to the false priest, the heretic captain who mocks the Ninety Rules and their Maker! Death to his G.o.dless crew, death to this temple defiled !'
'That's Mugstur !' gasped Pazel.
'Kill it!' screamed Rose, all but incoherent with blood.
Two Turachs sprang at the rat, but it squirmed away, shouting in ecstasy. 'Victory! Victory for Arqual where the Angel reigns! Victory to Magad, our Rin-given emperor! The hour is come! Rats of Chathrand Chathrand, come forth and fight!'
And the rats came. Out of the shattered floor, the frothing bilge, they leaped and squirmed, eight, twelve, twenty, more struggling behind. Like a welling stain, they spread in all directions, and with them spread a chaos beyond anyone's control. The Turachs stabbed and stomped, killing many, but the creatures were entering the vault faster than they died, and the floorboard was in too many pieces to replace. The Turach with the lamp whirled, slamming it into Big Skip's chest and cracking the gla.s.s. The lamp sputtered, darkening.
Rose was choking, with a sound like a slaughtered bull, even as rats climbed his limbs and boiled across his back. Master Mugstur had bitten off part of his tongue, and Rose had inhaled enough of his own blood to drown a smaller man. The four bound men were screaming for their hands to be freed. Sandor Ott gazed at the bald-headed, gore-stained rat who shrieked the praises of his emperor, and for one instant appeared to forget where he was.
That instant was all Thasha needed. With a blow fuelled by rage, she drove her fist down against his knife hand, and at the same time slammed her head back against his face with all her might. Both blows connected; the knife flew from Ott's grasp, and Ott himself staggered backwards into the open doorway.
Thasha knew her only chance was to press the attack, and she did. Whirling straight into a third blow, she struck at Ott's sword-arm just as he started to draw the weapon out. It was a point-blank strike to the forearm: the spymaster snarled with pain. And then he took her. Ott's right hand, the one that had held the knife, was not too wounded to strike her bare-fisted. He smashed her chin with an upper cut. She struck back, lightning-fast but weak; she was stunned. He brought his hand slicing down against her neck. Thasha's knees buckled, and as she fell her head struck the edge of a crate. Eyes locked on her, Ott flung a fist sideways at Neeps (who was lunging in desperation) and knocked him flat on the deck. Then he drew his sword.
Pazel cried out and heaved to his feet. To his amazement, Rose also lurched at the spy. But they were both a step too far away, and too late. Thasha looked up, bloodied, disoriented. Ott grimaced and swung.
The blow was meant to kill, and would have, but for the violent collision of a body with the spymaster's own. Hercol had driven like a cannonball through the last Turachs in the pa.s.sage, and the force of his leap at Ott knocked over half the men still standing in the liquor vault. Pazel was crushed once more beneath Rose, but over the captain's shoulder he saw Hercol fighting like a man possessed, his face contorted with an emotion more acute than hate. Agony Agony, thought Pazel. Agony he doesn't mean to get over Agony he doesn't mean to get over. Hercol's momentum never seemed to break, only turn into spiral energy as he rolled and whirled Ott through the room, smas.h.i.+ng, bludgeoning him against crate and floor and soldiers and carca.s.ses of rats. Ott's sword was gone, his blows Hercol did not seem to feel. When at last he managed a damaging blow to Hercol's jaw the Tholja.s.san rose with a cry and hurled him the length of the room.
Ott struck the back wall and fell senseless upon a carpet of squirming rats. When Pazel's eyes caught up with Hercol the man was pouncing, Ott's own knife in his hand, drawn back over his shoulder with the point aimed downwards at his old master's throat.
Hercol froze. The voice came from just above him. It was Mugstur, perhaps the only conscious creature in the room less rational at that instant that Hercol himself. Mugstur's mad, bulging eyes glared down at him, urging him on.
'Kill, kill! It is the promised end! The Angel comes! Arqual shall be purified through blood!'
'Diadrelu,' said Hercol, and he was suddenly, obviously, a man broken by grief. He stabbed not downwards but upwards, driving the knife into the white rat's side.
Master Mugstur did not seem surprised by what had happened to him. 'The Angel comes!' he cried, gurgling. 'The Tree bleeds, the Nilstone wakes, and a thousand eyes are opening! Glory! Glory! War !' and a thousand eyes are opening! Glory! Glory! War !'
Mugstur gave a last twitch and fell limp. Hercol lifted the creature on Ott's knife, then lowered the blade and let the rat slide onto the motionless spymaster. 'No more dreams of glory,' he said. 'They are finished, for all of us.'
But it was not finished. Ott stirred, moaning, and as he did so the white rat twitched again. The next moment it was on its feet, bleeding but very much alive. And at the same moment all the surviving rats grew still, and raised their narrow faces to look at the men. They were knowing looks, looks of conscious intelligence.
'War,' said Mugstur, and the rats began to grow.
9 Umbrin 941
The humans rushed bleeding from the Abandoned House. Rose was the last one out of the liquor vault, and he personally cut the bonds on the four prisoners, screaming orders at them as he did so. Haddismal carried the half-conscious spymaster, Neeps supported Pazel, and Thasha tried her best to drag Hercol into the pa.s.sage, as he swung and stabbed and bludgeoned and hacked, and a mound of twitching fur rose about him.
The rats of Chathrand Chathrand were awake, and mad. They had swollen to the size of hunting dogs, and their voices - mewling, screeching, speaking - were so loud and hideous that the men fell back as much from the force of them as from the creature's tearing nails and bolt-cutter jaws. When Rose at last heaved himself up onto the mercy deck, he found Fiffengurt and twelve men ready to skid a carriage-sized packet of sparwood over the hatch. The captain rolled aside, shouting, 'Do it!' No sooner were the tons of wood in place than they heard the first rats slamming their thick bodies against the door. were awake, and mad. They had swollen to the size of hunting dogs, and their voices - mewling, screeching, speaking - were so loud and hideous that the men fell back as much from the force of them as from the creature's tearing nails and bolt-cutter jaws. When Rose at last heaved himself up onto the mercy deck, he found Fiffengurt and twelve men ready to skid a carriage-sized packet of sparwood over the hatch. The captain rolled aside, shouting, 'Do it!' No sooner were the tons of wood in place than they heard the first rats slamming their thick bodies against the door.
'Arqual, Arqual, just and true!'
'Pray before eating! Pray!'
Rose spat a great mouthful of blood. He did not even glance at the wounds on his legs. Seizing Bolutu by the elbow and Neeps by the scruff of the neck, he dragged them at a near run towards the mainmast, as a throng of near-hysterical sailors billowed around him, howling death and disaster. Pazel, Thasha and Hercol had no choice but to follow him.
'Report!' he thundered. 'Who's the deck officer? Bindhammer !'
'Sir, they've gone and turned themselves into Pit-vomited fiends!' cried Bindhammer, waving his short, burly arms.
'I noticed that! d.a.m.n it, man, how many rats are we talking about?'
The answer, when accounts were tallied, appeared to be all of them all of them. Not a single normal rat had been spotted; the mutants were bursting from deep recesses in the hold like bees from a broken hive. Two men had perished already. The entire hold had been abandoned.
'What did you drag Neeps and Bolutu here for?' shouted Pazel, when he could get a word in edgewise.
Rose released them both with a flinging motion. 'Because I wanted to be blary sure the rest of you followed me! Shut up! Not a word! Just tell me, true and fast: do you know what's happening?'
The sailors looked at them with fear-maddened eyes. 'There are just two things it could be,' said Thasha. 'Some trick of Arunis', though why he'd turn rats into monsters I can't imagine. Or the Nilstone, working all by itself. I'd bet on the latter.'
'So would I,' said Bolutu. 'Captain Rose, since early summer I have tried to draw your attention to the Chathrand Chathrand 's fleas. They were always large and bloodthirsty. After you brought the Nilstone aboard, however, they became positively unnatural. And there have been other deformed and aggressive pests. Wasps, moths, flies, beetles. Anything, that is, that might have touched the Nilstone. Their numbers have been greatest at the stern of the orlop, where the s.h.a.ggat stands holding his prize.' 's fleas. They were always large and bloodthirsty. After you brought the Nilstone aboard, however, they became positively unnatural. And there have been other deformed and aggressive pests. Wasps, moths, flies, beetles. Anything, that is, that might have touched the Nilstone. Their numbers have been greatest at the stern of the orlop, where the s.h.a.ggat stands holding his prize.'
'The Stone?' cried Rose. 'I thought the d.a.m.ned thing killed whoever touched it!'
'Whoever touches it with fear in their hearts, fear in their hearts,' said Hercol. 'Perhaps insects have no fear, at least not as we understand it.'