After the first failed attempt to capture a troll, Idira found out VanCleef had sent Papa to lead the second party. Papa had chosen trackers, hunters and a half-dozen rogues expert at using stealth and paralysing poisons. Lanira said to Nin the men were probably more afraid of Jac than the trolls. They laughed a little, but neither of them sounded amused.
Two weeks later the message arrived. Papa had been successful. A captured troll waited for them at Klaven's Tower. A few days passed and nothing more was said, although VanCleef was absent from dinner for two nights. The day before the Holy Day, Idira woke to be told her lessons had been cancelled. After taking breakfast in her room, Lanira took Idira down the stairs to the entrance hall, holding her hand tighter than usual. Outside the open front door, a closed coach drawn by four sturdy black horses stood waiting on the cobbled stones of the square. One of the horses shook its head and pawed the cobbles, restless.
Arinna waited by the table in the entrance hall, wearing a dark cloak over her white dress, its hood pulled up over her hair. A leather satchel filled with books sat on the floor by her feet. From within the shadows of her hood, she smiled as Idira arrived, though her smile did nothing to conceal the anxiety tingeing her features.
Booted footsteps approached from the inner courtyard. VanCleef came into view, his black leather armour gleaming in the morning light, a red silk scarf tied tight against his neck. A pair of curved swords hung from the belt strapped to his hips, the swords' grips wrapped in strips of red leather. Four men followed him, covered head to toe in leather armour, their arms, legs, backs and hips bristling with bladed weapons.
'Let's go,' he said, gesturing to his men to move out. Upstairs, a door opened. Myra came halfway down the stairs, watching him leave, her expression enigmatic. He glanced up at her as he passed, his eyes losing their hardness just for a heartbeat. He turned and swept out the open door, his men filing out after him, silent but for the soft creak of their leather armour.
Lanira knelt beside Idira, her face tight. 'You are in good hands,' she said, tucking away a stray hair from Idira's ponytail. 'Go with Arinna. I will see you at dinner.'
Idira trailed after the priestess into the carriage, uneasy. She still didn't know what was happening. She thought about asking Arinna, but the priestess had withdrawn into the shadows of her hood, her lips moving as she whispered prayers for protection. VanCleef remained outside for several moments conferring with his men and the driver before joining them in the coach, his face hard as he looked out the window, surveying the quiet square.
Two of his men climbed up with the driver, the other two jumped up onto the ledge at the back of the coach as it pulled away. The horses moved at a smart trot until they cleared the outer limits of Moonbrook. Then, the driver cracked his whip and the horses surged forward, cantering, the coach rocking rhythmically, like a doll's cradle. VanCleef sat on the edge of the facing seat, his hands on the grips of his swords, vigilant. Idira looked over his shoulder out the back window. The road's dust mushroomed out in thick billows, obscuring what was left of the town's skyline. No one spoke. Idira sat back and gazed out the window beside her for awhile, curious, but there wasn't much to see. The landscape was much the same as at the farm, desiccated, barren. Boring. She leaned her head against the cushioned head rest and tried to sleep. She must have dozed, because when the horses slowed it felt as though only minutes had passed. When she asked, Arinna murmured they had been travelling for just over two hours.
Idira rubbed the sleep from her eyes and peered out the window. Looming over a dusty plain, in front of a range of steep, dry hills, a great solitary tower stood, constructed of massive blocks of stone. Octagonal in shape, it looked to be at least three stories high, the eaves of its sloping tiled roof crammed with deserted rook nests. Outside the stone steps to its narrow entrance, wagons, stacks of supplies, tents and fires betrayed the evidence of a large camp. The coach pulled to a halt. VanCleef's men jumped down and prowled beside the coach, alert, defensive. A tall, lean man came out of the tower's doorway, dressed in black. Papa. Idira quailed, uneasy.
VanCleef opened the door and stepped out, murmuring to Arinna to wait with Idira. He made his way through the camp, moving like a cat, his hands resting on the grips of his swords. His movements reminded Idira of the first time she had seen him, when she had come upon him sparring in the inner courtyard, his swords moving so fast they blurred. She was glad he was on her side. He would protect her from Papa.
Arinna's fingers came around her hand. The priestess gave her a reassuring squeeze, though her eyes remained fixed on the two men conversing at the bottom of the stairs.
Idira couldn't hear what they were saying over the conversations of the men lounging by their campfires, but Papa looked at ease, his hands resting on his hips. He nodded and jerked his head at the tower. They talked a little more, both of them calm, they even laughed once. VanCleef half-turned toward the coach, indicating who was waiting within. Papa looked up, sharp, his eyes narrowing. Anger flashed across his lean face. He spat and took a step forward, his hands curling into fists.
VanCleef's gloved hand came up, rough against Papa's chest, holding him back. Papa pushed against him, shouting that Idira was his daughter, not VanCleef's. He shoved himself free and strode towards the coach, murder in his eyes. Idira cried out, scrabbling at the handle of the door, trying to open it. It was locked. Panicking, she looked back. VanCleef lunged after Papa and grabbed his tunic in his fist, a stiletto's blade flashed out from within VanCleef's tunic. He pressed its point against Papa's neck. A spot of blood blossomed outward. The men in the camp fell silent. One by one they came to their feet. Papa scoffed and lifted up his hands, surrendering. VanCleef stepped back and sheathed the slim weapon into the front of his leather tunic, his eyes dark, angry.
He nodded at two of his men, sending them with Papa to the other side of the camp. Papa threw himself down onto a supply crate, rigid. His eyes moved back to the coach. Watchful. Menacing.
VanCleef strode to the coach, unlocked the door and jerked it open. He held out his hand.
'Idira, stay close to me. Arinna, leave the books. We may need to leave quickly.'
'But—' Arinna protested, as she pulled the satchel to her.
VanCleef reached in and took hold of Arinna's wrist, pulling her out, rough. 'Leave the damn books. Those men are loyal to Jac. If he decides to stir things up, I want you both to run to the coach and return to Moonbrook without me.' He shot a look at the driver, who nodded, grim.
Arinna left the coach, trembling and clutching her cloak tight shut, defensive. VanCleef lifted Idira out, positioning her to his left side. Arinna huddled up against his right. His other two men moved forward to flank them.
'Don't look at them, and don't listen to them,' he said to Arinna, who had begun to quake in terror. 'I won't let them hurt you.'
He led them to the tower, ignoring Papa's thugs as they inched closer to him, fingering their knives, watching them, menacing. They leered at Arinna, making indecent remarks about her body and what they would like to do to her. Idira wished she could cover her ears. Is that what grown ups did to each other? It sounded horrible. Arinna stifled a sob.
'Steady Arinna,' VanCleef said, low, 'don't let them see your fear. We're almost there.'
Idira kept her eyes on Papa. He lounged back against the stack of supplies, watching her with hooded eyes as she entered the tower. As she went up the stone steps he smiled, slow, like he knew a secret. Idira shuddered. Malevolence emanated from him. She hurried into the tower's shadows, tripping on the hem of her dress in her haste to escape his stare.
Once through the narrow passage and inside the tower, a thick gloom descended upon them. A single smelly tallow candle flickered in the draught, sending up little gouts of black smoke. A large cage stood in the middle of the room, made of iron. It looked old, like it had been there a long time. Cobwebs drifted, loose, between its bars, rippling in the dry air. Something big hunched down inside the cage, its breathing ragged. It sounded like it was in pain.
VanCleef pulled his swords from their scabbards and approached the cage, wary.
'Can you understand me?' he asked, eyeing the thing. Arinna crept forward, pulling her hood back, curiosity overcoming her fear of the men outside.
The creature shifted, groaning. VanCleef raised his swords, preparing to strike. It lifted its head. Idira stared at it, incredulous. She had no idea such a creature could exist. It had huge tusks coming out of its mouth, curving upwards, like a boar's. Its yellow eyes roamed over VanCleef, then Arinna, inspecting them, unimpressed. It snorted and turned its head sharp, to look straight at Idira. It came to its feet, slow. Its muscled pale blue skin shone with sweat. It turned back to VanCleef, a wry smile curved its lips.
'Dere be tings ya be wantin' from Unambi. Dis much I be knowin',' he said, his voice deep, musical.
Idira stepped forward, noticing he wore nothing apart from a tattered leather loincloth. Dozens of injuries covered his body, some of them crusted over, others looked new and still seeped blood.
'He's hurt,' she said. She touched Arinna's hand. 'Help him. Please.'
Arinna looked at VanCleef, uncertain. He shook his head, terse. 'Not yet.'
Unambi chuckled, and edged closer to the bars, wrapping his strange hands around them. Just two fat fingers and a thumb. Thick, nasty bruises covered them. 'Ya don' be trustin' me? I be da one in dis cage, mon.'
'How is it you can speak our language?' VanCleef asked, suspicious.
Unambi shrugged and tilted his head at the doorway. 'Dey like ta talk. Unambi be listenin' all da time. Dere been plenty a time ta be learnin'.'
VanCleef took a step closer, intrigued. 'Do they know you can understand them?'
The troll lifted his upper lip, sneering. 'Nah, mon. I been waitin' for da boss. Da one who likes ta captcha trolls. And dere ya be, da reason for Unambi's sufferin'. Ya should know dat man out dere in black intends ta kill ya. I wanted ta be da one ta tell ya.'
VanCleef's eyes darted to the doorway. 'I can handle him.'
'But can ya be handlin' dem others dat be waitin' up dere?' Unambi hissed, raising his eyes to the floors above.
VanCleef nodded at one of his men keeping guard at the doorway, indicating to check the upper floors. The man crouched and stealthed. VanCleef waited, tense. No one said anything. Only a minute passed, but it felt like forever. The man returned, his face ashen.
'How many?' VanCleef asked, low.
'Twelve,' came the reply, 'but I sensed more, stealthed.'
VanCleef clenched his jaw, his gaze moved to Arinna and Idira, his expression bleak. 'They won't have you, I swear it.'
Arinna sank down onto her knees, her eyes glassy. Idira didn't understand, what did he mean? It sounded both good and bad at the same time.
'Unambi can help ya, if ya be in da mood ta be makin' a deal,' Unambi said, quiet.
'What do you want?' VanCleef asked, taut.
'Ya let Unambi out and I be makin' sure ya get out alive. Dere be a few a dem I been longin' ta hurt. Wit dat woman's healin' on me, ya chances be real good.'
VanCleef looked at Arinna. 'Do it.'
She came to her feet, shaking, but she obeyed him. She whispered the words of healing, the light building within her hands. It shot out her, chaotic and messy, her panic and fear amplifying the flow of her healing light.
VanCleef kept his eyes on the bottom of the ramp leading to the upper floors, flexing his fingers on the grips of his swords. He gestured to his men to hold their positions at the door. Idira didn't know where to go, or what to do. She sensed death surrounding her, enclosing her, covering her like a blanket. She could feel the violet light coming again, building up within her. She shook her head, trying to fight it. It couldn't happen now. Not now, when it would ruin everything.
Arinna slumped over, the light fading, her work finished.
A shout came from outside. Papa's men burst through the doorway, VanCleef's men cut them down, one by one, efficient. Their victory was short-lived. Wire snapped around their necks, garrotting them, ambushed by Papa's stealthed rogues. The rest of Papa's men leapt down the ramp, brandishing their weapons. VanCleef fought, grim, protecting her and Arinna, his swords a blur.
'Da key be dere!' Unambi bellowed at Idira, pointing at a key ring hanging from a hook on the wall. Choking back her terror, she scrambled over Arinna and grabbed the keys. She threw them at the troll, who caught them and opened the lock. He burst free, laughing, triumphant and leapt into the fray, swinging his massive arm back and forth, flinging the men against the walls, the shattering of their bones loud in Idira's ears.
Violence and death surrounded her. The shrieks of the dying clawed into her. She couldn't get away. She was trapped and was going to die. Her light surged through her. The bad magic was coming, and she couldn't stop it. She screamed, holding her hands to her head, closing her eyes tight shut, resisting as hard as she could.
'By da blood o' Hakkar!' Unambi roared, invigorated. 'Da power comin' from dat girl. She be pure mojo!'
Idira kept her eyes closed, if she didn't look at the light, maybe it would go away. Her whole body vibrated. Tingling sensations rippled through her. Something was happening. Something big. Pain scorched through her, she felt as though she was being torn apart.
She opened her eyes. Darkness. She had gone blind again.
'Arinna!' she cried, reaching out, terrified. She felt the priestess's hands come around her torso, holding her tight. The fighting drew closer. VanCleef and the troll shouted warnings to each other as they backed up, overwhelmed by the press of their attackers. Someone screamed, agonised. Blood sprayed over Idira, hot and sticky. The metallic stink of it filled her nostrils. She clung to Arinna, who wept, begging the Light to save them.
A deep throbbing pulse rose inside Idira, rising in sickening waves until she couldn't hear anything except its deep resonating thrum. She felt like she was dying, she couldn't breathe, she couldn't see, she didn't even feel real anymore. The thrum escalated to a deafening roar. Violet light consumed her. She felt her body lurch, tugged forward at a great speed. A snapping sensation burned through her. Her sight returned. She sat up, disoriented, finding herself outside the tower, halfway between the coach and the tower. VanCleef and Unambi turned around, astonished, lowering their weapons. Arinna recovered first. She scrambled to her feet.
'The coach! Run!'
Papa's men staggered out of the tower, hollering with pain, clawing at their eyes. Papa came out last, blood streaming from his eyes, his face black with rage.
They ran. Idira couldn't keep up. She stumbled over a rock and fell, skinning her knees. Unambi turned back and hauled her up, carrying her in the crook of his arm. 'Don' ya be worryin', Unambi's got ya.'
The coach driver lay sprawled across the bench, his throat slit, soaked in blood. VanCleef jumped up and grabbed the reins. Shoving their dead driver over the side, he kicked off the brake.
Arinna bolted into the coach, her gown tearing against the door's handle. Unambi tossed Idira inside. She scrambled up beside Arinna, and looked out the window. Papa bellowed in frustration, giving orders as he stormed towards the coach. His men ran ahead, throwing knives and five-bladed stars at them. They slammed into the coach, the points piercing the solid wood. Arinna cried out, begging VanCleef to hurry.
The horses didn't need any encouragement. VanCleef yelled at them anyway. They burst forward, breaking into a gallop. Her heart pounding, Idira watched the distance between them and the tower increase. A blur of blue barrelled through the dust towards them. The coach juddered, its back end lowering under the troll's weight as he landed on the back ledge. Unambi looked in through the back window at Idira, his yellow eyes glowing.
'Now Unambi knows why he be here,' he roared over the thunder of the horses' hooves. 'He been chosen by da gods ta protect ya Light! From now on, where ya go, Unambi goes!'