فصل 09کتاب: جوهر و استخوان / فصل 20
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Jess’s backpack was heavier than it had been before, weighted down with as many books as he could safely carry; they were all burdened, according to their ability,though the outer rank of soldiers had the lightest burdens so as to fight effectively.
So far, though, luck was with them. They didn’t need to fight.
Librarian Ebele had been right; once they’d abandoned the Serapeum, the mob had re-formed at the front, ripped through the old iron bars, and was busy tearing the ancient place to pieces as they hunted for the rumoured caches of food and water. It was like listening to a murder, and they all moved as quickly and quietly as possible to get distance from it. The Oxford staff wept quietly. Wolfe kept Naomi Ebele close to him, and Jess could see why; she seemed distracted and almost feeble now. She’d pushed herself too hard.They all had.
The sleet was falling more steadily now, a constant grey hiss, and Jess put up his hood to keep it out. The weatherproofed silk was already stiff with a thin, sheer coat of ice, and he was cold to the bones. They were in a narrow alleyway now, and only able to pass through two abreast. The cobbles were awash in slick mud, and itsmelt like a sewer. He tried to breathe shallowly, but it did little good; that stench soaked through even the smallest gasp.
The small alleyway opened out onto another street, this one all but deserted. There were a few people at the far corner, but they seemed too disheartened to care about the passage of their party. The riot was still behind them. When Jess looked back, he saw what looked like black smoke rising up to stain the grey clouds.
They made it to the tavern without incident, which seemed half a miracle. The Turf Tavern was a hallowed institution in Oxford, almost as old as the Bodelian Serapeum, and it usually served as a friendly gathering place for all levels of Oxford society.
Not now. Now, it was surrounded by a group of hard-looking, scarred men armed with guns and knives.
A few had even dragged out swords, maces, and axes for the occasion.
Jess pushed through to the front and took down his hood.
‘I’m Jess. Looking for Frederick.’The men – every one of them topping him by at least a foot, and broader by far – gave him identical looks of disdain, but at length one of them stepped back into the shadows of the open doorway beneath the low roof.
The man who emerged next had the Brightwell sharp features, though his eyes were lighter and his hair a different shade than Jess’s family side sported. Frederick’s gaze missed nothing – not the numbers of High Garda soldiers, the arms, the readiness – but he was all sunny smiles as he stepped forward and extended his hand to Jess. ‘Cousin,’ he said. ‘A warm welcome to Oxford. How has your trip been so far? Eventful, I’d guess, or you’d not be calling on me. Lucky thing, your timing, because we were about to take our leave of this death-house of a town.’ ‘So you do have a way out?’
‘Naturally. For a price.’ Frederick grinned, and lines seamed his face. He was only three years older than Jess, but seemed far more worn; maybe it was the smuggling life, or maybe it was the strain of watching his home city die by inches. ‘Family comes free, since I’m feeling generous, but as you’re associating with the enemy these days, you have to pay for your … friends.’ ‘And what’s the price for them?’
‘You’re fresh from the Serapeum. You’ll be carrying something worth my time.
Make it good and we’ll see how friendly I feel. After all,you’ve exposed me to not just the High Garda, but a damned Scholar. It had best be good enough to buy me a new life.’ Jess was prepared for that.
He’d already bargained with Wolfe for something that would be dear enough to pay for the lives of all of their party. So he shrugged off his pack and said, ‘We’d better do it inside. I’m not risking this to the weather.’‘Good idea. I’d spot you a pint, except we drank all the ale ages back,’ Frederick said. He led the way into the dimness of the deserted tavern, which was a warren of small rooms, low ceilings, heavy dark beams. One of the walls was the only remaining trace of the original city fortifications, before it had grown so large, and it was worn from the passage of hands and shoulders.
It smelt of old spilt drinks and sweat, and a new, bitter scent of blood.
‘Now, cousin, produce,’ Frederick said. He sat at a trestle table and leant his elbows on it as Jess unfastened the pack.
Frederick talked like a back-alley tough, but he had fine hands, a musician’s hands, and he cradled the book Jess gave him carefully in them. ‘Damn this light,’ he said. ‘Got a glow on you?’ Jess did. He tapped it and sat the round ball on the table; it warmed up to a steady firelight shimmer, and cast dark shadows around them. Frederick picked up the ball and held it close to the binding, the carefully opened the cover.
He took in a quick breath,let it out slowly, and looked at Jess with eyes that reflected the glow eerily.
‘You know what this is?’ ‘I know,’ Jess said. ‘It’s enough to cover us.’
‘Your brother would kill you if he knew you let this go to me instead of him.’ ‘I know that,’ Jess said, and smiled. ‘But it’ll make its way to him, won’t it? He told me where to find you. Mean she knows how to find you, too. I wouldn’t hold back if I were you.’
Frederick raised his eyebrows and carefully closed the cover of the book.
He tapped the aged leather with one soft fingertip. ‘I’m tempted to squirrel it away for leverage. I don’t know what Brendan’s game is. You watch out for your brother.
He’s a twisty one.’‘He’s family.’ ‘I know. And if I were you, I wouldn’t count on the embrace of your nearest and dearest.’
‘I’m counting on you,’ Jess said, and reached for the glow ball to tap it off. ‘But it’s good that I’m supposed to make myself a home in the Library, then. Deal done?’ ‘Fair enough,’ Frederick said, and they shook on it.His cousin opened up a pack leaning on the wall and took out a familiar design of waterproof wrap – the specialty of the Brightwells, for their important volumes.
He carefully packaged up the book and put it away, then shouldered the pack. ‘Let’s get the parade marching.’ ‘I hope we won’t be quite that obvious.’
‘Trust me, old son, it’s mytrade to be inconspicuous—’ They were coming out the door of the tavern as
Frederick said that, and his words were cut off by a raw, full-throated shout from one of his men. ‘On the passage!’ That brought a rush of
realignment of Frederick’s men, from guarding the tavern to a particularly narrow alleyway off to the right.‘Wolfe,’ Frederick said, in a suddenly businesslike tone, ‘get your flock inside. Don’t want to be seen in your company. Gives me a bad name.’
Wolfe and Santi hustled all of them back into the tavern’s dark, cramped interior, until everyone with a Library symbol was safely out of sight. Jess pulled his hood back and arranged himself at one of the windows; Wolfe and Santi had taken up similar posts.
‘Will he sell us out?’ Wolfe asked.
‘No,’ Jess said, but he thought, maybe. He didn’t know Frederick well enough to say. He only knew that it was up to which side of the bread Frederick thought had the most butter, and that depended on things he couldn’t know, like whether Frederick would keep a bargain.
He already had the book, after all.
‘Back exit is clear,’ Santi said to Wolfe. ‘I had it scouted when we got here.
Won’t get us far, though.
We’ll never make it out the main gate, not with Smith setting the mob after us with the promise of food.’‘Let’s not give up on Cousin Frederick just yet.’ Santi shrugged, as if he thought it was a foregone conclusion. Jess didn’t blame him, given that he wasn’t so certain about their prospects himself. If the mob came boiling out of that passage, he imagined Cousin Frederick might decline to put himself in deeper to save them.
It wasn’t the mob, though.It was one man. Old, greying, rail-thin from the deprivations of the siege. He edged along, propped his left shoulder on the wall as a crutch, but he stopped when he saw Frederick’s men arrayed before him.
He might have looked frail, but there was a dark intensity in his face.
Frederick said from where he leant against the Turf’s wall, and gave the man a grin that didn’t reach his eyes. ‘Sorry, pub’s closed for business. Sad days, eh?’
‘I want my daughter,’ the man said.
‘No girls here, mate.
‘She’s here. I followed.’ The man’s voice was unsteady, and Jess realised, as he edged a little farther, that he was bloody, too, as if he’d been in a fight. ‘Bloody Library has her. Give her to me. I don’t want to hurt anyone.’
The threat woke a raw chuckle through the ranks of Frederick’s very capable toughs. ‘Old man, just go back where you came from,’ Frederick said. ‘Your girl’s not here, like I said. Ned, help him on his way.’The biggest man of Frederick’s crew stepped up and put a hand on the older man’s shoulder … and froze, then backed up one step.
Two. He turned to look at Frederick and shook his head.
The older man raised his right hand over his head, and in it, he held a glass vial of liquid. The thin light caught it and turned the colour to sour emerald.‘Don’t touch me,’ he said.
‘Send my daughter out to me.
If I toss this, a fair number of you are going to die.’ ‘Easy,’ Frederick said, in a calm, low voice. ‘Easy there, nobody needs to end up crisped. Right? So put that down and I’ll see about your girl. Come on, burning the Turf? Worse than setting the Great Library itself alight. Might be more of a loss to the world, even.’ ‘Send her out,’ the man said. His voice went thready and faint. He pushed free of the wall, still holding up the bottle.
Frederick’s men, who weren’t scared of much, flinched and backed up to give him generous room.
‘Got nothing to lose. Send my daughter out,’ the man repeated. ‘Morgan Hault. Or I drop it.’ Jess saw the resemblance, then … the same dark-honey eyes, though this man’s had faded with time. The same pointed chin.
‘Father?’ Morgan’s voice came from behind and to his left, and he didn’t have time to do more than turn in that direction before she was past him, and out the door.
‘Father! Are you all right?’She ran to him, and gave him a quick embrace, then pulled back when he winced. She hardly seemed to notice the Greek Fire he was still holding over their heads, in the first rush of reunion … and Jess saw her body stiffen as she did. She took a step away. ‘What is this? What are you doing? You have to put that down, it’s dangerous!’ ‘Damned right it’s dangerous,’ he said. ‘I came to save you, Morgan.’
She laughed a little. ‘I don’t need rescuing, Father.
I’m rescuing you. We’re leaving. Now. Come with us.’ ‘Us,’ he repeated. ‘You think of these people as us, as if you’re one of them? You can’t be. Not with the Library. The Library isn’t taking you away.’ Her father, Jess thought, had a fanatic’s burning eyes, and the look he sent towards Wolfe, towards them as they stepped out into the courtyard, was vicious with hatred. ‘Take their damned sign off. You’re not their slave—’ His voice died as he caught sight of the bronze Library bracelet gleaming dully on her wrist.
‘No. No. You’re not one of them. You can’t be one of them. I forbid it.’‘Father—’ ‘Morgan, take it off!’ ‘I will. Just not yet. These are my friends. See? My friends. And we’re all leaving here. You can come with us.
Please, come with us.’ Her father stared at her with an expression of contempt and revulsion, and said, ‘They’ve turned your mind. Made you believe they’re on your side. Who did it, that one? That Scholar?
What did you do to my daughter?’
‘I’ve helped her,’ Wolfe said. ‘Which is more than you’re doing right now. We have little time before the Welsh begin to destroy this city. If you don’t want her to die, stop wasting it.’ ‘She’s coming with me,’ Hault said, and tightened his grip on the girl. ‘She’ll never be yours. Tyler told me what happened, what would happen if she went into the Library. Not my girl. Never.’ ‘Father, stop! Where are you going?’
‘Back,’ he said. ‘Back to burn that nest of serpents they call a Serapeum. Come on!’ Morgan broke free of his hold. ‘What happened to you?
What are you talking about?’ ‘We have to burn it down,’ her father said. ‘It’s the only way they listen.’ He was insane, Jess could see it.
Feverish with it.
She backed away. ‘You weren’t a Burner when I left you,’ she said. ‘What did they do to you?’
‘They showed me the truth,’ he told her. ‘I can’t let the Library have you. They’ll use you. They’ll make you just another one of them, andit’s better – better if you’re dead. Better that than life with them.’ He took in a deep breath. ‘Vita hominis plus libro valet!’
He threw the bottle.
‘No!’ Morgan screamed, and lunged forward.
Somehow, she got underneath the bottle, dived, and caught it in her outstretched hands just inches above the cold cobbles. The green liquid inside sloshed, but the thin glass didn’t break.
It would have been the death of them all if it had.
Santi stepped quickly over to Morgan, helped her up, and took the bottle. He stored it in a padded pouch at his side and nodded to Wolfe. ‘Get behind me, Morgan.’
She didn’t argue. She was, Jess thought, too much in shock to even try. When she failed to move on her own, Jess took her by the shoulders and pulled her back; he held on, just in case she tried to run back to her father.
But she didn’t.
‘Go,’ Santi said. He pulled his pistol and levelled it at Morgan’s father. ‘Go. Be grateful I’m not doing the Welsh’s work for them.’ ‘I’ll get my daughter back,’ the man said. ‘I swear to God I will set her free.’ He stared straight at
Morgan with a bleak, awful expression, and then he turned and stumbled the other way.
Frederick shrugged and made a circle motion to his men. ‘Right,’ he said. ‘He was a treat. If he’s got Burner friends and more Greek Fire, I don’t want to be here when he comes back. Sorry, lass.Can’t pick your family.
Believe me, I know.’
Morgan suddenly turned and buried her face in Jess’s chest. She didn’t cry, but the hitching, awful pain of her breathing was worse. He could feel the loss in her, a terrible bleak emptiness that pulled like a magnet.
‘He tried to kill me,’ she whispered. ‘He’s my father and he tried to kill me.’Jess had nothing to say to that, because there were no words that were going to make it any easier to swallow. He remembered how it had felt in that awful moment of clarity in his childhood, knowing that his father would let him die.
At least with hers, it was a cause to blame. Not profits.
‘You can weep about it later,’ Frederick said. ‘For now, get your wits back in your head.’
‘You English,’ Dario said.
‘We’re a practical lot,’ Frederick said, ‘and you’ll keep your tongue quiet if you want these practical men to get you out alive. Right?’ He cast a sharp look at Wolfe, who nodded without any real expression.
‘Yes,’ Wolfe said. ‘For better or worse, we’re in their hands now.’ He suddenly gave Frederick one of those dark, cool smiles. ‘Don’t ever speak to my postulants again.’
It didn’t take long before the scouts came back and reported the way clear. ‘Then let’s move on. All of you, lose those damned Library colours. Now.’‘You heard the man,’ Wolfe said. ‘Students. Coats off.’ He was taking off his own Scholar’s robe. That left him in plain black, like the soldiers who were ripping away patches and symbols.
‘Nic. Give them guns.’ ‘Real weapons? You sure?’
‘We’re past kinder methods.’
Santi gestured to one of his men, who grabbed a pack and went to each of the
students, taking their stunning weapons and replacing them with heavy, sleek, lead-firing guns. ‘Don’t shoot unless you have to,’ he said. ‘It will get confusing out there. Too easy to shoot your friends.’ Morgan’s wet hair was out of its pins and falling in untidy strings across her face and neck. She looked lost.‘Can she walk, or do I have to risk a man carrying her?’ Frederick asked Jess.
‘I can walk,’ Morgan said, and turned towards Frederick.
‘And I can fight.’
‘Good,’ he said. ‘Do that.
And if you want my advice, you’d best put a bullet in your dear old da’s head before you let him near you again.’ ‘Nobody asked you,’ Jess said. ‘Piss off. We’re ready to go.’ ‘You’re really not, my dear coz,’ Frederick said.
‘Hold onto your knickers.
This isn’t the fun part.’ Frederick’s men and Santi’s troops didn’t mix well. After the second scuffle, Santi assigned his forces to the rearguard, while Frederick’s men led the way into an old, nondescript house with a ruined door. Inside, the place was wrecked – ransacked, Jess thought, for anything that would burn – but Frederick’s men weren’t interested in the contents of the place. They pried up a large, square stone in the centre of the room, and beneath were steps heading down.
‘Stay together,’ Frederick told them. ‘It’s a rat’s warren.
You get lost, you’ll stay lost,because we’re not turning back for anyone. And for God’s sake, put your guns away; bullets will bounce back on you. If you have to fight, use a knife. And keep it quiet. Sound carries.’ It was claustrophobic on the stairs, and worse once they’d gained the tunnels. For some reason, Jess had assumed the tunnels would be newly dug … some sort of hidden smuggling system that Frederick had devised.
Instead, they were very old.
In some places there were markings chiselled into the stone, and Jess studied them for a few puzzled seconds before the light dawned … but he was well behind Khalila, who whispered,
‘These are Jewish signs.
Escape tunnels, in the event of persecution. I’ve read of this.’ ‘Smart girl,’ Frederick said. ‘Now shut it. We’re not the only ones that know about these tunnels.’
‘Do the Welsh?’ Wolfe asked. He sounded calm and casual, but the question definitely had weight to it.
Frederick gave him a wolf’s grin.
‘Not as of an hour ago,’ he said. ‘But things change.’They moved quickly and, as required, quietly … at least for a while. It got harder to move around bits of fallen masonry, and seemed like an eternity of dark, narrow tunnels, alcoves, and the skitter of rats. Morgan stayed right behind Jess, and he glanced back frequently to see if she was all right. She seemed to be – as all right as any of them, at least.The forward motion stopped, and Frederick sent two of his men up a set of narrow stairs off one of the alcoves. They’d made a dozen twists and turns so far, and Frederick hadn’t been consulting any kind of map; he must have learnt this warren, and learnt it well, to be so fast and sure of getting them where he wanted them to be.But was it safe? It didn’t feel safe.
The scouts came back down and whispered with Frederick, who nodded and turned to Wolfe. ‘Right,’ he said. ‘Up you go.’
‘No, you first,’ Santi said.
‘Age before beauty, and all that,’ Frederick replied.
Frederick’s men had drawn weapons. Jess’s pulse began to beat faster, and he found the hilt of the knife in his belt. Close quarters in here. Bad conditions. It would be a slaughterhouse, and the only way out was up … and who knew what waited for them there?
Wolfe broke the tension by saying, ‘Nic. Take us up.’ It was a calculated risk, but staying wasn’t better.Santi gave the Scholar a dark, doubtful glance, but he turned and ordered his soldiers out.
They went without question.
Then it was the students’ turn, with Wolfe, and Jess glanced back at his cousin, who was watching them mount the stairs.
‘If you’ve sold us out—’ he began, but Frederick shook his head.‘Family loyalty, Jess. I kept my word. There’s a guide up top.’ He gave a sudden, luminous grin. ‘But it’ll cost you later, I promise.’ He gestured his men onward, further down the tunnels. Where they were off to, Jess didn’t know.
He followed Thomas up the steps, out into an echoing dark hallway. They extinguished their glows,because ahead was a barred gate, and cloudy, dying daylight.
The gate’s lock had been snapped, and hinges oiled to keep it silent; they stepped through and out into … A graveyard.
‘Well, this is comforting,’ Dario muttered. He put his knife away and pulled out his gun, which he held pointing down, the way they’d been taught. Only raise it to fire when you’re moving, Santi had told them. Better to shoot yourself in the foot than in the head if you trip. Too much to remember, suddenly. Jess felt clumsy and very, very unprepared for this.
On one side, the graveyard was a sea of silvery grass and swaying trees, random movement muted by the hissing fall of ice. The bitter cold wind cut at Jess’s skin.
The gate through which they’d passed turned out to be a tomb, built like a miniature Greek temple, and as they left it they were surrounded on all sides by leaning granite and marble headstones, jutting like broken teeth from the jaw of the ground.
‘We have a problem,’ Thomas said. He sounded grim, and scared. ‘Look.’They were close, but he was right, the new city’s wall had been built on the borders of this cemetery, and stretched high up. No way over it. You bastard, Frederick, Jess thought. He must have known what he was doing, and he’d lied about it, right to Jess’s face.
‘We have a guide,’ Santi said, and nodded towards the left. Someone was standing atthe far edge of the cemetery, waving in their direction – a scarecrow of a woman, thin as a walking corpse. She was wrapped in faded layers of clothes but seemed half the size she should have been, even then. As the Library party approached her, she sniffled and wiped at her dripping nose with dirty hands.
God, she was young. Not much older than Jess himself.
He could see that in the fine texture of her skin, the gold of her hair, but war had worn her thin and hollow. ‘Come with me,’ she said. ‘Hurry.’ ‘Where are you taking us, girl?’ Wolfe demanded, and she shook free of his grip on her arm and ducked her head, as if to avoid a blow he didn’t give.
‘To the gate,’ she said.‘Frederick’s taking it, but you’ve got to be quick.’ ‘We should have gone with him,’ Dario said. ‘I knew it.’
‘Minute the mob sees you lot, they’ll howl,’ the girl said, and wiped her nose again. ‘Redcoats said any who grab you get extra rations. Which is why Frederick went first. Nobody wants him, so he can get the gate open for you, like. He said move it quick.’
‘Show us,’ Wolfe told the girl, and she scampered off, faster than Jess would have believed possible for her thin, starved frame. The ice slimed the grass, and it crunched and slipped beneath his feet, but he kept up as Santi’s men broke into a trot, then a run, in pursuit of the girl. They all kept up. He kept a hand on Morgan’s arm to make sure they didn’t lose her.
Portero lagged a bit behind, and he was the first to be caught. It wasn’t his fault; Jess didn’t see the men lurking behind the brick building on their left until they poured out, howling.
Portero spun to face them, pulling his gun, but three of them were on him before he could fire more than once,and Jess saw two of them pulling him down.
Santi’s men pivoted in a practised, almost elegant formation and went at the attackers. There were only six or seven of them, but they were hard men, killers, and even as Jess grabbed
Portero’s wrists to drag him out of the fight he knew it was too late.
Someone had stabbed him.He watched Portero gasp for breath, his face turning a horrible shade of cream, and the blood that bubbled from his mouth seemed the brightest crimson Jess had ever seen.
Then he stopped breathing. His eyes fixed, his pupils relaxed, and the only thing that moved on him was the slow crawl of blood down his cheek and onto the icy grass.
Someone was pulling at Jess’s shoulder. Thomas. It was Thomas who screamed in his ear words that Jess couldn’t fully process. Get up, he thought stupidly at Portero. Get up, you lazy bastard. Portero had never been his friend, but he couldn’t just leave him. Not like this.
Thomas rolled Porter over, grabbed his pack, and pulled it off. Portero’s arms flopped limply as he fell back to the ground, and Jess tried to straighten him, but he was off balance because someone was pulling him by the shoulder in a grip hard enough to make his bones creak, and the day seemed smeared and oddly silent … … Until it all snapped back, hard and loud and chaotic, and he was running, his arm gripped tightly in Dario Santiago’s hand.
Thomas loped next to him, and Khalila, and all the others. When Jess looked back over his shoulder he saw that Santi’s men had broken free of the conflict and were coursing after them, with a growing mob on their trail like rabid wolves.
There was a low stonewall at the edge of the cemetery, and their guide was on the other side of it, screaming at them to hurry.
Wolfe was the first to it, and vaulted up on it at the run; Glain’s long legs scrambled her up to the top, where she crouched. Khalila stumbled, but Wolfe and Glain pulled her up and over. Each of them got the same help, boosted up, scrambling over. Jess went near the end, and only realised when Glain flinched that he’d smeared her with Portero’s sticky blood, and then he was over, tumbling down a hill and up to his feet with the unwieldy weight of the pack on his back to overbalance him yet again when the cobbles of the street below proved slick.
The exterior gate the girl was talking about was one of those that had been closed, locked and reinforced with steam-powered bulwarks; a gate that Oxford must have once hoped to use to launch their own attack when it had been built. One that had been heavily defended by a guard station of redcoats.
Frederick’s men had taken the guard station, shattered the layers of locks, and cranked the gate open. Not without resistance, though, and not without massive losses judging from the men dead around them; Oxford redcoats were now desperately trying to retake the controls. The battle raged ahead, and it was no longer just Frederick’s lot versus the soldiers; Oxford citizens had smelt a rare chance for escape, and they were fighting to get out before the gates cranked shut again. It was total madness, a boil of bodies and screams. Santi’s soldiers pushed through to form a narrow corridor for Wolfe and his students, but it was a fragile protection, and wouldn’t last.
‘Go!’ Frederick shouted from atop a fallen block of stone, and fired into the face of a man lunging towards him. Santi’s soldiers slammed back a rush of people trying to cut ahead of them. ‘We’ll hold it!’
One of Frederick’s men just ahead and to the left of Jess was felled with a club, and a wild-eyed woman stumbled over his body. She had a red-faced, screaming child in her arms, and she shoved the baby at Jess.
‘Take her!’ the woman shrieked at him.Jess didn’t remember doing it, but suddenly the baby was squirming in his arms, and the mother was dragged aside to stumble and fall beneath another wave of desperate men and women surging forward. He pushed his way on. I shouldn’t have the baby. I can’t put her down. I can’t take her with me. I can’t …
Jess spun as someoneclawed at his shoulder, and saw a boy about his own age with a knife; he slammed a fist into the boy’s chin and sent him flying backward.
The baby in his arms was wiggling so hard it was difficult to hang on, but he needed one hand free to deal with those coming at him.
Frederick’s lines were collapsing fast now, and the Oxford citizens were surging for the open gate … but the huge wings of the gate were cranking closed again.
Oxford defenders had activated the steam engine.
They had to get through before it shut. He saw that the other students were ahead of him. Glain was scrambling over a mass of fallen bodies, and dragging Morgan with her.
‘Run, damn you!’He turned at the shout in his ear and saw Wolfe next to him, armed with a gun; he took methodical, fast shots, and was half-covered in blood. The crowd was screaming around them, pure chaos and fury, and somehow Jess stayed on his feet as he was pushed and buffeted. The gates squeezed forward.
Screams of those on either side of them turned from fury to terror. Wolfe grabbed Jess’s shoulder and shoved him into what seemed a solid wall of bodies. Some fell, and Jess realised now that there were bullets being fired from outside. The Welsh.
He almost turned back, but Wolfe’s hand relentlessly drove him forward, over fallen bodies, and a woman dropped right in front of him, face forward in the mud. Jess leapt over her.
Behind him, the screaming grew worse as people were caught in the closing gate, unable to retreat, jammed too tightly together to rush forward.
Jess was out into the mud and icy wind, with Wolfe right next to him.
They were out.
Santi’s men – so few left now – formed around them and pushed them forward.
There was an awful keening shriek of metal as the gate pushed closed through the bodies of those caught.
Jess didn’t look back. He couldn’t.
Santi drove them together in a defensive band. He had the Library flag out and slammed it to its full height above their heads. His soldiers were slapping their Library symbols back on their chests and on each other. Out here in the mud, nothing moved but them.
The screams and shouts from within the Oxford walls were growing faint.
‘What have you done?’ Wolfe was standing right in front of him. Jess stared, uncomprehending, until he realised that Wolfe was looking down at the child in his arms.
She was still alive and squirming. Somehow, amazingly, she’d survived.
He had no idea how. He didn’t know how he’d made it through. How any of them had.
‘We can’t take her,’ Wolfe said. His voice was tight and strained, his expression very bleak. ‘Put her down.’‘Down?’ The mud he was standing in was almost knee deep. She’d sink without a trace. ‘Where?’
There was a party of Welsh soldiers running towards them across the muddy open ground. They were all armed. ‘Halt!’ one of them shouted, and the men and women all came to a quick stop in the mud with their weapons trained on the Library party. ‘Surrender anyone not in your party!
You have thirty seconds to comply!’
‘Put her down,’ Wolfe said.
‘You must, Jess.’ His voice had gone soft. Gentle.
‘They’ll kill us all if you don’t. You’re violating the accords.’
Jess looked around for somewhere to leave the baby.
There was nothing. Nothing that wasn’t churned bloody mud. ‘I can’t,’ he whispered.
He felt ice cold now, inside and out, and he couldn’t stop shaking. ‘I can’t just—’ ‘Fifteen seconds!’
Wolfe took the baby from Jess’s arms and turned towards the Welsh soldiers.
‘Let me talk to General Warlow.’‘Five seconds, Scholar!
Put that down! Four! Three!’ Wolfe held up one hand to stop the count, walked to the churned, bloody mud outside of the gate. He put the child down on top of the body of a dead woman lying there. The child screamed and reached for him with chubby arms, and Wolfe hesitated, crouched over her. Jess couldn’t see his face.‘SCHOLAR!’ the Welsh commander shouted. ‘Step back to your group! I want to see bracelets, every one of you, right now, or we shoot!’ One by one, the students held up their wrists. Jess numbly followed suit, but he couldn’t look away from Wolfe, who still hadn’t moved from where he was
crouched by the child.
‘Scholar!’ That wasn’t theWelsh. It was from inside the gate.
Wolfe grabbed the child and ran that way. There was a gap in the gate, because the metal doors were still jammed on the bodies.
Despite the continued shudder and whine of the engine, it was still open a little.
Jess’s cousin Frederick –bloody, wounded, and somehow still alive – was on the other side, stretching out his arms.
Wolfe gave him the girl.
She barely fit through the gap.
‘Get out however you can,’ Wolfe said. ‘Hurry. I’ll keep them talking as long as I can.’
Frederick backed away, turned, and ran.There was a damp crack as the flesh and bones of the dead finally failed, and the gate slammed shut.
Wolfe spun towards the Welsh troops and held up his arm. The gold bracelet flashed, and to Jess’s eyes, it almost looked like a warning, not a surrender. ‘Safe passage,’ Wolfe said. ‘Now.’ The Welshman didn’t look happy, but gestured for Wolfe to follow, and led his troops back at a jog towards the Welsh lines.
Wounded, bloody, exhausted, Jess and his fellows struggled after, stumbling and slipping in the mud, clinging to each other for help and comfort. So few of Santi’s men and women had made it, Jess realised.
He’d never even learnt their names. Santi was wounded,but he was still supporting one of his soldiers as they limped their way towards safety.
Good luck, Frederick, Jess thought. He hadn’t expected his cousin to be their unlikely saviour, or to take that little girl. Selflessness wasn’t a Brightwell family trait. He hoped it wouldn’t end up costing Frederick his life.
A shout went up from the Welsh lines; it was an eerie, savage sound, and Thomas lurched forward towards
Wolfe. ‘What is that?’ he asked. Wolfe kept moving, head down.
‘Signal to attack,’ Dario panted when Wolfe didn’t answer. ‘The assault’s started.’
They were coming, those lines of troops. The first wave was racing towards them in armoured carriers, and for a moment Jess thought, horribly, that they would simply be run down, lost in the mud, but the vehicle heading for them changed its angle and charged past, throwing up mud head-high to flop over them in a stinking wave. Inside the carrier, the Welsh soldiers were cheering.
Jess looked up to see a container arcing over their heads. Something bright and burning and eerily green within.
It fell inside the walls of Oxford.
And Oxford began to burn.
Beside Jess, Khalila burst into tears and hid her face in her hands. Glain stood stock-still, staring at the destruction as more ballista-fired bottles of Greek Fire landed and bloomed into hideous, toxic life.
‘Happy you’re winning?’ Jess said. He felt sick inside, and angry, and he needed to hit the only target in reach.
Her gaze fell to lock on his. She didn’t say anything.
She turned and flailed on through the mud.
Jess, having hurt her, felt even sicker than before.He grimly followed, hearing the distant high wailing from inside the walls of Oxford as the slaughter continued.
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