The fire in the Magister's room guttered low, sending out occasional billows of ash-grey smoke as the wind howled around the chimneys, making the two men who sat there in close conference cough from time to time. The Magister could have called for a servant to add new logs or sea coal to it, or summoned spirits of fire and air to amend it, but he knew that even the hottest blaze would not dispel the chill he felt. That cold was of the soul, not of the body.
The message had been delivered to Blacktoft by a trusted courier that morning. It had been folded small to fit within various places of concealment on its journey to him, and even if the writing had been easy to make out when it had been written, it was difficult to make out now. Adding to the illegibility caused by the tight folding and the pale ink, it was written in cipher. The Magister resettled his spectacles on his nose and squinted again at the square of parchment, his bristly white eyebrows lowering as his forehead furrowed, then with a sigh he slid it across the table to his companion and poured himself a mug of hot spiced wine.
"Make of that what you can, Daniel," the Magister wheezed. "Damned impenetrable scribble if you ask me. If it hadn't come by known messengers, if it hadn't had his mark on it," he jabbed a stubby forefinger at the sigil drawn at what presumably was the base of the missive, "I'd have cast it unread into the flames." He took a good draught of the wine and coughed, scrubbing at his mouth with the back of his hand. "You have the sharp eyes here; tell me what it says."
Master Daniel Lyon lifted the parchment delicately by the edges, his long slender fingers careful not to smudge the writing. "The sigil is truly drawn," he said, his voice precise and educated, after considering it for a few moments. "That I should know anywhere. And I would be prepared to swear that it is in his hand." He glanced at the pitcher of wine and licked his lips, but the gravity of the situation had apparently displaced any notion of hospitality from the Magister's mind. Running a fingertip tentatively across the surface of the parchment, he frowned.
"But why so pale? the ink, I mean. He may be short of ready money after his adventures abroad, but to thin his ink to near illegibility, and for what is presumably an important communication..." His cool blue eyes relentlessly scrutinised the paper, then he shook his head in frustration. "My eyes may be sharper than yours, Magister, but I cannot make sense out of nonsense, even if I had the eyes of an eagle. This is no tongue or script that I know of. Yet he would not jest, would he? An ill time for it, if so, and he must know it. So I conclude that the message is genuine, if obscure, and he must be sure that we can interpret it, or all his effort and the risk to our couriers will be wasted. A little time... and perhaps some of that wine, Magister, if you'd be so good?"
"Time is what we do not have, Daniel," the Magister scowled, grudgingly pouring Daniel a steaming mug. "This isn't one of your damned scholastic puzzles. Things go ill for us, as well you know, and for him to fritter away time with schoolroom games..."
Daniel sighed. "Magister, of your goodness spare me your ill humour. You have asked for my help, which I give freely and gladly, and berating him or me is not going to make this conundrum yield its truth to us a moment more speedily, but rather the reverse." He smoothed the parchment out, holding it almost flat, then smiled. "A puzzle-piece falls into place, perhaps. Parts of the writing reflect the flame of the candle more than the others."
The Magister snorted and refilled his own mug. "No doubt, Daniel, no doubt. All very interesting, I'm sure. But can you read it, with all your Oxford wit?"
The younger man shook his head, then brushed his fine dark hair out of his eyes. "I'm considering our friend's interest in steganography, the art of concealing one message within another. Perhaps that is what we have here?" He held the parchment closer to the candle flame, though not so close that it was likely to catch fire. He smiled as darker letters came slowly into view, obscuring the pale text. "Aha. That, I think, may well be the key, as it is so short..." He turned it in his hand, showing the other face to the heat, then held out the parchment which now revealed a dense grid of small yet clear letters on the reverse. "And perhaps that is the true message."
"'Perhaps' is short commons," the Magister grumbled, though a little excitement entered his voice. "Make haste, and tell me what it says!"
Daniel worked at the enigma for almost an hour by the hour-candle, scribbling furiously as first one attempt at the cipher failed and then another, the Magister prowling around the room with barely-concealed impatience. Then he leaned back in his chair and smiled, but it was a cautious smile, like a child called to his father but as yet unsure whether he is to be praised or punished.
"I think that I have it, Magister, but I am unsure that it means aught. It is from the Nisi Dominus: Ecce haereditas Domini filii mercis fructus ventris..."
"'Behold, the Lord's inheritance is children: the reward, the fruit of the womb. As arrows in the warrior's hand are the children of thy youth. Blessed is the man who hath his quiver filled with them, for he shall not be shamed when he speaks with the enemies at his gate,'" the old man translated, then nodded wearily. "A code that I know well, though I'd hoped not to receive that message for some years yet." He poured more wine for himself and for the man who once had been his discipulus but who was now his colleague.
"I know the Psalm, to be sure," Daniel said, sipping the tepid wine, "but how it relates to the situation at hand is not evident to me."
The Magister let out a slow breath. "The Queen grows old, Daniel," he said softly, looking around the book-lined room. "The new learning and the old wisdoms have enjoyed a time of relative peace under her."
Daniel looked cynical. "I wouldn't want to say that to the faces of the recusants and their priests, Magister. Bare toleration and taxation they receive at best, and only because she daren't push some of the most powerful families in the land too far."
"Nevertheless," the Magister continued, ignoring Daniel's quibble, "in comparison to those of her predecessors, her reign, even in matters of faith, has been mild and accommodating. Consider the fates of Latimer and Ridley under her sister as an illustration of my thesis. We have grown fat and complacent, Daniel. Kit Marlowe writes his scandalous plays, and earns fame and scant rebuke. John Dee has the Queen's ear, if not always her obvious favour - or her gold, poor man. Philosophical notions are discussed at the Universities, as well you know, that would have earned the stake for their exponents a century ago. Learning flows in from the Continent, and scholars have little trouble in coming and going. It cannot last, my friend, this season of content! She lives - but for how long? and who will reign after her? She has no legitimate offspring, nor prospect of any; and if there be any who are not legitimate, the matter is kept very quiet."
"By all accounts, the succession of James of Scotland, her cousin's child, is favoured in the opinion of those who think of such things."
The Magister glanced round the room again. "The son of the cousin she murdered, indeed. Who, I will admit, has proved himself so far an able monarch in his own country. Yet," - he took a draught of his wine - "he was tutored by Buchanan, a Calvinist of the most stringent persuasion, and despite his education he fears anything metaphysical, calling such things sorcery and witchcraft, whether they are or not. The last twenty years have seen more than a few good friends of mine flee to England, and the tales they tell are grim."
"And so we must consider our options, Daniel, in the short time that is left us."
Daniel nodded. "For myself," he said, "I could find easy refuge, perhaps in Paris, perhaps elsewhere. An Oxford man encounters no great hardship in getting a Mastership at one of the Universities. Yet still, Magister, I am unsure of what the message portends. Enemies may indeed, metaphorically, be at our gate, but what are the children of which the verses speak?"
Draining his mug, the Magister folded his hands on the table in front of him. "Ten years or more past, certain of us made a decision. Scrying the end of the Queen's reign, as well as being potentially treasonous, was proving difficult, even for the most skilled of us. Answers, when they came - and they did not come often - were at best ambiguous. Ambiguous, and disturbing. Most of us are old, Daniel, and were not young even then, and ill able to deal with any threat, physical or otherwise. At a meeting of Raleigh's Schola Noctis, we came to a decision: horoscopes were to be drawn up, and children whose stellar configurations would favour them for the study of the Arts - and, more importantly, their practical use - were to be selected. Their existence was to be kept closely guarded until they were ready to begin their education. They are to be our arrows."
"I knew nothing of this," Daniel remarked, seeming a little put out that he should only have been entrusted with it now. "But why not start their learning immediately, rather than waiting a decade?"
The Magister shrugged. "Indeed, we did have some potential scholars, and they have been in training. But not sufficient for our purposes. As to the new ones - well, it would have been apparent to our enemies if we'd taken in handfuls of squalling babes each, would it not? Also, we thought it better to see how they grew from a distance, rather than have them influenced by growing up in a place such as this."
"The secret has evidently been well kept," Daniel commented.
"But not well enough, it seems," the Magister sighed. "The message tells me that my brood has been discovered. Of the original eight, two have died; one naturally, it seems, of a fever several years ago. Another - his death, last month, struck me as potentially disturbing. The remaining six... I shall have brought here at once. The Queen has, we think, at best another ten years. Your task, Daniel, and that of the rest of us at Blacktoft, will be to train the boys as speedily as we can, before the dark times come. The others, who will have received like messages, will do similarly with theirs, I trust."
Daniel looked shocked. "Magister!" he expostulated. "Ten years? Impossible! twenty would scarcely suffice! And we have no resources to do what you want - all of us are fully occupied with our researches, or training our own discipuli - we can hardly abandon our labours for what, if you'll indulge me, I have to say seems at best a madcap scheme!"
"Nevertheless!" the Magister snapped, drawing himself up in his chair. "You are a loyal member of this Covenant, Daniel, and your will is mine. I have decided, and I expect obedience. Summon me Robert Hod and the other Hunters, and start drawing up a curriculum for the education of the boys. Assume that they can read somewhat, and perhaps write, but little else. Return to me this evening with your ideas, and leave to me the decision of what is impossible, and what is not!"
"And that's as much as I can tell you, young Ran," Robert Hod mumbled round a mouthful of coarse bread. "As much as I know." He took a swallow of ale and looked warily around the main room of the inn where they were breaking their fast, but thankfully nobody was paying them much heed. "Himself doesn't tell anyone everything, and I think he tells me least of all. All I know is that there's a half-dozen or so of you, lads like yourself, that the Magister's made arrangements to be cared for until he has need to call upon you."
At Ranulf's expression of surprise, Rob held up his hand. "No, I don't know what need. No, I don't know why he wants you now. Nor do I know what possible use you can be to him. He summoned me to his room two days ago and told me and the others to fetch you and the other lads to Blacktoft, and now you know as much about the matter as I do." He hated having to deceive the boy even with lies of omission, for there was a lot more that he suspected about the Magister's plans, but there was no point in scaring the lad unnecessarily with what were, after all, speculations, and he'd hear the truth - or, at least, whatever was thought meet for him to hear - from the Magister's own lips in a day or two at most.
"I've never heard of Blacktoft," Ranulf said sleepily, for he'd had only minutes of snatched sleep since Rob had taken him from his home the night before. "Is it far from here? And who is this Magister?" He tore off a chunk of bread and dipped it in his bowl of thin stew.
Rob shrugged and took a drink of his ale. "A day at most, if you have a good horse like Blackie. As it is, it'll take us more like two, maybe more, depending on how the weather keeps and if there's no delay to the coach. Even then, we'll have to get horses in York for the last part of the journey." He scratched his nose and belched. "See, Ran, this is always the problem with the Magister, as you'll find out soon enough. He may take a while to make his mind up on a matter, but then everything has to be done at once. If we'd had a week or so to plan, it could have been done that much easier, but he has no patience. 'Bring them to me,' he says, 'and speedily. There's no time to lose.' - so here I am with you, waiting for Crowe to turn up with the lad that he's gone to fetch, and then we'll be away when the mail coach leaves."
"Who's Crowe?" asked Ranulf.
That earned him a sharp look. "You ask a lot of questions, young Ranulf."
Ranulf started to apologise, but Rob interrupted him. "It's not that I mind, but..." He looked awkward, uncertain of how much to say. "Sometimes it's best to wait for people to tell you things, rather than be forever asking. Particularly if you're asking about other folk. If Crowe wants you to know things about him, then I'm sure he'll tell you in his own good time. Same with the Magister. But I will tell you one thing about Crowe, and you listen carefully to me, lad. He has a sharp temper and he's a damned good fighter. If Crowe tells you to do something, then by the Rood you'd best do it, no questions asked. He won't take any nonsense from anyone. Even the Magister deals gingerly with Crowe."
Nodding glumly, Ranulf addressed himself to his breakfast. Everything was happening far too quickly for him to take in, and whenever he tried to make sense of what was going on by asking questions, what answers he got seemed to make matters more complicated, not less. He was just about to ask Rob if by any chance they might go to the room Rob had taken on their arrival at the inn and get some sleep before this Crowe and his charge arrived, when the door to the inn-yard was suddenly flung open violently, revealing a gaunt figure silhouetted against the early-morning brightness.
For no reason that he could explain, Ranulf felt himself gripped by a cold dread, and it was all he could do to force himself to look at the newcomer as he strode, dark hooded cloak flapping, over to their table. Short, whipcord-lean, with sunburned skin and coppery-brown eyes: even the sword-slash scar that disfigured the left side of his face was, in itself, not terrifying; but there was something so unnerving, though he could not say what, about the stranger that if Rob hadn't taken a firm grip of his arm he'd probably have bolted. Behind him, eyes wide with fear, stumbled a young, dark-haired boy who seemed to be a couple of years younger than Ranulf.
Looking up at the stranger, Rob nodded once. "Crowe," was all he said, his face expressionless.
Crowe leaned heavily on the table, his fingers digging into the wood, his knuckles almost white with tension. "Plans have changed," he muttered in a low hoarse voice, seeming to disregard Ranulf and the other boy completely. "We're discovered. I destroyed four, but some fled. This is the boy. No good our taking the coach now - too vulnerable, too slow. I've loosed Blackie and Ghost; they can get back better without us..." His face tautened with pain and he clutched at his left arm, his hand coming away crimsoned with fresh blood. He shrugged at Rob's grimace of concern, then looked narrowly at Ranulf. "This is the one you were to fetch?" he asked Rob, shivering as blood oozed stickily from his shirt-sleeve onto the back of his hand. "Does he know anything?"
"Untrained, the Magister told me," replied Rob. Untrained at what, Ranulf wondered.
Crowe swore and his eyes glittered with suppressed fury. "Same as mine, then, completely useless. Seems yet again I'll be the one to pay the ferryman. Get them to a room. I'll bring wine and salt." He pushed himself off the table, a bloody palm print marking where he'd rested, and strode towards the door to the yard, leaving the trembling boy behind him without so much as a glance.
His face pale and sweaty, Rob stood and yanked Ranulf to his feet. "Leave the food," he muttered, seeing the younger boy's eyes lingering hungrily on the half-finished stew and bread. "The less you have in you, the less there'll be to come out, if Crowe's thinking the way I'm thinking. Now, be quick: the sooner we're out of here, the better."
The room Rob had taken was small, with little in it other than a narrow bed covered with rough blankets and a bucket in one corner. It smelled of mould and stale sweat, unlike the room at home which, even though all the family slept there, Ranulf's mother had always managed to keep clean and sweet-smelling. He was suddenly almost glad, despite his weariness, that they'd not had chance to sleep there. Rob looked warily out of the window, then closed the shutters securely and fetched a stump of candle out of his pocket. "You light that," he said to Ranulf, passing him the candle and his tinderbox. "I'll keep watch on the door." The younger boy watched Ranulf, his huge brown eyes never leaving Ranulf's hands until the candle was lit, and then he stole a glance over his shoulder at Rob, whose attention was completely focussed on the door.
"Are we going to die?" he whispered.
Ranulf made sure that the candle flame was burning steadily, then shook his head. "I don't think so," he whispered back. "If they were going to do us any harm, they've had plenty of chances already. And," he tried to sound more confident than he felt to reassure the boy, "I think I trust Rob. Even if his horse doesn't seem particularly impressed with him. I can't speak for that man Crowe, but he doesn't seem to have hurt you too much."
The other boy looked at him in disbelief, then shook his head, glancing quickly once more at Rob and back again. "Not them," he muttered. "The things Crowe fought with. They're still after us, he says."
"What kind of things?" Ranulf asked. "And what's your name?" Even in these distressing circumstances, his old habit of questioning seemed impossible to repress. "I'm Ranulf. Call me Ran," he added with as friendly a smile as he could muster, trying to reassure the boy.
The boy smiled a little warily. "And I'm Giles. The things?" He shuddered. "Like men, but not. Almost as fast on their feet as a horse. Savage, and foul. Crowe said that they were demons, and I laughed, but..." His face paled under its coating of grime. "That was before they caught up with us. Now, I think he may have said truly."
He might have said more, and Ranulf certainly would have questioned him further, but the door opened, and Ranulf blinked as he saw Rob's sword leap into his hand, seemingly without his having reached for it.
Crowe slid round the barely opened door, and looked around the room. "Call that fire?" he said witheringly as he caught sight of Ranulf's candle. "Still, it'll have to do. Rob, guard the door while I do the work. You boys, stand away from me." He bore in his hands a small flask and a leather pouch. He set the flask down, then, making a nick in the bottom of the pouch with his knife, he started to draw a complex geometric pattern on the floor with the granular whitish powder that trickled out of it, muttering words that even though Ranulf strained his ears he couldn't catch.
Taking the candle from Ranulf, Crowe set it in the middle of the pattern. He turned to the boys. "Baptised?" he snapped. They nodded dumbly. "Always harder to get your kind through," he sighed. "Well, then, pray. If you must have a god, you may as well call on his favour." He took the flask, and began to trickle a thin stream of wine across the pattern, his words turning into a singsong chant that, though it was louder, was no more comprehensible to Ranulf than his muttering had been.
"Now, the hard part," Crowe said. "When the gate's opened, you walk through. You," he pointed to Ranulf, "you hold on to me, and don't let go. Giles, hold on to him. I'm sure that Rob can take care of himself," he added nastily, "but if you don't object to such as him touching you, give him your other hand, Giles. Keep your mind on the walking, all of you. Pay no attention to what you see or hear. Stray from the path, and you're lost. Nobody will come looking for you, remember that."
He took his knife from his belt, held out his left hand, and slashed viciously across the palm. The blood fell in a swift stream from his hand, and he leaned over the pattern of wine and salt, letting his blood describe a circle about a yard in diameter around the candle. Where the blood met the salt and wine, small blue flames sprang up, until the candle was obscured by a column of fire. He spoke one more incantation, and the fire vanished immediately, leaving behind a shimmering in the air.
Crowe grabbed hold of Ranulf's hand. "Take hold of Giles. And you, Rob; there's no time to be lost." Ranulf reached for Giles' hand, which lay cold and sweaty within his, then Rob sprang from the door and took Giles' other hand. Crowe stepped within the shimmer, pulling Ranulf behind him, and suddenly the room vanished from Ranulf's sight, to be replaced by an icy almost-darkness that pressed and quivered and pulsed around him unpleasantly. All that he could be sure of was that both his hands were held tightly, and that he wished he could be anywhere other than this.
Three figures stood in the room that had been vacated only a few minutes before. One, the innkeeper, wrung his hands nervously as he glanced from the two others to the spilled salt, wine and blood on the floor, and then back again.
"I swear to you, masters, they were here. The window is shuttered, and they can't have come down the stairs again, or I'd have seen them!"
One of the others bent, stretching a pale, slender hand down to the floor, and cautiously picked up some of the salt. Raising it to his hooded face, he sniffed, then flung the salt from him and spat, wiping his hand on his robe.
"Oh, Hodge, Hodge," the other said to the innkeeper in a mournful voice. "You have failed us. Such a little task, and yet you could not accomplish it. A minute more and they would have been ours. Alas, Hodge, you gave them wine and salt, did you not?"
"I will return the gold," Hodge quavered, his pouchy face greying. "I did not know..."
"The gold is unimportant," the hooded figure said softly. "No matter." He reached for the innkeeper's hand, and chuckled as glittering black barbs burst out through every inch of Hodge's flesh.
They ate perfunctorily of Hodge's soul. Stained as it was, it gave them scant satisfaction, particularly given how well they had feasted recently: the farmer and his wife, the weaver and her two children, whose essences had made them a most satisfying repast, fuelling them for the pursuit of their quarry. At the end of their meal they nodded to each other, then thinned to the merest wisps of black vapour and vanished.