Reluctantly, since it was the first time I’d been warm all day, I stepped off the causeway and waved to the boys. They came at once, pausing as I’d told them after every seventh step. It gave me time to step back up to the door.
“After you,” I said politely.
Stack pushed the door open easily enough. He definitely hesitated as he stepped inside, but there was no problem. There was plenty of light coming in through the breaks in the high windows; we could see for sure that nothing at all was stirring inside.
Until the bang.
And a huge skeleton. Standing suddenly in the very middle of the room.
Hawk and Stack ran – leapt, rather – out behind me. Whisper froze solid.
I froze too. Not from courage. Pure fear.
But the skeleton didn’t move; it just stood there, staring at me.
Stack and Hawk grabbed at me, pulling me away.
“No!” I shouted. Well, it was meant to be a shout. It came out as a sort of strangled croak. “Wait!” And I gripped their arms, pulling them back inside.
It wasn’t a human skeleton. It stood on four legs, its head bent towards me as if it was about to charge. And what a head!
But the skeleton did not move.
This basic fact slowly worked its way into my brain. It didn’t move. It wasn’t alive, or magically undead. It was a skeleton, a real skeleton, and skeletons don’t move.
My limbs slowly began to loosen. I started to croon the Song Of Acceptance, and lifted my hand. I stepped towards it. I walked up to it. I strolled all round it. I patted it on the rump.
“Nothing to be afraid of!” I called. Whisper who – to his credit – had walked with me, unwrapped himself from my skirts and reached out to the bony leg, patted it once, and snatched his hand away again.
“B-b-b-but how?” he stuttered.
“Good!” I answered. “Shamans ask questions!”
As a matter of fact, once you started to look you could begin to guess. For a start, the floor was not earth; it was split planks. By the door earth had been pounded in on top of the planks to hide them, but round the skeleton there was no earth, just bare planks. In fact, the skeleton stood on an oblong of very bare planks, much longer than the skeleton itself. And finally, if you stood on the far end of the oblong, it felt soft.
“What was here when we came in?” I asked aloud.
“A pile of wood,” answered Stack. “I hadn’t got round to looking properly.”
A long speech for Stack. He must be really flustered.
“We none of us had,” I said. There is a time and a place for demolishing boys’ self-esteem, but the presence of unknown enemies is not one of them. Life’s pleasures do sometimes have to be sacrificed to the long term advantage.
“Do you know how it was done?” asked Hawk. “It must be very strong magic, surely. I’ve never seen a shaman do anything even close.”
“In detail, no, I don’t,” I said, twitching. “But in principle, yes: it came up through the floor.”
“Through the floor?” Oh come on, Hawk; it’s not that difficult a concept to grasp, even for a Chief.
“We might get more clues from the other stuff here.” I waved a casual hand around the building. It didn’t look very hopeful, though. There were piles of rocks here, piles of hides there, some clusters of jars, all sorts of junk, but also, tucked away behind a heap of bark,
Stack’s voice was almost triumphant. Not an easy thing to imagine with Stack.
It was a cauldron, though. Rather wider and definitely deeper than the ones our old Tribe used, but who cares? The real issues were: Was it bought from Bulken or somewhere, or had it been made here? And: Dared we simply walk off with it?
The answer to the second was a definite no. Anyone capable of materialising a huge skeleton was not to be trifled with. As for the first, curiously it was Whisper who found the answer.
“Oww! That’s hot!”
He was over by the fireplace at the far end of the room, wringing his hand.
I went over to make sure it wasn’t too bad a burn, but he was more interested in pointing out what he’d found: a kiln. The whole fireplace had been converted into a permanent kiln; inside it was stacked with pots, cups, plates, and all sorts of shapes and sizes of jar. No cauldron, but there were jars not far off the size of a cauldron. And everything was hot, but the fire was out, so they had just been fired. Yes, the cauldron had been made here – or at least, it could have been made here.
“We need to meet the Wizkid,” I declared. “Come on!”
Obviously it was the right thing to do, but I admit I was curious about just what sort of a Wizkid we were going to meet. Singers’ tales often told of powerful Sorcerers ten feet tall and dressed in mystic robes, in strange colours and shifting patterns, and with long white beards and glowing eyes and wands that could shoot fire. They tended to be baddies. They also tended to be defeated by the hero using a trick that a four-year-old could see through – but then, those were stories. And the children at Dae’s Farm hadn’t seemed scared of him – distasted, yes, but not scared. Was he really powerful? Was he a fake? Was he a shaman?
Was he sexy?
Anyway, concentrating on my footing, the causeway led out across the water to the tower, and then instead of going straight in, turned down a flight of slimy stone steps – as if the tower wasn’t high enough already! – the tower to our right, and a black wall to our left. It stank. Then, just as the steps stopped, we found a doorway set in the base of the tower, facing away from the land. The wall was high and black behind us and to our left, the steps were steep and black to our right, the tower was high and black above us, almost overhanging – it was all a bit scary, in fact, though I was very careful not to show it. The doorway was black as well, edged with black stone and with a black wooden door set back in it.
There were faces carved in the door.
Not nice faces.
And there was no handle. Or hinges.
Just this black wooden door, with all those faces, and one bare patch, at eye level, marked and dimpled as though it had been hit over and over again with a stone.
And just by the door, in a niche in the tower wall, there was a large, loose stone.
It was not difficult to work out what to do next.
“After you,” I said to Stack.
He gulped, looked round at Hawk and me, and picked up the stone.
“Go on,” I said encouragingly. He didn’t seem very encouraged.
He faced the door, hefted the stone in his hand for a moment, and went to hit the blank patch. As he did, the entire door suddenly moved back away from him. Only a few handbreadths, but enough to put him right off balance. He half fell against the now once again solid door, and leapt back.
“Wow!” exclaimed Hawk. He too appeared to be impressed.
I, on the other hand, did not laugh. It was an almost superhuman effort of self-control, but I did not laugh.
Stack prodded and pushed at the door. Nothing happened. He lifted the stone to hit it – and it moved back another couple of feet into the darkness.
He would have leaped after it, but I grabbed his arm. “Wait!” I exclaimed.
I wasn’t being scared – at least, I wasn’t just being scared. The door, moving back, had shown a wooden floor – not a stone floor, a wooden floor. Like the one in the other building, that the skeleton had come up through. OK, my head didn’t work the details out at the time, but my instincts said danger, and I wasn’t going to contradict them.
“Whisper, stand well back!” I ordered. “Stack, Hawk, hold on to my arms.” Then I stepped forward. The floor tilted down – I’d’ve slipped to my doom if Stack and Hawk hadn’t held me. Instead, I stood back on solid stone.
And rather proud of myself.
This was silly, though. We could spend a moon here, finding the way in, avoiding the traps. Time for the obvious alternative.
“Zaradzagus!” I called. “O Great Wizard Zaradzagus! We humbly request to meet your greatness face to face!”
We stared at the door, but nothing happened. Then Whisper tugged at my arm, and pointed right. Part of the wall wasn’t there any more.
It was another set of steps, this time climbing upwards, but very irregularly – like climbing over a heap of fallen stone. Which is what I suspected it was. Again, we didn’t seem to be going actually inside the tower, rather, we were clambering above the steps we’d come down, or so it seemed. We soon twisted round a couple of times and came out into fresh air, twice man height above the water, and almost directly above the causeway. Here we came apparently to the blank wall of the tower, but we knew better by now; we pushed, and a stone door opened, just as it had on the first building.
“Come in and welcome!” said a voice inside. And soon we were standing in the presence of the Great Wizard Zaradzagus.