Talking to the dead – On bondage – On bravery in the chicken run
Damian looked at the slim figure lying in the mud. Esme had fallen gracefully to her side, her arms stretched out as if trying to hug someone. In the monochrome light, she looked like a statue of a sleeping girl, a statue of the kind that you find on graveyards , hewn in marble.
‘Did you just kill your own sister?’ he asked the man opposite him. He had never seen him face to face, but he was familiar with portraits of Alarich Senior, and the family likeness was striking.
The sorcerer waved his hands dismissively. ‘She is not dead yet, but she will be, soon. Let’s not waste any more time on her. This is a fight between you and me, and the sooner you understand that you are losing, the better for you.’
Damian had not expected this level of crudeness from the sorcerer. His contact had described Alarich as an urbane man of considerable magnetism, someone who had all the charisma of an artist who enjoys being surrounded by a public that is waiting to be charmed. But here he saw a man who was ruthless and cruel, without any refining or endearing traits to his personality. How could Alarich have deceived everybody else so consistently?
The flickering flames of the gas jets cast deep shadows on Alarich’s face, emphasizing the deep lines that were engraved on his brow and on his hollow cheeks. This was the face of a man who was carrying a heavy burden, and who had hardened under it. His eyes were wide-set, with a hardly noticeable outward squint. In combination with his gaunt features, this made him look a little mad and quite dangerous.
‘Get out of the way, Alarich,’ Damian said. ‘Let’s hope that we can rescue your sister before my secret police arrive and deal with you. They have strict orders to kill murderers on the loose as soon as they catch sight of them.’
Alarich’s laughter was low and mirthless. ‘What, and deprive you of your traditional ceremony? Aren’t you going to do to me what your father did to my father, as your only means of retaining authority in your mismanaged kingdom?’ He raised his head and untied the silken shawl he was wearing. A thin red line was running around his throat.
He’s cracked up, Damian thought. The trauma of what happened to his father had turned into an obsession for Alarich, and his idea of revenge by some sort of reversed re-enactment seemed to have taken on a life of its own. Had this man harmed himself to produce this ominous red line on his skin? Damian looked closer. No, this was not a scar, just a tight necklace of small red beads around Alaric’s neck.
A slight movement from the ground caught Damian’s attention. Esme’s hand, the hand that was clutching the bird, was twitching. He would have to act quickly now. Alarich was still standing there with his exposed neck, looking at him sardonically. Damian decided to adopt Esme’s fighting method and barged forward, head first.
The groan that followed his impact on Alarich’s stomach was sweet to his ears. He had thrown the man, and now had to struggle to retain his equilibrium in order not to tumble down after him. It was only then that he looked at the ground, and he froze when he recognized the runes, and the circle, that had been drawn there. He had fallen into the trap that Alarich had set for him. Caught in a magic circle, he would be totally at Alarich’s mercy, and nobody else would be able to get at him. In the hope that the circle might not be active, he tried to step back, but his feet would not move.
‘It’s a pity that your secret police cannot help you now,’ Alarich said. He was standing next to him, apparently unharmed and very calm. ‘I have a special guest room in my house, and I’m sure that you’ll be very comfortable there. To remind you of what I do to my enemies, I’ll also give you Esme for company. After some time as my guest, I’m sure you’ll be happy to cooperate with us to bring about the change of rulership in Carmodia. In fact, I’m confident that you’ll desire to abdicate voluntarily.’
He waved his hand, and Damian felt himself whirled in the air as if by a tornado. His cape swirled around his body, then it was yanked over his head. With a crackling noise, it wrapped itself around him once more, and it was pressed tightly against him by cords that bound his hands and feet together behind his back.
He found himself lying on his side, on the counterpane of a king-size bed in a dimly lit room with no windows. A few logs were crackling in a huge fireplace, and this provided the only source of light. In the far corner of the room, he could make out a closed door. He was a captive, the second time on the same day. There was something comforting about this thought: He had been trussed up by his foes before, and he had managed to escape, so he might be able to do it again. But then he remembered that he had not been able to get out of his shackles on his own. If it hadn’t been for Esme, he might still be lying in the strawberry storage room now.
Esme! His mind had refused to think about her, because the thing that had happened to her was too terrible to contemplate. The fact that he had not been able to help her did not fit into his mind. It couldn’t be too late yet. There had to be something he could do. Maybe he’d find a means of escape on the other side of the room. He pushed his hands and heels carefully against the mattress, to avoid tightening the ropes, and turned around.
He was not alone on the bed. Lying next to him, with her arms still stretched out, the limp bird still in her hand, was the body of Esme. She was too far away for him to touch, so he tried to wriggle towards her. Immediately, a sharp pain went through him as his shoulders were yanked backwards. Apparently, his ropes were anchored in the bed, and the only thing he could do without hurting himself was turning from one side to the other.
Her face looked much too peaceful for his liking. How could she be dead? She had been lively and resourceful, and she had done so many things for him in the short time he had known her, both good and bad things. She had been a poet, a boy, a girl, a rescuer, a helping hand, an accomplice, and a wrecker of royal possessions. It was inconceivable that she should be nothing more than a still body now.