Bee grabbed our coats. I dashed to the stairs and ran down to the glass-roofed central courtyard, Bee behind me. “Cat! Stop!”
“I can’t! It’s like I’m being dragged by the throat.” I wasn’t frightened, just numb. Something horrible was about to happen, and I wouldn’t be able to stop it.
In the courtyard, benches ringed the outermost paving stones of the labyrinth walk. Four fountains anchored the four compass points, each surmounted by one of the beasts who symbolized the four quarters of the year: the bull, the saber-toothed cat, the horse, and the serpent.
“There she is!” Lord Marius’s battle-honed tenor filled the space as he and his soldiers appeared in the arch that led to the entry hall. “Catherine Barahal! Beatrice Barahal! Surrender yourselves. You are under arrest at the order of the prince of Tarrant and the senate of Rome.”
I sprinted for the nearest bench as soldiers ran after us, some circling wide in order to cut off all roads of escape. Patches of snow like lichen mottled the roof. The sky was dark with fresh storm clouds, flaking a lazy trickle of snow.
Lord Marius shouted, “We won’t harm you. I give you my word. It’s for your own good.”
“So reassuring!” yelled Bee from behind me.
A crow landed on the glass roof, and beside it five and then ten more. The din they made caused men to look up. A crack shattered the roof. Shards sprayed; men ducked and retreated. I leaped a stone bench and found my feet on the beginning stone of the labyrinth walk: This was not a maze but a winding walkway built to hone meditation and to help minds focus. When my cane touched the stone, the path blazed with the breath of the ice. My cane flowered into cold steel.
“Halt!” A soldier overtook me.
I thrust. Surprised, he parried, but it was clear he was hesitant to press for fear of hurting me. I drove him back ruthlessly. He slammed into the bench, tripped, and hit his head. Lay still. I whispered a prayer to Blessed Tanit: Let me not have killed him.
More converged on me, too many to fight off. I raced inward on the labyrinth walk, my boots crackling on broken glass from the roof. The soldiers followed like wolves in pursuit, both they and I forced to stay on the path now that a glamour pulsed through it.
A crow flew past so close I ducked. Black wings filled the air. Their caws deafened me. The roof cracked again, more glass showering down. On the blast of frigid air, yet more crows poured through the shattered roof to mob the soldiers. The courtyard became a smear of darkness, men flailing with swords and cursing, crows tearing with beaks and swiping with talons. Many voices clamored as the mobbing crows drove the soldiers back, but only one word had hooked me: Now.
“Bee! Don’t follow me!” Slipping on shards, I cursed, trying to turn to go back, but my body lunged forward.
“Never! I’ll never abandon you!”
As the path spiraled in toward the grated well, my sword grew so bright and cold I thought its touch would sear my palm. If I let go, I might break free, but I could not uncurl my fingers.
“You can’t escape!” Lord Marius’s voice sounded as far away as the distant explosion of musket fire. Or were those the cracks of illegal rifles?
“The war begin.” So the Amazon had said. Had Camjiata’s agents set the prison hulk on fire? Had he coordinated his arrival in Adurnam with the Northgate poet’s hunger strike? Who had smuggled rifles into the city? Was it all just a coincidence?
What had the headmaster meant? That explains her.
I staggered to a halt beside the ornamental trellis. The grated opening of the well yawned at the toes of my boots, a round, stone-lined pit like a mouth waiting to swallow me. In ancient days, so the story went, the Adurni Celts had cast living sacrifices into this well. The iron grate that covered the maw had hinges and a lock, but the lock was missing. Shaking, I heaved open the heavy iron bars.
O Goddess, protect me, for I am your faithful daughter.
The hand of summer reached up from the well to choke me. It was fetid and rotting, and I could no more resist it than I could resist breathing. On that breeze I heard the exhalations of the dying and tasted the power of the blood that had sanctified the ground centuries ago.
“I won’t go,” I whispered. “You can’t make me go.”
Instinct—or Barahal training—tugged my head around. A huge crow plummeted down. That cursed crow had been following us for days. It beat the air before my face, and for an instant we stared, eye to eye. It had the same intelligence I did: thinking, planning, doing.
I shrieked as it stabbed at me with its bill. I connected my sword’s hilt to its body, felt bones give way and crunch. Another crow was on me, stabbing as I wildly swung blade and arm, and then a third and a fourth. I twisted, dropping to one knee, and still they came.