Angel of Storms Excerpt
When Betzi had gone to bed before anyone else, claiming to have a headache, Rielle knew she was up to something. Something very dangerous. Something Rielle doubted she’d talk her friend out of.
So she said nothing. Before retiring she slipped into the studio and took two of the weaving combs, hanging them on the old tapestry that served for a door to the room they shared. When the jangle of metal against metal woke her, followed by Betzi’s curse, she quickly sat up.
“You don’t really think I’m going to let you go out there alone,” she murmured.
Betzi turned, her skirts rustling. And I was right about that, too, Rielle thought. She went to bed in her clothes so the sound of her dressing wouldn’t wake me.
“You can’t stop me going,” Betzi replied, removing the combs.
“Betzi, it’s too dangerous for . . .”
But the girl ignored her, slipping past the tapestry. Rising, Rielle went in pursuit. The faint light of early dawn, penetrating through the seams around the window shutters, sliced the dusty air. The younger woman paused at the top of the ladder to the next floor as she saw that Rielle had followed.
“Why are you dressed?”
“Because I am not going to let you go out there alone.”
The girl’s scowl disappeared. “You’re coming with me?”
“As you said, I can’t stop you going.”
The frown reappeared. “Master Grasch told you to, didn’t he?”
“He may be blind, but he’s not stupid.”
Betzi shrugged, then started down. Her shoes made no noise – because they were slung by their laces over her shoulder. Rielle hadn’t thought of that. Sleeping in her boots had been very uncomfortable.
She followed Betzi down to the living room. The weavers’ workshop contained three floors: the main work space on the same level as the street, the living room above it and the sleeping quarters at the top. “Living room” was an apt description as it was where everything other than sleeping and working was done. Privacy and space were scarce resources in Schpetan homes. Only the front door to the house and the toilet door were solid, everything else was a tapestry or hanging – those above the workshop were almost too faded for anyone to make out the original image.
They sat on a bench next to the stove while the younger woman bound on her boots. Not for the first time Rielle envied her friend’s dainty feet. Betzi was closer to the idealised Schpetan woman than the typical one. Short and shapely with small hands and feet and a pale, heart-shaped face surrounded by a mass of blonde curls, she attracted admirers everywhere. Next to her, Rielle felt big, lanky and dark, whereas among her own people she had been merely “plain”, though Izare had thought her “pleasing” and “interesting”.
Izare. She hadn’t thought about her former love in a long time. The heartache she’d once felt at their terrible parting had faded, and the guilt at what she had put him through had dulled, though it still stung her sometimes, lying awake at night and thinking about the past.
After five years, I expect he thinks of me as little as I do of him – and no doubt would prefer not to at all.
She occasionally wondered what he was doing now. Did he still live in Fyre? Did he still paint for a living, or had she ruined his reputation by association? A lot can change in five years. He could be married and have the children he craved. I hope so. I may not pine for him any more, but I don’t wish him to be unhappy either.
Betzi rose and headed for the small room between the living room and weaving studio where Master Grasch met with visitors. Reaching behind one of the small sample tapestries, she drew out a small bundle tied with a string and secured it to her waistband. She moved to the main door and carefully slid aside the heavy bar across the back. Without a pause to consider what she was venturing out into, or to check if the street was empty, she stepped outside. Rielle followed, and was relieved to find no other people about. Taking the chain attached to the end of the bar, she threaded it through a hole beside the door frame and pulled it when the door was closed, dragging the bar back into place.
It was impossible to do this quietly, and Betzi hissed at the noise.
“We can’t leave them unprotected,” Rielle pointed out.
“I know, Rel, but can’t you do it silently?”
“If you thought that was possible you should have done it yourself,” Rielle retorted. She fed the chain back through the hole. It clattered against the inside of the wall. Somewhere inside, a baby began to cry. Betzi grabbed her arm and pulled her away, across the road and into the shadows of a side street. She paused to make sure they were alone, then let go of Rielle and set off.
Her stride was full of confidence. If Rielle had not known better she’d have assumed it was the naïve arrogance of a spoiled and pretty young woman who got what she wanted too easily. That was certainly how she had regarded Betzi at first. The boldness was not an indication of weakness and ignorance, however, but of strength and determination. Betzi’s short life had been a difficult one, but every setback had only made her want to seize every moment of happiness she could.
Even if that meant venturing out into the streets of a desperate city too long under siege.
“Come on, Rel,” Betzi said, lengthening her stride. “We won’t be allowed near the wall if fighting starts again.”
Turning away, Rielle hitched her skirts high enough that she could lengthen her stride and catch up with her friend. Betzi’s eyebrows rose but she said nothing, since nobody else was around to see. The younger woman had the advantage, having grown up wearing the many layers of clothing the Schpetans considered decent attire. Rielle had never been able to move as quickly in them as the local women did. She had more easily adopted the local habit of leaving hair uncovered in public, since she’d always resented having to wear a scarf, though it meant her dark, straight hair marked her as a foreigner.
They both checked their stride as a soldier turned into the street. He walked with a limp and a sway, and did not look up as he approached. Drunk, perhaps? There wasn’t supposed to be any liquor left in the city. Had someone’s hidden stash of provisions been discovered?
As he passed she heard his breath catch each time he put his weight on his right leg. Looking back at him, she saw a glistening, dark patch on the back of his trousers.
“He’s wounded,” she whispered.
“He’s walking,” Betzi replied.
They exchanged a grim look, then hurried on.
Stories of ill-treatment of the citizens had begun not long after the king and his army had arrived. Doum had been crowded with soldiers in the beginning. As the siege wore on, boredom and starvation set in, and the familiar maze of streets had slowly become a different kind of battlefield. Lack of food made thieves of desperate people. Men hardened by battle and fearful they were reaching the end of their lives sought any last pleasure available.
It was safest to stay indoors. Fortunately, the older weavers still recalled tales of how their grandmothers had survived the previous siege by growing food on the roof. They’d sent the younger weavers up with the tops of root vegetables and handfuls of precious seeds.
Most of us thought the siege wouldn’t last long enough for anything to grow, she remembered. We did it to placate them. Lucky we did.
The siege had lasted over three halfseasons so far – or foursets in the local way of counting days. Fifty days. The desperate little crops growing in pots and cracks were the only food they had left other than the small animals, normally considered vermin, the children caught.
Most of the weavers tolerated being locked way. Being of a restless temperament, Betzi had begun slipping outside. It started after a few of the army captains, seeking to ease the boredom during a long stretch of no fighting, came to see the creators of the famous tapestries of Doum. She told Rielle later that the moment her eyes had met Captain Kolz’s she had fallen in love with him – and he with her.
Having seen the two together, Rielle had no reason to doubt their affection was real. And having once been similarly consumed by passion, she understood why Betzi took such risks to see him.
At least she has a friend to protect her.
They were nearing the wall now, and Betzi’s pace quickened. Rounding a corner, they entered a street blocked by a knot of three soldiers. Unlike the wounded soldier they’d passed, the men immediately noticed them. Seeing Betzi first, most straightened a little, but when their gazes shifted to Rielle they frowned. She was used to scowls from people here. She understood that these were not of hostility most of the time, but puzzlement. They did not know what to make of her. She was not local, yet she was clearly not from any land Schpetans knew of or hated. Which had been the point of her coming to a land so far from her own, to begin a new life where none knew of the crimes she had committed.
The civil war had not been part of the plan.
Betzi had paused, but now she started towards them. “Do any of you brave men know where Captain Kolz is?”
They exchanged glances. “Nope,” one replied.
“Not seen him,” another said, turning to face her.
“I think he’s dead,” the third added.
“He’s not dead.” Betzi’s chin rose. “I would know if he was.”
The men looked amused. “Oh? How so?”
She crossed her arms. “I would just know. Would one of you please escort us to him? I have something of great importance to give him.”
Rielle groaned silently.
“What would that be?” the shortest of the men asked, tucking his thumbs in his hip pockets and sauntering towards her.
“That is for him to know, not you.”
Oh, Betzi, Rielle thought as she reached out towards the girl’s arm. You rely too much on Kolz’s name to get you out of trouble. Not every soldier liked the captain, who had grown more inclined to punish their attacks on citizens since he’d met Betzi.
“Let’s go,” she whispered.
Betzi took a step back as the short man neared. “Well, if you won’t . . .”
He darted forward and grabbed the arms that she lifted instinctively to ward him off. “What little gift have you brought for the handsome captain?” he asked. Seeing the bundle tied to her waistband, he let go of a wrist and grabbed it. “Is it this?” The cloth covering tore as he tried to yank it off her waistband, and out spilled the scarf Rielle had watched Betzi make – hours of spinning fleece stolen from her own pillow then deftly looping it into a cloth with a bone needle using a technique Rielle had never got the hang of.
“Give that back!” Betzi demanded as he gathered up the scarf.
As she made a grab for it Rielle caught her waistband.
“Let him have it,” Rielle advised. “You can make another from my pillow,” she added as the other soldiers moved close.
Betzi ignored her. “Captain Kolz will not be happy when he learns – ow, Rel!” Yet she didn’t fight as Rielle pulled her backwards. The short man had let her go in order to inspect the scarf, and to Rielle’s relief Betzi took the opportunity to reverse their path. Her expression shifted from defiant and angry to fearful as she faced Rielle. Then her eyes widened and they were both jolted to a halt. Rielle looked beyond to see that the man’s hand was still wrapped around the string secured to Betzi’s waistband.
And the other soldiers were striding forward to surround them.
“Rielle!” Betzi gasped as she tried to slap away the short man’s hands. “This is one of those times!”
Rielle’s stomach turned over. Betzi was right. If the threat of being reported to the captain didn’t worry them, then either Kolz was dead, and the men answered to someone more powerful, or they intended to ensure no report could ever be made.
“Angels forgive me,” she whispered. Hooking an arm around Betzi’s, she turned to face the closest of the two men now reaching for her. Drawing a little magic, she grabbed his hand and thought heat!, hoping that she could still remember the trick her friend had taught her.
He recoiled, yelping in pain. As she turned to the second man a curse came from behind her. Betzi suddenly dragged Rielle forward, towards where the men had originally been standing. Trusting her friend knew what she was doing, Rielle twisted around and ran with her.
No footsteps followed behind them. As they reached the end of the street Rielle turned to see the trio standing together, glowering. Her senses caught two glimmers of Stain, the darkness where she or Betzi had removed magic from the world.
Magic that belonged to the Angels. Rielle shivered. Here, in Schpeta, it was believed that the Angels did not mind if magic was used in circumstances of extremity, to defend one’s life. The Angel she had met at the Mountain Temple had said as much to Rielle, before sending her across the world to begin a new life: “I give you permission to, if your life is in danger and you have no other choice.”
The words had echoed in her mind many times since the siege had started.
We can’t be certain they intended to kill us, Rielle worried. But I’m not going to wait until the moment a blade slices my throat to be sure. Too many other women had been found abused and dead on the streets of Doum for her to take the chance. Besides, if the Angels are as unforgiving as the priests of my homeland believe, my soul is already doomed. I’m not exactly in a hurry to find out who is right.
They emerged into the wider road that separated the town’s houses from its wall. The younger girl paused, arm still linked with Rielle’s, and steered them towards a stone staircase leading up to the battlements. The remaining soldiers of the king’s army fit enough to fight either stood along the top of the wall or rested below playing games, talking and attending to weapons, armour or injuries. Their ranks had thinned since Rielle had last come here, and nearly all wore some kind of bandage.
They look tired, she observed. Frightened. Angry. Or all three.
Betzi stopped abruptly. “There he is,” she said in a hushed tone. “Captain Kolz!”
Following Betzi’s gaze, Rielle saw a tired-looking young man leaning on the crenulated rail of a tower further along the city wall. Her friend pulled Rielle into a near-run, hurrying to meet her lover. Something in her hand whipped back and forth. Rielle laughed as she saw it was the scarf: Betzi had rescued it as well as herself.
The captain glanced down at the street and Rielle was not surprised that his attention moved to them, standing out because they were the only people moving with any energy. The smile that lit his face made her heart lift, then sink a little. It was possible the attraction between him and Betzi would not last once the present grim circumstances ended – if they survived them – but she could not help feeling sure that she would eventually lose her only friend to him.
Betzi let go of Rielle’s arm and dashed into the tower, nimbly climbing the stairs within. Following more sedately, by the time Rielle reached the top she found her friend and the captain completely absorbed in each other, with several amused soldiers pretending not to notice. The scarf was around his neck already, she noted.
“. . . said you were dead! I did not believe them,” Betzi said.
She grinned as Rielle joined them. “We—”
Her words were drowned out by a loud horn blast, which was repeated up and down the wall. Answering peals came from outside the city, followed by a sound she had only heard during festivals – the roar of many, many people shouting. The captain’s smile vanished and he and the other fighters hurried to the outer edge of the wall to peer carefully through the gaps of the crenulations.
“They’re attacking.” He looked back at them. “Go home.”
But Betzi drew closer, keeping away from the openings. Rielle followed suit.
“I am safer here than on the streets during the fighting,” Betzi told him, her voice uncharacteristically serious.
Kolz considered this quickly. “Then go below, into the tower, and stay there until I can escort you home.”
She nodded, then beckoned to Rielle and hurried to the stairs. As they began to descend, a whistling in the air not far above made them duck. They dove into the stairwell, then stopped to look up. Several dark lines flashed overhead. Cries came from the street below, muffled by the tower walls.
But they were soon drowned out by the roar of the approaching army. Soldiers jostled past as Rielle and Betzi hurried down the stairs. They each squeezed into a corner of the topmost room. A single archer remained on the same level, moving from narrow window to window, bow notched and ready.
Outside, the roar of the attackers joined with the shouts of the besieged, then fragmented into bellows and screams, the blare of horns and the clang and thump of weapons as the enemy reached the wall. The archer loosed arrow after arrow, then when his supply ran out he hurried away, leaving them alone. Betzi turned to Rielle, eyes wide. Looking back, Rielle realised she had been frozen with terror. Now, as her friend moved to peer out of the window facing the battle, her limbs unlocked. Heart hammering, she approached the window from the other side.
“Don’t get yourself shot,” she told Betzi, even as she snuck a look outside.
Rielle peered through. A familiar view lay beyond. Jagged rocky peaks emerged behind domed hills. The first time she had seen the landscape she’d thought it looked like black teeth set into green gums – and indeed the Schpetan name for the peaks meant “Angel’s teeth”.
The hills weren’t so green now that most of the fields had been trampled into mud or harvested to feed the Usurper’s fighters. The enemy encampment lay several hundred paces away. Between it and the city wall were several straight ridges that had not been there before.
Extending her senses, she was relieved to find no Stain. Though the civil war had been brutal and unforgiving, neither the king nor the Usurper had risked the Angels’ wrath by ordering the use of magic. Everyone had speculated on whether one or the other side would stoop that low at some point, but she doubted they would. Only priests had the freedom to grow proficient at magic, and she doubted the king or Usurper would find any willing to use it for warfare.
Another horn blast came from somewhere beyond the wall, but this was a different sound than before. The noise outside the tower lessened for a moment, then the tone of it changed. A call went up, which was repeated over and over, close to the tower and in the distance. Soldiers rushed up and down the stairs, forcing Rielle and Betzi to return to the corners again.
“They’re retreating,” someone bellowed atop the tower. Rielle recognised Kolz’s voice. Betzi’s worried expression vanished.
“Is it a trick?” a fainter voice called from somewhere in the street below.
“Might be. Did any survive the breach?”
Returning to the window, Betzi and Rielle watched the Usurper’s forces withdraw, the soldiers disappearing over the ridges before marching into sight again beyond them. One of the peaked structures of the enemy encampment abruptly collapsed, then another.
“Are they packing up?” Rielle wondered.
“Who is that, walking up the road?” Betzi asked.
Rielle squinted, searching for the people Betzi had seen.
“Three men, one with a gold-coloured coat, two in strange clothing. Foreigners, maybe.”
“Your eyes are much better than mine,” Rielle said. “Perhaps if they come near . . .” Her breath caught in her throat as she saw the trio.
“The one wearing gold might be the Usurper,” she heard Betzi say. “The others . . .”
Rielle opened her mouth, but could not find the air to speak.
“. . . they look a little like priests,” Betzi continued. “Didn’t you say they wear dark blue in the north? Rel?”
Rielle’s lungs began to protest. As her throat unclenched, air rushed in.
“What’s wrong, Rel?”
Rielle shook her head, but she could not take her eyes from the trio approaching the city. Hope and fear tumbled over one another in her heart. If this is . . . if they are . . .
“. . . escort these two women from the battlements to their home,” a voice said at the entrance of the stairway above.
“But Captain—” Betzi began.
“Go home, Bet,” Kolz said. “Lock the door. I will send news to you, when we know what the situation is.”
A hand grasped Rielle’s arm and pulled her away from the window. A memory she kept well bound to the past broke free and she felt an echo of terror and a vision of a desperate man, his hand brandishing a knife. She closed her eyes, gathered the memory up and locked it away again. When she opened them again it was Betzi’s face she saw.
“Come on, Rel.” Betzi linked her arm in Rielle’s and guided her down the stairs. The tower now reminded Rielle of another. A mountain prison. A young priest leering. A scarred priest. An Angel, more beautiful than any mortal could hope to be . . .
Bright sunlight made her wince and brought her back to the present. Betzi stopped. The young archer stood a step away, a scowl on his face as he saw Rielle properly for the first time. Taking a deep breath, Rielle pushed away the memories, and the urge to run back to the tower window and confirm that she was mistaken.
Because she had to be, surely.
“Are you all right, Rel?” Betzi asked.
Betzi turned to the archer. “Lead on,” she said brightly, and they set forth into the subdued streets of Doum.