The catastrophe of the e.., p.9

The Catastrophe of the Emerald Queen, страница 9

 

The Catastrophe of the Emerald Queen
 


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  Bue obediently stepped forward and stood in front of everyone.

   “Now, while our young master may be someone who needs a new personality, he currently holds the record for the most accurate with a bow amongst you lot, don’t you master Bue?”

   Bue smiled and bowed slightly before replying. “No, I’m the most accurate anywhere.”

   “Oh we are modest aren’t we?” Leppard replied, feigning shock. He turned to the bow he’d been cleaning when they came in and handed it out to Bue. “Well come then young master. Show our new guest how it’s done.”

   There was suppressed giggling amongst the boys. Jared guessed this was a ritual that they’d done at least a few times before.

   Bue smiled and stepped forward, reaching out for the weapon then theatrically drew his hand away. “But sir, I do declare that you doubt my prowess with a bow” he said, the twinkle in his eye the only thing betraying the mask of seriousness he was attempting to maintain.

   Leppard replied solemnly. “No master Bue I don’t believe you are as accurate as you claim. Would you like to prove yourself before us?”

   “I do indeed sir” Bue replied and with a flourish pulled a red and gold sash from his left breast pocket. “I wager my badge as the best shot against it. If you can beat me sir then you may wear the badge.”

   Leppard smiled and held the bow out to Bue. “Your challenge is accepted. Let us see who is worthy.”

   Bue took the crossbow and hefted it. Leppard picked up another and they moved forward to face the targets.

   Jared watched intently and whispered to the nearest boy to him “what are they going to do?”

   “They’ve got three shots each,” the boy whispered back. “They have to hit all the targets. But not only that they have to do it faster than the other.”

   “If they’re as good as each other how will they know who hit the target first?” Jared queried, puzzled.

   “The targets aren’t for shooting AT, they just catch the arrows,” the boy replied. 

  “Hush boys, silence now,” Leppard said, turning round.

   He took up position next to Bue facing the target on the left. The boys formed a long line to watch what was happening. No one spoke and the only sound was the creak of the strings being cranked back on the bows as both figures began hauling hard on the grips either side of the tough twine. As they locked into position with a loud click they both smoothly placed a bolt into the firing grooves.  

  Jared watched and without warning the light in the room dimmed gradually until it was just a bare glow. He waited puzzled, wondering if the reduced light was some form of handicap to make the task more difficult. Both figures stood rigid, not moving, the bows held at waist height. 

  The sound of breathing was the only thing that could be heard now. 

  The seconds dragged on and suddenly light flashed in two places, very close together at the end of the hall. Jared winced against the sudden flare and from the bright blue radiance two huge creatures emerged. Except they weren’t real. They were made of light. Both appeared to be some type of huge pig with tusks like a warthog and hugely powerful forelegs. They were yellow and then blue and then red, the colours changing as Jared watched transfixed. They were like moving holograms, snorting loudly and stamping their feet. They looked around as if getting their bearings and then focused on Bue and Leppard and snarled loudly, throwing their heads back and roaring. Then they lunged forward, charging at the two figures who stood stock still in front of them. Both Bue and the teacher raised the bows and fired, seemingly simultaneously. The bolts passed through the transparent shapes without slowing and hit with a double thunk into the straw boards behind them. The pigs squealed as the bolts passed through them and suddenly vanished, fading in a second as if nothing was there.

   “Master Bue, I believe you have that one.” The teacher chuckled as he reloaded his bow. 

  “That I do sir.” Bue smiled back, copying the man’s motions.

   When they were reloaded they stood facing the targets again and there was the previous expectant hush. Jared watched fascinated. 

  The lights flashed and this time it was the see through spectres of two armoured soldiers that appeared before them. As the light faded the soldiers glanced down the hall and saw the two bow men. They roared in challenge and screamed in an unintelligible tongue. Neither Bue nor Leppard raised their bows. The holographic warriors shimmered from blue to red and then stayed that colour, the tone brightening until they were both bright crimson. They drew the short swords from their belts and wihout any further hesitation suddenly charged, their feet slapping noisily on the floor as their sandals pounded down.

   Both figures then raised their crossbows and fired but Bue’s was slightly off mark and passed by the shoulder of his opponent before hitting the safety board. Leppard’s went through the running man’s face who stuttered in his steps and then vanished abruptly as the sound of the bolt thudding home echoed round the hall. The ghost soldier continued to charge at Bue who stood facing it, his bow unloaded by his side as the figure raised its sword and brought it down towards Bue’s head. Jared wanted to shout a warning but as the sword flashed down, the same light that had given birth to the man claimed him and he vanished; his scream echoing and then fading away. 

  Bue turned to Leppard. “Good aim sir, a fine shot”

   “You’re too kind young master Bue,” the man replied smiling, “but now is our real test.” 

  The other boys edged forwards to see what was going to happen next. Jared, already spellbound by what he’d seen, wondered what could beat the previous two challenges.

   As Bue and Leppard stood after cranking their bows and loading them for a third time there was another dual flash of light and a loud squawk as if a flock of birds were in the room.

   Jared looked towards the end of the room and saw what seemed like a dozen large crows wheeling in spirals from the light points towards the silhouetted figures. They screeched loudly, their cries carrying and one behind the other wheeled crazily down the hall. Jared could see that there were at least six racing towards each figure in identical groups. They swooped around wildly, green eyes burning bright and huge claws extended. Like the soldiers they became a brighter and brighter shade of crimson as they hurtled down the hall, spiralling around in a twisted, looping charge of ruby and sapphire.

   Leppard raised his bow and fired and his bolt passed through one of the murderous flock facing him. Almost simultaneously Bue raised his and hesitated a fraction of a second before triggering. His shot passed through the lead bird which screamed loudly and then vanished. Leppard’s birds however continued to streak towards him malevolently until they all seemed to hit an invisible barrier. One by one they vanished into a shower of bright sparks just a few inches from his face. He stood there without flinching as the birds screeched into oblivion. Bue smiled triumpantly.

   The lights in the room became bright, the only sign of the epic demonstration were the bolts embedded in the targets..

   “Well young master, it seems you have earned your sash,” Leppard said smiling and reached into his pocket, taking out the red and gold cloth and handing it back to the grinning boy.

   “Thank you sir, you are a fine shot.” 

  Leppard smiled and winked at Bue then turned to the boys. “Now then, form up. You know the drill, two lines.”

   Bue walked over to Jared still grinning. “Pretty good eh?” he said. 

  “How come you won that last one?” Jared asked, confused. “You both hit a bird and his bolt hit before yours.”

   “Ah ha.” Bue replied pointing his empty bow at the targets and looking back down the hall. “It’s not that you have to kill any bird. You have to kill the leader. I did, he didn’t.”

   

  Chapter 8

    

  Jared lay back on his bed couldn’t sleep. His mind was still racing over what he’d seen in the past day. Despite reassurances he wa
s worried about his family and knew they must be frantic with worry. He pulled the thin blanket up to his chin and looked across the room. Bue was already fast asleep, his cheek resting on his clenched hand. He snored quietly as he slept. Around them the other eleven boys lay in bed, most sleeping. Only the odd grunt or cough punctuated the dark silence in the dorm room.

  Jared finally felt his eyelids slowly close and his last, sleepy thoughts were of the charging hogs he’d seen Bue and the bow instructor face in the hall.

  Challandra hummed happily to herself as she set about taking in the dry clothes from the boiler room. The big wooden basket she was carrying was heavy but she hefted it easily. She had been concerned for the new boy when he arrived but from what she’d seen he’d fitted in and had even made friends with that rascal Bue. She smiled to herself as she thought of Bue. Orphaned three years ago when his mother and father died in a boat accident on the Solitary Sea. He was totally uncontrollable for the first six months. Only Madame Veer had been able to reach out to him but even her efforts took time. Finally his grief and rage had subsided and the gentle boy beneath the surface had begun to emerge. His father had been a keen huntsman and Leppard’s prowess with a bow had been something that Bue respected and was even in awe of. Within a year he’d become the finest shot with a bow that anyone could remember, rivalling Leppard himself. Leppard had seen the boy’s pride in his ability and had fed the passion that Bue approached the sport with. He challenged him seven months ago to a competition with Leppard’s Sharp Eye sash as the prize. Bue had lost the first few attempts but kept coming back, practising every spare moment that Madame Veer and Leppard would allow. The boy’s reaction to finally gaining the prize had been moving to say the least. True to form Bue had played it down, trying to act like it was no big deal and rarely talking about it unless asked. Challandra was happy to see that he’d taken the new boy under his wing.

   She whistled to herself as she placed the last of the dry clothes in the basket and opened the door. As she stepped into the corridor a huge hand clamped over her mouth stifling any sound she could make.

   “Don’t struggle and don’t try and scream,” a deep voice whispered clearly but with deadly sincerity. She dropped the basket with a clatter, the clothes spilling out. The figure pulled her into the darker recesses of the corridor. Her hands tugged on the iron fingers over her mouth and she saw glimpses of metal and armour. Flashes of yellow and silver. A bearded man turned towards and glared as the figure pulling her came to a halt.

   “My apologies for this miss. My friend will take his hand away now, but if you scream or try to move he will kill you. Nod if you understand.”

   Challandra nodded slowly and the vice-like grip relaxed and the hand withdrew. She turned around and there appeared to be many armed men in the darkened space. They were near the caretaker’s lodge and she was glad the old man and the other day staff had gone home.

   “Now miss,” the voice said with the same chilling menace. “The boy who was brought here. Where is he?”

   Challandra’s heart was racing as she swallowed and answered quickly. “Where do you think? He’s with the other boys.”

   The figure was silent for a moment then said, “is the Caracalic with him?”

   “No, he left this afternoon.”

   “Good. One more question miss and then we can get about our business. Is there anything else we should know about?”

   Challandra knew straight away what he meant. “No, if you’ve got this far then the magic won’t hurt you.” 

  “That’s very good miss. While we fetch the boy you’re going to stay with my friend. If I find you’ve lied to me I will come back. Is there anything you feel you’d like to tell me before it’s too late?” His voice was still a harsh, cruel whisper in the shadows and Challandra’s mind raced. 

  “No, there’s no security here. We’ve never needed it before.”

   Without further conversation the soldier grabbed her roughly, again clamping a hand over her mouth to prevent any noise.

   “Right” the leader whispered. “We get the boy and leave. Anyone gets in the way…well, I think you know what to do.”

   The men chuckled and slowly withdrew their swords which rasped from the scabbards. Challandra went wide eyed with fear and struggled against the grip but the man held her tightly. 

  The leader signalled to her captor and then quietly began to move his group off down the corridor in the direction of the boys’ room.

  Jared lay in the darkness and finally felt sleep descending. His mind and body were exhausted from the day’s events and he wished nothing more than to get some rest at last. When he closed his eyes he could see Mordalayn standing on the dock. His sword flashing as he knocked down the mercenaries. Jared yawned and as he did so a hand clamped down over his mouth, stifling the shout of protest that rose up in his throat.

  Challandra watched the armoured figures move off down the corridor and counted them. Six in total. There isn’t much time, she thought. She had to do something, anything to alert the boys and the other staff that something was wrong. She knew that the man holding her would probably kill her if she struggled. She saw the last of the men walk off round the corner and decided to try one last, desperate method. She suddenly went limp. The soldier swore and whispered angrily. “Stand up curse you” he hissed as she flopped in his grip. He tried to haul her back up but she hung as if lifeless. With a string of whispered cursing, he released the grip he had on her mouth and lifted her under the shoulders.

  As her lips were freed Challandra whispered softly. “Kohelo aspaharn folehol.” At first nothing happened but then from the very walls of the building a low growl emerged, almost inaudible at first but rising in volume.

  Jared squirmed as the hand held him and suddenly Bue whispered in his ear urgently. “Shut up! Quiet! Something’s wrong.” He slowly released his hand and put his finger to his lips. The boy on the next bed stirred and looked up, raising himself up on his elbow and looking through sleepy eyes at them both. Bue turned around, keeping his finger on his lips and the other boy frowned. 

  “What’s the problem?” Jared whispered back, feeling scared.

   “Footsteps in the corridor, no one should be around this time of night.” 

  Jared strained to listen but could hear nothing. “Bue you’re imagining it, go back to sleep.” 

  Bue looked defiant and anger flashed in his eyes. “I know what I heard, get out of bed. Get your trousers and shoes on” he whispered harshly. 

  Jared blearily complied and stuffed on his socks before shoving his feet in his trainers. Bue looked anxiously at the door and then back to Jared. “Come on” he hissed as Jared stood and reached for his jacket. He opened the window over Jared’s bed and the ancient hinge creaked as the heavy frame swung out. ”Be quiet and follow me” Bue whispered and pulled himself up, straddling the cold sill. He swung both legs out and then dropped the small distance to the darkened courtyard. Jared peered after him and saw that the room looked out on to the sports hall. “Come on!” Bue hissed urgently, the worry clear on his face. Just then they heard a moaning noise start and Bue looked sickened. “Come ON!!!” he yelled. As Jared was about to follow him, the other boys all awake now, the door of the room burst open and two armed men stood hulking in the doorway, their blades shining in the dim light from the courtyard.  

  “Stop!” the nearest one shouted and made to lunge at Jared. The moaning noise continued to rise and became louder with each passing second. The soldier hurled himself across the room to try and grab Jared, just as the noise became unbearable. Then something extraordinary and utterly horrible happened.

  Challandra felt the soldier’s grip on her relax as the moaning sound reached a climax that hurt the ears. He released her and Challandra kicked free, piling up against the wall and away from the stricken man. He reached out to grab her but then clamped his hands over his ears as the horrendous wailing continued. Just as it seemed the sound would bec
ome even worse it stopped completely. The soldier glared at her, reaching for his sword.

   “Despicable witch!” he shouted. “What did you just do?”

   As he tried to draw his weapon a monstrous shape appeared behind him in the shadows blocking out what little light there was, grabbing him tightly, pinning his arms to his sides. The man screamed and thrashed violently but was unable to break the grip. The figure that held him was hugely vast, misshapen and irregularly formed. It was grey and stood around three metres tall with huge eyes and a wide, blunt nose. The nostrils flared as it angrily yanked the wriggling soldier into the air. As it grunted the sound seemed to resonate from every part of its body. 

  “HELP ME!!!” the soldier screamed as the hulking figure stepped backwards. Challandra remained motionless, staring frightened yet reassured by the sight of the immense creature. The figure took another step backwards and, as if it was entering a vertical pool, the stone of the wall parted as its body made contact, the rock rippling slightly as if made of water. The thrashing soldier screamed louder still as the creature holding him continued to step backwards and with a final motion they dissapeared inside the wall, the man’s horrible screams suddenly cut off. The corridor was empty, save for Challandra.

  The soldiers lunged at Bue and Jared but Jared dropped down next to the young archer and winced, clapping his hands to his ears as the moaning reached its zenith. The boys were all similarly trying to shut out the noise, one or two whimpering in fear as they curled up on their beds. 

  The noise was painful and seemed to scratch right within your soul. Then it stopped and with a triumphant smirk the nearest soldier yanked Jared’s bed out the way, the wooden legs grinding on the floor and tried to climb out after the two boys. Bue jumped the few steps back to the open window and brought his fist into the man’s face, punching him square on the nose. The man fell back cursing and his partner leapt up to the window frame just as a figure appeared in the doorway, a horribly enormous figure that looked like some sort of clay monster with massive fingers on each hand. It lumbered into the room and surveyed the cowering boys, one at a time, steam erupting from its nostrils as it weighed them up. After a moment its gaze turned to the two soldiers and the one Bue had punched momentarily forgot his bloody nose and exclaimed: 

 
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