Balor expected that they would have to wait for a long time, but after a surprisingly brief interlude the small figure returned, emerging from the darkness with hardly a sound. It bent over the big man again, and they held a whispered conversation. The big man grunted, satisfied, and turned to Haemel.
“Iefor’s agreed to bring you into the city and show you where your brother’s imprisoned,” he said. “After that you’re on your own. No amount of gold will buy you enough men to pit themselves against the king’s guard. Does this seem fair?”
Haemel did not reply straight away, and Balor was the only one who noticed how he had stiffened at the mention of the name of Iefor; but he quickly relaxed and nodded his head. “I doubt we have much of a choice,” he said.
The big man grinned again. “You’re a clever one, brother.”
“And who is Iefor?”
“You don’t ask who Iefor is,” the big man replied. “But any way in or out of this city that isn’t by either of these gates, it probably belongs to Iefor. Anything you want done that no-one else will do, Iefor’ll do it — for a price, mind. Always for a price.”
“Well, we’ve paid our price,” said Haemel, standing. “And now we need to be on our way. I hear prisons are a lot harder to break into after sunrise.”
“Ha!” the big man snorted with laughter. “I like you, brother. I like you a lot. I hope we meet again.”
After a brief round of farewells they left the small group behind and followed their silent guide into the darkness.
The small figure moved quickly, forcing them to hurry to keep up. They stuck close to the city wall, hugging its shadow, tripping over rubbish and gagging at the smells that wafted around them. After a few minutes they came to the canal-gate, now shut fast and bolted with iron. A narrow walkway spanned the canal, slippery with green moss that sprouted from the rotting boards. As they crossed it Balor held on tight to Haemel, and Haemel trod carefully to keep from slipping, but the small figure bounded across on all fours like a cat, never missing its footing.
On the far side of the canal the ground began to rise. Soon they were picking their way over and around clumps of sharp rock that thrust up through the turf, not making their way onwards so much as upwards. On their right the wall reared up, its massive stones looming in and out of the darkness as they wove to and fro, following the the figure ahead of them as it picked out the clearest path.
Balor stepped carefully, clinging to Haemel’s arm, always keeping one eye on that mysterious figure. A feeling of revulsion had come over him that he could not shake; the beggars around the fire had been eerie enough, with their half-eaten faces and unfinished bodies, but the guide who went ahead was eerier still. Since they had left the fire it had not spoken a word. All communication was with Haemel — it ignored Balor entirely — and was by means of nods and gestures, pointing out the easiest way and occasionally holding up a sudden fist, which they quickly learned meant, Stop; keep still. It never lost its footing, and would sometimes spring from boulder to boulder in its haste as if ignoring the law that kept men’s feet fixed to the ground.
After a long time scrambling over the rocks up an ever-steepening slope the ground began to ease off. Up ahead of them, high in the night air, a single red light burned bright against the cold stars; as they came nearer they saw that it was a torch set in the topmost window of a tall tower, ten times taller than any of the others they had seen, which stood at the corner of the city wall. Behind the tower a black cliff of broken rock clawed its way up towards the waning moon; she sailed over its peaks like a delicate disc of glass, careful not to scratch herself.
The figure glanced back at them, making sure they were all still following. When it was satisfied it bounded away from the city, over the hillside towards the lower end of the mountain-arm.
“Wait!” Haemel called. The figure stopped and turned, twitching its head impatiently. “We need to get into the city. Not away from it. Where are you leading us?”
The figure shook its head twice, then hissed, in a high, thin voice like a shard of ice: “Patient!”
And with that it turned away and leapt across the rocks, and they were forced to follow it.
Over tumbled boulders and through uneven gorse they stumbled and tripped, twisting their ankles and grazing their knees. Though the moon was up her light did not reach into the dark fissures they occasionally used as pathways, and at these times they were forced to rely on their hands rather than their eyes, feeling their blind way and hoping their guide would not lead them astray.
At last, however, they emerged from between two towering crags at the edge of a steep cliff that dropped away into a narrow valley much like the ones they had crossed that morning.
The figure crouched and pointed downwards, and they both craned their necks to see what it was pointing to.
At first Balor saw nothing, just more rocks and a few feeble tufts of grass struggling to cling to the valley sides. Then his eyes adjusted, and suddenly he saw it: a dark opening, little more than a split in the rock, below them and to the right, set high in the cliff-face with no way to or from it. A thin stream of dark liquid trickled from it and fell down, down to the valley below, where it spattered quietly in the darkness. A gust of wind came down the valley and tousled their clothes, and it brought with it a pungent stink worse than anything Balor had smelt that day. He wrinkled his nose and gagged. Haemel nodded.
“I see,” he said. “This is to be our way in?”
The small figure nodded. Balor still could not see its face, but he was sure it was smiling.
Haemel looked over the edge. “And how are we to find our way down?”
Balor shuffled to the edge and looked over as well. Haemel was right. He could see no path, and the cliff was so sheer not even the most sure-footed of mountain-goats could have traversed it.
The figure did not reply, but instead raised its head and let out a piercing whistle. Balor ducked his head instinctively, cupping his hands over his ears at the painfully shrill note. A moment later an answering whistle came from the direction of the opening. The figure indicated they should stand back, and as they did a barbed iron grapple came flying out of the night, trailing a length of thick rope behind it, and clattered on to the rocks where they had been standing.
The figure seized the rope and began winding it round a nearby finger of stone. The finger had a groove worn into it from long years of use: the beggars, or at least their customers, had come this way many times before. After one last turn, the figure hooked the grapple back through an iron ring attached to the rope and gave the whole arrangement a final pat.
The rope was taut and secure, and it sloped gently down along the cliff towards the opening. Balor was curious to see how it would help them. The figure beckoned to Haemel to come closer to where the rope stretched over the lip of the valley and into darkness. Taking his hands, it placed them on the rope and made him grip hard.
“I don’t understand,” said Haemel.
The figure made a noise of impatience. It would take too much effort to explain in words. “Climb,” it whispered. “Watch.”
Then it took the rope in its own hands, and jumped over the side of the cliff.
Balor darted forward with a cry, sure that it would fall. But when he reached the edge and looked over he saw the figure hanging on the rope just below their feet, its legs dangling in thin air. As they watched, it straightened its legs and spread its feet wide apart against the rock face, bracing itself so that its body was pushed out over nothingness. Then, keeping hold of the rope with its outstretched arms, it began to edge its way down, taking care to plant its feet firmly and to always keep both hands on the rope.
When it had gone ten feet it looked back at them and called one final word: “Follow!”
* * *
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