On their way to the tower Ishtar begged a moment to change out of her long gown and back into the far more comfortable jeans and checked shirt that were near enough the uniform of the scouts. Her bed in the scout dorm was just as she had left it when Iris had woken her in the night, groaning in sudden pain, not so long ago. Ishtar had leapt into action to aid her and flung her sheets aside, leaving them trailing onto the floor. But Iris’ bed had been neatly remade and was empty for now. Other scouts were preparing for bed around her as she lay a hand on the pillow where Iris had once slept. On the bedside table standing between their beds that they had shared was a copy of the Fellowship of the Ring that Ishtar had pilfered from Robin’s library. Only for the seventh time or so. Iris had finally read it for the first time a month or so back and Ishtar had promised to hunt down the next book on one of her next scouting missions out of the Castle. The same promise she’d made for Robin. Back when they’d spent almost all their time together.
Ishtar quickly slipped into her casual clothes and nodded to those who were getting into their night shirts and blowing out their candles. They were used to her keeping odd hours.
“This is yours.” She said without apology as she passed the book back to Robin, waiting just beyond the heavy wooden doors of the dormitory. He arched a thick eyebrow at her as he slipped it into the already very full bag hanging from the back of his chair.
“What of it?” They were passing through the Long Hall of the Castle, where some of the families were bedding down for the night, all watched over by paintings of arrogant looking kings in their flamboyant and probably useless armour. Her hand flew to her neck, where was her gorget?!
Robin noted her panic. “It’s probably still in the infirmary. They near had to cut it off you it was so dented. Maybe Smith has been working on it. If you’re worried you can-”
He was interrupted by Lucas, a tall young man of about Ishtar’s age carrying the spear of a Castle guard, his gorget shining brightly silver in the half light of the candles of the hall, unmarked and untested. His hair was almost as shiny, clean and brushed back into a long ponytail it caught the light with golden strands. Ishtar fought the urge to try to control the stray strands coming from her own dark braids. Robin, with his own mess of long hair falling into his eyes and over the tops of his ears, seemed not to be bothered by the appearance of the guard captain.
“Evening. Good to see you up and walking again Ishtar!”
She frowned at his comment on Robin’s behalf and made a point of waving her crutch towards Lucas. “Not entirely.”
“Well yes, but Faith will have you healed soon enough. I know it will! And sorry to hear about Iris, I heard that you two were close.”
She thanked him through gritted teeth, aware of Robin’s poker face next to her. Faith had never healed him, and Hera had been silent on that so far.
Lucas himself had never been a friend of hers, for all his efforts over the years. He had the casual confidence that only the son of Hera could have, which most would call arrogance. He also had a relaxed attitude to danger that only someone who never placed himself in its way could have. They had grown up in the Castle at the same time and she had watched him dropping his mother’s name into conversations as though it was a treasure only he had the key to. He was captain of a guard group now and would likely be a knight soon enough. He had status but not her good regard.
“Well met too, Robin.” Lucas finally said, looking down at the man in the wheelchair as though his presence had been unremarkable until then. “Where are you two headed at this time of night?”
Ishtar went to answer, anger spurring her tongue. But Robin got there first. “You are doing your rounds I assume and want to know that everyone is bedded down well for the night?” He smiled falsely. “Ish and I are headed to the tower. We can rest just as well there too. I have food and some of my whiskey waiting there for us.”
Ishtar hid a small smile as Lucas looked affronted. As a captain there was no way that he was actually doing rounds like a common guard. But she wondered, had Robin’s comment about bedding down in the tower been the real annoyance for the proud man?
“Well, yes of course. If you need any help to be lifted up there I can certainly lend you some muscle.”
Ishtar frowned. Lucas knew as well as anyone in the Castle that Robin’s winch and pulley system, that he’d designed himself, used blocks of weights to get him up to the top of the tower. Lucas was trying to rile him! She fought the urge to punch the smug man in his face!
“Thank you, that’s very kind of you, but completely unnecessary.” Robin answered graciously.
As well you know! Added Ishtar in her head.
They moved quickly past him, and Ishtar almost turned back to make the rude gesture with her middle finger towards his back that she’d seen pre-Awakening scout use against their instructor once.
“Leave it, Ish.” Robin sighed as they entered another long dark and cold corridor, further away from the great fireplace and candle-light of the long hall. Ishtar had always through that the painted faces framed high up on the walls here must have been lesser or ill-favoured nobles to have been left in the cold. There were more women on the walls than in the long hall where feasts and parties would have been held. She wondered if anyone had brought that up with Hera yet.
“He’s a… a… what would you call him?” Robin had always had a fun vocabulary of pre-Awakening curse words she enjoyed learning about.
“Oh, I don’t know. I guess he’s a bit of a wanker.”
“What’s a wanker?”
Robin laughed deeply, and she thought she saw some reddening in his cheeks under the long mess of his un-brushed hair and the stubble. “That’s a part of your pre-Awakening education I’m going to skip over Ish.”
She smiled. He usually ended up telling her what he meant anyway, especially when he was in his cups. She hoped he had some of his homemade whiskey up in the tower. The thought reminded her of the Harvest festival again and it was her time to hope that the darkness of the corridor hid her own swiftly reddening cheeks.
They finally reached the small courtyard at the bottom of the great tower were waiting for them was the leather seat of Robin’s lifting device. She readied herself for own long climb up the narrow stairs where the cold wind whistled in through thin arrow slits. She tried her bad leg and wince. This was going to hurt.
“Hey Ish, do you want to go up in the hoist?”
She was surprised. Robin never let anyone in his device, preferring instead to glide gentle up the outside of the tower while his guests were forced to huff and puff their way up the narrow, worn, spiral of stone stairs.
“Your leg, Ishtar.” He said in explanation and she felt her cheeks almost redden again realising he was being kind.
“Thanks, that would be a lot easier.”
She left her crutch propped up by the side of the old oak door that led into the tower and sat down cautiously onto the hard leather seat. Robin began to explain to her how to use the hand winch and how the weights would reduce the effort, and she let him. She knew all about how the hoist worked of course. When she’d been younger she’d watched the serious looking young man in the wheelchair working on it with a few volunteers, barking orders and explaining the need for various parts. It had been the first time she’d noticed the Castle’s most unusual knight. The only one not chosen for his skill at fighting, his ability to lead, or for his Faith, Robin was the only knight who really knew how to build. He’d fixed up the radio. He’d trained up the first Smith, using only the few books in the giftshop on blacksmithing. He maintained the guns they scavenged. He cast them new bullets and fixed up their saddles. There was little he could not fix. Except… perhaps his lack of Faith.
She wasn’t afraid of heights and relished the rare chance to see the Castle from a new angle. At first in the darkness there was little to be seen. But then she could make out occasional guard on patrol holding torches which lit up round patches about them and reflected off the walls of the stables, the chapel, the well. And as she got higher she could make out the faint shimmering of the stars and the crescent moon that told her that their shield of Faith was out there, forming a dome over the whole of the Castle and repelling the occasional newborn stupid enough to test it. She ventured a glance down, pausing for a second in her winching to see where Robin was. There was almost no light about him and she had to strain her eyes, but a faint glimmer of a reflection from his wheelchair helped her spot him.
And then a shiver rain through her skin and bones. A wave of dizziness hit that almost had her slumping against the ropes attached to her seat. When her heart and mind finally settled again she found herself staring at the moon. It was thin and white and very, very still.
A dark spot grew on the moon, wings becoming clearer as it got closer and closer to her. Holding on to one of the ropes, she released her other hand and instinctively checked for her gorget, forgetting for a moment that it was missing. A blessed knife in one boot was all she had, and it was in her hand mere moments before the newborn crashed into her, tearing at her flesh and screaming into her face.
She was shoved hard against the brick wall of the tower again and again as she fought to get her hands up to defend her neck. Inches long yellowy nails raked against her forearms, trying to get the newborn’s mouth close enough to feast on her blood. She managed to drag the knife through the beast’s cheek, burning it there and spraying herself with its wretched dark blood and near blinding herself. She stabbed wildly ahead of herself, thumping the flat of her palm against the end of the knife to put real force into it. It connected, and the horror wailed again. Drawing on her small Faith she shoved a spark of it through the blade, adding to the blessing already there. It travelled deep into the beast and she had to push its body away as flames licked at its chest and burned away its desiccated heart. The creature stopped its flapping and fell straight down, crashing into a crumpled heap just feet from where she’d last seen Robin.
Ishtar let out a long breath and tried to still the wildly bucking hoist by bracing her feet against the tower’s bricks. Looking about she could see signs of fighting all about the Castle. The flashes of gunfire and running torches as guards quickly responded to the sudden attack. A scream made her look off to her left, and she saw a woman that had been snatched up by a newborn into the star filled sky suddenly falling, bloodless and lifeless, onto the sloping roof of an interior building. Her body snapped as it bounced against the slate tiles.
Ishtar started to rapidly turn the crank the other way, bringing herself back down to the cobblestones of the courtyard as quickly as possible. Robin was still there, a gun drawn from his pack and a gorget held in his hand. She ran to him and he passed it to her.
“Put this on!” he shouted over the sounds of fighting and yet more screams.
It wasn’t hers. It was more finely made, etched over with twining vines and small flowers and the letter ‘A’ prominent on the upright collar.
“Is this Alexandra’s?! You can’t-”
“Just put it on!”
She took it, “Robin, you need to get somewhere safe. Get down to the cellars with the children.” She firmly closed the clasps on the steel. It was a good fit.
“You’re barely walking yourself!”
She tested her leg, stretching and flexing the joints. It was sore, hard to move, and she couldn’t put that much weight on it. He wasn’t wrong. But her little Faith might be enough to lend her some extra strength, and Robin did not even have that option.
“I can get you to the cellar. It’s on the way to the armoury from here anyway-”
“I won’t hide!” He shouted, holding up the gun.
There was a loud crack from nearby as a gun was fired, and a newborn crash-landed in the courtyard, flapping and skittering its way towards them while trailing one torn and bloodied wing behind it. Ishtar put herself between it and Robin, but he just leant around her and shot it in its bony chest with a blessed bullet. Flames burst from there and it collapsed backwards, consumed by fire and Faith.
Ishtar turned back to him, ready to shout at him.
“What?! I got rid of it, right?!” He said, a wild and fevered triumph in his usually soft eyes.
She was about to snap back at him, but just then a group of guards ran into the courtyard through the nearest archway, halberds and spears at the ready. Their captain was a dark-skinned man in his forties, a strong leader and fighter called Ethan. He gestured rapidly with his hands and fingers and a couple of the guards began the long climb up the tower to protect the radio. Another two flanked Robin, who angrily started gesturing back at Ethan. Ishtar concentrated, trying to remember the lessons Ethan had given her in his sign language and dealing with the darkness. She thought that they were arguing over his demands that Robin join the children in the cellar.
She started emphasising agreement with her hands and both gave her a bemused look.
“You should have kept up your lessons. Truly terrible signing, Ish.” Robin said sarcastically, “Okay, okay. I’ll go! But I don’t need a vanguard!”
He pushed angrily at his wheels just as an immense large shape landed and blocked their path to the arch, screaming with supernatural rage.
Most newborns had some semblance of human features. Some even still wore their old clothes, torn and muddied but recognisable as a suit and tie or a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. This thing was even further removed from the humans that the newborns had once been. It was serpentine, scaled and so pale it was almost luminous under the faint moon light. It stretched out bat like wings so thin that Ishtar could still see the bricks of the courtyard through them. An arrow like head hissed and spat ire towards them with two dead black eyes tracking their movements as long metallic looking claws scratched deep grooves into the cobblestones as it readied itself to attack.
“An Ancient?!” One of Ethan’s guards shouted in horror, but Robin scoffed.
“Not like any I’ve seen. Just another pet turned to their use!”
The guards ran forward, headed by Ethan and all were knocked back by the creature’s whip-thin tail. It left burning welts on their skin that bubbled and festered greenly.
“Jellyfish!” Robin pronounced almost smugly.
Ishtar had no idea what he meant and no time to figure it out. She grabbed the gun from Robin’s fingers before he could complain and shot the beast squarely in its forehead, adding a touch of her own Faith to Hera’s blessing on the bullets. But the silver shot glanced off from the vile serpent’s head and caused it to whip around and focus on her. Two needle-like teeth extended from its pink mouth as it opened wider and wider.
She shot again, aiming for as deep into the beast’s maw as she could see.
It thrashed in pain and the guards still standing took the moment to charge and hack at the thing with their blessed weapons, flares of their Faith dancing along the edges of the blades. Ishtar felt her own blood sing with Faith and she darted forward as well, not caring that all she held in her other hand was her hunting knife. She plunged it deep into the beast’s hide, burying her right hand into its body in her enthusiasm. Blood soaked her jeans and shirt as she sang her furious battle cry.
When it finally stopped moving Ethan came to her with blood on his hands as well and signed quick commands to her. She nodded and joined her Faith with his, feeling the power of the other victorious guards, both in the tower’s courtyard and nearby. Her people were fighting back in the dark! Against the dark! They were winning!
The stars above them shimmered and the blade edged moon rippled as though in a pool. The shield was back!
There were sudden blue white sparks high above them as newborns crashed into the shield, and then flew away spitting blood and rage.
Ishtar, breathing heavily and soaked in the creature’s blood, limped back to Robin, undoing the borrowed gorget as she did.
“Thank you. You shouldn’t have-”
“Please, keep it.”
“But it was Alexandra’s!”
Robin smiled sadly. “I remember your first day of basic weapons training. Afterwards, she came back to our room in just a horrendous mood, flinging her boots off and swearing before she went quiet. She was just furious. Finally, I got her talking over a wee dram. She said you were impossible. Said you were insolent, hard headed, and took too many risks. Said you get yourself killed along with others. She swore she’d never train you again.”
“And I thought that she liked me.”
“She did Ish. She really did. Keep the gorget. She would have been happy for you to have it.”
He looked over at Ethan, who was checking his guards for wounds and clapping them on the back before they limped off to the infirmary.
“What happened to the shield?” Robin asked with his mouth and his hands once he had the man’s attention.
Ethan placed his hand over his heart, curling his fingers and signing the one word that he’d especially created back when he’d been welcomed by the Castle. Hera.
She hadn’t expected them to make it passed the crowds gathering in the chambers that led to Hera’s own rooms, but Robin’s status opened a way through the concerned people for them. Years ago, ramps had been installed on Hera’s instruction, all for her beloved knight, and that night the worried crowds chose to honour her wish that he have free access to her rooms. The two of them were watched by hundreds of weary and scared eyes as they passed by. The blood covered limping scout and the infamous engineer knight.
Hera was lying in her huge four-poster bed, almost as pale as a newborn with her grey hair combed into a halo on the pillow. Around her were her most loved companions, women in black robes who gave their Faith to strengthen her in her aging body. Behind them were her knights, the leaders and advisors who she had appointed to be her lieutenants and who she had been leaning more and more lately.
Both Ishtar and Robin paused and waited to be summoned closer. It did not come.
“She’s asleep.” It was Lucas. Concern was written on his face and it made Ishtar sorry for her cynical thoughts about him earlier. He was the child of her twilight years, born after the Awakening of the Ancients, and the only child she still had after her first sons were taken during that cataclysm. They were close, and perhaps whatever arrogance she saw in him came from the absolute certainty that the most important person in their world loved him utterly.
“What happened lad?” asked Robin in a soft voice.
“She collapsed after the sun down ceremony. Then the shield faded.” He said quietly, his voice full of horror. He had grown up with his mother as the power supporting the Castle. To think otherwise was earth-shattering to him and his world. “How many have died?”
Another knight, a stern but loyal administrator called Elizabeth, stepped forward and passed Robin a sheet covered in handwritten names. A list of casualties.
“Crap!” muttered Robin. “And how many were of Faith?”
“We are seriously weakened.” Said Elizabeth sombrely. “We need Hera to awaken to bring the people back together and strengthen the shield for tomorrow night.”
Ishtar looked to where a few women she knew from the infirmary were standing, discussing their patient in hushed voices. They were fortunate that over the years several women knowledgeable about pre-Awakening medicine had found their way to the Castle, drawn in by the delicate threads of hope that Robin sent out on the radio waves. But finding medicine was harder and harder as the Ancients had sent agents to destroy what stores they could find. As she had found when searching on Iris’ behalf.
“She’s old.” Said Lucas bluntly gaining Ishtar’s ire yet again. “What?! We have to be realistic! At some point we have to face that her strength is going and our Faith can’t keep her alive forever!”
“And who should tell our story and build the shield in her stead?” Asked Ishtar, already suspecting his answer. Before he got a chance to make a case for himself, the others in the room moved towards the bed.
“Hush, she’s stirring!” Hissed Robin. They turned to see Hera waking slowly and smiling at her companions, her eyes creasing with joy. Suddenly Ishtar remembered that when she had first arrived at the Castle Hera’d had barely a grey hair in her head.
Hera had been the first one from the Castle that she’d met. Creeping along in the shadows beneath the trees Ishtar had seen just a plain looking woman digging over the soil in what had once been a beautiful country garden. She had obviously been working for hours, her back was soaked with sweat and her movements were slow and laboured. In the middle of the plot she’d been working on had been a rose bush holding blood red blooms. It was completely useless for the growing community and its numerous hungry bellies. But Ishtar had watched from a hiding place as the strange woman had carefully raked around the bush, keeping it safe and allowing it to grow flowers that couldn’t never be eaten. Later, when she’d gotten her voice back, she’d asked Hera why she had protected the rose?
“It’s a symbol of love.” Ishtar said to herself as she saw the roses in a vase by Hera’s bedside.
“Robin.” Hera said warmly and held out her hands for her engineer. He pushed himself closer to her bed and took them carefully. Her hands in his oil and ink streaked calloused ones looked tiny.
“Maybe you just needed a rest Hera? You spend all your hours blessing us, and bringing us together for the sun down ceremony-”
“I’m dying, Robin.” Hera smiled even as she said the words. Around the room the nurses, sisters, and knights all gasped. She went on, “I recognise that look old friend. You already think that this is a problem to be solved like finding the parts for some battered old radio transmitter that Alexandra brought back to the Castle all those years ago. Find the parts and then work out how to put them back together. But like I’ve been telling you for years, not everything is a machine. Least of all you.”
“Least of all you.” He said right back to her.
“Good, so you do understand.” She released his hands and looked passed him to Ishtar. “Scout Ishtar, is that you? Still learning from this goodly knight?”
“Whenever I can, my lady!” She said in shocked voice, surprised that Hera had singled her out amongst all of her knights and nurses.
“I was sorry to hear about Iris.” Hera said, sadness welling up in her eyes. “To have gotten so low in antibiotics-”
Elizabeth went to comment, but Hera put up a hand and stopped her. “No excuses. We must do better. You must all do better… when I am gone.”
Ishtar watched as the woman made eye contact with each of her knights and one by one they nodded in agreement.