Joe woke in his small cell, groggy and disoriented, with only the faintest memory of a dream to disturb him. He lay shivering with the blankets kicked half off, the rest a tangle, and tried to figure things out. It was pitch-black, the small fire on the hearth having gone out while he slept, and the darkness pressed down on him. His vision played tricks on him, making him think he could see sparks and flickers of light, so he closed his eyes. The cold stronghold air rushed over his bare chest, chilling him.
What woke me? He couldn’t remember his dream except for a sense of foreboding. He sat up, untangling himself from the twisted blankets, and groped for his candle and rough matches. He scratched the match on the wall, and the light flared, the acrid smell of sulfur making his eyes water. He lit the candle and set it into the sconce on the side of the bed. The darkness retreated sullenly as his eyes adjusted.
Even before he reached out, he could sense it. The gordath was open.
“Shit,” Joe swore under his breath. A sorry-ass excuse for a guardian he was. It should have been the first thing he thought of. He reached out tentatively. It wasn’t like the last winter, when he first encountered a full-on gordath that had been out of control for months. Back then, the power was like a roaring turbine, overwhelming, dangerous, malevolent. This felt urgent but distant.
His gear sat at the foot of the bed. Joe put his feet on the floor and cursed again at the cold. He searched for his socks, found them, and put them on, then his jeans and shirt. It was too cold to stay naked, and he wasn’t about to cower under the covers until morning. As he drew on his boots, he tried to shake the last remnants of sleep from his head. He grabbed the candle, holding it carefully so as not to drip wax down onto his fingers, and pushed open his door, just as Arrim stood about to open it, dressed and ready to go with his own candle, his pack slung over his shoulder.
“Good,” the other man said, with no other preamble. He jerked his head. “Let’s go, Guardian.”
Joe grabbed his pack, glad he had kept it ready. He followed Arrim, their flickering candlelight throwing crazy shadows on the wall, glistening where the walls were damp. He wasn’t sure whether to be pissed off or worried. A little of both, he thought. He didn’t know what time it was, but if he wasn’t going to get a full night’s sleep after two weeks of deadheading through the woods, he was going to have to have a come to Jesus talk with whoever was messing around with the gordath.
And if it were Mrs. Hunt, he was going to be seriously pissed.
The tall, narrow house stood in a clearing in Gordath Wood between three tall trees, its rough stone weathered by time. It looked ancient, as if it were older than the forest itself. Narrow, vertical slits scarred the old stone. Its slate roof was broken. Where leaves had fallen and decayed, creating soil, a garden of moss and other plants grew among the slate. The house looked like a tor, a jagged mountain upthrust from the forest floor. The gordath, the portal between the worlds, was centered on this house. Joe knew that it lived in two places, at the end of a run-down lane in hunt country in upstate New York, and here, in Aeritan. Once the guardians lived here, Arrim had told him, but they had abandoned the house to live in Red Gold Bridge between patrols. He didn’t say why, but Joe figured that it was because the guardians felt the same thing he felt every time he was near the place. The power of the gordath was most on edge here, most alive, most conducive to opening. It was dangerous to be too close to it, even if your job was to keep it closed.
The clearing was quiet, dark. It was high summer in Aeritan, but the forest stayed cool.
“What do you think?” he asked Arrim, keeping his voice low.
Arrim gestured toward the door. “Make sure no one’s here. I want to take a look around the clearing.”
Joe pushed open the heavy wooden door, putting his shoulder behind it as the door stuck. The wood scraped across the threshold with a dull squeak. The bottom floor was a bare room, and the cold from the stone floor seeped into his old boots. A fireplace hulked at one corner, debris collecting on the hearth.
There were a few remaining cartons that had once held shells for the guns that Bahard had run from New York to Aeritan, but the boxes were empty, and the cardboard had gotten clammy and fallen apart. The guns themselves—well, no one knew what had happened to them. The Aeritan Council had confiscated what they could at the end of last year’s war, but Joe knew how that went. Plenty of guns to go around. At least there was a shortage of ammunition, and he doubted that Aeritan had the technology to make more. The smiths and metalwrights were good, but there was only so much they could do, and making modern ammo was beyond their capabilities. Nothing to stop a little reverse engineering, though, he thought. An enterprising Aeritan engineer could probably figure out how to make decent facsimile of a modern gun if they took one apart.
The air inside was cold, and the house felt abandoned. Joe headed up the narrow stairs. Cold light spilled in on the landing, more debris in the corners and beneath the windows. At the top, he pushed open a door to one room. Empty.
The gathering emptiness in the house pressed down on him, and the gordath throbbed along with his heartbeat. It lived, he thought. Maybe it wasn’t like a human, or even an animal, but it lived.
He thought he could perceive an extra edge this time, a malevolent intention. It wanted to be open, and it knew Joe was its enemy.
Joe opened the next door and looked around. Something compelled him, and he stepped over to the narrow window, leaning on the rough sill to get a better view. The ground was very far below. To his eyes, everything looked ordinary. There was the clearing, and the door in the ground to the root cellar—he could just make out the iron ring half-submerged in fallen leaves that pulled the door up and open. The trees shot straight up into the overcast sky.
He frowned into the distance, between the trees. For a second something flickered, and he thought he could see . . .
Then it was gone, and he couldn’t tell if he had really seen telephone wires or if it had just been his eyes trying to make familiar sense of tree branches. He knew better than to look again. To distract himself and break the gordath’s hold, he turned away from the window. In the corner of the room stood a cask hidden by shadows and covered with debris that had blown in from the weather over the past seasons. It wasn’t that big; it stood about knee-high on four ornately carved legs. Joe went over and brushed off the leaves and dirt composting on it. It looked like a lady’s jewelry box, even had a pretty little clasp on it. He tried to lift the lid, but it stuck. The lock was mostly decorative, though, and no match for his knife. He gouged at the lock and snapped it free. The lid creaked open.
Joe stared down at the stacks of American currency neatly arrayed inside the chest.
Arrim’s voice came faintly from the clearing, startling Joe. He came back to himself and hesitated. The money’s worthless here, he told himself. Only good for starting a fire, or maybe stuffing inside a lumpy straw mattress. So why he wanted to grab it and stow it in his pack was beyond him.
He went over to the window. Arrim looked up at him. “Find anything?” he called out.
“Nothing,” Joe shouted back. “Nobody’s been here in months.”
At least, not since Mark Ballard hid his payment for running guns between New York and Aeritan in the Aeritan side of the gordath. It was better than a bank and easier than laundering money. No one who would know what it was worth would ever find it, and it was safe until Mark needed it. Until now.
And I can’t take it. Carry that money around long enough, and he would go crazy. Carry that money, and it would take no effort at all for the gordath to open, unlocked by greed, desire, and homesickness. He should burn it, but he knew he wouldn’t. Instead, he lowered the lid to the little chest and left it behind.
He came down the stairs again to find Arrim kneeling in the clearing. The guardian swept his hand over the dirt and twigs as if he were looking for something. Joe watched him, puzzled. The master guardian could be closemouthed with his secrets. Joe could ask him what he was looking for and all he might get was a vague, “I don’t know,” or “What do you think?” It was maddening, and it forced Joe to rely on his own intuition, which, he suspected, was the point.
Next to him, Arrim muttered, “Forest god. I think I know what’s happening. Thrice-bedamned meddlers.”
“Arrim, you aren’t making any sense.”
“We’re trying to close the wrong gordath.”
“The wrong—” Joe stared at the other guardian.
Something zinged over their head and thunked into a nearby tree. A crossbow bolt.
After the first moment of paralysis, Joe and Arrim turned and bolted for the door. The clearing erupted as armed men swarmed out of the woods. Bolts thunked past them, breaking on the stone walls of the house or thudding into the door. Joe recognized they were deliberately shooting high. Men shouted, and Joe and Arrim hit the door at the same time, scrabbling for the bar and pushing.
They weren’t fast enough. First Joe was hauled back and then Arrim, and they were dropped to the ground, a sword at Arrim’s throat, a loaded crossbow at Joe’s. His chest heaved as he struggled to control his breathing, a rock pressing into his back. The treetops almost closed out the sun, the sky white with summer heat. Where the hell is Tal? Wasn’t that the way it always was—never a cop around when you needed one?
There were about a dozen men, dressed in rough leather and metal armor. They were masked, all were armed, and about six of them had crossbows, cocked and ready. His hunting knife and Arrim’s old machete, used when they deadheaded through the woods, were taken, and then they were pulled up roughly and their hands tied behind their backs.
When they were secure, one man approached them. He was masked like all the others, but his armor was finer, his boots sturdy and well-made. You can always tell a lord in Aeritan, Joe thought. Just look at the shoes.
Of course, not even Lord Tharp carried a handgun the way this man did.
The leader spoke through his mask, his words muffled. “Guardians. Do as you are told, and you won’t be harmed.”
Joe glanced over at Arrim. The man nodded. He was pale and kept swallowing. Joe knew how he felt. This was bad. They were in big trouble.
It got worse. Another man stepped up next to the leader, dressed in hunting camo and carrying a nice hunting rifle that Joe would have coveted when he was younger.
“Joe Felz,” said Mark Ballard with a grin. He was bearded and shaggy, and he looked like he had seen better days, but the unearned cockiness was still there, although Joe had to admit, the rifle backed him up. “Never thought I’d see you here. This must be a step up, right? You got tired of shoveling horse shit?”
Joe nodded at him cordially. “Mark. Still brownnosing?”
Furious, Mark swung on him, but the leader pulled him back by the collar of his heavy hunting jacket, now stained and weathered after a year or more of constant use. The leader stood in front of Mark. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. Mark pointed at Joe.
“If he mouths off to me again, I’ll kick his ass.”
The masked lord said, “If you disobey my orders again, I’ll have Drav kick yours.”
Joe guessed that the man he referred to was the hulking guard who turned around at his name. Drav grinned under his mask, and Mark folded. Joe shook his head. It was cold comfort that Mark Ballard was barely better off than him and Arrim, but he’d take his comfort any way he knew how.
The leader jerked his head at the house. “Go find your coin and hurry and don’t take long. We are far from welcome here.”
Coin, huh? Uh oh.
Mark sulked, but he went into the house. Joe waited, his skin prickling. He had no doubt what Mark was looking for, but what the man thought he was going to use American money for in Aeritan, he had no idea.
The clearing stayed quiet while they waited on Mark. Joe looked around, taking in their kidnappers. They were professional soldiers. He and Arrim were well and truly screwed.
They all watched as the pretty little chest sailed out of the top floor window and fell to the forest floor, its legs and lid smashed open. When Mark came out again, he was whistling. He ruffled the last of the stacks before shoving the money into his pack.
“Sweet,” he said cheerfully. “A hundred grand, just like I left it. Hear that, Felz? Hare and I are going into business together, and you and your buddy here are going to help.”
“Don’t use my name.” The leader—Hare—spoke tight little words that screamed of rage. Mark looked startled.
“What? It’s not even your real name.”
Joe barely kept from rolling his eyes. Shut up man, he thought, but he knew Mark wouldn’t. Hare’s voice was still barely under control when he spoke again.
“Are you through, Lord Bahard? Maybe you would like to visit Red Gold Bridge again, and tell Lord Tharp of our plans? Or perhaps we can take our leave, now that we have what we need, and get on with it.”
Mark just shrugged. “Yeah, I got what I wanted. You have the guardians. We’re set.”
Joe and Arrim were pushed into line, separated by several guards, and hustled off. Crap, Joe thought. What have we gotten ourselves into?