Torvald was at the door of the White Hart, looking out toward the green more than one hundred yards away as the distant shouting continued. The patrons had all left their seats and were crowding around the two large open windows. Amelia followed Torvald to the door and squeezed in on his left. “What’s going on out there?”
Torvald shook his head. Nick, one of the regulars, said, “Sounds like there’s a brawl going on in the vendor tents.”
“Really? A fight?” Amelia said, sounding skeptical. Torvald shrugged, “It could be — some of the local merchants resent the outlanders, like the spice traders, and then there are the Deists and the —” Torvald stopped and squinted. “It’s not the vendors fighting,” he said. “What are you talking about?” Amelia said, looking back outside. All she could see were werelights moving quickly around the tents; one of them went out as she was watching. “What do you see? I can’t make out anything from here.” Then she recalled Erik’s abnormally sensitive hearing, and his uber-yelling powers. It made sense that Torvald had inherited some of his dad’s upgrades.
“A horse!” Torvald said suddenly, pointing. Amelia still couldn’t see anything, but she could hear the hoofbeats before she was able to make out the shape of a black horse coming straight toward the inn. The horse came right at the door, full-tilt, and Amelia wondered if it was going to stop when it pulled up quickly, hooves clattering on the flagstones of the walkway leading to the door. The horse snorted, and then started to smoke, which alarmed Amelia, but not Torvald, or the riders. No sooner were the woman and two children on the ground than the horse vanished, and in its place was Collie. Amelia remembered the conversation she, Edward and Torvald had in the kitchen earlier about Collie’s true nature, but it was still a shock to see him transform. Amelia also remembered Torvald asking them to keep quiet, since most of the Westerings didn’t know Collie was a shapeshifter. So much for his cover, Amelia thought, and when she glanced over to the men at the window, their surprise was evident. Not everyone looked happy, but there wasn’t time to worry about those implications. “Vampires!” Collie said, breathing hard. He herded the woman and her children toward the door, and Torvald stepped aside to let her in. Torvald grabbed Amelia’s wrist and Amelia pulled back, “Edward! Where’s my brother?” She looked at Collie, but the small man shook his head. “I came in over the river, and then we crossed the green, but I didn’t see him.” Amelia tried to pull free of Torvald, who looked terribly uncomfortable, but wouldn’t release her. “Let go of me! I have to find Edward!”
“You can’t go out there, Amelia!” Torvald said, his face flushed. Amelia wouldn’t stop struggling, and when she started to hit Torvald’s arms, Collie stepped in. “Amelia!” his voice was urgent, but not loud, and he looked right into Amelia’s eyes. “You can’t help Edward if you’re dead, girl, and that’s what you’ll be if you go out there now.”
Amelia stopped struggling and tears streamed down her cheeks. “I have to find him,” she sobbed. Amelia turned to face Torvald, who looked like he was about to cry himself. “You have to help me find Edward,” she sobbed, turning to Collie. “I can’t lose him, too.”
Several men ran out of the Hart toward the north or south sides of town; they all moved in the dark, with no werelights. A young man with a red mustache stopped in front of Torvald and Collie. “Wish I could help, but I have to get home.” Torvald and Collie both nodded. “Good luck!” An older man with breeches tucked into his tall boots ran out, still holding his mug. He paused to drain his pint, with more than a little of it flowing over his beard and down his neck. “Lords be with you!” he gasped as he put the mug down by the door, “And with you, John!” Torvald replied as the man ran past the live oak and into the dark.
Amelia was still crying quietly, her head against Torvald’s shoulder, and Collie motioned that they had to get inside. “We have to shut up the Hart as tight as we can,” he said. Torvald led Amelia inside, and did his best to comfort her. “Edward is smart,” he said gently, bending to speak close to her ear, “he’ll go to the nearest house and wait there with them until it’s safe.”
Collie grabbed the large brass handle on the inside of the door and then looked back inside the great room. “Anybody else who’s going, better go!” There were only two patrons left. The nearest was a tall, heavy man with a shapeless brown hat and a scruffy beard. He was leaning against the windowsill, looking out at the green with a frown, but no obvious sign of alarm.
“Nick?” Torvald said. “You going home?” The man turned to Torvald and shook his head. “No, young master,” Nick said looking around the great room. “If I’m going to die, I’d rather it be here.” Torvald shook his head, but couldn’t help smiling. Collie gave a short laugh. “Hopefully, that won’t be necessary,” and said, “What about you, friend?” The second man was looking out of a window on the other side of the great fireplace, and Amelia didn’t recall seeing him earlier in the day. He had dark, wavy hair shot through with grey, and was dressed in simple traveling clothes. “I’m staying,” he said. Collie shut the heavy door and bolted it. “Well, make yourselves useful, men — shut and lock those windows!” Nick and the other patron began swinging the heavy windows shut on their double hinges and locking them. “Amelia and I will make sure all the shutters are closed downstairs,” Torvald said.
“Good boy,” Collie said, “I’ll do the same upstairs and then we all meet back here at the bar.” Collie turned and announced, “Everybody else, stay in this room and keep away from the windows!”
Eleni stood beside the bar, rocking Cassia in her arms; the baby had just stopped crying. As Amelia hurried past, behind Torvald, she heard Salah say, “Don’t worry, Mama. Sayyd Collie will protect us — you saw!” Amelia wondered what that poor kid had seen already tonight, never mind what was still to come.
The White Hart had eight rooms for boarders. Five of them were downstairs, not counting the innkeeper’s rooms where Erik lived, which were accessed through a door behind the bar. The great room at the Hart was a busy place, but the inn itself was rarely full. Torvald told Amelia to check the two rooms on the right, which had only one window each to secure.
Torvald had one of these small rooms to himself. There were clothes piled on the thin mattress of a wood-frame double bed, and a large cedar trunk at the foot of it. There was just enough space left for a small table under the window with a stoneware wash basin, and what Amelia assumed was a chamber pot underneath the table. The rectangular window had no glass, only sturdy wooden shutters. The rooms on the right side of the hall both looked out on the north end of the green and the houses there. The stone silo loomed in the darkness, a black mass above the goat pens.
Amelia almost collided with Torvald as she ran out of his room, then continued down the hall and through the open door into the second room. Amelia went immediately to the window, leaned over the wash table to grab the shutter, and screamed as a pale hand snatched her wrist. Amelia tried to wrench her arm free, but the vampire’s ragged yellow claws dug into her forearm as a bald white head with black slits for eyes appeared around the side of the window. Amelia screamed again, grabbed the stoneware basin from the table in front of her and smashed it over the vampire’s head. The vampire let go of Amelia and fell back through the window as Torvald rushed into the room. “Amelia! Are you all right?” Torvald looked at her, then the open window. “It was a vampire — just close the shutter!” Torvald approached the window from the side and looked out carefully, then said with a grin, “I think you killed it!” Nick and the stranger appeared in the doorway behind them, just as another vampire lunged for the windowsill. Torvald backed up, kicked the creature square in the face, then slammed the shutter closed and latched it.
“We’re all right,” Torvald said to the two other men. “Go back to the great room so Eleni and her children aren’t alone, and wait for Colllie,” Torvald said quickly, then added, “Please. I’ll take a look at her arm, and then we’ll join you.”
“Will do, Torvald,” Nick replied. Both men, their eyes still wide, turned and went back the way they came.
“Let me see,” Torvald gently touched Amelia’s hand, which was squeezed tightly over her wrist. Amelia took a deep breath, opened her hand, and looked at the wound sideways, with one eye closed. Torvald smiled. “What’s so funny? I could have been killed, you know!” she said, pulling her wrist away. “I wasn’t laughing!” Torvald said, trying not to laugh. “You did well — I really think you caved its skull in!” He looked at her with open admiration. “I’m impressed,” he said.
“Well, thanks,” Amelia said, feeling a bit embarrassed. “I’m not going to turn into one of them, am I?” she said with a look of disgust.
“Oh no,” Torvald said, bending to look at her arm again, which she held out for his inspection. “It doesn’t work that way. I forget there aren’t any vampires where you come from.”
“No, but there are plenty of stories,” she said. “They don’t look like I imagined, though.”
“What do you mean?” Torvald asked, his eyebrows scrunched together. “We’ll talk about it later,” Amelia replied. “I think we better get back.”
“Yes,” Torvald agreed, following her out of the room and to the left up the hallway, their werelights casting double shadows on the stone walls. “We’ll clean it up and wrap it for now. When this is over, we’ll get something from Jess to make sure it doesn’t fester.”
“That sounds good, she said, softly. “And thanks for giving that second one the boot,” Amelia added. Torvald nodded, but he looked troubled. “I wonder how many more there are,” he said quietly as they entered the great room.
Collie watched Amelia and Torvald as they walked by the bar. “Are you all right, girl?”
“I’m fine,” Amelia said, holding up her arm. “Just a scratch,” she said casually.
“Make sure you clean it carefully, all the same,” Collie said. “Filthy creatures.” He looked at Torvald. “How many?”
“Two,” Torvald answered as he went behind the bar. “Amelia cracked the first one’s skull with a basin, and I kicked the other one back through the window.”
Collie whistled. “Nice work, the both of you.”
“How did things look upstairs?” Torvald asked, as he put a basin and a clean cloth on the bar and poured some water into the bowl.
“I didn’t see any,” Collie said, “but I heard them.” He looked up at the timbers of the great room’s high ceiling. Amelia walked up to the bar and dipped the cloth into the water, “I can do it,” she said, grimacing as she dabbed at the scratches.
Collie looked at the dark-haired stranger, who was standing near the first row of tables by the bar, then approached him. “Excuse my manners — I don’t believe we’ve met,” he said, extending his hand. “Collum dan Art, co-proprietor of the White Hart. Call me Collie.”
“Pleased to meet you, Collie. Call me Hal,” the man said as he shook Collie’s hand. “I left Yarrow this morning, just got to Westering a few hours ago.”
“Sorry,” Collie said, “It’s a poor welcome we’ve given you.”
“That’s hardly your fault,” Hal said, looking around the great room at the fireplace, the huge bearskin above it, and the bar. “The White Hart is known all over the Wilderlands. I was looking forward to staying here a few days before moving on.”
“Where are you bound?”
“To Watson Farm, or Poplar Camp,” he said, “then on down the King’s Road to Berila.”
“That’s a lot of walking,” Nick observed, scratching his chin.
Hal smiled. “It feels long overdue. I was a monk until a few months ago,” he said. “Then, I had a kind of awakening, and decided I wanted to see the rest of the world.”
“Hope your journey doesn’t end here,” Nick gave Hal a friendly slap on the arm. Hal made an effort to smile, then everyone looked up at the sound of a thump on the ceiling above them. Amelia stopped wiping the blood from her arm. Everyone listened in breathless silence until it was shattered by a long, chilling cackle, like the cry of a hyena. “No,” Amelia whispered, and everyone turned to look at her. “Not again.” Amelia shook her head, and pressed both hands against her mouth.
Torvald said it for her. “Laughing Jack.”
~ ~ ~
The vampires advanced slowly, enjoying Giles’ fear. The creatures were close enough that Giles could see their glittering onyx eyes, and their long yellow claws, still caked with river mud. Behind him, Edward was completely silent, and Giles turned his head enough to see that Edward was standing with his back to them, both hands on the door to Harry’s tower. “Let us in,” Edward said softly. Then, louder, “Please, let us in!” Now the vampires reached the first of three steps up to the door, and they were close enough for Giles to smell their foul breath and their moldy clothes. Their hissing continued, and one of the creatures began mocking Giles’ stance with the knife. The other vampire had a long scar across his face that twisted as he laughed. Now, Edward was shouting, “I’m James Edward Lockheart! Please, let us in!”
Giles heard a click behind him, then a creak, and a rush of cool air as the door sprang open and inward. “Come on!” Edward said, pulling Giles’ arm hard. Giles staggered back, not fully understanding what had happened, but unable to turn away from the vampires that were rushing forward, their hissing replaced with angry screeches. Before Giles fell backward onto the floor, the door was already swinging shut as quickly as it had opened, trapping one vampire’s hand between the heavy oak and the stone jamb. The boys heard a scream from the other side; one of three severed white fingers fell to the floor like a pale slug and the others remained, crushed in the narrow opening. The large bolt on the door slid shut with a bang that echoed in the stone corridor.
Giles looked up; Edward appeared out of the gloom as he summoned a werelight, then leaned over to offer Giles a hand up. “Are you OK?” Giles nodded, and reached for Edward’s hand, realizing he had dropped his knife at some point. On his feet again, Giles rubbed his sore backside and called for his own light. Giles looked down at the younger boy in front of him, the glow of his werelight reflected in Edward’s glasses. “How did you do that?” Giles said in a whisper. “I didn’t do anything,” Edward replied, “The door opened and closed and locked all by itself.”
“Yes, I know!” Giles didn’t mean to snap, but he was on edge thinking how close they had come to horrible death, and how he had quaked in the face of it. He and Edward weren’t out of danger, yet, but they were safe, at least for the moment. Giles took a deep breath, “Sorry. I mean that’s the point — the door wouldn’t open for me when I said the password.”
“More of a passphrase,” Edward began, and then clamped his mouth shut as Giles glared. “So, why did it open for you?”
Edward pushed his glasses back up his nose and shrugged. “I said the magic word?” Both boys jumped as the sound of furious blows resounded on the door behind them, then stopped. The boys moved further away from the door, past the small, square table where Giles left Harry’s deliveries.
“What magic word?” Giles said, flustered.
“Please?” Edward said with a weak smile. Giles grabbed two handfuls of his own hair. “It’s not possible!” he said, then let his arms fall to his sides. “Don’t misunderstand me — I’m glad it happened, but it makes no sense.”
“Then maybe it wasn’t me,” Edward said. “Maybe someone else did it?”
“But who else could? This is Harry’s tower, and he’s not –” Giles noticed that Edward was looking at something over his shoulder, and Giles turned quickly to face the hallway that ended at the foot of the main stairs. A large golden werelight was floating down the stairs toward them, and as it came closer, Edward and Giles could see there was no one under it.
The werelight continued to float toward them. It was larger than a normal light, and cast a warm glow that illuminated the bare stone walls and the checkerboard pattern of black and brown stone that led from the door to the foot of the staircase.
Edward looked back at Giles as the werelight advanced. “Friend of yours?”
Giles shook his head, “Never seen it before.” The werelight stopped a few feet from them, silent and slowly rotating. “It must be something Harry made before he left. I’ve heard people say there were lights in the tower since he’s been gone, but I never saw for myself.”
“So, what’s it for?” Edward asked, moving closer to the light, which was floating a foot above his head. “Your guess is as good as mine. Besides, you’re the werelight expert,” Giles added with a half-smile.
“Hello!” Edward said to the sphere of light. The werelight descended until it was at eye-level with Edward, who glanced over at Giles. The older boy shrugged. “Did Harry leave you here to keep an eye on things?” Edward asked, not expecting a response. The werelight’s golden glow shifted immediately to green, then back to gold again. Giles’ mouth dropped open a little. “No, I’ve never seen a werelight do that,” he said, anticipating Edward’s next question. The boys heard the sound of more savage blows echoing down the long stone walls. Giles pointed to the intersection of another corridor running perpendicular to the entrance hall. “They must be trying to get through the shutters in one of the other rooms here on the ground level.”
“Weren’t the windows open when we walked up?” Edward asked. Giles nodded. “Cool,” Edward said. “The tower is defending itself.”
“It appears so. Is that what’s happening?” Giles said to the werelight. It shifted to green again.
Giles started pacing. “Even if they can get through those shutters and break the glass, the frames are iron.” Giles looked up at the werelight. “Will they be able to get in?” The light turned a yellow color distinct from the normal golden hue. “I guess that’s Maybe,” Giles said. Edward nodded in agreement, and smiled to himself as he thought about his old Magic 8 Ball. “From the roof?” Giles asked. Green. Giles looked up and pointed. “There’s a trapdoor on the ceiling of the top level that leads up to the roof. It’s probably not locked, and even if it is, it’s not as thick as the front door.” Giles sighed. “Still, assuming they can’t get in through the door, or the windows, the only other way is to climb,” Giles shook his head. “It’s a long way up and not many handholds,” he said, biting his thumbnail. “Hard to imagine that’s their plan.”
“So, the vampires here can’t fly?” Edward asked. “No, thank God,” Giles said with a shudder. There was a thump from the door behind the boys, and then a series of strange popping sounds. “What’s that?” Edward asked, looking worried. “Well, I certainly don’t know!” Giles hissed in exasperation. The boys slowly and quietly walked the twenty feet back to the door.
“Do you smell something?” Edward whispered as they neared the door. Giles nodded, and behind them, the werelight glowed green. Giles and Edward both put their palms carefully on the center of the door — it felt very warm.
“They’re burning their way in,” Edward whispered. He and Giles backed quickly away from the door, and kept going further down the hall, their own werelights adding to the glow of the large one following them.
“Vampires hate fire!” Giles said. “This doesn’t make any sense! Of course, the fact that they’re attacking this tower, and the town, in a mob doesn’t either.”
Edward nodded. “How did they get inside the Wall in the first place?”
“Did you notice their clothes?” Giles said. Edward nodded as the answer dawned on him. “They were wet — the river!” He pulled on his lip. “They don’t have to breathe, after all. It’s actually pretty smart.”
“Oh, I’m glad you approve of the vampires’ clever plan!” Giles said, his tone was pure acid.
“Sorry,” Edward replied, “I just meant –”
Giles cut him off. “Forget it. We should be heading for the roof, instead of chatting while they burn the door down.” Giles turned and made for the staircase. He noticed the big werelight didn’t move until Edward hurried to catch up.
“All right, so we go to the top,” Edward said. “Then what? We can’t get down from the roof, can we?”
“Not alive,” Giles said, and started up the stairs.
~ ~ ~
As the chilling laughter died away, Collie grabbed the nearest table and began to drag it toward the door. Torvald hurried to help him, and together they lifted the heavy oak table, turned it on edge and shoved it against the door. Nick and Hal did the same at the windows. As they stood at the door, Torvald leaned close to Collie, “I don’t think you should have to handle this by yourself, even if you can,” he said. Collie smiled, “I appreciate that,” he said, “but I can handle the vampires.” Torvald said, “I know you can, but then there’s Laughing Jack — whatever it is — and there’s the weapons to guard.” Collie nodded, knowing Torvald was right. “At the very least,” the boy went on, “we need to defend ourselves.” He looked over where Nick and Hal were pushing a table against the last set of windows. “Doesn’t look like they have any weapons to speak of.”
“Erik has some gear we can use,” Collie said, “I’m not sure what he took with him to Watson Farm, but there should be some blades and a shield or two. Your father likes to be prepared,” Collie said, raising one eyebrow.
“Good thing, too,” Torvald said. “You don’t think we might need something more powerful?” Torvald asked quietly and looked up at the ceiling. “Just in case?”
Collie shook his head emphatically. “I know what you’re getting at, son, but that cabinet stays locked.” Collie looked away for a moment, then looked even more concerned. “What is it?” Torvald prompted. “I just had a thought — this attack was obviously well-planned,” Collie said. “They came out of the river.”
“The river?” Torvald looked amazed, “How did they get past the portcullis on the bridge?”
“I’m sure when we check, we’ll find they cut their way through below the waterline. Anyway, I have a bad feeling that’s the real reason they’re attacking the Hart.”
“My father’s weapons,” Torvald whispered. Collie nodded. “That locker is strong, and it’s spelled, but who’s to say they don’t plan to take it out all in one piece?” Torvald touched the small amulet around his neck. “Do you have the keys to his room?” Collie asked. Torvald nodded. Erik left his key ring with Collie when he left for Watson Farm, and Collie entrusted it to Torvald when he went out looking for Rava. “Then let’s get what we need out of there, and then lock it up.”
Torvald and Collie looked around as Amelia approached. “What’s with all the whispering, boys?” she asked, trying to smile. “Just planning,” Torvald said. “Are you all right?”
Amelia looked down. “Yes. I just kind of froze up when I heard it — him, whatever.” She looked up again. “But I’m not going to just hide behind the bar,” she continued. “What can I do?”
“You’re a brave girl, Amelia,” Collie said, “and nobody doubts that after what you did in the Iserwood. What we need you to do now is help keep Eleni, Salah, and little Cassia safe.” Amelia took a deep breath, and then puffed out her cheeks. “So, in other words, hide behind the bar?”
Torvald grinned. “There’s plenty of stoneware back there.”
“Very funny,” Amelia said to Torvald, deadpan.
Torvald looked serious again. “What you did in the forest was not a joke, Amelia, and neither was what you did in that room,” he said. Torvald looked at Collie. “We’ll find you a blade and a buckler.” Collie nodded, but then asked carefully, “Do you know how to use them?”
“Well, maybe — what’s a buckler?” Amelia asked sheepishly. From behind them, Eleni said, “I know how to use them.” She was still rocking Cassia. “Nestor taught me.” Collie nodded; Eleni looked at Amelia, and smoothed her black hair away from her hazel eyes. “You may have to hold the baby,” she said, looking down at her daughter, who was quiet for the moment. “Well, Mom said I should consider babysitting to earn some money this summer,” Amelia replied. “But nobody will believe this if I put it in my references.”
At the sound of glass breaking, everyone looked around the great room and then toward the stairs. “Sounds like the meeting room,” Torvald said, looking at Collie. “Go to your father’s room and pass around whatever you can find,” Collie said calmly. “I’ll have a look upstairs and be right back,” he said with a wink. Amelia watched Collie as he crossed the room quickly. She realized he was barefoot, and couldn’t remember if he had been wearing shoes earlier that day. Amelia looked around and noticed everyone in the great room was watching to see if Collie was about to transform into something to fight Laughing Jack, and everyone wondered what that might be.
Torvald spoke quickly, “Nick! Hal! Come with me — we need some things.”
“I hope a drink is one of them,” Nick said to Hal as they followed Torvald, and the former monk smiled. The men followed Torvald behind the bar and through the short hallway that led to Erik’s rooms. Erik’s bed was against the wall opposite the door. Beside the doorway, along the left wall, was a large locker, six feet high, made of oak. Torvald picked a small key from the ring, fitted it into the lock, and then swung both of the heavy doors wide. On the right door, three short swords hung in their scabbards. There were three bucklers in a rack on the right, and the same number of helmets with nose guards sat on a shelf in the middle section. Below the helmets, a single large compartment held a mace, a small crossbow, and several daggers.
Torvald helped Nick select a short sword and a buckler. The tall man tried a helmet, but it was too large, and after tightening the chin strap a few times to no avail, he took off the helmet and handed it to Hal. “Give this one a try, friend.” The dark-haired man fumbled with the helmet, then laughed and handed it back to Torvald. The boy put the helmet back on its shelf and said, “At least take this.” He passed Hal a shield and a dagger. Hal looked at the blade with uncertainty. “I’m not sure I’ll be much help, but I’ll do my best.” Torvald nodded and tried to sound encouraging, “You’ll be fine.” Torvald wished he had enough time to show Nick and Hal some basic techniques with the shield and blade. Erik had not objected to Collie teaching Torvald, but he rarely participated. When he was young, Torvald thought his father didn’t believe he was worth teaching. As he grew older, Torvald understood that Erik simply didn’t want to encourage Torvald to follow in his footsteps. Torvald still didn’t know exactly where his father’s path had taken him, only that it had been a long, dark road.
Torvald selected the longest sword for himself. He drew the blade halfway out, checked the edge with his thumb, sheathed it again and took a dagger and the last buckler for Eleni. Torvald closed and locked the cabinet, then looked over at the locked room where his father kept his magical weapons. He hoped Collie was wrong about the vampires’ plan, but even more he wished he could have a look inside that room. His father didn’t talk about the weapons any more than he talked about the rest of his past. Collie had let some hints slip over the years, especially after a few drinks, and eventually Torvald understood that the dwarf bounty on Erik’s head was connected to one of those weapons — a sword he had won from a dragon’s hoard. Despite Erik’s size and his many scars, when Torvald watched his father wiping the bar and filling mugs, it was hard to imagine him fighting a dragon.
On the other hand, a few minutes ago, Torvald didn’t imagine he’d be preparing a mother, a traveling monk, the town drunk, and an adolescent girl to fend off a horde of vampires. I hope we survive to tell this tale, Torvald said to himself as he locked Erik’s door behind him. One thing Torvald knew for certain — he would defend Amelia Lockheart with his life.
~ ~ ~
Edward knew on first sight that Herodotus’ home wasn’t the typical fantasy tower — it was square instead of circular, tapering slightly as it ascended to the flat roof. Instead of a long spiral staircase inside leading to a room at the top, the stairs along the back wall of the tower led up to successive floors. Harry’s tower had six stories, Giles said when the boys started pounding up the first flight of stairs.
Like the ground floor, the first floor was very dark with all the windows shuttered. As Edward followed Giles along the back wall to the next flight of stairs, their werelights illuminated a row of palm trees. They were at least twenty feet tall, swaying gently in a breeze that cooled Edward’s face. Looking up, Edward saw stars where the ceiling ought to be, and the rustling of the palms now mingled with the sound of waves. “It’s not real,” Giles said, already going up the stairs. “At least, I don’t think it’s real — sometimes this room is empty, but the last time I was here, it was covered with snow.” The steps were wide, but there was no handrail, and Edward walked close to the wall, touching the cool stone with his fingertips as he walked up into the sky.
Whereas the ground floor was entirely of stone, Edward reached the second story to find a floor of long oak boards, at least eight inches wide. This area had at least one full suit of armor on a stand that Edward could see in the werelight, and an assortment of helmets, gauntlets and shields. Some of the pieces were on racks or tables, but much of it was scattered across the room in what looked like the aftermath of a great battle. Edward slowed down a bit to look more closely at twisted shields, helmets full of perfectly round holes, and what looked like burn marks on a breastplate. Edward wondered what Harry had been doing here, and if armor was actually still worn in battle. Edward had seen no indication gunpowder was in use, so armor would be still be practical.
On the third floor, Giles paused and waited for Edward to catch up. “Look at this,” he said with a grin. The combined glow of the boys’ werelights illuminated a dozen or more objects in the otherwise pitch black room: several large, smooth river rocks floated in the air, along with three frogs, some large speckled chicken eggs, and a pewter bowl all in a narrow vertical column. Edward directed the tower werelight upward, where it illuminated an upside-down bowl of flour, its contents a frozen white cascade. It all looked like an elaborately staged flash photograph, or a Photoshop collage. Edward laughed, “Are they levitating?” Giles shook his head. “Not exactly. Harry told me that time is altered in this room. This is an experiment to see how much he can slow it down.” Edward reached out to touch the nearest object, a wooden spoon. “Careful,” Giles said. As Edward reached out for the floating spoon, the skin on his hand and arm began to tingle. Edward tapped the spoon, but it didn’t spin in circles, as if it were weightless; it only moved a few centimeters. Edward pulled his hand out and shook it. “Prickly,” he said. Giles nodded, “Yes, Harry said it’s a side effect of the time dilation.” Edward marveled at the implications of this magic — from keeping food fresh to saving the lives of the traumatically injured. The strange feeling in his forearm had worn off already, but would the tingling keep getting worse? Edward wondered what would happen if you stepped inside the spell and stayed there. “Like Rip Van Winkle,” Edward said to himself. “Who?” Giles asked. Then, “Never mind, we have to get going.” He was on his way up the stairs to the fourth floor.
The boys sprinted halfway up the steps, but then Edward felt his sandal flopping. His Mom bought these shoes at the thrift store last week; they were a little too big, but they were almost new, and Edward was eager to replace his old ones. Edward sat down on a step; Giles saw him stop and waited impatiently as Edward adjusted the ankle strap. “I wonder what’s happening in town.” Edward said. Giles took a deep breath and shook his head. “Nothing good, I expect.” He noticed Edward’s worried look and said, “Don’t worry — Torvald will take care of Amelia. He may be the ugliest barmaid in Westering, but he does have the Gift.” Even Edward noticed the bitterness in Giles’ voice. “What does that mean?” Edward asked. “You don’t have that where you come from, either?” Giles questioned. “It depends,” Edward replied. “What is the Gift, exactly?”
“Some people call it the Blood,” Giles sighed. “Whatever you call it, I mean Torvald is his father’s son. Erik is a dangerous criminal, but he’s no ordinary outlaw. You heard the way he yelled when you got to Cyrus’s wagon, right?” Edward replied, “And he hears as well as he shouts.” Giles nodded and went on, “And you saw him wrap up that giant raven-thing and throw it over the Wall — which is twenty feet high — like a bag of flour?” Edward nodded again. “Right, so Torvald has the same,” Giles hesitated, and seemed to have trouble getting out the next word, “advantages, even if they haven’t reached their full potential yet. I guess it makes up for not being the brightest lad,” Giles muttered and went up the rest of the steps, two at a time.
Giles barely slowed down on the fourth floor, but Edward couldn’t help stopping to gape at a wall of water, held back by an invisible barrier. Edward pointed, and Giles shook his head, though he couldn’t help chuckling, “Yes, I know, but we have to keep going!” Edward was about to ask a question anyway when the boys heard a long scraping noise from below.
The boys looked at each other and dashed up to the fifth floor, which was noticeably cooler, and drier, than the floors below. Edward saw why as the tower werelight drifted past him and toward a large table in the middle of the room. All four walls were lined with books of all sizes almost up the ceiling, in bindings of a dozen colors. The large rectangular table, made of polished cherry wood, was covered with scrolls, maps, and books lying open or stacked by threes or fours. The table and six large, but simple matching chairs sat on an emerald green rug. There was no owl, and no crystal ball, but it was impressive, and Edward turned around several times, taking it all in. “Nice room,” he said in simple admiration. Giles put his hand on the back of one of the chairs near one end of the table. “This is where I sit when I’m reading,” Giles said, “but Harry likes to walk around. When the weather is good, or even when it’s bad,” he said with a half-smile. “We have a lot of our lessons outside.”
As much as Edward wanted to explore, or even to leaf through the pages of one book, he knew there was no time. Edward looked at Giles, and then at the staircase. “One more to go, right?”
“Yes,” Giles said, rubbing his hands together nervously. “Something wrong?” Besides the obvious, I mean?” Edward asked, pointing down at the lower levels. They had not heard any more sounds from below. “It’s just that,” Giles cleared his throat, “I’ve never been up there,” he said quietly. Edward’s eyes grew wide. “Never?” Giles shook his head. “As far as I know, nobody has ever been on the sixth floor besides Harry. Edward took a few steps closer to Giles, looked up at the older boy, and pushed his glasses up with one finger on the bridge. “So you really have no idea what’s up there?”
“I really don’t,” Giles said. Edward turned to the tower werelight. “Are they inside?” The sphere shifted from gold to green, and Giles felt his stomach lurch. “Is there something upstairs that can help us?” Yellow. “Well, that’s better than No,” Edward said to Giles. “We’d better get up there, then.”
“After you,” Edward said, stepping back to let Giles past him, but Giles shook his head. “I think it’s obvious you should go first,” he said. Edward took a deep breath and started up the steps. As soon as the werelight moved to follow Edward, both the boys could see the trapdoor at the top of the stairs. Edward looked at the door, which was actually two sections, hinged on both sides, with brass rings hanging from the middle of each half. There was no visible lock, bolt or keyhole. Edward pushed against both sides of the doors, which didn’t budge. Giles was standing three steps below Edward. “I think you need to say the magic word,” he said with a smirk.
“Please open,” Edward said clearly. He heard a sound and glanced down; Giles was looking, too. There was clattering sound somewhere below — it was impossible to tell what floor — but it sounded very close. “Hey!” Edward said, and rapped on one side of the door, “Could you please open up?” Silence. The boys strained to hear any sound. When the hidden bolt on the trapdoor snapped open, Edward almost fell backwards, and Giles steadied him from behind. Then they heard the unmistakable hissing from the stairwell. “Go!” Giles urged frantically. Edward pushed hard on both of the doors, which swung up silently on their hinges. As he rushed up the remaining steps and onto the sixth floor, Edward heard scuffling behind him on the steps, and then Giles cried out. Edward turned and reached out to pull Giles up, and saw that a vampire had hold of his leg. Giles screamed and struggled; Edward tried to pull him up, but Giles was heavier than him and Edward almost fell forward on top of the older boy.
The tower light swooped down the stairs, engulfed the head of the vampire that was holding Giles, and then flared like a miniature sun. There was no heat, but the vampire was confused and blinded — when Giles kicked again, the creature stumbled back into the vampire behind it, then rolled off the stone stairs and fell to the floor eight feet below. Giles clawed his way up the last three steps, and the tower light snapped back to its place over Edward’s head. The boys scrambled to slam the doors on the second vampire that was coming up the stairs after them, but the trapdoor, like the main entrance, was already moving on its own. The double doors cracked the second vampire on the skull as they shut with a boom that reverberated in the top floor of Harry’s tower.
“Well,” Edward said, breathing hard, “here we are on the mysterious sixth floor.” Giles nodded, “Yes, here we are,” his voice shaking, “trapped until they break through, like they did downstairs.” Giles and Edward froze. They heard voices, then something, perhaps fingernails, scratching on wood. In a moment, the boys recognized the same strange popping noises they’d heard earlier at the tower door, followed by the very unpleasant sound of vampire laughter.