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I’m getting towards the end of “The Summer Goddess” and the pace is picking up – at least, it has been in the last week or so. This morning I was ambushed by a returning character I hadn’t expected, which was fun, and now things are charging towards what I think will be a climax. I’m in the interesting position of knowing exactly how it ends but having absolutely NO IDEA how to get from here to there. But that’s half the fun of being a pantser 🙂

Anyway, here’s a wee extract, because I haven’t posted one for the longest time. As always, this is first-draft badgers-arse rough, may not end up in the final book, is (c) me, and will probably contain SPOILERS, so don’t eat it if you’re spoiler-intolerant.

Enjoy!

*****

 

Asta was woken early by the pressure of a soft hand against her neck, just below her ear. She grunted and kicked out, earning a sleepy protest from Rhodan as her foot made contact with his back. She would be glad to get her own space back when they got home, but for now she hated to let him out of her reach at night. Naopolis was crawling with kidnappers and assassins.

One of the worst of them crouched over her now, swathed in her black cloak and mask. The light from the candle she held in her hand turned her blank eyes into twin mirrors embedded in her skull. She had a finger pressed to her lips, and a silent jerk of her head indicated that Asta should follow her out into the corridor.

“Are we going somewhere?” Asta whispered, as the bedroom, door shut behind her. Ilu had her cloak hung over one arm, and she shrugged easily into it, silk falling like cold water on her bare arms and legs.  She shuddered.  The grey light falling through the high, unshielded windows indicated that true dawn was not far off.

“I don’t want my sister to see this,” Ilu said. “She’s anxious enough, and that only makes her joint-ail worse. But you should see it.” She had set the candle down, and her hands twisted an invisible wire. “We’ll all know soon enough, but I needed to tell someone.”

“What is it?” Ilu merely shook her head, and Asta followed her, slipping like dark phantoms through the carriage house, and out into the eerily silent pre-dawn streets of the hill. The lower districts of the city were under curfew, but money ruled on the hill, and enough money could blind all but the most fanatical of the Temple Guard. Even so, people still kept to their houses, and told themselves it was out of choice.

The long crescent streets of the Hill wound in a leisurely path up to the summit, the houses growing larger and more widely spaced the higher they climbed. The Hill was crowned by a park, an oasis of soft green in the heart of the dusty city, ringed by a crumbling wall. There were iron gates in the wall, locked at this hour, but the wall itself was only waist-high, and easy enough to scramble over.  Asta felt the cool of the grass through her light shoes as her feet touched down, and it was all she could do to not to kneel on the ground and sink her face into the dew-dampened sward.  She kicked off her shoes and let her hardened feet soak, wriggling her toes against the earth. Ilu watched her with a sardonic quirk of her lips.

“Having fun?”

“I’m tired of being alternately hot and dry, and hot and damp. Why is it so green here?”

Ilu shrugged. “I believe the Temple store their ice somewhere under the hill. Some of the cold water must leak out, and it greens the crown of the Hill. But come on,” she tugged Asta’s sleeve, “I didn’t bring you hear to show you the grass, did I?”

She moved ahead, and Asta followed, damp grass sticking to her ankles and heels, shoes swinging idly in her hand. Faint sounds drifted up from the city below, the day just waking up, for even a city under siege must trade. Looking back, she could see the harbour in the grey distance, the Scattering ships like gulls perched on the surface of the sea. The winding streets were silver and white threads, woven between the densely packed houses, and a brown pall hung over the tanneries that marked the edge of the city’s sprawling slums, where even the Temple didn’t bother to preach. From up here, it felt like a different world.

There was a tower on the highest brow of the hill, a tapering needle with a circular base and a formal garden laid out around its lower contours, gravel beds and paths sweeping around low bushes decked with flowers not yet gone to ripe fruit. The stones were already losing their morning chill.

Ilu pushed open the unlocked door at the base of the tower. There was a smooth hole where the lock should be, as if it had been cut out, and the edges were darkened to the same rich patina as the door. There hadn’t been a lock here for a long time.  The door swung open silently, revealing a tight spiral of steps, curling upwards.

“What is this place? Asta asked.

“Some rich mans whim. Or maybe an old watch tower. I don’t know.” Ilu’s tread was silent on the stair. “All I know is that it’s useful to us. I’m surprised more use hasn’t been made of it.”

Asta trod after her. It was cold inside the tower, the steps stained with old bird shit, and she was uncomfortably aware of how it tapered. It felt as if the walls were closing in above her head, an ever-tightening corkscrew that would crush her without remorse. Even Ilu seemed to sense it, tugging her mask down for a long intake of breath.

They emerged on a narrow walkway. The pinnacle of the tower jutted skyward in a sharp point only a few feet above them, and the view, of the ground below and the city below that, was dizzying. Asta clutched at the latticed metal guard rail as her head swam, and thought for a moment of her mother. Nasira’s human form had always been afraid of heights. She would hate this, and her father would embrace it, would lean out as far as he could while his wife chided him to be careful. It was strange, the sudden and unexpected moments that made her miss them the most.

“Come on.” Ilu edged her way around the narrow walkway, her back pressed to the stone of the tower. It was too narrow to walk side-by-side up here; the ledge had obviously not been designed for casual viewing, and that seemed a waste. The sight of the city unfurled like a map on the parchment ground was breathtaking.

Ilu pointed. “There,” was all she said.

“What?” Asta squinted. Her friend was pointing out of the city, beyond the stout wall that protected the landward side of the port from incursion, beyond the little white villages that huddled in its shadow, the irrigated fields where slaves like stick figures already moved slowly, starting work before the worst of the sun’s heat drove them to seek shade, or drove them mad. Beyond them, the horizon was hazy, obliterated by a long cloud of dust that roiled and spun and seemed to have its own life independent of land and sky. “What am I looking at?”

“Do you see the dust cloud?”

“Of course.”

“Look harder.”

She stared until her temples ached. Something was moving, out beyond the villages. An anthill swarming. The sun glinted on sharpened metal, and Asta could almost feel the tremor through the stone under her feet. She knew then. She had lived her life a warrior on the steps of Atrath, and she knew heavy cavalry when it was approaching, not matter how far off it was. Coming at speed too, for an army that size. By her estimate they would be on the city in two, maybe three days.

“Who are they?” She found herself whispering, even though the approaching army was miles distant and couldn’t possibly have heard her, much less cared about her words.

“The Imperial Army.” Ilu’s face was grim. “I received word before dawn. He has lost faith in us. The Emperor has decided to finish the job himself.”

“The Emperor’s coming here?” All at once the sun seemed dimmed. The blood would run ankle-deep through the streets of Naopolis if the Imperial Army and the Scattering clashed, and Asta had no doubt the poorest of the city; the slaves, the sick, and the children, would be the first to be crushed between the two opposing forces.

“I doubt he’ll come himself,” Ilu said. “He doesn’t like to get his own hands bloody. That’s what keeps my sister and me in paper, after all! But does it matter? There are enough men out there to sweep the city clean of priests and gods.”

“And Erikah’s men.”

“Unless we do their job for them. We need to take down the Deity, Asta. And we need to do it today. We’re saving the city from more than just blood-hungry gods now.” Ilu turned away from the sight of the approaching army, working her way back round the tower to the entrance to the stairs. Asta lingered for a moment, watching the dust swirl, wishing her father was here to advise her. Or for a horse of her own, to carry Rhodan far from a city that would become a slaughterhouse if she didn’t kill a savage god.

(c) Joanne Hall 2013

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