CHAPTER 1


Silence Carved in Stone

Duncan MacNeil reined in his horse and looked around him. Narrow shafts of golden sunlight pierced the Forest gloom, shining down through the occasional gaps in the overhead canopy. Tall trees stood close together on either side of the beaten trail, their branches heavy with the summer’s greenery. The hot, muggy air was thick with the scent of earth and leaf and bark. A handful of birds sang in the higher branches, warning the creatures of the wild that man was moving through the Forest.

MacNeil stirred impatiently in his saddle. After two weeks’ hard traveling, the Forest’s charms had begun to pall. In fact, MacNeil was beginning to think he could live quite happily if he never saw another tree again. He glanced back down the trail, but there was still no sign of the rest of his party. MacNeil scowled. He hated being kept waiting. He looked at the trail ahead, but the tightly packed trees cut short his view. MacNeil signaled his horse to move on again at a slow pace. The border fort couldn’t be far ahead, and he was itching to take his first look at it.

The Forest moved slowly by him, his horse’s steady muffled hoofbeats sounding loud and clear in the quiet. The birds slowly stopped singing, and no game moved in the surrounding shadows. MacNeil dropped one hand to the sword at his side and eased the blade in its scabbard. Everything seemed peaceful, but he didn’t believe in taking unnecessary chances. His gaze fell on a clump of dead trees to his left. They were twisted and hollow, eaten away from within by decay. The gnarled branches were bare, the bark mottled with lichen. Even after ten years there were still parts of the Forest that had never recovered from the long night.

The trees fell suddenly away to either side of him, and MacNeil jerked his horse to a halt at the edge of a clearing. He leaned forward in his saddle, shading his watering eyes against the bright sunlight, and smiled slowly. Square in the middle of the huge clearing stood the border fort, a vast stone edifice with two massive iron-bound doors and only a series of arrow slits for windows. MacNeil looked the fort over carefully. The two doors were firmly shut, and there was no trace of movement anywhere in or around the fort. The great stone walls brooded silently and enigmatically in the late afternoon sunshine.

MacNeil sat back in his saddle and frowned thoughtfully. There were no guards at the doors, and no one walked the high battlements. There were no flags flying, no pennants at the watchtowers, and no smoke curled up from the dozen or more chimney pots. If there was anyone in the fort, they were going to great pains to hide the fact. MacNeil looked back over his shoulder. There was still no sign of the rest of his party. He looked back at the fort, scowling unhappily. Normally he’d have more sense than to get so far ahead of his own people, but this business with the border fort worried him, and the sooner he got to grips with it, the better he’d feel.

There was a storm coming. He could feel it. Dark clouds were gathering in the sky, and the air had been close and muggy all day. MacNeil looked up at the lowering sky and cursed mildly. He had planned to look the fort over thoroughly from the outside and then spend the night in the Forest, but all the signs suggested it was going to be a filthy night. And MacNeil had no intention of sleeping on muddy ground in a thunderstorm when there were comfortable beds to be had close at hand. He and his team had spent too many nights in the field of late, and this summer had to be the wettest he’d ever known.

He stretched slowly and eased himself in the saddle. Somehow he’d thought the border fort would look more impressive, given the commotion it had caused at court. The panic had begun when it was discovered the fort hadn’t communicated with the outside world in almost a month. No messengers, no carrier pigeons, nothing. The king sent messengers to the fort. None of them ever returned. Magicians and sorcerers tried to make mental contact with the fort, but some kind of barrier kept them out. The king listened to all the reports and grew steadily more worried. This particular fort lay on the border between the Forest Kingdom and its neighbor, the Duchy of Hillsdown. It had always been a disputed boundary, even to the point of war, and in the chaos that had followed the long night, Hillsdown had made several attempts to settle the question permanently in its favor. The new border fort had been built at the Forest King’s command expressly to discourage such actions, and shortly after it was completed, that particular stretch of the frontier became suddenly very peaceful again. The Duke of Hillsdown sent several threatening letters and backed unobtrusively down, and that was that. Until last month.

MacNeil’s hand settled comfortably on the pommel of his sword as he studied the silent fort. There were no outward signs that anything was wrong—the great stone walls were unmarked by fire or violence, and the clearing looked still and peaceful—and yet there were no signs of life either. MacNeil stirred restlessly, and his horse shook its head uneasily, responding to his mood. He patted the horse’s neck comfortingly, but his eyes never left the fort.

Duncan MacNeil was a tall, muscular man in his late twenties. Long blond hair fell raggedly to his shoulders, kept out of his face by a simple leather headband. Cool gray eyes studied the world from a broad, smiling face. His shoulders were wide, his chest was broad, and there wasn’t an ounce of spare fat on him. He worked hard to keep it that way. His clothes were simple and functional, and he sat his horse with the unthinking ease of a man who’d spent most of his working life in the saddle. His sword hung at his side in a well-worn scabbard, and his hand rarely moved far from it.

He’d lied about his age and joined the guards at fifteen, keen as mustard for a life of action and adventure. The Demon War had knocked most of that nonsense out of him, but deep down he was never content just to do his job and pull his pay. He needed a little excitement in his life to give it spice. His constant search for a little excitement had got him into trouble more than once, and lost him as many promotions as he gained. After one particularly unfortunate incident, involving the wrecking of a fashionable tavern after the innkeeper objected to MacNeil’s complaint about watered ale, he was presented with a simple choice by his superiors: join the Rangers or spend the rest of his life turning large rocks into smaller ones in a military prison.

Rangers worked in small mobile teams, sent out ahead of a main force to investigate dangerous or suspicious situations. Such teams tended to be brave, competent, and ultimately expendable. The money was good, but truth be told, MacNeil would have done the job for nothing. Though of course he never told them that. They might have taken him up on it. Being a Ranger had given him all the excitement he could handle and then some. It was his life. He studied the fort before him and smiled happily. This one was going to be a challenge, he could tell. MacNeil loved challenges.

His smile faded slowly away. The trouble with challenges was that they were often time-consuming, and he was working under a strict deadline. He and his team had just three more days to find out what had happened at the fort. After that a full brigade of armed guards would arrive to man the fort again. And if there wasn’t an answer ready and waiting for the commander of that brigade, Ranger Sergeant Duncan MacNeil and his team were going to be in big trouble. Heads would roll. Possibly quite literally.

Hoofbeats sounded on the path behind him as the witch called Constance rode out of the Forest gloom to join him. She steered her horse in beside MacNeil’s, flashed him a quick smile, and looked out into the clearing with darting, eager eyes. The witch was a tall, striking brunette who sat her horse with more determination than style. She was only just out of her teens, and wore a smart blouse and trousers of black cotton topped with a billowing cloak of bright scarlet trimmed with gold. MacNeil thought she looked like a mobile target. He got nervous just riding beside her. Her face was raw-boned and sensual, with sparkling dark eyes that missed nothing and a great mane of night black hair held back out of her face by strategically placed ivory combs. She was a bit skinny for MacNeil’s taste, but she moved with an unself-conscious grace, and her smile was bright and challenging.

MacNeil still wasn’t quite sure what to make of Constance. She’d only joined his team a few weeks back, and this was her first mission, her first chance to show what she could really do. If she was half as good as she claimed to be, she’d be worth watching. MacNeil frowned slightly. Constance was replacing a witch called Salamander, who had died three months before. Three months almost to the day. Salamander had been a pretty good witch, in her way, but she had always thought herself a swordswoman as well as a magic-user, and in the end that killed her. She had drawn her sword when she should have cast a spell, and the bandit had been just that little bit faster with his ax. She took a bad wound in the gut, the wound became infected, and Salamander died in a filthy village tavern, out of her mind with fever and calling for a husband who’d been dead five years.

MacNeil had killed the bandit, but it didn’t help. He’d led his team into that village. He’d told them it was safe.

He’d had a lot of trouble finding someone to replace Salamander. Every Ranger team had to have a magic-user; there were far too many magical creatures and occurrences lying in wait in the Forest these days, left over from the Demon War. Unfortunately, most of the kingdom’s magic-users had been killed in the war, so instead of a sorcerer or sorceress he’d had to settle for a witch—first Salamander, then Constance.

Although he hadn’t exactly chosen Constance. Truth was, he’d spent so long hedging over his choice that his superiors got impatient and appointed a witch for him. Constance had been a lot younger than he’d expected, but since she’d been raised and trained in the all-woman Academy of the Sisters of the Moon, he had no doubt as to the power of her magic. The sisterhood didn’t turn out underachievers. You either graduated with honor or they buried you in an unmarked grave and scratched your name off the academy rolls.

He bowed politely to the witch beside him. “Well, Constance, this is it. That fort is what all the fuss is about.”

“Poxy-looking place,” said Constance airily. “Any sign of life?”

“Not so far. As soon as the others catch up, we’ll go and take a closer look. See if it’s still habitable.”

Constance looked at him quickly. “You’re not thinking of spending the night in there?”

MacNeil shrugged. “There’s a storm coming, and a bad one by the feel of it. You can sleep out here in the rain if you want to, but personally speaking, I’m not at all averse to the idea of having a solid roof over my head for a change. You’re new to field work, Constance; the first thing you learn in this business is to take your comforts when you can, and be grateful for them. They’re few and far between in our line of work. There’s plenty of time to give the fort a thorough inspection before nightfall.”

Constance shook her head. “I don’t know, Sergeant, I—”

“Constance,” said MacNeil easily, “there’s only one leader in this team, and that’s me. I’ve taken the time to explain some of my reasoning to you because you’re new to this group and this is your first mission, but I’m not going to make a habit of it. When I give an order I expect it to be obeyed, without question. Is that clear?”

“Perfectly clear,” said Constance coldly. She turned away from him and studied the fort with great concentration. “I take it you have noticed that there are no guards on the battlements.”

“Yes.”

“Could they all have deserted, do you think?”

MacNeil shrugged. “It’s possible. But if that’s the case, what happened to all the messengers the king sent?”

Constance pursed her lips thoughtfully and tried to look like she was thinking hard. She wanted very much to impress MacNeil, but at this distance she couldn’t See anything useful about the apparently deserted fort. She was still learning how to use her Sight, that mystical mixture of foresight and insight, and there were limits to what she could do with it. Unfortunately, the only cure for that was experience, which was why she’d applied to become a Ranger. It was one of the quickest ways to graduate from witch to sorceress. If you survived.

She heard a noise behind her and looked back sharply into the Forest as the rest of the party appeared out of the shadows. Flint and the Dancer guided their horses along the difficult trail with casual ease. They both looked extremely competent and completely relaxed.

Jessica Flint was a good-looking brunette in her late twenties. She was a little over average height, wore her hair cropped like a man, and had a figure that would have been voluptuous if she hadn’t been so muscular. Flint was a trained swordswoman and looked it. She wore a long chain mail vest that had seen better days but left her sinewy arms bare. Her cotton blouse and leggings were old but well maintained. Her face was open and cheerful, even in the heat of battle, of which she’d seen more than her fair share. She was one of the few survivors of those who’d fought in the last great battle of the Demon War, outside the Forest Castle itself. She still bore some of the scars, and there were only three fingers on her left hand. She carried her sword in a long, curved scabbard covered with delicate silver scrollwork. The scabbard was worth more than her sword and her horse put together, and Flint was very proud of it.

Giles Dancer rode at her side, as he always did. He wore quiet, nondescript clothes and no armor. He was just a little shorter than average and slight of build, and his flat, bland face showed little trace of personality. Put him in a crowd and you’d never notice him, until it was too late. The Dancer was a Bladesmaster, a man trained to such a peak of perfection that he was almost literally unbeatable with a sword in his hand. Bladesmasters had been rare even before the Demon War; now there were said to be only two left alive in all the Forest Kingdom, and the Dancer was one of them. He was always quiet and polite, and his eyes had a vague, fey, and faraway look. No one knew exactly how many men he’d killed in his time; rumor had it even he was no longer sure. He and Flint had been partners from well before they joined MacNeil’s team, and they had a reputation for getting the job done, no matter what the cost. They weren’t always popular, but they were always respected. They’d been with MacNeil almost seven years, at least partly because he was the only one able to keep them under control. They respected MacNeil. Mostly.

The Dancer looked absently at Flint as they rode forward to join the others. “We’re almost there now, aren’t we, Jessica?”

“Almost,” said Flint patiently. “I don’t know why you’re so eager to get there. So far everyone else who’s approached this fort has disappeared off the face of the earth.”

“They were amateurs,” said the Dancer. “We’re professionals.”

“You’re getting complacent,” said Flint. “One of these days you’re going to run into someone who’s as good with a sword as you think you are, and I won’t be there to back-stab him for you.”

“Never happen,” said the Dancer.

Flint snorted loudly.

“I’m quite looking forward to poking around inside the fort,” said the Dancer. “Investigating a baffling mystery will make a pleasant change from chasing footpads through the Forest. A deserted fort, alone and abandoned to the elements … doesn’t it just make your flesh creep?”

“You’ve been listening to those damned minstrels again,” said Flint disgustedly.

“Can I help it if I’m a romantic at heart?”

“You’re morbid, that’s what you are. Don’t blame me if you get nightmares. You know those Gothic tales upset you.”

The Dancer ignored her. Flint looked at Constance, waiting patiently beside MacNeil at the end of the trail.

“Giles,” she said thoughtfully, “what do you make of our new witch?”

“She seems competent enough.”

“Green, though. Never been on a real mission before. Never been tested under pressure.”

“She’ll settle in. Give her time.”

“She’s certainly no replacement for Salamander; she knew her job.”

The Dancer looked at Flint affectionately. “You couldn’t stand Salamander and you know it.”

“I didn’t like her much, but she always pulled her weight. A vital mission like this is no way to break in a new witch. If she fouls up, we could all end up dead.”

“If there’s a storm tonight we could get hit by lightning,” said the Dancer. “But there’s no point in worrying about it, is there? You worry too much, Jessica.”

“And you don’t worry enough.”

“Then you can worry for me.”

“I do,” said Flint. “I do.”

They fell silent as they drew up their horses beside MacNeil’s. He nodded to them briefly. “Anything to report?”

“Nothing so far,” said Flint. “We backtracked a way, just in case we were being followed, but we didn’t see anyone. In fact, we haven’t seen anyone for days. This part of the Forest is practically deserted. I haven’t seen a village or a hamlet or a farm in almost a week.”

“Hardly surprising, with the Darkwood boundary so close,” said MacNeil.

“The Darkwood’s quiet now,” said the Dancer. “It won’t rise again in our lifetime.”

“We can’t be sure of that,” said Flint.

“No,” said Constance oddly. “We can’t.”

MacNeil looked quickly at the witch. She was staring out into the clearing, her eyes dark and hooded.

“What is it?” said MacNeil quietly. “Do you See something?”

“I’m not sure,” said Constance. “It’s the fort….”

“What about it?”

“There were giants in the earth in those days,” she whispered, and then shuddered suddenly, looked away, and pulled her cloak about her. “I don’t like this place. It’s got a bad feel to it.”

MacNeil frowned. “Do you See … anything specific?”

“No. My Sight is clouded here. But I’ve dreamed about this fort for the last three nights, terrible dreams, and now that I’m here … The clearing is cold, Duncan. Cold as a tomb. And the fort is dark. It feels … old, very old.”

MacNeil shook his head slowly. “I think you’re letting your feelings interfere with your magic, Constance. There’s nothing old about this fort. It was only built four or five years ago. Before that, there was nothing here.”

“Something was here,” said Constance. “And it’s been here for a very long time… .”

Her voice trailed away. Flint and the Dancer looked at each other but said nothing. They didn’t have to. MacNeil knew what they were thinking. If Salamander had said such things, they would have taken it seriously. She’d had the Sight, and if she said a place was dangerous, it was. No argument. But this new witch … as yet her magic hadn’t been tested under pressure, and until it had, no one was going to take her warnings seriously. Constance looked at MacNeil for his reaction, and he was careful to keep his voice calm and even.

“We’re not going to learn anything about the fort just sitting here looking at it. The sooner we get in there and check the place out, the sooner we’ll know where we’ll be spending the night.”

He urged his horse forward into the clearing. Flint and the Dancer followed him, and Constance brought up the rear. Her mouth was grim and set, and her eyes were very cold.

MacNeil tensed automatically as he left the cover of the trees for the open clearing. So far there’d been nothing to suggest there was an enemy presence anywhere nearby, but after so long in the Forest he felt naked and vulnerable in the wide-open space. The clearing had to be a good half-mile wide, shaped into a perfect circle by ax and saw. MacNeil peered unobtrusively about him, but there was no sign of anything moving in the surrounding trees. He frowned slightly as he suddenly realized just how quiet the clearing was. There were no birdsongs, no buzzing insects, nothing. Now that he thought about it, the Forest had been unusually quiet all day. No birds flew in the summer sky, and no game moved among the trees. Maybe the approaching storm had driven them all to cover… . The party’s hoofbeats sounded loud and carrying in the quiet, and MacNeil felt a growing conviction that he and his team were being watched.

They drew steadily nearer the fort. Its high stone walls were a pale yellow in color, the pure white of the local stone already discolored by wind and rain and sun. The embrasures were empty, the battlements were deserted, and the great double doors were firmly closed. It was like looking at a fort under siege. MacNeil looked closely at the grassy floor of the clearing. There were no tracks to show that anyone else had crossed the clearing recently. MacNeil scowled unhappily. Maybe none of the messengers had actually got this far. This part of the Forest was notorious for its footpads and liers-in-wait.

The guards did their best to keep the roads open, but once off the beaten trail, a lone traveler took his life in his hands. Thieves and cutthroats and outlaws of all kinds had made the Forest wilds their own in the chaos following the Demon War. The most notorious gangs, like those led by Jimmy Squarefoot and Hob in Chains, had since been ruthlessly hunted down and hanged, but their successors were still active in the more remote parts of the Forest. Not that the Forest attracted only evil men; there were also those like Tom o’ the Heath, who watched over lost travelers on the moors, and Scarecrow Jack, self-styled protector of the trees, a wild spirit of the greenwood who sometimes aided those in need with bounty he stole from the rich and prosperous who passed through his territory. But still and all, the Forest was a dangerous place for a man traveling on his own, and king’s messengers were just as vulnerable as any other man.

MacNeil shook his head and glared at the border fort. He’d had enough of ifs and maybes; he wanted some answers. And one way or another, the fort was going to provide them. He looked across at the sun, hanging low on the sky just above the treetops. Two hours of light remaining at most. That meant he only had tonight and three more days before the main party arrived. Three days and four nights to find the answers. MacNeil sighed heavily. He hated working to deadlines. That was the trouble with being the best, he thought sourly. After a while they not only expect the impossible, they want it to a timetable as well.

He finally drew up his horse before the closed main doors, and the others reined in beside him. The fort stood still and silent before them, the last of the sunlight gleaming brightly from the yellow stone. MacNeil stared uneasily at the closed doors. The air was very still, and the continuous quiet preyed on his nerves. It was as though the fort was watching and waiting to see what he would do, defying him to solve its mystery. He pushed the thought from his mind, sat up straight in the saddle, and raised his voice in a carrying shout.

“Hello, the fort! This is Ranger Sergeant Duncan MacNeil. Open, in the name of the King!”

There was no response. The only sound to be heard was the low whickering of the horses.

“You don’t really expect an answer, do you?” said Constance.

“Not really, no,” said MacNeil patiently, “but we have to go through the motions. It’s standard procedure, and sometimes it gets results.”

“But not this time.”

“No. Not this time. Flint …”

“Yes, sir?”

“Try those doors. See how secure they are.”

“Yes, sir.” Flint swung down out of the saddle and handed her reins to the Dancer, who looped them loosely over his left arm. Flint drew her sword and walked unhurriedly forward to examine the closed doors. Her sword was a scimitar, and light gleamed brightly on the long curved blade as she hefted it. The doors loomed over her, huge and forboding. Flint studied the dark iron-bound wood carefully, and then reached out and tried each door with her left hand. They didn’t give an inch, no matter how much pressure she applied. Flint beat on the left-hand door with her fist. The sound carried loudly for a moment, and then fell away in a series of dying echoes. Flint looked back at MacNeil.

“Locked and bolted by the feel of it.”

“Surprise, surprise,” said Constance impatiently. “Allow me.”

A gust of wind swirled suddenly around the party, and the temperature dropped sharply. The horses rolled their eyes and tossed their heads nervously. MacNeil muttered soothing phrases to his horse and tightly clutched the reins. Magic beat on the air like the wings of a captured bird, and the great wooden doors creaked and groaned. They shuddered visibly, as though some invisible presence was pressing strongly against them. And then, quite clearly, there came the sound of metal rasping on metal as the heavy bolts slid back into their sockets, followed by the sharp clicking of tumblers turning in a lock. Constance let out a juddering sigh, and the two huge doors swung smoothly open, revealing an open, empty courtyard. The doors ground to a halt, and Constance smiled triumphantly. The gusting wind died away quickly, but it was still unseasonably cold, despite the bright sunshine. Constance looked challengingly at MacNeil, and he bowed politely to her.

“Not bad, Constance. But Salamander would have done it in half the time.”

“To hear the three of you talk,” said Constance, “you’d think this Salamander was one of the greatest witches who ever lived.”

“She was good at her job,” said MacNeil.

“If she was so good at it, why is she dead?”

“Bad luck,” said Flint sharply. “It can happen to anyone.” She walked back to her horse and took the reins from the Dancer.

Thank you, Jessica , thought MacNeil. You always were the diplomatic one .

Flint looked at him calmly. “Ready to take a look, sir?”

“Sure,” said MacNeil. “Lead the way, Flint.”

She nodded and led her horse into the open courtyard. MacNeil and the Dancer moved forward to flank her with their horses, and Constance brought up the rear. The wide cobbled yard stretched away beneath the lowering summer sky, but no horses stood at the hitching rails, and the surrounding doors and windows were dark and empty, like so many blank, unseeing eyes. The Dancer drew his sword, and MacNeil followed suit. There is a sound the sword makes as it clears the scabbard, a grim rasping whisper that promises blood and horror and sudden death. The sound seemed to echo on and on in the empty courtyard, as though reluctant to die away. MacNeil looked at the Dancer’s sword, and not for the first time his hackles stirred uneasily. The Dancer’s sword was long and broad and double-edged. There was no grace or beauty about the weapon; it was simply a brutal killing tool, and that was how the Dancer used it. MacNeil carried a long, slender sword that allowed him to work with the point as well as the edge. There was more to swordsmanship than butchery—at least, as far as he was concerned.

He looked around him, taking in the fort’s courtyard. The wide-open space was deserted, but the feeling of being watched was stronger than ever. MacNeil scowled. There was something about the place that put his teeth on edge. Where the hell was everybody? The doors had been locked and bolted from the inside; there had to be someone here … somewhere… . MacNeil shivered suddenly. A ghost just walked over my grave , he thought wryly, and yet somehow he knew it was more than that. On a level so deep within him he was hardly aware of its presence, an old and secret fear cast a shadow across his thoughts. He looked around him at the darkened windows and felt a tremor in his soul, a stark and basic horror he hadn’t felt for many years. Not since he faced the demon horde in the depths of the long night, and knew he couldn’t stand against them… .

MacNeil shook his head quickly. He’d think about that later. He had work to do. He steered his horse over to the nearest hitching rail, and the memory faded from his mind, as it had so many times before. He dismounted and wrapped the reins around the low wooden rail. The others moved in beside him to see to their horses, and MacNeil looked quickly around at the various doorways, getting his bearings. One fort is much like any other, and it didn’t take him long to work out which was the main entrance. The door was opposite the courtyard doors and stood slightly ajar. Beyond it was nothing but an impenetrable gloom. MacNeil started toward the door, and then stopped and looked back suddenly. For a moment he’d thought he heard something… . He stood listening, but the only sound was the soft murmur of the rising wind outside the fort. MacNeil frowned as he realized that many of the windows looking out onto the courtyard were hidden behind closed shutters, despite the heat of the day. That’s crazy , he thought confusedly, it must be like an oven in there . His mind seized on the word crazy , and it repeated over and over in his thoughts like an echo. To get away from it, he concentrated on what he was looking at. The stables were to his right, the barracks to his left. In both cases, the doors stood slightly ajar. He became aware that Constance was standing beside him, her eyes darting nervously around the courtyard, as though searching for something safe to settle on.

“You said this was a new fort,” she said suddenly, not looking at MacNeil. “Do you know why it was built here? Is there anything about this location I ought to know?”

“You already know most of it,” said MacNeil. “The border between the Forest Kingdom and Hillsdown runs right through the middle of this clearing. The fort is here to stabilize this stretch of the frontier, nothing more. It worked quite well … until just recently.”

Constance frowned. “Hillsdown doesn’t have much in the way of sorcerers or magicians, not that I’ve ever heard of. Taking out a fort this size would require sorcery far beyond Hillsdown’s means.”

MacNeil looked at her thoughtfully. “Can you sense anything here? Anything magical, or immediately dangerous?”

Constance closed her eyes and gave herself to the Sight. Her mind’s eye opened, and scenes and feelings came to her. The fort was cold and empty, like an abandoned coffin, but still there was something … something awful, not far away. She concentrated, trying for more detail, but her Sight remained obstinately vague. There was definitely something dangerous close at hand; there was a feeling of power about it, and a stronger feeling of wrongness . A slow beat of pain began in her forehead, and the images became blurred and muddy. Constance sighed and opened her eyes again. As always, the Sight left her feeling drained and tired, but she kept her voice calm and steady as she spoke to MacNeil. She didn’t want him thinking of her as the weak link in his team. It was obvious he already considered her no replacement for his precious Salamander.

“There’s something here, Sergeant, but I can’t get a clear picture of it. It’s some kind of magical presence, very powerful and very old, but that’s all I can See.”

Something old , thought MacNeil. That’s twice she’s used the word old in connection with this fort, despite knowing how recent it is .

“All right,” he said finally. “First things first. If we’re going to spend the night here, we need a place we can defend, and this courtyard definitely isn’t it. Flint, Dancer, you check out the stables and then see to the horses. Constance, you come with me. I want to take a look at those barracks.”

Flint and the Dancer nodded, and moved off toward the stables. MacNeil headed for the barracks on the opposite side of the courtyard and the witch hurried after him, not wanting to be left on her own, even for a moment. The silence was beginning to get to her, and the vague image she’d Seen disturbed her deeply. In some strange way she felt as though she ought to recognize it.

MacNeil noticed her haste in joining him, and was careful not to smile. He was grateful for the company himself. He came to a halt before the barracks door and studied it closely. Like all the other doors he’d seen in the courtyard, it stood slightly ajar. MacNeil pursed his lips thoughtfully. If there was a pattern or reason to it, he couldn’t see it yet. He pushed the door gently with the toe of his boot, and it swung smoothly open. MacNeil hefted his sword and stepped forward into the gloom of the barracks.

Light filtered past the closed shutters and spilled in from the open door. MacNeil stepped quickly in and to one side. A silhouette against an open door made too good a target. He pulled Constance over beside him and they stood together in silence a moment, letting their eyes adjust to the gloom. There was a thick layer of dust everywhere, and dust motes spun slowly in the narrow shafts of sunlight. The air had a damp, musty smell that was subtly disturbing. It smells more like a mausoleum than a barracks , thought MacNeil, and then wondered why that particular comparison had occurred to him. A single chair lay on its side in the middle of the floor, between two rows of beds. There were dark stains spattered across the chair, as though it had been flecked with paint. MacNeil heard Constance draw in a sharp breath, and then a sudden brilliance flooded the barracks as the witch held up her right hand. MacNeil cursed irritably and shielded his dazzled eyes with his free hand.

“Next time, warn me first.”

“I’m sorry,” said Constance breathlessly, “but look at the chair, Duncan. Look at the chair… .”

The dark stains on the chair were blood—old, dried blood. MacNeil lowered his hand and looked quickly about him. There were fifty beds in all, set back against the walls in two neat rows. On every bed the rumpled blankets were soaked with long-dried blood.

“My God,” said Constance quietly. “What the hell happened here?”

MacNeil shook his head, unable to speak. In the silvery light that glowed from the witch’s upraised hand, he could clearly see the great crimson splashes on the walls and floor and ceiling. It was like walking into an abandoned abattoir. Most of the bedclothes had been hacked and cut apart by swords or axes, while two beds had been literally torn to pieces. Splinters lay scattered across the floor, and a half-dozen thick wooden spikes had been driven into one wall like so many jagged nails.

MacNeil moved forward slowly. Constance stayed where she was by the door, the silver light still blazing from her hand. MacNeil vaguely prodded the nearest bed with his sword. He felt strangely numb, unable to take in what had happened. He was no stranger to blood and violence and sudden death, but there was something horribly pathetic about the empty bloodstained beds. What kind of creature could have killed fifty guards in their barracks and then disposed of their bodies, all without leaving any trace of its own presence? He hadn’t seen an atrocity like this since the Demon War. And there were no demons in the Forest anymore. MacNeil crouched beside the bed and looked underneath it. There was nothing there but more dust and dried blood.

So much blood

He straightened up and looked back at the witch by the door. “Constance.”

“Yes, sir?”

“What can you See here?”

The witch closed her eyes and opened her mind. The light from her hand snapped off, and darkness fell upon the barracks once again. MacNeil gripped his sword tightly, blinded by the sudden loss of light. He peered about him into the gloom, listening warily for any sound of something sneaking up on him under cover of the sudden darkness, but all was still and silent. His eyes slowly adjusted again, and he could just make out Constance standing very still beside the open door. As he watched, she sighed and turned her head to look at him.

“I’m sorry,” she said tightly, “I can’t See anything. I should be able to, but I can’t. Something here in the fort, or very close by, is blocking my Sight.”

MacNeil frowned. “Could it be a natural blind spot?”

“I don’t know. But haven’t you noticed? It’s cold in here. Very cold.”

“It’s bound to be, now we’re out of the sun. It’s the thick stone walls.”

“No,” said the witch. “It’s more than that.”

MacNeil noticed for the first time that his breath was steaming on the still air. He tightened his grip on his sword hilt, and found he could barely feel it. His fingers were numb from the cold. It had crept up on him so slowly he hadn’t even noticed.

“I think we’d better get out of here,” he said softly. “For the time being.” He backed away toward the door, his sword held out before him. There was no sign of any immediate danger, but for some reason he didn’t want to turn his back on the bloodstained beds. He reached the open door and found Constance had already stepped out into the courtyard. MacNeil paused a moment in the doorway. Fifty beds. So much blood … He stepped out into the courtyard and pulled the door firmly shut. He scowled at the closed door and then looked at Constance. Her face was pale but composed.

“Where next?” she said evenly.

MacNeil nodded at the main entrance. “That door should lead into the reception hall. Perhaps we’ll find some answers there.”

He strode quickly across the courtyard, and Constance followed close behind him. The open yard seemed almost uncomfortably warm after the chill of the barracks. He pushed the door open and entered the reception hall with his sword at the ready. It looked like any other hall in any other fort, a simple, unadorned chamber with one desk and a half-dozen uncomfortable-looking chairs. Everything seemed normal, apart from the four nooses that hung from the overhead beam, the thick ropes dangling limply in the still air. The hangman’s knots looked amateurish but effective. Beneath the nooses, four chairs lay on their sides on the floor. MacNeil stood just inside the door and swallowed dryly. It was only too easy to visualize four men being forced to stand on the chairs while the nooses were tightened around their necks. And then the chairs would have been kicked away, one by one… .

“Maybe some of them went mad,” said Constance slowly.

“It can happen,” said MacNeil. “Like cabin fever. Take a group of armed men and confine them in a limited space for a long period with nothing to do, and they’ll crack sooner or later. But any commander worth his salt knows the danger signs and takes steps to deal with it. No one said anything about this fort having a bad record; as far as I know there were no indications that anything was wrong … No, it doesn’t make sense. If four men were hanged here, where are their bodies? Why take them down and leave the nooses? Nothing about this place makes any sense. Yet. But more and more I get the feeling something terrible must have happened here.”

“Yes,” said Constance oddly. “Something terrible. And I think it’s still happening.”

MacNeil looked at her sharply. The witch’s eyes were vague and faraway, and there was something in her face that might have been fear.

Flint and the Dancer stood just inside the stable doors and stared silently about them. Light poured in from the open doors, pushing back the shadows. The heavy wooden stalls had been smashed into kindling. The walls were scarred and gouged, as though they’d been scored repeatedly by claws. There was no sign of any of the horses, but blood had splashed and dried on the floor and walls.

“Nasty,” said Flint.

The Dancer nodded. “Very.”

“Demons?”

“Unlikely.”

“It’s their style.”

“The Demon War ended ten years ago. No one’s seen a demon outside the Darkwood since.”

Flint scowled unhappily. “They came out of the long night once before; maybe they’re on the move again.”

The Dancer knelt down and studied the bloodstained straw covering the earth floor. “Interesting.”

“What is?” Flint knelt down beside him.

“Look at the floor, Jessica. There’s blood everywhere but no footprints, only hoof marks. And if the horses were killed and dragged out, where are the tracks? There should be some traces to show what happened to the bodies.”

“You’re right,” said Flint. “It is interesting.”

They straightened up quickly and automatically fell into their usual fighting position, back to back with swords held out before them. The shadows all around were suddenly dark and menacing. The air was dry and still and unnaturally cold. It smelled faintly of death and corruption. Flint stirred uneasily and flexed the three fingers of her left hand. The scar tissue where the missing two fingers had been throbbed dully. It didn’t like the cold. Flint shuddered suddenly. There was something dangerous here in the fort with them; she could feel it. She had no idea what or where it might be, but she had no doubt it was there. Flint trusted her instincts implicitly.

“Yes,” said the Dancer quietly. “I feel it too. Whatever happened to the people in this fort, I don’t think they died a clean death.”

“We can’t leave our horses here,” said Flint. “They’d spook before we could get them through the door. Let’s take a look at the main building, see if we can find a suitable place there.”

“Good idea,” said the Dancer.

“Then let’s get out of here. I’m getting spooked myself.”

“You’re not alone,” the Dancer assured her.

“I told you not to listen to those minstrels. You’ll be having bad dreams tonight.”

“Wouldn’t surprise me. I don’t think this is a good place to sleep, Jessica.”

Flint smiled slightly. “You might just be right, Giles. But can you think of a better way to get to the bottom of what happened here?”

“There is that,” said the Dancer. “Let’s go.”

He led the way back out into the sunshine, and Flint pulled the doors shut after her. She and the Dancer crossed the courtyard side by side, swords at the ready, their eyes wary and watchful. Their footsteps echoed hollowly back from the high stone walls. The sky was darkening toward evening, and the shadows were growing longer.

Flint and the Dancer eventually settled the horses in the main reception hall. It wasn’t ideal, it wasn’t even a lot better than anywhere else, but the horses seemed prepared to tolerate it. They rolled their eyes as they were led through the door, and regarded the bare wooden floor with grave suspicion, but finally settled down. Flint lit a lantern, and then she and the Dancer made their way deeper into the main building. Finding MacNeil and Constance was easy enough; they just followed the tracks in the thick dust on the floor. Flint eventually rounded a corner and found MacNeil waiting for her, sword in hand.

“I thought I heard somebody following us,” said MacNeil dryly, lowering his sword.

“Have you found anything?” asked the Dancer.

“Nothing helpful. Just empty rooms, dust, and blood.”

The bloodstains were everywhere. They splashed across the ceiling, ran down the walls, and pooled on the floor. So much blood …

“What are the chances on finding anyone alive?” said Constance.

“Not good,” said MacNeil. “But we’ll keep looking anyway. Just in case.”

The four of them slowly made their way through the fort, corridor by corridor, room by room. The corridors were for the most part bare and unadorned, with little in the way of matting or tapestries to break up the monotony of bare stone. All the rooms were empty and covered with a thick layer of undisturbed dust. But wherever they went they found bloodstains and broken furniture and enigmatic claw marks gouged deep into the stone walls.

And finally they came to the cellar, and there was nowhere left to go. The cellar was a featureless stone chamber some fifty feet square, littered with accumulated rubbish. Two open doorways led into smaller storage areas. MacNeil picked his way carefully through the mess, and the others followed him as best they could. There were piles of firewood, bags of rags, and stacks of old paper waiting to be pulped, along with broken furniture, wine casks, and general filth and garbage, all strewn across the bare floor without rhyme or reason. MacNeil made his way to the center of the cellar, being very careful about where he trod and what he trod in, and then stopped and looked disgustedly about him.

“I’ve seen cess pits that were cleaner than this.”

“It is rather untidy,” said the Dancer. “But have you noticed the walls?”

“Yeah.” said MacNeil. “There aren’t any bloodstains down here.”

“Is that a good sign or a bad sign?” said Flint.

“Beats me,” said MacNeil.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” said Constance suddenly. “Something’s wrong here.”

The others turned to look at her. The witch was shivering violently.

“How do you mean, something’s wrong?” said MacNeil. “Have you Seen something?”

“It’s wrong here,” said Constance, staring blindly ahead of her as though she hadn’t heard him.

MacNeil looked at the others, and then looked quickly around the cellar one more time. He shook his head slightly, as though disappointed, and then moved back to take the witch’s arm. “There’s nothing down here that matters. Let’s go, Constance.”

She nodded gratefully and let him help her back to the cellar door. Flint and the Dancer followed them out.

Eventually they ended up in the main dining hall, at the rear of the fort. It was a good-sized hall, some forty feet long and twenty wide, with trestle tables set out in neat rows. As in the cellar, the walls were unscarred and there were no bloodstains anywhere. The tables were set for a meal long abandoned. Food still lay on some of the plates, dry and dusty and covered with mold. Bottles of wine stood open and unopened on the tables. It was as though people had come in for a meal as usual, and then halfway through had just got up and walked away… .

“We’ll sleep here tonight,” said MacNeil. “It’s comparatively untouched by the madness, and since there’s only the one entrance, it should be easy enough to defend.”

“You’re really prepared to spend the night here?” said Constance. “After everything we’ve seen?”

MacNeil looked at her coldly. “We’ve seen nothing that’s immediately threatening. Whatever killed all these people, it’s obviously been gone some time. We’ll be a lot safer here, and a great deal more comfortable, than we would be out in the Forest during a thunderstorm. We’ll set a guard tonight, and first thing tomorrow morning we’ll start tearing this place apart. There’s got to be an answer here somewhere.”

“I don’t think we should disturb anything,” said Constance. “I mean, it could be evidence.”

“She’s right,” said the Dancer.

MacNeil shrugged. “Anything that looks significant we can leave alone. Either way, it can all wait till the morning. They don’t pay me enough to go wandering around this place in the dark.”

“Right,” said Flint. “There isn’t that much money in the world.”

“All right, then, let’s get our bedrolls in here and get ourselves settled,” said MacNeil. “It’ll be dark soon.”

“Dark,” said Constance quietly. “Yes. It gets very dark here at night.”

They all looked at her, but the witch didn’t notice, lost in her own thoughts.

Out in the Forest, a lone figure watched the fort curiously, and then faded back into the shadows between the trees and was gone.