Back to the path, another half-mile on, then into the scrub and once more the steady crawling round some obstacle or sentry-post. Another hundred yards on a goat-path, and crawl again. On and on. Shef lost sense of direction, ceased fatalistically to glance at the sky and reckon the time. The gasping of Richier diminished as he too seemed to settle to their uneven rhythm of movement. And then suddenly, they were at a halt, all seven of them in a clump, looking from the shadows across a patch of bare ground at glimmering fires. Behind them the great jagged mass of the peak, the Castle of the Graduale, Puigpunyent itself.
Straw pointed very gently at the fires. “Them,” he breathed. “Last men. Last ring. Los alemanos.”
Germans they were. Shef could see the iron glinting as they moved on their beats, shields and mail, helmets and gauntlets. In any case he would have recognized the bearing of the Lanzenbrüder, whom he had seen swarming to the assault in the battle of the Braethraborg years before. Then they had been on his side. Now… There was no chance of creeping past them. They had cut down the scrub to make a bare belt, woven the debris into a rough thorn fence. The sentries were not fifty yards apart, and they moved continually. They were watching, too, not like the discontented levies further out.
Suddenly, from the bulk of Puigpunyent, there came a great crash and a thunder of rock. Shef started, noticed the sentries looking too, then turning back to their duties. A cloud of dust rose barely visible against the black and Shef could hear faint shouting. The Emperor’s gangs were working on through the night, in shifts, tearing down the whole mountainside with pick and lever and crane, to rip out the heart of the heretics’ faith. To find the Emperor his relic.
Shef looked again at the sky, the position of the moon, still some way off full. It was midnight now. But it would take time, he knew, time to rig the kites and winch them out. Maybe they would have to wait for a wind, even up there on the mountain. Straw was pulling at him again, anxious and wanting an instant answer. He was only a boy. In war, everything took longer than you wanted, except when the other side did it. Shef looked round, motioned them all to the ground. If there was nothing else to do, rest. If his plan succeeded, he would know soon enough.
Stretched out underneath the bushes, Shef put his head down on his forearms, felt the weariness come over him. There was no risk where they were, and the boys would stay awake. He let his eyelids close, fell slowly into the pit of sleep.
“He’s not just loose now, he’s out,” said the voice, the familiar voice, his father’s voice. “Out in the open.”
Even in his dream Shef felt a surge of resentment, disbelief. “You’re not there,” he told himself, himself talking to himself. “Svandis explained all that. You’re just a part of my mind, the same way all the gods are part of people’s minds.”
“All right, all right,” the voice went on with weary tolerance. “Believe what you like. Believe what your girlfriend likes. But believe this. He’s out. I have no hold over him. Things could go any way now. Ragnarök—that’s what Othin wants, what Loki wants. What they think they want.”
“You don’t want it?”
“I don’t want what would come after it. Church all-powerful, Way all-powerful, whichever. There’s a better way—back to where we were before, before Sheaf became Shield. Maybe with something added, something new.”
“You’re going to see. You’re going to show them. The priests have it inside their holy circle, but they see it only as a warning, not a blessing. Can be either.”
Shef had lost the thread, could not follow the hints. “What are you talking about?”
“What Loki lost to. What you are bringing back for him. His namesake, his near namesake. Logi.”
“Fire,” Shef translated automatically.
“Fire it is. Wake and see what you are bringing to the world.”
Shef’s head snapped upright, his eyes instantly wide open. He realized that he had already been half-woken by a rising babble of voices, from the ring of sentries in front of him. But all over the guarded plain were coming shouts and calls, the blast of a trumpet as some panicker decided to alert his men to what they had seen already. Fire drifting down out of the sky. After a few seconds Shef’s eye and mind adjusted to what he was seeing. Immediately before him, a white flare drifting down, as brilliant as a sun, throwing flickering shadows over the thorn below. Above it, a green one. Not far away, Shef could see a third and a fourth beginning to drift down, thought for a second he could even see the tiny glow of the slow-match. But any such light was killed instantly by the lurid colors spreading across the sky. Violet, yellow, red. More and more flares seemed to spring into life every moment, though Shef knew that could not be so. It was just that each one took moments for the mind to recognize it. By the time it had been taken in, there were others in being to focus on. All three kites must be aloft and working. The boy-flyers were doing their duty better than he could have believed.