Leaf crouched like a spider in the narrow alcove, the stones of the floor pressing cold through her leggings. Her long, thin limbs were folded into as small a bundle as she could manage. She closed her eyes and leaned forward, listening.
From the hallway came the sounds of movement: the scuff of boot soles on stone, the clink of mail shirts, the rough whisper of men’s voices, too low to make out the words. Leaf inhaled slowly, willing herself to fade into the dark recess.
A moment later, she reached back, exploring the edges and crevices about her. Grit rasped against her fingertips as she pulled them through a layer of dust, finding one cobweb, and then another. She pulled these free, feeling the scuttling of spiders away from her grasp. Leaf swept her hands along each corner and crack until she had gathered all the webs she could reach. Her eyes were still closed.
She brought the trailing threads to her lap and wadded them into a tiny ball. The sounds from the hall were growing closer, but her motions were unhurried. She lifted the uneven mass up to her mouth and spit on it, then worked the spittle into the damp blob. She softly mouthed the words that came into her mind, words that skittered up from the stones around her like centipedes.
When the noise of her pursuers was only around the next corner, she sprang. Like a galley unshipping its oars all in a moment, her limbs unfolded and she flung herself down the passage, away from the approaching torches, flicking the damp mass of webs onto the floor behind her. She did not look back, even when cries rang out, even when she heard their booted steps suddenly stop and the shouted curses began, but sprinted onward into darkness.
There was nothing to see ahead of her after the first few moments as she outstripped the distant torchlight. Still she ran, her slender legs scissoring, gripping the stones of the floor with her feet through the skin-thin soles of her leather shoes. Leaf found her way by sound: the cold ringing of her footfalls off the massive walls, the dead faintness of a thick wooden door or the muffling of a cloth hanging, the double and triple clatterings of torch niches and side passageways. She turned as she could when a likely passage offered. She let herself flow with the darkness, always leading southward, toward the outer walls.
Abruptly, she spun and pressed herself up against yet another closed door. She drew long breaths in through her nostrils, the rush loud in the still air; her heartbeat pulsed in her ears. As her breathing slowed, her thoughts ran haphazardly before she could catch and calm them. Her hand slid to her belt pouch and she caressed the chain within, feeling its smooth, heavy links and the jewel as big as her thumb nestled in its setting. It had appeared delicate and almost airy in the sunlight, clasped about the stout neck of the noblewoman who wore it. It felt weightier now than it had looked. Why, she thought, had she followed the lady who bore it all the way back to this hulking keep? Why did she brave guarded doors and the revels of an evening’s feasting to lay hands on it, when a hundred other prizes offered?
The voices did not answer her. They never gave reason. Leaf’s own agitated thoughts cried out that she must get free, must go on, must fly. Only death—or, worse, confinement—awaited her if she was caught. But underneath, like the hushed murmurings of a lover, the voices sighed into her heart that she should pause, consider, trust. Wordless soothings rustled along her skin. She closed her eyes again.
After another handful of deep breaths, Leaf reached up and re-tucked the long tresses that had come loose with her running into the leather thong that bound her hair. As she did so, she felt the prick of the needles laced into the strap. A sudden impulse to draw one out stung her, but she left them in place. Instead, she pulled her long plait down across her shoulder, stroking it with her right hand without noticing she was doing so until the her heart and head spoke together. She thought she could hear distant sounds. She ignored them.
Leaf turned and pressed her hands to the surface of the door, running them over the wood grain and along the crack between the frame and the surrounding stone. She slid her fingertips over the cold metal door handle and tugged gently on the latch. It gave without resistance. She leaned like a breath against the wood, pulling the latch upward, willing the hinges to turn noiselessly. The door opened without a sound.
When the gap was just wide enough to admit her, Leaf sidled through and silently pushed it closed behind her. She stood unmoving for a long moment, opening her eyes as widely as she could. The room was nearly as dark as the corridor had been, but smelled of stale straw and musty cloth.
There was a tiny sliver of pale light to her left, the edge of a curtained window. She eased toward it, feeling her way around a rough wooden bench, a candle stand, a tall table with a clay bowl perched atop it.
The curtain was heavy velvet, hanging from ceiling to floor. Twitching it slightly aside, Leaf found a narrow, leaded window. Dim lights shone through the thick glass from a courtyard below.
The gray walls were swathed in shadows, quivering around lanterns hanging from iron hooks. The feast that she had spied on earlier—around which she had worked diligently, and the bustle of which she had used to her advantage—was being cleared away from the long wooden tables. Several women and a few men moved about their work with stolid focus. They seemed to talk among themselves, but Leaf was too distant to hear their words. Their clothes were well mended but plain, in grays and browns, like the plates. Their scalps shone in the fire, newly shaved. If the chase had gone further than the upper halls, it had not reached this courtyard. Either her pursuers were still ensnared, or there was some reason the master of the place was choosing to keep the silence.
Leaf cursed under her breath. The voices had never led her astray before, but neither had they ever led her so far afield, and never had she been so close to being taken. Surely there had been near misses—the fat innkeeper in Cloudagh who had woken while her hand was in his belt pouch, the pardian of Hechramon who had eyed her so sharply and had almost managed to follow her through the crowds in Delmos as she scurried away with one of his quills—but this was another thing together: cornered in a tower, in a defended keep, and not just suspected, but discovered. The maze narrowed here, and her choices grew thin. She fidgeted with the necklace in her pouch.
Leaf shook herself and prized deeper into the bag, plucking her small, dull dagger from underneath the necklace and drawing it out. She tested the four tall panes of the window, each little wider than her two hands outspread. They were well sealed, but the leading was old and flaking, so she began to dig at the lead with the point of the dagger.
The small, rasping scrape was loud in the silence, but Leaf did not slow. Her fears always urged pause and caution, tried to draw her off her path. Those who were caught, Leaf told herself as she often did, were caught because they did not have the will to see their work through. Others hedged and reconsidered and backtracked. She would not. The voices hissed assent, and the fear drew away its talons from her chest. She scraped around the edges of the lower right pane, feeling the shavings and crumbs rain erratically on the tops of her shoes.
A few more minutes of work had made a hole to the outside air. This she widened and hollowed until the narrow blade could slip through to the quillion. Leaf grasped the hilt in her left hand. She took up the end of the sash tied about her waist, unwound it one turn, then wrapped the excess around her knuckles. She set herself, judged the pane, and drew a deep breath. Then she struck the glass a sharp blow.
The pane cracked across at the point of impact. Leaf pressed the dagger down and the lower half of the pane creaked and toppled inward rather than out into the courtyard. The upper half stayed wedged in the leading, and it took a few hard pulls to dislodge. She set the pieces gently on the floor.
As Leaf turned again to the window, there was more movement in the yard. Another bald-pated masande trotted between the tables, and two mail-clad men followed behind with drawn blades. They went opposite directions around the outer wall as if by earlier agreement, peering into the corners of the yard. They glanced upward more than once, but only to the low outer ramparts, never up the side of the main tower itself to her window so high above.
The newly arrived servant spoke to the others. They all turned and hurried back into the kitchens; the soldiers continued on into the base of the tower. Once the courtyard was empty and Leaf breathed again, the opening seemed smaller than it had when she had begun. It was just big enough, she judged, to allow her head and perhaps one shoulder to fit through.
The mortar around the casing was crusted with dry, pale green moss; Leaf listened, then tore some from the windowsill and rubbed it on her palms. She crumbled the last of it into a smudge on her forehead, whispering the new cant that rose within her. After a moment, she put her left arm through the empty frame; the night air outside was barely cooler than that inside, though a breeze flitted down the hairs on her arm, making them stand on end. She followed her arm with her left shoulder and head. The scent of the scrub pines further down the slopes came on the breeze and cooled the sweat on her brow. The squeeze was close enough that Leaf’s hair caught for a moment in the corner of the window frame, but she pulled free—with a sharp pain but without noise—and continued.
Joint by joint she eased herself out. All her movements were precise and slow. Her thoughts screamed at her to hurry, that anyone below would now surely see her. Under her breath, she muttered the words that came: to turn away errant eyes, to lend her hands surety, to quicken loose stones. She twisted and gripped the casement of the window, feeling moss that had grown there through undisturbed years, but it did not give way under her fingers. Wisping clouds slithered across the brightness of a three-quarter moon almost directly overhead.
Leaf heard no noise from below even as she shifted first one hip, then the other out into the open air. She held on to the stone arch that surmounted the window as she extracted her legs and paused only when she was standing on the sill, the draft now cold against her damp back.
She glanced down, then up. The wall dropped far below her, and rose eight or nine arm lengths above the window to the ledge overhanging from the roof. The stones were great granite blocks, but they were rough-set, with mortar squeezed out between them in thick strands. To Leaf’s eyes, in the dim torchlight from below and the silvering of the moon from above, they had the look of a spider’s web, or the slender branches of a leafless tree, pointing the way inexorably upward. They dazzled her eyes.
A distant sound might have come from the courtyard, but she did not look. The tone of her murmurings shifted. She began to climb.