They obediently followed Gulpe up the stairs to an open door at the top. The meeting hall was sparsely furnished, with only cushions on the floor. A large window was open to the courtyard below and the daffodil-yellow light spilled through onto the floorboards, gently warming the room and bringing with it the sounds of the splashing fountain and snatches of a pretty melody played on a distant lute.
Gathered on the cushions were many of the changelings Gwin had glimpsed at the Midnight Bard competition. They all turned to watch as she entered the room, many of them with welcoming smiles on their faces. Towards the back of the hall, half hidden in shadow, Gwin recognised the young woman with the birthmark. The changeling regarded her with dark, solemn eyes, customary hood pulled low over her brow. Her expression was impossible to read but there was something about her that made Gwin pause.
Pushing the feeling away, Gwin addressed the group sitting on the cushions, trying hard not to show how nervous she had suddenly become. “Good afternoon,” she began. “It is so nice to see you all here. My name is Gwin and as I am sure you all know by now, I am an Asrai.”
The changelings remained silent, although several of them were still smiling up at her. Feeling terribly exposed standing before them so stiffly, Gwin lowered herself onto a cushion and folded her hands in her lap. “You all seemed to know I would be here today,” she continued. “Your scrying magick must be very accurate. I would expect no less, everything here in your beautiful sanctuary is so impressive.” Gwin paused to collect herself, wondering how best to proceed. “The fact that you need a sanctuary at all is a terrible travesty though, is it not?” At this, the changelings before her ceased smiling and nodding and became grave.
“We have Lord Dewer to blame for that,” proclaimed a dark voice. Gwin turned to see it had come from the girl with the birthmark. “And your people, of course. It was the Asrai who birthed our foremothers and promptly fled from the land, leaving us at Dewer’s mercy. Kudann was a peaceful place before he came. He brought the druids with him and they, in turn, brought their harsh sky magick, darkening every pure thing they touched. Our earth magicks were outlawed, its practitioners strung up from the new city walls. Our people were either chased from this place or forced to live in the shadows.”
“What is your name?” Gwin said, fighting the urge to recoil from the girl’s cold glare. She had the distinct impression the changeling had been waiting a long time to deliver this little speech.
“I am called Sorcha.”
“I agree with everything you said, Sorcha, but I am not here to stand trial for the ancient crimes of the Asrai. Those events happened in a time before my own. Yes, I am here to make amends but also to start afresh, to forge a new and stronger alliance between our peoples.”
“You are only here because the Asrai were attacked,” Sorcha hissed. “You mean to beg us to die for you.” For a sickening moment, Gwin thought she could feel the eye pendant fluttering against her throat, readying itself to open. Mercifully, Sorcha was silenced by a second changeling and the eye fell still.
“Hush now, Sorcha,” the changeling was saying. “You do not speak for all of us.” She smiled prettily at Gwin. “We had come to believe the Asrai were a myth. My name is Tamsin, I am honoured to meet you.” The girl could almost have passed for human with her soft hazel eyes and thick, strawberry blonde hair. It was only as she became animated that Gwin was able to see her true nature, hidden in the minute sparks of colour that blazed in her eyes.
“The honour is mine,” Gwin replied, grateful for Tamsin’s swift interjection. “Although I can understand why you might all be sceptical of my intentions. I was not prepared for you to know as much as you do already, but it is true the Asrai were attacked. A terrible enemy was sent from the north and in our time of need, we had no one to turn to for help. I can see now how foolish my people have been. We cut ourselves off from the world and that was a mistake. I did come to Armoria intending to ask for your aid…” Gwin’s voice trailed away and when she found it again, she spoke so softly her audience had to strain to hear her. “I did not consider how you must blame the Asrai for your current plight. How can I ask you to help my people now?”
“You can’t, Mrs,” Gulpe said. He was standing just outside the circle of cross-legged changelings, an empty pipe clenched in his teeth. “You thought you’d sweep in here and play your little flute and we’d all follow you like well-trained keuhog pups. It can’t have escaped your attention that no one sought you out after your performance at the Midnight Bard. We owe no loyalty to the Asrai and we won’t be bringing trouble down on our heads for you.” He removed the pipe from his teeth to turn his head and spit on the floor.
Gwin suddenly felt ill. She had a strong desire to leave Kudann immediately, to flee from the Bard’s Quarter and leave its people in peace.
Tamsin reached for her hand and squeezed it gently. “My friends may think differently, but I don’t want to see the Asrai suffer,” she said. “You are our kin, after all.”
Gwin lifted her gaze to Tamsin’s kind face. “Neither do I wish to see the changelings suffer,” she said. Then, with a sudden clarity that made her breath catch, “I should not be the one asking you for help. I should be offering to help you.” A plan sprung into her mind, so clear and fully formed she thought it must have been a gift from Thetia herself. “It is not the Asrai alone who are threatened by Dewer’s monsters. He poses a very real danger to everyone in Joria, not least the changelings whom he has condemned to live in the shadows of his city. I have the most outrageous idea—”
A sudden cry rent the air, so deep and guttural it seemed to fill the sky and reverberate from the clouds.
“What in the name of Thetia’s mercy was that?” Gulpe cried.
They rose from the cushions as one, running to the window and out onto the balcony, searching the sky for answers. Gwin followed Tamsin outside, one hand pressed to the leafling shivering in her pocket. A second cry tore through the city, accompanied by a swelling tremor that shook the buildings on every side, making the ancient brickwork sigh and groan. Gwin lost her balance and fell forward against the balcony railing.
“It’s not coming from Kudann,” Sorcha announced, appearing behind her. “It’s coming from outside, from the Bard’s Quarter.”
“Are we safe here?” Tamsin wondered, her voice trembling.
“I’m sure you are, but my shop bloody isn’t,” said Gulpe, starting to run down the steps.
“You should stay here,” Gwin called after him. A horrible fear was blooming in her chest. She had heard that gut-wrenching cry before. It was the same shriek bellowed by the demon that had slain her family upon the ice.
“I believe one of Dewer’s beasts is abroad,” she tried again, leaning over the balcony.
Gulpe took no notice of her and continued his descent, jumping down two steps at a time until he reached the ground. Shaking her head, Gwin took off after him, down the steps and across the courtyard, back to the fountain and the secret entrance to Kudann. Just before she ducked beneath the water, intending to chase Gulpe back down Midnight Lane and make sure he came to no harm, Gwin realised she was not alone. Turning with a start, she saw Tamsin, Barlo and Neave close behind her.
“Do not follow me,” she pleaded. “Your lives could be in danger.”
“I will remain by your side,” Tamsin said. She pulled a stubby dagger from her belt and held it up in the yellow light where it gleamed dully. “If we need to fight, I am ready.”
“You’re not getting rid of us that easily, either,” Barlo said. “My people are out there, I won’t hide here like a coward.”
“Very well,” Gwin relented. “Stay behind me, and be quick on your toes. If it is as I fear and a demon is attacking The Bard’s Quarter, it will be fast and relentless. Do not put yourself in its path.”
Gwin stepped into the fountain and pushed her way through the sheet of water as another blaring cry of rage echoed across the city. At her throat, her pendant flickered, suffused with a brightening silver that seemed to make it grow subtly larger. By the time she reached Gulpe’s shop, the lone purple eye had begun to open.