his lake must be enormous, Mark said. He felt as though he had been rowing for ages and still they couldnt see the other side by the light of the torch burning in Esmés hand. And the steps from which they had climbed into the boat were no longer visible. Black water and parts of the roof where it almost met the lakes surface were all they could see in every direction. To make matters worse, Mark became aware he was starting to tire. And without anything to guide him he couldnt even be sure he was rowing in the right direction.
As though able to read his thoughts, the leader of the snowsnakes started making the strange noises that Mark was able to turn into intelligible form.
Youre still on course, it said. Well let you know if you start going the wrong way.
Mark started in surprise: the snowsnakes, nervous with all that water under them, had been so quiet that he had almost forgotten they were there. Too preoccupied to give more than a passing thought to how they knew the way, he later found out that the Voice of Judgement had granted them temporary navigating abilities.
Thanks, he said with a grateful sigh.
Why dont you let me row for a bit? Esmé suggested. When Mark simply turned and looked at her in surprise she added in annoyance, Stop acting like a male chauvinist pig: Ive had more rest than you and, besides, youve banged your head. Youll be useless to us all if you dont have a break.
Feeling chastened, his male pride hurt, he handed the oars to her and took the torch.
Where did you hear that dreadful feminist term? To his annoyance, his voice came out sounding rather sulky.
He saw Esmés eyes spark like fireworks as she bent herself to the oars. Ive been studying Earth ways ever since I met you. By all accounts its often a very accurate term on your planet. Her voice softened as though she realised she had hurt his feelings. And I know you were being gallant, not bigoted. Only, gallantry isnt always appropriate.
She gave him that bright smile that seemed to light up the whole world. He could think of nothing more suitable to say to this than a muttered Sorry before he turned back to stare over the stern of the dinghy. He heard the ungraciousness of the apology and instantly regretted it. Esmé was always, he reflected wryly, much more generous than he was. She even answered his mumble with her own apology, better than any use of the word sorry: Dont be. Chivalrys rather charming, even when its misplaced.
But just then something drove all thoughts of his shortcomings as a Prince Consort for Lazaronias future queen from his mind: a glimmer of light from the direction they had come. For a moment the glimmer looked to him like a pair of yellow eyes.
He held the torch up higher and craned his neck. But there was nothing there. It must, he thought, have been the light from his own torch, reflected so that it fooled him. After all, a burning torch wasnt the steadiest of lights. And besides, because the boat was moving, shadows and patches of light were continually changing. All the same, his heart hammered. What if it was Ignarius? Or Mirabell and Fallanein? Had his overwrought imagination turned the lamps they would be carrying into eyes? But, since he wasnt sure, it would probably be best to say nothing
However, Esmé was too well tuned to his moods. Whats the matter? What can you see?
Nothing, he said with a shrug. My minds playing tricks. I thought, for a moment, I saw a pair of yellow eyes
He pointed straight ahead. Without even realising it, Esmé started rowing slightly faster, putting everything she had into each stroke. Keep your eyes skinned, then.
Dont worry. They are.
Warily the leader of the snowsnakes lifted its head over the side of the boat. It stared hard in the direction Mark had pointed.
Yellow eyes? it yammered. Like ours?
No: real yellow,like a lantern, but cold; and much larger than yours.
The snowsnakes knew only one creature with eyes that matched such a descriptionan enemy that long ago had nearly wiped their kind out, an alien predator recently seen again in Lazaronias mountainous regions. One had been responsible for their own deaths by trying to eat them alivea fate from which Fallanein had saved them. To have it happen again would be too much. The thought made them shrink down in quivering terror. But neither of them said anything, for what would a creature of the air be doing in the depths of an underground lake?
What seemed like hours passed. Mark had taken the oars again while Esmé rested. He valiantly tried to hide that his rest hadnt really helped. After all, Esmés ordeal had nearly killed her. It cheered him greatly when the infant, who until then had been as quiet as the snowsnakes, rose in the air and whispered in his ear, Just do your best and shell be happy. The child then went back to his seat.
The snowsnakes joined Esmé in keeping watch. At the same time they corrected the rower when the boat went off course. By now the torch had burned so low Esmé lit the second one. None of them dared voice the terrible fear that it might not last until the end of the journey. And the eyesor lightsthat Mark thought he had seen made them all jumpy. Every shadow now took on a menacing human form.
The end came suddenly. At the time they were watching everywhere but where they were going. As a result none of them saw the rock that barely cleared the lakes surface, a rock that later wasnt there. Its sharp edge ripped through the boats hull like a knife through cardboard. Mark reckoned a giant kauri yielding to the blows of a woodsmans axe couldnt have made more noise.
Then they were all in the water. The flame of Esmés torch hissed in protest before the water killed its light. Marks first thought was for Esmé; Esmés was for Mark. Within moments they found each otherfor, in spite of the loss of the torch, they could somehow still see. In their terror they didnt wonder why. They clung together, too preoccupied with their problem to notice that the nature of the light had changed.
For the snowsnakes, their worst nightmare had come true. Mark and Esmé had hardly found each other than the snowsnakes terrified yammering made them look around. They both moved towards the thrashing creatures. Within moments each of them had something that felt like a boa constrictor twined over neck and shoulders.
Only then did they realise the light had changed from yellow to silvery white. They looked in the direction it was coming from. And on the rocky bank stood Silvranja, her head lowered so that her horn pointed straight at them. It was from her horn that the light came. The infant stood beside her, his silver-blond curls clinging to his head.
Silvranja! they both cried in breathless wonder.
Instead of answering their greeting, the unicorn used her strange mind-picture language to tell them to grab at her forelegs so that she could help them out. They obeyed and within moments found themselves standing cold and wet on a wide, stony ledge sloping up to another cave.
The snowsnakes, their terror forgotten as soon as they found themselves safe, clambered from Mark and Esmés shoulders. They rushed straight up the slope, both jabbering so frenziedly Mark was unable to work out what they were saying. And Silvranja was sending out messages that he suddenly couldnt understand. She showed him what looked like white statues of dragonsa whole family of themand another of a unicorn. Whatever they were made of looked as though it had a strange, rough texture. It looked peculiarly familiar but he couldnt remember seeing anything else fashioned in it. And yet he could almost imagine the gritty texture under his hands.
Only when he followed the snowsnakes did he realise what Silvranja had been trying to tell him. There, by the light from the unicorns horn, he saw them: Flame, Flare, the Piksendragons and the dragonlings, and Albishadewe, all frozen in salt like Lots wife. They looked like giant sugar cubes sculpted by a master into animal shape.
Who did this? Esmé cried.
Silvranja showed them a mind-picture of Mirabell.
I had to continually immerse myself in the lake to keep myself immune, which was why I used the last of my power to sink your boat, she explained in quick images. But I couldnt stay in the lake because of the wyvern, so my legs, the first part to dry off, started turning to salt.
It was only then they could see that hair and hide had entirely disappeared from Silvranjas legs. Hurriedly Esmé set about healing them. But the knowledge that they were almost certainly being pursued made it difficult to concentrate. And Silvranja was fast sinking into shock. Clearly the only power she had leftthe ability to use her horn as a lightwould also soon go.
But Silvranja hardly gave Esmé a chance to do much more than heal her legs as, with a sense of urgency, she showed them a picture of herself, with Mark and Esmé and the snowsnakes on her back, fleeing down the dark tunnels on the other side of the cave with the infant hovering above them.
But we cant leave Albishadewe and the dragons like this! Esmé cried in horror.
We have no choice, Silvranja explained. No harm will come to them, and theyll return to normal when Mirabell has been defeated.
What ifwhat if she throws them in the lake? At the break in Esmés voice and the picture her words conjured up, Mark moved to her side and squeezed her hand. Even in her fear at what might happen to her animal friends, Esmé managed to smile her thanks as she squeezed his fingers in return.
Thats what she intends doing. But at the moment other things are more important to her and she needs her powers for them. Silvranjas mind-pictures of the sorceress luring Fallanein to her bedroom might have set them laughing at another time, but the following images of what Mirabell intended for themselves reinforced in their minds the horror of their position.
Mark grabbed one of the snowsnakes; Esmé snatched up the other. With the creatures twined around their necks like scarves, Mark and Esmé scrambled onto Silvranjas back. They turned to look for the infant. Almost at once they saw him, standing on the edge of the lake. But they didnt have to call him. He turned, flailing his free arm at the darkness behind him.
The eyes! The eyes! Now airborne, he streaked towards them even as he shrieked. The caves bounced his shrill treble from wall to wall.
Silvranja sent out a sound like a trumpeting elephant. In the split second before she leapt away Mark and Esmé turned to the lake. And they saw the eyestwin lamps resting on the water. But in the same instant the lake erupted in an explosion like a tidal wave. The eyes rushed upwards before charging towards them. Behind the silver of the surging wall of water something black spread out. Silvranja was already in headlong flight when Mark and Esmé recognised the owner of the eyes: a wyvern. And in the last glimmer of Silvranjas light they saw the red, blue and purple of Mirabells robes. But there was just enough light for them to see it wasnt Mirabell riding the wyvern. It was Ignarius.