The City, Caledonia, 1849.
'Castles in the sky.'
As Jake looked up through the gloaming light, he could clearly see that the Fortress consisted of thousands of massive blocks. His gaze moved from left to right, then rested on black battlements, highlighted against a darkening sky. This was truly a grim place.
Who had built it, when and how? No one knew. Jake had heard it had existed long before any settlements were ever seen on the plain below. The City had once been a town, the town once a village. Perhaps the village had grown from a line of fishermen's cottages, bravely eking out a living at the river's end.
Brave, not because conditions were harsh, which they surely were, but because even then this citadel had stood, casting its shadow over all who dared draw close.
"Have ye seen enough young sir?" His guide was growing impatient.
"Any idea when this was built, Wat?" Jake asked.
"Oh, a long time ago, sir. A long, long time ago. Nobody really knows. Some say ancient giants built it. Another story goes that men from the stars came, and since they liked to build their houses close to home, they built them up there in the sky."
Jake had heard the first story but not the second. "Which one do you favour, friend?"
"Och don't listen to neither sir. Give me a good army and I'd have the same built in a fortnight. You don't need giants to lift a rock. As for visitors from the stars, they'd leave as soon as they arrived. Imagine traveling across the heavens only to find war, pestilence and famine."
Jake smiled to himself, thinking to agree. "C'mon then," he said. "Let's find out what we can. The path's quite a trek."
"Oh it's a trek alright, slithering up like a snake on a mountain."
"I wonder how they manage in winter," Jake said.
Wat laughed lightly. "Another mystery. Sometimes there are questions you don't want answered."
Jake thought that unlikely. They clambered higher, leaving no breath spare for talking. Jake worried that darkness would descend and they'd end scraping their way unsighted up the bleak road, but the higher they climbed, the lighter the sky grew. The path wheeled round before levelling out, and from fifty yards distance Jake could make out the cut and shaped granite blocks of the Fortress, each of the stones taller than a man and as wide as a house.
"You have your letter I suppose?" said Wat.
Jake tapped his breast pocket.
Wat nodded and looked at him as if to say 'won't be much use,' shrugged and moved to the huge double doors. He gripped the metal knock and threw hard against a bar of iron fixed to the wood. A fierce clang set Jake’s ears ringing. The cold wind ripped at his clothes, and he hugged his jacket close. Soon, bangs and rattles from inside took his attention.
"There you go, sir." Wat gave a wry smile. "Best of luck." With a bit of a wave he turned to go.
"Are you not coming in with me?" Jake needlessly asked. For all he found Wat's company as comforting as his shadow's, Jake would still have welcomed it.
"Never been in and no hankering to go. It's not for the likes of me. Down's the same way as up. If it's dark, light a torch. See you." Wat's voice thinned to a whisper in the wind and he amounted to no more than a dot on the landscape when the doors swung open.
Jake peered into the darkness, moving forward slowly, trying to pick his way through the gloom.
Suddenly light flooded the hallway, without any obvious source. Seeing a closed door to the right, Jake lifted his hand to knock, but at that moment the door swung open. Of course. Party tricks for the unwashed. He entered the room to find a table and chairs, a wall full of books and a figure up a ladder. The man looked normal and Jake realised he expected something different.
"Be careful below," the man announced, sliding down the wooden steps. "Welcome, Jake. I’m Conall, one of the wizards of the mountain fortress.” He held out a hand and Jake responded.
“I've got my letter of introduction.” Jake reached inside his jacket pocket.
”Oh don't worry about that. You wouldn't have got past the door if we didn't know who you were. You're the one the hounds are after. Let's sit and talk for a bit."
The table measured the length of two men and the width of one. Jake knew from the grain that it was built from walnut, but age and polish had turned the bright wood dark. Dents, scores and flagon rings spoke of a thing well used.
Jake took a good look at the man. Even without smiling, he had a friendly face. Over six feet tall, middle-aged, clean-shaven, with black hair cut short and neat as if to order, Jake sensed intense power locked within his athletic frame. He reminded Jake of a young Calum.
"Before we go any further, I'd like to say how sorry I am for Samhain.” Conall rested his hands flat on the table. “How is he, do you know?”
“He looks very bad,” Jake said. “The people who are looking after him say he'll recover in time.” He paused. “Samhain asked me to show you something. He thought it's what the robbers wanted.”
Conall nodded. “It's not much of a guess Jake, but I'm thinking you have a piece of jewellery?”
“It's a diamond.” Jake reached to retrieve the gem. “With three flaws.”
Conall's eyebrows rose in surprise. "A jewel's worth depends on clarity. Why would robbers be after one with flaws?"
Jake took a deep breath. "The flaws appear to have a regular shape to them, like tiny metal boxes."
"Not the sort of thing to be found in a diamond. Quite a mystery. So the thieves were after the jewel?"
"But from what Trantor says, it's you Tavish is after." His brow crinkled as he looked at Jake. "I'd like to introduce you to a colleague of mine," he said. "This is more his field of work. I think he'd be interested in having a word with you.”
“Of course,” Jake agreed. Conall left the room and Jake wandered over to the bookshelves. His heart stirred as he considered the books, holding as they did centuries of knowledge gleaned from thousands of minds. Jake was engrossed in his task and didn't notice the door open.
“Jake. I’d like you to meet....”
Jake turned round when Conall began to speak.
“Alexander,” Jake mouthed.
“Hello Jake. I wondered if our visitor might be you. Conall asked if I'd like to meet someone with an interesting story. How could I refuse? And Jake's a name I’d only come across the once, so I was doubly intrigued.”
Conall had a blank look on his face.
“I met Jake a few days ago,” Alexander explained. “We had a little chat.”
"We live in a small world,” Conall said, shaking his head. "Well, if you two old pals don't mind, I'll leave you both to figure this one out.”
Alexander sat himself comfortably and pursed his lips. "You're a surprise.”
“I'm surprised too,” Jake said. “Not much ever happened to me. Now everything seems to be happening at once.”
"Oh? Tell me."
Jake explained how Alexander's fears for Machan appeared to be well founded. He described his escape to The City, and confessed his worry seeing Belling and Tavish together at the Council meeting.
“This Belling’s an odd one. I can’t place his accent, and the name is unfamiliar. We in the Fortress pride ourselves in knowing who holds power, but Belling appears to have arrived out of the blue. As for Tavish, he has a history we are well aware of. He stirs up trouble wherever he goes, upsetting people with his version of Law and Order. He's not one to get on the wrong side of."
”I managed without trying," Jake said. "I can understand thieves wanting a diamond, but why should Tavish want me?"
"Because you are a Starchild," Alexander said simply.
"You don't believe that, do you?"
"I'm not the one chasing you. You need to worry about what Tavish believes."
Jake wearily shook his head.
"The idea of a Starchild is not so unusual, Jake. You will find many references to people from the stars in our books. Legends from every part of the world speak of them. Many of the legends mention the star people's abilities to communicate using thoughts. Tavish believes he can catch the thoughts of Starchildren, especially when they are emotional."
"Even if any of this is possible, I don't come from the stars."
"I don't think it's meant to be taken literally Jake," Alexander said. "I'm sure the thinking is that your ancestors came from the stars with this sensory ability, but the ability died out over hundreds or thousands of years."
"It's a nice story to tell to children, but why would any one take such a fairy tale seriously nowadays?"
"Because an ever-increasing number of people claim to have the ability," Alexander said. "Perhaps it didn't die out. Perhaps it only lay dormant and is emerging again? What if one day Jake, we could all read each others thoughts?"