Huldis lay across the table, mixed up in fragments of wine-glass and puddles of wine that dabbled her like blood.
‘Mother!’ shouted Nico, clutching the top of his head, which was gouged and bleeding. At once the screaming started, a mixture of pitiful cries and swearing, that made Huldis want to block her ears. She lifted herself up, brushing the broken glass from her sleeves, and fell back into her seat, bruised and sore.
‘What was that?’ she said. She could hear the roar of steam from the engine. She could only believe that the train had been derailed, smashed into a heap of metal, the driver killed, burned, maimed.
‘Some fuckwit pulled the emergency brake,’ said Nico. He staggered to his feet, leaning on the table for support, and pushed himself into the aisle.
The inside of the coach was wrecked. All the bottles behind the bar had fallen and shattered, spilling their multi-coloured contents, and there was a stink of wine and spirits. Plates and food were thrown everywhere, and the other passengers were sprawled about. Work for a shaman like Huldis to do. Aching all over, she pulled back her hair and tied it in a knot, rolled up her sleeves and went to examine a fat man, semi-conscious, who was tugging at his collar and gasping for breath. Huldis reached for his pulse while his wife shouted at her, cursing and pleading for help. Huldis loosened the man’s collar and unfastened the top of his shirt. She laid her hand over his heart and felt it jump and bulge like a choking fish. There was a lump of clotted blood in one of the arteries. Huldis shut her eyes to see better beneath the skin. She must be quick and certain. With the tips of her fingers, she sent a tiny pulse of power to nudge the clot free. She caught the clot of blood before it could slip into his blood-stream, and broke it into fragments.
The man sank back in his chair, gasping and wiping his face. His eyes opened, starting from their sockets, and he rubbed his chest, coughing. The wife sprang up and caught Huldis’s hand.
‘It is a miracle,’ she said. Huldis squeezed the woman’s hand, trying to smile. With her long fair hair, she was sometimes mistaken for an angel by her patients and their grateful relatives.
‘You must take him to see a physician,’ she said. ‘I am only an apprentice shaman.’
Nico was leaning against the bar, pressing a napkin to his head, and swigging from a glass of spirits in the company of the barman and waiters, one of whom seemed to have broken his arm. Seeing Huldis, Nico lurched towards her.
‘We’d better find out what’s going on,’ he said.
‘Let me heal your head, Nico.’
‘It’s a cut, nothing more. You see if you can fix up these people and I’ll go back towards the guards’ van. I don’t like this at all.’
He squeezed her arm and was gone, bumping between the seats as he made his way to the door. The carriage was upright, and except for the breakages, and the injured passengers, Huldis realised that they had not left the rails, and there was no structural damage to the wagon. She moved amongst the tables, visiting those who were more seriously hurt first; she found that most had suffered no more than cuts, grazes and shock. The barman came to her aid; one or two bottles had survived, and he poured out tots of brandy at her command, helping himself in between.
Huldis accepted a beaker of wine, and noticed that her hand had begun to shake. She sat down at an empty table, and only then remembered that it was the one where the gamblers had been sitting. They were gone, together with their cards; the plates and glasses had fallen off the table onto the seat opposite in a mess of chicken bones and sauce. Huldis sat picking slivers of glass out of her hand. The waiter with a broken arm came to thank her, though she had done little more than put it in a sling – shamans could set bones but they could not make them grow.
‘What happened to the gamblers?’ she said. He gave a shrug.
‘No idea. I believe they went to their carriage, Madame.’
Huldis smiled at him. She wrapped her cut hand in a napkin, wishing that she had the power to heal herself. The cuts were small, but they smarted.
‘I had better go look for my friends, Monsieur,’ she said.
He inclined his head. ‘Madame is welcome to stay here as long as she wants. We will see that no-one troubles you.’
Huldis knew it would be rude to tell him that she could look after herself. She wondered how Nico had fared, and whether he had found his way to their carriage yet; he seemed a long time in coming back. She wondered whether any of the other shamans were close enough for her to use sprechen. It was rare for it to work at a distance. Huldis shut her eyes and reached out in her mind, but she could distinguish nothing more than the lights that showed there were other shamans on the train. She could make out a cluster of them; that would be Yuda, Annat and Malchik, who had just enough power to be visible.
Huldis sat up, clenching her hands. Where there should not be any shaman, a light showed in the other direction, forward toward the engine. When she focussed on it, she found a trait she did not like. Just as she could tell Annat and Yuda apart by the colour of their durmats, so this shaman had a distinct signature. She stood up, straightening her dress. The waiter inclined his head. Huldis noticed that he was a young man, and good-looking; his face was troubled.
‘Is anything the matter, Madame?’
He was gentle and attentive to her, and it was more than mere servility.
‘Please could you tie the napkin round my hand?’ she said. She was thinking fast. She did not know whether the others had been injured. She must go forward alone, to find out what this shaman was doing, and why he had not declared himself. Yuda had told her about Soul Men, rogue shamans who hunted in packs; but it was rare to find an individual Soul Man, for they gathered together like droplets of mercury, drawn by their common madness.
The waiter took the napkin which she had loosely wound round her palm and knotted it in place. He touched her hand, and Huldis felt a shiver of recognition. Whatever Yuda taught her, he had given her no lessons in how to deal with her feelings for men. She wondered whether the young man had any idea what she was feeling.
‘Are there many carriages between here and the engine?’ she said.
‘Three carriages and a baggage car, Missis,’ he said, using the Sklav term. Huldis smiled at him.
‘I think there is something amiss,’ she said. ‘I am going to look. Please can you take a message to my friends – to the other shamans? Tell them that Huldis sent you.’
He repeated her name, which Huldis knew sounded odd to modern ears. ‘I will go, Missis,’ he said.
Huldis watched him recede down the aisle towards the door. Then she turned and set her face in the other direction: towards the front of the train, where she could discern the light of the unknown shaman. She thought it was moving nearer.
When she entered the next carriage, she saw immediate evidence of trouble. Passengers were struggling to get out of the exit, jostling each other in their haste to escape. Huldis touched the arm of a man, tall and grey-headed, who seemed in less of a panic.
‘What is happening, M’sieur? Why are they running away?’
He glanced from her to the open door and back.
‘There is a presence on the train, Madame. Something that should not be there. They say people have been killed further forward. You should leave.’
She saw the concern on his lined face. He was not so eager to get away that he did not care about anyone else.
‘I am a shaman, M’sieur,’ she said. ‘This must be stopped.’
Turning from his gaze, she slipped past him, squeezing through the crowd as it emptied from the corridor. Outside, she glimpsed figures in bright sunlight scrambling down the ballast and the embankment beyond, desperate to get as far from the train as possible. Yuda had told her never to leave a train if it stopped without explanation outside a station.
Huldis moved ahead on tiptoe, trying to keep her mind empty. The afternoon sun shone in through the western windows. The next carriage was deserted; she glanced into the compartments as she passed, to see them empty except for tumbled bags and boxes. The inhabitants had not stopped to gather up their possessions; they had fled as quickly as possible, leaving everything where it had fallen.
Huldis paused. She felt trapped in this train: a box on wheels that walled her in like a coffin. She laid her hand on the window glass to steady herself, and shut her eyes. The light she had seen was closer, and she could distinguish an emptiness at the heart of it, as if it were hollow. No shaman should have such a signature. Huldis wondered whether she should go on, or wait until Yuda and Annat could join her. But she did not know what had happened to them; she might be the only one fit to face this and find out what it was. Gathering her skirt in her hand, she moved on into the final carriage, the one next to the luggage van and the engine.
Someone was standing half-way down the corridor, with his back turned. He wore the dark blue robe and high-crowned hat of a Doxan priest, and he was standing motionless, too still for a living man. Huldis felt her mouth turn dry. She knew that to reach out in her mind would be madness. She could sense a power akin to that of a shaman, but greater than anything she had ever experienced. Instead of the light or shadow of a durmat, the figure seemed to radiate emptiness.
He turned to face her. She glimpsed his features, the thick beard and brown skin; his mouth was open as if to shout, but inside there was a hole, and his eyes were pits of red fire. Huldis threw up her hands in a gesture of warding, as Yuda had taught her. The figure seemed to rush upon her without moving, seeking to engulf her in the circles of its mouth and eyes.
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