Mr. crepsley brought harkatto see me while I was eating. The Little Person hadn't been allowed to attend the investiture - only vampires were permitted at the prestigious event - and knew nothing about my return until he walked into the Hall and spotted me shoveling food down my throat. "Darren!" he gasped, hurrying forward.
"'Lo, Harkat," I mumbled around a mouthful of fried rat.
"What are... you doing... here? Did they... catch you?"
"Not exactly. I gave myself up."
"Don't ask me to explain it now," I pleaded. "I've just finished telling the Princes. You'll pick the story up soon enough. Tell me what's been happening while I was away."
"Nothing much," Harkat said. "The vampires were... furious when they... found out you'd fled. I told them... I knew... nothing about it. They didn't... believe me, but I... stuck to my... story, so there was... nothing they could... do."
"He would not even tell me the truth," Mr. Crepsley said.
I looked at the vampire, ashamed of myself. "I'm sorry I ran away," I muttered.
"So you should be," he grunted. "It was not like you, Darren."
"I know." I moped. "I could blame Kurda - I wouldn't have run if he hadn't talked me into it - but the truth is I was scared and seized the opportunity to get away when it presented itself. It wasn't just dying that I was worried about - there was also the walk to that horrible Hall of Death, then being hung above the stakes and..." I shivered at the thought.
"Do not chastise yourself too much," Mr. Crepsley said softly. "I am more to blame for letting them subject you to the Trials in the first place. I should have insisted upon a suitable period of time to prepare for the Trials and the consequences of failure. The fault is ours, not yours. You reacted as anyone who had not been fully versed in the ways of the vampires would have."
"I say it was fate," Seba murmured. "Had he not fled, we would never have been alerted to Kurda's treacherous nature or the presence of the vampaneze."
"The hands of... fate keep time... on a heart-shaped... watch," Harkat said, and we all turned to stare at him.
"What does that mean?" I asked.
He shrugged. "I'm not sure. It just... popped into my... head. It's something Mr... Tiny used to say."
We looked at each other uneasily, thinking about Mr. Tiny and the heart-shaped watch he was so fond of playing with.
"You think Desmond Tiny could have had something to do with this?" Seba asked.
"I do not see how," Mr. Crepsley said. "I believe Darren had the natural luck of the vampires on his side. On the other hand, where that dark horse Tiny is concerned - who knows?"
While we sat puzzling it over - the meddling fingers of fate, or sheer good fortune? - a messenger from the Princes arrived, and I was escorted through the lower Halls and tunnels to join the trackers and set off in search of the vampaneze.
Vanez Blane - who'd trained me for my Trials - was among the five chosen trackers. The one-eyed games master took my hands in his and squeezed hard by way of greeting. "I knew you would not desert us," he said. "Others cursed you, but I was sure you'd return once you had time to think things through. I told them it was a poor decision made in haste, which you'd soon correct."
"I bet you didn't bet on me returning." I grinned.
"Now that you mention it - no, I didn't," he laughed. Vanez examined my feet to make sure my padding was adequate. All the trackers were wearing soft shoes. He offered to find a pair for me, but I said I'd stick with the pieces of sack.
"We must proceed with utmost caution," he warned. "No sudden movements, no lights, and no talking. Communicate by hand signals. And take this." He gave me a long, sharp knife. "If you have to use it, don't hesitate."
"I won't," I swore, thinking about the knife that had savagely cut short the life of my friend Gavner Purl.
Down we went, as silently as we could. I'm not sure I could have found the way back to the cave on my own - I hadn't been paying attention to the route that night - but the trackers had followed the trail I'd left when they came looking for me and knew which way to go.
We crawled through the tunnel under the stream. It wasn't as frightening this time, not after all I'd been through since I last passed this way. As we stood, I pointed wordlessly to the tunnel that connected the small cave to the larger one. Two of the trackers advanced and checked on the cave beyond. I listened intently for sounds of a struggle, but there weren't any. Moments later, one of the trackers returned and shook his head. The rest of us trailed after him into the bigger cave.
My insides tightened when I saw that the cave was deserted. It looked as if it had been empty since the beginning of time. I had a bad feeling that we'd be unable to find the vampaneze and I'd be called a liar. Vanez, sensing this, nudged me gently and winked. "It'll be OK," he mouthed, then joined the others, who were exploring the cave cautiously.
"It didn't take the trackers long to uncover evidence of the vampaneze and calm my fears. One found a scrap of cloth, another a fragment from a broken bowl, another a small pool of spit where a vampaneze had cleared his throat. When they'd gathered enough evidence, we returned to the smaller cave, where we held a quiet conversation, safe in the knowledge that the roar of the stream would cover our voices.
"It was vampaneze all right," one of the trackers said. "A couple of dozen at least."
"They covered their tracks admirably," another grunted. "We only unearthed them because we knew what to look for. We'd never have noticed if we'd been giving the cave a quick once-over."
"Where do you think they are now?" I asked.
"Hard to say," Vanez mused, scratching the lid of his blind eye. "There aren't a lot of caves nearby where that many vampaneze could hide comfortably. But they may have split into smaller groups and scattered."
"I doubt it," one of the others remarked. "If I was in charge of them, I'd want everyone to stick close together, in case we were discovered. I think we'll find them bunched up, possibly close to an exit point, ready to fight or flee en masse.?
"Let's hope so," Vanez said. "It could take ages to locate them all if they've split up. Can you find your way back to the Halls?" he asked me.
"Yes," I said, "but I want to come with you."
He shook his head. "We brought you down to show us the cave. Now that you've done that, there's no place for you here. We can move more quickly without you. Return to the Halls and tell the others what we found. We'll be back when we find the vampaneze."
Seba met me at the gate of entry and escorted me up to the Hall of Princes. Many Generals had filed in to discuss the emergency, but apart from those with special permission to run errands, none had been allowed to leave the cave around the Hall, so a lot stood or sat outside, waiting for news to trickle through.
Mr. Crepsley and Harkat were inside. The vampire was talking with the Princes. Harkat was standing to one side with Madam Octa's cage. He presented it to me when I joined him. "I thought... you'd be glad... to see her," he said.
I wasn't really, but I pretended I was. "Great, Harkat." I smiled. "Thanks for thinking of it. I missed her."
"Harkat has been taking good care of your spider," Seba said. "He offered to give her to me when you disappeared, but I told him to hang on to her. I said one never knew what lay around the corner - I had a feeling you might be back."
"You may wind up with her yet," I said gloomily. "I seem to have won back my honor, but there's still my failure in the Trials to deal with."
"Surely they won't... punish you for... that now?" Harkat said.
I glanced at Seba's face - it was stern, and he said nothing.
Vanez Blane returned a couple of hours later with good news - they'd discovered the location of the vampaneze. "They're in a long, narrow cave, close to the exterior of the mountain," Vanez explained to the Princes, wasting no time on rituals or pleasantries. "There's one way in and one way out. The exit tunnel runs straight to the outside, so they can make a quick getaway if they have to."
"We'll position men outside to catch them if they do," Mika said.
"That will be difficult," Vanez sighed. "The ground is steep where the tunnel opens out, and I'm sure they'll have sentries posted. I doubt that we'll be able to sneak men up there. It will be better to take them inside if we can."
"You think we cannot?" Paris asked sharply, alerted by Vanez's worried tone.
"It won't be easy, however we go about it," Vanez said. "No matter how delicately we mask our approach, we won't be able to surprise them. Once they become aware of us closing in, they'll throw up a rear phalanx to delay us while the majority escape."
"What if we block the tunnel from the outside?" Arrow asked. "Create an avalanche or something. Then they'd have to stand and fight."
"That's a possibility," Vanez agreed, "but blocking the tunnel may prove awkward. Besides, that would alert them to our presence and intentions, and they'd have time to prepare for us. I'd rather spring a trap."
"You think they might beat us in a fair fight?" Arrow snorted.
Vanez shook his head. "No. We couldn't get close enough to make a full count, but I don't think there's more than forty vampaneze down there, probably less. I've no doubt that we'll beat them." The vampires cheered Vanez's claim. "It's not the winning that bothers me," he shouted over their excited clamors. "It's the losses we'll incur."
"Damn the losses!" Arrow growled. "We've spilled blood before, dispatching vampaneze - who here will hesitate to spill it again?" By the roars it was plain that nobody would.
"That's easy to say," Vanez sighed when the cheers had died down. "But if we charge in and take them on without some sort of a distraction, we're looking at the possible loss of thirty or forty vampires, maybe more. The vampaneze have nothing to lose and will fight to the bitter, bloody end. Do you want to take responsibility for those casualties, Arrow?"
Much of the vampires' joy abated at Vanez's words. Even the eager, vampaneze-hating Arrow looked hesitant. "You think we'll lose that many?" he asked quietly.
"We'd be lucky to just lose thirty or forty," Vanez replied bluntly. "They've picked their position expertly. We won't be able to rush or overwhelm them. We'll have to advance a handful at a time, taking them on one-to-one. Our superior numbers will lead to eventual victory, but it won't be quick or easy. They'll hurt us - badly.?
The Vampire Princes shared an uncomfortable look. "Those sorts of figures are unacceptable," Paris stated bleakly.
"They are a bit on the high side," Mika reluctantly agreed.
"Is it possible to create a diversion?" Mr. Crepsley asked, joining in the discussion. "Could we flood or smoke them out?"
"I've thought of that," Vanez said. "I don't see any way of pumping enough water down there to trouble them. Fire would be ideal, but the cave's well ventilated. The ceiling's high and full of tiny cracks and holes. We'd have to get inside the cave and light a huge bonfire to create enough smoke to bother them."
"Then it will have to be a full-frontal attack," Paris declared. "We will send in our best spearists first, who should eliminate many of them before we go hand-to-hand. Our losses should not be as great that way."
"They'll still be substantial," Vanez objected. "Spearists won't have much room to operate. They might take out the guards by the entrance, but after that..."
"What option do we have?" Arrow snapped. "Would you rather we went down with a white flag and discussed peace terms?"
"Don't bellow at me in that tone!" Vanez shouted.
"I'm as anxious to get at them as any vampire here. But it will be a Pyrrhic victory if we fight one-to-one."
Paris sighed. "If that is the only victory we can hope for, we must accept it."
In the short silence that followed, I asked Seba what a Pyrrhic victory was. "That is when the price of winning is too high," he whispered. "If we defeat the vampaneze, but lose sixty or seventy of our own troops doing so, it will be a worthless victory. The first rule of warfare is never to weaken yourself irreparably while destroying your enemies."
"There is one alternative," Paris said hesitantly. "We could run them off. If we made a lot of noise approaching, I am sure they would scatter rather than face us. The vampaneze are not cowards, but they aren't fools either. They will not stand and fight a battle they are sure to lose."
Angry mutters greeted this suggestion. Most vampires believed that would be dishonorable. They agreed that they'd rather confront the vampaneze.
"It is not the most honorable of tactics," Paris shouted over the heated whispers, "but we could pursue and fight them on the outside. Many would escape, but we would capture and kill enough of them to teach them a harsh lesson."
"Paris has a point," Mika said, and the muttering stopped. "I don't like it, but if it's a choice between letting most go or sacrificing forty or fifty of our own...?
Heads began nodding, slowly, unhappily. Paris asked Arrow what he thought of the suggestion. "I think it stinks," he snarled. "The vampaneze aren't bound by our laws - they can flit once outside. We'd catch virtually none of them." Flitting was the superquick speed vampires and vampaneze could run at. By tradition, vampires were not allowed to flit on the way to and from Vampire Mountain.
"Were I a General," Arrow went on, "I'd object most vehemently to letting them go. I'd rather fight and die than concede ground to the enemy in such a meek fashion." He sighed miserably. "But, as a Prince, I must put the welfare of our people before the stirrings of my heart. Unless somebody can think of a plan to distract the vampaneze and clear the way for an attack, I will agree to running them off."
When nobody spoke up, the Princes called their leading Generals forward and discussed the best way to drive off the vampaneze and where they should place their men on the outside. An air of disappointment hung heavily over the Hall, and most vampires stood or sat with their heads bowed, disgusted.
"They don't like this," I whispered to Seba.
"Nor do I," he replied, "but pride must be checked in the face of such aggressive odds. We could not allow our men to perish in horrifying numbers, all for the sake of honor. Reason must be obeyed, no matter how galling it might be."
I was as upset as the rest of the vampires. I wanted revenge for Gavner Purl. There was no satisfaction in letting the vampaneze wriggle off the hook. I'd spoiled their plans to invade the Hall of Princes, but that wasn't enough I could imagine the smirk on Kurda's face when he learned of our diplomatic decision.
As I stood, pouting, a tiny insect flew into Madam Octa's cage and got trapped in a small web she'd spun in a corner. The spider reacted quickly and advanced on the struggling captive, disposing of it. I watched, mildly interested, then stiffened as a crazy thought struck me.
Gazing at the feeding spider, I let my brain whirl wildly, and the plan formed within a matter of seconds. It was simple yet effective - the very best sort.
Standing on my tiptoes, I cleared my throat three times before I managed to attract Mr. Crepsley's attention. "Yes, Darren?" he asked wearily.
"Excuse me," I called, "but I think I know how to distract the vampaneze."
All conversation ceased, and every pair of eyes settled on me. I stepped forward unbidden and spoke nervously. As I outlined my proposals, the vampires started to smile. By the time I finished, most were laughing outright at the wicked, cunning scheme.
Voting was brief and unanimous. My plan was put to the vampires, and, as one, they roared their approval. Without any further ado, the Princes and Generals fell to organizing their attack forces, while Seba, Mr. Crepsley, and I slipped away to gather together our own army of troops and prepare for the first stage of what, in a war film, would probably have been called Operation Arachnid!