The Black Staircase
The drivers cracked their whips, urging the procession of wagons and horses onwards and away from the curving cliff edge. The wagon wheels found their way into the ancient ruts worn into the dark rock road by centuries of traffic. To the people of the island the circling road was known as the Black Staircase, running all the way from the harbour below, through the city, around the mountainous island.
Drew pushed his face against the bamboo bars, looking down the cliff as the wagon he travelled in drove ever higher. There were six of them in the jail wagon, each equally miserable. No doubt Drew’s fellow slaves had been picked up by Kesslar on his travels, and each bore the scars of the journey. Battered and beaten, the men were weary with exhaustion and the long time spent in the hold of the slave ship. The Goatlord Kesslar travelled at the front of the procession in a sumptuous caravan, his ill-gotten gains of blood, flesh and bone following miserably behind.
The Black Staircase had risen from the docks through the strange city, past bazaars and merchants’ stalls, before winding through the town houses higher up. Far below in the harbour Drew spied the Banshee, bobbing lazily in the crystal clear water, her cargo delivered.
At the highest point of the Black Staircase there was no sign of vegetation, the slopes of the mountain were covered with rocks and boulders as dark as jet. The road levelled out briefly as they reached the summit, turning in toward the mountain’s centre. Here the wagons passed through a tall, white gatehouse. Lightly armoured guards stood to either side, inspecting the carts and their slaves as they trundled past. The people of the island reminded Drew of Djogo, Kesslar’s captain, tall and rangy with dark, leathery skin. Perhaps this is where the brute hails from?
The wagons were moving downhill now into a bowl-shaped valley that marked the mountain’s summit, a palace sitting at its centre. An outer wall curved round the grand palace structure, echoing the concentric circles of the Black Staircase. Terracotta rooftops dipped in towards its centre, the courtyard beyond not yet visible on the approach. Towers thrust up from the outer wall towards the clouds, their brickwork an ornate tapestry of black and white banded marble. The heat was oppressive; Drew felt it roll over him in waves. Occasional jets of steam broke through fissures in the ground on either side of the road, and hot gases belched violently from the earth. He held his hand to his mouth, gagging at a familiar scent in the air.
A metal brazier, stacked with red-hot coals, stood beside the grille, long-handled brands buried deep within the glowing embers. Drew winced as he spied it, imagining what they might be used for
Drew’s mind flew back to Hector’s communing with the dead. He blanched as he thought back to his dear friend’s dabbling in necromancy, speaking with the souls of the departed. The Boarlord had used a foul-smelling yellow powder, tracing out warding symbols and binding circles as part of the ritual. Despite the heat, Drew shivered. He remembered the undead playthings of Vankaskan in Cape Gala, and how it had cost him his hand. With a manacle fastened tight around his hand and a crowd of monsters hungry for his flesh, the choice between life and death had been a torturous one to make. When he closed his eyes, he could imagine the hand was still connected, could feel the flexing of ghostly fingertips. It was going to take some getting used to. Drew stared at his wrist, fully healed now, a scarred stump of flesh and bone. He sniffed at the air once again.
“Brimstone,” he said, as much to himself as to anyone who might listen.
“That’s right,” said another slave, leaning against the bars on the opposite side of the wagon. “Sulphur. What else would you expect from a volcano?”
“Welcome to Scoria!”
If the heat outdoors was stifling, inside the palace it was unbearable. Guards had led the shackled slaves into the colossal building, past crowds of onlookers into a huge, circular hall. Stone tables ringed the room, littered with food from the previous night’s feasting. Flies buzzed over discarded pieces of meat, adding to the grim atmosphere. Torches burned along the wall, while a large metal grille covered the centre of the chamber, riveted in place to the polished basalt floor. A steady flow of steam emerged through the grating, turning the chamber into a sauna. A metal brazier, stacked with red-hot coals, stood beside the grille, long-handled brands buried deep within the glowing embers. Drew winced as he spied it, imagining what they might be used for.
The man who addressed the slaves rose from a tall marble chair. He was wearing no more than a loincloth, gold jewellery and a wide, slick smile. Three similarly garbed figures stood behind his throne, cloaked in shadow and steam. There wasn’t a trace of hair on the speaker’s body – the man didn’t even have eyebrows, giving his face a permanently surprised look. His oiled skin glistened in the torchlight, reflecting different colours in the glow of the flames. Drew squinted, convinced his eyes were playing tricks on him. The man’s flesh seemed to shimmer, first grey and then green, with a brief flash of blue before darkening once more.
Count Kesslar finally appeared from the rear of the group of slaves, accompanied by the Werehawk Shah, and made his way directly to the almost-naked man. Djogo stood beside Drew, his one good eye fixed upon the young Wolflord. Kesslar and the bald, barely-dressed man embraced, shaking hands heartily and laughing all the while.
“My dear Kesslar,” said the man in the loincloth. “By the Wyrms, you’ve brought the enchanting Lady Shah with you, too! How is the Goat treating you, my lady?” He licked his lips, reaching a hand towards her. She backed away a step.
“Well enough,” she said pointedly. “I trust you have kept your end of our bargain, Ignus?”
The bald man nodded, stroking his fingers over his smooth, oily chest. “Like family, Shah. Like family.”
Drew didn’t understand a word of what they were discussing, but paid attention nonetheless. He needed to return to Lyssia, to his friends and his people, so any information he could glean might hasten his escape. Shah was a strange one, staying close to Kesslar at all times. Odd, thought Drew, considering the dark looks she always throws him. He had his suspicions about her. The Werehawk had been the one who’d rescued him from certain death at the hands of the Catlords and carried him through the air, out of Cape Gala, bloodied and broken, only for him to wake up as Kesslar’s prisoner. The notion made his head spin.
More about the author
DREW FERRAN, THE RIGHTFUL KING OF WESTLAND, IS TRAPPED.
Enslaved by the Goatlord Kesslar, young werewolf Drew finds himself on the volcanic isle of Scoria, forced to fight in the arena for the Lizardlords. With the help of an unlikely ally, he must find a way to break free - but who has ever managed to escape?
Meanwhile, Hector the Wereboar flees the forces of the Catlords. Now on board the pirate ship Maelstrom, the enemy's net is closing in. Haunted by the spirits of the dead, Hector is soon left wondering who the true enemy is . . .
Book three in the Wereworld fantasy-adventure series from Curtis Jobling, the award-winning designer of Bob the Builder. Wereworld: Rise of the Wolf was shortlisted for the 2011 Waterstone's Children's Book Prize.
Perfect for fans of Christopher Paolini's Eragon, Eldest, Brisingr and Inheritance books.