They stared at one another. Shouts rang up from below, urging the two of them to take their chances and jump. Heat was billowing at Inger’s back, so that she could now see the liquid shimmer it cast escaping the window above her. Sweat had begun to stand out on her brow and she could feel it trickling down her back.
“Right,” said Salbjorn abruptly. He retreated back into the room, and Inger tried to clutch at him as he turned away from the window.
“You must go!” she insisted, but she was turned back to the window by the power of the smoke. “Don’t stay—” she coughed suddenly. “Please! I will jump if it means you will.”
“I’m going to,” said Salbjorn, reappearing with an armful of goatskins. His eyes were streaming, his face covered with sweat, and he panted at the window for a few moments, struggling to open his eyes. He hurled the goatskins down onto the ground, and then stepped up onto the windowsill. “And so are you,” he said, lowering himself off the sill. For a moment, he clutched on by his fingertips, dangling over ground and staring down at the drop. Then he let go.
Salbjorn plunged into the dark, hitting the stones beneath and bouncing backwards with the power of his fall. Inger could hear him grunt in pain as the breath was forced from his lungs, and knew such a fall would break her legs. Even Salbjorn was getting to his feet with extreme caution, staggering on an injured ankle. He called Leon to him and the two exchanged hurried words. Behind them, the bucket-line was finally getting water onto the flames, but it was too slow, and they were achieving no more than the rain, which already pounded the courtyard. Such a lethal fire had to be by design.
A blotch of darkness was unfurled beneath Inger. Leon and Salbjorn had each taken one edge of a goatskin and stretched it between them. “Jump!” Salbjorn called. “Aim for the skin, it will break your fall!”
Even if the two guardsmen could meaningfully break her fall, the target looked minuscule from this height. Inger looked back into the room, and had to turn away at once from the terrible heat on her face. Her eyes began to stream and she found she could not see. By touch, she clambered up onto the windowsill. She stood, balanced on the sill, trembling, blind and hesitating, but there was nothing to wait for. Her vision would not return: not before she was in clear air.
She toppled forward.
Inger hurtled through the dark, arms flailing at the air roaring past her ears. She hit the goatskin with a whoomp, her momentum carrying her through and onto the stones beneath, where she jarred to a halt. Leon and Salbjorn were dragged inward by the force of her fall, collapsing on top of her. She lay panting for a moment, eyes still streaming, throat still burning and lungs still objecting to their noxious contents. She felt the two figures above her roll away, and a hand took her shoulder, turning her over so that the freezing rain splattered her face.
“Inquisitor? Are you all right?” It was Salbjorn’s voice. Inger gasped lungfuls of thin mountain air, feeling her heartbeat reverberate through her limbs. She managed a nod. “We’re going to move you back from the flames. Lie still.”
She could feel the tension in the skin beneath her as the two guardsmen gripped its edges once more and dragged her across the courtyard. “Just stay here, my lady,” came Salbjorn’s voice as she came to a halt. “We need to stop the flames spreading. We’ll be back.”
Inger heard the two of them sprint away. Coughing, she sat up, wiping her eyes and forcing them open. Their longhouse, now across the courtyard, was a skeletal inferno, the outer walls a fragile façade between the night and the roaring flames behind. In front, figures scrambled to empty buckets over the flames and the neighbouring longhouse to prevent it, too, succumbing to fire. The entire scene had an eerie halo, caused by the tears still flooding her eyes. She needed water, and got stiffly to her feet and began limping to the neighbouring longhouse in search of a pail. As she approached the edge of the courtyard, a figure rounded the corner of the longhouse and thumped into her. Inger staggered backwards, too surprised to react.
Then she focused on the half-illuminated face before her. It was rough, puckered with scarring, and stared back with such menace that she took another step away. His silhouette was stocky: very much too stocky to be one of the young tutors here. And flashing at his side was a long, wicked knife.
The two of them simply stared at one another wide-eyed for a moment, each as shocked as the other. Then Inger filled her lungs.
“Intruder!” she bellowed.