Chapter 16

Stepney watched from her window as the party of men headed toward the forest belt. She intended having breakfast and conferring with Lady Julia, then going to the Temple. Her mood simply did not improve when she entered the breakfast room and saw her mother there with Rioch and the scarecrow.

"I invited them, Stepney. Don't start." Lady Julia warned.

"Just make yourself at home, Mrs Rigman." Stepney sniped.

"Stepney, despite your feelings on this, we don't lock people in their rooms. Most of the men are out with the search party." Lady Julia sighed wearily.

"As though a lock would work. Mother she can pick locks as easily as you're eating your breakfast." Stepney pointed out.

"So can Cripps, apparently." Lady Julia looked at her daughter.

"What? Cripps? Our Cripps?" Stepney said in surprise. "Anything else you're holding out on, Mrs Rigman?"

"I knew." Rioch spoke up. "It wasn't her. Obviously I didn't know he'd been abducted."

"I've really, honestly, truly had enough of these revelations." Stepney rubbed her eyes. "So?" She looked at Rioch.

"Fenton employed him for more than his hospitality skills." Rioch said. "He told me Cripps had been doing it since was eight years old as a way to help his parents. Fenton gave him a legitimate job but still utilised his other talents when needed."

"When needed? Fenton needed the services of a lockpick?" Stepney was struggling to keep up.

"Cripps could go where Fenton couldn't. Fenton's a civic leader." Rioch shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know details but I know he's obtained things that have got many men out of the jailhouse, and put quite a few in it."

"I think I need a talk with Fenton. Is that common practice?" Stepney asked.

"It's not unknown." Lady Julia spoke up and Stepney just looked at her. "Oh I didn't know about Cripps but it's not unknown for Houses to have such people in their employ. They tend to be quite loyal."

"So did you know, Mrs Rigman? Did my brother impart this knowledge to your husband?" Stepney looked evenly at Jean.

"No." Jean said quietly. "He'd have made use of that long ago if he knew. He doesn't know now either. He locked him in the cellar too. I can only think that Cripps didn't try and leave because Hersh and myself were still there. I had no idea at all. It's not something you broadcast, even to other ... like minded people."

"Other thieves." Stepney corrected. "So it's unlikely Rigman took Cripps for any reason related to that. Yes?" She asked everyone. "Right. So why? As far as Rigman knows, Cripps is a serving boy."

"He wants Rob out of the way." Jean said. "He lost Fenton's support and he was losing the support of the people. Obviously he couldn't wade in here and take on all of you to get to Rob so he snatched a seemingly weaker target. He didn't know about Cripps and his Thief skills but he did know Fenton employed him off the streets and he did know he was loyal to Rob. He'd have assumed that Cripps was important to both of them. I ... well I'm just theorising based on what I know about Hersh. I know how he thinks and he's getting desperate. You don't trust me, I know."

"You have that right. You seem to be a bit too forthcoming for my liking. Any more theories you'd like to share?" Stepney said and Jean shook her head. "Excuse me. I'm not hungry mother. I should be in the ..."

"Lady Julia!" A young kitchen maid came bursting into the breakfast room. "I'm sorry, please forgive me. There's a small raft headed for the Barrier!"

"Rigman." Stepney jumped to her feet. "Rioch, you know the forest belt better than we do. You must go and tell Fenton. Mother will mind the baby. I'll go to the shore and see if I can dampen the Barrier. He'll have Cripps with him, the bloody idiot. You're with me where I can see you." She pointed at Jean.

Stepney knew as soon as she saw the raft where it was headed. The tiny island close to the Barrier where the nightpine was.

"If the Barrier was at full strength, they'd be pulled straight into it." Jean shrugged off her cloak. "I may not be as strong as you, but I can help."

"Take that section down completely." Stepney ordered.

"Completely?" Jean said in surprise.

"Weakened or not there's enough pull to cause a drift. If that raft hits the cove at Whitesands it'll be tossed around like a cork." Stepney began compacting the air on either side of the nightpine island.

"I didn't know that." Jean concentrated with Stepney.

"Tides from three sides. Rioch told me. We have a split. Concentrate on the right side and force it north."

"I can't believe we're taking down what we've fought so hard to build." Jean had to sit on a rock while she forced her concentration to the air wall.

"Dinsen willing, we'll be granted the strength to repair it."

"Will you bar me from the Temple, Stepney? I've committed some atrocious acts."

"I can't bar anyone from the Temple. It's Dinsen the Wise's Temple, not mine. If you aren't meant to be there then Dinsen will let you know somehow. Switch to the left side."

"Stepney!" Rob was sprinting toward them with Fenton. "I can see him. He's landed on an island. I can't see if he has Cripps or not."

"We have to keep the Barrier down in that area." Stepney said. "The fool will have them both in the sea if we don't."

"We're going out. There's a fishing boat along the coast. Rioch can steer it here and Eamon and McLintock are with her.

"Rioch can do fishing boats?" Stepney winced and tried to concentrate.

"They all can out here. She's not going out there. We'll do that." Fenton referred to himself, Rob and the bodyguards.

"I'm sorry Stepney. I've ran out of strength." Jean was swaying on the rock and sweat was pouring from her. "I'll rest a while and ..."

"It's fine. I have it." Stepney shifted her footing. "You'd better get on with it."

Rioch climbed out of the boat and was waist high in water. Fenton and Rob waded out to meet her.

"Stay with Stepney." Fenton told her. "Any change in the tides, you tell her straight away." He watched Rioch wading through the water then climbed into the boat with Rob. Even with Stepney and Jean's magic, the boat still rolled and lurched in an alarming manner.

"I hate boats." Eamon threw up over the side.

"I don't mind the boats, it's the sea I'm not keen on." Fenton gripped the side of the boat until his knuckles were white.

"How does that work?" Rob asked. "You're on an island surrounded by water."

"Yes with no reason to go into it so we don't." Fenton took a deep breath to stop himself from vomiting.

"He's there!" McLintock shouted from the wheel. "See him? I think Cripps is on the ground. What the hell is he playing at?"

"We have to get closer." Rob said as the wind and rain whipped up as they got closer to the Barrier. "I dread to think what this would be like without Stepney squashing it."

"I can't get much closer Rob. We'll get stuck on the rocks." McLintock wrestled with the wheel.

"My boot will be stuck on his rocks when I catch up with him. I see them. He has Cripps tied up. See them? By that evil tree."

"Rigman!" Fenton yelled. "Rigman get away from that nightpine! You're too close to it in this wind!"

"If I go, so does your pet here!" Rigman screamed, hauling Cripps to his feet by his hair. "You for him, Rob. Barrier or nightpine, you're choice."

"He wants me to kill myself to free Cripps." Rob stated the obvious.

"Without you, Dinsen's plan won't happen. Divine tool, remember." Eamon said shakily. "Don't be a fool, Rigman! If the magic dies, we all die!"

"If our blood is polluted by humans we all die!" Rigman shrieked.

"Our blood has grown weak!" Fenton shouted. "Our babies are dying! Lawlims will soon cease to exist, Rigman!"

"Lawlims will cease to exist if you and your House breed a generation of halfbreeds! Enough! You for him, Rob Lancaster." Rigman shook Cripps by the hair. Suddenly Cripps' hands were infront of him and he elbowed Rigman in the abdomen, taking him completely by surprise. Before Rigman knew it, Cripps had ropes used to bind his hands, round Rigman's neck.

"He'll never do it. He's not big or strong enough." Rob ran to the side of the boat just as a blast of wind and rain threw him into Fenton. The same blast threw Cripps into the sea and Rigman onto the needles of the nightpine. "Holy hell! Cripps!" Rob yelled as Cripps flailed in the bubbling sea. "Lawlim's can't swim, can they? Buggery, Hold on Cripps."

"Rob! You'll be dragged into the cove, that's if the Barrier doesn't get you first." Fenton said in terror.

"So will he and I'm bigger." Rob plunged into the freezing swirls of the sea. He rose to the surface and felt like his lungs had withered. "Cripps. Hand in there kid." He gasped just as Cripps began to sink. "No. no!" Rob plunged beneath the surface and groped frantically toward Cripps' still frame. His fingers touched clothing and Rob clutched it tightly.

"Oh Dinsen, please no." Fenton saw Rob vanish beneath the surface.

"Fenton, move." McLintock began removing his heavy boots when Rob erupted from the water, gasping for air. He had an arm round Cripps' chest. Eamon immediately threw in a fishing net and Rob grabbed it. Cripps started to cough and splutter. "Thank Dinsen."

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