The Golem's Eye (Bartimaeus Sequence #2)

by Jonathan Stroud

At dusk, the enemy lit their campfires one by one, in greater profusion than on any night before. The lights sparkled like fiery jewels out in the grayness of the plains, so numerous it seemed an enchanted city had sprung up from the earth. By contrast, within our walls the houses had their shutters closed, their lights blacked out. A strange reversal had taken place—Prague itself was dark and dead, while the countryside around it flared with life.

Soon afterward, the wind began to drop. It had been blowing strongly from the west for hours, carrying word of the invaders’ movements—the rattling of the siege engines, the calling of the troops and animals, the sighing of the captive spirits, the odors of the incantations. Now, with unnatural speed, it died away and the air was steeped in silence.

I was floating high above the Strahov Monastery, just inside the magnificent city walls I’d built three hundred years before. My leathery wings moved in strong, slow beats; my eyes scanned the seven planes to the horizon.1 It did not make for happy viewing. The mass of the British army was cloaked behind Concealments, but its ripples of power already lapped at the base of Castle Hill. The auras of a vast contingent of spirits were dimly visible in the gloom; with every minute further brief trembles on the planes signaled the arrival of new battalions. Groups of human soldiers moved purposefully over the dark ground. In their midst stood a cluster of great white tents, domed like rocs’eggs, about which Shields and other spells hung cobweb-thick.2

I raised my gaze to the darkened sky. It was an angry black mess of clouds, smeared with streaks of yellow to the west. At a high altitude and scarcely visible in the dying light, I spied six faint dots circling well out of Detonation range. They progressed steadily widdershins, mapping out the walls a final time, checking the strength of our defenses.

Speaking of which … I had to do the same.

At Strahov Gate, farthest flung and most vulnerable outpost of the walls, the tower had been raised and strengthened. The ancient doors were sealed with triple hexes and a wealth of trigger mechanisms, and the lowering battlements at the crest of the tower bristled with watchful sentries.

That at least was the idea.

To the tower I flew, hawk-headed, leather-winged, hidden behind my shroud of wisps. I alighted barefoot, without a sound, on a prominent crest of stone. I waited for the swift, sharp challenge, the vigorous display of instant readiness.

Nothing happened. I dropped my Concealment and waited for some moderate, belated evidence of alertness. I coughed loudly. Still no joy.

A glimmering Shield protected part of the battlements, and behind this crouched five sentries.3 The Shield was a narrow affair, designed for one human soldier or three djinn at most. As such, there was a good deal of fidgeting going on.

“Will you stop pushing?”

“Ow! Mind those claws, you idiot!”

“Just shove over. I tell you, my backside’s in plain view now. They might spot it.”

“That could win us the battle on its own.”

“Keep that wing under control! You nearly had my eye out.”

“Change into something smaller, then. I suggest a nematode worm.”

“If you elbow me one more time …”

“It’s not my fault. It’s that Bartimaeus who put us here. He’s such a pomp—”

It was a painful display of laxity and incompetence, in short, and I refrain from recording it in full. The hawk-headed warrior folded its wings, stepped forward, and roused the sentries’ attention by banging their heads together smartly.4

“And what kind of sentry duty do you call this?” I snapped. I was in no mood to mess about here; six months of continual service had worn my essence thin. “Cowering behind a Shield, bickering like fishwives … I ordered you to keep watch.”

Amid the pathetic mumbling and shuffling and staring at feet that followed, the frog put up its hand.

“Please, Mr. Bartimaeus, sir,” it said, “what’s the good of watching? The British are everywhere—sky and land. And we’ve heard they’ve got a whole cohort of afrits down there. Is that true?”

I pointed my beak at the horizon, narrow-eyed. “Maybe.”

The frog gave a moan. “But we ain’t got a single one, have we? Not since Phoebus bought it. And there’s marids down there, too, we’ve heard, more than one. And the leader’s got this Staff—real powerful, it is. Tore up Paris and Cologne on the way here, they say. Is that true?”

My crest feathers ruffled gently in the breeze. “Maybe.”

The frog gave a yelp. “Ohh, but that’s just dreadful, ain’t it? We’ve no hope now. All afternoon the summonings have been coming thick and fast, and that means only one thing. They’ll attack tonight. We’ll all be dead by morning.”

Well, he wasn’t going to do our morale much good with that kind of talk.5 I put a hand on his warty shoulder. “Listen, son … what’s your name?”

“Nubbin, sir.”

“Nubbin. Well, don’t go believing everything you hear, Nubbin. The British army’s strong, sure. In fact, I’ve rarely seen stronger. But let’s say it is. Let’s say it’s got marids, whole legions of afrits, and horlas by the bucket-load. Let’s say they’re all going to come pouring at us tonight, right here at the Strahov Gate. Well, let them come. We’ve got tricks to send them packing.”

“Such as what, sir?”

“Tricks that’ll blow those afrits and marids right out of the air. Tricks we’ve all learned in the heat of a dozen battles. Tricks that mean one sweet word: survival.”

The frog’s bulbous eyes blinked at me. “This is my first battle, sir.”

I made an impatient gesture. “Failing that, the Emperor’s djinn say his magicians are working on something or other. A last line of defense. Some hare-brained scheme, no doubt.” I patted his shoulder in a manly way. “Feel better now, son?”

“No, sir. I feel worse.”

Fair enough. I was never much cop at those pep talks. “All right,” I growled. “My advice is to duck fast and when possible run away. With luck, your masters will get killed before you are. Personally, that’s what I’m banking on.”

I hope this rousing speech did them some good, for it was at that moment that the attack came. Far off, there was a reverberation on all seven planes. We all felt it: it was a single note of imperious command. I spun around to look out into the dark, and one by one, the five sentries’ heads popped up above the battlements.