They walked through the tunnels in silence, carefully avoiding the gleaming tracks. Richard had found his boots and his walking stick. He carried a black sack over one shoulder. He’d taken the watch from around his neck, and held it in the palm of one hand.
He appeared to be counting quietly to himself.
“This would be easier with Lolo,” complained Winter. He walked behind Aine, close as a shepherd with a prize lamb. She wondered if he really thought she would be so careless as to stumble onto the iron road.
“I should have sent Gabby alone. She’d manage. She manages everything.”
“Have you heard from them?” Richard asked, eyes on his time piece.
“No. I’m afraid to open a Way.” Winter sounded irritated. “I’m afraid to do anything. I daren’t so much as Gather starlight to shine on your watch.”
“I don’t need it.” Richard paused. “Did you try texting again?”
“What am I, human?” Winter placed gentle fingers on Aine’s shoulder, restraining as Richard slowed. “I hate texting. And service is terrible thirty feet below ground. Now?”
“Now,” confirmed Richard, and spread himself against the tunnel wall. Winter did the same, pulling Aine against his side. “Five . . .”
“Close your eyes if you like,” the grey-eyed boy said. “But don’t turn away. Never let your nightmares see you flinch.”
“Four,” said Richard.
“Won’t it see us?” Aine wanted to close her eyes as he suggested. She wanted, in fact, to hide her face in the curve of Winter’s neck, and plug her ears with her knuckles.
“It’s only a vehicle, Aine. Not a living thing.”
“Three,” counted Richard.
Aine could hear it now, the growing rumble and hiss.
Not a living thing, she told herself, a vehicle. Like a horse carriage or the Queen’s Progress.
Now she could feel the train, in the wall against her back and in the ground beneath her feet. The earth trembled and shook and groaned as the iron snake pierced its center. Blue light turned the dim tunnel stark.
“One,” Richard and Winter said together, and the train began to scream past.
Aine kept her eyes open, though the wind stung terribly. She would not show her terror to mocking Winter, or to kind Richard, or to the train itself.
She bit her tongue, and lifted her face, and tried to know her enemy.
The train was as much like a snake as she had first believed. Tall as two men but narrow, broken into segments that rocked and rattled on the track. Its spotted skin gleamed silver and dusky white.
Two segments shot by before she realized that the mottles were in fact windows. Blurred images raced by, muddled beyond the glass. People, she thought. Passengers inside the shell.
Once, she was sure, a bearded man looked right through the window at her. Half a breath, less than half, and he was gone, whisked away down the tunnel.
The train vanished as quickly as it appeared, trailed by a fading rumble.
Aine wiped her wet eyes with her free hand. The fingers of her other were trapped in Winter’s fist, squeezed tight.
“That’s that,” Richard said on a long exhale. “We’ve a good ten minutes, now. But hurry, anyway. I’d hate to be surprised.”
“Lolo’s never surprised,” Winter grumbled.
“You’re hurting me,” complained Aine. She took her throbbing fingers back.
“Sorry.” He wouldn’t look at her. “I didn’t know what you’d do. Did it work, then?”
Richard was moving again. Aine followed carefully after. “Work?”
“The draíochta. You didn’t fall in a heap or stain my shoes. How do you feel?”
Startled, Aine looked around. She’d forgotten the draught. But Winter was right. She’d felt fear, certainly, mayhap even panic. But nothing of iron sickness.
“I feel well,” she replied carefully. “Perfectly well. But I was not standing within the thing, surrounded.”
“Little difference. You were close enough to buss the caboose, if you so wished.”
“Mayhap,” admitted Aine.
“You may thank me now, or later,” Winter said.
Then the tunnel widened and grew taller, and they stepped out of the passage and into a station.