Krul’s eyes took in the sparse tree line immediately below and swept slowly down over the rubble-strewn valley sides before coming to rest on a small pool basking on the scree-covered floor. From the enemy’s perspective, passage to either side of the pool and up the steep slopes to their present position would be awkward, but by no means impossible. The stream next to which they lay poured down as a precipitous torrent into the pool and beyond, but any further view was shrouded by the ragged mists of a very cool dawn, so with practiced patience the Clannsmen watched and waited.
Two shaggy mountain goats were drinking from the pool. They drank at their leisure. Predators were rare at these altitudes and the brawny animals had few foes to match them in any event, save for an occasional large bear or a marauding pine-tiger, both of which preferred the more forested lower slopes. And then of course there was man.
Goats had worn several tracks up the final slope, which Krul now surveyed. This slope formed the only easy access to the plateau above, as the adjacent slopes at the valley head were vertical and crumbling. The resulting funnel was not as narrow as he would have wished however and any concerted attack would be difficult to contain. He cursed at the mist, desperate to see further and make the utmost of their position.
Even as he was cursing, his keen ears heard the arrow. In an instant his eyes had picked out its flight. Its menacing profile arced out of the gloom and plunged into the flank of the nearest goat. The stricken animal swayed briefly before toppling sidelong into the pool, spewing blood into the crystalline waters. Its terrified companion had barely reached a canter before two more thudding shafts felled it.
Three riders now thundered onto the scene amid a sparking of hooves upon the flinty scree and a snorting of warm horse breath through flared nostrils. Two dismounted with impressive ease, neglecting even to reign their beasts to a halt. Both Krul and Hakkulbak marked them immediately as Jâlregs, born of the wild desert of the same name that burned into the eastern reaches of Isla Khâl like a festering sore; this even before they drew their distinctive blades, more wickedly curved even than those of their Skalian allies, and proceeded to put the writhing goats out of their misery.
They were known as “People of the Purple”, for the distinctive color of their attire, although the phrase was misleading. Indigo would have been a more accurate description and the color could assume still darker hues as the shadows of a desert day lengthened.
The men below were of the warrior caste, or Imajhirrin; this was given away by the coverings they wore across their faces and which they would have come by on reaching maturity. In the open desert, or even at its fringes, the covering would be a thick cotton veil to ward off sand and sun. Here however, with the prospect of battle looming large, the veil would be more akin to the battle mask worn by the Taksumnai, those enigmatic denizens of Tarrak Kanga. Although they did not appear to be well protected, each of the men would be wearing a metal skull-cap beneath his keffiyeh and his flowing indigo cloak would be concealing a padded leather aketon; this would be a prized possession, dyed indigo like the headdress and the cloak, and would be studded for protection. It would come down to mid-thigh and overlap leggings, indigo again, which would be wrapped in leather bands from the knee downwards.
Krul turned all of this over in his mind as he controlled his breathing. This had to be a scouting party and the riders had come upon the goats quite by chance. Despite the fact that all the grain fields to the north of Kumbala Fen had been put to the torch, provisions must still be plentiful. The livestock however had been driven far to the west and a chance to secure fresh meat had obviously proved to be too good to pass up.
The third Jâlreg had galloped to the base of the slope and as his mount reared and circled on its hind legs, he scanned the heights above. Both the Clannsmen knew better than to try and fell the rider below. They needed time to prepare a defense, no matter how makeshift, and should they reveal themselves now that time would be lost.
Krul did not like this rider. The man should not have suspected anything yet his eyes had darted apprehensively across the ridge. A quick glance as the Jâlreg’s horse turned revealed a mask that was green, and not indigo; that marked him out as a leader. It also had a metallic luster to it that confirmed it as a war mask and not a desert veil.
Both himself and Hakkulbak were now tucked well back, knowing that those desert-bred eyes would be apt to miss nothing and Krul cursed silently as hooves clattered up the slope. Ever so slowly he eased himself back onto his haunches, intent on springing down upon the rider while he had the height advantage, and delivering a killing thrust with the spike of his axe; Hakkulbak was removing two black arrows from one of his quivers to deal with the other riders but the shots would not be easy, even for him. The small shields on their backs would afford little protection from the bolts he had chosen, the distance however would be long.
But with still the greater part of the slope before him, the shouts of his comrades and the unexpected prize at hand seemed to prove decisive as the rider twirled around and the hoof beats receded. Hunger had apparently triumphed over instinct, and two pairs of eyes peered down again as the Jâlreg rejoined his companions.
So already the outriders from the hordes of Khâl had reached their position! Krul cursed but remained motionless, listening to the ruckus below as the goats were skinned, butchered and packaged. He stayed that way until the three riders had finished their task and disappeared back into the mists from whence they had come. It was only then that he and Hakkulbak sprang to their feet and turned back towards the ancient fort, picking their way carefully over the stones in the little ravine. The grass of the plateau was only a step up to either side but now more than ever they were intent on covering their tracks as best they could.
Krul could not get that unique mask out of his mind and the more he mulled it over, the more unsure he became. The man was a leader and would surely have exulted in being the first to set foot on the plateau. Bragging rights would be important in that vast coalition and the plateau would mark the first major objective, once they had secured their beachhead.
And then, as his devious mind considered the options, he smiled. Had it been decreed that the honor was destined for another?
Campfires blazed across the valley like a swarm of sated fireflies, as dying embers were stoked and sparks spiraled up into the early morning skies. Sentries leant idly on their spears and blew onto numb cupped hands as they wistfully surveyed the rising saffron trails.
Warmth was their main concern in this high remote valley and in many ways they now found themselves in a location that was infinitely preferable to anything that had gone before: the quagmire of the Kumbala Fen that had welcomed them ashore with its sweltering humidity, its pestering flies and its blood-guzzling mosquitoes; the rolling grassy nightmare of the South Steppe where they had been mercilessly hounded along their flanks and constantly choking on the smoke of burning crops.
As soon as the foothills had closed in around them and they had entered this valley, the attacks had become more sporadic and had finally ceased altogether. Now they could rest awhile and eat their rations in relative comfort.
What then was so disconcerting about the place? What was the cause of the knowing glances and the incessant mutterings of discontent? What was it that was spreading through the camp, fraying nerves and distributing unease like an extra ration?
The Clann scouts felt it too, as under their watchful eyes the vanguard of the Khâlian army assembled in the upper reaches of the Nrulu Valley. It was the fourth day now and two legions were encamped there, with another filtering in as they peered down through the purple gloom; three insubstantial figures crouching wraithlike in the still shadows of the eastern wall at the valley head. Behind them its ice-splintered bulk reared up to the edge of the plateau, as did the unforgiving face of the western wall, soon to be assailed by the probing red fingers of a nervous dawn.
Between the two walls was where the Khâlians would come, parting around the pool above before making the final push up the steep slope beyond and thence onto the plateau. Between was also where a torrent raged. The stream that crossed the plateau and meandered down through the pool was normally a watercourse that struggled. Today however, it was not to be trifled with. Heavy overnight rain, allied to the seasonal meltwater, had swollen it to an unruly mass of churning broth. They watched from their concealed position as it swept past them and cascaded over a blunt rock shelf into the forest below. It was the only sound in that far-off place. It was the only interruption to the oppressive pall of silence that had rolled over the plateau’s edge and wedged itself above the tree line; that had driven animals and birds alike down into the welcoming woods to join their brethren, as though they could sense the impending conflict.
Heavy rain, but no thunder, no lightning. Yet ozone hung heavy in the air. They wondered at this as the spyglass was passed from hand to hand. The containing tube extended out beyond the lens to guard against any reflected glare that might attract the attention of those being observed. It was a powerful instrument and its three users were able to make a very detailed scan of the valley floor and its present occupants.
At the near end of the valley, in resplendent disarray, were the sprawling black tents of the Jâlregs. The tents were low-slung and no two seemed to be the same size. It was in fact difficult to ascertain where one tent finished and another began; often they just appeared to run into one another and, as befitted their desert origins, there was an air of impermanence to them. Roughly hewn poles marked the perimeter of the encampment and the two-tailed pennants that fluttered from them, in contrast to the tents, were an assimilation of brilliantly dyed fabrics. They were all characterized by the forlorn face of an orange sun, shining forth, despite its disposition, with a radiant aura of gold, white, green and red.
Further into the valley, but still on the fringes, were the beautifully woven dome-roofed tents of the Atlâks. Weatherworn leather straps girdled their expansive walls, which hung like cylindrical tapestries, no two panels of the same design. The dyes employed were the same that had been incorporated into the Jâlreg pennants, and on this larger scale they were mesmerizing. The perimeter was not marked out but instead, in front of each tent, imposing striped poles had been driven into the ground. Their summits sported golden globes topped by single-tailed pennants, upon which back-to-back crescent moons defied the emblems of their desert neighbors, their wry faces blood-red on a white background, an enclosure of golden stars about them.
That so many of the Jâlreg tribes had come together in one place was in itself surprising. That they should be encamped with the Atlâks was unprecedented. Jâlregs and Atlâks were as different as the domains they inhabited, as disparate as desert and mountain, dune and crag. Yet here they were, mingling freely.
The current possessor of the spyglass was still a little skeptical though, and as he focused it on two strolling Atlâks, he thought that their expressions betrayed a certain unease.
In typical Clann fashion he noted everything about them: the rounded helms with the single spike, worn over leather skull-caps with iron-studded leather aventails for neck protection; the bright quilted jackets, open as they walked to reveal sturdy leather tunics beneath; leather greaves over full length leggings; swords strapped across their backs, curved for slashing and not for thrusting, as was the eastern fashion. And then something else took his eye.
The image blurred and when the lens had been refocused, the regimented ranks of two Skalian legions were visible towards the center of the valley. Warriors in bright bone armor, swords at their sides, strutted imperiously between immaculate four-sided tents, set out on a faultless grid system. Even the beards and moustaches that they invariably sported were precisely trimmed, black against sun-beaten skin. Above those swarthy faces, spangenhelms gleamed, topped by central plumes whose colors identified their legion. Chain mail aventails hung down over similarly wrought hauberks that ended just above knee height, where long bone greaves began their descent over both knee and shin. The characteristic bone armor affixed over the hauberk was an ingeniously hinged combination of breastplate and backplate. It was lowered over the head and the plates were pressed together with cheeks on the backplate sliding underneath the enclosing breastplate. The bone was light and strong and fashioned from the neck frills of the ubiquitous ceratops that roamed the Shungrung Plains.
It was between those plains to the south and the soaring Gangja plateau to the north that the fertile province of Askalpur was wedged, along with its capital, the city state of Skal. Askalpur had long held sway over Isla Khâl, indeed its citizens had imposed their name upon it, and these bone-clad warriors were descended from its finest stock.
More tents were being set up on the edge of the grid as the third legion took up its allotted position within the camp. The hastily erected tents were a utilitarian khaki like their neighbors, so that inevitably the watching eye was drawn back towards the center of the canvas grid where a shimmering marquee had been set up. Its canvas was black, but within those dark threads had been woven filigree of every describable color, so that scenes emerged depicting kings and queens and emperors, rulers of bygone eras, in all their pomp and circumstance. About them, either fornicating or meting out death and destruction, were fabled creatures of history and myth, not least of which was the jade griffin, imperial symbol of Skal. It was present also on each of the two flags that gusted over the marquee, affixed to the twin points of its roof.
At the entrance of this temple to ostentation a group had gathered and the Clannsman smiled. Emperor Muramotek himself! A small man, but molded from sturdy substance; that much was obvious from his upright bearing and the manner in which he held himself. Even had the observer not been familiar with the leering expression, the fastidiously neat but excessively drooping moustache or the elaborately braided topknot, never for an instant would he have doubted who held sway amongst that milling group; not for a moment would he have pondered over the identity of the emperor. The man radiated power, even if he was wrapped in a robe that could have been torn from the corner of his marquee. While all around jostled and argued, he remained impassive, knowing that when he spoke all would listen.
Was this a family gathering? Yes indeed, for the youngest of the emperor’s sons, Feng, now came to the forefront, almost frothing at the mouth, gesticulating wildly.
Although he had never encountered him before, the Clannsman knew it was Feng for he knew that two of the three sons were remarkably alike; he knew that this figure, despite the uncanny resemblance, was not Hûn, ergo it must be Feng. For sure, the hooded eyes and the cruel hooked nose were the same, but as yet he had not donned the mantle that his eldest brother wore like a second skin.
Hûn he had most certainly encountered before, albeit briefly. Hûn and his sordid exploits were known all too well to the Clann, and it was interesting to compare the image in his mind’s eye, an amalgam of distant memories and preconceived notions, with the figure that now took center stage to lay placatory hands on his brother’s shoulders.
Feng must have been approaching his twentieth year but it was almost a case of man and boy. Unlike their father, both were tall, but in Hûn’s case his extra bulk made him domineering. The manic gleam of the eyes and the overbearing sneer were barely developed yet in Feng but Hûn had refined them into an art form. Braided topknots like their father’s, but set against the wispy tuft of hair that clung desperately to the younger brother’s chin was the elder brother’s beard, braided like the hair, and unusual for a Skalian. But for all this it was their armor that truly set them apart. Feng’s was bright, nay shiny, and clamored for use; Hûn’s had seen it all.
As they stood there, toe to toe and trading evil smiles, the lens swept around the remainder of the gathering as names were put to faces, be they generals, captains or advisors. It lingered at the last on a shadowy figure at the emperor’s shoulder. Interesting. Only his sons would be allowed to stand so close; this then had to be Roth, the middle of the three. Tall again, flowing hair, finer, almost effeminate features, helm held in his hand, obviously uncomfortable in his armor. There was a calculating look to him but other than that an air of gentle indifference. Obviously the black sheep of the family.
Suddenly, all heads turned. A small squat figure was approaching with the strutting gait of a born warrior, and now the Clannsman really did pay attention to detail.
Having initially baulked at the Osira cutting a swathe across their limitless grasslands, the Shungrung Plains eventually got underway again to the south and east, only to encounter an even sterner adversary as they were forced to dip out of sight once and for all beneath the Outer Seas. They did not go quietly though, throwing up a stifling region of salt marshes and islets before finally accepting their demise. These islets extended almost fifty leagues out from the southern tip of Bunanga Bay where, undiminished in their fervor, they clustered like a school of pilot fish around the shark that was Tarrak Kanga. This immense island rose disdainfully from the green southern waters, its formidable cliffs offering landfall at pitifully few locations. Such inaccessibility, allied to its geographical isolation, meant that little had seemingly changed with the passage of time. The ruling elite would suggest that this was to their credit, as the society they had forged was already at the pinnacle of its development. The ruling elite of course were predominantly of a warrior caste and all others upon their sceptered isle existed to serve. The chunky square-sailed slave ships that arrived from Kondaara ensured a steady supply of those others, garnered from the length and breadth of Isla Khâl. Alas, few were destined to be seen again, but those who would reemerge would be formidable foes indeed. They would have passed through the island’s slave pits and earned their freedom; the emblem of the black sun would be branded onto their throats. Tyrants and despots everywhere would pay handsomely for their military services on that evidence alone.
The man who was striding confidently towards the emperor would have such a tattoo, but from the look of him it would have been awarded upon his graduation from the military academy rather than at the climax of the brutal ceremony that accompanied advancement from slave to free man. The rising sun glinted from his kaabuto, which was currently open faced, without the war mask. A finely worked neck guard was attached at the back and sides. Its lacquered plates were like the jointed carapace of a giant metal insect and hung over serried ranks of wafer-thin plated armor, beneath which were a capacious jacket and leggings, no doubt concealing an array of sharp-edged death.
The man bowed before the emperor with graceful precision and was promptly greeted by the swiping leather gauntlet of Feng. The warrior behind the spyglass winced involuntarily; he noted with some amusement that Feng had elicited a similar response from all of the assembled Skalians. The recipient did not flinch in the slightest but simply waited for the emperor to approach. The unexpected then occurred. There was a very brief exchange of words and then the Taksumna handed over one of his metal gauntlets. In a single fluid motion Muramotek took it and slashed it across the face of his youngest son. Feng just stood there, obviously in a state of apoplexy, as his face began to swell and bleed simultaneously. Rigid discipline and respect for his father dictated this response; a healthy measure of fear no doubt played its part as well. He continued to stand there, motionless, as Muramotek listened intently to the Taksumna’s report; a thin smile played across the emperor’s face on occasion, but by enlarge he was typically impassive. This was undoubtedly General Oju’s field commander before him, responsible for overseeing the Shungareg and he would be explaining, in matter-of-fact fashion, the difficulties entailed in coordinating such a willful, undisciplined force. The report was brief and no doubt to the point and after a cursory nod from his emperor the man bowed, spun on his heel and strutted back towards his charges. The lens followed.
The third legion had apparently been placed behind the Shungareg so as to discourage lingering or desertion, for the men from the Shungrung Plains were not the most devoted or focused of the emperor’s subjects. This had obviously presented difficulties but nevertheless the Clannsman was impressed that a handful of Taksumnai had been able to cajole such a large dissolute force through the Kumbala Fen and the approaches to the Nrulu valley. There again, he was well aware of their capabilities having spent many years in their kingdom, learning their techniques.
Even the lens had difficulty picking out detail amidst the chaos that was the Shungareg camp. Dust was everywhere. They had lit fires but did not seem disposed to pitching tents, if indeed they had brought tents with them. In Haan’s day they had often traveled with a minimum of gear and had been a withering force, for he had organized them. They had roamed far and wide in small independent units, with no need of supply lines. By nicking veins in their ponies, which they would then clot with dust and water, they had been able to live off a mixture of blood and mare’s milk; this would have been accompanied by hard milk curds and dried mutton, often tenderized under the saddle. Additionally, their lines of communication had been extremely efficient with relays of sturdy plains-bred ponies at their disposal. Thus it was, as shock raiding parties or as scouts, they had been unsurpassed.
The Clannsman looked carefully for some sign of similar organization amongst the mayhem, but found none. Their double-curved bows were in evidence however and he was glad that these warriors would not be amongst the first to ascend to the plateau. Although not as fearsome as Hakkulbak’s equipment, the birch arrows released from those bows would nevertheless shred the makeshift shields that the Clann had been forced to bring with them. The key to the strength of such bows was their laminated form and again the poor ceratop was brutalized. Layers of its boiled horn and sinew were used to augment the basic wooden frame; horn on the compressed inner face and sinew on the outer.
Action in the center of the camp removed all thoughts of Shungareg bows. Horses were being led from their night grazing areas on the fringe of the encampment to a central paddock around which men were gathering; men preparing to march. The omnipresent jade griffin was on their circular shields and the yellow background marked them as infantry from the first legion. The cavalry detachment that would accompany them displayed the same emblem but their shields were fashioned like inverted teardrops. Its horsemen now gravitated to the inner confines of the paddock, elongated shields strapped across their backs, no doubt whispering words of encouragement to their mounts, words of abuse to their minders. But through it all, even at that distance, there was an air of professional detachment. Another day’s journey lay ahead: across the thinning grasses of the upper valley; a careful ever-steepening ascent through scrub and scree, out of this oppressive confinement and onto the green swathe of Kananaaltra; a liberating gallop for the scouts or a slow walk at the flanks of the infantry for the unlucky majority; another camp beneath the blood-red rays of the setting sun.
By mid-morning pink skies were in the ascendancy, with only forsaken islands of muddied candyfloss to mar their uniform sheen. Beneath, a small wedge of Jâlreg horsemen had gathered at the foot of the pine forest, like a crumpled indigo blanket. At the forefront sat their leader, serene and composed apart from the restless eyes that glinted above his green war mask. Behind them, in a writhing phalanx of horse and steel and bone, was the Skalian cavalry; a substantial infantry contingent, the first legion, brought up the rear.
This then, thought the warrior behind the lens, would be the initial vanguard. They would reach the plateau later that day, intending to make camp some distance along it, where they would await the arrival of the main force the following day. In the interim, scouts would be dispatched to skirt the ever-widening tableland until a favorable location had been found; favorable, that was, from a Khâlian perspective. And at that location they would have it in mind to crush any meager force that might be sent to oppose them. Whereupon the hatred that dwelled in their black hearts would propel them down unhindered through Mithra Sol and thence beyond, to exact their revenge.
The warrior stood, but the shadows still clung to him. His Clann name was “Chemalak”, as no one ever sees the passing of the chameleon. A ragged skin of lizard scales fitted loosely over his light mail hauberk. A hood, effectively the lizard’s head, could be pulled over to conceal his own when necessity dictated, and his closely bound leggings were skinned from the same beast. The nature of that beast he never revealed and it was doubtful whether it still roamed across any of Isladoron’s varied terrains, although who could say, given its propensity for concealment? The subtle shades and tonal variations of its scaly pelt, constantly fluctuating in the ambient light, kept Chemalak hidden; not invisible exactly, but certainly outside the normal parameters of perception.
Chemalak scanned the approaching column one last time as it entered the forest. It was still as Krul had hoped. He passed the spyglass down to his compatriots and was gone, his fleeting form just one of many amongst the shortening shadows that heralded the coming of the day.
Krul started as Chemalak appeared before him. It still bothered him that any individual could pass through the Clann perimeter with such consummate ease, even if it was one of their own. On reflection though, and Krul was prone to reflection, he suspected it was the psychological repercussions that bothered him more. Chemalak usually announced his arrival, as he had this time, by simply shedding his second skin, but on occasion he indulged his flair for the dramatic by maintaining it about him. The partial materialization of a giant lizard not a spear’s length from where he stood had certain surreal aspects to it that Krul had never comfortably accommodated.
The warriors of the Clann drew closer but did not slacken in their preparations. The bowels of the ruined fort were like an amphitheatre and Chemalak’s voice carried far as he delivered his report, as did the studied responses. Only one sat apart.
His cross-legged form was in a state of hunched repose atop a low flat rock that dipped its eroded outer edge uncertainly into icy meltwater. This spring torrent cascaded through the small ridge that hid him, as it streamed down into the familiar ravine that led to the plateau’s edge and thence to the pool and the forest below. It was the noise of the roiling water that had attracted him there, that subdued all distractions. A small silver birch tree had somehow taken root in this inhospitable place, although not without difficulty. Its topmost boughs had been forced horizontal by the elements and the still figure below would have but to stand and reach idly upwards to touch the sparse leaves that fluttered there. Its lower branches had flourished more readily behind the protective parapet of the rocky ridge and almost hidden beneath them were a great double-curved bow and two quivers bristling with ominous black arrows. Ominous they might well have been, but inconsequential was their threat when set aside the object that currently held Hakkulbak enthralled.
Braided hair fell like a nest of vipers to frame the ebony contours of his imposing face. It was a face molded to embrace passion, but so wrought was it with concentration that the two eyes set within could have been wrenched from the icy starless reaches at the extremities of the Great Void; black holes pressing tenuous green irises into the merest of orbiting slivers against enclosing seas of unsullied white.
With hands that did not betray the tension he felt, he reached out towards the long metal cylinder that was the object of his attention and released the metal clasps at each end. Air hissed out, as though eager for release, and he prized the top half of the container back on its hinges so that the two halves of the cylinder lay open, side by side on the rock before him. From each end of the nearest half he plucked an elaborate trestle, which he set before him. From the center he tentatively unwrapped a thin waxed cloth to reveal but a single arrow.
Longer even than those dark missiles which lay beneath the tree, it exuded menace. He removed it between thumb and forefinger, careful not to disturb the vermilion flights, although they were not as delicate as they seemed. The head and shaft had been fashioned as one, from a dull red alloy, and those impossibly thin flights, three in number, appeared to have been extruded from the body of the shaft. On close inspection it could be seen that a bright strand, a single spiral almost the color of the flights, had been worked into the shaft and coiled around it, encompassing almost its entire length. This same strand ran into the head, all the way to the tip, and then doubled back along each of its four glinting edges. The whole arrow possessed an oily sheen, but there was nothing superficial to it, rather it radiated from the very innards of the missile.
Hakkulbak placed the arrow on the two trestles so that the point and the flights overhung at each end. Before allowing the coming ceremony to consume him, he allowed himself a slight smile, for he was certain now that he had made the right decision.
It had been suggested by a few of the Clann that he might apply poison to the tip, but he had declined to do this. Poison was never mentioned in the rituals and some of his predecessors might have considered such a suggestion as tantamount to blasphemy, but he understood the ways of the Clann; no option was ever left unconsidered and the one shot he had to take was the key to their strategy. It was to be a shot of the most extreme length and he would make it knowing that a graze would not suffice; that way his concentration would be total.
He knew of this arrow even if he had never used it. Had he possessed but a hair of the target, a sliver of a fingernail, then that target would be as good as dead with an archer of his ability. Given time, one as talented as Chemalak could have acquired such but the rituals that had been passed down to him, that his father had insisted he learn, implied that even a view of the target would assist. The key was to implant that view into the requisite ritual.
He was oblivious to his surroundings now, not in the least mindful of the wind that whipped around him or the icy spray that came his way. He was in another place, at the foot of the slope, Chemalak’s spyglass in his hand. He was watching the Skalian column winding across the thinning grass towards the forested slopes. Not for him any interest in the exotic Jâlreg company, nor indeed any of the Skalians, save for one.
As words of arcane ritual spewed from Hakkulbak’s mouth, gradually they coalesced and took the form of a song. And as he sang his song of death, an almost imperceptible glow began to spiral down the ancient shaft, working its way down to the tip and then back along the four edges of the head.
The forest was thinning out ahead and Feng allowed himself to relax, or at least that was what he told himself. In truth, the process was almost involuntary. He was glad to see the back of this valley and he did not even know why. He could see the top of the accursed scree slope in the distance where it crested onto the plateau and his gaze was immediately swept upwards by the Mountains of Skor, their jagged windswept pinnacles highlighted against the red sky beyond. The grandiose emotions that this stirred in him were further bolstered as he twisted in his saddle to look down upon the meandering column behind; the column he had been chosen to lead on the next phase of the conquest. The surge of pride that welled up in him quickly quashed the last remnants of any festering resentment he had been feeling towards his father. Any lingering thoughts of revenge were banished. This would be a great day after all. But then the incipient smile that was threatening to lighten up his unpleasant features instantly vanished.
In the time it had taken him to drift off into his reverie a large segment of the Jâlreg company had decided to water their mounts at a pool up ahead. If they didn’t stop their antics, the column would bunch up at its head and begin to concertina along its not inconsiderable length; not a problem to the freewheeling desert-dwellers but complete anathema to the regimented mind of a Khâlian. He bellowed out curses at the blue-clad horsemen, who responded with equally vehement curses of their own, these though uttered through clenched teeth as they remounted. Despite his tender years, the youngest son of Muramotek was already hated and reviled. Intent now on adding to his reputation he raised a gloved hand to order forward the front ranks of his cavalry to hopefully induce a degree of urgency into the Jâlreg maneuverings. His hand remained where it was however as the rearmost of the desert horses spun around and the rider on its back stared down at him, through him. He sensed Kommander Orkus tense at his side, but the advice that came from his second-in-command was cautionary rather than belligerent.
‘Perhaps it would be wise to stay your hand for now, Lord Feng. Let us see what this insolent cur has to stay. Tchenga’s reputation is not inconsiderable, even beyond his desert domain.’
With maddening, possibly deliberate slowness, the rider approached. A gentle, almost imperceptible command brought his mount to a halt and without any acknowledgement or pause, the leader of the Imajhirrin spoke; his voice, with barely a trace of an accent, was deep and resonant and crystal clear, despite the green mask that covered the lower portion of his face.
‘Lord Feng, the stillness here is of great concern to me, as it was on our scouting mission. I do not like this valley, and its exit still less. Animals, even birds, shun this place. Might I request that your humble and eternally obedient Jâlreg servants ascend first to the plateau and prostrate themselves before any dangers that may await, so that the progress of my lord may be as sedate and untroubled as the passage of the sun over the desert sands?’
‘Oh, and wouldn’t you just love that, Tchenga!’ came Feng’s seething reply. ‘Whilst we talk in terms of sand, if I thought that a single grain of truth resided in that obsequious monologue you have just delivered, I would gladly allow you to precede us onto the plateau. However, when I inform my father that it was “stillness” that caused Kananaaltra to idly stir neath Jâlreg hooves rather than to tremble under the onslaught of the jade griffin, pray how do you think he will respond? So now, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, could you kindly dispel that rancid gathering that has formed around yonder pool and have them press their ugly burnt faces into the valley walls, whilst men truly bred for war pass through their trembling midst.’
For an interminable moment the desert dweller sat there, his eyes boring with scarce concealed contempt into Feng. Crow’s feet spreading from their corners did little to betray whether it was a smile or a grimace that resided beneath the mask. Then, with an eloquent flourish of the left arm Tchenga had gone, spinning his horse tightly and clattering uphill at the same languid canter.
Feng suddenly realized he was gripping his reigns very tightly and forced himself to calm down. This time his gloved hand did sweep forward.
‘Kommander, let us use this delay to our advantage. The infantry now press hard behind us. Take two squadrons of the cavalry, one down either side, and confirm that no enemy force seeks to close on our flanks through the cover of the trees. I have no idea from where the enemy might spirit such a force but the Jâlreg is not alone in his dislike of this place. The remaining squadron will accompany me onto the plateau with the infantry in close attendance. Loop around to the rear and then follow us up.’
Orkus swung around to the right and relayed the orders. The whelp was learning. Of course they had nothing to fear here, and even less on the plateau itself. But so many horses in such a confined space could have led to problems. The orders alleviated those problems and protected their flanks, which was where an attack would come, however unlikely, however impossible.
As his squadron filtered into the uppermost trees, his attention was on the gleaming column of infantry laboring up the steepening slope; laboring now maybe, but destined for glory. He sacrificed but the most cursory of glances to his left, into the forest. Even had his scrutiny been more intense he would not have discerned the five figures that crouched there.
Krul withdrew further into the shadows of the rusting doors. It was a good vantage point and from there he could survey the entire tableau below. He would not be participating in this encounter. “Under no circumstances!” had been Joel’s fairly emphatic orders.
Off to the right, about two hundred paces away at most from the shallow ravine that led to the valley head, was a second ravine. It was much narrower, and had been slightly deeper. Now, it was appreciably deeper, for the Clann had worked tirelessly on it overnight to make it so. Thirty of them could crouch there now, pressed against its face, hidden even from a man on horseback until he was almost upon them. Seconds earlier their ears had been pressed against the hard earth listening to harsh hoof beats mingling with the calamitous din of the booted infantry; if their collective imagination had taken flight, perhaps they might have envisaged a single terrible organism approaching, multi-limbed, and relentless. But this was the Clann. Helmets had been snapped into position and from their dark recesses unforgiving eyes stared forth.
Off to the left, the plateau faded away. The broad green expanse became pitted and scarred and disappeared unceremoniously into the mountainside.
Directly in front was the bulk of Krul’s force, flattened up against the low ridge that had recently sheltered Hakkulbak. Waiting, anticipating. Breathing deep and measured.
And beyond them a plumed spangenhelm now appeared. Three plumes in fact, but tightly bound together; yellow, red and green, signifying the three legions of Askalpur. Then a gleaming armor-clad figure atop a proud horse. Not for a second did the horse falter in those final steep steps, carrying its rider elegantly onto the plateau.
Feng was exultant. Despite the problems it caused for his cavalry he had ordered them to halt at the very top of the slope, where they now shuffled precariously. Was he supposed to care? He had a few moments whilst the infantry caught up again and he would use them. He unsheathed his sword and held it high to his right, then stretched out his left arm in similar fashion. A smile slashed across his face. He urged his horse forward with his legs and began to ascribe a large circle.
It was as though a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders. The air was clear up here, now that he had made it out of that wretched valley. This was indeed a new beginning. He paid little attention to the strange array of massive fallen boulders to his right, where the grassland seemed to emerge like an emerald spring from the mountainside. Even the peaks that still loomed over him were given scant regard, let alone the little stone ridge at their base and the ravine that emerged from it, which he cleared in a single bound. He had eyes only for the widening grass highway to his left; a highway that would lead him straight to his enemy’s heart. For an instant he was tempted to gallop across its waiting expanse, but stayed himself at the last from this excess and completed the circle. With arms still outstretched, he approached the brink once more and with an overt flourish of his sword signaled the advance.
Krul cursed as Feng played out his indulgent routine, putting their preparations to the extreme test. Only when the line of upright Skalian lances appeared did his string of expletives end. He even allowed himself a thin smile as they wheeled around onto the plateau in tight formation, for there was no sign of the Jâlregs. They, he suspected, would have displayed a much more cautious approach to this maneuver. At the very least their desert instincts would have been aroused, not that Feng would have paid them much attention in his present frame of mind.
Hakkulbak’s eyes never left the doors where Krul was concealed. He blinked constantly to keep his eyes clear as he peered out through the slit in the cloak that covered him. Its top surface had been smeared with sap and then sprinkled with a heavy layer of dust so that he would merge with the boulder beneath. To a mere mortal his position would have seemed extremely cramped and uncomfortable, but like his brothers-in-arms he lived for moments such as these, when his abilities would be called upon. In point of fact he was not aware of any pain in his body, for his attention was elsewhere, a needle-thin band of awareness focusing on what was to come. Up and astride the boulder; drawing the arrow; straining against the bow; focusing on the target. A single flash from Krul’s axe, or the sight of Krul himself, should the starving array of clouds not play their part in the unfolding drama, and in one sparse motion his body would melt into that awareness.
Feng had cantered about a hundred paces along the unnaturally smooth terrain before coming to a halt. He sat there impatiently as the first line of cavalry, lancers all, came up behind him. A flash of light up the slope to his right momentarily distracted him and the lancers had all but caught up to him by the time he urged his mount forward again.
From Krul’s perspective it was where the plateau ended rather than began, where it surrendered much of its lush groomed appearance. The boulders that lay there, the product of an ancient rockfall, the same boulders that had barely registered with Feng, were now all that mattered to him. As he watched, the flattened top of the tallest of them came to life.
Battle-hardened as he was, even Krul found that he had stopped breathing. Hakkulbak could have had a much shorter shot had he elected to join the men below, but there had been other overriding considerations for him. From below, atop the little ridge, his target would have been moving from left to right, whereas he had wanted that target moving directly away from him, presenting a minimum of horizontal movement to contend with. He had also wanted a vertical vantage point so that any surrounding troops would have less chance of accidentally blocking the shot.
Krul continued to watch, a terrible fascination now upon him, as the camouflaged cloak was flung back and Hakkulbak’s body arched back after it. The archer seemed to hang there, poised for an eternity, his double-curved bow pointing skyward. Only when his body and the bow pitched forward did the arrow become visible, angled almost straight downward as he bent his left leg at the knee.
Nothing stirred in the voids that were Hakkulbak’s eyes. His headgear rested behind the rock but two crimson flashes adorned his face and a leather band restrained his long hair so that it did not whip across his face in the mounting breeze. Slowly his left leg extended, reaching a locked position just as his bending right arm came to the limit of its capabilities, straining against the mighty bow. His fingers were on fire for the arrow pulsed with demonic energies, but it served only to heighten his concentration. The triple-plumed spangenhelm bobbed into his vision. In an instant he had attuned himself to the motion of the figure beneath it and everything peripheral to that figure became a blur. His fingers flexed and a grotesque drone rent the air, surmounting even the clamor of the surging horses below.
Feng’s ears picked up the approaching noise but he had no time to react. The terrible spinning arrow passed through his back and its tip smashed through his chest. He died almost instantly, having failed utterly to stem the missile’s velocity by even a fraction. But its droning was no more for the energies that had flowed through its rune-scarred length had abated.
The first rank of horsemen came to a stunned halt as they took in the sight of their smitten leader. Their eyes widened in horror as his lifeless body began to convulse before them. Even within its armored confines however, it was not equal to the task of containing the rampant energies that raged within, yielding in a gruesome explosion of flesh, bone and metal.
And so it was that the youngest son of Muramotek met his end; a demise more noble than many would have anticipated, nourishing the verdant pastures of Kananaaltra. In the confusion that prevailed, eyes darted hither and thither but finally came to rest on the figure that stood, arms raised aloft, atop the highest of the jagged rocks to their rear. As they were meant to. Shock relented and was usurped by anger. As it was meant to. Front ranks turned into still advancing rear ranks, sending a ripple of uncertainty all the way through to the infantry, who were just cresting the slope. As they were meant to.
Within the deepened ravine, six tapers flared into life and were held up to fast fuses that protruded from six wooden tubes. The tubes had been laid just below the turf of the plateau, which had been carefully replaced. They led to a line of shallow pockets about twenty paces away, each of which contained a tightly packed charge of powder. The powder had been developed by Ravenkar, just one of his many sidelines. It was designed to ignite with a quite staggering noise and to create billowing clouds of smoke.
From within the milling ranks of the Skalians, no more than a few tentative arrows had been released in the general direction of the taunting figure upon the rock, when suddenly the very ground beneath their feet was shaken as a series of explosions rent the air. At least this had the effect of momentarily unifying each horseman’s attention as he tried desperately to control his terrified mount, but the mounts were having none of it, well trained though they were. Never had they been exposed to such a noise, even during the clamor of the most intense battle. As one they turned into the advancing infantry and as they did so a humming hail of death winged its way into their exposed flank. Man and beast alike went down under the withering assault and as the survivors looked in dismay towards the low ridge whence it had come, an ominous line of figures appeared, advancing slowly, steadily, towards them. Over the ridge they came, swords leveled across raised shields in an impregnable line. It was their noiseless relentless approach that struck terror into even the most stalwart of the Skalians and as the identity of the foe became apparent, panic spread like wildfire through their ranks.
The front line of the infantry had halted, their formation shredded by retreating riderless horses, and at the head of the slope chaos reigned as those same horses ploughed into more ranks of unsuspecting troops. Together, as a writhing mass, they plunged downward over the unforgiving scree and within seconds those left on the plateau had been left isolated.
There were many still, but they were now in despair. As they looked westward along the open plateau for an avenue of escape, another line of grim figures emerged from the cloying smoke to confirm their worst fears.
And so the Clann advanced on two fronts, two ranks only to each front. But the front rank was a wall of interlocking shields and drawn swords whilst in the back rank each man held a long polepine lance above his shoulder so that its wicked point reached well beyond the first rank.
The lances took a terrible toll and the Skalians, taken completely unawares, could not even get to within striking distance of the Clann’s first rank whose flailing swords finished what their second rank had begun. The advance never faltered, for they knew that it must not, even for an instant. To the very edge of the plateau their merciless assault continued, swords falling with mechanical precision as though they were chaffing wheat, until finally they stood, line abreast along the rim, looking down upon the carnage they had wrought. But there was no elation, no raising of swords, no taunting of their foe.
Above the pool, which sparkled now like a flagon of vintage wine, the slope was almost bereft of bodies. Such had been the tumult, the entire top surface of glacial debris had started to slither downwards and an avalanche of panicking horses, falling men and splintered rock had been sloughed off by the mountainside, its momentum only slowed by the slackening gradient at the forest’s edge. It was here that the bulk of the Skalian force now stood, bemused, bewildered, shaken to their very core. They looked up past the turbulent sanguine froth that spewed from the lower reaches of the pool, aghast at the indomitable line of warriors that barred their way. Even the sky that framed the infamous tusked helmets seemed to bleed, its pink wash now totally devoid of clouds.
The silence that had prevailed before the battle wrapped its dampening tendrils around the scene once more, quieting even the cries of the maimed and wounded. Its burgeoning fronds served only to swell the mesmeric aura of the Clann, so that it held sway over the conflict like a palpable force of nature.
Had Orkus ordered his shattered force back up the slope at that moment, their response would have been seriously in doubt, however such speculation was rendered irrelevant as two more explosions, muffled this time, added to Skalian woes. Stones, then rocks, and finally boulders began to rain down from the crumbling bluffs to each side and in vindictive harmony, flames began to lick at the topmost part of the forest. The trees and undergrowth were fairly damp and the conflagration was never likely to spread, but dense white smoke now raked across the valley. Through it five figures stalked, letting loose arrows with deadly precision before melting away silently around the eastern bluff and scaling hidden ropes back up to the plateau.
As men saw their comrades fall, clutching at arrows delivered by an unseen foe, all pretence of an orderly retreat disappeared. Yet in the midst of the chaos one warrior sat calmly, atop a desert-bred horse. He remained utterly still until the smoke had obliterated all sight of the Clann, then he turned his mount and headed down towards the camp. Surprisingly his thoughts did not dwell on the carnage he had just witnessed but instead drifted back to his first foray up to the valley head.
He had known, he had just known! What was this gift that he possessed, the gift that had told him, contrary to all the evidence, that death waited for him at the top of that slope? This time the crow’s feet definitely bore witness to a smile. Would he ever see the top of that damnable slope?
The grass was slick with blood where Krul walked. With Hakkulbak he had gone to the deserted area beyond the carnage to retrieve the dreadful weapon around which their plans had revolved, but where he now wandered, corpses, men and horses, lay everywhere. The Khâlians would make another ascent on the morrow; unopposed, they would reach the plateau and be able to bury their dead. He felt no remorse, nor did he feel elated. Thankful perhaps was how he felt; thankful that there were no dead of his own to bury. But then surprise had been total and luck had been with them. They had gained another day for their compatriots, which might just be enough. There was no certainty to it though.
Krul would never have questioned Joel’s insistence on subjecting the Clann to this most extreme of tasks, but Joel had been just as insistent in explaining his actions. He had told him of the vision with which the Ultima had confronted him and had made it clear that the final responsibility for passing on to the Clann the nature of the true foe lay with their Leader.
“The where and the when will be yours to decide,” had been his exact words, and Krul would not have had it any other way. Well, he thought to himself, the where and the when would appear to be here and now.
So it was, that under the lengthening shadows of an increasingly murky evening, beneath gathering clouds that traversed the sky with unnatural haste, the Clann stood before the ridge at the back of the plateau, whilst upon it Krul told his brief tale.
With the coming of darkness bonfires were lit at the head of the valley. Their genial glow belied the horrors of the day. The warm light played along the bluff walls and cast an undulating orange carpet all the way down to the pool. Clann scouts scanned its flickering weave for any sign of movement, whilst further down, within the folds of the forest, Chemalak and his comrades kept watch.
Away from the butchery, within the confines of the old fort, the remainder of the Clann rested and tended to their wounds. Krul gathered his cloak about him and stared into the dying embers of the fire, pondering once again upon the luck that had attended them that day. He was a pragmatist at heart and knew such luck could not be with them again as tomorrow dawned. They held the high ground and the temptation was to secure it for another day to give General Tarkal more time. Instinct however told him otherwise. They would show themselves and then withdraw. He expected now that a large force would attempt to follow them; two of the Clann had received leg wounds which would have slowed them down, so they were currently working their way around the plateau on Skalian mounts to link up with Tarkal and his force, whereupon they would relay the day’s events and the disposition of the enemy before returning to Skîros. He expected that the Skalians would be desperate to exact some form of retribution for the death of Feng. As to the exact form of that retribution, he could only guess.
The mood inside the pavilion was dark, verging on stygian. Even the fire was reluctant to burn with gusto, lest it be noticed. The sentries drew back into shadow and a mounting unease enveloped the innards of everyone who had been summoned to that wretched audience. Muramotek presided over them all, murder in his eyes. He might have been impaled to the ample wooden throne on which he sat, such was his upright posture and his total lack of movement: the hands that clenched his timber perch sported knuckles which were white; neck muscles were tensed above a torso that appeared to be in the clutches of rigor mortis, obvious even beneath the all-embracing imperial cloak and the underlying silken khalat. As he sat thus, beads of sweat had the effrontery to trickle down to his furrowed brow, although that was as far as they got, diverted by a mask that blocked their way and which concealed from view all features save for those twin pools of murderous intent.
The emperor employed a team of skilled artisans to paint his face on a regular basis, up to four times a day should he deem it necessary. Their work reflected the moods he wished to portray, rarely in harmony with his actual moods. So it was unusual that a mask should adorn his face. Generally it would be during a special audience or more usually, a ceremony. No one was quite sure at such times if he was bowing to the dictates of tradition or wished merely to project an enigmatic aura to those present. Those masks though were few in number, two to be exact, and had appeared on only a handful of occasions; one portrayed great joy and the other sorrow. It was the latter that his court had learned to fear.
Now however, a third mask was incumbent upon his face. Whereas the other two were of wood, their exquisitely carved minutiae displaying every nuance of their specific emotion, this was altogether different. It was undoubtedly a piece of high art, its metal beaten to a wafer-thin membrane, yet its edges were rough and its contours pronounced. The expression upon it was the antithesis not just of joy and sorrow, but of all emotion, and it viewed everyone in that enclosure with icy equanimity, chilling them to their very marrow.
The voice, when it emerged from the gash that was the mouthpiece, was rich, overly so. Power oozed from it like succulent drops from an overripe peach.
‘Sit down, Roth.’
‘But father, you surely do not intend to sacrifice several hundred of our finest warriors in a vendetta against the Clann. That is surely what they would want! Feng is dead and has gone beyond. Nothing can bring him back. He is the price that has been paid for our overconfidence.’
This statement was met with a communal intake of breath as courtiers, advisors, generals and guards alike willed themselves to disappear.
‘Sit down, Roth.’
Roth clenched his fists in exasperation. His shoulders swayed this way and then that. His sullen mouth opened and closed, like a struggling fish. Then he sat down as ordered, mute.
‘It is Oju’s warriors that I intend to sacrifice, splendid son of mine, for he is still in our debt. Ten score of his minions gather even as we speak. At a clearing beyond the river they await the summoning. From the slave pens of Tarrak Kanga he has chosen them and as you know, only the hardiest survive within those stark walls. These are warriors who are in the last stages of their “training”. They were brought on this campaign with the understanding that should they distinguish themselves, the black sun would be granted to them upon their return. Many have been acting as herders to the Shungareg or hauling cannons across the fen; desperately arduous work in both cases, I’m sure you will agree, but hardly the stuff of legend. By tomorrow the Shungareg will be on the plateau and more pliable with regard to our ministrations, for after all they will have only two directions beckoning; the third legion will be on hand to see that they do not choose the backward option. The cannons too will reside there, if the cavalry can handle that task with a little more aplomb than they illustrated today.’
All heads turned as the entrance flap parted and a wiry scarred individual made his entrance, flanked by a pair of nervous guards. He clutched a battered plumed spangenhelm in the crook of his right arm. His bone armor was caked with dust and blood.
‘Ah, Kommander Orkus. Come hither, if you would be so kind.’ The oleaginous tones of the emperor drew the newcomer to the front of the gathering.
‘I understand that you have been attending to our noble wounded. A not inconsiderable task no doubt, after today’s debacle. Most commendable, most commendable indeed. A leader of men must on occasion succumb to the more caring side of his nature, talking of which, you can of course explain why you did not block the arrow that took my son’s life?’
‘Great and magnificent emperor, it was the Clann that we faced this day. We had no warning.’ The kommander was visibly disconcerted, but to his credit his voice did not waver.
‘Did not Tchenga of the Jâlregs make known his concerns?’
‘Yes indeed my emperor, but he did not allude to anything specific, only to a “stillness” that he had perceived. His horsemen were holding up the advance and your son rightly berated them, ordering them to disperse, whilst dispatching me to consolidate our flanks.’
Not a sound emerged from that awful mask.
‘No one could have saved him, my emperor. The Clann had marked him for death. The arrow that took him was ensorcelled; by all accounts the range was impossible, so much so that it seemed to materialize from the air itself.’ The kommander paused for breath. It was his last.
The katar slid straight through his throat and he fell, clutching at its ornate handle, choking on his own blood. He convulsed twice and was still. A spreading pool of red framed his face. Muramotek looked down at the shocked expression residing there, his head leaning to one side and then the other, as though appraising a work of art.
‘Would that be specific enough for you, Orkus, hmm? What was that you said? Ah, yes, that was it. “From the air itself”. Rather like my blade then, would you say, Orkus?
‘Sorry to take issue with you my old friend, but it was never thus. No indeed Orkus, the blade was mine and it came from the sleeve of my khalat; the arrow was of the Clann, and it came from one of their bows. And I shall have vengeance!’
The mask observed the proceedings with supreme indifference as its owner knelt to retrieve his weapon. Still kneeling, the emperor raised the weapon above the prostrate body before him and brought it down with terrible force. It punched through armor and bone alike into the kommander’s chest. With cruel deliberation his two hands took hold of the grips and pulled them together. One blade became two and flesh was no match for their parting edges.
‘“Stillness” you said, Orkus. Hmm, correct me if I’m wrong. It was “stillness” wasn’t it? Well let me give you stillness. Enough stillness to gorge yourself upon!’
Again and again the katar fell and not one in that shadowy arena came forward to still their emperor’s hand.
One mask had gone, as had the much-punctured body of Orkus. But in its stead, another had appeared; the mask of sorrow. Muramotek had assumed his rigid posture once more and the silence was deafening. His court did not know if he mourned or seethed and none dared to ask. Even Hûn and Roth held their council.
Thus it was until well into the evening. No one uttered a word, no one moved and certainly no one dared to leave. But then, just as it seemed the fire was about to go out and compound the misery of everyone gathered there, Muramotek leapt to his feet, casting aside the mask. Beneath, the artisans had been about their business and it was joy now for all the assembly. A happy face beamed down at them. A generous smile occupied the place beneath the benevolent trappings of his moustache. He had the undivided attention of his audience.
‘Guards, the fire-pit if you please. Let not my faithful subjects shiver as the evening draws in about us.’
Dying embers were restored and logs blazed, bathing expectant faces in a shifting umber balm. Above the roaring of the fire Muramotek’s voice soared, a hint of crooning madness to it.
‘Oju has told his brave warriors that it will be a chance to claim the black sun and grasp their freedom. He has told them that certain rites will be performed upon them that will give them the strength of ten men; that will spur them to great deeds. He has told them that should they succeed in their task they will be able to assume honorable and elevated status within any of Isladoron’s multitude of armies, within any of her warring tribes.’
The smile broadened a little.
‘All of this is true.’
The smile broadened yet further.
‘He did however neglect to mention that the rites are not altogether beneficial; that following on from their blissful receipt a few … minor allergies may present themselves.’
The smile was all-pervading.
‘Such a solicitous fellow, our General Oju. Always with the best interests of his men at heart. So like his emperor.’
Muramotek paused. His eyes narrowed and when he resumed it was as though he was talking to himself.
‘Tomorrow the Clann will retreat into their lair and watch us pass. Upon this we are all agreed. They are too astute to resist a full frontal assault, especially now that the element of surprise has gone. They will watch us pass and they will retreat whence they came. Through the mountains they will go, following a route of which we were unaware.
‘Hûn, you will lead our frenzied force after them. You will track them down like the animals that they are, and when you have cornered them, you will let loose your pack upon them. Oh, and do make sure they are sated. I would hate to think that even one of that misbegotten band might live to tell the tale.’
Hûn bowed low, pleased with his assignment, firelight dancing in his darting eyes.
‘My lord and father, you honor me greatly.’
‘Yes Hûn, yes I do. And I know you will not fail me.’
As the emperor’s words hung heavy over his eldest son, their import only too clear, Roth decided to chance his arm again.
‘Father, when you say “frenzied”?’
‘Dear boy, when I say “frenzied”, that is precisely what I mean.’
Roth was about to seek further enlightenment but the arched eyebrows and icy glare of his father stayed him. Several voices though took up where he had left off, generals and captains eager to impress now that Orkus had so obligingly vacated his position. They were all cut short. The fire swirled in a flurry of scattered sparks and torches flickered almost to the point of extinction. Through the dancing shadows an insidious voice writhed its way down to where they stood.
‘Munificent emperor, the night wears on and I really must be about my task.’
Roth flicked nervously at his long hair and began to shuffle backwards, impelled by a potent blend of fear and revulsion. Unable to avert his gaze he watched as a figure glided towards them; as hardened warriors backed hastily away to allow it to pass. Azrahôtep, the demon that posed as advisor to Muramotek, came to a halt before them. Roth would never think of him as a man.
Supposed descendant of the tribes of Mor, where mountains had been spawned that overshadowed even the mighty Atlâks; shaman and chief of the nomadic clans that wandered the harsh steppes of the Gangja Plateau, only to have forsaken them to gain the ear of the emperor himself; chief advisor to Muramotek, now with unlimited scope to wield his black arts.
A disdainful smile was affixed to the demon’s face. A glazed red veneer hung where each eye should have been and behind, the fires off hell were burning. The rings that pierced his nose and ears could not decide from which alloy they had been forged, their colors fluctuating wildly across the whole metallic spectrum whilst they crackled and sizzled, as though water was constantly dripping onto their searing occult surfaces. The nose-ring, annular, a mere sliver; the ear-rings, obscure glyphs on hypnotic discs, massive, destined surely to split the leathery lobes from which they were suspended.
Stretched between these pendulous extremities was a fiendish parchment of patchwork skin, unsullied by a single hair. On this sere surface no color predominated. Intricate symbols of green and red and black had been stitched together into a sorcerous quilt that lay taut over its supporting framework of bone. Sinuous arms emerging from an oily cloak indicated that the quilt was not a localized feature. Those arms tapered to strong fingers that were tipped with long finely sculpted nails.
The remainder of the demon was concealed beneath the cloak, which shimmered and pulsed as though alive. A serpentine clasp secured it at the neck, despite the writhing and slithering of its metallic components.
‘Oju’s minions await their fate. They shuffle eagerly neath the stars, talking rapturously of the coming day and the glories it will herald. I must leave now and begin the summoning, lest disappointment should be all that greets them on the morrow.’
The voice wrapped itself around all who stood in that pavilion, entrancing them. Ingratiating, beguiling, insistent.
At a nod from his emperor Azrahôtep bowed low, arms extended, then was gone.