Azrahôtep grabbed at Hûn as he blundered past towards the mouth of the tunnel and the bridge beyond. ‘Have a care, son of my emperor! I would advise you to tread carefully. I fear these simmering green pools are not without menace.’

The demon of the Gangja had been stood there for a few moments now, well ahead of the others, desperately trying to assimilate the scene before him. To say that dread had assailed him when the gong had sounded would not be accurate. Fear and regret were for others. He had realized instantly that it was a gong of summoning and that had then brought several threads of memory together, elusive bones of tales that he was now trying to flesh out.

He had remained deep within the shadow of the tunnel entrance for even the falling snow and the shadowy gloom about the lake had not been able to conceal the Clann, gathered on its far shore. He had cursed silently and having cursed, calmed himself. He had taken careful note of the discarded weapons and the bloodied snow upon the span of the bridge; he had wondered at the wide tracts of still water and the heaped shards of shattered ice that lay about them. But most of all he had been puzzled by the promontory that led onto the bridge. A single sword, and that was it. No more weapons, no blood, nothing else at all. In fact its surface had a treacherous sheen to it, as though some withering heat had melted the ice, only for it to freeze over again; the spiky fringe of icicles that hung down over the lake appeared to confirm this. Lastly he had taken in the tunnel walls and the noxious pools randomly scattered about the floor. Tentatively he had touched the bare rock to his side and had felt the heat still residing there. And then he had known. Something had risen from the lake, something terrible. It had smitten Oju’s horde with contemptible ease and returned to its lair. This then had been the safeguard!

No remorse had come to him then, only anger. Not anger at the Clann, but anger at himself. The ceremony had triggered something and he had not been sufficiently cautious. He would consider it a lesson learned. The amulet still burned there, where he had left it; payment for the departed souls, yes, but also a beacon to guide him when he next returned to that dark place.

He held Hûn’s arm in a vice-like grip. ‘Be ever so careful. I fear that the only thing that now separates us from the Clann is a long, if somewhat treacherous, bridge. I suspect they may harbor a certain reluctance to tread its icy path once more but the sight of the emperor’s eldest at its far end may temper that hesitancy.’

A glazed expression now manifested itself upon Hûn’s face. ‘What has happened here? Surely even the Clann could not have perpetrated such an outrage! Where are my warriors?’ His protruding eyes came to rest upon the surface of the lake.

‘No, Lord Hûn,’ answered Azrahôtep, an evil smile upon his face, ‘I fear we were the ones to perpetrate the outrage and I do not think that outrage entirely met its end in a watery grave. Just the opposite in point of fact. The demise of your warriors however is not the main issue at hand. Might I suggest that you punch the air or give free rein to some other overt display of triumph, perhaps just as your guards round the corner? You might also wish to keep them well back inside the tunnel so that they are able to witness nothing. Absolutely nothing.’

Hûn was sometimes slow, but not stupid. His eyes narrowed and his mouth became a taut line across his face. ‘Yes, an obvious place for the Clann to make a stand, upon the bridge. Such a pity that it should collapse under the weight of our frenzied onslaught and that so many of them should drown rather than confront the death they deserved. Still, I do believe the final few got their just deserts, did they not? And perchance this Clann sword I see before me here bears testament to that.’

‘Yes, I do believe they did get their just deserts, Hûn, I do believe they did. And, more importantly, I do believe your father will also,’ came the soft reply, ‘especially when he sees that sword. Now, be ready to order your guards back whence we have come. I suspect this has never been a popular detail. I do not think they will take much by way of persuasion.’

‘And what of the Clann, conjurer? Might they not return to harry us, as we pass along the plateau?’

‘I suspect the Clann are destined for other matters.’ Once again, the soft reply. ‘Hopefully they will not reappear until your father is encamped before Skîros, by which time, I trust, he will be in a more accommodating frame of mind.’

 

*

 

Krul stood with his back to the lake and the Clann arrayed before him. They were in various states of repose, attempting to embrace both elation and sorrow at the same time. Elation at their escape from a cruel fate, and sorrow at the passing of a comrade.

Krul had his arms crossed and the gong pressed tightly to his chest. The temple hovered at the edge of his vision. He tried not to look directly at it for it was exerting over him a strange compulsion.

‘It may have escaped your attention,’ he began, ‘but doors now adorn yonder temple and they are firmly closed; they will remain so until I ascend the stairs and stand directly before them, whereupon the Iceman will emerge, in his own good time, and retrieve what is his.’

Some time passed before the assembled warriors realized that their leader had said all he was going to say. As usual, Errelon, fleet of foot and fleet of mind, was the first to respond. ‘You are possibly hinting that we may be able to go back across the bridge without meeting an untimely, and distinctly unpleasant, demise?’

‘Ah, brother Jagra, your powers of deduction are a shining example to us all,’ came the terse reply.

‘And you think that should we ponder long enough upon this, then finally we might realize that it should be possible to slip back under the cover of darkness and retrieve our armor?’

Krul simply raised his eyebrows.

‘And the prospect of recovering our armor will far outweigh any baseless fears that might yet linger within us regarding the reappearance of a certain worm?’

‘Your logic is flawless, Errelon. What can I say?’

‘And you know all this to be fact?’

‘Ah, now you have faltered. I know only what Ravenkar has told me. The gong is required if the temple doors are open, which invariably, they are. Once the Sentinel has breached the ice it can only be summoned again after the gong has first been returned to its owner and during that time the temple doors remain closed. Whether fact or supposition, I cannot say. You know how vague these wizards can be.’

‘And of course the Sentinel would never return to the surface of its own volition?’ Errelon pressed on relentlessly.

‘It likes to sleep. If the doors are closed, stepping upon the bridge will not disturb it. If they are open, then stepping upon the bridge must trigger some sort of mechanism,’ answered Krul.

‘“Must trigger”?’ Now, noble leader, I think you are improvising. I do not think Ravenkar told you that.’

‘Well now, wizards don’t know everything, do they?’ Krul’s smile was magnanimous.

Before Errelon could raise any further objections, another Clannsman, Dorakjak, had raised his hand and Krul turned to him now.

Dorakjak was still side by side with Prukk, which was unusual, for they had nothing in common other than an uncanny ability to hurl javelins with unerring accuracy, lightning-quick reflexes, and the fact that each was habitually referred to by his Clann name.

“Prukk” was the old tongue word for a raven, being similar to the strange sound that the bird was liable to make. His skin was white, so much so that he could have just been removed from a vat of bleach, but everything else about him was black, like the bird. His long flowing locks, his headband, his helmet, his leggings, even the blood channel and the runes on the lethal sword he carried. As with the bird, he had an association with death; he was a supreme swordsman and even Bargor had been reluctant to cross blades with him.

“Dorakjak” was also an old tongue word for a bird; a “jackerdaw” as it was usually referred to in Khir. Unlike Prukk, who was tall and sinuous and solitary, Dorakjak was short and stocky and gregarious. The scars on his face formed a strange counterpoint to the long groomed ringlets of his hair and the rings upon his fingers. His name came from his tendency to horde things, specifically weapons; more specifically, knives. His knowledge on the subject was second to none and the journey through Mithra Baltak had been more trying for him than most. Having initially paid little heed to Krul’s request to discard their heavier accessories, he had been forced to hurl knife after knife into the shadowy recesses of the tunnel until finally he had possessed nothing more than the short sword strapped across his back and a javelin in each hand. He now saw a chance at redemption.

‘Krul, I am sure I speak for everyone when I say that life is too short to spend time agonizing over its end. Our armor awaits us and surely any immediate journey to Robahar is out of the question. Let us reclaim it!’

‘And possibly several other items on the way, my sly jackerdaw,’ was Krul’s reply. ‘Do not forget I was right behind you on our little journey and such is your sleight of hand that I probably did not witness even half of the private armory that you discarded. As for life being short, well, yes it is, but like me, I am sure that most of your comrades see no apparent reason for hastening its end. Three fingers lower with that javelin you hurled on the bridge today and mine would most certainly have reached a premature conclusion, so do not try my patience.’

At last smiles appeared on that gaunt company of faces; grim smiles, but smiles nevertheless and Dorakjak was forced to endure a pummeling rain of shingle.

‘You are however correct about one thing: Joel wishes us back in Skîros. I am not altogether sure what he has in mind for us beyond that, but I suspect a trip up to Robahar is not in his thoughts. Beyond that, the ice walk is a full day or “dawn till dusk” as Ravenkar so aptly put it when we discussed the possibility of following this route. Dawn is now a distant memory and thus we are left with two possibilities: we seek out the warmth of the rock cavern in Mithra Baltak and make a communal vow not to look at the pictures on the walls, or we make camp on this beach.’

‘I would be right in saying then that we are caught between “a rock and a hard-place”,’ said Errelon, to the accompaniment of many anguished groans.

‘I do believe you would,’ answered Krul, picking up what little gear he had left. ‘But when the choice is between a warm rock and a cold hard-place, then the answer becomes a little clearer.’

 

Krul effected a casual glance over at the twinkling ice temple as he reached the top of the spiral stairway. The portal still remained closed. He placed a tentative foot upon the bridge, and then another. The gloom within the bowl had not lifted and the air was now very still, and cold, so very cold. Despite this, the leader of the Clann found that he was sweating profusely by the time he had reached the center of the bridge. He idly wondered if Hakkulbak too was similarly affected; it was exactly here where the worm had captured them in its stare; where the pits of hell had opened up before them. Already the water was beginning to freeze over again but nothing seemed to stir beneath the icy glaze. He wrenched his gaze away and stared resolutely down at the bridge. One foot after another, and they would make it.

And make it they did, except that this time there was no Keeper at the far side to conjure up a cordial welcome and the ice on the promontory was absolutely treacherous.

All was quiet, all was still, as Mithra Baltak swallowed them up once more. The pace was casual, but the attitude of those warriors was anything but. No words were spoken and their tread was light, for they did not know what to expect. Hûn and his guards, according to Chemalak’s observations, but how far ahead were they? Presumably they had no wish to linger in this dark place, so hopefully, quite a distance. Nor did the Clann want to give any indication that they were heading back along the tunnel, so Chemalak himself was leading the way, about a hundred paces ahead of their main body. About fifty paces behind Chemalak, four warriors followed, two hugging each wall. All five traveled as only Clann scouts could: in complete silence. They had but a vague mineral luminosity to guide them and a sixth sense to warn them of any obstructions, of which there were a few, putrid and foul.

The walls fell away to either side until they were beyond the range of the makeshift brands that the main body of the Clann carried. The ceiling had receded also but was still just within view. Five figures loomed up ahead of them out of the darkness.

‘Is this then to be where we rest?’ asked Chemalak.

‘I see no alternative,’ answered Krul. ‘Behind the iron doors at the tunnel’s end would have been my chosen place but I am sure that Hûn will have posted sentries there; sentries that we will need to remove if we are to retrieve our armor. It is mid-afternoon. We will stay here until early evening, or as close to that as we can tell. Then we will make our move.’

 

Iambos was on the wane, but still dominated the sky. Any heat that the sun had imparted during the day had evaporated quickly into the cloudless night. A chill wind blew straight up the valley from the south, making the Kananaaltra plateau a cold place to be. The two sentries had moved inside the doors and lit a fire to warm themselves. The flames flickered wildly in the drafty chamber as errant gusts of wind raged through the wrecked iron portals. An empty flask of wine was thrown upon the dusty floor and another one opened. One of the men raised it to his lips and then stopped, abruptly. A third figure had appeared next to the fire and was busy warming himself. He turned, a friendly grin upon his face. He wore a cloak of very unusual design. He was the last person either sentry would see for a while as they were choked into unconsciousness.

‘Is it a good idea to let them live?’ asked Chemalak.

‘Tie them securely, very securely,’ answered Krul. ‘When they awaken they will recognize their foes and hopefully some confusion will spread throughout the Khâlian ranks. Every little helps.’

‘Their blue shields mark them as men of the third legion,’ said Chemalak, peering intently through the iron doors and down onto the plateau below. ‘And the fort is deserted!’

‘We are lucky indeed then. This stairway below is altogether too exposed.’ He turned and motioned over his shoulder. ‘Come, let us make the most of it.’

The original five scouts slipped down the stairway like wraiths. Within minutes they had signaled back that the fort area was secure and the rest of the Clann made their way down. No man carried more than a single weapon, save possibly Dorakjak; the rest had been left in the passageway above, along with the helmets and any meager provisions they still carried. From the perimeter of the fort they surveyed the plateau before them.

‘I suspect that part of the third legion is down there, going by the orderly nature of the camp,’ said Chemalak intently. My guess would be that most of the army has gained the plateau. No mean feat. Only remnants of the third remain in the valley. The Shungareg that they herd appear to be ensconced on the far side of the second ravine, going by the noise and the random positions of the fires.’

Krul nodded and looked up at the night sky. The next day was upon them, but only just. He had expected all to be quiet down below, but nothing ever went perfectly. Better that the Shungareg were drunk and comatose rather than drunk and rowdy. He knew though that if he delayed it would mean a further day and night in the tunnel. Yet did that matter? His men were exhausted, as was he. He made his decision.

An hour later and the Shungareg were pretty much spent. Their cries now were fitful and swiftly carried away by the strengthening wind. Chemalak was already well down the ravine. He knew its contours well; it was the second ravine that led directly to the platform where the armor was stored. The fact that they had already deepened it meant it suited their purpose perfectly, shielding them from the view of any over-zealous sentry. Chemalak smiled to himself. That would only be a problem off to the left where the third legion was encamped. To the right he could actually hear tortured Shungareg snores, and occasionally sour-smelling alcoholic fumes drifted across his path. He knew they didn’t drink anything as refined as wine, even rough wine. They themselves often referred to their preferred beverage as “green wine”. In essence it was a potent distillation of fermented grain, which was fine, but then they would take to blending it with an array of very dubious potions, which wasn’t so fine. Even these dispersed fumes were causing him to gag. Not good! But the clearing was close. Soon all would be well with the world.

The ravine fell away beneath his feet and he began to search off to his right for the stairs that led up to the platform. He soon found them and two bounds took him up there. Carefully removing the hastily conceived covering of branches and loose rocks he reached down to retrieve the first set of chain mail. This was the difficult part; light it might be but nevertheless it was still a collection of closely-knit metal platelets and links, which, when disturbed, tended to generate all manner of metallic-like noises. Having draped the first set over his left forearm, he proceeded to do the same with a second, at the same time giving thanks to the Shungareg god of alcohol, or libation, or feasting, or whoever it was that they prayed to on such occasions.

The plan was that half the Clann would wend their way down to the platform and each of them would pick up two sets of mail. The other half of the Clann would crouch beneath the low ridge than ran parallel to the plateau, ready to swarm out and subdue any unforeseen hazard, such as an errant patrol, and then act as a rearguard on the way back up to the tunnel. Once back to the relative safety of the tunnel each warrior would claim his own armor.

Chemalak handed over the two sets of mail to the first of his companions and then picked up the next two. And so, on it went, without a hitch. In his opinion they were making an inordinate amount of noise, but to one for whom stealth was a way of life, an obsession, that was only to be expected. As the mail was quickly uncovered in this fashion, so the path of disturbed earth led unwaveringly towards a familiar silhouette. He tried to ignore its dark outline and concentrate on the task at hand but it was emitting a low-pitched droning sound and as he placed the final two sets of mail over his shoulder he was drawn inevitably towards it.

He was unsure whether to be disappointed or not. Hakkulbak had mentioned a delicate light emanating from the thing when they had stored the armor there in the first place; they had quickly tried to cover it with anything readily available, just so that it didn’t attract any roving eyes from below. Chemalak reached through the loose tangle of thornwood branches and vegetation but the light was no more. He tentatively lowered his palms onto the extended back of the chair. The metal was warm to his touch. He noticed now that nearly all of the vegetation in its immediate vicinity was smoldering and as he tugged, it came away easily. What was he doing? He felt compelled to examine the chair further and he was almost powerless to resist. No, not powerless! It was simply a case of applying some self-discipline, some resolve. They were almost home and free. But it would only take a few moments, wouldn’t it?

Laying the armor down again he straddled the seat and lay back. And wished immediately that he hadn’t. As his head touched the pad behind, it was immediately clamped, along with his wrists and ankles. He found himself unable to move. The back of the seat began to tilt forward, and ever so slowly, the entire contraption started to swivel around horizontally. Whilst this was happening, a faceplate was gradually being lowered over his head and there was not a thing he could do to prevent it.

Initially he could see nothing, but then he realized that he was looking out over the forest below. The view had been greatly magnified which is why it had taken him a while to orientate himself. Iambos was fading but it still cast out enough light to identify a few details. With excruciating slowness the chair continued to turn until a more distinct feature appeared on the periphery of his vision. Chemalak’s heart immediately began to pound as the feature took form. Finally, there at the center of the viewing lens, was a ring of phosphorescent flame; it had dulled, to be sure, but there was no mistaking the grim clearing. Even as he looked the ring flickered, only to be replaced by a ghastly white column that pierced the heavens. His hands gave an involuntary spasm and he clutched at the arms of the chair, just as the scene flickered back to reveal the flaming ring.

The drone of the chair ceased abruptly and Chemalak gave a sigh of relief as he felt the clamps release their hold and the face mask being raised. But then he was thrust back into its embrace again as a colossal vibration shook the earth beneath his feet. This was altogether more prolonged than the numbing event that had occurred on his last visit to the platform. This time he was forced to bear witness as the trees of the forest began to bend away from him. The wind had not changed direction, it was simply consumed by an opposing force; consumed and overwhelmed. Everything was being drawn inwards toward the clearing. Trees were being uprooted, debris was everywhere. For an instant Chemalak thought the stars themselves were being absorbed as the sky above the clearing became wildly distorted.

The sound, when it came, was juddering, primordial. An implosion that seemed to suck every breath of air from the upper valley of the Nrulu. And the portal was closed.

Chemalak heard shouting and wailing from the plateau. Even as he clutched the armor and sprang down the steps he could sense the surge of bodies towards its edge. He drew his cloak tightly about him and sprinted up the ravine. As he vaulted over the low ridge at its head he found only Krul there. The rest of the Clann were strung out up the rise, on their way back to the fort and thence Mithra Baltak.

‘Under the circumstances, I had not thought a diversion to be necessary,’ said Krul, a wry grin on his face. ‘But then, who am I to argue?’

 

*

 

Joel wrapped his fur cloak more tightly around him. The wind was bitter this far up towards Mithra Sol, but at least they were nearing its summit. Lengthening purple shadows indicated that the afternoon was drawing to a close. It was their sixth day out of Skîros and as Tarkal was constantly reminding him, the army was only as fast as its slowest component; there was little point in reaching the Obakrag with only their forward units if the full force of the enemy materialized at the same time.

Problems had dogged them right from the outset and he himself had not been entirely blameless. Against all advice, he had decided to accompany the army as far as the summit of Mithra Sol for he had heard that the Steppe Lords were contributing a force that would meet them there. It had given Tarkal another headache over which to ponder but for Joel, the chance to share a drink with his old friend Mikular, Lord of Korbindahar, Tzarr of the Three Steppes, High King of Kartha Nagal, and so on and so forth, had been too compelling.

Extrovert in the extreme, the man was unlike Joel in practically every way, but there had always been a bond between them; indeed there had been a time when the Tzarr’s daughter Sasha had been like an elder sister to Azella. It had been under the shadow of Kartha Nagal’s walls that Azella had learned to ride the fierce ponies of the South Steppe.

Erekul and the guard would return with Joel to Skîros and General Ulan, who had been left behind with a token force to man the city and Haan’s Wall, would make his way towards the Obakrag with some of that same force, to deal with whatever he might find.

The need for secrecy had hampered them and it had taken five days to fully mobilize their forces. Then, two days out, when they had gained the lower slopes, the snow had begun. It had not been heavy, but just enough to slow their progress to a crawl. Only this very morning had it begun to ease off and spirits had been uplifted all round as the nagging gray clouds had shuffled away to reveal a bright blue sky, free from the red tinge that had dogged it for the past weeks. Even the poisonous blemish that was the comet seemed to be returning whence it had come, back across the face of the sun.

Joel had his bearings now. A track led off to the south and west, from the main route upwards. It was the track to Tak Khiroba. Ahead, to his left, was the soaring peak of Whitewind and framing the pass to his right was Scourside, not quite as high but just as forbidding. Beyond Whitewind, still higher peaks formed the backbone of the Mountains of Skor, that towering range through which, hopefully, the Clann had now found their way. Beyond Scourside the peaks relented somewhat until finally it was only a high ridge that separated Skorfjord from Tolfjord.

Gloomy thoughts assailed him. Images of the eastern hordes came to him unbidden, surging downwards past this very crossroads. He consoled himself in that the track to the monastery was precisely that: a track. With luck the eyes of this particular enemy would be on the greater prize and the monastery would not be sacked. But what of Skîros, his beloved Skîros?

As they rode ever higher his thoughts turned to Semira and then came the images with which the Black Sorcerer had confronted him. They had not dimmed by even a fraction. He found himself wondering what hope was left for any of them. Then, a shout!

Joel turned and saw General Tarkal below. He was pointing upwards. Joel found that a smile was trying to gain access to his lips as his involuntary glance took in the General. The fastidious little man had a fur cape about his shoulders, similar to Joel’s but shorter. Over this cape however, now that the snow had ceased, he had donned an expansive black velvet cloak that appeared to be trimmed with ermine; totally unsuitable for the terrain but very distinctive nevertheless. Joel turned to follow the direction of Tarkal’s outstretched arm.

A distinct line now crossed his immediate path where the shadows cast by Whitewind gave way to the coral tones of a snowfield caught in the direct light of an early evening sun. He realized then that the summit beckoned and upon it were five figures, the object of Tarkal’s histrionics. One he recognized immediately: Erekul. His captain had forged on ahead some time ago, with two royal guards in tow. One look at the other four horses told him that the guards must be elsewhere and as the distance narrowed, even in his present mood, Joel could not suppress a pang of elation. For there, upon the ridge, sat the Tzarr of the Three Steppes with his children.

All four sat upon steeds of the North Steppe, enormous beasts bred for war and similar in every detail to those that had been presented to the Clann; which the Clann cherished but seldom used save for ceremonial occasions. All four sat there with the swagger of riders born to the saddle, but behind them sat others too. Joel’s eyes widened.

The ground fell away steeply beyond the actual summit and then leveled out as it merged with the plateau. As he looked past the five figures before him, fifteen hundred burnished lances met his gaze and fifteen hundred voices rent the air as he appeared. He knew the number was fifteen hundred for there, arrayed before him, were all five heavy brigades, the five “phraktos”, of Kobindahar. He had never seen them gathered together like this and it was a sight he would remember until the end of his days: rank upon rank of the great “Bindan” warhorses, dark brown or near-black with their characteristic red and gold markings around eyes and muzzle; upon their heads, their necks, their breasts and their flanks rounded bronze plates that glinted in unison with the upraised lances; upon their backs  riders with pointed fur-lined helms, hoods and hauberks of chain mail, round shields and curved bows at their backs, gruesome war-hammers and swords hanging from their saddles.

Joel felt tears welling up although his face, as usual, betrayed nothing. At last the cares of the day began to lift. If the enemy were to prevail it would be at a heavy cost! He spread his arms out wide and bowed in his saddle before the assembled host as four riders encircled him.

‘My old friend, it has been too long has it not?’ said Tzarr Mikular. ‘Correct me if I am wrong but was that a flicker of emotion upon your face just now?’

‘You must have been mistaken,’ answered Joel, accepting the hand that was offered him, ‘for as you well know I am not at the beck and call of sentiment.’

‘You are not then at all pleased to see us, Uncle Joel?’ said another of the fur swathed figures that towered over him.

‘Aye, aye, aye, some small measure of respect, daughter!’ shouted Mikular, raising a whip in mock admonishment. ‘To you it is Lord Joel!’

And now, to the amazement of all, Joel did actually smile. ‘No, no, no, Mikular. To Tzarrevna Sasha I have always been, and would always hope to be “Uncle Joel”.’

‘We will look into this, I think,’ Mikular answered, still shouting. ‘Come now to my tent. Let us eat and drink and talk of times old and new. There you can reacquaint yourself with my ill-mannered brood. We are camped in the lea of Scourside; your good captain here assures me that there is room enough for your forces there also, although I fear darkness will be upon us before they are all settled.’

 

Mikular’s tent was as comfortable as any Atlâk tent although perhaps not as colorful. It was pitched on a rise within the lazy reach of the escarpment known as “Scourside’s Arm”. A fire-pit had been dug at the entrance and Mikular sat there now with Joel. The cold tendrils of night were all around but the raging flames of the fire kept them at bay. Quivering phantoms played on the rock wall behind.

The “brood”, namely Afran, Ruslan and Sasha, sat at their father’s side, now full-grown and rulers in their own right.

Afran and Ruslan were twins and were in their twenty eighth year. Afran was Khan of the North Steppe; Ruslan was Khan of the West Steppe. They both had ruddy weatherworn faces into which were embedded the hooded crystal-blue eyes of the grasslands; eyes that could spy a hawk on the distant horizon. They were not tall but they were imposing. They were hard and they were lean, with muscles like knotted chords and they had assumed the mantle of command with but a minimum of fuss. Unlike their father though they seemed to care little for the niceties and intrigues of court life at Kartha Nagal. This was apparent not just from the contemptuous manner in which they spoke of it, but also from their appearance; their hair was long and unruly, their beards unkempt, their attire utilitarian. Neither were they concerned as to which of them would succeed their father, both being of the opinion that their younger sister would have them murdered in their sleep.

‘They are both barbarians,’ countered Sasha, ‘and Korbindahar would thank me for such a benign act. Much better to be ruled by a gracious queen.’

Sasha was in her twenty-third year and was Khan of the South Steppe. Her hair was also unruly but it merely complemented her beauty, a beauty the riders of the South Steppe would willingly die for. Its icy blonde locks framed a face of desolate allure, marred only by a sliver of a scar beneath her left eye. Her tongue was waspish, like Azella’s, and in this company she talked without hesitation, saying whatever was in her head, knowing they would forgive her impetuousness. But Joel detected within her a more guarded aspect; an ability to say and do whatever was required, if needs must. He found himself sympathizing with Afran and Ruslan, although his fondness for Sasha remained undimmed.

And so it continued. Joel did not hold back. He told them of Semira’s murder and of her funeral, with a specific mention reserved for the Ultima’s appearance. He told them that Azella had gone north, to Djebal Doron.

‘It seems to me though,’ said Mikular, adjusting the sash around his burgeoning waist and scratching at his immaculately trimmed beard, ‘that we must deal with one threat at a time. These eastern curs are at our doorstep and we must drive them back around Kananaaltra and into the sea! Then perchance we can worry about the Black Sorcerer’s fantasies.’

‘Dear Mikular, if you had seen what I have seen you would not doubt his word. And you must ask yourself what manner of assassin could creep into my domain unnoticed and leave likewise? But you are correct nevertheless. One threat at a time.’

‘And to counter that threat, the phraktos are at your disposal, Joel,’ said Mikular, ‘to do with as you wish. My whelps will obey Tarkal’s orders, even if they are somewhat suspicious of his demeanor. His reputation precedes him. Afran commands the two phraktos of the North Steppe and Ruslan the two phraktos of the West Steppe.’

Joel smiled inwardly for he knew what was coming.

‘And what are we to do about the remaining phraktos, father?’ Sasha had leapt to her feet, defiance in her eyes. When it comes to decisive action, your little girl is to stay at home?’

‘Sasha, my dear little sister,’ drawled Afran, a wicked smile upon his face, ‘this is a time for heroes, for strong men, not for weak little girls.’

‘Aye, aye, for once my brother speaks sense,’ added Ruslan, grinning.

Sasha was doing her best to ignore both of her brothers and was still staring at her father.

Joel raised his hand and clamped it down upon her shoulder. ‘Tarkal’s plans depend entirely upon our forces reaching the Obakrag before Muramotek’s horde. If we are successful in this he would then deploy four phraktos and keep yours in reserve; this he has told me. Your lines Sasha are at the beginning of this upcoming play, and possibly at the curtain call. We first have need of your keshik, not your phraktos. It has already distinguished itself by the banks of the Kumbala and now it must do so again.

‘The Obakrag is everything, Sasha. We would ask you to ride there in all haste, with your lighter unit. If you find the enemy already there, then you must promise your father that you will return. But if the enemy is not there, we would ask you to secure that bastion’s grim bounds, or at least give the impression that it is occupied; to stay there until our main forces arrive. Tarkal, who is more familiar than most with this plateau, and with the Obakrag, seems to think that should you depart on the morrow, at sunrise, you will reach the Obakrag on the morning of the third day. Your brothers, slower and more ponderous, will arrive the following day. My own forward units, positively snail-like in their capabilities, the day after that. This, the most imperative of tasks, is suitable only for the rapier, not the bludgeon.’

The response to this was not very queenly. ‘Ha!’ Sasha exclaimed directly into Ruslan’s face. ‘Ha! Ha!’ was reserved for Afran. Both took it in good grace. Then she turned to Joel.

‘Uncle, have you not considered that it might be simpler for you to confront the Khâlian horde on your own? I am sure that having listened to you, they will see no other option before them than to return to their ships and sail back to Skal.’

‘Then you will do this for us?’ asked Joel, now gripping both of Sasha’s shoulders and staring directly at her.’

‘Did you ever doubt it?’ she replied.

 

Flames no longer danced about the fire but the embers waxed and waned as the eddying winds swirled within Scourside’s Arm. The two older men now only had each other for company.

‘Well, my friend, like you I have journeyed to this place and find myself wondering as to  why?’ said Mikular, almost reluctantly, as though he did not want his question answered.

‘Oh, I think that you know why,’ replied Joel. ‘You are too old for the coming conflict, as am I. There can be few more terrible moments in life than to witness the death of one’s own children. Should such a moment occur, then here you are handily placed.’

‘Handily placed?’ said Mikular.

‘Handily placed indeed, you old fraud,’ laughed Joel. ‘Do you seriously think I have not noticed that your armor hangs in the back of this tent? Should the enemy prevail it is but a short march to this pass. I assume you have no immediate plans to vacate it?’

‘But I like it here,’ said Mikular. ‘The winds of the North Steppe find their way up here eventually. They bring with them the smell of the Bindan, the smell of dust, of open pastures. It is a fine place to linger. Would you not stay awhile with me? Do you seriously think I have not noticed that bulky pack on the horse that trails you?’

‘Yes, it is a pleasant place,’ said Joel. ‘The winds of Skorfjord find their way up here too. They bring with them the smell of fresh catches, the smell of open seas. And as you have asked so nicely, yes, I do believe I will stay awhile longer.’

 

*

 

Flames still burned at the entrance to Muramotek’s dark pavilion. It had been pitched towards the head of the column but far away from Kananaaltra’s outer edge. The adjacent inner peak chose to rise almost vertically out of the plateau at this point and water cascaded down its face in a series of intimidating falls, to collect in a turbulent pool at its scree-littered base. From this pool a raging torrent issued forth, down onto the plateau. As it encountered the plateau it also encountered an enormous dome-shaped rock that thus far had provided an indomitable obstacle to its turbulent intentions. Around this rock it flowed, but as two less violent streams, which encircled not only the rock but also an island of rubble-strewn grassland. It was upon this island that the pavilion had been set.

A natural rock bridge spanned the western stream and an ominous figure crossed it now, making light of its treacherous slick surface. The guards on either side tried to draw their cloaks about them and merge into the shadows. Not one of them dared to look directly at the gliding shape, which was darker than the night that enclosed them aside from the constant sizzling discharges that illuminated its extremities.

The portal had closed; had been closed! Azrahôtep had pondered this all the way back from the plateau’s edge. His journey there had been in vain, as he knew it would be. It was all over by the time he got there. But at least he had witnessed the bending of the firmament, the folding of the night’s fabric above the forest. And then the implosion of course. But that had just confirmed what he had already surmised.

Who could have done this? He had thought that the portal would just fade away, as with every other place of power he had encountered. But then this one had already proved itself different, had it not? Was it that dangerous? Had it been some automated system that had extinguished it? He rather hoped so, for if not then someone else was abroad, adept as he. He instantly dismissed this as a flight of fancy but could not erase it entirely from his thoughts, nor the other questions that had arisen. He began to marshal his replies to Muramotek’s inevitable questions. The entrance to the pavilion was approaching rather more quickly than he would have liked.

Two brutish guards stepped aside and the shaman slowed to let his eyes adjust to the brightness inside. A council of war had been convened in the opulent outer chamber; the usual protagonists were present. Azrahôtep noticed that the emperor was masked again, displaying his “happy” face. Not a good sign.

Hûn was the first to look up from the assortment of maps that had been scattered unceremoniously over a squat marble-topped table whose gilded legs displayed the most scandalous of designs. ‘Ah, the conjurer returns. What news on our little “bump” in the night? No surprise attack from the Clann I trust?’

‘Especially as they are currently ensconced at the bottom of a rather cold lake. Is that not so, son of mine?’ Muramotek’s oily tones slithered around his eldest.

‘Er, my point exactly, noble father,’ replied Hûn, trying to effect a smile.

‘Yes, yes indeed. Oh, and if I might offer just a little advice, Hûn?’ The emperor continued without waiting for a reply. ‘I have already lost one dear son on this campaign and would prefer not to lose another, at least, not just yet. Your constant disparaging references to my most valued of counselors, my most solicitous of physicians, my most revered practitioner of necromancy, could, I fear, lead to a most rapid and puzzling decline in your health. Nothing obvious my son, you do understand, for Azrahôtep is far too deceitful and underhand for that. And nothing particularly pleasant either, I would wager.’ Muramotek steepled together the fingers of both hands and raised his eyebrows, whilst waiting for a reply.

‘Father, I can assure you that no disrespect was ever intended. Any such words that I may have spoken were merely in jest.’ An obsequious smile had found its way onto Hûn’s face.

‘Ah, yes, just so my son, but you see, alas, exponents of the dark arts rarely possess a sense of humor,’ came the emperor’s reply, followed by a wry chuckle. ‘But enough of this!’

Muramotek invited Azrahôtep forward with an impatient beckoning motion of the hand. ‘And what then has just occurred?’

Azrahôtep answered slowly, giving the impression that he was formulating his reply carefully. In fact he had already decided what his reply would be. ‘No two portals close in identical fashion, munificent emperor. Some are more expedient than others.’

‘And this one, my scheming sycophant, would you say that is has been more “expedient” than most?’

‘Undoubtedly, my emperor.’

‘And would you perchance be able to tell us why that would be?’

‘I suspect, my emperor, that this particular portal opens pathways to very dangerous realms indeed and that it was considered imprudent to offer an extended invitation to the denizens that might reside there.’

‘Denizens such as those you encouraged my men to take into themselves.’ The voice that uttered this was quiet, menacing. ‘Please forgive my interruption, most glorious and most venerated emperor.’

‘Now, now Oju,’ said Muramotek, drawing out the words, ‘let us not dwell upon the past. Casualties are an inevitable consequence of conflict. This I need tell you least of all. Talented and enthusiastic though your slaves were, they were slaves nonetheless. On reflection, an indulgent habit I agree, you will come to see that the noble sacrifice of those two hundred unfortunates was surely justified, when the result was the eradication of the Clann.’

The object of the emperor’s impassioned plea stood tall and resolute. Surprisingly tall in fact for one of the nobility of Tarrak Kanga and tall even by most accepted standards. This length of limb accentuated the grace with which he moved. It was a grace both inherent and induced; the latter by the rigid doctrines that the warrior caste of that infamous isle insisted upon.

General Oju’s strange angular eyebrows, which rose to a point at their centers, conveyed the impression that he was in a constant state of surprise and lent him a certain arrogance. Rarely however did anything surprise him and unlike many of his compatriots, arrogance was not a part of his makeup. This made him very dangerous and in that respect, his looks did not convey a false impression: his eyes were rarely more than slits and gave nothing away; his jutting chin and high cheekbones had not been molded with emotional expression in mind; other than the two tightly braided strands that trailed down his back, his hair was cropped, and like his eyebrows, had been dyed white, emphasizing all the more the funereal emblem emblazoned upon his throat; his shoulders were bare and his torso was encircled by a fine metal corselet that clung to his frame like a second skin, emphasizing every muscled nuance with a dark sheen; tight bands of the same metal were affixed to his arms, from bicep to wrist, and to each, just above the elbow and facing outwards, a hexagonal plate was affixed with an engraved symbol upon it that denoted the clan to which he belonged; a black skirt appeared to embrace him from the waist downwards although in fact he was draped by voluminous leggings that grew ever wider towards his feet; those feet, virtually hidden, were enclosed by prosaic straw sandals.

Thus he now stood, no less dangerous for the fact that he had been denuded of the excruciatingly sharp sword that habitually clung to his back; that ascribed a lazy arc from his right shoulder to his left hip. No weapons were allowed in the emperor’s presence and the sword currently hung from a rack at the pavilion’s entrance along with Oju’s second blade, normally attached to the armored belt at his waist. He never had to be asked for these weapons on occasions such as this and it was a gesture that did not go unnoticed by Muramotek; a gesture partly responsible for the emperor’s recent retaliatory swipe across the face of Feng.

Thoughts were passing through Oju’s head, but he did not give voice to them. Thoughts regarding the Clann. Their demise sounded a little too convenient for his liking. But what purpose would it serve to accuse the emperor’s son of lying? None at all. Just yet. He turned back towards the map table.

‘What is this “Obakrag”?’ This question caught everyone unawares. General Oju had a habit of doing that. ‘And why have I not seen this map before?’

Kommander Arkadus, Orkus’s replacement, swept a nervous hand through his immaculately clipped silver hair, nodded sagely and then looked intently at the pockmarked face of Ozymandor, kommander of the second legion. Ozymandor shifted his vast bulk from side to side in a chair that was far too small for him and would have looked at Amantus, but the presence of anyone from the third legion had not been deemed necessary; as it happened, Amantus’s knowledge of the subject was about as formidable as that of his two peers.

‘Does anyone care about this “Obakrag”?’ answered Hûn, emphasizing the word as though by doing so it would reduce its importance, marginalize it and render Oju’s question insignificant.

‘Not if one studies the map that you are looking at,’ said Roth, showing an active interest for the first time. ‘There, it is not even mentioned, nor on any of our general maps.’ His deadpan voice continued. ‘However, if you care to examine this more detailed map, to which I believe General Oju is referring, you will see something peculiar.’

So saying, he pulled out a map which had hitherto been only partially uncovered and laid it on the very top of all the other maps and documentation. He did this with some reverence for it was most assuredly parchment of a very archaic nature.

Roth was a little alarmed that the entire focus of the assembled war council was now upon him but nevertheless kept his composure. ‘You will see that where the plateau turns north it narrows somewhat. Not only that, if the contours are to be believed there is also a slight rise. The Mountains of Skor still skirt the plateau on the inside but now to the east rather than the north. As the plateau levels out again, at the crest of this rise, a rock formation appears to intrude on the west side. It is only present over a short distance before the normal scheme of things is resumed but I am guessing that here a monumental archway once existed. There is a key of sorts at the bottom of the map which shows an array of elevated features. Each feature is referenced with an asterisk and a number, or indeed a series of numbers. There is an arch there. It has only one number next to it and that is the number six. I scoured this map yesterday and found all the other features, but needless to say, the six was nowhere to be seen.’

‘There is though an asterisk at this point,’ said Oju, tracing his finger over the map, ‘and possibly the remnants of a number, so I would say your guess is a valid one.’

Roth nodded. ‘It is as though upon turning north, rather than skirting the range, the plateau burrowed through the final peak, and an arch was formed above. There must have been some sort of subsidence or a quake perhaps, and the arch collapsed. That is how it is shown on all the later maps we have, with an isolated formation to the west; some sort of pinnacle presumably. On the older map the arch is marked as “Obakrag” as you can see. And, as I suppose you can also see, a structure appears to be located there.’

‘In other words,’ interrupted Oju, ‘a possible defensive emplacement. I had wondered about the Clann’s appearance.’

‘My dear general,’ said Muramotek, ‘once again we are left trailing in your wake. I had thought the Clann to be a mere diversion, a delaying tactic to enable the bulk of their army to reach the plateau, rather than face annihilation on the slopes below Mithra Sol.’

‘To reach the plateau, yes, but where on the plateau, my emperor? That would now seem to be the relevant question.’ Oju now had everyone’s attention, even Hûn’s. ‘The Clann delayed us by a single day. Admittedly they caused damage, particularly to morale, but let us ask ourselves, was it ever likely that Joel’s army would not gain the plateau? I do not think so. But what of this place? The Obakrag, my friends, was always going to be a much closer race. I fear that single day may be our undoing.’

‘Our undoing, Oju? This is defeatist talk!’ shouted Hûn. ‘We will outnumber the Skîrotians and their allies by five to one!’

Oju’s eyes opened beyond their normal scope, boring into Hûn. His nostrils flared. His voice, when it finally emerged, was under control, but it left the emperor’s son in no doubt that he had crossed the mark. ‘I am not suggesting for one moment that we will lose the battle, merely that we will not be able to bring our full force to bear. Unless I am mistaken, we have allowed the enemy to choose the battlefield. The direct consequence of that will be many more lives lost than should have been necessary. Having already lost two hundred of my finest, you will understand that such a situation irritates me. Perhaps if the Skalians are unconcerned about this place it would be fitting for them to form the vanguard of our army.’

Muramotek now came forward to stand between the two protagonists, his face still radiating a benign smile. ‘General, tell me, in your opinion have we already lost this race?’

‘My emperor,’ came the reply, ‘I know the Clann. In my opinion our outriders will reach the Obakrag one day after the enemy’s outriders; our main force will reach it one day after theirs. But then I look at this map and do not think the pass is narrow enough for the Skîrotians to defend indefinitely, assuming the scale to be accurate. It would have undoubtedly been their first choice as a defensive position, but a choice born out of desperation, knowing that it would only delay the inevitable.’

 

Azrahôtep had moved around behind Oju and now pretended to glance casually at the map that occupied pride of place upon the table. He noted the ancient parchment. He noted the outlines, the symbols and the text; all done boldly in a confident hand. He refrained from smiling but well did he know of the symbolism on ancient maps. A special place, an asterisk and a number, yes. But if the number was not present upon the map, if it had been removed, then that place was to be shunned.

 

*

 

The camp on the second night had been quite comfortable; they had settled into a deep depression on the outer edge of the plateau where a tortuous ravine began its journey down to the steppe, far below. The southern wind was unable to touch them there and there had been a small spring to provide them with fresh water. They had decided against lighting a fire even though the tree line began just below their position. Sasha had been sorely tempted to press on to try and make the Obakrag but decided against it. The plateau was deeply pitted here and had they continued on into the evening one of their ponies could have quite easily broken a leg. The keshik had set off again in dawn’s early light, wary now and at a much slower pace.

The terrain now changed abruptly. It was the peaks rather than the plateau, which continued on its way, green and unbroken. Folded plates of rock, ochre, yellow and amethyst, appeared on their left; these gradually leveled out to form a continuous face of horizontal striations along the base of the inner peak, disappearing off southwards into the distance. They rode for several more hours, accompanying this bizarre formation, until the plateau appeared to reach a dead end.

‘What is this?’ said Sasha to her first-of-horse, Vlad. ‘We were not told to expect this.’

‘Might I suggest, my Khan, that we ride on the plateau’s edge, out of bowshot? Also from there we will have early warning of any attack.’

Vlad was typical of the steppe. Clad from head to toe in furs and swathed in grease, which kept the biting winds at bay. He sat before Sasha now, his long hair whipping across his face and a toothless grin upon his face to charm her. But he was not first-of-horse for nothing. His cunning knew no bounds and it was rare indeed for her to go against his advice. Nor did she now.

As they made their way outwards, intent on hugging the rim of the plateau, their view was magically transformed. A shattered pinnacle was now before them, forcing the plateau inwards. It bore the same pancake striations as the lower face of the inner peak, and these, when viewed from a distance, had made it difficult to differentiate between the two. Now however Kananaaltra could be plainly discerned, running down the middle.

Sasha held her hand up high to halt the keshik and then motioned her riders forward again, now line abreast rather than single file. Slowly they cantered forward into an utterly alien landscape.

In her mind Sasha likened the pinnacle to a stone tree whose roots had been exposed. A whole series of narrow spurs radiated out from its base into the plateau. As her eye followed its ascent so did the pinnacle assume much wider proportions, until it looked as though it must surely topple over, the more so since a huge knuckle protruded in lopsided fashion out over the grassy sward. It was more than matched by a similar protrusion that cantilevered out from the inner peak. It did not require a genius to see that the two had once been joined together as an archway over the plateau. Another signal from Sasha and the line wheeled about the inner rider until they were trotting slowly forward as a diagonal file.

There was something about this place that she did not like. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled uncomfortably. She sensed that the ponies too were ill at ease. Her main focus was on the structure they were approaching at the base of the inner overhang but she was on the extreme right of the advancing formation and, as such, could not help noticing that where two of the larger spurs adjoined the pinnacle, a low tunnel entrance appeared to nestle between them. She was about to spur her pony over for a closer look when a movement caught her eye.

Beyond them now Kananaaltra sloped gently downwards for the distance of a long bowshot and then evidently much more steeply, for it effectively disappeared from Sasha’s view. Over this distant rise two riders had now appeared. Up the slope they came, apparently oblivious to the keshik. In an instant Vlad was at her side.

‘Those are Skalian mounts,’ he said urgently. ‘Easy pickings I think.’

Sasha did not reply immediately but slowly a grim expression passed across her face. ‘Skalian mounts yes, but far from easy pickings I think, dear Vlad. Form the keshik into a half circle, lances raised.’

Vlad shouted the order with an extravagant flourish and was then back at Sasha’s side. ‘My Khan, it is but two men against fifty.’

‘Vlad, many years ago when my little cousin Azella visited me, she was always accompanied by men such as these.’

‘Lord Joel’s Azella?’

‘Yes, Vlad.’

‘Then they are Clannsmen?’

‘Yes Vlad, I do believe they are.’

 

The two horsemen casually reigned in their mounts. Very casually, considering that fifty lances were pointed at them. Sasha noticed that the taller of the two men had his bow resting across his saddle, with an arrow notched; an arrow presumably meant for her if matters turned ugly. It was the other man who spoke first however.

‘Warm greetings to you Tzarrevna Sasha, Khan of the South Steppe, glittering princess of Korbindahar! I am Tyto and this, my sullen companion, is Spidra.’

Sasha could not help but laugh out loud. ‘Well, well. The owl and the spider. I can only say my silken-tongued owl that flattery will get you everywhere, even perchance past my lances, should you continue in that vein. I will not ask how you come to know my name but I would like to query the whereabouts of your comrades-in-arms?’

‘My lady of the steppes, why would you wish to know the whereabouts of such a surly unwashed band?’

‘Because your lord, Joel, informed me but three days ago that the Clann had been sent to intercept a rather large Khâlian force at the head of the Nrulu valley. I am well acquainted with that particular force, having welcomed them by the banks of the Kumbala and would very much like to know how they are getting on.’ Sasha pursed her lips.

‘Ah, a solicitous enquiry as to the well-being of old friends! In that case, my lady, I regret to report that we left them in a state of considerable ill-health. I would suspect that they have sent riders in pursuit to detain us and enquire as to why we were so rude. They are probably a day behind us and their masters probably three behind that.’

‘And the Clann?’

‘Hopefully heading back through the mountains, my lady. Myself and my companion were considered expendable because of the wounds upon our legs. We were sent as bait to draw the eastern horde along Kananaaltra’s lush turf, whilst our companions slipped away unnoticed, whence they had come.’

‘And how are your wounds now?’ said Sasha, feigning concern. ‘Would you return to Mithra Sol or stay with us here, possibly to fight again?’

‘My lady, I doubt if either of us will see out one more night. We would consider it an honor to spend our final day in the company of one as gracious as yourself.’ Tyto followed this up with a groveling bow.

‘And you, spider, do you have nothing to say?’ said Sasha, addressing the other Clannsman.

‘No my lady, nothing at all. I try not to encourage him.’

 

And so it was that fifty two riders now approached the abandoned fortification beneath the Obakrag. As they passed into the shadow of the great rock overhang details became more distinct but the feeling of unease would not leave Sasha. She found herself wondering if this place was ever free from shadow, even when the sun was setting in the west.

The outer wall took the form of a semicircle, but whereas the rock face from which it emerged was imbued with a rugged vital durability lent to it by those alien layers, its own substance was just the opposite; it was dull and gray and porous and it seemed to suck the life from everything within its proximity. Even the sound of the wind was absorbed into its ruinous cavities and the grass of the plateau was brown and sere within its parasitic shroud. Whether crenellations had ever graced its upper bounds was open to conjecture but dust was all that resided there now on that forlorn parapet.

Yet spaced in the midst of this chilling boundary were stones of a very different nature; stones that had defied time’s relentless assault. These vertical curved megaliths extended up beyond the wall like a ribcage protruding through rotting flesh, and at their summits inscrutable demonic faces surveyed their domain. But that domain lay in an unexpected direction, for their stares were cast not over the rolling green turf of the plateau, but inward, over the dusty sanctuary concealed behind the wall.

The keshik halted before the entrance, a gaping circular hole so large that the parapet curved upwards to accommodate it. Had a door once hung here, now irretrievably lost, rotted or rusted away into oblivion? Sasha pondered as much as she dismounted and led her pony across the threshold. The wall was about ten paces deep at that point and at its center a metal-lined rebate was evident. It was about a span across and followed the circular profile of the opening around its entire circumference. It was not possible to see how far it extended into the plane of the wall however and she found herself wondering idly if there could in fact still be a door; if it was embedded into the wall and some hidden mechanism would cause it to roll into position.

 

On a subliminal level she detected it, but the impulse that illuminated the rebate with an eerie green light had been and gone before she was able to register its presence on a conscious level; it flickered just the once.

 

The enclosure within was vast. At its far side, a steep flight of stairs arose to an inner wall. It was of the same dubious material as the outer wall and set upon a low outcrop. It too was scarred by the ravages of time, despite its more sheltered location, but its elevated position lent to it an intimidating aspect. It was of a much shorter length, so much so that only two megalithic ribs rose from its shallow frayed curve and these framed an entrance similar in every detail to that in the outer wall. Through this entrance the stairway passed.

It was a particularly fine stairway of dark granite but there was nothing of special note with regard to its construction, other than a deep channel than ran down its center. It continued its ascent behind the inner wall until it was well above it, leveling off just where four impassive stone eyes atop two stone ribs could oversee proceedings on the platform that was located there.

The platform cut back deeply into the rock face and ochre, yellow and amethyst swept around the three chiseled sides that framed it, this pattern undisturbed until it encountered the overhang, far above. Upon the smooth surface of the platform crouched a bizarre  stooped creature of broad flat back and thirsty disposition, its grooved tongue lapping avidly at the summit of the channel in the stairway. Its unsettling eyes peered out across the enclosure, across the outer wall, across the plateau, and seemed to rest on the pinnacle beyond.

Both the creature and the platform had been hewn from the same block of stone. The creature rose out of the platform and was one with the platform. The stone was not of Isladoron. An aura clung to it that distorted the very air about it. To stare into it was to stare into emptiness. To stare into it was to accentuate the reality of everything around it.

Thus had the panel lain hidden, for its joints could not be seen. The panel directly behind the creature. The panel that concealed another stairway that led down into the mountain. The panel that had been activated as Sasha had crossed the threshold in the outer wall. Activated. But not opened. For that, blood was required.

When had the panel’s mechanism last stirred? Who was to say? Mountain goats were the only animals that thrived upon the high plateau, and the wolves that preyed upon them of course. Only rarely did deer venture up from the forests below. But none of these animals, even the bravest of the wolves, ever ventured into the enclosure. Perhaps it was the magic that still lingered there, ancient magic that the beasts still remembered, that humans, for all their wary nature, had forgotten.

 

*

 

The stairway is steep, but it curves neither to the right nor the left. It simply goes down. Occasional landings relieve its inexorable descent but they are few and far between.

Down and further down, eventually to emerge into a space of spectacular, stupendous proportions where neither ceiling nor floor is visible, only a bright ribbon of lava far below; so far below that its width is impossible to estimate.

The way across is daunting. The bridge is narrow and there are no balustrades to mar its serene span. It brings relief from the relentless descent but every tread across its dizzying expanse exacts a heavy toll. And at its end the stairway imposes anew its sloping demands.

Down and further down, until the walls close in and the rough-hewn ceiling begins to drop steeply through the shadows. Now the angle of the stairway begins to match that of the ceiling but fortunately there is a light to illuminate the precipitous way ahead.

Yet soon it is the light that is more unnerving than the stairway. Its intensity is alarming this far below ground and its sporadic nature provides little in the way of comfort. Its source lies through an unprepossessing archway.

The stairway passes through the archway and emerges just below a domed ceiling, giving a commanding view of the cavern below. It turns sharply at this point to merge with the cavern wall, but its headlong plunge remains unabated as it winds ever downward. Only at the edge of a small still lake does it come to an end.

The lake occupies the entire floor of the cavern. Its color is impossible to ascertain, for it is from these suspect depths that the light emanates. The walls, and the ceiling too, display little more than fluctuating shades of gray before its stark scrutiny.

Not everything is confused in this erratic glare however. Things of substance reside here too. In the center of the lake is a circular stone tower. There is no obvious door, there are no windows and where battlements might have been, an enormous capstone lies. It sits there like a bloated four-limbed spider, its outstretched stone legs drooping down towards the lake. Beneath it, ancient glamors of concealment are beginning to fade, ancient glamors of entrapment weaken.

 

*

 

Despite the disturbing images just beyond the periphery of their torch-lit circle most of the Clann had slept soundly, as above, another day and night passed them by. Then had begun their short march to the lake.

As they had made their way again to Mithra Baltak’s exit, the thoughts of a few had strayed towards the rigors of the journey ahead. Most though had relived their last journey that way and the terrible cries that had echoed down the tunnel, spurring them on, forcing them to use reserves of energy they had never suspected lay within them.

Krul was one of the few. He had begun to think again of the cold that would gnaw at them as they traversed the ice cap’s treacherous walkway, the wind that would assail them as they negotiated Hackensak’s Back. And it was then that memories of the previous night in the cavern had started to intrude.

 

He had ventured outside the confines of their torches to examine the paintings again, for something, just a minute detail, had left its imprint upon his mind and it had nagged at him incessantly. He had studiously avoided the alien figure that had caused such consternation, although it had been there, at the very edge of his vision. What had drawn him back to that place had been further along the wall.

He had followed the bedraggled line of victims to the location of the Iceman and immediately seen what had been bothering him; what he had seen the first time but had failed to assimilate. It had not been a stylized representation of the gong at all! The actual gong had been there in the Iceman’s hand, small, insignificant, easy to miss, as were the faint vertical lines within it. There had still been room for doubt, but the object before him on the wall, the object he had mistaken for the gong, suddenly bore a remarkable similarity to that mysterious door they had encountered on the way down from Hackensak’s Back, hidden in partial anonymity behind a layer of sheet ice.

After a moment’s contemplation he had taken the gong from the strap that secured it to his belt and gone back to place it inside his pack. He would not be returning it to its owner just yet.

 

They had reached the lake just as the stars overhead were fading and its ominous surface was beginning to emerge in the early morning light. They had trudged over the bridge for a fourth time, desperately hoping it would be the last, sick of the familiar terror it engendered within their souls; expecting at any moment that the ice beneath them would splinter and the glare of luminous green eyes would once again be upon them.

But it had not happened. The doors to the temple of ice had still been firmly closed and Krul had surprised them all by ignoring it completely and marching them imperiously out of that place of tranquil beauty, of jarring dread.

Thence to the ice walk, which had been every bit as harrowing as they remembered. It had seemed to draw the last remaining reserves of warmth from their bodies, leaving them chill and despondent. To add to their woes, the cleft at its end, the cleft in which they now found themselves, had started to narrow, a sure indication that a certain crawlspace was approaching, and with that came renewed thoughts of Bargor.

 

This time Krul had determined that he himself would take the lead. As he paused to affix a rope to his belt, a cry further back in the line caused them to look upwards. Just starting to pass across the cleft, like a glowing ember, was the comet. It was now clearly visible by day, as it drew ever nearer.

Putting this to the back of his mind he hauled himself forward, but even at the beginning of the crawl he sensed that something was different. It quickly became apparent that a major shift had occurred since their last visit. To some extent it had acted in their favor for the length of the crawl was now minimal, four or five paces at most, but beyond, shattered ice lay everywhere. They were forced to use the ropes almost immediately.

Their progress was painstakingly slow. Fragments of the walkway had disappeared into the fissure below. Great blocks of ice had crashed down onto the pavement from above. Terrible dark clouds were beginning to overtake them and by the time the altar appeared an unnatural darkness was upon them. They were spent.

A great wind had sprung up. Krul could hear its menacing breath in the canyon beyond. He knew that even should they manage to cling to the steps that lay in wait, they would never scramble over Hackensak’s Back and down the far side. Without protective clothing they would surely be finished even before they reached its summit. He had foreseen this in the cavern. He had known all along that in their present state, the wind would be their greatest enemy.

He stared at the door behind the altar and thought about unslinging his axe. No! Let that be the weapon of last resort, he thought to himself. He doubted anyway that brute force would unlock this barrier. Instead, he reached inside his pack. Those around him looked on expectantly. The warriors further down the line did not realize what was happening; were not aware that at that moment their lives were in the balance. In truth, most of them were beyond caring. It would be unfortunate, given what they had endured, but so be it. They would walk until they could go no further and then they would walk a little more. If death caught up with them at that point, well good for him. They had already outrun him many times.

With one booted foot on the low stone altar, as though daring the gods that resided there to deny him, Krul struck the gong. Nothing. He struck it again. Nothing. He struck it a third time. Was it his imagination? Was the outline of the door a little clearer? He struck it a fourth time. And the door seemed to burn through the ice before it; rivulets of water poured down onto the snow and so quickly did it happen that it actually seemed to come out towards him.

 

Before him, clear from ice, the fabulous door shone in all its splendor. It was circular and forged from a pink-white metal he had never seen before. No, he had seen it, but where? Skîros? He could not be sure. What had appeared to be mosaic ornamentation around the door’s edge had now been transformed into two snakes, sleek and bejewelled. Their tails were coiled as one at the base of the door, whereupon each took a different path around the perimeter to meet again at the top; their necks entwined but briefly in sinuous embrace before each head turned, and looked back whence it had come with serpentine guile.

It occurred to him that the door must indeed be fabulous for why else would he pause to admire it when his fingers, and probably several other appendages, were about to drop from him? Why in fact would he pause to indulge in such a thought? He struck the gong again before madness could overwhelm him.

Nothing happened. He examined the exposed gems in more detail. Surely they could not be rubies and emeralds? Each head had been fashioned from a single stone.

Still nothing happened.

He thought again of the cavern and was sure there had been but five vertical lines within the gong. Should he strike it again? He remembered his trial before the ice temple. Patience.

Still nothing happened. To hell with it! He felt his arm reaching for his axe. With a monumental effort he restrained himself.

There was a grinding sound and the door was moving away from him, into the ice. And then it appeared to sink down, with infinite slowness, until it was gone.

A metal tunnel had been exposed. It was about ten paces long. At its end, darkness. Krul was on the point of asking Hakkulbak to send a couple of arrows into the beckoning shaft but by now the full fury of the elements was upon them and they really had nothing to lose. So finally he did take hold of his axe, and with it poised before him, set foot into the tunnel.

Krul did not advance tentatively for conditions had deteriorated to such an extent that lives were on the line if shelter was not found. There was the sound of striking flint behind him and then a dull bloom of light. The unmistakable profile of Prukk was silhouetted by a feeble brand that Chemelak had just ignited. Prukk’s sword was infinitely more deadly in this enclosed space so Krul let him edge past, transferred his axe to his left hand and took the brand from Chemalak. This could be the next problem. They had tried to conserve their torches in an effort to see them through Mithra Baltak. Further exploration of dark enclosed spaces had not been high on their list of priorities.

Prukk had passed into a wider space beyond the entrance tunnel and as Krul followed he instinctively pushed the torch out, higher, and to his right. Even as he did so a line of flame scorched along the wall and disappeared round a corner. With commendable calm he withdrew the torch and looked ahead. A continuous channel extended out from the wall and within it burned a pearly flame of savage intensity.

‘White naphtha,’ said Prukk, sniffing the air. ‘We had best tread with care. If any of us was to accidentally ignite it, who is to say what might happen. Even a spark from a stray weapon, or, the gods forbid, a torch …’

‘Just get on with it,’ said Krul, with an air of simmering menace.

 

It had existed under many names but most common of these was “Tak Palanq” which meant “Hall of Life”. Perversely many had not survived confinement within its buried halls and it was their ghosts that stirred now as a line of flame burst into their domain. Desperately they sought out refuge in shadowy nooks and musty crannies as searing light cut a swathe up one wall and down another. Hunched demons and winged gods alike looked down from on high as reservoirs were ignited anew and flames burned within their eyes. Questing, inquisitive flames. Who were these intruders?

 

The first corner arced slowly around to the right and it brought them into a wide aisle. The floor, the walls, and the arched ceiling were all lined with a dull metal and it seemed to stretch out infinitely before them.

To some its dark confines would have been threatening, but the Clann were in no mood to be intimidated. They had escaped the savage elements outside and the flames provided warmth as well as light. They were counting their blessings. It was only when the alcoves appeared that a mild unease insinuated itself.

These were deep recesses within the wall to their right, where a reservoir of fuel had been set and flames burned yet brighter, casting a generous glow over the entire corridor. Above each reservoir was a text. It was inscribed upon a stone tablet that stood proud of the wall. The tablets were about a cubit wide by two cubits high and were chipped and cracked but generally in a state of good repair. The first text was in Khîrrîsh and was an invocation to Allandra, goddess of healing. Opposite, but within the glow of the alcove, her likeness had been cast into the aisle’s lining. The metal used for this though was not dull, rather there was a mirror-like sheen upon its surface, and similar fragments had been embedded around her image, so that as the light in the reservoir flickered and danced, Allandra seemed to dance with it, her wraith-like form casting spells all about her. Each and every warrior would read the text and then warily glance across at the elusive figure on the wall.

As they progressed there was an unspoken feeling that each figure they passed was older and more powerful than the last and as the texts quickly passed beyond their comprehension, to a point where even the symbols were unfamiliar, they began to think back wistfully to Allandra’s pleasant form. It was difficult to associate any of the gyrating entities they now encountered with the art of healing.

Beyond the tenth alcove the aisle turned back to the left, sharply this time. Krul heard something now, but it was only with some difficulty that he was able to tear his attention away from the multi-limbed demigod that writhed with hypnotic allure before his weary eyes. Prukk was aware of the sound as well for his pace suddenly slowed and his lithe form tensed. It was the sound of water, but the water was not near; the sound had been amplified and distorted. Something cavernous lay ahead.

As they rounded the corner they then passed beneath an arch of the most prosaic design. It did not prepare them in any way for what lay beyond.

The walls and the ceiling simply disappeared. That was how Krul would think of it on reflection: there were still walls and there was still a ceiling, it was just that they were now somewhat further away.

They had entered an entombed cathedral. Flagstones were laid out before them, unpolished and unadorned, leading to a high altar, as yet distant. The nave along which they progressed was not wide, but its height was immense. The stone ribs that supported its ceiling, and the earth above, were indistinct, even in the multitude of flickering tongues that sought to expose them. Two aisles appeared to flank the nave but their height was not immediately apparent for the dividing arches that ran in succession down either side were fairly low and screened most of what lay beyond.

But as the Clann spread out, it became increasingly obvious that the adjacent enclosures were not aisles; they were in fact towering chambers of healing. Within these chambers, stone pallets had been arrayed in precise rows across the floor. Within these chambers, people had been placed in a state of repose, to live or to die. And whatever the outcome, they had been overseen by demons or gods of their own choice.

None of this was immediately apparent but gradually the associations were made. There were ten such chambers, each accessed through the low arches that led off from the nave, but identified by a much higher central arch, of which there were five down either side. Across each one of these arches was a panel of intricate stained glass and upon each panel a god danced, illuminated this time from behind. The gods were those that danced in the metal aisle but here they danced with unmitigated fury, for many of their features lay shattered on the floor and harsh drafts whipped naphtha flames into a frenzy to contort those jagged features that remained.

Through this ancient hall the Clann walked, and now their tread was light and their breathing shallow for the high altar was upon them and the sound of water was all about. Still they could not see its source, but as they looked through the murk and beyond, all thoughts of it were put aside. A short flight of steps led up to the altar, but what they saw at the summit was not a table. Lurking within the shadows was a small temple. It was identical in every respect to another, except that icy fragments did not tumble from its eaves, for it was built up in mesmerizing layers of delicate stone.

Krul did not hesitate, not for a second. He paid scant heed to the words of warning assailing him from all sides and walked, with steady tread, up the steps.

The sound of the water had gone. All was at peace within the temple. Its stone walls were a haven for harmony. There was a glistening pool before him. Within it was a strange liquid. It was like molten gold. Behind the pool sat a figure. A very small figure. It was clothed in robes of twinkling finery and its stone eyes radiated benevolence and tranquility. One of its arms was stretched out towards him, expectantly.

‘Not today, my friend, not today,’ whispered Krul. He bowed, without quite knowing why, and backed slowly out of the temple.

 

It was a night of meager rations and discomfort. The Clann crowded behind Allandra’s arch, reluctant to bed down under the crazed scrutiny of any of the other denizens of that lonely haunted hall. With stone pallets or dusty flagstones for their beds they listened to the mountain’s lament as it groaned and rumbled in trepidation at the comet’s approach. In the early hours the cathedral began to shake and shards of glass rained down upon the floor, whilst spills of fiery white naphtha blistered the walls. The ghosts stayed in their nooks and crannies, for they had long memories.

 

The Clann were restless and their leader was no different. Was the night over? Who could say with any certainty? Yet despite this crucial imponderable, Krul was engaged in his favorite morning pastime, the sharpening of his axe. It was something he could do without having to think. Suddenly Chemalak was kneeling down next to him.

‘We have found the water.’

‘And?’ said Krul, coming slowly out of his torpor.

‘It is not as we expected,’ said Chemalak, lingering on each word.

Krul sighed, but said nothing and waited for Chemalak to continue.

‘There, beyond the altar,’ he said, pointing, ‘a stair descends. It is a very long stair and it is very elaborate. Something you would expect to find at a main entrance. It is flooded at the bottom, but we can see an archway, or at least, the top of an archway.’

Krul was on his feet and Chemalak led the way, speaking as he went. ‘We are roping up Dorakjak.’

‘Indeed. Is that to coerce him or to aid him?’

‘He volunteered. He seems to think he is one of our best swimmers.’

‘If he had gills the size of his mouth he would be the perfect choice,’ muttered Krul as they swept down the stair.

A small crowd was in attendance when they arrived. A rope had been secured around the base of a marble column. Krul followed its snaking profile into the water, sighting Chemalak’s archway immediately. Through it water ebbed and flowed, frothed and raged. He gritted his teeth. It was as well that Dorakjak was strong in the water.

 

Air had not been a problem, but the current certainly was. It was morning wasn’t it? Why was everything about him so dark? He was taking a battering and looked desperately about him again. A lightning bolt crashed across the sky and briefly it illuminated a dark shape off to his right. He thrashed at the icy water as the current swirled about him, trying to drag him under. He winced as his knee scraped against a rock and then he was clawing at more rocks and the current had released him. Even after such a short swim he was exhausted and it was all he could do to haul himself up onto a large boulder-strewn plateau. Further back onto the plateau, some of those boulders had been used to construct a long low wall. He laughed then, a manic laugh, for he knew exactly where he was.

 

*

 

Sasha had taken an instant dislike to the Obakrag. Most of her kinsmen had as well, but with her it was extreme. They had scouted well beyond its grim fortifications on that first day and there had been no sign of the enemy. Nevertheless Afran and Ruslan were a welcome sight the following morning as they arrived with their four phraktos. She had been particularly interested in the reactions of the big warhorses as they approached the crumbling gray walls. They were fearless beasts in battle, but before those walls they had been as skittish as the ponies of the keshik.

One more day had passed and the advance units of General Tarkal’s army were now arriving. The general himself was first into the Obakrag and wanted to know immediately if the Khâlians had been sighted. He was surprised at the answer and asked Sasha if her keshik could make one more sweep before the weather deteriorated completely. Sasha, who was of the opinion that it already had, nevertheless acceded to his request. She was happy for a chance to get outside of those oppressive walls, even if it was only to be for a few hours.

Only ten of them set out however for she did not wish to risk her entire force under those conditions. They advanced well beyond Kananaaltra’s great bend and kept going until midday, or what was their best perception of midday, for the sky was black, thunder and lightning raged and the rain drove into their faces. Enough was enough.

‘Leon!’ she shouted to her second-of-horse over the tumult of the storm. ‘Take the men back and report to Tarkal. Tell him the Khâlians are dawdling somewhere further along the plateau. Tell him that even their outriders are nowhere to be seen. Vlad and I will take your rear and see you back at the fort. Go now, before this accursed rain washes us over the plateau’s edge!’

This was a classic steppe maneuver. The main force would go ahead and one lone rider, some distance behind, would follow them back. If an enemy force was tracking them, they would hopefully miss the lone rider as they went by. This time though, Sasha had decided upon two. Although her authority always went unquestioned she knew her riders would argue if she decided to stay alone. She knew they simply would not let her, so terrible was the storm.

She watched them go and followed Vlad into the shelter of a ferociously steep ravine. There was no shortage of cover and they tethered the horses out of sight. Huddled beneath their capes they tried, as best they could, to scan the plateau through the driving rain.

No one was coming. She was sure of that. She squeezed Vlad’s arm and nodded over towards the ponies. Vlad nodded back, secured his cape and made off to ready their mounts. Lightning lit up the plateau. Movement off to the left! Had she seen movement? Thunder. The storm was directly overhead. Lightning again, just above! A tremendous crash and the whole mountain seemed to heave. She looked around in time to see a huge mass of rocks sliding down towards them. She did not even have time to scream. Pain and darkness came upon her together. Only the rain remained, but it seemed far away, then it too had faded and was gone.

 

It was the first thing to return, pounding on her cape. She flexed her arms, then her legs. She flexed her hands and then her feet. So far, so good, notwithstanding a shooting pain in her left leg. She tried to move it … and could not! Her eyes slowly opened, or at least one of them did. She was pinned beneath a pile of rubble. That was the least of her troubles. Three white horses stood over her. “Grays” actually. Why did that even occur to her? They were desert horses. She knew that because she was of the steppe, where breeding horses was not just an occupation, it was an obsession. And she also knew they were fine horses: high-spirited but good-natured, alert and quick to learn; slightly larger than her keshik ponies, arched of neck and carrying their tails high. All of this passed through her head before the quintessential question arrived. What were desert horses doing here, on this plateau? The answer arrived much more quickly than the time it had taken for the question to form. Her heart began to pound and she struggled again to move. One of the riders had dismounted.

She must have passed out again. A savage green mask was peering down at her. The eyes though, they were not savage. Nor was the voice when it came.

‘So then, how are you feeling, lady of the steppe?’ The words were Khîrrîsh, but had just a slight accent to them.

She had no idea how she was feeling and quickly set about finding out. She was propped against a boulder with a makeshift canopy over her head, so at least that was an improvement.

‘My left leg hurts and my head is spinning. Why do you ask? You cannot possibly care how I feel. I am your enemy, I think?’

‘Yes, I do believe you are,’ came the reply. ‘But let me at least introduce myself. I am Tchenga. Tchenga of the Imajhirrin. And those two desperate characters you see over there, attending to your companion, they are my brothers.’

‘Vlad! How is Vlad!?’ Sasha could not believe she had forgotten her first-of-horse.

‘Vlad? Vlad is most unwell. He has many broken bones, but we have done what we can for him. He lives though, and that is more than can be said for your ponies.’

Sasha felt a tear forming in her eye. She bit on her tongue immediately. She could not show weakness in this situation. But the stranger seemed to know her thoughts.

‘It is acceptable to show grief, dear lady. Your companion has passed on. You are of the steppe, as we are of the desert. We nurture our animals from birth. We train them and we come to rely on them. Their souls become entwined with our own.’

The tear was fully formed. It rolled slowly down her cheek.

‘What do you intend to do with us, Tchenga of the Imajhirrin?’ She looked him straight in the eye. No more tears now.

The eyes under the mask crinkled. She realized he was smiling.

‘Well now, there lies the problem. It rather depends on your value. I do not suppose for a moment that you might be willing to help me in this?’

‘We are part of the South Steppe keshik. We were ordered out for one last sweep of the plateau to try and locate the whereabouts of our enemies. Vlad and I rode on ahead; we rode point. I am surprised the keshik is not yet upon you.’ Sasha was desperately trying to think how plausible this was, even as she said it.

‘So, you are merely a rider of the keshik – not a valuable prize to be taken back to Muramotek. It would seem then that our best option would be to leave you here.’

‘It is a great honor to be “merely” a rider of the keshik.’ It had escaped her lips before she could stop it.

‘But Muramotek will not pay handsomely for you, nevertheless. In fact he will not pay anything for you, is that not so?’

‘Do you like to play games with your injured enemies, Tchenga of the Imajhirrin? Either dispatch us or leave us for our keshik,’ said Sasha angrily.

The green mask was over her again. ‘But do you not see, Tzarrevna Sasha, the entire battle could hinge upon my decision. Would your brothers be so keen to defend that fort if they knew you were in our possession? I do believe that was Afran and Ruslan we observed yesterday, riding in with their phraktos, was it not?’

Sasha masked her feelings well, but she was stunned. Had these men really been observing them? How was that possible? She chose to say nothing.

‘I am afraid Sasha that word of your beauty precedes you, as do rumors of the scar beneath your eye. We know exactly where your keshik is, or rather the other eight riders who belong to it. But do not worry, for we are only three and the rest of our “allies” are still some way back.’

Tchenga rose to his feet. ‘And now, dear lady, I must confer with my brothers. Hold this to your head whilst I am gone. I’m afraid you will have a lump to accompany that scar, and it will be there for some time to come.’ So saying he passed a damp cloth down to her. It smelled of something vaguely aromatic.

She pressed the cloth to her head. He was a hard one to read. It did not seem as though they were going to be harmed, at least not yet. That would come later. She knew only too well about Muramotek and his decadent ways.

She felt nauseous again but she wasn’t sure if it was because of the lump on her head or the dent to her pride. To think that these men had followed their every move over the last two days. But she knew deep within herself that these men were special. Up until now, “Imajhirrin”, “Jâlregs”, they had just been words to her. But she had never been one who had needed to learn a lesson twice. She would remember them, and their abilities. Just what benefit that would be to her in Muramotek’s clutches, she did not know.

Three white horses stood before her again. Vlad was propped up on one, unconscious, and he did not look good. Tchenga offered his hand and she took it. As he helped her up from the ground she realized for the first time that she could barely hobble. He put her good leg in a stirrup and she hauled herself up, determined that he would not have to help her again. The pain was excruciating. In an instant he was up beside her, one arm pinning her to him and the other gripping the rein. They headed out into the plateau, into the relentless driving rain. A tide of blackness enveloped her again.

 

How long had they been riding? She had no idea, but they were dismounting. Where were they? Tchenga was easing her down and Vlad was being lowered down also. Had they changed their minds? Was it simply easier to do away with then? But now the other two brothers were laying Vlad over the saddle of Tchenga’s horse. She was confused. Her captor was speaking to her again.

‘Come Sasha, speak to my companion. This is “Tchisara”. He is named after the cold mountain wind that sweeps down over our lands in the winter. Hold onto his mane. Scratch his ears, for he likes that. Ah, you see, you have a friend for life.

‘Now Sasha, it is a question of trust. Can I trust you to return him to me?’

‘But where is he taking me?’ Sasha now had no idea what to think.

‘Why, back to the fort, of course. It lies just beyond the rise there.’ So saying he lifted her leg into the stirrup and hoisted her up onto Tchisara’s back. ‘When you are there and are safely down from his back, he will return. We will wait for him here.’

Before he could stand back she had gripped his hand, gripped it more tightly than she had ever gripped any man’s hand. ‘Why? Why do you do this?’

‘We are not quick to make friends, Sasha of the steppes. Our friendship with Muramotek is a friendship born out of tyranny. Let us simply say that we have not warmed to him as yet, on our little adventure.’

‘Well then know this, Tchenga of the Imajhirrin. Now you have a true friendship, a friendship born out of respect. This is not a day I will forget.’

Sasha gently urged Tchisara up the slope, oblivious to the pain or the elements. The tears that rolled down her cheeks mingled with the rain.