At the head of the track and the foot of the rock face stood a giant pine. It marked the top of the tree line. As the gentle music of the wind whistled through the ravines and gullies far above, its branches swayed in harmony.
Krul noticed none of this as snow and scree alike were crushed beneath the ribbed soles of his iron-shod boots and his purposeful stride led him to one of the ropes that dangled down from a distant ledge. A mailed fist grabbed at it and gave it a vigorous pull to test the anchorage. Another mailed fist was placed above the first and Krul had begun his ascent.
Only when the Leader of the Clann had reached that first ledge did he look down. A few of his warriors had started to climb but most were filing up the muddy puddle-strewn track that cut a straight but steep line down through the forest; the track stopped at the fjord’s edge by a short stout jetty that was normally frequented only by woodcutters. The fine drizzle falling onto its sap covered planks had made it a treacherous landing place and more than one man was nursing a bruised knee.
Krul watched idly as the final ferry ploughed back across Skorfjord towards Joel’s Keep, oars dipping gently into the water, causing scarcely a blemish on its surface. He adjusted his pack, wiped the rain from his eyes and then picked his way along the ledge, checking the grappling hooks; the climbers had done their job well and no adjustments were needed.
The second section was a long turgid grind. It was much more exposed to the elements and he was glad of the short close fitting cape and the fur-lined leggings that he wore. His pack was larger than he would have liked but being of the Clann the odds dictated that eventually he would have to fight; it was what the Clann did, and the light armor and weapons contained in each of their packs were essential. Thus it was no little time before he had hauled himself up to the top of the rope and onto the next convenient ledge; now he could even look out over the top of Haan’s Wall, but only onto the turbulent red and gray sky as it stretched out to the dim horizon.
On the way up the third section it began to occur to Krul why this was a route only frequented by those absorbed in the intricacies of climbing, as even his massive strength began to wane. A quick glance and he thought he could now make out the sea, but as he drove on upwards the wind was howling, an icy blanket of drizzle cut into his face and hands, and he wasn’t much interested in the view anymore.
As the Clann clawed their way ever higher into the kingdom of ice and snow that waited patiently to greet them, the green sea of conifers far beneath gradually faded into an evening murk that diffused even the sharp pin-points of light that were springing up around the bay. This registered very briefly with Krul as he climbed towards the grumbling sky but he didn’t have time to dwell upon it as a flurry of snow swept down a wide gully far to his left and blew hard across him. His eyes followed it over to the right where the wind proceeded to twist it around great vertical spindles of rock. Notwithstanding the immediate discomfiture this was a good sign, for it meant that at last the rock face was breaking up and he was nearing the top.
It wasn’t an abrupt leveling out but more of a gradual leaning inward when he was finally able to abandon the rope and it wasn’t long after that when his gait began to relax into something akin to a walk, albeit it an extremely awkward walk through knee-deep snow. Only occasionally did he have cause to use his hands or, even more infrequently, employ his ice axe. The depth of snow continued to be his main impediment for some time, as it was for the rest of the Clann, especially those who led. Those behind could plant their feet in ready-made tracks but obviously those to the fore were not able to indulge in such luxuries. There had been talk of snowshoes at the outset but the need to minimize the weight of their packs had put an end to it. Krul cursed at that decision now but knew that in the long term it had been the correct choice.
Such was the height of the range in which they were being enveloped that cold and shadow descended upon them very quickly and the transition into darkness passed almost unnoticed. Krul looked up to get his bearings, concerned now, for to tread this path at night would be a treacherous undertaking. They had to press on and gain their first objective without delay.
In a fleeting act of charity the clouds chose that particular moment to part and moonlight from far flung Iambos was scattered across the snowfield, illuminating a mass of scurrying black figures. As one, they paused to look skyward. But it was not Iambos that had caught their eyes, rather the exotic tail of its new heavenly neighbor as it disappeared over the horizon; their spinning planet would now take them into night and away, so this was a last chance to view its scorching trajectory as it made its inexorable way around the sun. Krul too was momentarily bewitched by the sight of the comet until more pragmatic matters asserted themselves and he began to seek out their goal in earnest.
The moon imbued the snow with a pale luminous sheen and its reflective glare served to highlight the mouth of the cave. It regarded the approach of the Clann with toothless amusement, its lavish grin promising shelter from the extravagant elements. Krul removed a flare from the strapping on his pack, tore off the waterproof wrapping and ignited it. He stood with legs planted firmly, braced against the wind, and waved it expansively over his head. This red signal flare caused an immediate chain reaction as white flares spluttered in response on a broad front across the slope. Krul counted the flares twice and having assured himself that the requisite ten were ablaze he swiveled around and headed upslope.
The covering of snow thinned dramatically as he approached the cave and exposed a meager trail through the layer of scree beneath. As he gained the entrance he jammed the flare forcefully into the loose rock and built up a small mound around it, checking out the extent of their haven in the flickering red light; it wasn’t big but it would suffice. Next, flint in hand, he approached a pile of wood that had been dumped unceremoniously on the cavern floor. It was still dry from the previous day when the climbers had deposited it there. It wouldn’t make for a huge fire but at least it would drag the chill from the bare rock walls. They would have to make the most of it; it would be their last luxury for some time, probably until they reached the old fort on the far side of the range. The rising flames he conjured had barely begun to lick at the damp air when the menacing silhouettes of his comrades appeared at the mouth of the cave.
The snow on the mountains thrusting up before them was coral pink as the great beacon of the sun emerged over the eastern skyline. After a sparse dawn breakfast of emergency rations the elite troops of Khir set off against this humbling backdrop, following trails long abandoned. Ever upwards they trekked, skirting around bottomless gorges, crouching through dripping spiked caverns, treading tentatively over curving bridges of ice. Their eyes constantly scanned the void above; by day across skies once china blue, now indigo or startling magenta, and by night across a star-strewn firmament where even gentle beams from Iambos were tinged a sanguine hue. All the while expectant that a stifling white blanket would descend and thwart their plans with abrupt finality.
But their luck held. Such did not happen, and the end of the fifth day saw them entering a narrow ravine. Thankfully they were able to traverse the raging torrent that flowed through it without immersing themselves in the icy waters, but the way out was steep and Krul was reluctant to negotiate its twists and turns in the impending twilight. He gave the order to make camp.
The Clann fanned out across a large triangular plateau that was wedged between the stream and the slope, so fatigued that they never questioned the presence of such a flat tract in the midst of that tortuous landscape. They constructed a low wall around their perimeter from the multitude of stones that lay all around, scattered like littoral debris from an ancient highland sea. At least its elevated profile gave the illusion of warmth and protection as they bedded down within its confines.
The ghosts whispered to each other. It had been centuries since anyone had ventured here. The Clann heard the chatter but mistook it for mountain breezes gusting through the ravine. How were they to know that just beneath them, nestled amongst the weathered detritus upon which they lay, the remains of ancient walls fought against grinding demise? How were they to know that within the outline of those walls, the stubs of fluted temple columns protruded from the bedrock; that between their broken rows marched an aisle of polished stone from which, beyond an ornate archway, arose a low curved stairway? On a mild summer’s day, when the waters were at their stillest, the aisle’s scoured outline could yet be seen in the deep pool that had formed in the lea of the plateau, as could the archway to which it led. But now, even though its top was exposed, the entrance to Tak Palanq was consumed by frothing mayhem, and the much easier route it afforded was hidden.
As one hundred and one men broke camp the following morning an air of optimism prevailed, for the highest point of their journey lay just above.
No ranks existed within the Clann save that of Leader. There was the Leader and there were ten squads of ten men apiece. Each squad had a nominal captain but this was only to facilitate communications; whatever the task and whatever the numbers required to carry it out, be it ten or the full one hundred, Krul would normally address them all. The fact that he was now engaged in conversation with one of the captains, Bargor, meant only that Bargor had taken an inordinate interest in Krul’s map.
Bargor was an immense man, broader even than his Leader, and when he spoke the tone of his utterances was similar to the low gentle growl of a bear; thus, as was the habitual custom of the Clann, he had been given a second name, “Brega”, derived from the old tongue.
Krul had unrolled Ravenkar’s map as carefully as frozen hands would allow and had sworn again as his eyes took in the vast regions marked down as “uncharted”, although he knew that he was lucky to possess any sort of map at all; just from where the shaman had managed to conjure up the archaic rotting scroll was a matter of pure conjecture. He had then lapsed into a veritable orgy of profanities as great lumps of parchment began to curl and break off at the edges, and mountain ranges, passes, lakes and forests were cast to the winds. Fortunately, most of the charted regions in the center had remained, as had the faded red line they were following.
‘I like this map, Krul, or at least, I like what remains of it,’ growled Bargor. ‘It reminds me of my childhood. Do I take it that we are about to proceed up “Hackensak’s Back”, down through the “Crystal Gorge”, taking in the “Temple of the Little Bald Iceman” before traversing the “Lake of the Slumbering Sentinel”? Look, there are even little pictures, and they are so beautiful!’
‘Oh, really,’ answered Krul, never known for his appreciation of sarcasm or indeed a need to embellish his sentences. ‘Bargor, I am pleased that it amuses you. It amused me also until Ravenkar availed me of the area’s reputation. Several passes cross these mountains, all of them longer and more arduous than the route we currently follow; most of them impassable for many months. Yet this lake and the tunnel of Mithra Baltak which it precedes, were always shunned.’
Bargor reached out and slapped Krul on the back, an act that would probably have felled a lesser man. ‘Best that we do not linger then, eh? Should we bury provisions for the return journey?’
Krul nodded in assent and then his hand swept forward and the writhing millipede that was the Clann wriggled anew, towards the top of Hackensak’s Back.
The Peaks of Skor were now all about them and a curious silence had descended as Krul set foot on the top of the ridge. The panorama before him gave him cause to remember how Ravenkar had taken him aside, even as the Clann horses were being readied for the journey to Tolfjord, and had guided him down into a long leaking cavern below the foundations of the keep. It had been a fairly unpleasant location, with the grime and mold of years long past caked to its dank walls. Upon making a restrained enquiry as to why he had been brought to such a place, Ravenkar had informed him that it exuded the “necessary atmosphere”. Fearing that Joel’s affliction was spreading he had nevertheless refrained from making any comment, knowing that the old shaman seldom did anything without a purpose. The temperature in the cavern was cold, cold enough to make him shiver, but Ravenkar seemed not to notice, muttering distractedly to himself before taking a very deliberate deep breath. He had held onto this for an inordinate amount of time, and then, with similar considered precision, he had exhaled, studying attentively the swelling bulb of warm air before him as it began to coagulate and effervesce. There had been a multitude of twinkling points of light, of maroon and gold, of emerald and orange, of lilac and silver, and Krul had been forced to shield his eyes, for then, as now, he had been standing between two tall peaks looking down into the Crystal Gorge. Ravenkar had deemed it necessary to show him that particular location and warn him of the dangers soon to follow.
The entire Clann was arrayed, line abreast, along a snowy crescent, squinting down at their proposed descent. An ice cap extended out before them, filling the bowl at the midst of the surrounding mountains. Almost at the far side, although not clearly defined at that distance, a circular hollow plunged into its depths and radiating out from that hollow to the point where they stood, was a slender crevasse. It stretched accusingly towards them like a spent thunderbolt, its dark profile only rarely relieved where surface ice had slid and slithered and attempted to seal the breach. Into this rent, just below them, flight after flight of narrow steps had been chiseled.
They now descended hurriedly into this alluring void, and were soon lost from view. With memories of his encounter with Ravenkar still lingering Krul knew that there would be no resting place on this leg of their journey and that if they hadn’t made the mysterious hollow by nightfall they would simply have to press ahead until they did. Dawn till dusk, the shaman had assured him. Krul hadn’t been so sure if that was feasible but knew that it was pointless debating the matter.
The men watched as their Leader approached the top step and lowered a rope from his shoulder to the ground. He then removed a sharpened eyebolt from his belt, drove it into the ice wall and secured one end of the rope to it. Ten stilted paces further on he would drive in another bolt and run the rope through that as well; and so on until the other end of the first rope was secured. Another warrior would then take a second rope and repeat the procedure. They had one rope per squad although not all were required. The final man cut the first knot, secured himself to the severed rope and removed the intermediate bolts as he went. These bolts, together with the rope, would be transferred up the line to be reused at the front. Reeling in that final rope and removing the bolts would prove to be the most exhausting of all the tasks.
The steps, unlike the walls, had a dull finish and had numerous thin grooves cut into them so that Krul found his feet almost sticking to them. Despite this, he was glad of the rope. The steps had been cut into the left face of the crevasse and the drop down to the other side was dizzying. By the time he had anchored the leading end of the first rope, the route was curving gracefully round to the right and still slightly down. The polished walls were becoming oppressively high and claustrophobic as the strip of faded pink that was the sky receded.
As the steps arced back to the left and still further down, the faint sound of running water floated up to the grim line of warriors and brief dappled glimpses of a stream far below reminded them, if they needed such a reminder, that death was but a step away.
It was just where the stream vanished beneath the ice and the path straightened out again that they came across the altar. Up until then they had not given a thought to the past. They knew that they traveled a trail that had been seldom used in their time and thus accorded it no particular significance. The ice steps had been fashioned by human hand but then again seemed almost an extension of the ice face, and so they had taken them in their stride, preoccupied as they were with just staying alive; but here, a sweeping semicircular platform had been hewn into the face of the ice and still it lingered there, reluctant to submit to the ravages of time.
The low stone slab was a palpable indication of the former importance of this route; a thin layer of frost leant it a stark beauty but that could not conceal the unmistakable stains of sacrifice that marred its surface. A small square had been chiseled into the center. It was effectively split into two across a diagonal, where two triangular gemstones came together; the one, black and probably jet, the other, a most unusual mineral that fluctuated from clear to white, and back again, depending upon how it was viewed. One by one the Clann filed past and for the very first time began to see beyond their present mission: began to wonder why and when this altar had been constructed; began to wonder what ills might be attendant with the approach of the comet.
And there was something else: it was behind the altar, almost hidden behind a layer of sheet ice. It was an entrance, its circular form outlined with the most delicate green and red mosaic, which would fade into obscurity at various points about the circumference, only to reemerge, vivid and vibrant at others. Did it lead directly into the mountain or did some arcane construction method allow it to float in the shifting ice? No time to ponder.
Beyond the altar, the walkway broadened out considerably but still the abyss awaited to their right and so they persevered with the rope, hanging on to it dourly, warming their feet and hands any which way, whenever they could; wrapping scarves around their heads so that only their eyes were visible beneath their hoods, bright and feral. Cornered animals in an alien landscape.
The walls of the abyss had been closing together for some time and now, at last, the walkway merged with the wall to their right, and they were able to dispense with the rope. During this time a roof had been forming above their heads and initially, although it was well out of reach it was nevertheless punctuated at several points by long rents in the surface ice so that light still filtered through to them. Now however, just as they were able to coil up the ropes, those rents had disappeared and darkness was starting to envelop them. Krul went ahead to investigate and in a matter of moments curses were echoing back along the fissure.
The roof had plummeted downwards and all that was left was a crawlspace, no more, and around it the ice creaked and groaned in ominous fashion. It was here that Bargor now volunteered to take the lead, on the premise that if he could make it through then so could the rest of the Clann. He had also brought up the matter of his upbringing in the Highlands, where mining was a way of life; when, even as a youth … and at that point Krul had relented.
It turned out to be only twenty paces or so in length. Not far, but it took its toll. The chill leached the energy from the big man’s body with eager efficiency and by the time he was through it was all that he could do to hammer a bolt into the ice wall and fix a rope to it. But then, as he began to shake uncontrollably, something wonderful happened. He realized that the roof had gone entirely and the sky had reappeared. Into this resurgent flushed strip, the dazzling orb of the sun was insinuating itself with comfortable familiarity, shining down from its zenith and pouring its warming rays into the freezing cleft. He tugged three times on the line, the signal that it was secure, and then turned to look down the length of the strip; with unwavering resolve it stretched off into infinity.
The walkway was still fused with the walls to either side and for the first time in many a long year it reverberated to the sound of pounding feet. Under a darkening sky the Clann ran for their lives. It wasn’t a breakneck sprint, rather a steady, measured jog. The first man set the pace and the rest followed in behind. Every so often they would stop, another man would take the lead and off they would go again. As a precaution, the pacesetter was secured by a short length of rope to the man behind; that was their only concession to safety.
“Dawn till dusk,” was the phrase that Ravenkar had used. It rolled through Krul’s head as he ran. But which dusk? They had already passed several alcoves cut back into the walls that had the appearance of shelters. Would it be possible to survive a night on this walkway? He supposed it might, with the right equipment: a plentiful supply of wood; stones to store the heat of a blaze; frames to raise bedding above the level of the ice. None of which they had. “Dawn till dusk.”
It was under an angry evening sky that everything changed. They parted company with the wall to their right and almost immediately steps emerged. They reassumed a careful walk and Krul advanced to hammer in the first of their specialized bolts. But that was as far as he got. Each blow of the hammer caused a flash of coruscating color to explode from the tip and surge deep into the wall. Not even the tiniest indentation was left on the surface.
Now they were surely in trouble and as they looked back along the way, indeed they could just make it out: the transition plane from ice to this unfamiliar crystalline material. But as they stood and talked, quickly and calmly discussing their options, they stamped their feet as humans are wont to do in conditions of extreme cold. It was only then that they found that such an action was impossible, for their feet were actually adhering to the steps. Whereas ice would have exuded water, a viscous wax oozed gently from this melting crystal. It did not form an instant bond but plodding forward one slow step at a time, it gave them enough reassurance to proceed.
By the time they had accommodated this new phenomenon into their cautious gait, the steps were descending at an alarming rate and an enormous oval of troubled amethyst sky had formed over their heads. They had finally reached the hollow, the heart of the Crystal Gorge.
To right and left great ice cliffs ranged, forming an immense bowl, deeper than it was wide. Everywhere, great vertical intrusions of the crystal were visible in the ice, but whereas the latter had a uniform subdued glow to it, the crystal was vibrant in contrast and just beneath its white surface sheen, it prickled with color.
Far below was a frozen lake; even at that distance there was an ominous quality to it. Crossing it was a low bridge that led to a dark archway in the far wall.
Their way now clung to the wall on the left, in the guise of a plunging stairway. Despite the clinging properties of the steps, few even of the Clann cared to look and dwell on the fall that awaited should they stumble to the right. Nor was their cause helped by the acute angle of their descent; should they stare straight ahead it was not the hooded head of their predecessor that they saw but the curving cliff wall, which inevitably drew their questing eyes back into the bowl. For most it was simply a question of where to position their feet and little else, so that when the snow began to fall they scarcely noticed; shrugs of indifference greeted the approaching peels of thunder. They were not able relax until the stairway deposited them on a bizarre shore, and its sharp clear shingle was crunching beneath their feet.
All around the bowl the lake extended out to the base of the vertical cliffs; only here, where this peculiar beach intruded, was its surface interrupted. A single way forward was all that beckoned, but a small diversion was required first and for now Krul had called a halt.
The majority of the exhausted warriors sat down to rest upon the beach, only to leap back up again with cries of dismay. Having examined the lacerations on the soles of their boots a little more closely it was with some trepidation that they lowered themselves down again, this time seating themselves upon their packs. Despite the urge to curse at their unwelcoming surroundings, there was something pristine about the scene that kept most of them quiet, as though to speak would irredeemably violate its tranquil beauty. Instead they contented themselves by examining the razor-edged pebbles beneath their feet in more detail whilst keeping half an eye on their Leader as he headed up the beach towards a most outlandish structure.
A faint tinkling sound accompanied Krul’s progress as he approached the temple. This puzzled him until he realized that crystal fragments were constantly falling from its delicate sloping roofs. Given the great antiquity of this place, he suspected this was not to their detriment.
There were three diminishing levels to the temple, culminating in what was scarce more than a bell housing at the top. Each level was topped by a sloping roof which made a giddy descent down to its eaves, and then, as though startled by the waiting drop, curled back on itself. Upon each roof was a covering layer of the purest white snow. The translucent walls were etched with wondrous scrollwork, delicate and mesmeric; Krul wondered what tool had achieved this as he perceived the familiar motes of restless light that danced within their slight substance. His eyes watched their subtle gyrations for but a moment before they were drawn to the base, where three broad steps led up to a pair of imposing columns that bore similar scrollwork. Beyond these columns lay a circular entranceway; it was unadorned and served simply to frame the darkness inside.
Krul swaggered up to the steps, mounted the bottom one and waited patiently. And waited. And waited.
The silence that prevailed in that icebound kingdom began to press in upon him. The falling snow muffled what little sound was emanating from the waiting Clann and the drifting flakes were beginning to irritate him. He changed his focus to the gentle shower of particles that was being constantly shed by the temple itself but the dull repetition of that sound was soon aggravating him still further.
The snow continued to come down, heavier now, and Krul remained rooted to the bottom step, finding that his right hand had strayed to the great war-axe that was strapped snuggly across his back. Should he ignore Ravenkar’s warning words and barge inside, or stay where he was in front of his men, the epitome of indecision? He fingered the axe longingly and then, very deliberately lowered his hand. This was not an instinctive movement; just the opposite in fact. It was a premeditated action prompted by his indomitable will; a will that had gained slow supremacy over an unfamiliar superficial impatience seemingly intent on coercing him towards impulsiveness.
The gesture prompted a slight stirring within the temple. It was barely perceptible at first, but then the darkness within was cast aside to reveal an inscrutable little man of ice, standing there in flowing robes of twinkling finery. His bare right arm was horizontal across his body and from it hung a dimpled metal gong. The gong rotated slowly, even though there was no breeze, and Krul could see that around the perimeter of each of its elusive faces a sigil had been engraved: the same sigil, but red on one side and green on the other. It was the sigil of the Eternal Serpent, the mythical creature that symbolized the recurring cycles of time. He knew this because Ravenkar had told him of it. But what the shaman had failed to mention was that as the gong rotated it would snare his gaze; that he would not be able to tear his eyes away from it. Faster ever faster it spun until the eager straining light reflected from its surfaces began to coalesce with red, with green, and there in the air before him hung the coiled form of a bronze serpent, its scaled tail disappearing into its own voracious jaws. The great snake pulsed with life and its writhing coils mesmerized him as it gorged on itself; a meal of everlasting sustenance for its length remained undiminished. Then the outline of the gong was once more apparent and two sigils materialized to release him from his trance.
The Iceman’s left arm was straight at his side. A thong was looped about the wrist and attached to it was a striker. The striker appeared to be cast from the same lustrous metal as the gong.
The enigmatic little man moved forward to stand on the edge of the top step, although even here he was dwarfed by the bulk of Krul. To the watching Clann it was as though their Leader was shaking his head in disbelief at the figure confronting him; in reality he was trying to dispel the effects of the stupor that had taken hold of him but moments before. Also, he was surprised to find himself mulling over the Iceman’s composition; could he be of crystal rather than ice and if so, did small pieces fall from his diminutive form in like manner to those that fell from the roofs of his abode? To his disappointment, the figure did not crumble before him, rather it interrupted his musings by addressing him in extremely imperious fashion; or at least someone addressed him, as deep resonant tones floated out from the temple entrance. The lips of the Iceman remained firmly closed, his slanting eyes staring resolutely ahead, unblinking.
‘I thank you for waiting. You have shown great tolerance.’
Krul was sweating and straining to quell the impulse. He had to subdue it! Yet it would be so pleasant, so satisfying to take his axe and split that gleaming hairless dome, to cleave that smug passionless mask in twain. The voice droned on.
‘Kindly accept the gong and strike thrice to one side before crossing the bridge, no more, no less. When all have crossed, strike the gong once only to the same side and place it in the hand of the Keeper.’
Krul’s hands were trembling. He dug the mailed glove of his right hand into his exposed left forearm and concentrated on hurting himself. There was a trickle of blood and the hateful mocking little man before him became slightly more bearable.
‘Upon returning, take the gong from the hand of the Keeper and strike it twice to the green and thrice to the red. When all have crossed, strike the gong thrice to one side only, no more, no less, and return it to my custody.’
Silence. Two icy claws stretched out to him. He snatched the gong and the striker and turned quickly away.
As he stood at the foot of the bridge Krul wondered what all the fuss had been about. Ravenkar had been most insistent, melodramatic even, if annoyingly vague. He recalled the shaman’s words now. “Your mission could fail at the temple, Krul. I am not sure what will occur but I suspect that a form of test awaits. Something more than your usual level of diplomacy may be required.”
Krul was the first to admit that diplomacy had never been his strong point but as it happened the little fellow had been quite accommodating.
A stairway emerged from the shingle of the beach and coiled up to the bridge. There were only two shallow coils, for the bridge was not high above the lake, but such was the immensity of its span that its belly appeared to be lower than it actually was, almost hugging the icy surface. Icicles of all shapes and sizes were suspended underneath but at no point did they touch that surface; nor were there any intermediate supports to break its frigid bounds. The bridge was bereft too of any guard rails and whilst this was not a matter of immediate concern, as the fall to the ice would not be great, it nevertheless dictated caution. It was not alone in that. An air of menace hung about the place. How far away that tunnel seemed on the other side of the lake.
Krul eyed the gong dubiously as he reached the top step and set foot on the bridge, noting for the first time four tiny symbols that nestled at the center of the face he was examining. How small it was, he thought, as he grasped the striker more firmly. Still, so too was the Iceman.
The striker catapulted forward and the Clann fell to their knees, those still on the shingle shore not caring a jot about the pain that assaulted those unfortunate joints but looking only to protect their ears from the savage cacophony that currently reverberated around the hollow. Krul, in a state of shock, doggedly struck again, this time according the gong a little more respect. His third blow was delivered with positive timidity. The Clann observed in awe, marveling at such delicacy, a quality hitherto undisplayed by their Leader.
They crossed two abreast. A thick blanket of snow now blotted out any distinguishing features which the bridge might have possessed, including its defining edges, and so their progress was tentative. As the final warriors set foot upon the span, the leading band were about halfway across, but had halted, uncertain glances passing between them. Below, the frozen surface remained undisturbed; only in patches was the ice thin enough to see the water beneath and then only where the capricious wind had kept the latest snowfall at bay. It was one such patch that had claimed their attention. In reality, it had only been a transitory motion that had caught their collective eye, not even enough to cause more than a few sarcastic comments, and so it was that their muffled footfalls soon resumed. Just then though a vibration passed along the bridge. It was a gentle disturbance, but definite for all that. It was merely a prelude.
A shadow passed beneath the bridge and this time it was not fleeting. It was accompanied by a fearful sound, far from gentle: not loud, but insidious; rasping, scraping, slithering. The ice on the surface heaved and groaned, but it did not break. Fortunately, neither did the Clann. Nerves frayed and flushed with dread they somehow maintained a steady advance across the bridge, but with eyes darting constantly to the shadow that trailed them.
A flat promontory of ice marked the end of the bridge and they were deposited onto it directly, for it was at a higher elevation than the beach. The first of them gathered there before the tunnel entrance as the surface of the lake around them began to crack and geysers of gray water spouted high into the air. They feigned indifference by adjusting their packs and their weapons, all the while willing the last of their comrades to make good their crossing so that they could retreat into the dark haven of the tunnel. They watched in anticipation as the gong yelled out its terminal cry, and with unbridled relief as the broken ice settled and the shadow that had lingered just beneath faded, disappeared.
The Keeper resided at the entrance to the tunnel. In a hole in the ground to be exact, for ice had given way to rock That it sprang up before them from its concealed position was beyond question; what had triggered its dramatic appearance was open to conjecture. But there it was nevertheless, raised eyebrows and extended hand leaving no doubt as to its wishes. Its wooden form towered over them, surly features holding them to account and indeed a burgeoning anger seemed to be coursing through its fibrous structure. What manner of timber was this that pulsed red with apparent sentience?
Krul advanced cautiously, his axe ready to mete out splintering oblivion at the merest twitch of aggression. The carved painted features remained phlegmatic, but mindful of how the rapid appearance of the Keeper had caught them unawares, Krul draped both the gong and its companion striker onto the vicious spike that protruded from the head of his twin-bladed weapon and slid them down over the waiting hand. In a blur of motion the hand of the Keeper tightened and was retracted and its entire bulk then spun around in a half circle, even as it descended back into the waiting ground. All that marked its passing was a slight hissing of air and a dull grinding of rock.
Soon, the men too had disappeared, filing into a rocky maw that delivered them from an expansive world of glittering ice into one of darkness and confinement.
Once more the tunnel echoed to the tread of human feet. Despite the intervening centuries its solid slabbed floor had been little affected. The stale dry air had held the tentacles of erosion at bay and its firm surface eased their relentless journey but when the passage widened into a cavern, Krul took the opportunity to call a halt and allow a brief respite for his troops. It had taken about an hour to reach this point and he let it be known that for the following hour they could rest. Assuming all went well, dawn would almost be upon them when they gained the far end of the tunnel and another short rest would follow before they confronted a new day and its attendant perils, namely the approaching hordes of Khâl.
There were several small altars and resting places along the way but only here had Mithra Baltak chosen to bare its soul. Had those men not been so thoroughly fatigued might they possibly have searched just beyond their torch-lit perimeter, or even perchance have given closer scrutiny to that which was intermittently brought into relief by those hastily placed brands? But at this juncture they were more focused on the future than the past; conserving weary limbs and snatching precious moments of sleep before the final push to their journey’s end. What would it avail them to know of another age when the skies had also been a disconcerting red? Would their tired minds have been able to decipher the engravings and symbols that called out to them, or even interpret the bold strokes and pigments that had been used by those artists of a bygone era?
The great iron doors were badly askew. Their hinges had rusted through long ago and so they leant, like tired sentries, against the tunnel walls. The insatiable tawny plague was also at work on their exposed innards and jagged beams of moonlight pierced their rotting remnants.
Krul approached, fatigue etched into his every movement. Wedging himself between the collapsing portals he gazed outward into the departing night sky. His eyes did not rest on the shallow sea of cloud that tarried below but were drawn immediately to Iambos, and the illusion was with him in those beguiling shades ‘twixt night and day that those sturdy doors about him had been smashed through by rays from the waning moon, as if they had no more substance to them than the parchment of Ravenkar’s map. Of the comet there was no sign, for it was now on the far side of their world. He turned to the expectant faces behind him and nodded. Their trek was almost at an end and although their sleep would be all too brief, for most it would be restful in that ghostly half-light.
Dawn arrived in a shroud of terracotta through the corroded doors, then softened to hazy pink. Nearby, water was splashing down hard gray walls, leaving a narrow green curtain of lichen in its wake. Through scattered piles of scree it tumbled before winding its way down as a bubbling writhing stream of meltwater towards a gap in the ridge below. Directly overlooking this gap was the mouth of Mithra Baltak and from its convenient vantage point the waking Clann could casually peer down through the stark cut and survey the flat expanse of jade that lay beyond; still further away, burnt ochre swept down before the rising sun like melting butter, over the pitted hillsides and into the Nrulu Valley.
Krul made his way warily down the weathered stairway that jutted out from the cliff wall, his habitual lithe movements masking the creaking of joints and muscles that protested at recent outrages. Warriors followed, like caged animals released. The fort that had once encircled the stairway had long since crumbled, although the outline of the foundations was plain to see and the remnants of stone temple columns abounded, chipped and cracked and horizontal, like rotting logs in a forest. Behind such pillars the Clann would be hidden from below and it was but a short journey to pursue the stream through the low cones on the ridge before them and thence onto the plateau. So here it was that they lay down their packs and spread out their meager regimen of unleavened bread, bitter rice, lentils and strips of spiced meat. At least fresh water was not a problem. It was here also that they set about assembling their war gear.
Each man would wear a coat of fine chain mail and other than his helmet, that was to be his only armor; where other protection had been brought, it was of hardened leather and not metal. The heavier accessories preferred by many currently languished in the armory of Joel’s Keep, for obvious reasons. This was to be a skirmishing battle and the small wickerwork shields that they all carried bore testament to that; strapped to the tops of their packs these shields had also protected them from the worst of the elements during the rigors of the preceding days.
The mail would be discarded only while they slept and even then would be close to hand. Rumors as to the techniques of its manufacture and its unlikely properties were rife; rumors which the Clann encouraged. In effect it was impossibly strong and flexible, given that its weight was absolutely minimal. None save those of that elite unit knew that it was forged near the mines of Robahar in the Highlands of Khir, where on a clear day the coastline of Khanju was visible. Such days were rare. More usually low clouds infiltrated tall peaks to shroud the most nefarious of goings-on; ancient metalwork practices forbidden by all formal rules of engagement. But the Clann had never been particularly fond of rules, especially where engagement was concerned. Not for them the circumspect self-doubting of their more spiritual brethren.
The miniature hexagonal plates of which the mail was comprised had no pristine sheen to them, but instead were a dull dappled composition of bronze and metallic blue and an orange that had all the joy leached from it. The master-forgers had also imbued them with a convex profile so that they would flex, or at worst, collapse under the force of a particularly vicious blow; the short jerkins worn beneath, although expertly crafted from two layers of hide, were little more than housing for a layer of highly resilient tenacious padding, again of suspect origin, designed to further absorb such a blow.
The double links that bound each plate to its neighbor were a different proposition entirely. They had about them the lustrous silver pink gleam of a precious metal and that same metal had also been used to fashion the gorget that protected each warrior about the throat. It was into the front of each of these neckpieces that the simple uncompromising symbol of the Clann had been molded: a mailed fist.
At the back of each gorget two curious metal tees protruded almost vertically, as though to provide extra support for the head, but it was over these that complementary channels slotted, these fixed within each man’s helmet.
The helmet was yet further testament to the refined skills of the artisans of Robahar. It was the helmet that was the defining element of the Clann and it was the helmet more than anything else that struck fear into the hearts of those who would tangle with this select band.
In the forests of the Highlands, those that sloped languidly down to the shores of the Outer Seas, roamed the ultimate predator, the pine-tiger. Man, in his conceit, liked to say that it had but one enemy. Such a claim was deluded. The revered beast was too wary and too astute by far to ever fall prey to the clumsy efforts of man to track and kill it, but this was not a fact that the Clann preached with vigor. It was the cat’s distinctive skull that formed the template for their infamous headgear and if people wished to believe that such a skull had been obtained the hard way, then so be it; so was their mystique yet further enhanced.
Who could possibly know how much obdurate willpower those beasts possessed, but irrespective of where and when the pall of death should fall upon them, they would invariably, relentlessly, return to the same site to die. It was this graveyard that the Clann would reluctantly pillage, albeit on rare occasion, for the prowess of that brotherhood dictated that replacements were seldom required.
A scant path, lonely and unheralded, wound up into the banks of clouds that loomed almost perpetually over Robahar; clouds whose bloated bellies were constantly fueled and discolored by the noxious fumes that simmered over those forges of ill repute. It rose further through blackened heather, treacherous obscured bogs and oily tarns, to emerge high on the northwestern corner of the Khir Highlands. From this vantage point, at least before the impending celestial intrusion, the Outer Seas would stretch away to the horizon, an infinite blanket of blue, and distant Khanju would beckon over a turquoise strait. Neither though would command the attention of those who would tread the path, for only the Clann passed that way and they did so with singular intent.
They would follow the path down the western slopes. It would be almost imperceptible now, descending into the tree line. As towering pines closed around, scouts would be dispatched to the south along a trail which merged with their own. A chance encounter with one of the great cats was unlikely to say the least, indeed such an encounter had never yet occurred, but it was along this second trail that a dying animal would make its approach.
All of the Clann would tell the same tale at this juncture. There was a great solemnity within those trees, and their gentle swaying and resinous odors had about them a timeless quality. To each warrior would be imparted a notion that he had passed that way before and lethargy would steal up and smite him; a desire to rest amongst those familiar boughs and indulge the notion. Always though it would be tantalizingly out of reach, like a half-forgotten song drifting across a placid lake from the farthest shore that is borne away by the wind, just as the memory is about to grasp it.
Then before them would be the archway, its three rough-hewn components requiring little embellishment, such were their proportions: a megalithic portal into another realm. Lichen-adorned steps led down into a shallow depression within which no trees grew. It was not a place to tarry. Bleached bones littered the hard-packed earth; the air thrummed with energy to the exclusion of all external noise. From within its confines the surrounding forests and the mountains beyond appeared warped and bloated. This was one of the fabled places of power, unique in Khir save for a single other. They were present not at all in Khâl, or so it was rumored, and yet were cast with liberal abandon throughout Khanju, if one but knew where to look.
Usually it was a single skull that would be removed, two at the most, and then the warriors of the Clann would retreat from that forbidding circle.
If still in place, the lower jaw was removed. The two short tusks that protruded from the upper jaw were left in place; they provided little in the way of protection but were not a comforting sight to behold. The skull itself was then used as a template about which a metallic paste was applied, to be followed by a single piece casting of the same dull metal that formed the chain mail. Nondescript as mail it might have been, but on this larger scale tableau the effect was startling, with swathes of orange and blue embedded in a patina of bronze. The skull was left inside and the composite bone and metal headgear provided a redoubtable piece of armor.
And so, with helmet and chain mail arrayed at his feet, each warrior now labored within the perimeter of the old fort, honing his beloved weapons yet again and fashioning arrows from the abundant wolf-willow and birch of the area.
Most of the collective effort however was expended in felling selected polepines. From these sturdy trees the Clann set about producing rudimentary javelins which could be used for stabbing as well as throwing. They also began to fashion another type of spear, half as long again and altogether more menacing. These were stouter and fewer in number but were worked upon in a much more assiduous manner.
Whilst these preparations were underway two figures, replete with helmets and mail, were making their way stealthily down the boulder-strewn little gulley that bisected this narrow portion of Kananaaltra. One was the unmistakable form of Krul, the other was Saudir ben Ishmal who, unlike Bargor, was habitually referred to by his Clann name of “Hakkulbak”, which was the old tongue word for a porcupine. The profusion of arrows that invariably accompanied him went a long way toward explaining this, although now he bore only two quivers, attached at his back by a wide leather belt hung crosswise from shoulder to waist. The arrows contained in the quivers were long and deadly and black. Attached at the front of the belt were three throwing knives and in his right hand he gripped an elegant laminated bow; the bow, double-curved, was almost as tall as the man.
The shallow ravine that the stream had cut across the plateau was one of the few areas of cover available in that vast featureless lawn and as they neared its end they lay down on either side of the bubbling meltwater to crawl warily towards the brink. Removing their helmets they peered out over the edge.